Friday, May 2, 2014

States That are Cheating Death

States That are Cheating Death

States That are Cheating Death

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:54 AM PDT

The only sure things in life are death and taxes, and now your home state might control both of them. A report in the Center for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report this week analyzed premature deaths from the five leading causes – heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory illnesses, stroke and unintentional injuries – by state and found that 40% of them were preventable.

The fact that we can do better in avoiding early death isn’t news, given that we’re fond of some unhealthy habits, including smoking, eating lots of fat, sugar and salt and not exercising enough, but what’s surprising is that where you live plays such a large role in determining how likely you are to die early from a preventable cause. Living in states in the southeast, for example, can increase your chances of dying prematurely from each of the five leading causes than living in certain western states. Different regional lifestyles certainly play a part, but the availability of health-related programs such as screening for cancer and blood pressure, and safe places to exercise, can also help to bring preventable death rates down. Living healthy is half the battle in avoiding an early death, and living in the right state can be the other.

What North Carolina Gets Wrong About Same-Sex Marriages

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:47 AM PDT

Earlier this week the United Church of Christ, in which I am an ordained minister, filed a lawsuit in North Carolina defending their churches' right to the free exercise of religion, specifically for their clergies' right to officiate at the marriages of same-sex couples.

I couldn't be prouder. What an amazing act of Christian witness.

As a UCC minister, I officiated at my first same-sex ceremony more than 25 years ago, at a time when not a single one of our United States sanctified such unions. I was aware it wasn't "legal," but that didn't matter. I was doing it because I deeply believed that God wanted me and my church to do it. As a devoted reader of the Bible and as a seminary theology professor, I also believed that Christian scriptures and theological doctrines strongly supported it.

In 2014, I still feel this way, even more so. The sharing of the sacred covenant vows of marriage—making a deep commitment to love and care for each other for a life-time, and to use the gifts of that love to strengthen the couples' ability to care for others and love God—is a key feature of Christian life and community.

Twenty-five years ago, I didn't fear that the State of Connecticut would throw me in jail for this Christian act. But today, if I performed the same ceremony in North Carolina, I'd face up to 120 days in prison for presiding over a religious service that is in complete accordance with my denomination's rites, its theology, and sanctioned practices.

This is not just unfortunate, it's unconstitutional. Even more, it is deeply offensive to me and to the millions of my Christian brothers and sisters who share my theology.

The State of North Carolina is sadly mistaken if it thinks such legislation will stop people from following the commands of their faith. If any same-sex couple wants to get married in North Carolina, call me. I'll happily face the consequences, and I know many other clergy in the state who are ready to as well. The Christian line is long!

When you know its God's work you're doing, you're willing to face whatever persecution comes, whether its lions, the cross, or North Carolina police.

The fact that this is happening in North Carolina is symptomatic, for me, of how not just one state but also our whole country has lost track of what really matters. Family, love, community, caring for neighbors, peace, grace. These are my core Christian values. So what am I to think when good Christians are threatened with prison for wanting to participate in the sacred Christian ritual of marriage, while at the same time a so-called Christian leader publically takes the sacred ritual of baptism and blasphemes it by using it to describe torture?

This is sacrilegious.

Likewise, what are Christians to think when they see political leaders fighting for the freedom to carry weapons while also fighting against the religious freedom to marriage? You can take your guns to church and lay them on the altar but you can't stand before the altar and marry the person you love?

It's a moral outrage.

In my life as a minister, I have officiated and celebrated at numerous marriage ceremonies. The love, joy, and wonder I see and experience in and through same-sex unions equals—in fact, often surpasses—that in so-called "traditional" marriages. What we call traditional marriage is itself not a very Biblical notion, in fact. But what's is clearly and truly biblical is God's commandment that we love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves.

What God has joined together, let no one, not even the State of North Carolina, put asunder.

Serene Jones is President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York where she holds the Johnston Family Chair in Religion and Democracy. She is Vice President of the American Academy of Religion, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World.

19 Injured in NYC Subway Derailment

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:38 AM PDT

Nineteen people were injured and hundreds had to be evacuated through the sidewalk when a New York City subway derailed in Queens on Friday morning, officials said.

Fifteen people sustained minor injuries and four were transported to area hospitals with potentially serious injuries, Fire Department spokeswoman Elisheva Zakheim said. It took about an hour to evacuate the rest of the passengers from the train, through emergency exits and up through the sidewalk.

The train derailed near Broadway and 60th Street in the Woodside area of Queens.

The cause of the derailment was not immediately clear. Calls to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority were not immediately returned.

The Bad News About the Good Job Numbers

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:34 AM PDT

Spring finally arrived in the job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nonfarm payroll employment rose by 288,000 and the unemployment rate fell by 0.4 percentage points to 6.3% in April. That's a strong number, reflecting both a rebound from the weather-challenged first quarter of the year, which curtailed industries such as construction and retailing. Job growth has averaged 190,000 per month over the last 12 months, according to BLS. April's overachievement was widespread, led by gains in professional and business services, retail, restaurants, and construction.

But if the economy is blooming with the improving weather, it is certainly not booming. "The view from the outside is very positive, but there are an usual number of caveats in the report to suggest the inside picture of the labor markets is less pretty than that juicy +288K might otherwise suggest," wrote Guy LeBas, Janney Montgomery Scott’s chief fixed income strategist.

The biggest of those caveats is the drop in the civilian labor force. The number of people in the workforce declined by 806,000 in April, after increasing 503,000 in March. It's a disappointing drop, and lowered the labor force participation rate—the proportion of the adult population that is working or looking for work— by 0.4 percentage points to 62.8 % in April. Having fewer people active in the economy is not a recipe for growth.

That's why the drop in the unemployment rate, while encouraging, is also distracting. "This one number is clearly not telling policymakers what it's supposed to. It's become a bad measure of the job market," LeBas said. The unemployment rate dropped because people left the work force, not because they found work.

Another weakness: Job growth did not do much for wage growth. Hourly average wages for April were unchanged, and the average workweek held steady at 34.5 hours. So even though consumer spending rose last month—another spring rebound tied to the weather—workers aren't getting the higher wages they need to increase spending. Remember, consumer spending is roughly two-thirds of the economy.

That weakness in workforce participation will continue to hold the attention of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) as it wrestles with interest rates. Yellen is scheduled to report on the economic outlook to the congressional Joint Economic Committee next week. Part of the broader debate centers on whether keeping long-term interest rates low will help the long-term unemployed, or whether there’s a need to keep inflation on a leash as the economy expands. In other words, is there still slack in the labor market? The April data suggests there is.

Yet according to Rick Rieder, CIO of fundamental fixed income for investment firm BlackRock, companies remain risk averse and cost conscious despite the low rates, which will keep a ceiling on hiring. So will other problems, such as mismatches in skill sets and education levels. In fact, there are some economists who believe that many of the longterm unemployed will never rejoin the workforce, meaning there may not be as much slack in the labor market as you’d expect—and that rates should go up more swiftly to combat the risk of future inflation.

These factors signal a slow but steady growth in employment, but nothing like previous expansions. "Looking ahead, we continue to anticipate a trend of reasonable growth in the U.S. within a global economy whose growth rate can best be described as uninspiring, but growing nonetheless," Rieder said.

In other words, while it's been a warm spring in the labor market, don't expect a hot summer.

Another Deadly Blast in Nigeria As Stability Erodes

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:12 AM PDT

It’s the latest example of violence in the African nation, following the kidnapping of hundreds of teenage girls from a school and a similar bombing in nearly the same spot in mid-April. Many are beginning to question whether the government can prevent the country from slipping into chaos. Nigerian leaders say they have the country under control. Extra security forces were on hand in the area due to previous bombings, yet the bomber was able to evade authorities.

Republicans Launching New Probe of Benghazi Attack

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:08 AM PDT

House Speaker John Boehner announced the creation of a new congressional committee Friday tasked with investigating the 2012 attack that killed four Americans in Libya, intensifying focus again on an issue that Republicans have tried to use as political fodder for a year-and-a-half.

The House Select Committee on Benghazi will, Boehner said in a statement, "investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served."

The announcement comes after the release Tuesday of a White House email to then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, in which the an Obama Administration national security official advises Rice to say in an upcoming media appearance the attack was sparked by an online video "and not a broader failure of policy." Boehner called Thursday for Secretary of Sate John Kerry to testify in Congress about why that email was not released earlier in congressional investigations.

The attack at the consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killed four Americans, including including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Republicans have long accused the Administration of intentionally covering up the circumstances of the attack to protect President Barack Obama politically in the heart of his reelection campaign. But no explicit evidence of a cover up has emerged and the issue has generally failed to gain political traction beyond conservative activists.

Also on Friday, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) announced a subpoena demanding Kerry testify before his committee on May 21.

"Compliance with a subpoena for documents is not a game," Issa wrote in a letter to Kerry. “Because your Department is failing to meet its legal obligations, I am issuing a new subpoena to compel you to appear before the Committee to answer questions about your agency's response to the congressional investigation of the Benghazi attack."

Obama Says Botched Oklahoma Execution ‘Deeply Troubling’

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:00 AM PDT

President Barack Obama weighed in for the first time Friday on the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma this week, calling the incident “deeply troubling.”

Speaking to reporters from the White House Rose Garden, Obama raised questions about the way the death penalty is applied in the United States, even as he said continues to believe the death penalty is warranted in particularly heinous instances. “In the application of the death penalty in this country we have seen significant problems: Racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, situations in which there were individuals on death row who were later discovered to be innocent because of exculpatory evidence,” Obama said, adding that the Oklahoma incident “highlights” the broader issue.

Obama said he will discuss the incident, and broader government policy toward the death penalty, with Attorney General Eric Holder. "I think as a society we have to ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” Obama said.

Pope Francis’ Tweet About Inequality Is the Wake-Up Call We All Need

Posted: 02 May 2014 10:00 AM PDT

There is a common root to most (or perhaps all) grave forms of social injustice: the rejection of human equality and the influence of this rejection on human relationships and institutions.

Human persons are fundamentally equal in their worth and dignity. A person's worth is not dependent on their lineage, how they fit in some utopian scheme, how much they produce or consume, their autonomy or independence, or their race, intelligence, age, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. Human worth is innate and cannot be forfeited. And it is equal in each person.

This is a radical notion. It cannot be reconciled with utilitarian thinking. It conflicts with the desires of many powerful people. It seems farcical if one is a strict materialist. It is not based on a person's capacity to feel pain or engage in critical thinking or some other capricious standard.

This belief in human equality is rooted in the recognition that each person is made in the image of God. Each person is a loved child of God. Each person is called to communion with God and others.

When one recognizes this objective truth, the evil of inequality—of rejecting the equal worth of all and the treatment that necessarily corresponds with its recognition—can be seen as the true foundation of social injustice. It defines how we view our relationships with others and the social structures that exist (and have the capacity to either foster human flourishing or perpetuate injustice). One sees that social evil is rooted in the rejection of equality.

A belief in human equality leads one to recognize the obscenity of people starving while others live in excess. One can see the evil in human beings being used as sexual objects to satiate an individual's animalistic impulses. Pride, lust, envy, and other sins are enabled and multiplied when equality is denied.

There becomes a way to "rationally" justify using children as human shields, terminating the life of one's own child, remaining indifferent to people sleeping on the streets and living in abject poverty. People are enslaved, raped, murdered, persecuted, and subject to countless other forms of dehumanization and depersonalization when the fundamental equality of all is denied.

And this inequality and injustice fosters greater evil. High poverty rates can result in high crime rates. Repression and violence can produce endless cycles of conflict. As Pope Francis has written, "Just as goodness tends to spread, the toleration of evil, which is injustice, tends to expand its baneful influence and quietly to undermine any political and social system, no matter how solid it may appear."

Is this what Pope Francis had in mind when he tweeted "Inequality is the root of social evil," or was he more focused on the specific impact of economic inequality?

Unlike a considerable number of his critics (including those who pretend they aren't critics), I think Pope Francis is almost always quite clear in his messaging. I'm pleased that the "what Francis really meant" industry seems to be dying down. But there is a bit of ambiguity in the tweet. Is it about economic inequality alone? If so, does it ignore other possible sources of injustice and social evil? Does it rule out the possibility that some level of economic inequality is inevitable and desirable if we prefer to not live under the communism of a totalitarian regime?

Ultimately, it's not particularly important, as Pope Francis believes in this personalist understanding of human equality (thus his opposition to a 'throwaway culture') and, like his predecessors, recognizes the current reality of gross economic inequality—both across borders and within countries (which certainly includes the US)—as a serious obstacle to social justice and the common good. It's a mistake to focus on the semantics rather than the core message.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis uses language that is very similar to his tweet within the context of talking about the economy, saying, "Inequality is the root of social ills." And he is not thinking of a hypothetical utopian free market but the state of the world today. He condemns the libertarian mindset that focuses so much on autonomy and individualism and calls for the creation of more just social structures and policies that address the structural causes of poverty. He is explicit in his rejection of an approach that relies too heavily on free markets: "We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market."

This is nothing new in Catholic Social Teaching. Pope Paul VI condemned the "flagrant inequalities" in both the enjoyment of possessions and the exercise of power. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI writes, "The dignity of the individual and the demands of justice require, particularly today, that economic choices do not cause disparities in wealth to increase in an excessive and morally unacceptable manner."

Pope Francis' tweet should challenge everyone across the political and ideological spectrum. It challenges us to fully recognize the equality of all and create conditions that reflect a total commitment to human dignity. In particular it should challenge us to confront the injustice of economic inequality in our society and globally. While the challenge may be greater for those conservatives and libertarians who have embraced economic libertarianism, liberals and communitarians must be willing to abandon stale formulas and seek innovative strategies for ensuring that every person has access to those needs that are necessary for human flourishing.

Is economic inequality the root of social evil? Is the love of money really the root of all evil? This strong language is not an empirical claim to be taken literally or analyzed scientifically, but a wake-up call to open our eyes to the gravity of the threat economic inequality and injustice poses to human dignity and the common good. We would be wise to respond to this call to action rather than to fixate on the phrasing of the pope's tweets.

Robert Christian is the editor of Millennial, and a PhD Candidate in Politics at The Catholic University of America. He is a senior fellow at Democrats For Life of America. This piece originally appeared on Millennial.

Tougher Sanctions On Russia May Come After Ukraine Election

Posted: 02 May 2014 09:57 AM PDT

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel set a new trip-wire Friday for painful economic sanctions on Russia.

Speaking to reporters following a bilateral meeting at the White House, the leaders said sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy could be imposed as soon as after this month’s scheduled Ukrainian elections, if Russia does not take steps to promote stability before the vote. Previously, officials had only set a full-scale invasion as the trigger for the controversial sanctions, which would impact American and European businesses and citizens, as well as Russians.

Merkel said additional action was “unavoidable” if the situation is not deescalated by the election, repeating her call for Russia to work to release observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who are being held, including four German citizens.

“The next step is going to be a broader based sectoral sanctions regime,” Obama said. “If in fact we see the disruptions and the destabilization continuing so severely that it impedes elections on May 25, we will not have a choice but to move forward with additional more severe sanctions.”

Obama told reporters that technical experts and diplomats are “stepping up our planning” to impose the sanctions.

Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege

Posted: 02 May 2014 09:45 AM PDT

There is a phrase that floats around college campuses, Princeton being no exception, that threatens to strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them. "Check your privilege," the saying goes, and I have been reprimanded by it several times this year. The phrase, handed down by my moral superiors, descends recklessly, like an Obama-sanctioned drone, and aims laser-like at my pinkish-peach complexion, my maleness, and the nerve I displayed in offering an opinion rooted in a personal Weltanschauung. "Check your privilege," they tell me in a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world.

I do not accuse those who "check" me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive. Furthermore, I condemn them for casting the equal protection clause, indeed the very idea of a meritocracy, as a myth, and for declaring that we are all governed by invisible forces (some would call them "stigmas" or "societal norms"), that our nation runs on racist and sexist conspiracies. Forget "you didn't build that;" check your privilege and realize that nothing you have accomplished is real.

But they can't be telling me that everything I've done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand throughout my years of education and eventually guiding me into Princeton. Even that is too extreme. So to find out what they are saying, I decided to take their advice. I actually went and checked the origins of my privileged existence, to empathize with those whose underdog stories I can't possibly comprehend. I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.

Perhaps it's the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi's work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn't do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that's my privilege.

Or maybe it's the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: "I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?" Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn't that influential. Now would you say that we've been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?

That's the problem with calling someone out for the "privilege" which you assume has defined their narrative. You don't know what their struggles have been, what they may have gone through to be where they are. Assuming they've benefitted from "power systems" or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions denies them credit for all they've done, things of which you may not even conceive. You don't know whose father died defending your freedom. You don't know whose mother escaped oppression. You don't know who conquered their demons, or may still conquering them now.

The truth is, though, that I have been exceptionally privileged in my life, albeit not in the way any detractors would have it.
It has been my distinct privilege that my grandparents came to America. First, that there was a place at all that would take them from the ruins of Europe. And second, that such a place was one where they could legally enter, learn the language, and acclimate to a society that ultimately allowed them to flourish.

It was their privilege to come to a country that grants equal protection under the law to its citizens, that cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character.

It was my privilege that my grandfather was blessed with resolve and an entrepreneurial spirit, and that he was lucky enough to come to the place where he could realize the dream of giving his children a better life than he had.

But far more important for me than his attributes was the legacy he sought to pass along, which forms the basis of what detractors call my "privilege," but which actually should be praised as one of altruism and self-sacrifice. Those who came before us suffered for the sake of giving us a better life. When we similarly sacrifice for our descendents by caring for the planet, it's called "environmentalism," and is applauded. But when we do it by passing along property and a set of values, it's called "privilege." (And when we do it by raising questions about our crippling national debt, we're called Tea Party radicals.) Such sacrifice of any form shouldn't be scorned, but admired.

My exploration did yield some results. I recognize that it was my parents' privilege and now my own that there is such a thing as an American dream which is attainable even for a penniless Jewish immigrant.

I am privileged that values like faith and education were passed along to me. My grandparents played an active role in my parents' education, and some of my earliest memories included learning the Hebrew alphabet with my Dad. It's been made clear to me that education begins in the home, and the importance of parents' involvement with their kids' education—from mathematics to morality—cannot be overstated. It's not a matter of white or black, male or female or any other division which we seek, but a matter of the values we pass along, the legacy we leave, that perpetuates "privilege." And there's nothing wrong with that.

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn't always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn't tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven't done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

I have checked my privilege. And I apologize for nothing.

Tal Fortgang is a freshman from New Rochelle, NY. He plans to major in either History or Politics. He can be reached at This piece originally appeared on The Princeton Tory.


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