Author: Scott Johnson

Social Science Conference confronts inequality

Multiple prominent thinkers in the fields of political science and economics descended upon Northfield on Feb. 20 and 21, as part of the 2015 St. Olaf Social Science Conference. The Conference featured Professor Casey Mulligan from The University of Chicago, Professor Steven Fazzari from Washington University in St. Louis and Theda Skocpol from Harvard University.

The conference was funded by several sources, including the newly-created Institute for Freedom and Community. Despite concerns over the use of “freedom” in the name, which some believe conveys a right-wing bias, the conference was able to attract self-professed liberals like Skocpol.

The main goal of the Social Science Conference this year was to address the existence and ramifications of income inequality in all facets of the social sciences. The invited professors represented different fields; Mulligan and Fazzari are professors of economics, while Skocpol is a professor of political science. Together, they offered a multidisciplinary analysis of the complex issue.

The growing divide between rich and poor is an important topic that has been the subject countless documentaries, books and hours of expert analysis in the past few years. Each of the speakers latched onto a specific aspect of the economic inequality issue that they intended to discuss and address.

Professor Hofrenning, Associate Dean of the Social Sciences at St. Olaf, spoke about the choice of topic for this year’s conference.

“In recent years, we have focused on healthcare, immigration, human rights and families. This year the normal sources of funding were supplemented with new support from the new public affairs program, the Institute for Freedom and Community,” Hofrenning said.

Skocpol, the most well-known of the three speakers, divided America’s economic history in terms of economic inequality into two segments.

“If you look at [income growth] between the end of World War II and 1979, that’s the cutoff I prefer, although you can quibble. A rising tide was raising all boats… since 1979 there’s been volatile but extreme upward growth only for the 1%,” Skocpol said.

The income inequality growth has been so significant since the 1970s that Skocpol has utilized her fellow professionals’ allegorical countries to repepresent this growing divide.

“My colleagues Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call the early world Broadistan… shared prosperity and then we moved into [Richistan], a new world where the top is pulling away,” Skocpol said.

After the keynote lecture of each speaker, the audience was given the chance to ask questions of the speakers. The debate and discussion were not purely limited to students, though; plenty of faculty members and other adults were able to submit questions.

The speakers themselves questioned each others claims. Skocpol and Mulligan sparred over the controversial implementation and economic effects of Obamacare. Mulligan opposes the ACA while Skocpol believed it to be a “step in the right direction” for the combat of income inequality.

A student panel, moderated by Erik Springer ’15 and SGA President Rachel Palermo, discussed economic inequality on Saturday afternoon. Many of these students were double majors, straddling multiple disciplines of the social sciences. The lenses of economics, political science, sociology, anthropology and social work were used to discuss economic inequality. This panel was part of the initiative to allow students to engage with the issues facing the public today.

The speakers and students not only discussed the cause and ramifications of economic inequality but also possible economic and political solutions to these problems.


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Panel discusses global epidemic of environmental racism

Although the topic of environmental racism may be unfamiliar to most St. Olaf students, it is an important topic that warrants discussion. On Nov. 6, a panel was held in the Gold Ballroom to inform students on the topic. The panel was composed of Professor of Political Science Anthony Pahnke, Professor of Philosophy Michael Fuerstein, Professor of Sociology Bruce Nordstrom-Loeb and a local Northfield activist, Cliff Martin.

The presentation began with a simple definition of environmental racism:

“Environmental racism is when environmental degradation adversely affects minorities of color.”

The audience was then provided with several examples of environmental racism. These included the slow response to Hurricane Katrina that disproportionately affected poor African Americans, as well as pollution in Hyde Park, a predominately African American neighborhood of Augusta, Ga. where inhabitants have suffered from pollution.

The first speaker from the panel was Professor Nordstrom-Loeb. He discussed the politcal causes of environmental racism.

“Minority communities with less political clout are more likely to be downstream to pollution,” Nordstrom-Loeb said.

He also stated that this problem is not just confined to the United States but in fact is a global problem.

“The effect of world climate change disproportionately affects countries with people of color,” he said. These countries are succeptable to exploitation by governments and private companies.

Next, Professor Pahnke took the podium. He had personal experience combatting environmental racism and spoke of the challenges involved. He addressed the situation in southern Brazil, where local farmers battle European companies for land rights. It is often hard for activists to help because the locals view them with suspicion.

“CIA, privileged, white … that’s what they saw me as,” Pahnke said. Another concern expressed by Pahnke was that too much white leadership for causes affecting minorities could have a negative effect. A main focus of the panel was how best to address this issue considering St. Olaf’s position as a largely white campus.

Professor Fuerstein addressed some of the moral assumptions that perpetuate environmental racism, stating that people should “not suffer conditions for which they are not responsible.”

He also argued that environmental racism is part of a larger pattern of prejudice toward minorities. These include social segregation, lack of access to education and poverty.

“Society shares benefits pretty equally; however, the burden of environmental degradation is not shared equally,” Fuerstein said. Wealthier – generally white – people often move away from areas with pollution, thus leaving polluted areas exclusively to the poor whom are often economically disadvantaged minorities.

The final speaker, Cliff Martin, is an environmental racism activist from Northfield. He linked environmental racism to American economic and political systems.

“[In the United States], communities and families are systematically killed by capitalists,” he said. He urged students to become involved in peaceful organizations to reform political practices and change mindsets that lead to environmental degradation.

“If all humans have worth,” he said, “we’re obligated to fight back.”


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Ebola impacts economies through productivity loss

The Ebola virus outbreak of 2014 is the largest in history. The only Ebola epidemic ever to occur in multiple countries has now killed over 3,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. All of the countries seriously afflicted with Ebola lie in West Africa, specifically Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

First, let’s take a brief look at the history of Ebola. Ebola is a deadly virus that is spread from wild animals to humans, who then spread the Ebola virus among other people via human-to-human transmission. When the 2014 epidemic began, Ebola’s fatality rate was dangerously close to 100 percent. At the moment, Ebola has a fatality rate of 50 percent within those diagnosed and is spread through contact with contaminated clothing and bodily fluids.

While this fatality rate is still atrociously high, it is better than the death sentence Ebola previously predicted. The main symptoms of Ebola include the onset of fever and fatigue, followed by diarrhea, vomiting, impaired liver and kidney function, internal bleeding and eventual death.

The first outbreak of Ebola occurred simultaneously in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, near the Ebola River, thus granting the virus its name. In the current outbreak, countries such as Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have been especially vulnerable due to their weak healthcare systems and slow recovery from civil unrest in the past decades. Along with the enormous death toll and the psychological human impact, another concerning aspect of the Ebola outbreak is its economic ramifications.

Between private donations and those from nations and local governments, millions of dollars have already been dedicated to preventing the spread of Ebola, with a projected expense total of billions of dollars to contain the virus. However, these costs do not represent the only economic impact of Ebola; these are only the direct costs. It’s what will not be done due to fear of the outbreak that will severely damage these West African economies.

What won’t be done? For one, people will travel less due to closed borders as well as fear of the contagious disease. Countries that haven’t even experienced cases of Ebola – such as Ghana, which has devoted more resources than ever to the monitoring and awareness-raising of Ebola – are losing human productivity by focusing time and resources on the possibility that Ebola might spread to their nations. Nigeria, which has only experienced a few cases of Ebola, is expected to lose $2 billion in the third quarter of this year, due to cuts made to airline services, the hospitality industry and trade.

Nonetheless, there are positive aspects to the precautions taken against the spread of Ebola. Hopefully, with more people educated about the disease, it will be less likely to spread. This mindset works to limit the death toll. After all, it is preferable to lose money rather than human lives. So while action is necessary to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus, I would urge less affected countries of West Africa to keep in mind the strong words of FDR during another economic crisis: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Scott Johnson ’18 is from Gladstone, Mo. He majors in history.

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Popes leadership suggests modernized Church

Controversy has come to surround the Vatican again. Pope Francis recently decided to officiate the weddings of twenty couples at the Vatican, including some who have been divorced and one mother with a child out of wedlock. The stir around this ceremony centers around the fact that divorce and premarital sex are considered sins in the traditional doctrine of the Catholic Church. Also, the Pope doesn’t regularly officiate weddings the last one was in 2000, which makes these more than just routine marriages.

This isn’t the first time Francis has made headlines for his trailblazing. Pope Francis has made some major overhauls in the Catholic Church, as well as small, symbolic changes.

He chooses simple vestments and a quiet residence, he takes a tougher stance on sexual abuse in the church and has even extended the Christian ritual of washing others’ feet to non-Christians. More notably, he has offered confession rather than receiving it himself the opposite of what past popes have done and now he has chosen to marry multiple couples “living in sin.”

It is true that breaking tradition and changing the tone of the Catholic Church could understandably upset more traditional Catholics who would prefer that the Church remain stable and unchanging. However, Pope Francis’ move to a more open and forgiving Church is incredibly important if the Catholic Church wants to thrive in the modern age. These changes do not necessarily lead to compromising all of the Church’s ideas and values; rather, the Pope is preserving those values while also offering the reality of a more accepting and inclusive Church.

The Catholic Church currently faces some serious demographic challenges in the United States.

According to a Pew Research survey conducted in 2007, while 31 percent of Americans identified themselves as having received a Catholic upbringing, only 24 percent describe themselves as Catholics. These trends are reflected in Western Europe as well, where church attendance has also suffered.

While the United States and Western Europe aren’t the only places where Catholicism is a main religion, these regions are nonetheless significant. Through his progressive leadership, Pope Francis may be trying to reverse some of these losses in membership in the last few decades.

Despite all of this progressiveness, Francis does maintain the Catholic views on cohabitation before marriage, premarital sex, divorce and the use of artificial contraception as sinful.

However, he contends that the Catholic Church should be forgiving of this behavior instead of exclusionary and judgmental. Indeed, the Church’s traditional response to violation of doctrine based on contraception, cohabitation and premarital sex seems untenable in today’s Western society and worthy of reevaluation, which Pope Francis seems to be doing.

Although tradition and adherence to a faith are admirable, wouldn’t the Church undercut its leadership in the global spiritual community by living in the 10th century?

Pope Francis has made major strides in improving the perception of the papacy. According to a CBS poll in March of 2014, Pope Francis had an approval rate of 68%. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, only received 40% approval among that same population. This popularity is partially due to the modernization and accessibility of the Catholic Church that Pope Francis has espoused.

So, while some of the specific traditions that the Catholic Church has upheld may be compromised, its core values remain intact.

After all, the final message the Pope hopes to convey through these marriages is the importance of family, which remains a traditional Catholic value. Francis is simply bringing the Church into modern society, which is where it needs to be in order to stay relevant.

Scott Johnson ’18 is from Gladstone, Missouri. He majors in History.

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