Allergies & Fairness

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Schools have increasingly made a priority of the inclusion of kids with a wide range of physical, psychological, and learning conditions into the “normal” classroom. This development in the past 10-15 years has been laudable in that students’ can see the value in their peers while they learn together rather than having kids with learning disabilities, autism, or physical challenges shunted off to another room.

Roughly 4% of school-age kids have a known food allergy. How far should schools go to accomodate this sub-set of students? Naturally, schools have an obligation to protect all of their kids from some dangers and should try to assist those that have some problems that may prevent effective learning in the classroom environment. When it comes to students who are allergic to foods like nuts, dairy, gluten, or shellfish many schools have an effective plan in place. Many schools require health records and medications to be submitted to the nurse. If an allergic reaction or other dangerous situation occurred the nurse and/or other trained staff can respond with an epinephrine auto-injector or provide other kinds of rapid care. These above scenarios are the most likely outcome of the vast majority of food allergen scares.

Unlike attempts to make it easier to educate a wide range of kids within the classroom setting, students with allergies may otherwise be “normal”. Given the budget-cutting common in schools, we can’t realistically expect administrators to address each and every one of the multitude of conditions their students may have. If we have no choice to but to ask what is the cut-off point, than a health matter which shouldn’t have an effect on learning is a good place to start. It’s nice that some schools have the ability to accomodate kids who have allergies, but for the small numbers who do have them it seems unfair to have the the availability of foods to the whole student body limited.

For kids with allergies- and their parents- ultimately they must learn to manage their health matter as best they can without an expectation that in many settings others will forego some foods because of someone else’s sensitivity. Some food allergies dissipate with age. Like other health conditions their peers might have, learning to deal with allergies is simply a part of growing up and learning personal responsibility.


Keeping a Lid on It

June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Alcohol abuse- or just plain use- is often associated with the three leading causes of death in adolescents: automobile accidents; murder; and suicide.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise given how many news reports contain phrases like “alcohol-related” or “police believe alcohol was involved” in recounting incidents of violence or accidents regardless of the age of those at fault. However, even if youths don’t experience drastic or life-altering situations involving booze, the use of alcohol can result in low(ered) academic performance, deteriorate relationships with family or friends, or contribute to anxiety, depression, or behavioral disorders.

The sale of alcoholic beverages is illegal until the age of 21 in most states. It’s obvious though that most youth are all too familiar with the ubiquity of alcohol use around them- and especially the frequent advertisement of beer and spirits in which the message that alcohol is a key ingredient in having a good time is consistently driven home.

If teens are abusing alcohol then obviously we can do more as a society in terms of prevention since in theory they shouldn’t be having normal access. One study reported that the average age of a first drink is eleven years of age for a boy and thirteen for a girl. Regular use can begin before sixteen. At a time when adolescents are undergoing physical and emotional changes, testing themselves by taking risks, and frequently locking horns with their elders and authority figures- alcohol use can be an attractive choice. The author is not as concerned with use here as much as abuse but for adolescents there is inevitably less experience or knowledge about when “enough is enough”. The medical profession defines excessive alcohol use as more than fourteen drinks per week in males (any age) or more than four per occasion. In females it’s seven drinks per week or more than three per situation. When a teen begins regularly using alcohol to the point of getting drunk frequently and or persists despite negative outcomes (i.e. driving citations, altercations, disputes with family/friends, falling grades in school, dips in health, etc.) there is an obvious problem because it has begun to interfere with other aspects of life. Many adult alcoholics began abusing alcohol as adolescents. The bad behaviors associated with liquor as a teen (i.e. driving under the influence, binge drinking, associating with a group that frequently gets drunk, health declines) can become much more pronounced.

There is a role for many to play in combatting the abuse of alcohol by minors. Parents need to keep up effective communication with their kids about their activities and modeling appropriate behavior in relation to their own alcohol use. Pediatricians have a number of tools and measurements available to detect and prescribe treatment to adolescents when other health concerns may be alcohol-related. Schools and organizations serving kids need more reliable and confidential counseling systems for youth who may find it difficult talking to their parents about abusing alcohol.

Finally, more needs to be done to limit or curtail the ubiquity of alcohol advertising and sponsorship since teens (especially boys watching sports) are bombarded with ads that assert alcohol is the main way to have a good time, be charming to the opposite sex, etc. The Federal Government has limited the types of advertising that can appear on pre-adolescent TV programming. Various private and governmental agencies produce hard hitting anti-tobacco ads. Perhaps similar messages warning about the negatives of alcohol should become part of the advertising rotation.

As to the legal aspects of underage abuse of alcohol, legal sanctions should be increased for those who provide booze to teens or don’t check IDs. A greater emphasis on treatment and education of teen abusers may also be more effective than fines or incarceration

A Policy we can’t leave Up in the Air

June 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

No one enjoys the post-9/11 airport hassles- lines, luggage screening, having to take off shoes, right size of fluids packed? etc. The reality of the situation though is that we Americans were fortunate to have endured as long as we did without a significant act of terrorism.

The 1960s and 70s ushered in an era which combined the lowest airfares yet available to the public along with a turbulent political scene. This increased air traffic and popularity included groups and individuals who hijacked the planes making demands and threats. While the U.S. was spared the most infamous of these incidents, the Federal Aviation Admin. began screening of passengers and their luggage as far back as 1973 in response to terrorism and hijackings. The first air marshals were assigned during this period as well. Still, security at most airports was weak with local police or security guards usually getting involved only when notified.

9/11 obviously marked the end of innocence for airport security domestically. It is hard to foresee a future scenario in which we’d revert to the less stringent screening apparatus in the pre-Transporatation Security Administration era.

We do know that the government has foiled some high profile post-9/11 further attempts by terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security will need to continue gathering and analyzing intellingence to outwit extremists in this high stakes cat-and-mouse game.

Well-intentioned individuals and groups have called attention to some DHS initiatives which may run counter to travelers’ privacy. Citizens can and should have a robust debate about what limits security and airports should be. In this writer’s opinion though, the funds and steps travelers must go through are worthy and necessary to prevent harm to the traveling public and maintain national security.

The best kind of foreign aid

June 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Aid to foreign nations is a much maligned aspect of our national budget. The Right often considers it to be a handout of the same variety we do too much of here, and the Left worries that there are plenty of concerns here without sending it overseas. Aside from those arguments, foreign aid always runs the risk of ending up in the coffers of a ruling or well-placed clique rather than the folks who truly need the funds, food, or training for which it was earmarked.

One effort which not only the U.S. but the whole world needs to stay focused on despite the worldwide economic downtown is fighting the ravages of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. People of faith took a disappointing length of time in the 1980s to take a lead role in combating this disease, possibly because the contraction of the disease has generally been limited to those who are engaging in risky and anti-social behaviors we frown on. Still, Christ calls upon us to aid the poor and sick unconditionally whatever the cost.

The fight against AIDS in western countries has gone remarkably well since the advent of the disease in the 1980s when a diagnosis of HIV was tantamount to a death sentence. The “cocktails” of anti-retroviral drugs are succeeding in reducing AIDS to a chronic but manageable condition in which sufferers can still enjoy a high quality of life. This success story does not extend to African countries where the cost of these wonder drugs are far too high for the families (or governments) to afford. The vicious cycle of poverty in many of the nations in which AIDS has reached epidemic proportions contributes to the spread of the disease. Where education is poor, methods to avoid contraction aren’t widespread. When persons fall ill, the burden of care-giving falls on their families who then may lessen their involvement in the workforce of countries already fighting poverty. If breadwinners or parents are the ones who are claimed by the disease- there are additional social and economic costs.

Many of the major multi-national pharmaceutical manufacturers compounded the desperation of the situation by enforcing their patent rights preventing the production and distribution of cheaper generic versions. Only international embarrasment saw a change in the policy and there are still occasional times where Big Pharma asserts its TRIPs (Trade-Related Intl. Property Rights) seemingly over the plight of poor-country victims.

Although the USA’s overseas reputation is not sterling due to our frequent military adventures, Geore W. Bush’s 2003 Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was a welcome development to the dedicated efforts of a variety of non-governmental organizations and charities trying to address the epidemic in Africa.

While private citizens  can certainly contribute to any of the organizations on the ground, governments must not sit on the sidelines. Surely, the issue is not whether there is enough money available to fund this foreign aid- we already send millions of dollars to regimes with shaky committment to human rights- but if we have enough humanitarian spirit.

Don’t Play “Chicken” with Our Agricultural Policy

May 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s been fashionable for many years to criticize subsidies to American agriculture. The argument is that the government doesn’t send similar aid to the owners of pizzerias, manufacturers of widgets, or operators of professional sports teams (oh, wait a minute there!) so why do farmers get subsidized?

My response is that agriculture is a vital industry that we can’t afford to have fade away or move offshore as we’ve allowed to have happen (wrongly, in my opinion) in say, electronics or apparel manufacturing. Why is agriculture so important? Simply because we have to eat! Many types of consumer products are nice and make our lifestyles easier and more efficient but many of them we can live without for indefinite periods of time or if an international crisis was to occur. Food, however, is not something I’d like to leave to the tender mercies and vagaries of international trade. We need to maintain a safe, reliable, and inexpensive food supply to keep the nation going. If we need to assist farmers to keep that supply moving at an effective rate- I’d consider that to be a wiser use of strategic funding than perhaps something like the F-22 Raptor!

The U.S. still exports a lot of our agricultural products overseas and the revenue is important for our economy. U.S. producers (whether family farms or even the corporate conglomerates) exist in a market where one of our biggest competitors (the European Union) subsidizes its farmers. In many parts of the developing world too, trade barriers have been erected to limit imports from places like the U.S. Federal government aid to Americans only serves to level the playing field that would otherwise decimate this vital industry.

While the obvious answer may be for the competing international interests to work out the current tangled web so that price supports are withdrawn over time, the U.S. would be playing a dangerous game of chicken indeed to drop our subsidies unilaterally without foreign cooperation.

We Gotta Go Now

May 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s with a heavy heart that I make this pronouncement because I know that many dedicated members of the military and foreign service have tried their best and have served there with an honor- but we need to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

If you define the mission of Operation Enduring Freedom as an attempt to capture Al-Qaeda members and otherwise destroy their ability to plan and train for other terror attacks in a safe haven than we’ve already accomplished our mission and should have gone home a long time ago.

Of course, nothing in Afghanistan since the autumn of 2001 has gone as simply or smoothly since then. The administrations of both Bush and Obama have stayed on for a variety of reasons since then. Most of these- trying to eradicate the brutal Taliban, building a Western-style democratic and stable central government, and trying to address some of the worst abuses of hardline Islamic fundamentalism- are all worthy and well-meaning objectives but one can form the opinion that none of these will be achieved to a satisfactory level by the time foreign military forces are set to leave the country- if they can ever be achieved.

Although the overmatched Taliban was initially whipped by the U.S.-led coalition, we’ve since found that Afghanistan hasn’t changed much since the U.S.S.R.’s attempted takeover in the 1980s. Although carved into the shape of a nation, Afghanistan’s history suggests a dis-united amalgam of competing tribes and warlords in which family, regional, ethnic, and/or religious ties have meant far more than any sort of “nation”.

Although the government installed by the coalition forces led by Hamid Karzai has probably done a more creditable job than one might expect given the bleak past history, it is perceived by many Afghans as a Western puppet. Despite much hard work to legitimize the administration, corruption, and weakness still means that Karzai’s forces exert little external control outside the immediate Kabul area. As we’ve seen, sometimes  there has been tragic violence within the capital itself. The Soviets also installed a friendly government and it too had little support or legitimacy to the average Afghan. Of course, besides battling the flinty mujahideen the Red Army was also hamstrung by outside support from foreign radical Muslims who joined the fight against the atheist infidels. Of course, the U.S. provided support to any effort that weakened the Russian Bear. Like the ’80s, foreign infiltration, a fanatical foe (the resurgent Taliban), and allies that seem a lot more like enemies (Pakistan) have made a tough road for the coalition.

Our efforts in Afghanistan have clearly changed since the original mission to deny the country as a safe haven and home of Al-Qaeda. Nation-building is what we’re currently engaged in. For a spot on the map that has never functioned in any meaningful way as a “country” means that if we’re to do so effectively (a big if!) will mean a concerted effort by not just the military but significant aid and development personnel and certanly money for decades. There is no reason to believe that any American presidential administration will care to do that. Evidence strongly suggests than the ordinary people of Afghanistan- aside from other religious and/or political priorities- don’t want us either. So where are we now? Should we stay? If the answer is yes, what will we consider a success or “win”? As universally hated as the Taliban was- even (especially?) within Afghan borders- they have grown resurgent if for no other reason that they share a common religion and culture than the strange foreigners who have frequently acted in a ham-fisted manner. The tribal leaders and warlords that effectively govern large swaths of the country have no particular reason to diminish their own influence by receding towards a different type of system that has never worked. The similar remote tribal areas of bordering Pakistan are largely left to their own devices by the far more stable government of that country. While these provincial (in many senses of the word) areas are just the sort where fundamentalist views can flourish, short of actively confronting hardline Islam (often viewed as attacking the religion itself by the adherents) there seems little to do other than provide development aid so that the population can grow more affluent over time which favors secularization. Given the heavy amount of military presence though with the inevitable accidental civilian casualties and widely-reported examples of cultural insensitivity, and it would take a long time to sell a very skeptical population that we’re only interested in development. Another area of concern is the viability of the defense forces of Afghanistan. Although the Coalition has undoubtedly done their best to create a legitimate military that can take the battle to the Taliban and provide a bulwark against unrest until (or if) the Karzai government can stabilize and legitimize itself throughout the country, questions remain if this force can do the job after professional troops from Western countries have winnowed down. A frightening trend has been the numbers of radical plants or turncoats within the military that have carried out suicide or other raids against their comrades or against Coalition military assets. What percentage of the forces we’ve trained can we trust? Yet another ironic chapter of our mission to Afghanistan has been the re-emergence of the illegal drugs trade. The extremism of the Taliban years had one salutary effect- a harsh eradication of the opium cultivation. The uncertainty of the future governance (or lack thereof) of the country has emboldened the producers of this illegal trade to ramp up their efforts with impunity.

Things look gloomy indeed. The problem is that none of the players involved appear able to avoid the mistakes of the past or have the stomach for being involved for the “long haul” it will take to make a real nation out of an area that has never functioned as one. The only way to potential regain the initiative in Afghanistan would be to ironically accelerate our withdrawal and only return to an active presence in the country is if invited by the Karzai government. If this were to happen it would have to involve development and aid interests first and only a “light touch” militarily (if at all) to support the country’s defense forces rather than lead missions or appear to be pulling strings.

This may not only be the only way forward for Afghanistan but a blueprint for future U.S. involvement in world hotspots.

Change – don’t kill- Affirmative Action

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Affirmative Action is as much a divisive issue in America today as it ever was. Beginning in the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights era, various government and then workplace and academic rules set out to try to right the wrongs that racial discrimination created by causing inequalities in society. Both supporters and detractors would probably agree on one aspect of affirmative action- that the initiatives would probably not still be around more than 40 years later.

The problem with affirmative action programs has been the degree to which well-meaning rules on hiring (employment) and admissions (education) have the intention of encouraging minorities and women to apply as opposed to setting aside quotas or other outwardly preferential treatment.

On the surface, supporters of affirmative action have pointed out that preferential treatment (for whites and/or men) was exactly what used to take place in society and so new rules are trying to redress past unfairness. Of course, the problem with that tact is that the persons who created the previous centuries of unfairness aren’t around to be taken to task, so that leaves a group that isn’t responsible but might get the short end of the stick.

Deep down Americans though have democratic views running through their veins and the thought of someone gaining a benefit by any other means than merit strikes us as wrong. Of course, it seems every white man in the U.S. can regale you with a story about a time he was passed over for a job by someone of a minority group. No doubt though affirmative action programs do pose a threat to whites on the lower reaches of the economic ladder and no one likes to see their position in society and/or livelihood threatened. Still, minorities and women may very well wonder whether the equal opportunities in recent decades they’ve enjoyed may ebb away if some sort of preferential treatment isn’t continued.

The courts have taken some of the steam out of affirmative action at universities by reducing minority status to one of the factors- but not the only one- in application process.

So what can we do about the impasse?

The only way to possibly defuse the tensions and rancor over discrimination and/or reverse discrimination should be by placing the emphasis on aid to the disadvantaged- whatever race they may be. Accoring to the National Poverty Center more than 1 out of 5 American children live in poverty (22%). The evidence is obvious that poor kids will probably attend low-quality schools and be surrounded by socially negative factors (i.e. crime, broken families, etc.) that make it hard to compete and succeed against peers coming from more affluent communities. States that have enacted policies which insure that a certain percentage of graduates at all accredited high schools are guaranteed admission to a public college accomplishes a color-blind goal to reward merit wherever one attends school. In a country where the gap between the rich and poor is real and growing, the best affirmative action would be to increase funding in at-risk school districts along with mentoring and extracurricular activities. Let’s raise the tide for all races by attacking economic inequality in our society


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