Wednesday, March 24, 2010

At College Admission Time, Lessons in Thin Envelopes --- Before They Were Titans, Moguls and Newsmakers, These People Were...REJECTED
At College Admission Time, Lessons in Thin Envelopes --- Before They Were Titans, Moguls and Newsmakers, These People Were...REJECTED
Sue Shellenbarger. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Mar 24, 2010. pg. D.1
Abstract (Summary)
[...] it can be an opportunity. "[...] I was so devastated that when I went to Tufts [University] my freshman year, every Saturday I'd hitchhike to Harvard," she says in an email.

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Few events arouse more teenage angst than the springtime arrival of college rejection letters. With next fall's college freshman class expected to approach a record 2.9 million students, hundreds of thousands of applicants will soon be receiving the dreaded letters.

Teenagers who face rejection will be joining good company, including Nobel laureates, billionaire philanthropists, university presidents, constitutional scholars, best-selling authors and other leaders of business, media and the arts who once received college or graduate-school rejection letters of their own.

Both Warren Buffett and "Today" show host Meredith Vieira say that while being rejected by the school of their dreams was devastating, it launched them on a path to meeting life-changing mentors. Harold Varmus, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine, says getting rejected twice by Harvard Medical School, where a dean advised him to enlist in the military, was soon forgotten as he plunged into his studies at Columbia University's med school. For other college rejects, from Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy and entrepreneur Ted Turner to broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, the turndowns were minor footnotes, just ones they still remember and will talk about.

Rejections aren't uncommon. Harvard accepts only a little more than 7% of the 29,000 undergraduate applications it receives each year, and Stanford's acceptance rate is about the same.

"The truth is, everything that has happened in my life ... that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better," Mr. Buffett says. With the exception of health problems, he says, setbacks teach "lessons that carry you along. You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity."

Mr. Buffett regards his rejection at age 19 by Harvard Business School as a pivotal episode in his life. Looking back, he says Harvard wouldn't have been a good fit. But at the time, he "had this feeling of dread" after being rejected in an admissions interview in Chicago, and a fear of disappointing his father.

As it turned out, his father responded with "only this unconditional love ... an unconditional belief in me," Mr. Buffett says. Exploring other options, he realized that two investing experts he admired, Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, were teaching at Columbia's graduate business school. He dashed off a late application, where by a stroke of luck it was fielded and accepted by Mr. Dodd. From these mentors, Mr. Buffett says he learned core principles that guided his investing. The Harvard rejection also benefited Columbia; the family gave more than $12 million to Columbia in 2008 through the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, based on tax filings.

The lesson of negatives becoming positives has proven true repeatedly, Mr. Buffett says. He was terrified of public speaking -- so much so that when he was young he sometimes threw up before giving an address. So he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course and says the skills he learned there enabled him to woo his future wife, Susan Thompson, a "champion debater," he says. "I even proposed to my wife during the course," he says. "If I had been only a mediocre speaker I might not have taken it."

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger was rejected as a teenager when he applied to Harvard. He says the experience cemented his belief that it was up to him alone to define his talents and potential. His family had moved to a small, isolated town in rural Oregon, where educational opportunities were sparse. As a kid, he did menial jobs around the newspaper office, like sweeping the floor.

Mr. Bollinger recalls thinking at the time, "I need to work extra hard and teach myself a lot of things that I need to know," to measure up to other students who were "going to prep schools, and having assignments that I'm not." When the rejection letter arrived, he accepted a scholarship to University of Oregon and later graduated from Columbia Law School. His advice: Don't let rejections control your life. To "allow other people's assessment of you to determine your own self-assessment is a very big mistake," he says. "The question really is, who at the end of the day is going to make the determination about what your talents are, and what your interests are? That has to be you."

Others who received Harvard rejections include "Today" show host Meredith Vieira, who was turned down in 1971 as a high-school senior. At the time, she was crushed. "In fact, I was so devastated that when I went to Tufts [University] my freshman year, every Saturday I'd hitchhike to Harvard," she says in an email. But Ms. Vieira went on to meet a mentor at Tufts who sparked her interest in journalism by offering her an internship. Had she not been rejected, she doubts that she would have entered the field, she says.

And broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw, also rejected as a teenager by Harvard, says it was one of a series of setbacks that eventually led him to settle down, stop partying and commit to finishing college and working in broadcast journalism. "The initial stumble was critical in getting me launched," he says.

Dr. Varmus, the Nobel laureate and president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, was daunted by the first of his two turndowns by Harvard's med school. He enrolled instead in grad studies in literature at Harvard, but was uninspired by thoughts of a career in that field.

After a year, he applied again to Harvard's med school and was rejected, by a dean who chastised him in an interview for being "inconstant and immature" and advised him to enlist in the military. Officials at Columbia's medical school, however, seemed to value his "competence in two cultures," science and literature, he says.

If rejected by the school you love, Dr. Varmus advises in an email, immerse yourself in life at a college that welcomes you. "The differences between colleges that seem so important before you get there will seem a lot less important once you arrive at one that offered you a place."

Similarly, John Schlifske, president of insurance company Northwestern Mutual, was discouraged as a teenager when he received a rejection letter from Yale University. An aspiring college football player, "I wanted to go to Yale so badly," he says. He recalls coming home from school the day the letter arrived. "Mom was all excited and gave it to me," he says. His heart fell when he saw "the classic thin envelope," he says. "It was crushing."

Yet he believes he had a deeper, richer experience at Carleton College in Minnesota. He says he received a "phenomenal" education and became a starter on the football team rather than a bench-warmer as he might have been at Yale. "Being wanted is a good thing," he says.

He had a chance to pass on that wisdom to his son Dan, who was rejected in 2006 by one of his top choices, Duke University. Drawing on his own experience, the elder Mr. Schlifske told his son, "Just because somebody says no, doesn't mean there's not another school out there you're going to enjoy, and where you are going to get a good education." Dan ended up at his other top choice, Washington University in St. Louis, where he is currently a senior. Mr. Schlifske says, "he loves it."

Rejected once, and then again, by business schools at Stanford and Harvard, Scott McNealy practiced the perseverance that would characterize his career. A brash economics graduate of Harvard, he was annoyed that "they wouldn't take a chance on me right out of college," he says. He kept trying, taking a job as a plant foreman for a manufacturer and working his way up in sales. "By my third year out of school, it was clear I was going to be a successful executive. I blew the doors off my numbers," he says. Granted admission to Stanford's business school, he met Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla and went on to head Sun for 22 years.

Time puts rejection letters in perspective, says Ted Turner. He received dual rejections as a teenager, by Princeton and Harvard, he says in an interview. The future America's Cup winner attended Brown University, where he became captain of the sailing team. He left college after his father cut off financial support, and joined his father's billboard company, which he built into the media empire that spawned CNN. Brown has since awarded him a bachelor's degree.

Tragedies later had a greater impact on his life, he says, including the loss of his father to suicide and his teenage sister to illness. "A rejection letter doesn't even come close to losing loved ones in your family. That is the hard stuff to survive," Mr. Turner says. "I want to be sure to make this point: I did everything I did without a college degree," he says. While it is better to have one, "you can be successful without it."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Hindu: March 11: Tinker or Transform Health care in India by Prof. Jacob

Rural health: to tinker or transform?

K.S. Jacob

The poor health indices and health care in rural India have always been met with lofty ideals sans action; they demand urgent and radical solutions.

The recent proposal to introduce a new medical course, Bachelor of Rural Health Care, has been met with resistance from many sections of the medical fraternity. Its opponents argue that it will result in second-class health care for rural India and increase the rural-urban divide. They suggest other solutions, including using the services of trained nurses and paramedics and medical practitioners from Indian systems of medicine. The compulsory posting of fresh medical graduates to rural health centres with weightage for rural service in selections to post-graduate courses is also cited as an answer to improve health care in rural parts of the country. Setting up of new medical colleges in north India, an increase in the permissible number of seats in existing institutions and private-public partnerships to improve rural health infrastructure are also suggested as remedies. Most of these recommendations are not new — have been around for decades — and do not directly address the reality of health and health care in rural India. Cynics would argue that these are suggested to tinker with the existing system, with the aim of actually maintaining the status quo.

Specialist factories and fetish: Currently, the training of doctors occurs in tertiary-care institutions, with specialist perspectives dominating the curriculum. Referral systems to tertiary care and prevalent narrow expert perceptions result in rare and exotic medical conditions forming the basic case load for teaching. Communication of theoretical knowledge without the transmission of the necessary skill to manage common diseases churns out doctors who are poorly equipped to work in primary care and small hospitals. Lack of clinical skill and absolute reliance on technology make fresh graduates uncomfortable outside a large hospital setting. Their obvious lack of confidence in managing simple diseases forces them to specialise. The long periods of training and the investment of time, effort and money, in addition, to the dependence on tertiary-care support and technology, make specialised physicians averse to working in small hospitals in rural India. Their narrow perspectives and circumscribed fields make them incompetent to manage common problems in primary and secondary care.

Compulsory rural service and commitment: Students from very few medical colleges in India have a compulsory obligation to serve in areas of need and in not-for-profit rural hospitals. Such service is enforced through the carrot of additional points for selection to post-graduate courses and the stick, which includes the refusal of certification for failure to serve. While this works well at a superficial level, most fresh graduates are uncomfortable in the alien environments of small hospitals and small towns where they are located. The vast majority complete their time limited obligations and leave; very few choose careers in primary and secondary care, opting instead to specialise and work in urban tertiary care. Such lack of long-term commitment among doctors to work in small hospitals weakens these institutions, resulting in their deterioration and eventual closure. The idea of a brief but compulsory obligation to serve in small hospitals in rural India is, thus, at best, a temporary solution and, at worst, a way to put fresh graduates completely off such service, thereby maintaining the status quo.

Health infrastructure sans work ethic: The National Rural Health Mission has had a major impact on the health and hospital infrastructure of rural India. It has brought in budgetary flexibility in the system with specific funding for local needs. It also funds human resource in situations of shortage. And yet, in many places, nothing has changed. While the renovated and clean primary health centres and district hospitals have made a big difference, the prevalent work ethic leaves much to be desired. Years of neglect have resulted in a work ethic which is less than optimal. While many doctors and nurses serve diligently, many are apathetic to the needs of patients. The infusion of money alone will not change the morale or the circumstances of service. Frequent transfers, political interference in postings and the lure of private practice need to be tackled for optimal health care delivery. The audit of the programme, thus far, has been about process. We await the assessment of its impact on health outcomes.

Specific intervention or generic personnel: The reality of primary care and rural India demand locally relevant solutions. Training generic personnel with long periods of exposure to tertiary care and then transplanting them to smaller settings is a sure recipe for disaster. The lack of skill and confidence in managing common diseases, the excessive dependence on technology and the different demands of the context make young doctors opt out of such service. They would rather go back to their tertiary care institutions for more training to become specialists. Poor monetary rewards and limited facilities in small towns also add to their woes.

The situation described begs the question: Are inappropriately trained generic personnel the solution to the current crisis of health care in rural India or should those who intend to serve in such capacity be given specific training to match their skills to the reality of primary and secondary health care? The generic health personnel currently trained lack the necessary skill to deliver the specific interventions required in small hospitals. Should we tinker with the existing system, which has failed to deliver adequate and appropriate health care to rural India or should we aim at transforming the structure in order to provide good quality health services?

Status quo or radical solutions: The fall of socialism and the rise of capitalistic thought resulted in the weakening of the trade union movement. However, the medical profession, the world over, under the guise of being part of scientific organisations, has consolidated its power. Doctors form a powerful trade union, successfully lobbying to maintain their special status, vested interests and their financial clout. Their success is attributed to their ability to disguise their actual intention of maintaining their monopoly on the supply of expertise by using scientific, ideological and moral arguments. The majority refuse to acknowledge the suffering of millions of Indians who do not have easy, affordable and equitable access to health care.

The debate on health care for rural India often sheds more heat than light. The majority of doctors will neither work in rural India nor will they allow systems to develop to meet its essential health needs. Yet, they talk of equal status for their rural brethren at every opportunity; they argue for equality of health services for all. Cynics would argue that these attempts are aimed at maintaining the status quo which suits doctors' vested interests. The strategies of centralisation of power and regulation and limitation of the supply of expertise result in their stranglehold on health care delivery. The larger vision of health for all and the need to empower other health workers have always been subservient to their collective self-interest.

The way forward

The disparity in health indices, infrastructure and personnel between rural and urban India demands urgent action and radical solutions. Such disparities are due to a toxic combination of poor social and health policies and programmes, unfair economic arrangements and bad politics. China has shown that “barefoot” doctors with specific training in the prevention of diseases and in the treatment of common health problems can improve indices of health. Equitable and accessible health care in Cuba has also demonstrated marked improvement in the health of its people.

The bold idea of the new course needs our support. Much needs to be done. Many issues related to the course, its curriculum, examinations, skill sets required, training, trainers, eligibility, practice, regulation and oversight need to be sorted. The course should concentrate on prevention of diseases and on public health. It should train for the provision of basic curative services for priority health conditions. It should transfer skill and confidence. It should set out and teach the criteria for referral.

The focus of the current debate should be on the health of the rural population of India. Achieving health standards similar to those living in urban India in the foreseeable future should be the goal. Pragmatism, rather than ideological arguments, is called for. Support for better essential health services, rather than the current status quo of neglect, is a fight for social justice and for the human rights of all peoples.

(Professor Jacob is on the faculty of the Christian Medical College, Vellore.)

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Why are we Afraid to Tax the Super-Rich

commentsREPLIES: 18

Our nation is already deeply in debt. How can we possibly afford to invest in our infrastructure, renewable energy, health care, our schools — and create the millions of jobs that our unemployed desperately need?

We are told that we’re already living well beyond our means — that entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security will bankrupt us. Forget the solar panels, the smaller classes and the new jobs — we’ve got to cut back on government programs at all levels.

Meanwhile, the super-rich are still having a ball. In his annual shareholder letter, mega-investor Warren Buffett wrote, “We’ve put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.” And Forbes Magazine adds, “Many plutocrats did just that. Indeed, last year’s wealth wasteland has become a billionaire bonanza. Most of the richest people on the planet have seen their fortunes soar in the past year.”

Which brings us back to the federal budget. There are two sides to every ledger: the expenses…and the income. We need to start looking at the income side. With a fairer tax system, we could retrieve some of that money downpour that the elite has been siphoning away from us for decades.

In the 1950s the marginal tax rate on those earning more than $3 million a year (in today’s dollars) was 91 percent. By 1990 it was 28 percent. The IRS says that the top 400 richest tax filers actually paid a rate of just 16 percent in 2007 (the latest numbers we have). Yep, the richest earners — people who took in an average of $343 million each — probably paid a lower rate than you did. Something to consider as you sign your 2009 return.

By the way, those 400 people who do so well on tax day have a combined net worth of nearly $1.37 trillion. (According to Forbes Magazine their wealth has gone up on average by more than 16 percent over the past year — the worst economic year since the Great Depression during which 29 million Americans are without work or forced into part-time jobs. )

How do we even wrap our minds around a number so large? Here’s the example that brings it down to earth for me. If we had progressive taxes that reduced their wealth to a trifling $100 million each, we’d have enough money to set up a trust fund whose interest could provide tuition-free higher education for students at every public college and university in perpetuity. Imagine that. Our kids could actually leave college without carrying tens of thousands of dollars of debt on their backs.

Could those 400 special people be able to get by on just $100 million a year? I think they might.

So why are we so fearful of taxing the super-rich? Here are the arguments I’ve heard.

1. They’ve earned it.
Really? The concept of “earning” is murky when you consider the array of corporate welfare programs we provide. Oil companies have their depletion allowances. Big sugar farmers have their sweet subsidies. The health insurance industry is exempt from anti-trust laws.

One way corporations spend their welfare checks is by providing top management with mind-boggling compensation packages. For instance, in 2009, our financial wizards netted about $150 billion in bonuses – as if in reward for crashing the economy. Were it not for our $10 trillion (not billion) in bailout funds, they would have earned nothing at all. In fact, the financial sector’s reckless gambling has lost us over $6 trillion in wealth. But the execs did quite well, thanks to taxpayer largesse.

You’d think we’d be crying out for a windfall profits tax to reclaim our money. But no.

2. Redistribution of Income is Un-American.
During the 2008 campaign, Joe the Plumber got his 15 minutes of fame when he slammed Obama for daring to utter the phrase “redistribution of income.” Of course, we redistribute income primarily through progressive taxation – having the rich pay a higher rate.

Joe didn’t mention that we already live in a world of massive redistribution. Only it’s from the bottom to the top. We still hear about how poor folks game the system and mooch off our hard earned tax dollars. They go to emergency rooms and don’t pay. They get Medicaid for free. And many don’t pay any taxes at all (mostly because their incomes are so impossibly low). But all of that is chump change compared to the gaming going on at the other end of the economic scale.

Just think of all the scams corporations and the rich are running: ever-rising credit card fees, predatory mortgages, usurious interest rates, check cashing ripoffs, monopoly pricing. They turn income into lower taxed capital gains, find offshore tax shelters, collect subsidies for their runaway shops. And then they netted the big one: Wall Street bailouts. Post-baillout, these too-big-to fail companies are getting even bigger. It all adds up to a major redistribution plan — from the many to the few.

During the post-WWII boom we had one of the fairest income distributions in the world. Not anymore. Today the gap between rich and poor is wider than at any time in U.S. history. Here’s a telling statistic: In 1970 the compensation ratio of the top 100 CEOs compared to the average worker was 45 to one. By 2008 it was 1,071 to one. You think they got that much smarter?

3. If we tax the wealthy, we’ll hinder investment and kill jobs.
This was the justification politicians and pundits used when they started cutting taxes and eliminating regulations in the late 1970s. Tax cuts were supposed to create a robust investment class whose dollars would fuel the new service economy. Since only the wealthy can make such investments, the argument went, we have to make sure they have the money they need to invest. Otherwise, where will all the new jobs come from?

In theory this sounds good. But we tried this experiment, and it didn’t work. When we cut taxes on the super-rich, we got a different kind of investment boom than the politicians and economists had promised. The wealthy literally ran out of investments in factories, equipment and even services. So they flocked to financial investments — which were supposedly safer and more profitable anyway. The super-rich laid their money down in the Wall Street casino, and helped puff up bubble after bubble. Profits in the financial sector soared. In 1960, the sector accounted for about 15 per cent of all corporate profits. By 2008 (before the crash, that is), it was almost 40 percent. The financial sector crased as the direct result of tax cuts for the super-rich and Wall Street deregulation.

4. Government’s too big already. We should be cutting the public sector, not raising taxes to expand it.
Many people (like those in and around the Tea Party) dislike tax scams by the wealthy, but dislike government even more. They’re outraged that public sector workers often have better wages and pensions than people in the private sector. They’ve made attacking public employees the new national blood sport.

With unemployment so high, public sector workers are an easy target. Why should taxpayers, many of whom have no pensions, finance the pensions of public sector workers? Why should we protect public sector jobs when we ourselves are unemployed?

Here’s one reason: Because cutting state and local payrolls would actually add to our economic woes. If we fire public sector workers, they’ll stop paying taxes — which will only add to the tax burden on those people who still have jobs.

Laid off public sector workers — and even those whose wages and benefits have been cut — don’t buy as many goods and services. This drop in demand triggers layoffs in the private sector — and a further slide in tax revenues. In short, public sector cutbacks contribute to an economic death spiral: plummeting tax revenues and ever more cutbacks.

By failing to tax the super-rich, we’re burrowing even deeper into a billionaire bailout society in which the rich keep on gambling away our money, knowing that we will bail them out if they lose. Yes, we need to regulate Wall Street. But we also need to recognize that these gambling addicts have too much money in their pockets. And society needs that money for constructive investments, not for more gambling.

In the end the real fiscal crisis is in our minds. We don’t have to keep fighting over the scraps the wealthy have left us. We can build a new kind of economy, but only if can summon up some courage. Do we have the nerve to tax the super-rich?

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Narendra Modi's farm Miracle

Narendra Modi's farm miracle

RN Bhaskar
Thursday, March 11, 2010 23:19 IST
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There is a new mood of resurgence on Gujarat’s farms. Farm incomes have more than doubled during the past 10 years, and are likely to grow even more in the coming years. Gujarat’s agriculture is expected to grow by at least 9% year-on-year in the coming years, compared with just 2-2.5% for the rest of the country.

For the first time in India’s history, even farmers from Punjab and Haryana have been flocking to Gujarat just to see what makes the state’s farms so vibrant. Some have even begun purchasing land in Gujarat to grow crops in that state.

The roots of the agricultural revolution in the state lay in 2002-03 when Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s controversial chief minister, decided to revamp the supply of electricity to farms and to industry. Plagued by mounting power losses (caused by lines tripping and also by theft), Modi decided to supply quality power to the farms for at least four hours without any interruption — but only at night. He sold the idea to farmers thus: accessing power at night would allow them to run their pumps on three-phase electricity, thus saving them the cost of diesel-powered pumps.

This single move allowed him to authorise the switching off of power supplies to farms during the day when industry, too, could get quality power without frequent breakdowns.Moreover, since most electric pumps would work only for a limited number of hours, it saved on precious groundwater too.

The next was to allow for farmers to integrate with consumers. So in 2003-04, Modi introduced laws permitting contract farming. This helped farmers sell their produce to large purchasers at least a year in advance and also facilitated industry clients to invest in farmers on a long-term basis.

To galvanise the farming community, he began in 2005 an annual month-long event called Krishi Mahotsav (farm festival), where all government officers, vendors (of seeds, micro-irrigation — MI — equipment, fertilisers and pesticides) and even agricultural researchers and professors are required to visit each of the identified 18,600 villages.

This is when farmers meet large consumers, create marketing linkages and even consult agronomists and government officials. Modi monitors complaints from farmers personally, keeping all concerned on their toes, and creating the groundswell — a critical prerequisite for any mass movement.

He then proceeded to set up the Gujarat Green Revolution Company (GGRC) — the pivot around which Gujarat’s future agricultural growth will depend. GGRC focuses on MI. One of its moves was to extend subsidies on MI to all farmers instead of restricting it only to small farmers. The reason: big farmers are the first to experiment with new ideas. Most small farmers follow.

The GGRC masterstroke was to make the subsidy available only to vendors who could offer ongoing extension services in terms of advice on plant nutrition and protection from qualified agronomists. This move affected MI suppliers. One firm, the largest player in the country, saw its market share in Gujarat plummet from 80 per cent to 20 per cent, while an Israeli firm saw its market share rise from around 10 per cent to 60 per cent. The latter’s agronomists are more in demand than researchers from Gujarat’s farm universities.

The shift to MI is critical. Less than 37 per cent of Gujarat’s 95 lakh hectares of cultivable land is under irrigation (canal or tubewell). The rest is rain-fed. When rains fail, so does agriculture. Yet tubewells, which irrigate almost 18 lakh hectares, deplete groundwater reserves. To control this, Modi ordered the construction of check dams so that water from streams and ponds stays impounded and doesn’t flow into drains and the sea. Over the last eight years, almost two lakh check dams have been built which, in turn, have allowed groundwater levels to soar.

But even this water may not be adequate to meet Gujarat’s needs. That is why Modi has been pushing for increasing the height of the Narmada dam and for MI. MI saves on water as it allows for higher productivity using much less water and fertiliser.For example, in cotton, if rainfed land can yield 0.3-0.4 tonnes an acre, canal/tubewell irrigation can yield 0.8-1.5 tonnes. But introduce micro-irrigation (which combines drip irrigation with feeding fertiliser and pesticides directly to plant roots) and yields can rise to 2-2.5 tonnes — a near three-fold increase over regular irrigation. Besides, farmers save on water, fertiliser and pesticides, too. Similar is the case with wheat, sugarcane, potato and green chillies.

In the past five years, almost 1 per cent of the irrigated land has come under MI. Each one has a success story to tell — with yields doubling, often more. The demonstration effect of these farms is beginning to catch on with other farmers, and the conversion rate is accelerating. But Gujarat’s success story is far from over.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Enthusiasm Gap - Robert Reich

The Enthusiasm Gap


I had dinner the other night with a Democratic pollster who told me Dems are heading toward next fall’s mid-term elections with a serious enthusiasm gap: The Republican base is fired up. The Dem base is packing up.

The Dem base is lethargic because congressional Democrats continue to compromise on everything the Dem base cares about. For a year now it’s been nothing but compromises, watered-down ideas, weakened provisions, wider loopholes, softened regulations.

Health care went from what the Dem base wanted — single payer — to a public option, to no public option, to a bunch of ideas that the President tried to explain last week, and it now hangs by a string as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid try to round up conservative Dems and a 51-vote reconciliation package in the Senate.

The jobs bill went from what the base wanted — a second stimulus — to $165 billion of extended unemployment benefits and aid to states and locales, then to $15 billion of tax breaks for businesses that make new hires.

Financial regulation went from tough new capital requirements, sharp constraints on derivate trading, a consumer protection agency, and a resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act – all popular with the Dem base — to some limits on derivatives and a consumer-protection agency inside the Treasury Department and a rearrangement of oversight boxes, and it’s now looking like even less.

The environment went from the base’s desire for a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade carbon auction then to a cap-and-trade with all sorts of exemptions and offsets for the biggest polluters, and now Senate Dems are talking about trying to do it industry-by-industry.

These waffles and wiggle rooms have drained the Democratic base of all passion. “Why should I care?” are words I hear over and over again from stalwart Democrats who worked their hearts out in the last election.

The Republican base, meanwhile, is on a rampage. It’s more and more energized by its mad-as-hell populists. Tea partiers, libertarians, Birchers, birthers, and Dick Armey astro-turfers are channeling the economic anxieties of millions of Americans against “big government.”

Technically, the Dems have the majority in Congress and could still make major reforms. But conservative, “blue-dog” Dems won’t go along. They say the public has grown wary of government. But they must know the public hasn’t grown evenmore wary of big business and Wall Street, on which effective government is the only constraint.

Anyone with an ounce of sanity understands government is the only effective countervailing force against the forces that got us into this mess: Against Goldman Sachs and the rest of the big banks that plunged the economy into crisis, got our bailout money, and are now back at their old games, dispensing huge bonuses to themselves. Against WellPoint and the rest of the giant health insurers who are at this moment robbing us of the care we need by raising their rates by double digits. Against giant corporations that are showing big profits by continuing to lay off millions of Americans and cutting the wages of millions of more, by shifting jobs abroad and substituting software. Against big oil and big utilities that are raising prices and rates, and continue to ravage the atmosphere.

If there was ever a time to connect the dots and make the case for government as the singular means of protecting the public from these forces it is now. Yet the White House and the congressional Dem’s ongoing refusal to blame big business and Wall Street has created the biggest irony in modern political history. A growing portion of the public, fed by the right, blames our problems on “big government.”

Much of the reason for the Democrats’ astonishing reluctance to place blame where it belongs rests with big business’s and Wall Street’s generous flows of campaign donations to Dems, coupled with their implicit promise of high-paying jobs once Democratic officials retire from government. This is the rot at the center of the system. And unless or until it’s remedied, it will be difficult for the President to achieve any “change you can believe in.”

To his credit, Obama himself has not scaled back his health-care ambitions all that much, and he appears, intermittently, to want to push conservative blue-dog Dems to join him on a bigger jobs bill, tougher financial reform, and a more effective approach to global warming. (His overtures to Republicans seem ever more transparently designed to give blue-dog Dems cover to vote with him.)

But our President is not comfortable wielding blame. He will not give the public the larger narrative of private-sector greed, its nefarious effect on the American public at this dangerous juncture, and the private sector’s corruption of the democratic process. He has so far eschewed any major plan to get corporate and Wall Street money out of politics. He can be indignant– as when he lashed out at the “fat cats” on Wall Street – but his indignation is fleeting, and it is no match for the faux indignation of the right that blames government for all that ails us.

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Arise Awake Stop not till the goal is reached. - Swami Vivekananda Swami ji is my inspiration, not as a monk but as a social reformer and for his universal-ism.