US economic crisis almost ‘over’

The article was published in Global Times (US Edition)

Even as long-term fiscal problems remain, after a long economic winter, the US stock market is booming, housing prices are rebounding; mortgage providers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, long demonized by Republicans, are returning profits to the Treasury. Job growth has accelerated and consumer confidence has reached its highest level in almost six years.
According to the Commerce Department, economic growth in the first quarter was only marginally below the 2.5% rate originally estimated, but still much faster than the 0.4% growth during the October-December quarter. Hiring has been solid and in the past six months, employers have added an average of 208,000 jobs per month – up from an average of only 138,000 in the previous six months. The Commerce Department also added that the unemployment rate has fallen to a four-year low of 7.5%, down from 10% in October 2009.
According to a survey by Manpower Group, the global employment services giant, more US employers plan to hire workers in the next quarter than in any period since the fourth quarter of 2008.
Dr Mukul Majumdar, Prof of economics, Cornell University, New York, is also upbeat. Speaking to Global Times, he said: “There are several encouraging signs from the long-run perspectives. Housing sector has recovered; major players in the auto industry are not struggling to avert bankruptcies; financial world recognizes the role of regulation and vigilance; the country is expecting fundamental shifts in the patterns of energy production/consumption/import and moves are underway for designing infrastructure improvements.”
Dr Majumdar, however, expressed misgivings about health care reforms. “We are yet to sort out health care problems; to enrich the human capital to ensure meaningful employment opportunities; and carry the standards of science and technology in a more competitive world.”
Explaining the current state of economy, he said: “I wish I could say the days of uncertainty are “over” or that the problems of cycles have been “solved”…We surely have a better understanding of the forces that led to the recent debacles. But I don’t foresee an Arrow-Debreu world with complete contingent markets in which all agents have the same information.”
Dr Majumdar said he was always reminded of Galbraith’s concluding observations in “A Short History of Financial Euphoria”: “When will come the next great speculative episode, and in what venue will it recur — real estate, securities markets, art, antique, automobile? To these, there are no answers; no one knows, and anyone who presumes to answer does not know he does not know.”
Meanwhile, the IMF annual report has said the US growth this year would have been as much as 1.75% higher than the sluggish 1.9% forecast, had spending cuts and tax increases been introduced more slowly. It forecast 2.7% growth for 2014. “The deficit reduction in 2013 has been excessively rapid and ill-designed,” the IMF said. “These cuts should be replaced with a back-loaded mix of entitlement savings and new revenues, along the lines of the administration’s budget proposal.”
“The IMF’s advice is to slow down but hurry up: meaning slow the fiscal adjustment this year, which would help sustain growth and job creation, but hurry up with putting in place a medium-term road map to restore long-run fiscal sustainability,” Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director, said.

Food wastage! Think of starved souls

This article was published in Global Times (US Edition)

Call it a byproduct of affluence or what you will.
At a time when hunger is staggering in the world, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) revealed a shocking truth: 40% of food in US, which equals to about $165 billion, is uneaten every year.
An average American family of four, the report says, tosses up to $2,275 worth of food annually. Since the 1970s, food wastage has skyrocketed by 50%, while food wastage is the largest element of solid waste in US landfills, the report adds. Food waste, as it decays in landfills, also produces methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.
A UN report says nearly 1 billion people suffer from hunger today and 19 millions are children under the age of five at immediate risk of dying. This results in 3.5 million children deaths annually.
Asked how much baby food is being wasted in the US that can feed babies in Third World countries, Dana Gunders, project scientist at NRDC, San Francisco, CA, told Global Times: “I don’t know about baby food specifically. The UN’s FAO estimates that the average consumer in North America wastes 10 times that of someone in South Asia. This is really an ethical tragedy. While it’s hard to imagine that food from an individual’s kitchen in one country has any relation to hunger across the world, we are facing a global increase in demand for food. As that demand grows, we will need to become less wasteful and ensure any food grown is going to its best use. Just as energy efficiency reduces demand for energy, wasting less food can do the same.”
According to US Department of Agriculture, the energy embedded in wasted food represents about 2% of annual energy consumption.
The NRDC report says even a 15% cut in food supply losses could feed as much as 25 million Americans per year.
Andrew Shakman, co-founder and president of LeanPath, Inc. in Portland, OR, said: “Due to food loss and food waste, approximately 40% of the food produced in the US is never consumed. This vast amount of waste consumes financial resources and generates adverse environmental impacts. It also drains money and food, which might otherwise be available to help needy Americans who don’t know the source of their next meal…Americans need to prioritize food waste reduction and focus efforts to prevent and minimize food waste.”
LeanPath has devised an automated food waste tracking system that has helped cut food waste and run greener, more sustainable operations.
“Americans must realize the consequence of food waste when specters of droughts loom over parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, S Carolina, and N Carolina,” said Amit Sengupta, an Indian-American from Cambridge, Mass.
Unsold fruits and vegetables in grocery stores comprise an enormous amount of this waste. But, consumers and restaurants are also to blame. “The first time I went to Costco, I was shocked by the giant cold storage room where frozen fruits were kept. It’s literally a frozen fruit mountain… In restaurant, a deluxe version burger could feed at least two guys… Look the amount of coffee served in a cafe. It’s impossible for one person to consume it,” said Zongpu Yue, a Chinese student at Columbia University, NY.
Talking about reducing food waste, Vineet Kumar, a software engineer, in Bear, Delaware, said: “We must teach our kids about the consequence of food wastage… Less food waste would lead to more-efficient land use, better water resource management, more sustainable use of phosphorus, and it’d have positive impact on climate change…If we stop being wasteful and become a little bit frugal, we can save millions of starved souls across the globe.”

Obama faces gun-control blues

The article was published in Global Times (US Edition)

Many Americans expressed disappointment and anger at the Senate’s rejection of a plan to expand background checks for gun purchasers recently.
Despite emotional pleas from families of victims of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and public support, the plan to extend background checks for sales made online and at gun shows failed on a 54-46 vote, six short of the 60 votes it needed to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate, Reuters reported Wednesday.
“All in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington,” an angry Obama said of the vote, adding that the effort “is not over”, according to Reuters.
President Barack Obama said on March 28 in no uncertain terms that it would be a “shame” if Americans forgot the kids at Newtown. He told the American public: “Raise your voices and make yourselves unmistakably heard” so lawmakers “don’t get squishy.”
Obama has made universal background checks his top priority. Public polls suggest that as many as nine out of 10 Americans support the idea. “Right now, 90 percent of Americans support background checks,” Obama said. “How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything? It never happens.”
“American politics is plagued by timidity and paralyzed by opportunism whenever it considers taking action to curb gun violence. No other developed country in the world has these massacres on such a regular basis. In no comparable nation do citizens have such easy access to guns,” Dr Suparno Chaudhuri, director of marketing at software firm Ringio, told the Global Times.
“The NRA’s logic on mental health to justify firearms possession is ridiculous… Obama must use all his powers to pass stringent laws which will make access to guns extremely difficult,” Chaudhuri added.
“I am really scared of sending my daughter to school after the Newtown massacre. My friend’s son was a victim there,” said Sanchita Sengupta, an Indian living in Boston.
“Nearly all mass shootings in recent years – not just Newtown, Fort Hood and Columbine – have been committed by white men… Imagine if African American men and boys had committed mass shootings, articles would have poured in and we’d have debates demanding that African Americans be held accountable,” said Jonathan Mok, a software professional from Silver Spring, Md. “I admire Bloomberg and CNN host Piers Morgan’s efforts to reduce gun violence.”
“If the federal ban on military-style assault weapons had not been allowed to expire, we might have seen less gun violence,” said Dr Subrata Mukherjee, a dentist from Albany, NY.
“Mayors Against Illegal Guns has gathered more than 1.4 million signatures demanding that Congress take action,” said Elvin Daniel, an NRE member and associated with Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a group demanding action against gun violence.
A Chinese-American policeman in LA said on condition of anonymity: “Stricter gun control might prevent some crimes, but people’s horrible choice is the problem. We need to educate people how to deal with personal life issues. Anger management will be more efficient to reduce gun violence.”
“Our hearts are broken. Our spirit is not,” Mark Barden, father of a victim of the Newtown shootings, said at the White House after the vote, according to Reuters. “We always knew this would be a long road.”

US retailers under pressure

The article was published in Global Times (US Edition)

US retailers are facing pressure after the eight-story building, housing garments factories in Dhaka in Bangladesh, collapsed on April 24 killing over 1200 workers. The tragedy has prompted activists across the world to push Western retailers to take more responsibility for safe work conditions.
The incident has raised a key moral question of globalization: What obligation do the nations that benefit from low-cost goods made in places like Bangladesh have to ensure a safe environment and basic rights for workers?
While most European nations have signed on to a binding inspection program, most US clothing chains have declined to sign the agreement on bringing about major reforms in low-wage factories in Bangladesh.
Ben Hensler, deputy director, Worker Rights Consortium, the organization that has spearheaded the global fight to make garment factories safe, said: “The international program is the most effective way to bring about major reforms in low-wage factories in Bangladesh. The US retailers, making profit from the low-cost goods, should take the responsibility and must ensure that factory buildings are safe and equipped with adequate fire fighting device.”
H&M, the largest European retailer to source their products from Bangladesh, Ben said, has signed on the program. Besides, Carrefour and Tesco also signed on the building safety program.
“US retailers are now under pressure to sign the program. Two major US retailers PVH, (the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein) and Abercrombie & Fitch have already signed on the building safety program. This will have significant impact on other retailers. We are urging other retailers to sign on the program and hopeful that others too will do the same,” Ben added.
Wal-Mart had been under particular pressure because the company is the second biggest buyers of clothes from Bangladesh and, as the world’s largest retailer, has broad influence over the industry. Wal-Mart, however, said it would conduct its own inspections at its Bangladesh facilities, which Labor groups say would fall short of what is necessary to ensure worker safety.
“Tragedies that have taken place in Bangladesh can only be prevented if all stakeholders across the board set clear parameters and take action to drive real safety and compliance improvements,” said Louis Yunzhong Cheng, a student of Social Enterprise Administration in Columbia University, New York. “Systemic change will only occur when retailers take action together. They must use the full force of their commercial power to press for reforms,” she added.
“In the US, we see products made in Bangladesh everywhere. While the rise of the South is reshaping power relations in many important aspects, hard-won gains in human development, however, will be more difficult to protect if cooperation fails and difficult decisions are postponed,” Louis said.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is getting serious about improving industrial conditions in Bangladesh. “On the labor issue, buyers have a critical role and they must be engaged. We are encouraging international investors not to turn their back on Bangladesh, because the solution is reform and not withdrawal,” US under secretary of state for political affairs Wendy R Sherman said.
Wendy added: “Success will depend on the will and commitment of industry, government, civil society and every Bangladeshis to come together to change the culture of workplace safety and workers rights.” The US is working with American firms to secure their support for better safety inspections, she said.