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9/10: Disaster Preparedness in the Aftermath of 9/11

By John Sparks

Nine years after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, how prepared is America for a terrorist attack?  Dr. Irwin Redlener heads the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, and he talks with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks about this and where he was on the day of the attacks.

Dr. Irwin Redlener

Dr. Irwin Redlener

John Sparks
Dr. Redlener, this week will mark the 9th anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.  Do you recall where you were and what you were doing then?

Irwin Redlener, MD
I do. I was at home with my wife.  We both were working at the Children’s Health Fund and at Montefiore Medical Center at the time.  I was president of a new children’s hospital, and we heard the first reports of the first plane going to the World Trade Center, and we were operating under the assumption that it was a small plane that had accidentally crashed into the World Trade Center. Then, we got in the car and listened to the news and driving across the Bruckner Expressway and seeing smoke from downtown.  We were coming down from Westchester.  It was apparent obviously that it was — something was far more worrisome than we originally thought, and we were hearing the reports about the — it was a jetliner and then it was two jetliners, both towers, and the collapse, and that’s what our experience was initially.

John Sparks
So what did you find yourself doing?  Did you do anything to help out in response to the attacks?

Irwin Redlener, MD
Yes, my organization managed a — at that point was a growing national network of mobile clinics for medically underserved and disadvantaged populations, and we had a number of them, I think, at that point, four or five mobile clinics in New York City.  So, I brought in the medical director, and I was — I’m president of the organization and Karen Redlener, my wife, is executive director, and we called in the medical director of our New York programs and asked him to organize two mobile units that we could send down to Lower Manhattan to be part of the triaging resources that were being developed down there.

John Sparks
So, you found yourself occupied for a number of days after that then I take it?

Irwin Redlener, MD
Yes.

John Sparks
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness that you head, was this operation you’re referring to that, at the time, grew into a more formal organization?

Irwin Redlener, MD
No, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness was initiated in 2003.  But right after 9/11, and I got very interested and concerned about our ability to respond to large scale disasters, and I established, as I say, I was president of the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore at the time, and I established a pediatric preparedness program for mass casualty events at Montefiore at the Children’s Hospital there, and so, that was running and growing and was the reason that the School of Public Health at Columbia recruited me to come over to Columbia and set up this new entity, which I called the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

John Sparks
The new entity today, what kinds of things does it oversee now? Obviously, we were all taken completely off-guard with the attacks.  But I’m just curious what kind of preparedness that your National Center has developed since that time.

Irwin Redlener, MD
Well, first of all, we are concerned about the level of preparedness from top to bottom. We think that the policies and the resources are either inadequate or insufficient in a variety of ways at the top, and we think at the other end of the spectrum is a very unprepared citizen population with respect to what to do about disasters.  And, in between a lot of confusion about the role of state versus federal versus local government and so forth.  So, our center works on trying to sort out these issues with a goal toward making both local communities, but the country as a whole, prepared to deal with — either prepared to — able to prevent or prepare to deal with the consequences of disaster.  And recently we’ve gotten interested in the issue of recovery from large scale disasters which is basically almost an untouched aspect of preparedness that has to be now thought of in a lot more rigor than had been in the past.

John Sparks
So, nine years later, how prepared are we today to handle a similar event?

Irwin Redlener, MD
It’s a very mixed bag because in some ways we’re better, in some ways we haven’t made much progress, and there’s a lot to be concerned about still.  So, I think the report card would be a mix of passing and failing grades. I think we’re just at a point now where we’re starting to see more inter-operability among radio systems used by various respond organizations, like police and fire and EMS, but that’s been a long time in coming, and we’ve gotten more training for more people who are first responders, and that’s good.  We’ve made almost no progress in the level of preparedness of individuals.  If we had an exact repeat of the 9/11 events, there would be a lot of confusion about whether or not we’re going to have rescue and relief workers rushing into the pile, so to speak, as we had previously because we now know a lot more about the potential long-term consequences in terms of medical problems that arise from people who are working in unprotected ways and even the immediate search and rescue.  So, there’s a lot that’s different, but a lot that really remains as challenges.  Another instant issue is hospital preparedness, and we’ve made some progress there, but we’re very, very far behind on that aspect of where we should be now too.  So, it’s hard to give a straight answer, simple answer, but that’s where we are.

John Sparks
You mentioned individuals, I wanted to ask you what we as individuals can and should remember to do in case of an attack similar to what we experienced nine years ago.

Irwin Redlener, MD
Well, the recommendations have been pretty straightforward from soon after 9/11, which is to you know get a kit, make a plan and so forth about what you would do, and then know what the risks are and make — get a kit and make a plan for what you would do as individuals and as families, and the stockpiling of three days of food and water for each person who you’re responsible for. Those kinds of things are very straightforward. They’re found on — with the Red Cross site, on FEMA’s Web site and so forth, but there’s been very minimal uptake by the general public for even those basic directions, and part of that has to do with the fact that we don’t really know a lot about what motivates people to get prepared or not get prepared.  But, we’re still in some serious dilemma with respect to how to improve the preparedness levels of individuals.

John Sparks
Interesting that you mention what motivates people.  As we speak, the Marist Institute is out in the field polling New Yorkers and asking whether they still worry about another terrorist attack.

Irwin Redlener, MD
Yeah.

John Sparks
We don’t know the results of that poll quite yet.  We’re out in the field with it, but I know that you certainly with your responsibilities are concerned about another attack. But, do you get the feeling that most New Yorkers still worry about another attack?

Irwin Redlener, MD
Not in any kind of overt way, and I think they’re more worried about jobs and that sort of thing than they are about a terrorist attack, and I think that’s not just New York. I think it’s probably true generally in the country.

John Sparks
Anything in particular that you might want to add that you’re looking into as an organization or trying to shore up in anticipation should we have another attack?

Irwin Redlener, MD
Well, one of the things I’m most concerned about is the state of hospital and health system readiness for a major attack or a bio-terrorism event, or even just a pandemic not caused by terrorism, and we just seem to be really struggling to find the resources to make — to really expand or to really enhance the level of preparedness, and that’s one of the things we are most definitely working on.

John Sparks
You know that reminds me that, as you recall, coincidental to the attack, we had the anthrax episodes.  That kind of falls into hospitals, I think, because that’s clearly something that we don’t have under control either today.

Irwin Redlener, MD
That’s correct, so there’s more of these areas that we don’t quite have a handle on than I expected to be the case at this point.

John Sparks
Is there anything else that you want to add?

Irwin Redlener, MD
Yeah, one of the other big issues is that we haven’t spent enough time focusing on the needs of populations that might be particularly vulnerable and especially children.  Our children make up 25% of the U.S. population, but they’re still very much marginalized when it comes to planning for major disasters, and that’s a problem because the needs of children can be very, very different medically and psychologically and everything else.  And one of the things that has been done, a couple years ago there was an establishment of a National Commission on Children’s Disasters, which is a federally appointed body…  I happen to be on it… that’s  actually looking to that particular aspect of disaster planning and what are we doing for our children, and there’s quite a lot of work still left to be done in that arena as well.

9/10: Bloomberg, His Political Aspirations, and the Islamic Center

By John Sparks

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken some heat for his support of building an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site.  Has the mayor contributed to that criticism?  Hear what political reporter Jay DeDapper had to say about this and Bloomberg’s job performance when he spoke with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.

Jay DeDapper

Jay DeDapper

John Sparks
Jay, as we’re speaking, the Marist Poll is out in the field polling New Yorkers on how they would rate the job Mayor Bloomberg is doing in office. I know you talk to the Marist people frequently, as do a lot of other folks, just curious what you hear about how he’s doing on the job and how you feel about his performance in his third term.

Jay DeDapper
Well, I think his people think that he’s doing the job that he has always set out to do, which is to stick by his guns.  He certainly has done unpopular things and stood for unpopular things on principle like stopping smoking or banning smoking in bars. That was an early thing that he did that a lot of people I think thought, “You’re crazy. It’s going to kill you politically.”  And, it didn’t hurt him, and I think that he and his people have taken from that or took from that many years ago that a man of principle is someone that voters will reward in the long run.  That being said, I think right now after the flap about the Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan and all the attention that that’s gotten, the fact that the mayor has been a very staunch proponent of allowing that Islamic Center to be built even when a majority of the public in many cases has been shown to not approve of that, I think it’s probably going to hurt him to some degree.  But remember, he’s not running for anything. He has won three times. He has shown no intention running for a fourth, and even if he were to, nobody’s going to remember this by that time.  I think New Yorkers feel like they do about a lot of their mayors they have in the past that he’s our guy and unless he crosses us in some meaningful way, he’s our guy and he’s doing a pretty good job.

John Sparks
You know there’s been some misinformation about this Islamic Community Center. I know that some folks confuse it, think it’s a mosque, and so do you think that that misinformation contributes to the attitude toward the mayor’s support of it?

Jay DeDapper
Yeah, I mean absolutely.  I think the mayor went on Jon Stewart, for instance, and called it a mosque.  That doesn’t help his cause of trying to be someone who stands up for the First Amendment rights, religious liberty, and things like that.  He has never been the best spokesman for his own causes politically.  He has lots of misstatements. He’s never the best with words, and I think this is a case where he hasn’t helped his own cause. A lot of people think it’s a mosque.  A lot of people think it’s on Ground Zero, it’s being built in the actual site of where the twin towers fell, where neither of those things is the case, and I think the Mayor has not really stood very firmly about the misunderstandings and the misstatements and instead pushed this position that “hey, it’s about religious freedom.”  Well, it’s about religious freedom, but at least get people to get their facts straight, and I don’t think he’s done a particularly good job of being a spokesman for get your facts straight.

John Sparks
Now you alluded a moment ago to his political future, do you think he has any ambitions for president or any other higher office?

Jay DeDapper
I mean, I think it’s a fool who would say that a guy like Mike Bloomberg would never run for another office.  That being said, he has said that he doesn’t — he’s not really thinking about it, and he’s going to leave public office after this — public life — public office anyway after this — after his third term, and he’s going to run his foundation.  You can take him at his word, but he did say that after — in the middle of his second term, and then he forced to change in term limits so he could run for a third term.  So, I don’t think anything’s off the table with a guy like Mike Bloomberg.  He hasn’t made it in business and made it in politics by being predictable, and I think that holds true.  Does he have ambitions?  Sure, lots of people have ambition.  Does he practically have a path to the presidency or really even to another term as mayor?  I’m not so sure about that.  He probably could figure out a way to run a fourth term for mayor.  President, it’s just hard to see how a guy who is by all accounts around the rest of the country would be measured as a moderate to liberal Democrat, it’s hard to see how a guy running as an Independent but having the views that he has would be able to collect enough votes to beat mainstream party candidates, and I don’t think the Republicans are going to welcome him back into the fold, and I would – – it’d be hard for me to see how Democrats would bring him into the party when they – – when they’re going to be coming off of a Barack Obama presidency.

John Sparks
Thinking about being mayor of New York City, there’s still a significant amount of time left in his third term.  But I’m just curious though, we got folks lining up that would like that job?

Jay DeDapper
Oh yeah, absolutely. The race for mayor for 2013 started on election day of 2009, and the Democrats have been lined up.  Remember, Democrats haven’t won the mayoralty since David Dinkins in 1993 — in 1989, excuse me. It’s been an incredibly long dry spell, and Democrats are salivating at the opportunity to run in a city that is overwhelming Democratic and not have to face an opponent that has a billion dollars at his disposal.  So, yeah, they’ve been lining up. They’re lining up their supporters.  They’re lining up financial support. The race began on Election Day in 2009.

John Sparks
We have an off-year Congressional election coming up. There are also some other races on the New York ballot, but I don’t get the sense that these races are creating a whole lot of interest among voters. Is that the case?

Jay DeDapper
Yeah, I think the only interesting race is going to be the gubernatorial race, and the reason for that is that there’s a guy named Cuomo running.  I don’t think any of the other races are getting a lot of attention in New York anyway right now whether it’s the comptroller race or any of the others.   I don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of interest in those, and polling indicates that Andrew Cuomo’s way out in front as well.  I mean, it’s a heavily Democratic state, and it takes quite an effort for a Republican to win a statewide office, at least in the last 10 or 15 years.  George Pataki being the last of them able to do that. But I don’t think… I think the only marquee race this time around is the governor’s race, and I think it’s a marquee only because there’s a marquee name in it, a marquee political name, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how voters after all these years of rejecting Mario Cuomo for a fourth term, how they embrace or fail to embrace his son, Andrew.

John Sparks
So at this point from the numbers that you see, you think he’s got a significant lead, will not have any problems?

Jay DeDapper
Yeah, I mean even in this anti-incumbent year where Republicans and Independents and Tea Party activists and people like that seem to be gaining a lot of traction, it’s really hard to see how in New York with it’s overwhelming Democratic registration advantage, how a guy like Andrew Cuomo is going to lose to either of the two Republicans who are running, especially when the no-name Republican is a guy who has some Tea Party support and he’s closing the gap against Rick Lazio who is kind of the standard bearer for the Republican party.  He ran against Hillary Clinton for God’s sake.  I mean, this is a guy who is a real party Republican who has done the right things. He’s falling on the sword, who’s taken the shots for the party, and now, he’s got the shot at running for governor, and the primary looks like it could be a lot squeakier than he was expecting. It’s hard to see how Andrew Cuomo doesn’t claim the advantage in that kind of intra-party scrimmage on the Republican side.

John Sparks
It’s interesting you mentioned Lazio. He has been trying to make a lot of political hay out of the Islamic Community Center as I recall.

Jay DeDapper
Well, you know when you are a politician who’s not getting any press, and someone hands you an issue like this, and you recognize that you can get on the cable news networks, and you can get in the tabloids, and you can get your name splashed all over, you do it, and I’m not saying he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. I’m sure he does, but this is an issue that has in a slow news vacuum of August, and there have been many of those over the years, this is the issue that has taken center stage.  For him as a politician not to take advantage of that would be malpractice.

9/10: September 11th Nine Years Later

By John Sparks

Nine years have passed since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Are New York City residents concerned about another attack?  How much progress has been made in rebuilding the World Trade Center site?  Political reporter Jay DeDapper spoke with the Marist Poll’s John Sparks.

Jay DeDapper

Jay DeDapper

Read the full transcript below.

John Sparks
Let’s talk about Mayor Bloomberg’s predecessor just for a moment, Rudy Giuliani.  Rudy was certainly at center stage following the attacks on 9/11.  You and I were there at NBC covering it that day, and we’ve got the ninth anniversary of the attack coming up next week.  The Marist Poll asked New Yorkers if they’re worried about another major terrorist attack in New York City.  I’m no longer in New York. I don’t have any idea.  You are.  Any thoughts on that?  Are they in fact concerned about another attack?

Jay DeDapper
I mean, I haven’t seen any polling on this, so this is more of a gut check than it is something based on any data.  I don’t really hear that.  I don’t hear it from anybody in conversation that I overhear, in conversations I have with people, in policymakers, in cocktail party conversations, whatever.  Wherever I hear people talking or wherever I talk to people, I don’t really hear that. I think that that moment, that that fear has, as you would expect, has ebbed pretty substantially even.  And, the reason I think that is that with what happened in Times Square not long ago with the truck that — the pickup truck attempted bombing, it was very, very quickly that things returned to normal.  It wasn’t like after 9/11 where normal was many years later.  It was within a week people were back in Times Square.  People weren’t talking about it, being worried about it.  People… you didn’t hear people fretting about what would happen, put together your emergency kit.  Do you have your plans in case something happens?  None of that was discussed as it was after 9/11, so I don’t think that New Yorkers right now are particularly concerned about that.

John Sparks
Now, what’s going on down at the site of the Towers?  Where do things stand right now as far as any rebuilding?

Jay DeDapper
The rebuilding has obviously taken a very long time to get going. But the Freedom Tower, which is the — kind of the centerpiece of this in terms of the rebuilding that is most obvious and most visible … the steel is well above the ground.  There’s several hundred feet above ground, and it is on track for an opening in a couple of years.  They’ve signed some big leases to have tenants in there, and there has been talk among private real estate interest in buying into it, in buying some sort of a way into it from the Port Authority because … you’ve got to believe that private real estate investors are interested.  They see this as a viable building.  That’s the commercial side of it. There are three other towers. One of them is also going up.  Two others are delayed, and there’s a long battle that’s been going on with Larry Silverstein who’s the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, and that has not been resolved. All these years later, two of the four towers, who knows if they’re ever going to be built.  The actual site, though remember, most of the actual site is going to be turned over to the memorial.  And if you go there now, you can see not just the outlines of the reflecting pools that are going to be built where the two towers stood, you actually see the entire form. They are very far along on the memorial. It took a very long time to build the understructure of this, because there’s parking garages, there’s security, there’s a PATH train system, there’s all kinds of things that had to be built underground. They have done that, and they’re at ground level and the memorial, if you go down there now, the memorial, you can see what the memorial’s going to look like because the structure is in place.  It’s going to take awhile to finish, but they’re on track to open that on time now as well.  So, there’s been real progress in the last year and a half, real visible progress, that I think for people who visit the site, I think it’s reassuring that finally they’ve gotten past the morass of four or five years of nothing happening, and things seem to be happening pretty quickly now.

John Sparks
As you and I are speaking, Marist is also polling asking people if they feel the government has done too much or too little take care of the families of the 9/11 victims and those first responders who worked in the days following the attacks. We really don’t have an idea of what those results will tell us. Do you have any feel for this from the people that you talk to?

Jay DeDapper
Well, I mean nationally or locally, I think that it’s hard to find …  you would be hard pressed to find people who are going to vociferously talk about how the first responders haven’t — we haven’t done enough for the first responders. Whether people think privately though that that is the case, I don’t know, and I don’t know if you’re going to find that in polling. It’s a super sensitive issue. It’s a live wire still. I think that we’ve seen, at least politically, that bills that have been advanced to fund to the tune of several billion dollars additional medical help and other kinds of help for first responders that were there and that are suffering medically, I think you’ve seen opposition of that and politically from politicians who aren’t from the Northeast and aren’t from New York. Whether that reflects a broader measure of their constituents’ feeling like this is welfare for first responders on Ground Zero, I don’t know. I don’t know that you’re going to get that answer in polling, but certainly there has been evidence of that, at least politically there’s been evidence of what’s been called first responder fatigue by some commentators.

John Sparks
I’d like to ask you one more thing.  A number of folks I talk to miss seeing you at NBC and I’m just curious about what kind of things you’re up to these days.

Jay DeDapper
I’ve been running a production company, video production company, and we’re making videos, especially for the Web, for lots of clients — nonprofits, organizations, companies, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to make videos that are different than what I’ve done for the 20-25 years I was in television news. Branching out from everything from doing cooking things with chefs to a biography of a huge soccer star for a sports network, so it’s been a lot of fun doing different kinds of things and I’m enjoying that a lot.

John Sparks
So if anyone was interested in engaging your services, do you have a Web site, a company name?

Jay DeDapper
Yeah, dedappermedia.com.  Last name D-E-D-A-P-P-E-R Media dot.com.  That’s the Web site.

9/9: Top Ten Reasons Cuomo Has Not Endorsed a Democrat for AG

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

Here are the top 10 reasons Andrew Cuomo has not endorsed a candidate for the Democratic primary for Attorney General:

miringoff-caricature-43010.  Thinks all five of the candidates are equally qualified
9.    Unaware of candidates’ shoe size so logically doesn’t know who would best follow in his footsteps
8.    Says he doesn’t know enough about the position to make a selection
7.    Doesn’t think any is likely to be the greatest attorney general in the greatest state in the only world we know
6.   Plans to write in Bob Abrams… what was good enough for Mario…
5.   Never endorses in Democratic primaries except in the summer of ‘82
4.   Is still thinking it through
3.  Promised he would pick Eliot Spitzer to fill a vacant AG seat in exchange for Spitzer’s vote this November
2.  Wants to leave his options open in case he changes his mind about running for governor to stay as attorney general
1.  Thought the Marist Poll would have already identified the front-runner instead of ducking a difficult prediction

Irwin Redlener, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Irwin Redlener, M.D., is professor of Clinical Population and Family Health and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and is one of ten members of the congressionally-established National Commission on Children and Disasters. Dr. Redlener speaks and writes extensively on national disaster preparedness policies, pandemic influenza, the threat of terrorism in the U.S. and related issues.

Dr. Irwin Redlener

Dr. Irwin Redlener

Dr. Redlener is also president and co-founder of the Children’s Health Fund and has expertise in health care systems, crisis response and public policy with respect to access to health care for underserved populations.

Dr. Redlener, a pediatrician, has worked extensively in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina where he helped establish ongoing medical and public health programs. He also organized medical response teams in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 and has had disaster management leadership experience internationally and nationally. He is the author of Americans At Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared For Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now, published in August 2006 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo is the author of First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives and First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents.

Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo

In Ms. Angelo’s more than 25 year career with Time Magazine, she has covered the White House and other current events, both, domestically and internationally.

8/13: The Eco-friendly Way

By John Sparks

Jim Motavalli has been writing on the environment for more than a decade.  His work has appeared in the Mother Nature Network, E Magazine, and the New York Times.  In this interview with The Marist Poll’s John Sparks, he talks about organic food, what people can do to preserve our environment, and the environmental efforts of the Obama administration.  Listen to or read the interview below.

Jim Motavilli

Jim Motavalli

John Sparks
Jim, the Marist Poll recently conducted a national survey, and we asked the American public to think about how they live, the things they buy, specifically to help the environment.  76% told us that they do a fair amount to help the environment.  Do you think that folks are really conscious and really doing that much to help out with our environment these days?

Jim Motavalli
No, I think people tend to exaggerate their environment. I think their involvement.  I think people tend to think that putting out their recycling bin is like being a pretty good environmental soldier.

John Sparks
When I read things like the BP oil spill, global warming, threats to wildlife, I confess that I sometimes feel that the battle to preserve our planet is lost. Is it too late to get involved and start trying to be more eco-friendly?

Jim Motavalli
No, I mean it’s — if you were to just look at it: Is it too late to stop global warming? It definitely is.  Global warming’s going to happen whether we continue to burn fossil fuels or not.  If we could stop tomorrow, we’d still have a hundred years of global warming, because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.  But, if you’re thinking about leaving any kind of long-term legacy for the planet, the planet certainly is savable.  Anything we do I think is reversible, so I don’t think … I mean a lot of things are probably irreversible, but saving human life on the planet isn’t.

John Sparks
Does living green have to be difficult?  I’m just curious what some of the little things that people could do to help out might be.

Jim Motavalli
I don’t think it has to be — being like eating everything local, for example, that’s pretty difficult.  People have tried to do that, and I think you end up going through so many hoops, it’s not even worth it.  You have to define what is local and all that kind of thing, and having zero environmental footprint is pretty hard. I think, but really reducing your impact, I think people can do little things that have that effect.

John Sparks
What advice might you have for those that would like to be more eco-friendly but just don’t where to begin?

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think you should look up, and there’s a lot of websites that would help you do this.  Understand where your main planetary impacts are.  Like everybody has a carbon footprint, and certain things like the car you drive has a lot to do with how your carbon footprint is, and you can reduce that in a lot of not too difficult ways.

John Sparks
One of the things that we asked folks had to do with gardening and this business of organic food.  First of all, 48% of our respondents said they personally have a garden where they grow their fruits and vegetables.  Does that number seem inflated to you?

Jim Motavalli
40% say they have a garden?

John Sparks
Yeah.

Jim Motavalli
Well I’m sure that they grow some, they grow some things.  Not… I don’t think 40% grow all their own vegetables. That would seem inflated.  Growing some, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.

John Sparks
I wanted to ask you specifically about organic food, and the Department of Agriculture released a study.  It said that last year sales of organic food were up to $21 billion.  Back in 1997 it was just a little over 3.5 billion.  We go to the supermarket, we encounter labels in the produce section which say “organic.”  When you see that label that says “organic,” what exactly does that mean?

Jim Motavalli
The organic standard is a federally recognized or federally enforced standard that you cannot use unless you’re certified organic.  The word “natural” doesn’t mean anything, but the word “organic” does, actually for about ten years now, have an actual legal meaning.  So, it means that it met the federal organic standards, which are pretty good.  So, it does mean quite a lot.

John Sparks
What are some of those standards?

Jim Motavalli
They’re very detailed and very technical, but it has…you’re not allowed to use pesticides, and you’re not allowed to use herbicides, and it has to be for a certain number of years you didn’t use any of those things.

John Sparks
One thing the organic label usually means is higher prices for those products, and I’m just curious why that is.

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think it is more expensive to farm organically. It is more expensive to do organic pest control, for instance, and generally you’re talking about smaller scale operations that don’t have the economies of scale you get with big factory farms.  The cost of production is a lot higher.

John Sparks
And no chances of prices coming down then on organic foods?

Jim Motavalli
Well, prices have come down as organic food has become part of the factory food system because you have many large organic farms now that have swallowed up…I mean you can look at something like on the retail end, you’ve got Whole Foods, which has swallowed up a number of smaller chains, and you have large organic producers swallow up smaller organic producers, so the end result is larger companies which do have more economies of scale. You also have a lot of these companies now selling into supermarkets where they used to just sell into health food stores, and you have these enormous Whole Foods-type natural food supermarkets.  So, there’s a lot – – the market is a lot bigger, and I think all that has resulted – – and there’s more competition, all of which has resulted in lower prices.  So, prices are a lot lower than they used to be, even though it’s still a fair amount higher. You can walk into any supermarket now and buy organic milk, and it’s not that much more than regular milk.

John Sparks
The Obama administration has been pushing for legislation that would create new clean energy jobs and a more sustainable energy policy.  I’m just curious your take on what passage of that kind of legislation would mean for the everyday American.  We’ve got a pretty tough economy as it is right now.

Jim Motavalli
A lot of it depends on what the legislation is.  It’s been through many different changes.  The current form of it does not include any sort of cap and trade system, and it’s quite a bit weaker than it used to be. I was for the stronger forms of those bills that did include cap and trade, so I think…there’s lots of good things in those bills, like for example, I cover the car industry quite a bit, and there’s provisions that would create something like 15 initial deployment areas for EVs in which you would get fairly major subsidies if you bought them. That’s part of that bill.  There’s lots of good provisions in it, but on the whole, it’s weaker than it could be.

John Sparks
You’ve written quite a lot about the automobile industry, and I know you contribute to the New York Times, and you have a professional relationship with Mother Nature Network.  When did you become interested in environmental issues yourself?

Jim Motavalli
I’m going to have to trace that back to about 1994 when I first started writing for E/The Environmental Magazine.  Before…actually before that, I had been editor of a alternative weekly paper where I did a lot of – – I did some environmental reporting anyway.  As a result of that, I started getting interested in the issues, but then I got quite a bit more interested when I became editor of E Magazine, and that was like 1994.

John Sparks
I presume that Mother Nature Network, their website, might be a good place for folks to start…

Jim Motavalli
Oh definitely, yeah, it’s very – – there’s a lot of stuff on there.

John Sparks
Any new adventures or projects that you’re involved with you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jim Motavalli
I’ve started a new piece on greenwashing for America Online. I do a regular thing for AOL.  I’m also the blogger for Car Talk at NPR.  You know, Click and Clack, most people are familiar with them, and I have a new professional relationship with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, so I do some things with them.  I’ve been doing as much…in addition to the car writing, I’ve been doing a lot of general interest environmental reporting on a number of different issues. Like for instance, I wrote a story for Knowledge at Wharton recently about carbon fraud. It’s amazing that even though I support the idea of cap and trade, there has been a fair amount of fraud in cap and trade operations in Europe.

John Sparks
Anything else you’d like to add before we call it a day?

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think people are making environmental progress. It’s kind of slow and halting, but I do think we are making a good effort.  I think President Obama is the most environmentally friendly president we’ve had in a very long time.  He has all kinds of obstacles in getting environmental legislation through, but I think he has pointed the EPA and the Department of the Interior in the right direction.  All that has made a big difference.  And, I think he’s enacted some very good initiatives that don’t necessarily require Congressional approval, so I think he’s been a very positive force in environmental action.

7/28: Sports Ethics

By John Sparks

This season there have been an increasing number of empty seats at major league ballparks, and the television audience continues to decrease. Could baseball have finally out-priced itself for most fans? And, are ethics compromised when it comes to sports? The Marist Poll’s John Sparks discusses these issues with Richard Lapchick, Founder and Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport at the University of Central Florida.

Dr. Richard Lapchick

John Sparks
Rich, 54% of the American public tell us they do not follow baseball at all as a national past time. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well, John, to be honest with you, when I hear the number 54% don’t, that means 46% do. To me that’s a substantial amount of people. I’m not sure if more than 55 or 60% of the public will say they’re great sports fans and that follow any particular sport, so I’m not sure that that tells us that baseball has a smaller following. I think that 40 is almost half of the people say they follow baseball, that’s pretty substantial.

John Sparks
Now I watch games this year, and seen a lot of empty seats. We’ve heard complaints about high ticket prices, concessions, parking, and we’ve seen multimillion dollar player salaries; yet, as I said, attendance seems to be down. Could it be that the American public feels that there’s just much too greed in baseball?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I don’t have any doubt, John, that the public that if they rationally compared the salaries of teachers and teachers who are being laid off in huge numbers around the country in the recession to the kinds of contracts that are signed in baseball and now with the NBA’s free agency, you can pretty much pick the sport, it’s true in all sports, that the public would say, “Yes, the dollars being spent in baseball or in any other sport are enormous.” And I think that perhaps a bigger factor, however, because that never really affected fans coming to games before, I think the biggest factor here is we’re having a lot of people who are baseball fans and fans of other sports who are deeply affected by the economy and simply can’t afford to go to the games.

John Sparks
Undoubtedly. I read an article this week in the paper, the Nokona Leather Company in Texas, it’s the only place in the United States now where baseball gloves are made. All others are made where labor is cheap overseas. This gets into our economic situation. I’m just wondering this picture of people working for pennies to make the tools of the trade for players who make millions, what does that say about us as a nation?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well outsourcing our manufacturing process is hardly limited to baseball, basketball, and football. This is something that has plagued the American economy and the American worker for more than two decades now. I think everybody here would prefer that these things were produced in the United States. I think the reality of the economy is under capitalism, we’re going to go wherever we can produce the products cheaper, and the cheap labor doesn’t exist in the United States as it is overseas.

John Sparks
Rich, let’s talk about college sports. We now have a Big 12 Conference that has 10 teams and a Big Ten Conference which has 12 teams because of the switches being made by universities that are seeking more money, better television contracts. How out of hand has college football become? There’s just tremendous need for money, money, money.

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I think recent switches of a few teams in college sport, which of course was anticipated there’d be much bigger switches in the Big 12 Conference, might actually evaporate. I think it was one more explanation point on the generally accepted assumption that college sport has become a big business in the United States and decisions are made on how much money is going to be spent and how much money’s going to be earned by college sports much more than the competitive nature of the games.

John Sparks
Well I know that colleges, like everyone else, they’re hard strapped for money and they of course see Division I athletics as being a good source of income. But have we out priced our tickets for major college sports? Is there a point where folks will say, “Enough’s enough”?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well there’s definitely going to be a place where people say that “I can’t afford it and I’m not going to take my family of four to see Kentucky play because I just can’t afford the tickets anymore,” but there are of course those hard-core fans and corporate dollars are filling skyboxes and driving the industry not only in college sport but in professional sports also and I think that — I think to predict what’s happening is difficult under this — under these economic circumstances. I think if this continues after the recession and fans stay away and fans don’t go to games and don’t buy licensed products, et cetera, then I think we’ll realize that the drive for money above all else has cost us the most beloved part of or the part of the beloved nature of sports is we have people who play the sports and people who are fans of those who play the sports.

John Sparks
Is this pressure to make more money the reason why a lot of college coaches and university officials will keep students on their teams after they’ve been arrested for criminal behavior?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I think coaches want to win. They realize that they’re going to play better, so they’re going to have more chances either to increase their contracts and have a little more longevity at a particular place or get a better job at a different place, so there are coaches who will turn a blind eye to what I think is a terrible situation. Especially in the cases of domestic violence when an athlete gets an act of sexual aggression against a woman, I think that’s the one set of circumstances where there should be an automatic banning of the players for at least a certain period of time and we see players banned for other things. I think the most egregious thing that men do in this society is batter women, not just athletes. I don’t think athletes do it in disproportionate numbers, but I think when they do there should be consequences for it.

John Sparks
Rich, you head up the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports. Can you tell our listeners what the Institute is and some of the things that it does?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
John, we publish 24 studies a year and try to generate an average of a book a year on things that we think are — where there’s missing information in sport. We published a racial and gender report card which analyzes the hiring practices in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and all college sport. We’re adding this year the U.S. Tennis Association. We do a report card for the Associated Press affiliated newspapers and dot-com sites, about 405 papers in the country, on who is — who are our editors, copyeditors, writers, and columnists in our major papers and dot-com sites. Do graduation rate studies. Do Division 1A programs around the country, break them down by race and sport. We also do the hiring report card for the Black Coaches Association and Women’s Basketball, Men’s Division 1 football and athletic — Division 1 athletic directors.

John Sparks
Rich, it’s always a pleasure talking to you, appreciate your time today.

7/15: Instant Replay in the MLB

By John Sparks

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
-Alexander Pope

sparks-caricature-440A whopping 73% of baseball fans have told the Marist Poll that they like the idea of expanding the use of instant replay in baseball.

For all of its shortcomings, television coverage of the baseball games has given the armchair fans the best seat in the house for close plays and determining whether a pitch is in the strike zone.

It’s also put more pressure on the umpires to make the correct calls, and when they don’t, it puts them in the hot seat and casts a shadow on the integrity of the game.

We know the men in blue are human just as we are.  They make mistakes.  If it’s a judgment call, the call is not subject to dispute.  If the ump errs and makes a ruling contrary to the rulebook, that’s another case and can cause the game to be played under protest.

So, should we apply the technology of television’s instant replay to become the final word on a judgment call?

I’m not so sure.  I have mixed feelings.

I’m all for correct calls, but I’m also concerned about long games.  I’m not crazy about the game being halted while officials study video replays on close calls.

Baseball showcases our shortcomings.  We post defensive errors for all to see in the line score.  Players in the field are so separated that there is never much doubt when one makes a mistake and which one that is.  On the field, a batter who fails 70 percent of the time is a hero who bats .300.

Some players and their mistakes become legends.  Ask Bill Buckner or Ralph Branca.  Sometimes, close calls which could go either way become the difference in the outcome of the game.  Sometimes, the emotions associated with them get the best of a team and turn the tide as well.

So, will the instant replay change all that?  No doubt it would make a difference and certainly correct egregious errors.  But, it won’t correct all of them.  There’s always the problem of the different angles, and sometimes they can show different results.

Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” We saw that illustrated last month when first base umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Joyce admitted his error, and Galarraga forgave him.  It was the right thing to do, and it was classy.

Had the instant replay been in effect to overrule Joyce’s call it would have been a bizarre way to end such a triumph and undoubtedly would have taken some time to employ.  It’s hard to picture the fans waiting around in the stands in suspense to learn the outcome.

Regardless, I suspect MLB will adopt the instant replay in some form or fashion. It probably won’t be perfect and will be refined over time.  It may even bring about some new issues which we haven’t even thought about.

7/14: Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

One could argue that digital technology has helped make us better multitaskers.  These days, we can simultaneously check our e-mails, monitor our Twitter feeds and listen to a podcast, all while eating our breakfast.  Wouldn’t it make sense that such a capacity for divided attention is making our brains stronger?

goldman-caricature-430Unfortunately, that might not be the case.  Experiments comparing the ability of heavy multitaskers – thus designated based on self-reports about their technology use – to non-multitaskers, found that the latter group actually performs better on certain cognitive tasks. In a Stanford study, cited in a recent New York Times article, subjects participated in a test that required them to ignore extraneous inputs, a measure of their ability to filter out distractions.  (You can take a test on ignoring distractions here.)  In another test, participants had to switch between tasks, showing their ability to adjust to new information and task demands on the fly.  (Take a task-switching test here.)  In both cases, the non-multitaskers performed better than heavy multitaskers.  Based on these and other experiments, the scientists surmised that multitaskers are more responsive to new incoming information.  On the positive side, one might say the multitaskers are more alert to new stimuli; on the negative side, one could claim their multitaskers’ focus is more easily disrupted.

As with many scientific studies, the tests in this case might not truly reflect real world situations.  A cognitive test in a laboratory could fall short of replicating the experience of juggling computer applications.  As always, more study is needed to examine, among other things, how different amounts of multitasking affect performance on cognitive tasks, and whether the recency of one’s immersion in technology affects the ability to direct attention.  Nonetheless, it would appear that heavy use of gadgets and computers is influencing our brain function.

On the plus side, there is also evidence that screen technology benefits certain cognitive skills. It has been demonstrated in the laboratory that playing action video games improves visual attention in several ways.  Gamers show the ability to process more visual inputs than non-gamers, the ability to process inputs across a greater field of view, and a better ability to process inputs presented in rapid succession.  Considering the deficits shown by people with disabilities and the demonstrated erosion of certain cognitive skills among the elderly, perhaps, action video games – or programs that mimic them – can be used therapeutically.

Above all else, the experiments reveal the apparent power of technology to mold our brains, for better and for worse. The question, however, may be whether we can harness our gadgets’ power to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm.