Thursday, March 1

Understanding Arab Motivation

‘Is there any corruption in America?” asked a Berber tribesman of Lawrence Rosen, a Princeton University anthropologist who had traveled to a small village in Morocco’s Mid-Atlas mountains at the tribesman’s invitation. Rosen had spent five years living and working in Arabian cultures in Morocco, Tunisia, Malaysia, and Egypt.

“Yes, we have corruption,” responded Rosen, and he told of a governmental contracts kickback scandal. “Phah!” responded the Berbers, “this is not corruption, this is merely business.”

Rosen then recited the story of Watergate. “Ah, that is merely politics,” came the reply. Finally Rosen cited a true scandal of massive government nepotism. “That is simply family obligation,” answered the Berber. Then turning to his fellows he said. “You see brothers why America is such a strong country — they have no corruption.”

In point of fact, Rosen maintains, Arab society has a strong sense of honor, but also corruption that rivals and even exceeds that of the West. “The real difference is that Arab culture is based on a differing set of premises that we simply do not understand,” he says.

Rosen speaks to the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce on “A Brief Stroll Through Arab Society and Culture” on Thursday, March 1, at 11:30 a.m. at the Marriott Princeton. Cost: $40. Call 609-924-1776 or visit Rosen’s talk summarizes his soon to be published book “Representing Islam” (University of Chicago Press).

A native of Cincinnati, Rosen graduated from Brandeis with a bachelor’s in anthropology in l963. He then attended the University of Chicago, earning degrees in both law and graduate anthropology. He was invited to teach at Princeton University, “but I found the place kind of strange,” he says, “and went to teach at Duke.”

Apparently within two years Princeton seemed less strange, and Rosen joined its anthropology department, where he has remained for 30 years. His studies focus on the intertwining of law and culture pertaining to the American family, the American Indian society, and Arabic society. His primary field work has been in North Africa.

Rosen’s Near-Eastern publications include “Law as Culture in Muslim Society,” “Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community,” and “Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society: Bargaining for Reality.”

The nightly news flashes Arabian vignettes, most commonly jostling hordes of robed and turbaned people loudly grieving as a coffin passes, or celebrating around the ruins of a bombed out marketplace, or fragments of a young suicide bomber and his victims.

Rosen points out that these carefully crafted media images no more aptly represent Arabs than a blazing phalanx of M-16s depicts all America.

These vignettes, however atypical, are only results. The fascinating interpretations of the Berber tribesmen are only results. To truly comprehend Arabic actions and responses, says Rosen, we’ve got to look at the causes — what gives person standing in this society, how is it achieved, and what values are honored?

Web of obligation. In Yemen an American friend of Rosen’s has been shopping at a grocery store daily for several months. Finally the store owner confronts the Westerner and asks: “Why do you not trust me, paying upfront with each purchase?” The stunned Westerner stammers that his on-spot payment is a method he sees as both custom and a courtesy.

To this the Arab store owner replies: “You are not trusting me to carry you with credit. Someday, you may not be able to pay. I want to feel that you would still come to my store and trust me to supply you until that day you could pay.” This logic struck the Westerner, and probably most of us, as rather skewed.

“For the Arabic society, in lieu of formal rites of passage, people grow to adulthood based on the web of interdependencies they achieve,” says Rosen. The more people who depend on you, and with whom you are allied, the wealthier you are. Individuals and obligations are the currency — not cash on hand.

A young adult may weave new alliances into his network in any number of ways. Rosen tells of a dirt poor north African farmer whose poverty forced him to sell his farm. But instead of selling off to the rich consortium in the city, he arranged for all of the neighboring farmers to buy a piece and enhance their holdings. This liquidating farmer has just spun a new wealth of obligation into his networks.

Likewise, alliances can be achieved through marriage, personal connection, neighbors, money transactions, and hard-sought personal connections. Those people seen surging around a coffin with what Americans might call unseemly grief are simply establishing their connection to the deceased, his family, and his entire network.

Traditionally, a substantial percentage of Arab society was nomadic. They sojourned in a very harsh land. Knowing whose house one could enter safely and where one could count on resources was more important than the fatness of one’s purse.

Morphing marketplace. The merits of such web building are obvious, but there’s a catch. These interpersonal webs shift frequently and require constant maintenance. Terms like “my friend,” “my partner,” “your devoted client,” or “my trusted ally” are, as Rosen puts it, “only offers in the social marketplace.” These unforged offers must be tried and tempered by a witnessed oath, a tradition of trade, or an actual battle. Until then they remain invalidated.

“This is one reason why we fail in Iraq,” says Rosen. “We pump hands, write contracts, and think we have coupled these people to us with hoops of steel. In fact, they are waiting for the relationship to prove itself.”

Poetry vs capital. It has been said that to see where a culture’s power lies, one needs only to visit its taverns or coffee houses. In America it is the rich uncle who sits at the head of the table. The man of wealth or fame is the one whose jokes we listen to quietly and laugh at appreciatively. In the Arab world, rhetoric holds a greater sway. Where Arabs gather it is the poet whose voice is attended to appreciatively for the quality of his words. The poets are the ones who confirm what is honorable and what is corrupt.

“The primary corruption in Arabic society,” Rosen says, “is not sharing. The man who hides assets so he will not have to share with his family is seen as a criminal.”

He cites an event in a small village in which it became necessary to dig a sewage system. Every male was called upon to contribute labor, but one well off resident vowed to hire another to do his work. Immediately a local poet denounced this action. He accused the man of hoarding the real wealth of his personal and community involvement. In the end, the man of fiscal means carried his own pick to the site and dug his share. This is no morality tale, merely Arabic social maneuvering. “If you can get the local poets to talk democracy, Iraq will have democracy. If not, all the American TV propaganda will ever be useless,” says Rosen.

Tilt into terror. In recent years a real deprivation of resources has limited Arabian methods of building traditional networks. There is less to share, less with which to create obligations and connections, and therefore the chances to build one’s status are more constricted.

This comes at a time when American involvement in Arab affairs is at its greatest. The intrusion of Western oil money and a shift of population into cities has shattered the traditional means of upward mobility. It is natural, therefore, to see the Western insistence on cash-only trade as the cause of cultural breakdown. To what extent this is true remains debatable, but for many in Arabian cultures, it is real.

The young Arab individual seeking to rise sees his pathways narrowing.

“The horror of becoming a suicide bomber is seen to hold one real advantage,” says Rosen. “The person can establish and fix his place in society in a permanent way.” The blend of poverty and hopeless frustration has led some muddled souls to follow the misguiding drum of patriotism and fix their names with supposed immortality.

Arab culture’s sense of honor, sharing, and success through interdependency, as Rosen explains it, runs counter to the American ideal of self-reliance, and goes a long way toward illuminating the reason that Arab-American relations are a long way from where they should be.

— Bart Jackson

Calling All Entrepreneurs

Free workshops on business planning and financing designed to familiarize aspiring and existing small business owners with the Entrepreneurial Training Institute (ETI) take place on Thursday, March 1, at 6 p.m at the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library. Call 609-292-2952 for more information.

The workshops will provide more detail about the ETI program and focus on how the program can provide the tools for a small-business owner to succeed. They will also explore the importance of having a detailed business plan, the broad range of resources available to help a business get off the ground and grow, and the mentoring assistance offered to ETI graduates.

By attending one of the free workshops, interested individuals can decide if the ETI program is right for them before they register and pay a nonrefundable course fee. Local service providers and lender representatives will also attend each workshop to present information about their technical assistance services and resources.

The ETI program, an initiative of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), fosters the growth of small businesses, particularly woman-owned and minority-owned enterprises. More than 1,300 individuals have graduated from ETI and accumulated more than $26 million in funding to support their business ideas since the program began in 1992.

In ETI I, “Get Set for Entrepreneurship,” students focus on small-business feasibility, examining their business ideas, evaluating skills and risks, and identifying the resources necessary to move forward. ETI II, “Business Planning,” includes four highly structured, three-hour sessions that help students develop a formal business plan with feedback and coaching.

The Trenton session will be held on March 15 and 22 at the Mercer County Technical School, Assunpink Campus, 1085 Old Trenton Road.

Tuesday, March 6

Medicine: Affording What We Deserve

The only thing rising faster than our miraculous medical knowledge may be its price tag. In this age of total fix medicine, we can get new hearts, new hips, even improved brains, but can we afford them? As insurance costs rise exponentially, premium-shocked employers are seeking another way. For many a company, a consumer-directed system has brought relief. But does it really cut costs, or does it just pass them along?

Addressing the question, the Jersey Shore Association for Human Resources presents a program with a title alomst as long as a line item on a hospital bill: “Consumer Directed Healthcare and Consumer Directed Pensions in the New Millennium: An Era of Employee Responsibility” on Tuesday, March 6, at 8 a.m. at the Branches Restaurant in West Long Branch. Cost: $35. Visit Speakers include David Koch, president of Two Rivers Benefits, and Joseph Torella, vice president of Savoy Associates in Hamilton. The talk covers designer health insurance plans that are saving both employers and employees premium costs.

Koch has spent the last two decades scouring the fine print of insurance plans trying to save his clients money. He grew up in Philadelphia and attended Temple University, earning a bachelor’s in marketing in l983. At the urging of his brother, he took his first position in insurance with Confederated Life Insurance.

Koch sees consumer directed plans as “very much as the wave of the future. On the other hand, since it tends to cut brokers’ commissions, the idea might not leap into life as fast as we think.”

Those supporting the consumer directed healthcare plans (CDHP) state that they provide big cost savings to employers, and allow both companies and individuals to tailor their insurance, covering what they need, discarding what they do not. Both Koch and Torella have used variety of consumer directed plans to save clients money.

Pay for what you really need. Ten percent of insured people use 90 percent of healthcare payouts, and only 8 percent go to a hospital in a given year. As to personal costs, 20 percent of Americans spend zero dollars a year on healthcare. Another 70 percent spend less than $1,000 annually. This leaves only 10 percent requiring over $1,000 a year. “The goal of consumer driven plans,” says Torella, “is to not pay premiums for unused services, while providing catastrophic coverage for those who need it.”

In a CDHP this means putting the funds and the healthcare decisions increasingly in the hands of the consumer. These plans basically budget the coverage, allowing an individual to spend up to a fixed amount on any form of healthcare. He can “fritter” it away on designer drugs, or thriftily go generic. When that amount is used up, the partial-coverage plan kicks in. If the individual spends less than his year’s healthcare allotment, it is saved for future medical costs.

Detractors of the system say such plans discriminate against low income earners. They are not sure that the individuals exactly fritter healthcare money away. And many economists doubt that CDHP can work on a national, all-encompassing approach. But the proponents quietly point to the double-digit premium increases many employers are facing.

Toe in the water. The Healthcare Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) is jokingly referred to as the toe-in-the-water approach for the CDHP market. In this plan, rather than select an existing policy with all its benefits, the employer puts a fixed amount into a no-show account for each employee. This may or may not be increased by an employee co-pay. As the employee draws healthcare expenses from this budgeted amount, the employer reimburses the money.

Above the fixed limit, plans can get very creative. Some firms have established plans where the employees pay the next $1,000 in expenses, then the employer covers the next $2,000. All of this drastically cuts down the premium costs charged by the insurer.

Last year Koch designed an HRA for a 25-employee company whose healthcare premium had jumped from $280,000 to an impossible $350,000. In Koch’s HRA, if all 25 employees used their maximum initial benefit, the company would pay $245,000 for healthcare. At year’s end employees’ healthcare spending averaged only 24 percent of the $2,500 individual budget. The savings were enormous and coverage was complete.

The false copay. “So much of a premium’s real expense” says Torella, “is the cost of keeping co-pays down.” For those 8 percent of employees going to the hospital, holding the daily co-pay to $10 makes premiums skyrocket. What many HRA companies are doing in the catastrophic part of their plans is raising the co-pay to $200 daily. The employee pays it up front, then is reimbursed from the general fund. In short, the money saved goes to the employee, rather than to an insurance company’s premium.

Unions have used this technique for a long time. Instead of paying $1 for generic drugs and $2 for name brand drugs, they raise the co-pay to $20, and save a bundle on the premiums. The union member brings in a voucher to his local hall and gets reimbursed $19.

All out with HSA. The Healthcare Savings Account operates on the same principle as the HRA, but puts the money directly in the hands of the employee. The employee receives a set amount from his employer — about $2,800 for an individual or twice that amount for a family — or sets up his own HSA account. He chooses how to spend that money, and in case of a major illness, some catastrophic plan picks up the coverage.

The healthy 21-year-old worker may not have an annual physical. So instead of including one automatically in his premium, the worker is given the choice of getting one as part of his $2,800 initial funds. By using less healthcare, he can build up a hefty $10,000 health nest egg for that knee surgery he may need in a few years.

The federal government views money in an HSA as tax favored, and after age 65 it can even become part of an individual’s IRA funds. “But beware of spending these funds on non-medical events,” warns Torella. “The excise penalties can be very severe.”

To help EIC Associates, a Springfield-based heavy construction company, Koch dew up an HSA for its 180 employees. The total savings was over 20 percent.

While many are dazzled by the premium savings, others see the custom tailoring as a mere disguise of service cutting. Alain Ethoven, an economist from Stanford views CDHP’s as “primarily a cost shifting attempt. The essential factor is to have employers ease out of the healthcare business.”

Even more adamant, Karen Davis, executive director of the Commonwealth Fund, says that “CDHPs will lead us back to bare bones coverage and high deductibles with people not getting care.”

Certainly, encouraging a 21-year-old not to get an annual physical can scarcely been seen as the most prudent health track — both in terms of his health, and in terms of medical costs should an easily treatable illness be missed in its early stages. But the system is new, and no one denies that it needs work. As medical knowledge and healthcare costs continue to rise, we must seriously weigh all options.

— Bart Jackson

Wednesday, March 7

Founding Fathers & Sex Selection

America prides itself on accepting guidance from its 200-year-old Constitution, which has remained the final, immutable authority in an astounding variety of disputes. If an opinion can be gleaned from the writings of the hardheaded merchants, gentleman farmers, and ground-breaking scientists who founded the United States, we all listen. But in the face of technologies that even its visionary framers never dreamed of, can the instrument still guide the country’s laws?

For Diana Schaub, chairperson of political science at Loyola College in Maryland, the relevance of the Constitution is both clear and necessary. Schaub explains the links between new technologies and our nation’s most basic legal touchstone in “Bioethics: What Would the Founders Say?” on Wednesday, March 7, at 4:30 p.m. at Princeton University’s Friend Center. This free lecture is one in a series sponsored by the university’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Call 609-258-6333.

For the past 25 years Schaub has witnessed our culture’s advances and worked to have them find a place within our legal structure. She grew up in Minnesota and Ohio and earned a degree in political science from Kenyon College in l981 and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She has acted as editor of the foreign policy quarterly “National Interest.” An author on a wide range of political subjects, Schaub has a special fondness for the European enlightenment. Her book “Erotic Liberalism” discusses Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” and she is currently authoring another work on this 18th century philosopher.

Schaub says that stem cell research, with its use in medicine, is the major bioethical issue facing the nation, and adds that even the fertile minds of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin never foresaw swapping cells or engineering traits in an offspring. But determining exactly how these 18th century merchants, plantation owners, and part-time scientists might have viewed today’s issues is more than an intellectual, hairsplitting exercise.

These framers of the Constitution are the individuals who provided the grounding for the laws under which we live. We must necessarily seek all evidence of their intent. Critics have said that as gentlemen living exclusively in the culture of an 18th-century Christian God, their attitudes are biased — and obsolete in what has grown to be a multi-cultural country. Schaub, however, points to the resulting instrument and says that the U.S. Constitution still affords several guiding principles.

Freeing the future. From the Preamble, Schaub examines the phrase, “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity…” This phrase has been used countless times to curb activities of the current generation that might impinge upon the liberties of those yet unborn. Environmentalists have used it to bolster arguments against despoiling the earth and water their grandchildren will inherit.

In a series of letters between Jefferson and James Madison, Schaub has found how strong a concern this was for both founders. “No 30-year T-bills for Thomas Jefferson,” says Schaub. “He wanted no debt exceeding 20 years — no debt enslavement was to be passed on to the next generation.” In the realm of genetics, intergenerational rights can become a real concern. We are verging on the ability to change the shape of humanity — without the future generations’ consent.

Patents on whom? Right up there with the legislative duties of declaring war, regulating commerce, and maintaining a post office and navy, the Constitution includes the establishment of patents. In article I, section 8, which defines the scope of the legislative powers, the framers mandated Congress “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

Using this section and other laws, companies have legally patented certain genes and animals. “This brings up the question, are there things you cannot patent?” asks Schaub. “I certainly feel our founders would have thought so.”

She further cites that even by the time of President Abraham Lincoln the patent process was getting into some dicey areas. Lincoln, a very pro-science innovator, writes that while he believed in the Francis Bacon’s view that science exists to relieve suffering, he had reservations as to where certain patents were reaching.

Test tube slaves. The massive conflict behind the Civil War was legally summed up in the Constitution’s 13th amendment. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime…shall exist within the United States.” The entire 43-word amendment leaves no wriggle room.

“Yet we are going to have to redefine humanity and servitude in terms that were never on our founders’ horizon,” says Schaub. “Cells can be pre-implanted into an embryo with eugenic possibilities.”

While most of these implants are done to eliminate negative traits, such as a severely contorted spine, the traditionalists’ fear of creating “designer babies” is not without merit. In India and Cuba, Schaub points out, access to sex selection technology has altered the gender ratio to 120 males for every 100 females. The social ramifications of this are unknown. In the United States gender manipulation is less popular, but is increasingly being used as a family balancing tool — getting a new baby sister for the four brothers.

The question of whether we should encourage science to do all that it can do is a many-headed Hydra that will not go away. It is humanity’s urge that drives it and considerations of humanity that must curb it. While the founders did not envision the specifics of today’s world, they did foresee the challenges and gave us a very wise basic tool. It is up to us to decide how best to interpret it as each new technology brings with it ever more complicated legal and ethical issues.

– Bart Jackson

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