Apr 16

Handshake Etiquette Around the World

With the end of the semester quickly approaching, many of you are preparing to go abroad to study, intern, or just travel. As you maneuver around in a new country, social situations might leave you feeling awkward at best, and completely lost at worst. What you’ll quickly find is that first impressions can make or break the relationship you have with someone, and outside of the US Americans haven’t exactly be known to excel in this area. Well, one of my hobbies is to study cultural differences between countries, and I came across several articles comparing the ideal handshake around the world. Most introductions will start with some version of a handshake, so knowing what is expected of you prior to the shake is a much better strategy than awkwardly figuring it out as you go. It sets the conversation off on the right foot, and helps you avoid any misunderstandings or unintentional rudeness. Because really, nobody want’s to be one of “those” Americans.

So without further ado, here are some findings on “handshake etiquette” around the world:


Brazilians give a firm handshake that lasts longer than most Americans are used to. As awkward as it may seem, you’ll need to maintain strong eye contact throughout this entire exchange. Women should be greeted with a kiss on each cheek. Repeat these processes with both the men and women when you leave.


This is probably one of the hardest shakes for Americans, who are taught how to shake basically in the opposite way: Firm handshake, eye contact, let go as soon as you’re done shaking. But in China, you grip lightly and bow slightly. Do not squeeze their hand, that’s considered rude. Avoid direct eye contact and (without thinking awkward thoughts) hold onto the person’s hand a second or two after the handshake has finished. You should also greet the oldest people first–it’s a matter of respect.


Most other Asiatic countries, including Japan, follow China’s lead. But the Philippines is an exception. This time look them right in the eye and don’t bow. A weak grip, however is still necessary here. Embrace your inner wet noodle.


If you’re a woman and you’re shaking a man’s hand, you should offer your hand first. Typically, women don’t shake hands with other women. Make the shake firm and fast, and never ever use both hands.


Shake their hand quickly and lightly, every time you meet (you could have known them for 10 years, but you should still shake their hand). If you’re close (and feeling extra European), a kiss on both cheeks is also customary.


Unless it’s a business situation, you shouldn’t shake the hand of the opposite sex. It is considered  impolite, because it’s traditional for a man to kiss a woman’s hand–rather than shake it–in greeting. If you are going to shake, however, bulk up squeeze tight. If it feels like you’re crushing their bones, you’re doing it right.


This is another country where firm shakes are considered rude. But don’t be surprised if the person holds the handshake so long that it becomes more like they’re actually holding your hand. Hand-holding is a gesture of friendship for both sexes. It’s not uncommon to see two grown men strolling around and platonically holding hands.


As in China, the most senior person (either in age or status) should start the handshake, and the grip should be soft. Do NOT bury your free hand in your pocket, but feel free to grasp their right arm with your left hand as you shake.


You should only be shaking hands with people of the same gender. But go gentle, and only shake a woman’s hand if she offers it.


Again, start by shaking the hand of the oldest, or most senior, person there, and let them guide the process. Greet them by their title and expect the handshake to linger. Let them decide when it’s time to let go.


When you’re greeting elders or high-status people, grab onto the right wrist with the left hand during the shake. Say “Jambo” (How are you?). Afterward, be sure to ask them about business or their family. This isn’t just a conversation starter–it’d be rude not to ask.


Expect a handshake that lasts a while. If you’re a man, a hug may also be coming your way. Women may kiss each other on the cheeks.


Be sure to shakes hands with everyone, no doesn’t matter who is there. Call each person by their first and last name, and never say, “How are you?” For Norwegians, it’s just meaningless conversational fluff.


Stop–don’t shake hands! The person will offer what’s called a “wai,” placing their palms together at chest level and bowing. Return the gesture, then say hello: If you’re a man, greet them with “Sawadee-krap.” If you’re a woman, say “Sawadee-kah.” Only shake hands if a wai is not offered.

I hope this was helpful or at least interesting. Please let me know how you travels turn out!

Elkins, Kathleen and Gould, Skye. “Here’s How to Properly Shake Hands in 14 Different Countries.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 5 May 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

“What is the Proper Handshake Etiquette Around the World?” Mental_Floss. Felix Dennis, 5 Dec. 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.

Apr 16

French Social Movements in the Form of Women’s Bodies

Over the weekend I traveled to New York City in order to do some research on a art history/women’s studies project. I wanted to look at the way different artists used the female form as an illustration of different movements, basically using images of these women to promote controversial political or academic ends. When I was in the Metropolitan Museum of art on Saturday, I came across two paintings which did this so well they were actually censored (i.e. kicked out) of the Salon in Paris, although the two movements they represent couldn’t be more different.

Vigee Le Brun, “Marie Antoinette in a Chemise Dress,” 1783, Oil on Canvas

This first painting was done in 1783 by Vigee Le Brun, the most sought-after female portraitist in France of her time. Madame Le Brun was often commissioned to paint the women of the French royal family, and one of her goals was to portray them in such a way that appeared humble and relatable. I know this certainly seems odd in France, which had been obsessed over class for hundreds of years, but remember this is just a couple years before the French Revolution, and the royals were willing to go to great lengths to prove they were not as evil as the people seemed to believe they were. The portrait I studied was of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, but she’s certainly not portrayed in the way we usually think of her. Rather than sporting a gigantic dress decked out with jewels and hair piled nearly a foot off the top of her head, she is shown here in a chemise dress, with a straw hat (straw–the stuff of peasants!). Her hair is mostly down, and in the background the flowers next to her seem to be falling apart, which wouldn’t have been allowed to happen in a royal court. Perhaps the most shocking thing about this portrait is that Marie Antoinette is not wearing a corset. Instead is shown in a soft flowing dress her ladies would wear on a casual day when they had nowhere to be. This was unheard of in a painting of a monarch, especially in 18th century France.

Vigee Le Brun’s goal was to make her Queen look approachable, relatable, and humble, and I believe she met this goal. Many people in France enjoyed this portrayal of her. However, she may have done too good of a job, considering the Salon would eventually remove her painting because of its “inappropriate” depiction of a French royal. About a month later Le Brun would repaint this work, replacing the chemise dress with an elegant lace-trimmed one that is the epitome of decorum, although Marie’s signature Cabbage Rose would remain. This version of the painting was later accepted into the Salon, but is in my opinion much less interesting than the one preceding it.

Gustave Courbet, “Woman with a Parrot,” 1866, Oil on Canvas

The next painting was done about a hundred years later by Gustave Courbet, who many claim is the founder of the Realism movement. Courbet hated the academic style of painting that was taught by the French Royal Academy of Art. He thought it was too idealistic, frivolous and removed from society. As a result he created several images of people of the lower class, without ever censoring the menial and seemingly pointless drudgery of their existence. Courbet seemed to grow bolder with age, as his art became increasingly risque. The piece I analyzed is of a nude woman, although she’s certainly not the type of women French up-and-ups were used to seeing. Instead of the ethereal, near-perfect women of decades prior, this woman is startlingly real, and definitely from the lower class (i.e. a prostitute). More to the point: there’s a certain dirtiness to this painting which makes it both compelling and scandalous. While her hair appears soft and rich, it is scruffy at the base, implying it hasn’t been washed in a while. Her eyebrows don’t appear to have ever been groomed at all. Her hands are darkened and uncleaned–just compare them to the hands in the portrait of Marie Antoinette. Certain areas of her body have been darkened as well, implying the presence of hair, which would have definitely been rude to paint at the time. The woman’s mouth is open and you can see her teeth–a rather impolite expression. In addition her legs are partly spread and she’s lying on a bed, which clearly sexualizes her. Nothing is implied here: Courbet basically gives all his viewers what he knows they want to see, rather than beating around the bush trying to create some perfect, innocent woman who for some reason is naked in a painting.

What I think is one of the most impactful things about this painting is its sheer size. At the Met it took up an entire wall. People wouldn’t have painted anything that big of a single person unless they were royalty or some other major government big shot. But Courbet did it with a freaking prostitute! Honestly I find it so hilarious.

This painting was of course removed from the Salon, like most of Courbet’s work. But it certainly caught people’s attention and inspired the young, emerging generation to move away from the academic style it so protested and toward new movements like Realism and later Impressionism.

Mar 16

The Ironic Effect of European Bombings on Muslim Refugees

When something as terrible and emotional occurs, such as the attacks in Brussels last Tuesday, it’s easy to overlook long term implications and just focus on the ongoing tragedy. But doing so ultimately allows these subtle but pivotal effects to go unchecked, resulting in a disaster just as awful and even more preventable.

Here’s what happened in Brussels: At 8am local time on Tuesday (3am Eastern time) two explosions went off at Brussels airport, one caused by a suicide bomber and the other by an unstable bomb left behind when another terrorist fled the scene. Collectively they killed around ten people. About an hour later, an explosion at the Maelbeek subway station, not far from the European Union’s core institutions, killed approximately 20 more (Shannon). Collectively there were about 300 people injured, half of which needed to be hospitalized with many put in intensive care. ISIS has claimed responsibility for both bombings (BBC News).

This is without doubt a great tragedy. But the carnage will not stop at Brussels. As Ammar Al Saker, a 21-year old refugee who saw the news on his cell phone from the middle of a Greek refugee camp told his friends, “God knows what will happen tomorrow… For us it will get worse” (Shuster).

Europe and Turkey have been experiencing huge waves of refugees, with some countries being more accepting than others. But after the Paris attacks in November, this pathway began to close. Even Greece, who has been one of the more welcoming countries to date, closed its borders to all refugees with ethnicities other than Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghan. This excludes all African refugees escaping crimes against humanity, who have made an even longer and more dangerous trek to Europe than the Syrians. The bottleneck has caused thousands of refugees to convene in squalid camps at Idomeni, sleeping in tents and unable to get the supplies or care they desperately need (Shuster).

To many refugees who consider themselves victims of terror as well, this backlash is perverse. After all, nearly all of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, including the mastermind Salah Abdeslam, had been born in the European Union, and had passports which would allow them to move more freely than any immigrant or refugee ever could (Shuster). Abdeslam was finally imprisoned in Brussels about a week before the attacks, but its reasoned he was likely behind those as well (Bothello, Krever, and Shoichet).

Not all Europeans feel the same way about blocking refugees. It’s become a prominent political issue across the continent, with left-leaning parties calling for more acceptance and to put a stop to the “racist” rhetoric and restrictions of the right-wing parties. These restrictions, like what we’ve seen in Greece, are often based on ethnicity, with an increasing focus on blocking Muslims (Shuster). So other than being closer to the action, it’s really not too different from American politics.

A few days after the attack on Brussels, angry right-wing protesters took to the streets in an “anti-terror” raid. Ironically this raid took the local police’s attention off of searching for the suspects and created an even more chaotic atmosphere in an already shaken city. I feel this raid is a great metaphor for the effect of ethnic fear and restrictions sweeping Europe. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all the victims of these acts of terror, and instead polarizes the situation, breeding hate and chaos during a time when we all need to be standing together as one to defeat a common enemy. Blocking refugees doesn’t make us less safe, it makes us less human.

Bothello, Krever, and Shoichet. “6 Detained in Raids in Belgium.” CNN. Cable News Network, 25 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

“Brussels Attacks: Two Brothers Behind Belgium Bombing.” BBC News. BBC 23 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

Shannon, Victoria. “Brussels Attacks: What We Know and Don’t Know.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 22 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

Shuster, Simon. “Refugees Could Be the Next Victim of Brussels the Attack.” Time. Time Inc., 22 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

Mar 16

1955-2016: Comparing the Evolution of the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements

Most people realize that the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements were quickly followed by the Women’s Suffrage and Liberation movements, but many underestimate the full extent of their similarities. Even with my Women’s Studies major I was surprised to notice during the spring trip just how much the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements appeared to mirror each other, and how this mirroring seems to have continued up until the present day.

Last week we spent most of our time learning about the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, so I’ll start my explanation there. As was the case in the 1800s with the women’s suffrage and Abolitionist movements, the Women’s Liberation movement was partly in response to the Civil Rights movement. With so much of a spotlight finally being shown on the inequalities in society, women began to realize that they too faced oppression in several ways, many of which they saw blacks experiencing as well.  At the time, the most visible sections of the movements were the large organizations, which were mostly run by the older generations. These organizations included the SCLC (run by MLK and his generation) and NOW (cofounded by Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, a book that’s said to have ultimately launched the Women’s Liberation movement in 1963). This “mainstream” movement was augmented by smaller grassroots groups that were run by younger, more radical supporters. These groups often sprung up out of colleges, and the students who ran them were often more willing to put themselves in harm’s way in order to protest the status quo. A few examples of these types of grassroot protests were the sit-ins which popped up all over the south, many of which were organized by university students and SNCC, and the protest of the 1968 Miss America pageant, in which members of the New York Radical Women tossed traditional feminine products like make-up, pots and pans, and bras into a trash can labeled “Patriarchy” before crowning a sheep the winner of the pageant and unfurling a banner reading “Women’s Liberation” movement. Both protests received worldwide attention.

Despite the younger and older generations having very similar long term goals, the two groups within both movements often didn’t get along. The older leaders such as MLK and Betty Friedan were worried that the younger more radical groups like the Black Panthers and the New York Radical Women were too extreme in their expression, and that their goals seemed unrealistic. Similarly, the younger movement tended to believe the older movement was not pushing hard enough, and therefore was not as committed to the cause. Another concern was that the older generation’s movement only acknowledged one form of women or black person (respectively), rather than exploring the differences between inner groups as the smaller organizations were able to.

In the 1970s and 80s, this idea of studying intergroup difference began to grow in popularity. Within the Women’s Liberation movement, the “white feminism” of Friedan went out of fashion, to be replaced by LGBT and multiracial feminism. Black feminists in particular began taking a seat at the table during this time, proving they were some of the best theoretical thinkers of the movement. Many, including bell hooks and Audre Lorde, wrote about how certain identity factors such as race, gender, sexuality and class could all compound an individual’s oppression. It wasn’t until 1989 that another black feminist, Kimberle Crenshaw, would finally give a name to describe this intersection of identities: Intersectionality.

Because of the idea of intersectionality and shared identity within different groups, different social movements were now beginning to collaborate. The black movement worked with the women’s liberation movement, which worked with the LGBT movement, which worked the AIDS movement, which worked with the immigrant rights movement, which worked with the anti-Vietnam movement, which worked with anti-apartheid movement, et cetera et cetera.

Since the invention of intersectionality in 1989, the women’s movement in particular has been working to become more inclusive. One of the more defining characteristics of this current generation of feminists is their focus on promoting a definition of gender which knows no boundaries. This has thereby also finally given voice to the gender-queer movement–a group of individuals in direct contest with the traditional gender binary.

After a short hiatus from the public eye, the Black rights movement (now termed the Black Liberation movement) has arisen again with new force in the form of Black Lives Matter. However, a distinct difference between this movement and what we’ve seen in the past is their emphasis on inclusion, which is quite similar to the current women’s movement. Black Lives Matter makes it clear on the front page of their website that “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.”

The evolution of these movements has brought all of us so much closer to understanding each other and what makes each person powerful and unique. I look forward to seeing what each movement takes on next, and the opportunity to advance society that it provides.

Feb 16

Russia: Privatization or Desperation?

At the beginning of the month, President Putin announced that Russia would be selling off some of its public assets to individual buyers as a means of closing the widening budget gap, a sale which marks one of Russia’s most ambitious privatizations in years (Arkhipov, Biryukov). The sale was originally only open to domestic buyers, which Putin announced on the 1st of the month. However, by February 2nd, his statement was amended: shares will be available to foreign buyers too. It seems the Russian government had suddenly remembered something: their citizens have no money.   

As many of you have probably heard in the news, Russia has been in the middle of an economic crisis since 2014. There are several reasons for this: Climate change, which is causing droughts in the southern regions and stalling crop output (Flintoff); President Putin’s ongoing mission to expand the Russian military, an extremely expensive endeavor which some have pointed to as the catalyst for the country’s economic woes (Ormiston); Attitudes springing from a post-communist society, which discourage the individualism, radical thinking or competition that could create new industry or stimulate a free market economy. Perhaps the biggest blow of all has come in the form of the plummeting price of oil, exports of which has been a main pillar of the Russian economy since the Soviet era.

Since the start of this economic decline, the value of imports has fallen by over 38 percent. More than 2.3 million people have slipped below the poverty line in the past year. Inflation remained above 15% throughout 2015, with the US dollar being worth more than 70 Russian rubles by December of last year. “Right now,” Alexei Ulyukayev, Russian Economic Development Minister said in an interview in October, “you have to be a brave, even crazily brave person to open a business” (Hobson).

Despite all this, support for the Russian regime remains high throughout the country. This could be partly due to the fact that unemployment has remained low–about 5.5%. However I doubt this is the cause, considering employers were only able to preserve jobs by cutting workers’ hours and wages. Instead I believe the Russian government has kept discontent at a distance by blaming the economic crisis on external factors, or anti-Russian conspiracies–a sentiment often touted by their (state-owned and operated) TV news stations (Hobson). There’s also been some speculation over Russia’s true motives behind their recent campaign against ISIS. It’s true that the government and citizens have been rightfully up-in-arms against the organization, which shot down a Russian passenger plane in October, killing all 224 people on board. But I wonder whether Putin would have taken up against ISIS so aggressively if the economy had not been in such a sorry state.

While it seems counter-intuitive to launch a major military campaign in the midst of an economic crisis, this is actually a common political move among leaders trying to fend off public discontent. It’s a way of distracting the public and garnering support for a government which is now using its power to “protect and defend” the homeland and/or some other noble cause. This phenomenon is often referred to as a “rally-round-the-flag” strategy by political scientists, who have observed a consistent uptick in public opinion for one’s government whenever dramatic international events occur (Americans might recall the immediate and drastic increase in support for President George W. Bush immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001). This rallying effect creates an incentive for leaders to start “Diversionary Wars,” i.e. wars with the purpose of improving conditions at home by literally diverting attention from domestic problems and providing a scapegoat for whenever those problems do become apparent. We’ve seen this strategy used before in the West, with President Bill Clinton’s 1998 Missile Strikes in Iraq following the Monica Lewinsky scandal; or more pertinently, with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s struggle in the Falklands–the victory in which bolstered her support to a degree that allowed her to be re-elected in the midst of an economic crisis. So it’s not really such a surprise that now, despite Russia’s economic weaknesses, President Putin seems to have made it his personal mission to dismantle ISIS.

What is surprising is that he would now publicly announce that Russia is selling its assets, providing evidence of the country’s economic woes. And whether this privatization as a bid for cash will work remains to be seen. You see, in order to attract investors, your company needs to look like it will grow and increase output. At the moment, Russia’s government seems to be doing to opposite. And while this may seem like an excellent opportunity to buy (normally domestically exclusive) Russian stock, a savvy economist will remind you that you only own something of Russia’s as long as their government wants you to own it. In past privatizations, we’ve seen Russian investors receive pennies back on the dollars they invested once the Russian government decided the economy was stable enough to go public once more.

Still, this may not be the case during this unusually sharp economic decline. It is rare to see a state openly declare that they are broke enough to put pieces of their public sector up for sale. In a country as prideful as Russia, it is a sure sign of desperation.

Arkhipov, Ilya and Biryukov, Andrey. “Putin Opens Asset Sales to Foreigners as the Budget Gap Widens.” Bloomberg Business. n.p., 2 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Feb.

Flintoff, Corey. “For Russian Farmers, Climate Change is Nyet so Great.” NPR. NPR 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Hobson, Peter. “8 Shades of Crisis: Russia’s Year of Economic Nightmares.” The Moscow Times. The Moscow Times, 25 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.

Ormiston, Susan. Ruble’s Dramatic Drop Inflicts Economic Pain in Russia. CBC News, Jan. 2015.

Feb 16

It’s Called the “Pink Tax.”

All around the world, women are up in arms about the recent revelation of yet another economic disadvantage given to our sex. It’s called the “Pink Tax”, meaning that the same products–even if they are made of virtually the same materials–have very different price tags, depending on which gender they’re designed for. A recent study done by New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that on average the same shampoo cost 48% more when packaged in “feminine” containers. Women’s razors also cost 11% more than men’s, and jeans are 10% pricier. The findings of this study ultimately suggest that women are paying thousands of extra dollars throughout their lives in order to buy the same things as men–simply because they are women, who want to consume products which they feel reflect that (Kottasova). This price difference is especially bad for women when you consider that as of 2016, women’s wages are already only make 79% of men’s when they have the same job (Hill).

Notice as well that all the products aforementioned with significant price differences between genders are necessities. A woman can’t function in polite society without having something to wash her hair in, and it’s expected that her shampoo with smell like something feminine, like fruit or flowers. We’re also expected to wear clothes that fit a woman’s body. In fact, when a woman wears clothes that don’t fit well, she is less likely to be taken seriously or be considered “professional” and much less likely to get a promotion (Goudreau). This would explain why women continue to buy these products despite the climbing prices–they need them, and not just to feel comfortable as a woman. Women need them in order to succeed at their very careers.

However, despite the apparent necessity, there’s nothing legally stopping women from buying men’s products, and there’s nothing illegal about men buying women’s. In other words, despite the price difference appearing sexist, there’s is nothing legally discriminatory about the gap, which means governments can’t regulate it, because no one’s breaking any laws or principles.

So what can we do? A number of women in the United Kingdom have already set an example for us. After discovering that a British pharmaceutical chain called Boots was selling the same products to women for 50% higher than they were selling them to men, UK women led an online campaign, during which thousands signed a petition in favor of closing the price gap. The petition also encouraged others to start boycotting the store, causing its profits to plummet. Eventually, Boots came out with new prices, all of which we equal between the genders (Kottasova).

I think what this shows is that women can effect change, and we don’t need our government’s help to do it. However, if we want it to work, we need to be organized and proactive, and to not shy away from tackling problems like this that present themselves to us. When it comes to creating social change, our mottos should always be: “If not now, when?” and “If not me, who?”  


Goudreau, Jenna. “The Seven Ways Your Boss is Judging Your Appearance.” ForbesWoman. n.p. 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Hill, Catherine. “The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap (Spring 2016).” Economic Justice. AAUW, 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Kottasova, Ivana. “‘Pink Tax’ Angers Women from New York to London.” CNN Money. Cable News Network, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

Feb 16

Social Location Reflection

In one of my classes, Global Feminisms, I’ve been assigned a paper. Specifically, my professor would like the class to compile a (elaborated) list of ways our culture, family, and hometown have shaped us to become who we are. Although my paper isn’t yet finished, I’ve found that writing these blogs can really help get my creative juices flowing. Also, reflecting on your own experiences is a critical component of self awareness, and understanding where your own biases come from is a foundational part of critical thinking and analysis. In addition, with the Spring trip coming up, I’ve found myself preparing with the rest of the travelling group for the experience by considering what aspects of my identity affect how I see myself and how society sees me. So with all this on my mind, I thought I’d share some things with you…

Although I was born in Columbia, Maryland, I spent most of my life living in State College (yes, I’m a townie). I come from a white, middle class family–the same as many of my peers growing up. Both of my parents have PhD’s and work at PSU, so from a young age, the importance of education and being curious was constantly stressed to me. As a result, I have always been a very good student, not because I’m intelligent per se, but because I value my education very highly and simply enjoy learning. My immediate family is also very liberal, and as my own political ideological developed, I found myself agreeing with this stance. My position in almost every social, economic, and political issue tends towards the left. These are views I’ve kept despite them often being contested by my peers, who are on average more conservative than myself.

So far you can probably tell that my family is very involved in my life, which I’m glad for. Even though I no longer am living with them, we talk multiple times a week, and I normally go home to visit a few times each month, since they live locally. They continue to have a profound effect on my life. I’ve always admired my dad’s work at PSU, and his passion for American politics is what initially got me interested in government. Now I’m majoring in Political Science at the same University he is employed! That said, I could probably point to my mom for getting me interested in what is now my second major at PSU: Women’s Studies. I have an especially close relationship with my mom, who I tell everything to (I’ve always been a mommy’s girl). She is the person who introduced me to the rock genre of music (now my favorite thing to listen to), as well as several other key cultural elements that have shaped my personality. Although I’m technically a middle child, my older brother was eleven years older than me, and moved off to college when I was very young. As a result, I tend to act more like an older sister than anything else. In other words, between myself and my 14-year old brother, I’ve always been the responsible one (honestly, ask my parents). Over the years I’ve also developed a close friendship with my younger brother, who I enjoy passing my wisdom onto and, now that seeing him has become a special occasion, spoiling rotten.

I’ve always been extremely interested in other cultures, and travelling is one of my favorite past times. I’ve travelled to a few different countries already, although most of them were in Western/central Europe. I would love to travel everywhere if I could! Anyway, I feel like the experiences I’ve had outside of my own culture, even if it just involved travelling to another state, has greatly increased my worldview. I try to study different cultures as often as I can, simply out of curiosity. I speak three languages (English, German, and Arabic) and I’d like to learn more. After college, I have dreams of working at a place like the United Nations or Amnesty International in order to aid poor and/or oppressed people around the world. Right now I have my sights set on the women of North Africa and helping them gain economic independence.

Another extremely important part of my identity right now is my involvement in community service. I’ve been volunteering through various organizations since I was six years old. First, it was Girl Scouts, which I stuck with for eleven years, going so far as to earn my Gold Award my senior year of high school. When I was fifteen I joined a group called FISH, a Presbyterian youth group that was open to all faiths and which made yearly trips down to Pittsburgh in order to help local volunteers with the homeless situation there. Now in college, I’m a member of a student org called ServeState, which has me doing more volunteering than I’ve ever done in my life. In fact, I’ve been elected service coordinator for this semester, meaning it’s my responsibility to plan and run the multitude of service events our group is involved in each week. I love this work and seeing the difference I’m able to make in people’s lives. I’ve met so many interesting people and learned a lot about the world that I’m sure I never would have had I kept within my middle-class white girl sphere. You can probably see how this has led me to pursue my current career goals.

So, now that I’ve information dumped on you (sorry), I must say that was very helpful for me–almost cleansing. It’s actually pretty clarifying to lay everything out on the table, in writing. Now, obviously not everything about me is in this post, but now I can see where most of the parts of me stem from. With the Spring trip approaching, I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to get in better touch with themselves before we expose ourselves to knowledge which could turn our world upside down.

Feb 16

How Much Can We Really Trust Political Polls?

With the primaries drawing closer each week, we’ve recently been seeing a lot of political opinion polls being aired. These are the bar graphs that flash up on news stations’ screens, showing what percentage of Americans are backing each political candidate… Supposedly.

When visiting underdeveloped countries, researchers are often frustrated by the difficulty of acquiring accurate statistical data. This is often because it’s simply too hard to distribute enough surveys to definitively measure public opinion. In developed countries like the United States, we often run into the opposite problem: So much data that’s it’s almost impossible to figure out which is the most accurate true. Now technically we could figure out a precise measurement, as we do with the census every ten years. The problem with political polls is that they simply don’t. And so we’re left with something called selection bias: a statistical measurement that’s not representative of the population being analyzed.

Right now polling methods are considerably outdated, because they rely on a rather antiquated form of communication: landline telephone calls. Twenty years ago, only about 6% of households used cell phones only. Today that number has increased to 60%. And remember, cell phones can’t be used for polling because most providers will protect their users from “spam” phone calls, including surveyors and telemarketers (“With Primaries Around the Corner, and Look at How Much We Trust Polls”).

So that leaves only about 40% of the population available to be polled. And let’s consider what types of people who use landline phones typically are like. First of all, they’re generally on the older side (do you know anyone our age who owns a landline, even if they own their own home or apartment?) (Lepore). This bias can often be problematic, especially for Republican candidates, whose constituents tend to be older Americans. If you remember back in 2012, many polls predicted a win for Mitt Romney before Obama somewhat unexpectedly won–and by a decent margin. The polls had failed to take into account the millions of young people who planned to vote–the majority of which were democratic and did not own a landline phone.

Second, since the 1920’s, the response rate (i.e. percent of people who pick up the phone and say “yes, I’m willing to participate in this survey”) has dwindled from 90% to less than 10%. And nowadays the people most likely to agree to answer surveys attend church, volunteer, and/or are particularly politically active, adding another layer of bias into the mix.

In short, rather than extend an equal opportunity to all Americans who plan to vote in the elections, the use of landline phones has created a selection bias that favors older Americans, churchgoers, volunteers and political activists. The creates a sample size that’s only about 4% of the population, rather than 100%.

While these polls can generally place a candidate in the race, they certainly can afford to be much more accurate. For example, polls could start appearing online instead of on the phone, allowing more of the population to reach and respond to them. However, the demographic most likely to vote (older people) is the least likely to spend enough time on the internet for that strategy to be effective. I’m wondering if any readers out there have any other ideas for alternative poll measures. Can you think of something I haven’t yet?

Until then, try to take the graphs flashing on your TV screen with a grain of salt.

Lepore, Jill. “Politics and the New Machine.” The New Yorker. n.p. 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

“With Primaries Around the Corner, a Look at How Much We Trust Polls.” Here and Now. Trustees of Boston University, 26 Jan. 2016. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

Zukin, Cliff. “What’s the Matter with Polling?” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 20 June 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.

Jan 16

China’s Growth Rate is Finally Slowing Down

Countries around the world have recently released their GDP growth rate for the last economic quarter of 2015, and some are a little concerned with what China has to report. Despite the slow recovery the rest of the world has been making after the 2008 global recession, China’s growth rate is now 6.9%–the lowest it’s been since 2009 (Farrer). Economists were actually predicting an even larger drop, however the Chinese aren’t exactly known for providing accurate statistics. They are, however, known for downplaying most of their problems.

These numbers are the first official confirmation of the downturn in the nation’s economy since the Chinese stock market slump, followed by the surprise devaluing of money in July and August (Farrer). But perhaps what has China most worried is their dampened manufacturing sector, which disappointingly shrunk 5.7% in the past year after analysts predicted it would grow by 6%. “The manufacturing industry might cause [the] most concern as it is a pillar of China’s economy,” said Li Huiyong, an economist at Shenwan Hongyuan Securities in Shanghai (Farrer). Indeed, anyone living in the United States has heard the joke about American flags being “Made in China.” But it’s true that because of its huge manufacturing sector we import a lot from China–in fact, they make up over 20% of our total imports on an annual basis–more than any other country, including our neighbors Canada and Mexico (“Top US Imports from the World”).

As a result of this downturn, less people have been investing in the Chinese economy. In fact, many investors have started to put their money into American companies, because of the country’s uncanny economic resilience despite our recent recession. In fact, we’ve managed to bounce back the most since 2008, and are doing better than the European countries, especially because of their refugee crisis and the lowering prices of oil. In addition, with the slowing of China’s manufacturing output, the US may be forced to finally develop its own manufacturing sector, which has shrunk to the point of insignificance after China’s rocketing climb. However, investors are still unsettled, seeing as the Chinese also import tons of products from the United States, as well as spend their money at many American establishments (McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc.) which you can find on almost every corner in their major cities.

While seeing the world’s second largest economy (“World’s Largest Economies”) so uncharacteristically weak is nerve wracking when you imagine the effect this could potentially have on the rest of the world, we should keep in mind that while the Chinese economy is under downward pressure, it has remained relatively stable. A 6.9% growth rate, while slower than what we’re used to from this Asian tiger, is still incredibly good. The US’ GDP growth rate was only about 3% this year, and as I mentioned we’re still doing much better than most countries around the world (“United States GDP Growth Rate”). And meanwhile the Chinese communist government is already making adjustments in order to head a major recession off at the pass. These include lowering interests rates and taxes, as well as stimulating certain sectors (Farrer)–which is similar to what President Obama did in 2009 to dig the US out of our own recession.

In actuality, what this slowing growth rate could really be pointing to is an increase in the overall development of China. China, with a huge amount of its population of living in poverty, has historically been known by political economists as a “Less Developed Country” (LDC). However, as a country develops (i.e. closes its class gap, percentage living in poverty shrinks), it is natural for economic growth to appear to slow. The explanation for this is that many people already have money, and industry is already flourishing, so there are fewer areas for the economy to drastically improve. This explains why the US–a rich developed country–can have a growth rate of 3% and still be doing so well. In addition, the decreased manufacturing output of China could indicate more people entering into service sector jobs, i.e. jobs requiring more skill and training. This would in turn suggest that more Chinese people now have access to higher education. And of course, the slowing growth rate could also have to do with China’s gradual decrease in population–another good thing in a country so overpopulated that it can’t feed itself.

What I’m saying is, most economists that study development have seen this drop off in China’s growth as something inevitable, although not necessarily in a bad way. Besides, the Chinese economy is already so advanced, they’ll certainly be able to handle themselves throughout this recession just fine. I’m interested to see what direction this blossoming country decides to take next.   

Farrer, Michael. “Chinese Economic Growth Slows to 6.9% in Third Quarter Despite Stimulus.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 18 Oct 2015. Web. 25 Jan 2016.

“Top US Imports from the World.” World’s Richest Countries. Homestead, 2015. Web. 25 Jan 2015.

“United States GDP Growth Rate.” Trading Economics. Trading Economics, 2016. Web. 25 Jan 2016.

“World’s Largest Economies.” CNN Money. Cable News Network, 2015. Web. 25 Jan 2016.

Jan 16

What the Drop in Oil Prices Could Mean for Saudi Arabia

The oil industry over the years has been known for its booms and busts. Currently the world is experiencing the largest bust since 1990. Oil prices have dropped by 60%–the lowest they’ve been since 2004 (Krauss). The reasons for this are complicated, but they boil down to some simple rules of supply and demand:

Over the past few years, the United States’ production of oil has nearly doubled, causing Americans to start buying the cheaper domestic oil instead of products from foreign markets. Because of this, countries like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Algeria that once was sold their oil to the United States are now being forced to market themselves in Asia–and lower their prices in order to compete. Canadian and Iraqi oil production and exports are also rising continuously. Even Russia, with all its economic problems, has managed to keep the black gold flowing (Krauss).

Meanwhile, the economies of Europe and developing countries are weak, at the same time that vehicles are becoming more energy-efficient. So demand for fuel has been diminishing recently.

While this may seem great for consumers of oil (if you don’t drive, you’ve at least noticed others reacting with glee to the cheapest gas prices anyone’s seen in a decade), oil companies and the economies they’re attached to are suffering. It’s estimated that over 250,000 have already lost their jobs (Reed), with more cuts to come, even from the biggest and most secure companies. Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria, Ecuador, Brazil and Russia are just a few countries that are suffering economic and even political turbulence. The Persian Gulf states are will probably be forced to invest less money around the world, and they may cut aid to countries like Egypt. In the US, big oil states like Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana are also facing economic challenges (Krauss).

The only way to fix this, it seems, is for OPEC to intervene and cut the

oversupply of oil floating around the market. However, Saudi Arabia, which has headed the cartel on oil for years, is refusing, even with half the world pressing them to take action. Their reasoning is that if OPEC were to stop production, and the demand for oil suddenly rose, Saudi Arabia would only be helping its competitors. In fact, despite the equal toll the drop in prices is taking on their economy, the Saudi government has stated that it’s ready to allow prices to slip much lower before they do anything to stop them (Krauss). However, most oil analysts are calling their bluff.

  The thing is, Saudi Arabia needs OPEC, and this plan they’ve concocted–while serving Saudi interests–is in direct conflict with the cartel. Almost the entire Saudi government is funded off of the money they make from their OPEC oil exports (“Saudi Arabia”). And when you run a repressive authoritarian state, surrounded by unstable warring countries, with a military investment in Yemen, a newly inducted head of state and a citizenry that’s already dissatisfied with the economy, you need to make sure that everything in your regime is running smoothly. This simply cannot happen if the Saudis don’t have their oil money, or if they keep refusing to work with their partners in OPEC (Evans-Pritchard).  

Saudi Arabia also can’t expect this strategy of beating out their competitors and then selling oil at their own price to actually succeed. They would essentially be selling to a group of nations whose economies have just been gutted. In other words, most people in these countries wouldn’t be able to afford oil from OPEC at the price they plan on selling–they would already be broke!

So at the rate things are going, it doesn’t look like Saudi Arabia will be winning this fight. But what will actually happen if and when that occurs, and they have to find new strategies for making money? The surprising thing is that this “failure” could be the best thing that’s happened to the Saudi economy in a while.

For me to explain this, we have to look at the bigger picture: When a country’s main source of income stems from selling natural resources to the rest of the world, exports will be very high. As a result, foreign currency will come flooding in to pay for these exports, driving up the value of your own country’s currency. In order to avoid this huge inflation, Saudi Arabia has pegged its currency value to the US dollar, keeping their exchange rate relatively steady (Evans-Pritchard).

However, say the plan for Saudi Arabia to outlast all the other oil markets fails, and the Saudi government is forced to give up this peg; the value of their currency would then drop by 30-40% (Worstall). And that would simply do wonders for the domestic economy of Saudi Arabia. All their imports would become more expensive, indirectly causing citizens to buy domestically. This new money would make it easy to substitute OPEC oil profits with domestic production, without the added threat of inflation. In addition, anything domestically produced would then become that much cheaper on the global market. The domestic industry would be perfectly stimulated. In fact, Saudi Arabia might actually start to have a real domestic economy, instead of one based entirely on oil profits. That means they’d actually be producing things their own people want to buy–who’d a thunk it?

I know this idea is a little far reaching, especially now when the future is so uncertain. Still, it is interesting to think about as the situation evolves. Until then, the oil industry can keep us engaged with its continued cycle of booms and busts.

Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose. “Saudi Arabia Risks Destroying OPEC and Feeding the ISIL Monster.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Evans-Pritchard, Ambrose. “Speculators Test Saudi Currency as Oil Crisis Deepens.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 20 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Krauss, Clifford. “Oil Prices: What’s Behind the Drop? Simple Economics.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Reed, Stanley. “Stung Low by Oil Prices, BP Will Cut 4,000 Jobs.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

“Saudi Arabia.” 2015 Index of Economic Freedom. The Heritage Foundation, 2015. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

Worstall, Tim. “The Oil Price Crash Could Be the Best Thing that Happens to the Saudi Arabian Economy.” Forbes / Economics and Finance. ForbesBrandVoice, 21 Nov. 2015. Web. 18 Jan. 2016.

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