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.

Skip to toolbar