Coverage of the IV LASA Symposium

These are tempestuous times for immigrants in America. The highly xenophobic rhetoric of the administration has caused an unprecedented amount of terror among immigrant communities all over the country and even abroad. Now more than ever, international students have to show up to the table. They have to demonstrate that they are competitive, that they contribute, and that they are an irreplaceable and integral part of this country.

In the last election cycle, Latino immigrants were called all sorts of terrible things, and the toxic narrative of persecution and tough law enforcement against immigrants continues to frighten, offend, threaten and hurt millions families within and across the borders.

Last Friday, February 24, the Latin American students of NC State got together in an effort to celebrate and promote the work being done by members of their community in the triangle area.

Last week, the Latin American Student Association hosted its fourth research symposium showcasing the work of NC State, Duke and UNC graduate students from Latin America or students whose research focuses on this large and diverse region.

Those who had the opportunity to attend and venture into the minds and hearts of some insatiable researchers from the lands of magical realism would agree on that there was nothing more meaningful they could have done with their time that Friday evening.

When asked about the event, Fausto Ortiz, a PhD student in environmental engineering and the president of LASA, told us that “by holding this event, we establish firm connections between the members of our community that can help everyone grow personally, academically and professionally. But most importantly, we demonstrate that, despite the hardest times, Latin American researchers and professionals are very competitive and can prosper in any place they are living.”

The symposium was aimed at providing students with an opportunity to practice their communication skills and receive feedback and support from fellow students. It was organized as a competition and participants had 3 minutes to present their research projects and dazzle judges, faculty and other graduate students with their presentation and research skills.

Students currently doing their work in environmental sciences, education, engineering, life sciences, economics, mathematics and other areas presented posters of their research work. A multitude of topics were covered by the researchers, from environmental applications of complex networks in computer science to the manipulation of chromosomes to develop new lines of grasses. (You can find more about the works presented here.)

The first place award went to Catalina Salamanca from the department of industrial design for her work in innovative pediatric orthopedics to help treat developmental dysplasia on children’s hips. The second place went to Brendali Carrillo, from the department of parks recreation and tourism management,  for her work on tourism management in Peru, and Danielle Lawson, also a researcher in the parks recreation and tourism management department, got the third place award for her research on promoting environmental literacy through intergenerational interactions among North Carolinians.To end the ceremony, the judges granted a honorable mention to Wilmer Reyes, a researcher in the department of forestry and environmental resources, for his work on ecohydrology and regulation of the world’s tropical water systems.

The event also featured a panel of guest speakers who inspired the attendees with some very powerful words of advice and encouragement to the broader Latino community. This year,Dr. Chelsey Ann Juarez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology,and Dr. Maria Correa, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, shared their unique experiences maneuvering through the American system and gave very practical tips on how to thrive as a professional and at a personal level as well. Their words were empowering, decisive and full of hope.

Doctor Juarez, a chicana with doctorate degrees from UC Santa Cruz whose parents came as immigrants from Mexico, gave a compelling presentation on the state of the Latino population in academia and showed in numbers how the number of latino faculty and administrative staff has been stagnant for the past 12 years, despite increased enrollment of undergraduate latino students. Doctor Juarez, noted that “Latino students do better when there are more latino students in the classrooms. They also do better when they have latino professors. They do better across the board.”

The word Latino is a broad and ambiguous term and it is easy for latin american student to get confused about their identity. With her speech, Doctor Correa, a Uruguayan professor with PhD degree in epidemiology from Cornell, reminded the attendees about the importance of carrying their roots proudly and cultivating a supportive community. In the words of Doctor Correa, “For those of you who want to stay in the US, remember that you are going to hear many things… we need to help one another because it is not easy”.  Her words were an invitation to look back before moving forward. With her particularly spicy sense of humour, Doctor Correa offered the attendees her version of the comforting and wise words that any latin american mother would  say: remember where you come from and you will know where you are going.

Latin America, the home to half a billion people, is a vibrant and diverse region of the world that is undergoing rapid transformations. Latin American is famous for being a vigorous laboratory for experimentation in the political and economic realms and Latin Americans are the funky result of these social experiments. Latin Americans are generally perceived as creative, curious, and hard-working people with a taste for risk-taking.

The symposium was a slashing success: a nourishing and enriching activity where the Latin American community proved they are a cohesive and inclusive community whose presence and contributions make this campus, North Carolina, and this country a bigger, more exciting, more interesting, and simply put, a better place.



Why Fix NAFTA? The environment needs more than a fix

The current administration has promised to make drastic changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Most economists and analysts agree that NAFTA has been economically beneficial for the US, Canada and Mexico [1] and that pulling out from it could be a recipe for economic blues in the continent. Yet, there is one player that could benefit: The Environment.

For more than 20 years, NAFTA has tied the economies of Canada, the US and Mexico together. When it was signed 1992 by former republican president George H.W. Bush, NAFTA promised to create what in his words would be “the largest, richest and most productive market in the entire world.” [2]

NAFTA mostly eliminates tariffs on goods traded between the three North American nations and sets the framework to slash other trade barriers like the all-too-familiar quotas or more sophisticated restrictions to production–like guarantees of the non-use of child labor. The general idea of NAFTA was to create a free-trade zone where a company in Ohio would do business with a firm in Ontario just as easily as it did with one in Indiana [2].

If you have taken an introductory econ class you have been exposed to the classic economic argument for free trade: GAINS! You can think about free trade as a new of technology or a new resource to exploit–factors that would make an economy grow.

Economists preach that trade is “a non-zero-sum game” in which all the parties involved will benefit, regardless of who has the “absolute advantage” in production. What this means in colloquial English is that even if the US produces more smart-phones, barely and tomatoes than Canada or Mexico, the American economy as a whole will grow when American smart-phone producers get the chance of selling their product to Canadian and Mexican consumers and when American consumers get unregulated access to potentially cheaper Canadian beer or Mexican tomatoes. In turn, facing increased competition from across the board will incentivize domestic producers to become more efficient and will prevent local monopolies from charging too high prices. Similarly, Mexico’s and Canada’s economy will grow through the same mechanisms.

The important point to note here is that it is the economy as a whole which will benefit from trade. Of course, within the country’s economy there will be sectors that win and sectors that loose. In the case explored here, the American car industry will grow, while American agriculture will shrink. Nevertheless the losses faced by American farmers will be smaller than the gains for American smart-phone makers. In turn, the losses to Canadian and Mexican smart-phone makers will be smaller than the gains to Canadian and Mexican farmers.

Mr. Trump’s take on international trade is very different. He thinks it is more like a game of risk: a patriotic contest in which countries are rivals and they play to take each other’s job. Mr. Trump often invokes technical words like “trade deficit” and uses them without mentioning its financial counterparts to trigger panic and anger among supporters. He forgets that in international trade accounts always balance out. In that sense, the $500 billion current account deficit is exactly offset by a $500 billion investment surplus.

In that protectionist spirit, just after abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he announced he would change NAFTA dramatically with the intention of creating more jobs in the US. He will impose new tariffs and put new conditions on producers based outside the US. There are even rumors of the US could completely pull out of NAFTA.

It will be what it will be, and it is really not in our control. But let’s focus on the positive. There is one player that has been seriously neglected and harmed by NAFTA. By revisiting the details of NAFTA, Donald Trump could show a kind hand to the Natural World.

A legitimate argument against free trade agreements is one expressed by many environmentalists: the fear that such agreements will result in countries becoming a “pollution haven” for dirty foreign firms seeking weaker environmental regulation.

In the case of NAFTA, there is little evidence to confirm or deny this fear.

Unlike any preceding significant trade agreement, when NAFTA was designed, its signatories made an explicit effort to grapple with the issue of unsustainable resource exploitation and industrial practices that are be harmful to the environment [3]. NAFTA was first at including environmental provisions through a side agreement, “The North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation.”

Yet, according to Mexican government figures, the economic costs of environmental degradation as a percentage of DGP have not changed since NAFTA was put into place. Moreover, since the size of Mexico’s economy has grown since 1994, what that figure means is that environmental degradation has actually increased in absolute terms [3].

Mexico’s poor environmental record has been in part due to the loopholes created by the NAFTA deal itself–not the side Agreement on Environmental Cooperation. Despite its apparent commitment to environmental protection, NAFTA included investment provisions that allowed corporate investors to ultimately sidestep domestic environmental laws. These investment provisions are found in Chapter 11 of NAFTA. Chapter 11 was meant to protect investors against potential corruption in Mexico and it opened legal mechanisms through which corporations could directly sue national governments in case of facing extortions or illegitimate demands. Early in the game, trade lawyers and corporations learned they could use these safeguards to undercut environmental regulations [4]. The legal record of NAFTA’s Tribunals shows that Canada’s government has fought in court to protect community values and sensitive environments against foreign companies’ plans to expand but the Mexican government has failed to stand up for the environment [5].

The problem is not NAFTA per se. The problem is corrupt officials within governments and within the NAFTA Tribunals themselves who choose to overlook environmental regulations to further their personal financial interests by allowing foreign corporations to use unsustainable exploitative practices.

Corruption is a hard issue to tackle–particularly from outside. Yet, if NAFTA is going to be changed drastically, why not take a careful look at Chapter 11 and the link between investor protections and their use to challenge environmental laws? There may be alternative ways to design a “cleaner” dispute resolution mechanism that discourages corruption and doesn’t involve giving a foreign corporation the same legal weight as a sovereign government so that the former can sue the later. Also, it may be worth revisiting the composition, procedures and regulations binding the NAFTA Tribunals–which actually turn out to be a rather secretive institution that has the power to influence the enforcement of laws in an ad-hoc manner [6].

In the meantime, students must remain hopeful that positive outcomes can result from this international trade mayhem. Moreover, I believe it is an important time to pause, think, decide what we want and then choose what we are going to do.

If someone is going to start rewriting international trade laws, let’s decide what we want these laws to look like, what we want these laws to promote and how we want these laws to be enforced. I think we can all agree in that we want to have it all. If we are going to have free trade at all, let’s have it be fair trade too. In the future, let’s support movements that promote sustainable practices. We can do that. We can demand a transparent court system. We can vote, we can choose what products to purchase. We can do our research about the causes we care for and support those causes. In the extreme case we can protest. Clearly, we have options to act. We don’t want to change a rigged system, but before we burn it, let’s decide what we want.








Mind The Gap: Provide health care and services to the uninsured in NC

The Affordable Care Act, or Obama care, is again a controversial political topic.  Those who oppose the ACA say the law imposes too many costs on business and many describe it as a job killer. [1] After doing some research, it seems to me that opposing the ACA is at the very least a person killer–an expense the state shouldn’t have to afford.

The ACA was enacted in 2010 with the goal of extending health insurance coverage to the estimated 15% of the US population who was lacking it and reducing US spending on healthcare– which is the largest in the world. The theoretical foundation of major requirements imposed by the ACA are well in line to meet these objectives. However, deductibles and premiums seem to have risen in the last few years.

The truth is that we will never know what would have happened had the ACA not been enacted. It may very well be the case that the recent increase in insurance costs is due to reasons other than the ACA. It may even be possible that they would have risen even more without the ACA. It is just impossible to tell whether the law is not working because it was bad policy or because it was not aggressive enough.

The ACA requires everyone living in a state that has adopted the extension to purchase health insurance but it also offers a range of subsidies to make coverage affordable for those with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Line. By reducing the cost of insurance for people in this group, the Act meant to bring younger, healthier people into the medical coverage system. As a result, the average cost of medical bills per person would decrease and the number of people sharing the total costs would increase, therefore allowing insurance companies to offer lower premiums.

Another main provision of the law is that it bans insurance companies from denying health coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions. This provision allows every covered individual to seek and receive preventive care and services for major health conditions. Therefore, by being insured, people with pre-existing conditions would be less likely seek care before their illness had become unmanageable and expensive to treat.

In 2012, North Carolina, among the other 18 states, declined to adopt the ACA, therefore refusing to expand its social safety net for the poor and the elderly as proposed by the act of Congress. Today, the state may be facing a social crisis over the health of its poorest constituents.

Julie Hobbs just got her degree from NC State in Spanish this December and is now working with the Open Door Clinic, a branch of the Urban Ministries of Wake County providing healthcare to uninsured residents of Wake County, the majority of which fall in the so-called “Medicaid Gap”.

The Medicaid Gap is consists of people living in states that did not adopt the ACA and who are not eligible for Medicaid, Medicare or federal subsidies. According to Louise Norris, a journalist specialized in the health care reform issue, in some states the gap consists of virtually all able-bodies childless adults with incomes below 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, as well as a large number of parents with incomes below 100 percent of FPL. [2]

When asked about her ability to use her language skills in her current work setting Julie says “As someone who is bilingual, I have a responsibility. I am able to communicate with more people and that means I am able to advocate for more people. No matter the languages spoken by our clients, our providers and volunteers sincerely care for these individuals in the gap between Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act”.

When NC decided to not expand Medicaid in 2012, as many as 400,000 North Carolinians fell into this healthcare purgatory, 100,000 of whom are children. [3]

According to a study by the Kaiser Family foundation, North Carolina has the fourth largest uninsured population in the country. [4] In Wake County, it is estimated that between 90,000 and 95,000 residents fall in this coverage gap. [5]

People in the gap have limited options for healthcare. One of them is going to organizations like the Open Door Clinic where Julie works. “We serve people with no insurance coverage. Many of our clients don’t qualify for Madicaid because of their income, because they are non-disabled, because they do not have children and because they are immigrants.”

Julie talks to the desperately poor and desperately sick and helps them file their eligibility application to use the resources available. Julie says the numbers are dominated by Latino and African-American populations, that the majority are overweight or obese, and many of the incoming applicants have mental health conditions. She says that in many occasions she is more of a therapist than a social worker.

The good news are that students can actually do something about it. Non-profit organizations like Julie’s current employer take contributions in the form of volunteer work and donations.

When asked about the funding sources, Julie highlights the generosity of active Wake County communities. For example, last year, students from Enloe High School raised $140,000 through their annual Charity Ball and donated their proceeds to the Urban Ministries. “The money is the for the whole organization, not just the Open Door Clinic but also our food pantry and crisis support services as well as the Helen Wright Shelter for women”, says Hobbs.

There are alternatives for us to contribute. Julie says that “when a client is listened to and subsequently connected with a service or specialist they need for their healthcare, we are making progress”. Whether you are a conscious warrior with a taste for political activism or whether you are member of a student org and considering a social cause for the fundraiser you are putting together, think about the Medicaid gap and do something about it.


Complementary Notes about the Costs of being uninsured

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation study cited above, research shows that uninsured people are less likely to seek and receive preventive care and services for major health conditions. In the case of the elderly, many may leave health needs untreated until they become eligible for Medicare at 65.

In turn, when they do seek care, eventually, it may be already too late and the cost of treating a developed condition will leave them with medical bills they simply cannot afford.

Research shows that children are also more likely to be covered if their parents are.

In 2016, the national average unsubsidized premium for a 40-year-old non-smoking individual was $299 per month for a plan with moderate monthly premiums and moderate costs and $246 for a plan with low monthly premiums but high costs (recommended for those who use few medical services and mostly seek preventive care). For a family below the poverty line, this amount can represent anywhere between 25 to over 50 percent of their income. A cost that is prohibitively expensive.


[***] For those interested in the theoretical foundations of the argument for making health insurance mandatory, I would recommend to start researching the concepts of Moral Hazard and Adverse Selection in any “Intro to microeconomics” book they get their hands on. If accessible, Chapter 5 of the book Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan is a great place to start.

Students can also take a look at these articles:

Here is my explanation for those unable to access the book:

Moral Hazard and Adverse Selection are terms used by economists to describe misalignment of incentives that arise from the problem of asymmetric information. Making health insurance mandatory is a way to overcome these behavioral, and perfectly rational, responses to situations in which one party to a transaction knows more about the transaction than the other.

In the case of health insurance provision the two parties involved are the person interested in buying insurance and the insurance company.

Presumably, people will want to get health insurance if they think they are likely to get badly ill or suffer from some condition that will end in large medical bills. The adverse selection problem means that only people that are in poor health or who suffer from pre-existing conditions will purchase insurance.

If an insurance company expects to sell insurance only to people with high probability of incurring high medical costs, they will have to raise the premiums they charge in order to cover the high expenses they expect to come from this group of “high-risk” individuals.

If the premiums are raised, relatively healthy people will want to purchase insurance. Only people that truly think they are likely to end with a large medical bill will purchase insurance.

The process is a vicious cycle and in the end the system breaks down and nobody is able to purchase health insurance. Insurance companies will not offer to insure anybody since they will only expect to losses from this business. They will be having to pay the expensive medical bills of everyone they insure because only people that will incur large expenses are willing to pay high premiums for insurance.

The problem of moral hazard describes a situation in which those who purchase insurance start to behave in a riskier way since they now have the guarantee that if things go badly for them, someone else will be paying the bill. If companies expect insured people to like riskier lives and to overlook their health in ways like stop exercising or quit brushing their teeth or begin riding their bicycle without using helmets, then they will charge higher premiums simply because they expect their medical bills to be larger.

But charging higher premiums means that people who were not likely to get in an accident or to get chronically ill are going to drop out of the “insured pool”, which means that the average bill will increase and the company will have to raise premiums again. In this example, the adverse selection kicks in and amplifies the moral hazard problem.

As you can see, adverse selection and moral hazard are not mutually exclusive and they can amplify each other’s’ effect.

By making health insurance mandatory and forbidding insurance companies to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, the pool of insured will have enough healthy people to cover the costs of the sickly people. Companies won’t have to charge exorbitant premiums to cover their costs and the sickly won’t be denied coverage.

Only under this format will companies have a financial incentive to provide this service and will people at risk of becoming very ill be covered.