A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIV
  • No. 5
  • September/October 2019
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Finishing the Agenda of Civil Rights
  • Bhutan's Secret: Thinking About Death
  • Ankle Bracelets Monitoring
  • Abortion and the Language We Use
  • Dropped Wallets and the Good Within People
  • Abolitionists and the Prison System
  • To Ponder On

Finishing The Agenda of Civil Rights

Given the overt and implied racism of the recent onslaught of tweets and accusations from Trump and his devotees and given the ones that are still to come, we can no longer remain silent. We must stand up for our own diversity. I shun politics in these pieces, but this is not about politics, it is about values. We have it seems, made the next election a referendum on Trump.  But in this case it is not nor should it be about him. It is about the values he represents, values that have vibrated with many who felt overrun by people of color and by the presence of religions other than Christianity.  This is not about ideologies, it is not about the rationalizations some may give, it is not about the arguments the more articulate on each side come up with. It is about the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movements. It is about racism and immigration.  It is about all those, who are not yet able to put an individual’s humanity ahead of color, religion, sexual orientation or country of origin. It is about what does and will make us into better human beings, what will help us grow, reach out, serve others as individuals and as a nation. Those who seek entry into the US illegally seek conditions other than poverty or death. Is seeking survival or increasing your safety really a choice? It’s not a question of open borders. There are alternatives. But it is a moral question. To those who are so critical of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, I say, what kind of a choice is it when you have no choice but to leave all that you know?  I am an immigrant. I know what leaving everything behind feels like. Way back all those years ago that is why people like our family sought to immigrate to the US. Then the US stood for the kind of country that helped people, the kind of country that was inclusive and accepting of diversity (even if at times reluctantly), the kind of country one wanted to be part of. Those are values worth standing up for and our voices must be loud and clear. By whatever means we choose, whatever means are available, let us march, write letters, speak to friends as well as foes, protest peacefully, post useful information, repost important thoughts… Even more important let us vote and make sure everyone we know does as well—because we can no longer remain silent. We must stand up for our own diversity.

Bhutan’s Secret: Thinking About Death

We may not know that the capital of Bhutan the small Himalayan country is Thimphu but we more than likely know that it values and prizes happiness.  Strange as it may be to our Western values, their secret, or at least part of it, is thinking about death.  Most Bhutanese think about it 5 times a day. A while back I ran across  an article by a travel writer for the BBC, Eric Weiner writing about all this. I somehow put it aside and  only re discovered it  a bit ago. The message is still fresh and certainly necessary so I am sharing it  now. Weiner went to talk to a sage while visiting Bhutan. Uncharacteristically for him he  writes, he confided his problems to him. The sage told him to think about death once a day. He did, and the advice worked.  In his piece for the BBC Weiner cites recent studies in the US, one from the journal Psychological Science, which reports on the positive effects of taking the advice of thinking about death.

Western society and the American culture in particular, shun notions of death. And what is important about this study and about the case of Bhutan is that we do so at our own loss.  Despite a predominantly Christian culture, a culture that stands for its message of life eternal, we think of death as an end rather than a step, a bridge, a chapter.  It’s not that we are focused on living, it’s the way we prioritize our efforts to live, the way we ignore death, see our life in the world as an end in itself rather than part of something larger. Several years ago I was at a dinner party and the discussion turned to what would we do if we had a year to live. Somehow ever since, I’ve incorporated the idea of dying into much of my thinking, perhaps not daily, but often enough and I’ve discovered that it guides my actions in rewarding and unexpected ways. I wish you the same.

Ankle Bracelets Monitoring

Something about profiting from the vulnerable is unconscionable which is why I wanted to bring attention to one of the ways our society practices it. For a host of reasons people caught in the criminal justice system are being asked to wear ankle bracelets. Often these keep them from being in jail while awaiting trial. Of course sometimes people are innocent but need a trial to prove it. There is a catch.  In St Louis, the city ProPublica investigated, EMASS (Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services) the company that operates these ankle bracelets is a private company which charges $10 a day and the bill must be paid in full before the ankle bracelet is removed. As can be imagined this can be tough for many. And while being in jail is technically the alternative, aside from the hardship of life in prison, for some that would mean a loss of a job. As we know young Black men are disproportionately caught in this system and that bill or debt can make it even harder for them to bring some kind of normalcy to their lives.

Like private prisons, these companies work to sustain and enlarge their bottom line.  Profit ought not to be part of the justice system. And while that may not be the current trend, it remains what is necessary.

Abortion And The Language We Use

The Guardian newspaper recently made a style guide change in relation to how it is and will cover stories about abortion. This was in response to several anti-abortion bills which were either introduced or passed recently and which were called “heartbeat bills”.   Fetal development is seen as a continuum and the president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology said that “What’s interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”  The Guardian wants to only use terms that can be medically defensible, so they will use the phrase “6-week abortion ban” instead of “fetal heartbeat bill”. Similarly for clarity they will use “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life.” We may remember when those opposing third trimester abortion called it “partial birth abortion”. Some and many articles call it late term abortion, but that too is not technically a medical term.

We too must be careful about our language when we speak about abortion. We too ought to adhere to terminology and phrases which are medically sound and clear,  avoid language which The Guardian says is motivated by politics and not science.

Dropped Wallets And The Good Within People

I first saw the story in the NYT and then on NPR and The Verge and other publications. I am sure you saw or heard it somewhere because it was one of these stories the media feels it has to cover. Originally published in the journal Science it dealt with an experiment that over 200 economists thought would go contrary than it did, would not reveal people’s capacity for honesty. Some 17000 wallets usually with money in them were dropped in places like banks and post offices in over 40 countries by people posing as tourists. What they found is that people did try to return the wallets, in much larger percentages than imagined. The name and email of the purported owners were included and efforts were obviously made to contact the owners.  To note was that the names were changed according to the country. What’s more the greater the amount of money in the wallet the more likely the wallets were returned.

We have come to have a negative, if not cynical view of human nature, which of course can at least in part be substantiated by the amount of violence, greed, cruelty and meanness in the world.  But to someone like me, someone thoroughly steeped in the existence and potential for good of our inner transcendent self, this finding only confirms what I’ve long known.  I as so many have witnessed the manifestations of this good, this part of us that goes by many names, including spirit or Maslow’s instinctual positive core.

It’s time we change our view of human nature, not with naiveté but with the knowledge that given certain circumstances, the good does prevail.

Abolitionists And The Prison System

It’s In case you haven’t heard, there’s a new kind of abolitionists. They want to abolish prisons and those aspects of the government that make prisons possible including having police departments. Of course all abolitionists are not alike and some have more rigid expectations while others seem to have more realizable goals. And neither is it a recent phenomenon. It may date back to the 60’s with the ideas of Angela Davis and with the work of trail blazers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What gave this movement flight however was CNN host Van Jones suggesting several years ago that the prison population should be cut by half. Then he was criticized but things have sufficiently changed he is now hailed. What is new is that many committed to reform the criminal justice system have endorsed some of the abolitionists’ ideas. Closing Riker’s Island prison in New York City for example was once thought ridiculous, but it no longer is. Besides incarceration, probation is also being looked at including the possible use of ATM-like machines through which people could check in without having to report to a probation officer. Other ideas that seem to have traction are what crimes should be prosecuted as well as the seeking of out of court remedies. Still another idea filtering through to a more general acceptance is that the system as it is creates harm seriously mitigating whatever public safety it yields. Those who work toward criminal justice reform from within the system can be frustrated by die-hard abolitionists who would want to not only abolish the whole structure but redirect the monies spent on it.  But an outsider like me can be indebted to both for instigating long overdue reforms and looking to continue reforming a system that is no longer serving the society, and much less the human beings caught within it.

To Ponder On

“Everything you love is very likely to be lost, but in the end, love will return in a different way.”

Franz Kafka

 

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIV
  • No. 3
  • May/June 2019
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • DecriminalizeIllegal Immigration
  • Self-Driving Cars and Racist Technology
  • Economic Dignity
  • The Children of Sex Tourists
  • Auto Debt and Inequality
  • Women and the World
  • To Ponder On

Decriminalize Illegal Immigration

California Attorney General, Xavier Beccera joined Democratic presidential candidates Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke in asking for the decriminalization of illegal immigration. Beccera says that civil penalties are enough that criminal charges demonize people whose only crime is seeking a better life. Castro had earlier made a policy proposal to eliminate the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 1325 which makes unauthorized entry into the country a federal misdemeanor. Section 1326 asks for further penalties for subsequent reentries. Those are the statutes used by the Trump administration to separate families and prosecute migrants. Becerra, Castro, O’Rourke and others who may subscribe to the idea know that it is not likely to succeed with this administration, that at best it is a good campaign slogan. And it does look like it is emerging as a Democratic Party talking point.

It’s an important idea, and although it is unlikely to bring relief to those now at the border, it nevertheless needs to be remembered and talked about so that its future as a reality can be that much sooner.

Self-Driving Cars and Racist Technology

Like many I’m waiting for self-driving cars, but I’m also increasingly concerned about how safe they will be. Now there’s another issue. The technology working on those safety issues looks to be programmed to be racist. It identifies white faces but the darker someone is the harder it is for the machine to identify it as a person, in the case of self- driving cars, pedestrians. Researchers from Georgia Tech found that machines consistently failed at recognizing darker skin tones. It’s actually not only self-driving cars, AI in Google image recognition system couldn’t recognize black people, and couldn’t tell the difference between them and an a dark ape. The researchers called such finding alarming, as I hope you will too. There are apparently radars which can better differentiate skin tones, but these are very expensive and to include them in cars would make them very expensive.

It seems to me that since the machines were once programmed by humans and that since the algorithm they function on were devised by humans that the time has come to change the algorithm. That should be the responsibility of the researchers who erred in the first place by revealing their own view of race. So my message to the companies developing AI for self-driving cars is, correct the AI race biases the original engineers programmed in before you even think of cost.

Economic Dignity

The definition of economic dignity has three parts, to be able to take care of your family, having the ability to reach your potential and being free from domination and humiliation. It’s from an article by economist Gene Sperling in the journal Democracy. Sperling worked with both presidents Clinton and Obama. He believes that economic dignity should drive economic policy and that metrics like GDP can be misleading and not produce the right results. In other words economic policy need to make sure for example that people can have jobs with living wages or that corporations not contribute to decreasing upward mobility. Here is how he ends his article: “Government cannot guarantee happiness. But there is little question that with wise and just policy, we do have the power to say to all our people that if you do your part, you care for your family, pursue potential and purpose without ever feeling that you have been given up on, and participate in our economy with a degree of fairness and respect as opposed to domination and humiliation. That much—that basic promise of economic dignity for all—is something that is within our grasp.”

If economic equality means anything to us, then economic dignity is a concept both powerful and useful. And as we begin to ponder national elections, gauging candidates by how closely their rhetoric to combat inequality mirrors this concept may be essential.

The Children of Sex Tourists

The story in The Guardian kept recurring in my thoughts until I finally decided to write about it. The article was about the children of sex tourists in  Pueblo de los Angeles, one of Manila’s poorest neighborhoods, and what made it haunting was that it is duplicated in the slums of many cities, in Asia and the US and surely other continents. Of the 4.7 million tourists in the Philippines each year, 1.2 million are men traveling alone and it has been estimated that probably 40% of them are sex tourists. They have web sites and their own social networks where they call themselves “mongers” for whoremongers and share tips and other information including what they call GFE, girl friend experience. Maybe 40 to 50% of the girls working in Angeles City had at least their first child from “mongers” whether they were from Europe, America or Australia. These children have no fathers and consequently no financial support from them. They often live in dire poverty, where the mother perhaps a third generation sex worker, may live on the equivalent of $3 a day. They may not have enough to eat, live in hovels with leaky tin roofs where the floor turns to mud when it rains. It can be difficult for them to go to school. The article mentioned one child who was too weak from hunger to walk to school.

If these men are that oblivious to the consequences of their self-gratification they would hardly make good fathers. But if they have the means to travel to the Philippines or elsewhere, they should have the means to help support their progeny. Tourism is embedded in the economy of many nations so it is doubtful sex tourism would be banned by the respective governments. Still it can be addressed, perhaps something like  a general tourist tax or a  tariff to create a fund for those children. Any way to address this problem is very much in order and quite possible.

Auto Debt and Inequality

Seven million Americans, according to numbers from the US Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are at least three months behind on their car payments. By the summer of 2018 Americans owed more than   1.26 trillion, more than they did at the end of the recession in 2009.  It paints a troubling picture. Car delinquencies usually come after housing but nevertheless are used to reflect a measure of inequality. While some do own cars they cannot afford, car ownership which is a necessity for many to be able to go to work, is associated with more stability and a bank account that may have a  bit of a balance. Experts say that the number of people defaulting on their car loan points to “financial duress”. People are delinquent on their house first, their credit cards second and their car third. So the increase in delinquencies with car debt is more significant than it first appears. It means that too many people are not able to hold on to something they consider an important or necessary asset.

We hear about near full employment, about the economy doing well and it’s easy to forget about income inequality and how it manifests itself, but it is a mistake to do so. It’s not only a question of remembering those who are struggling, it’s also seeing what lies behind a prosperity that benefits too few.

Women and the World

It’s not enough to have International Women’s Day, it’s necessary to remember why it’s needed, and do so sufficiently frequently so that it might allow us to make a difference. Here are a few statistics that may direct our attention and efforts:

  • ·         At minimum 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation
  • ·         More than 130 million women and girls did not attend school in 2016
  • ·         750 million women and girls alive today were married before the age of 18
  • ·         5000 women and girls globally were murdered for having “dishonored” their families
  • ·         50% of people with HIV today are women
  • ·         23.7%  is the portion of women representatives in national parliaments worldwide
  • ·         2.7 billion women are legally restricted from having the same jobs as men

·         Women have never been Secretary General of the UN, Archbishop of Canterbury, Catholic priests, Prime Minister of Belgium, the Netherlands or Spain, governor of the Bank of England and of course President of the United States

To Ponder On

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.”

J. K. Rowling

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIV
  • No. 2
  • March/April
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Threats To Global Healt
  • Yoga Training Glut
  • Human Composting
  • Biosolids Into Bricks
  • How They Got To Congress
  • Web Access For Those With Disabilities
  • To Ponder On

Threats To Global Health

WHO, the World Health Organization, has issued its annual report of health threats around the world and you’d think it would be dull reading—I suppose it would for those who don’t care what happens in the world. I found it instructive, scary, helpful, and informing about what our priorities ought to be. It is also a reminder that no country is an island. What happens far away affects us eventually. Here is the list. Please note the first threat, due to air pollution and climate change, and note too the threat coming from what they term here vaccine hesitancy. While it is true that some have the right to not be vaccinated, we must now ask when does that right contribute to a public health threat?

  • ·         Air Pollution and Climate Change (yes!!!)
  • ·         Non Communicable Diseases (e.g. alcohol, tobacco, diet)
  • ·         Global Influenza Pandemic (will come but don’t know when and how strong)
  • ·         Fragile and Vulnerable Settings (drought, displacements)
  • ·         Anti-Microbial Resistance (including diseases like TB)
  • ·         Ebola and Other High Threat Pathogens (we already know what happens)
  • ·         Weak Primary Health Care (lack, access and cost)
  • ·         Vaccine Hesitancy (something that is growing in the US)
  • ·         Dengue (390 million infections a year)
  • ·         HIV (still affecting many millions)

Yoga Training Glut

In the Los Angeles area alone at least one hundred yoga teacher trainings began this month. It’s not a particularly demanding training assuming you are sufficiently expert with a number of poses. It only lasts a few weeks, save for the cost which can be quite steep—one I saw was $15,000—it can be available to a wide range of people. That’s a good thing, right? I am not sure. I began by looking at the name of those offering the training, 2 or 3 were unassailable experts, people with national recognition and as close to universal respect as one can in any given field. I couldn’t help but ask, how many are doing it out of commitment to their profession and how many are doing it for whatever financial gain? Then a bigger issue arose within me.  When one reads about the history of how yoga developed and why, one ends us with deep respect, and I count myself among those. Yoga is more than making your body conform to certain poses. Yoga is a way to understand the relationship between the visible and the non, a way to achieve some understanding, however small, about what lies beyond us.  That means that the teacher must be endowed with a certain wisdom to help the practitioner or would be practitioner of yoga move towards that greater goal. That is given to a few.  Perhaps that’s why when I look around at the proliferation of yoga studios, at the existing number of yoga teachers and at the projected increase in those numbers I ask: Are we diluting a hallowed discipline, making it into an imitation of itself?

Human Composting

Composting humans instead of burying or cremating them? Why not? The Washington state legislature is considering it. It is the brainchild of Katrina Spades who has been developing it over a number of years as a greener alternative. The idea is to find an alternative to existing methods of treating bodies after death. Not only are cities running out of land for cemeteries, both cemeteries and cremation leave large carbon footprints. Spade’s idea is to use natural chemicals to allow the body to decompose and allow it to return to the soil in about 30 days. The method saves a metric ton of carbon each time. She founded Recompose, a human composting company where the body is placed in a vat with wood chips, alfalfa and straw which work to decompose it. Her idea includes creating a comforting peaceful space for families not only to say good bye to their family member or loved one but also a place where they could come and contemplate as people do in a garden. If the Washington state legislature goes ahead and legalizes such an option, it would be the first in the world.

The idea reminds me of my friend Sanora Babb who wanted her ashes to be used as fertilizer for her roses. No doubt had re-composting been legal when she died she would have chosen it. What I also like is how the idea of human composting chips away at some of the entrenched religious habits and traditions which many have outgrown.

Biosolids Into Bricks

Biosolids are the disinfected remains from the water treatment process once we’ve flushed. It’s a good fertilizer but now it can be made into bricks, the bricks used in construction. Civil engineers at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University in Australia developed the process. They look the same as fired bricks and when processed locally can save land, energy and reduce carbon emissions, thus becoming a green alternative.  Daily, for example, New York City has 1200 tons or 50 truckloads of what would become biosolids. As it is, what’s not used as fertilizer goes into the sea or landfills. Since population is growing and human waste grows with it, there is pressure to find alternatives. Although biosolids bricks meet industry requirements, they may not be as durable. A proposed usage would be for biosolids to be mixed with soil in some proportion. And given that we make a trillion bricks a year incorporating some biosolids into them would not be a small contribution to the environment.  As they decompose biosolids emit carbon dioxide, so the advantages of turning them into a green alternative become clearer and more compelling.

I may have a soft spot for viable green alternatives, but what impresses me about this one is that somewhere people had to overcome our usual reaction to human waste. They saw beyond!

How They Got To Congress

The NYT researched how each member of Congress arrived there and published a graphic which anyone can use. They compare Congress members as our unofficial aristocracy since they are in effect our ruling class. What they found is that they do not represent the average citizen. As a whole their history, opportunities, background, personal wealth, education can much differ from those of their constituents. An important conclusion they suggest is that it seems the US only has a limited number of ways to enter the halls of power. There may be some difference between Democrats and Republicans, for instance more Republicans house members were formerly in business are opposed to the number of Democrats. The implication is that one’s experience predisposes one to certain issues. In the case of those who were in business, they are more likely to be pro-business in their votes and the issues they sponsor and the type of bills they introduce.  Congress members are wealthier than the average American and that too makes a difference, sometimes sponsoring legislation that benefits their own class at the expense of others.

The United States is a representative democracy, meaning that those who make decisions on behalf of the people ought to represent them. The variance that exists between citizens and their representatives has become troubling. I have not read or heard any real answer to this, but if we want our democracy to regain its vibrancy, if we want Congress to be representative of the needs and aspirations of citizens, it would seem one way to start is by electing people who are more like us. And let’s note, that means we have to vote!

Web Access For Those With Disabilities

If someone close to you has a disability then you know the importance of their having access to any number of things, things we don’t think about or take for granted. A few years ago we didn’t realize how important wheelchair ramps were. And lawsuits prompted by the Americans With Disabilities Act gave us ramps, wider doorways and lower counter tops.  Now the issue is web access and the number of lawsuits has tripled in 2018.  Henry Tucker, A blind New Yorker is systematically suing New York City art galleries because as it stands he does not have access to their websites. While this latest slate of lawsuits is aimed at art galleries, in alphabetical groupings, any business has been or will be affected, yoga studios, moving companies, fashion stores, wine shops, insurance companies, colleges… The cost of making a site accessible to those with disabilities varies from a few hundred to a few thousands. And often businesses comply and settle because it’s cheaper than the costs of a lawsuit.  With the art galleries the settlement may be around $10,000 to $15,000 per.  Many of these lawsuits, sometimes called “drive-by lawsuits” come from just a few law firms which seem to specialize in them. They can be lucrative. I remember meeting a lawyer a few years ago, who made his living this way.  While on the whole these lawsuits have widened the experience of those with disabilities, there are at least two problems. One is that despite adjustments and changes, some websites remain inaccessible to the visually impaired. Another lies in how these actions are being carried out and perhaps why. Lainey Feingold a disability rights lawyer who specialized in digital accessibility says that they give a bad impression of the Americans With Disabilities Act and give a bad impression about web accessibility. If I were blind, for example, I would be willing to make some allowances but I would want access to the web like anyone else. Wouldn’t you? But I don’t think I would approve of lawyers using my disability as a means to enrich themselves.

To Ponder On

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”

Helen Keller

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIV
  • No. 1
  • January/February 2019
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Heath Span
  • Feeding The Planet
  • BBL, Dangers and Other Issues
  • Space Travel and Billionaires
  • Rights For Sex Workers
  • Student Debt Crisis
  • To Ponder On

Health Span

Heart disease, diabetes, neurological disorders, cancer, stroke are all diseases which increasingly occur as people age. In fact old age is the biggest risk factor for disease. A large number of people want to avoid disease and extend their lifespan. After all Star Trek’s Mr. Spock taught us to live long and prosper. New drugs are being tried, and of course there are many who might want to try whatever they think is available, anything that might prolong their life. But scientists apparently see the issues differently. The body is not constructed to last as long as some might wish. Although there is some dispute as to how long that might be, and as Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 6
  • November/December 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Hail The Caravan
  • Work of the Future and Reskilling
  • One Billion Without Toilets
  • Guns, Ammo ad 3-D
  • DNA Testing and Errors
  • Ode to Libraries
  • To Ponder On

Hail the Caravan

As an immigrant I know what it’s like to leave all you know for the unknown. We had visas, we weren’t penniless, we flew to the US and regardless I felt fear.  When you emigrate everything familiar is gone and you don’t know how it will be replaced, nor do you know what will happen next. I heard and read about the caravan from Central America and I  can’t help thinking about those courageous people who are willing to walk  a couple of thousand  miles or more in search of some safety, in search for some opportunities out of assured poverty and violence, in search of  better lives for their families. They banded together to avoid the criminals who prey on migrants, the kidnappers, the thieves, the smugglers, they are walking because they cannot pay Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 5
  • September/October 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • The Religious Liberty Task Force
  • Eagles of the Desert
  • The Burn Unit
  • Gene Drives, GMOs and Species Extinction
  • The Need for Conversation
  • Welfare Benefits and Racism
  • To Ponder On

The Religious Liberty Taskforce

According to Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, addressing a recent Religious Freedom Summit, there is what he called a dangerous movement interfering with religious freedom. Consequently, he announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Taskforce and charged them with enforcing 20 principles which he presented in a DOJ Memorandum. Some of the 20 points seem to place religious liberty over civil liberty, or permit certain kinds of discrimination. According to Session’s speech, religious freedom must come first. So it would appear that in practice if two aspects of the bill of Rights come in conflict, the answer would be simple, religious freedom would trump (no pun intended) any other one.

There is much to be concerned about when one reads these 20 principles, which are listed in Continue reading

A Larger View

A Commentary On How Current Events Reflect— Or Not—Our Search For Higher Values

  • Volume XXIII
  • No. 4
  • July/August 2018
  • Bulletin of The Inner/Outer Partnership

in this issue:

  • Private Equities and Toys 'R' Us
  • Bankruptcy and The Poor
  • Mergers, Less Jobs and Smaller Paychecks
  • Eyegkasses fir the World's Poor
  • Health Insurance Companies and Profits
  • 68.5 million Refugees
  • To Ponder On

Private Equities and Toys ‘R’ Us

How do popular stores like Toys ‘R’ Us end up filing for bankruptcy?  The behind the scene story opens a window on the role of private equity funds in our society. “Thirty-three percent of retail job losses from 2016 through 2017 resulted from private-equity backed store closures…,” according to a report by Inflection Capital Management, an equity fund consulting firm. Due to competition from ecommerce like Amazon, Toys ‘R’ Us was in debt and was bought by a private equity fund. The funds some say are like payday lenders, they charge high interest rates. Rosemary Batt of Cornell says, “Debt is the lifeblood of private equity, but it spells death for companies and joblessness for workers.” So Toys ‘R’ Us ended up paying $400 million a year in interest alone, and wasn’t able to recover.  With that much debt it is difficult for the stores to improve their business. They can restructure and pare down expenses but the profits still aren’t enough to pay down the debt.  In time it was an untenable situation, Toys ‘R’ Us owed $5 billion. To be fair, the private-equity fund which had bought the 735 stores for $6.6 billion had put up $1.3 billion of its own money, so when it was time for bankruptcy they did lose money, but had already made money on their investment, and some say that in between its debt repayment and all the fees attached to the financial transactions had made up more than it had lost. The executives of Toys ‘R’Us walked away with millions, but 30,000 workers lost their jobs without any severance pay. These are low paying, low skills jobs which continue to be disappearing for the same reason as what happened to Toys ‘R’ Us. It happened at Nine West, at Mervyn’s several years back and to others like Claire’s which are less well known.  It is difficult for these workers to find jobs, perhaps somewhat easier for the younger among them, but much harder for the many older ones. Some experts like Josh Kosman believe what he calls the buyout of America may lead to a financial crisis. Meanwhile it is important for us to understand the consequences of private equity funds, and realize what happens when Wall Street places profits ahead of the social good.

Bankruptcy and the Poor

In 2005 Congress passed a new bankruptcy law to prevent abuses, it made getting a lawyer necessary. But of course many can’t afford one. Some wait until their tax refunds, so much so there is a spike in bankruptcy filings from March to May. Some file under Chapter 13 which means their debts have to be repaid usually over 5 years.  Chapter 13 requires a lawyer too, and those fees have to be added to the list of debts. Many default and then it all falls through. There are also bankruptcy services which purport to help people, but the law can be complicated and often consumers are not well served by these services. The best way to file for bankruptcy is through Chapter 7 which erases all debts. But the lawyers’ fees and the filing fees are not within the means of many who need to file. Recently the number of consumers who file for bankruptcy each year is from 800,000 to 1.5million people. Some have the clients write a series of pre dated checks which they cash every month after the bankruptcy court proceedings, and some states have not allowed this practice. Some other states allow lawyers’ fees to be paid in two installments pre and post bankruptcy. What is needed are reforms, which are not complicated and which are not major but which in this Congress are not likely to be passed despite a powerful ally in Senator Elizabeth Warren. As it is laws meant to help those in need make things worse for them. And that is wrong.

Mergers, Less Jobs and Smaller Paychecks

We’re so used to hear about mergers, we don’t give them sufficient attention. Some are well known names, Amazon bought Whole Foods, Cigna bought Express Scripts, and some are names we may not often hear such as Marathon Petroleum buying rival Endeavor. There are also those which are proposed, AT&T merger with Time Warner or T Mobile with Sprint, for example. The number of mergers keeps growing; so far in 2018 $1.7 trillion worth of deals have occurred and more are expected. We are so inured perhaps we hardly think of the consequences. As far as the mergers being studied by the Justice Department are concerned, however, only how they will affect consumer prices will be looked at.  Mergers reduce competition and its incentive to attract customers, and while consumer groups and others opposing them say they will not be good for consumers and increase prices in the long run, if not the short one, those who study mergers think that only looking at consumer prices is a small slice of the consequences. Economists have now studied the impact of mergers and found that they do a lot more besides affect consumer prices. They first of all reduce the number of employers available and the numbers of jobs as well. And also they lead to what is called monopsony by reducing the number of job opportunities for workers and therefore placing the employers in a better position to dictate terms. So when combined with the weakening of unions, workers are losing bargaining power.  The result is wage stagnation. Corporations keep earning larger profits but wages do not keep up and can be said to be smaller.

The number of mergers keeps happening at a pace hard for the average person to follow. We may not be able to stop them for the present, but we must be aware of what they do and must insist that those we vote for be informed and prepared to tackle an issue which is key to economic health and economic inequality.

Eyeglasses for The World’s Poor

The headline in a NYT story was arresting, “A Simple way to Improve a Billion Lives: Eyeglasses. Poor eyesight is not the kind of problem that usually makes headlines and yet according to the WHO it costs $200 billion a year in productivity.  Poor eyesight means that truck drivers in Nigeria and drivers in India drive without seeing what they need to see and end up causing more accidents, many involving fatalities. It means that school children who can’t see to do their school work properly are labeled poor learners and held back from the very education that could help them. It means that farmers can’t see small pest infestations or may not read pesticides labels properly, it means that workers fear for their jobs because they may not be able to properly read instructions or the texts sent them. People are held back when they have poor eyesight and economic barriers compound the human ones. Several organizations are now trying to draw attention to this problem and in the case of EYElliance also trying to raise money to solve it. The number of people affected alone makes it a problem worthy of notice, at least one billion people need glasses and perhaps as high as two and a half billion. It’s more than money, there are very few vision centers in the affected countries and that means very little access. In Liberia for example until last year there were no vision clinics in the whole country. Besides money there are societal barriers. In a country like India, for example, there is the prejudice about wearing glasses. It may be considered an infirmity and a girl wearing glasses may not be as marriageable.  Poor eyesight may be a big problem but it has a simple solution, it’s easy to diagnose, it’s not a contagious disease and does not require a vaccine and the difficulty of administering it. It also involves no big cash outlay, for a pair of eye glasses in many African or Indian countries can vary from a few cents to $2.00.

I do believe I’ll never take wearing glasses for granted again.

Health Insurance Companies and Profits

Health care is a big consumer concern and health care costs an even bigger one. As is already known, the US spends more per person on health care and gets less than other developed nations. And then there’s the fact that one in 5 of every person currently being pursued by collection agencies is for medical debt. The issue of rising costs is proverbially complex, and in part why ProPublica, the investigative reporting site in conjunction with NPR conducted an examination which puts a finger on how health insurers operate.  According to their reporting, insurance companies pay the high costs of hospital bills without flinching or arguments.  Hospital bills are not easy for consumers to decipher, and yet the price may be set or known to both the hospitals and the insurers. Many who undergo surgeries have co-pays which are often percentages of a given bill, say 10% which means that only 2 out of the 3 parties involved know the costs involved. The article compares it to not knowing what an airline ticket would cost until after you’ve flown. The absolutely striking part of the article is that for health insurers profits do not lie in saving money but in the percentage left once they have paid the medical bills and covered their administrative costs. What they do is try to accurately predict how much the people they insure will cost them and set premiums accordingly. If they’re right they reap a profit. If they’re wrong, they cover their losses by raising the premiums in the following year. The amount of a bill is not a factor for them, and their profit is not predicated on their decreasing spending.

The stark facts of this investigation not only highlight the role that insurers—like drug companies—have to play in making health care affordable, but also that solutions to making health care affordable cannot be done without a change in the formula of how all these companies derive their profits. Most of all since all this may end up very difficult to accomplish, our awareness and insistence things must change ought to hopefully inch us towards a single payer system.

68.5 Million Refugees

Being an immigrant is very difficult. I know from experience what it’s like to leave everything you know and have behind and go towards an unknown. And in our case we didn’t have to pay smugglers, we didn’t have to walk across borders, we had passports, visa, purchased our own plane fares and weren’t fleeing war. So when I read that the number of refugees and displaced persons from wars and persecutions has reached 68.5 million, I shudder. These are 68.5 million lives which have been uprooted, undergoing suffering, and we can well assume at least some are traumatized.   They are 25.4 million actual refugees, 40 million internally displaced persons and 3.1 million seeking asylum.  Two third of them come from principally five countries,  and that excludes the long term Palestinian refugees, they are Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. The 68.5 million for 2017 represents an increase of 16.5 million from the previous year and that despite the fact that some 5 million refugees were able to return home. Refugee agencies are overwhelmed, there is of course a question of funding to accommodate so many. 14 countries are banding together trying to forge a blueprint of how to deal with refugees, and  the UN is in the process of putting together a Global Compact on Refugees to be voted on by the Security Council. Still those may not be sufficient to help those in need.  The time has come for the world and each of us as citizens to take a stand to demand action be taken. It is heartening that people protesting the incarceration of children at the US border became a springboard for some action (not yet resolved at the time of this writing). Yet the protests were not triggered on behalf of refugees and their plight, but because children were held in cages. It is a good step, but not enough to address the problem. We need to stop incarcerating children, certainly, but we need to better apply our own principles, seeking asylum is legal. We also need to develop a new philosophy about our borders, and renew our commitment to immigration. And not to be forgotten, whatever we do, we need the resources to do it.  Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees sums up the issue by saying, “No one becomes a refugee by choice, but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.”

To Ponder On

“It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

J.K. Rowling