Little Rock Talking to someone yesterday who wanted to do a series of reports for KABF community radio about religion, caught me up short and forced me to actually think for a minute about the strange and interesting stirrings within religious denominations that might just indicate that in the face of declining membership, some of them may be moving towards peace with their parishioners rather than standing simply as a rock in raging rivers.
The Boy Scouts announced that by a vote of 60-40, their advisory council had voted to accept gay scouts as a half-step towards equality in the scouting ranks. Earlier reports reminded everyone that religious denominations were the overwhelmingly numerous sponsors of scout troops with the Mormons, Baptists, and Catholics in the lead ranks. The Mormons, surprising many, had announced that they were encouraging their folks to vote for gay acceptance. It is impossible to believe that this measure would have passed without a lot of very conservative religious denominations joining ranks with the Mormons to meet the shifting views of the American public way more than halfway on this measure.
Other reports have marveled at the critical role that evangelical churches are playing in pushing for immigration reform, once again surprising many observers who count such local churches as central to the social conservatism of many on these kinds of issues. This is actually not news, just something that it took a while for the mainstream to notice. Five years ago when I worked as a consultant to the National Immigration Forum and Casa de Maryland, it was common to see many evangelical leaders in the ranks and Rev. Slim Coleman from Chicago and others were untiring in their advocacy of progressive reform.
Finally we even read that some priests and nuns are organizing as whistleblowers to stand finally with their parishioners in exposing abuse of children by priests. Certainly it is past time for an institution that has now been seen covering up such scandals all over the world, even while asking for institutional forgiveness. Nonetheless, hearing that some are breaking ranks finally is good news for the declining number of regular participants at mass.
Organizations, even huge mass-based institutions like religious denominations, are still ruled by the organizational laws of man, even while they advocate the laws of their gods, and the law of organizations is that they either change or die. Maybe these are only small signs, but they are encouraging whiffs that the winds of change may finally be coming to American religions before their membership leaves them talking to themselves rather than counseling the people in the pews.
Religion Audio Blog
Little Rock Increasingly the IRS exempt offices controversy is looking more and more like a tempest at a Tea Party.
When Dave Johnson, a blogger at the Huffington Post, wrote a lead sentence reminding readers that they needed to remember the ACORN manufactured videos when they read about the IRS so-called scandal, he had my full attention. Looking past the headlines, he brought attention to the testimony of IRS officials that of the 300 applications – out of thousands – they pulled for scrutiny only 70 involved the Tea-people types or less than 25% of the total. Of the other 230 pulled, many were from progressive or liberal groups, some of which were actually denied, and that happened to none of the Tea applications.
For evidence Johnson didn’t have to look too hard.
From the Congressional hearing record:
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-IL: “How come only conservative groups got snagged?”
Outgoing acting IRS commissioner Steve Miller: “They didn’t sir. Organizations of all walks and all persuasions were pulled in. That’s shown by the fact that only 70 of the 300 organizations were tea party organizations, of the ones that were looked at by TIGTA [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration].”
And, from business source Bloomberg in an article appropriately entitled, “IRS Sent Same Letter to Democrats that Fed Tea Party Row:”
“One of those groups, Emerge America, saw its tax-exempt status denied, forcing it to disclose its donors and pay some taxes. None of the Republican groups have said their applications were rejected. Progress Texas … faced the same lines of questioning as the Tea Party groups from the same IRS office that issued letters to the Republican-friendly applicants. A third group, Clean Elections Texas, which supports public funding of campaigns, also received IRS inquiries.
In a statement late yesterday, the tax agency said it had pooled together the politically active nonpartisan applicants — including a “minority” that were identified because of their names. “It is also important to understand that the group of centralized cases included organizations of all political views,” the IRS said in its statement.”
Johnson also makes the very good point that most of the applications drowning the IRS in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, which opened the floodgates for corporate political contributions and the special c4 exempt status that allowed all of these operations to keep the names of the donors on secret, got a free ride and were approved with no questions asked. A mixed bag from all over the political map had to fill out some forms for additional information, but most of those including what appears to be all of the Tea Party related applicants ended up being approved.
Once again it is worth remembering that “things are not always the way they seem,” especially when we are being manipulated by many to only see what they want us to see.
IRS Scandal Audio Blog
New Orleans Dr. Perri Klaus wrote a piece recently for a Times’ column that should not be ignored essentially making the case that poverty is not simply a social, political, and economic circumstance, but a disease with terrible consequences, lifelong impacts, and potentially multi-generational effects.
At one level he talks about an increasingly prevalent diagnosis in our hardening class structure called “toxic stress” which can damage a young child’s body and brain by “too much exposure to so-called stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine.” This stress attract without prevention or mediation may “reset the neurological and hormonal systems, permanently affecting children’s brains and even, we are learning, their genes.”
Sound serious enough? There’s no 12-step program for this situation. It’s permanent and life altering, as Dr. Klaus and many others point out leading to “define many children’s life trajectories in the harshest terms: poor academic achievement, high dropout rates, and health problems from obesity and diabetes to heart disease, substance abuse and mental illness.”
This diagnosis to me seems to strongly say: pay me now or pay me later.
Klaus, trying to avoid the “Debbie downer” tag, argued that the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Tony Blair looked at their gaping wealth disparity and made a goal of reducing poverty there by half in 10 years, and up until 2010 largely succeeded cutting the absolute poverty rate from 26.1% of children in 1999 to 10.6% in 2010. In America now 25% of children under 5 live below the federal poverty guidelines, and we are moving the opposite direction by not expanding early childhood education and defunding Head Start.
You get the message. We can beat this disease, but likely every disease we have to be willing to prevent its onset and then take the cure. Both take money and willpower. One we have and the other we seem to be sadly lacking. Meanwhile the disease and destruction of poverty rages on, killing millions, and leaving despair and destruction wherever the epidemic is allowed to fester and rage.
Poverty as Disease Audio Blog
New Orleans The closer we get to 2014 and the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act or so-called Obamacare, the more our hopes for health security for all Americans are being dashed as we stumble over what appear to be loopholes in the law and its regulations large enough for companies to drag an army of sick, injured, and underpaid workers through. Embarrassingly, Pan American Life Insurance Group, New Orleans-based company with offices on Poydras Avenue, which calls itself the “Wall Street of New Orleans” is right in the thick of this mess in marketing to large employers bare-bones or “skinny” low cost plans that would provide fig leaf coverage for workers for preventive care only with nothing for hospital stays.
How can this be possible?
According to the Wall Street Journal, the problems allowing these kinds of insurance scams can be uncovered in the glaring light of a close reading of the regulations. Where most employers, experts, and government officials have seen the ACA as a mandate for “robust” insurance, the Journal reports that “…the rules make it clear that those mandates only cover plans sponsored by insurers that are sold to small businesses and individuals, federal officials confirm.” Citing a Citigroup Inc report, the Journal says, “That affects only 30 million of the more than 160 million people with private insurance, including 19 million people covered by employers….Larger employers, generally with more than 50 workers, need cover only preventive services, without a lifetime or annual dollar-value limit, in order to avoid the across-the-workforce penalty.”
The hope for workers shackled to these cheap rate employers is that though the company might avoid the $2000 per worker penalty for offering no coverage, if the worker opts out of the company bare-bones plan and goes to the state health exchange to buy fuller coverage they would have to be subsidized $3000 annually by the employer. To take advantage of the subsidized exchange plans a worker would pay about $70 per month for so-so midlevel coverage and if they were making more than $12 per hour their costs could go up to $140 for the full package. That’s still a good deal for full health coverage, but a lower waged worker would still have to be able to afford it, and that could be tough for many.
The employers who are thinking about stiffing their workers on these low-to-no coverage skinny plans are betting the odds favor them. Knowing how little they pay their workers, especially in the hospitality and food service industry, they think so few of them will be able to pony up the money to go the exchange route, that the few times they will have to fork over $3 grand will make it worth the bet for them. Companies in Texas like El Fenix, the Tex-Mex chain with 1200 workers, and San Antonio-based Bill Miller Bar-B-Q with 4200 workers are already indicating they are going with the bottom of the barrel options. For unions like Local100 or organizations advocating workers’ rights, I can already see the faces of workers coming in our offices to report being fired for having signed up for the exchange and costing their bosses an extra $3000. If credit card histories can disqualify people from jobs now, health care problems and health care coverage decisions will no doubt lead to firings of workers throughout the country. There may be some protections for such blatant discrimination, and surely there must be, but there are protections for firing workers for labor law violations, union activity, reporting EEOC and health and safety issues, and workers still get fired for such activity every day, as companies and the government essentially say, “Prove it!”
We are in for a hard, rough fight in the trenches to try to win good, affordable healthcare coverage for Americans, because the ACA is just the beginning, and it may not be as good a beginning as we either need or had hoped for.
New Orleans Most cases of payday lending abuse come to me in the normal channels, which is to say right from the mouths of the victims. This time the shock and awe at the abuses of some payday lenders, like that of large, but low profile small loan, payday lender, World Acceptance, are so offensive that news of their consumer outrages were forwarded to me by a friend in the investment business and included scathing indictments by a hedge fund manager in his advisory newsletter.
World Acceptance operates a big niche business of lending at high interest rates and predatory terms to largely lower income and working families in the South and Mexico, where they have more than 1100 offices handling a portfolio of about 800 loans per location. They are huge in Texas, but Texas is huge, too, with 245 offices, Louisiana with 45, South Carolina, where they are headquartered, Georgia, and other states that don’t do much for their citizens in keeping the wolves away from the doors. Arkansas where there are still remnants of what were once the most aggressive anti-usury laws in the country has no World Acceptance offices, nor does North Carolina where pay day lending was outlawed years ago. Not that such prohibition stops World Acceptance since they are thriving in Georgia where payday lending is also prohibited.
In negotiating with subprime lenders while with ACORN, I would frequently begin the session by conceding that our members used subprime lenders and needed them, since banks ran away from direct lending of small sums and often our members did not have pristine credit histories. Forbes in a glowing report on World Acceptance at the end of 2012 was giddy about World Acceptance’s 327% stock price increase since the recession meltdown, as well as the soaring increases of their competitors Cash America and First Cash Financial, all of which are ubiquitous in lower income, minority neighborhoods on my daily journeys. As Forbes reported without a hint of irony, “Left to its own devices, it’s hard on customers but potentially kind to investors.” And, as I have often argued, the $2 billion in loans put out by World Acceptance would not be possible without the huge, and lucrative, lines of credit extended to them by in this case their bankers, Wells Fargo and Bank of America.
Reports from ProPublica, the nonprofit foundation funded investigative news shop, were more revealing about World Acceptance’s business methods. Routinely, they bundled in all kinds of different credit insurance products in the loans as a primary part of their business model. The hedge manager, admittedly trying to short the stock, argued that 50% of the company’s net profit came from the various insurance scams. Furthermore, he called the fact that 30% of their repayments every month are late, a “giant ponzi-accounting scheme,” which certainly stirs the pot hotter. The “ponzi” part comes partially from what some former World workers described as the operating motto, “pay and renew, pay and renew,” meaning that they were constantly refinancing the original loans to lard them up with higher rates, meaning higher returns, when ever fulfilled. Ex-workers descriptions of “chasing” where they visited borrowers homes and workplaces to implicitly threaten them about their loan status, are more reminiscent of the common practices of big lenders, including Citibank and others, using gangs to force collection of small loans in India where it is standard operating procedure.
Interest rates between 200% and 400% are not uncommon on the World Acceptance schemes. Abuses of the Military Lending Act are rampant as the company exploits loopholes. Meanwhile the new Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is vilified for its efforts at the federal level to issue regulations and guidelines attempting to curb the industry.
When people inside the finance world are grossed out by the business model, interest rates, and predatory practices of payday lenders like World Acceptance, there’s hope, but they may be as isolated inside that world as we are, banging on the front door for change, drowned out by the voices in Forbes and elsewhere, essentially saying “buy,” but hold your nose while doing so.
World Acceptance Audio Blog
New Orleans My father, as longtime readers recall, would often greet me when I would return from an international trip, with the challenge to tell him “stories” that he “would want to hear.” Though he died just short of five years ago, I still find myself making mental notes as I travel, of the kinds of eclectic, but vital, pieces of information, he might find interesting.
- The men’s bathroom in the basement of our meeting rooms at the stately, revered University of Edinburgh were decorated in dazzling blue lights that were so distinctive that I couldn’t help snapping a picture. Later I found out that there was a less than decorative reason. The blue lighting made it difficult for heroin users to locate a vein, thereby discouraging addicts from using the university water closets as a shooting gallery.
- Virtually all of the public buses in Edinburgh are double-deckers, which locals cite as a claim to fame for the city compared to elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
- In Prague there are no workers in the toll booths for the Metro. On buses and the subway, no one pays tolls except for the occasional tourist I would see trying to navigate how to use the ticket machines.
- At the end of the reception after I arrived in Prague, the organizer Michal Ulver encouraged people to enjoy the food and eat hardily as they were doing and then mentioned that all of the food was “recycled,” as it was translated to me. What he meant was that the food had been collected by him with the help of a friend at a local grocery store from the rubbish bins after closing. I stayed with Jon Black and his roommates in Edinburgh my last few days in Scotland, and they generously offered me to enjoy any food I saw handy. Jon told me later that they practiced what they called “skipping,” which turned out to be the same dumpster diving routine that Michal had mentioned in Prague. He and one of his roommates alternated every other week going to the local grocery store at 11:30 PM after it closed and “shopping” for what they needed from the bins, washing it off later, and voila. If there is a breakfast of champions, skipping seems to be setting the dinner table for ACORN organizers in Europe.
- At a community kitchen in the Edinburgh housing complex I let the volunteer worker convince me to have a “stovie” for lunch, which he described as a local Scottish dish. Turned out it was corned beef and “mash” (mashed potatoes) all mixed together with no vegetables allowed.
- The most ubiquitous retail establishment I saw in Edinburgh anywhere near where we were organizing as well as everywhere downtown and elsewhere were “charity shops” featuring 2nd hand clothing and other goods, run by all manner of nonprofits as a way to develop resources to support their work from Save the Children to the Salvation Army. Incidentally, I also was taught the term “chuggers” which stands for “charity muggers” and describes street canvassers that highjack debit and credit card information for fake causes.
- A vote on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom is upcoming but polls are saying that currently voters are 60-40 against.
- A scheme to privatize social or public housing has foundered in many parts of the UK. My colleagues favorite paradox was a picture we all took of a vast track of land in Pilton, where we are planning an organizing drive for ACORN Scotland, promising development, which has not happened, on vacant land where social housing was torn down for private interests whose plans didn’t develop anything due to lack of financing.
- In a humbling cross cultural note, I learned that the choice of cold or warm beer that I have often noted in Kenya and speculated that it came from lack of refrigeration facilities, actually comes from colonization by the British there and the fact that some of them prefer warm ales. More embarrassingly, when our folks were talking at a pub about the different ways that some things were pronounced in various parts of Scotland, I cited the example from India of urinal being pronounced by ACORN India organizers as ur-i-nal. Calmly, they informed me that they all pronounced the term ur-i-nal. Whoops!
- My father used to enjoy a bottle of Glenfiddich for Christmas, but over in Scotland they claim that they grow fonder over time for scotches with a stronger taste of peat. They gave me a bottle of Aberlour. Cheers!
Stories for My Father Audio Blog