Smartphones Might Accelerate Lowering the Cost of Remittances

spNew Orleans   For so many smartphones have only meant an even bigger time suck on Facebook, an easier way to play games while waiting for the bus, and a chance to watch YouTube videos of cats or people tripping on sidewalks or whatever. For those people who still think the whole world is only their personal oyster, there might have been some head scratching as they heard that a must-have tool for migrants, fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and trying to navigate their way across Europe to promised lands, is a smartphone. Smartphones? They don’t hardly have two cents and the shirts on their backs, but they have a smartphone? What’s up?

Well, the migrants fleeing for their lives is a huge issue and a humanitarian crisis, but maybe there’s a way to see a silver lining in the increased ubiquity and the obvious affordability of smartphones, especially when it comes to the drum that ACORN International and its affiliates continue to beat about the vital necessity as well to lower the cost of money transfers or remittances from these same migrants and other immigrants to each other and their home communities. Cheap smartphones flying off the shelf from China are part of the clue here, but there are also hopeful signs in Africa as some companies finally are making it easier – and cheaper – to use mobile phones to make bi-national money transfers. Google’s entry into the market in Africa and other developing countries could – and should – accelerate this as well.

London-based Vodafone and South Africa’s MTN, the largest telecom in Africa, are moving forward to facilitate mobile payments between their two huge networks. Vodafone’s Safaricom subsidiary in Kenya through its 14 million customer M-Pesa network already facilitates mobile phone payments for a huge number of purchases and services. Finally central government banks in Uganda and Rwanda have approved telecom transfers. The network of partnerships these companies are building in East Africa is expected to lower the transfer costs of remittances from the current 20% to only 3% or less. The ACORN International demand to the companies has been 5%, so this would be huge. The toothless World Bank even says that reducing prices for the $48 billion worth of remittances in Africa by even 5% say from 20% to 15% would save desperate families $16 billion!

Small, old school “burner” type mobile phones with dual SIM card slots are all over Kenya to allow transfers across networks, but new market entries in large, developing countries could also make a difference. Google’s Android One phone, using its software and Chinese and other manufactures came out last year in India and ten other countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, and Philippines. An upgraded model of Android One was announced by Google a couple of weeks ago for Nigeria with all the features needed from dual SIM slots to software lengthening battery life and speeding internet access where connections are weak. The phone is also available on-line in Egypt, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Morocco.

For smartphones to become the handsets of choice and tools for forcing the cost of remittances down and the predatory costs to plummet, pricing is still an issue. Many of the Chinese phones, that also use older versions of Android software, sell for $50, and African and other developing country customers, not unlike many of us non-I-Phone people, purchase on price. Google’s phone is now set at $89 in Nigeria and almost $100 in India. MTN offers $62 smartphones in South Africa and various models between $47 and $57 in Nigeria. Google is likely going to need to get the price down to $30 to $50 to play head-to-head. But, that’s their problem.

Ours continues to be how to put billions of more dollars into communities for their own development and to families to improve their living standards. Moving closer to a system that gets rid of the bankers, Western Union’s, and MoneyGram’s, and lets money move hand to hand through your phone at a fraction of the cost, is our big problem, and smartphones and even the Googles and almost equally predatory telecoms may help us get there, whether that was their intention or not.

Are Minimum Wage “Carve-outs” Worth the Arguments?

ACORN_3New Orleans   As difficult as it is win higher wages in cities around the country, where it has happened businesses are trying to pump up a controversy over union attempts to pass “carve-outs” that would exempt union contracts from compliance with the living wage agreements. There is nothing new in unions trying this tactic in some cities, and Los Angeles where most of the hootenanny is now, has always been controversial in this area, but the real question is whether or not any gain is worth the pain of labor having its great victories tarred by the seeming contradiction.

The mischief began when Los Angeles unions and their labor federation asked the Los Angeles City Council for a waiver shortly before they were expected to pass the increase to $15 per hour by 2020. The waiver would have exempted collective bargaining agreements. The business community and the local chamber of commerce had raised sand about the issue and the exemption language had been omitted from the draft ordinance. There is a long history of such language being included in Los Angeles dating back to when the city passed one of the first living wage provisions in the country for city-based contractors years ago. The language then had included collective bargaining agreements as well as a provision allowing a lower hourly wage if offset by inclusion of health protection for the workers. The language was less controversial there and in some other cities that followed the LA leader because it introduced a level of flexibility and a voice for workers to increase their level of choice.

The Wall Street Journal did a back of the envelope survey of cities that had passed new measures above state or federal minimums. The language for an exemption does not exist in Seattle, Kansas City, Oakland, Louisville, San Jose, or New Orleans, though such carve-outs do exist in San Francisco and Chicago. In Washington there is language encouraging collective bargaining to exceed the new city minimums. In the San Jose language there is no real carve-out, but something closer to a severability clause that anything can be changed “to the extent required by federal law,” which is pretty much standard in all agreements.

The Los Angeles Federation of Labor and the national hotel workers’ union both argue that these carve-outs are needed to avoid unnecessary and frivolous court challenges, but that sounds more like a rationale than a reason. The same severability clauses in most collective bargaining agreements keep the contracts whole and intact based on the actions of any competent jurisdiction, federal, state or local or court actions. The notion that a company would sue the city to hold down its wages or protect its agreement seems a bit specious.

The claim by opponents is that this is an advantage in union organizing, but if it is, unions have never proven it to be. The pure and simple truth is workers almost uniformly grab the maximum in hourly wages come hell or high water, because they want the flexibility in spending and in bargaining the union, wisely, gets of the way and tries to add any increase in benefits on top of the wages.

I’m reminded of a big mistake I made while working as Chief Organizer of ACORN through inattention and failing to look at the forest for the trees in a similar matter many years ago. Somehow I greenlighted a lawsuit by our eager beaver, first amendment, free speech expert lawyers and their minders, challenging whether or not by the nature of our work at ACORN we should have untrammeled rights to associate and speak and therefore should not be subject to the minimum wage laws of California, despite having campaigned vigorously for such increases for all workers. My oversight had been perfunctory at best. We had a point, so, “sure, take a shot,” and away we went without thinking. For years our efforts to exempt the organization were thrown back in our faces in every living wage campaign. The lawyers had looked at the walls of the courtroom and stopped there. It was my job to look at the whole picture, and I didn’t. The optics were terrible regardless of whatever merits our position might have had.

This fight seems like a bad dream coming back. This is a fight we can’t win and should not wage, even if we thought there were real legal risks or organizing gains. We need to be seen as advocating for all workers. Period. We need to keep our victories untarnished. Heck, we need to learn from our mistakes!

Banksy’s Dismaland

Announcing: ACORN are an official part of Banskys Dismaland! And you can too - we need your help! Visit http://www.acorncommunities.org.uk/disma_volunteer to get involved!

Announcing: ACORN are an official part of Banskys Dismaland! And you can too – we need your help! Visit http://www.acorncommunities.org.uk/disma_volunteer to get involved!

New Orleans      At the end of a long catch-up Skype call with Stuart Melvin, ACORN United Kingdom’s national organizer, he mentioned he and some of the members were going to be spending some time at an odd street festival of sorts not far from our folks in Bristol, England along the coast in a town called Weston-super-Mare. Stu kinda laughed about it, said he couldn’t really describe it, but I should just Google the name of the town, and I’d get a sense of it. I meant to do so of course, but I didn’t, you know how these things go, there’s only so much time in the day.

A couple of mornings later I scan a piece in the New York Times about the latest mashup from world famous street and graffiti artist, and Bristol-native, the ever elusive, Banksy. The art community had been wondering what he had been up to during an unusually quiet stretch and suddenly, and in his typical way, secretly it seemed, he had opened a massive thing he called Dismaland on the English seaside. Interesting, I thought and kept on pushing.

Later at work an email from Stu says this bizarre experience went well. Ah, that’s right the gang was going to the shore, I’d almost forgotten. Finally, the pieces came together when I saw a Facebook picture of our crack ACORN Bristol organizer, Nick Ballard, waving an ACORN flag standing next to one of our volunteers, and in the background was, yes, you guessed it, Dismaland! Damned if Banksy and his people, whoever they might be, hadn’t invited ACORN to be one of the street attractions for this 5-week extravaganza that observers believe might attract as many as 400,000 people. No wonder Stu was excited that in his first afternoon out there in a couple of hours we had enrolled 50 provisional ACORN members, all of whom wanted ACORN in their towns!

The Guardian refers to Dismaland as a mixture of anarchism and amusement park. I’m Ok with that. Just days before the Bristol ACORN crew had posted pictures of a typical summer day and it was basically a shot of dark, cold, and rain. Now reading the descriptions of Dismaland and looking at some of the pictures, what can I say, I wish I were there!

For the art lovers, Banksy is displaying 58 artists’ work, and says these are pieces from the best contemporary artists in the world, “apart from the two that turned him down.” He has 10 new pieces on display including a thing on Cinderella where her carriage has crashed killing her and her horses. You buy your 3 pound ticket online except that the huge demand has crashed the dismaland.org.uk website of course when I first visited, and then you have to endure a cardboard security station with guards in pink hi-viz vests who tell you that you cannot bring squid into the park. There is a warning that no officials or lawyers from Disneyland are allowed entry of course.

There are the normal amusement park features with a twist. The isn’t an ATM but there is a “loan shop” for children that satirically jabs at 5000% interest rates and payday lending. There’s a portrait artist, but you can only get a portrait of the back of your head, which the promo says “is surprisingly revealing.” In a takeoff of the longstanding English institution, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Comrade’s Advice Bureau teaches all interested in how they can unlock the bus display advertising posters and sells a special 5 pound tool to do the job. When asked whether this was legal, the Dismaland guide told The Guardian, “it is not illegal.”

How great is this? ACORN is honored and excited to be a part of this whole affair. But, hey, Banksy, what does it take for us to put this show on the road, so we can all go, have some laughs, be part of the fun, and shove our funny bones into the fat guts of the powers that be here and elsewhere around the world?

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These pictures credited to The Guardian. . .

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Defending Planned Parenthood Against Conspiracy

protectwomenshealthNew Orleans    A hastily drawn bill by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to defund Planned Parenthood of a half-billion in government contracts was defeated by a vote of 53-46. Republicans in the House of Representatives say that they might be willing to shut down the government when the budget reconciliation comes due at the end of this year in order to defund Planned Parenthood. Republican presidential candidates have lined up to spit at Planned Parenthood. Cynically, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana continuing to try to puff up his microscopic poll numbers ordered $300000 worth of Planned Parenthood contracts for servicing the poor to be canceled. Stories run daily wondering whether Planned Parenthood is the “new ACORN” or recounting the defunding of ACORN and noting that riders and amendments to appropriations bills continue to be passed to defund ACORN even as the 5th anniversary of its closing in the USA approaches in coming months.

Here is what we know:

· Less than 5% of Planned Parenthood’s budget is engaged in providing abortion services. Primarily it is a women’s health organization and most of the governmental contracts at the state and federal level are for reimbursable services for lower income women.
· A group based in California has been involved in “stalk videoing” of Planned Parenthood for years. They claim they have more dirt to throw, but, if they do, they haven’t heaved it yet. Undoubtedly they are still involved in editing.
· The group went so far as to incorporate, set up sales-and-marketing booths, and present itself as a legitimate broker of human tissue for scientific research.
· The videos were heavily edited and the group turned over the raw footage to Planned Parenthood which established this fact immediately.
· Planned Parenthood president, Cecile Richards, has conceded that doctors on the video spoke inelegantly, but legally, since they never indicated that they could provide tissue for medical research on anything but a reimbursable basis for cost of collection and transportation.
· Planned Parenthood is only involved in providing such tissue with the permission of the women involved and in three states, California, Washington, and an unnamed state. Richards indicates that this research is vital to millions potentially, and that they have no intention of abandoning the program.

There seems little question that this is about politics, not program, and a cynical effort to reignite the culture wars against women with new tactics and language but with the same hopes of creating a wedge issue for the 2016 campaign. Tactically, candidates are now hiding behind babies, rather than slapping women in the face where everyone can see it.

Nonetheless this is little more than the same song with a new verse. It they can take out a Planned Parenthood like they did ACORN, then there is less progressive capacity, less political muscle on the left, and they get a twofer by being able to hurt the poor and women at the same time, much like they accomplished with their ACORN sting and takedown. It is too much to ask politicians to develop a backbone, but the more this stealth tactic is tried, the more some of them and a lot of the public is getting hip to their game.

I know Richards well and count her as a friend and comrade. There’s no quit in her. She notes that the history of Planned Parenthood is one of struggle, and as an old organizer, she will hang in the fight. She also makes a good point that there is a vast Planned Parenthood alumna group since 20% of all American women have used its services at some time or another in their lives.

They can bleed Planned Parenthood a bit, but they can’t bleed it to death. This is one we have to win, and will. Then maybe we can lockdown this tactic with the rest of the dirty tricks and throw away the key.

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Please enjoy UK Singer Michael Armstrong’s version of Billy Joel’s Allentown.

Thanks to  KABF.

Thinking about Cascadia on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina

DSCN0401 (1)New Orleans   As the final countdown begins on the 10th anniversary of the August 29, 2005 landfall of Hurricane Katrina, the devastation it wrought, and the recovery still in progress, A Community Voice, formerly Louisiana ACORN, and an affiliate of ACORN International, held a “Katrina Heroes” event that was quite moving. Members, leaders, friends, and allies were often hardly able to restrain tears as they got up to speak, received recognition, or helped themselves to a plate of food. They have built a great community through their struggle.

Katrina was a 400-year flood event. The protection at considerable expense in the new levee system for New Orleans is a long way from that level. An op-ed in the New York Times laid out the price for a 500-year protection system. One-hundred billion or so, if done now, with about a quarter of it protecting New Orleans. It almost seems cheap at the price, but do we ever learn?

That question has been plaguing me especially since reading “The Really Big One” in The New Yorker about the impact of the disaster on the Pacific Northwest coast and its population when the Cascadia subduction zone erupts over a 700 mile expanse with impacts from roughly Vancouver down to northern California around Mendocino. The North American tectonic plate is inexorably moving to confront the 90000 square mile oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, which is building up heat and pressure to slip underneath. The earthquake that will follow will be between 8.0 and 8.6 on the Richter scale on the low end to 8.7 to 9.2 on the scale on the high end, and because the scale is logarithmic the magnitude is almost incomprehensible. As reporter Kathryn Schultz writes, “…the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west – losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries.” Holy-moly!

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FEMA estimates that “everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast” on the west side of the volcanic range of the Cascade Mountain range. They estimate that 13,000 people will die, dwarfing Katrina and every other US-disaster. Another 27,000 will be hurt. One-million will be displaced and FEMA will have to provide food and water for another two-and-a-half million. Been there, done that, and we all know they are unable to handle anything near that. Seattle’s emergency office estimates that there will be 30,000 landslides in that city alone. If you didn’t drop down a hole to middle earth, the tsunami will be the most frightening catastrophe to hit next, and it will move within four minutes of the earthquake and the height could range between 50 and 100 feet. There are 70000 people estimated to live in the inundation zone and they will have between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on where they are, literally in the words of one Oregon official to “run for your life.”

There is a one in three chance that this earthquake will occur within the next 50 years. Those are bad odds. That is like, tomorrow! I can remember reading articles in the years before Katrina about what might happen to New Orleans in a worst case scenario. We did little to nothing to prepare for it. It was every man for themselves. I lived on higher ground. That was not enough for a community or all of the people lost forever or with their lives and families irreparably damaged.

What are we doing to prepare in the Northwest or nationally for a catastrophe that will absolutely happen and won’t be a matter of bad construction by the Corps of Engineers, but part of natural earth movements verified by meticulous science? Very, very little it seems, other than talk about it, and the not even that much talk really.

This is the fire and flood next time. It would seem to me that we would learn some of the lessons of Katrina not only by protecting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but preparing the Pacific Northwest to survive the Cascadia subduction when it erupts.

This can’t just be me saying this.

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The “Venmo Line” and Moving Cash More Cheaply

venmoNew Orleans     We are making progress on our Remittance Justice Campaign. A federal bill has now been introduced in Canada to cap fees and other costs at 5%. Provincial bills have now been introduced in British Columbia and Ontario. Reports from Honduras indicated that there is movement in Tegucigalpa at capping the fees finally. A report from France indicates that the giant telecom, Orange, has announced lowered costs for transfers to French speaking African countries. These may be baby steps though compared to what is possible with newer technology, startups, and other tools, if we could get our members over the digital divide.

A Wall Street Journal column recently began with a story about a US viewer of a news report on a demonstration in the Ukraine last year where a protestor held up a sign with their bitcoin transfer information and the savvy techie sent him $10 in bitcoin. That is NOT what I’m talking about, because even while repeating that story, I feel like I’m talking a foreign language.

On the other hand in Canada, we tried to figure out if Venmo worked there. Oh, you don’t know Venmo? Then don’t call yourself hip, though my tongue is solidly in my cheek, because I only know Venmo since one of my closest living relatives is on the proper side of what the company calls the “Venmo line,” which is people 30 years old and under. The cost of transfers through Venom is nada, zero, zilch! Venmo can do this for free because they are moving bits of data around with permissions from one bank account to another. Sadly, Venmo, when we checked, is no-go in Canada and only works in the USA now because of complicated banking regulations, similar to what is hampering us on remittances. Electronic payment methods using credit cards aren’t better. In fact we have a strange bedfellow ally in Walmart that is suing Visa for more than $5 billion “alleging the fees it charges when customers use plastic are unreasonably high.”

The Wall Street Journal agreed with ACORN as well, saying that Western Union, MoneyGram and the like charge fees that “run as high as 8%, not including the less-than-favorable exchange rates….” They cite some potential competitors like TransferWise that “matches pools of people in two different countries who want to send money to the opposite country, thus eliminating the need to actually transfer money at all.” What they seem to have done is apply technology and a matching service to the age old hawala system still popular in the Middle East and frequently used in South Asia, though technically illegal there. In fact a company with a similar name, Dwolla, has “built a federally approved payment network, called FiSync, that allows any connected institution to instantaneously send any amount of money.” And, yes, they also do this for free!

It’s hard to tell what the tipping point might be that stops the predatory money exchangers from muscling up on transfers from migrant workers and immigrant families back to their home countries, especially given the persistence of the unbanked, but the gap is closing on these rip-off artists whether politically or technically as they get driven to either change or die.

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Wang Feng In the Spring