Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Bowl of Pottage in a Free Market Economy

My family has been dealing with some serious medical issues lately. 2 surgeries that included hospital stays in the past six weeks.

In the midst of all of this, there is back and forth with the state over medical coverage, as they removed it, then they restored it, then they removed it again, based on self employment numbers from 2014. My income dropped $10,000 from self employment from 2014 to 2015.

As I was working to put the correct forms together to prove it, I thought back on the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau and the bowl of soup, found in Genesis 25. This "bowl of pottage" story shows why a truly unregulated economy cannot work.

I will recount the story as a reminder:

29Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.f )
31Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
32“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
33But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob.
34Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
So Esau despised his birthright.
A true free market depends on both parties being equal partners in the economy. If one has greater influence than the other, they can use that influence in a corrupt manner to force the partner in the subservient role to accept terms they would never accept if all things were equal.

In the story above, Esau was subservient because he was legitimately concerned about starvation. Jacob could ask anything he wanted because the relationship was unequal. And Jacob exploited his position, asking for the older brother's share of a rather substantial.

In our case, medical care would be the issue. Because these health issues must be addressed, any price would be asked and we would likely pay it. This is what led to indentured servitude historically.

In the case of an unemployed family, basic needs such as shelter, food, heat, and transportation are the bludgeons that can be used against people with less access to these things. I guarantee that virtually everyone making the minimum wage feels it is unfair, yet the reason most of these haven't gone out on strike is because, quite simply, they can't. I saw this firsthand years ago in a march with Occupy Dallas as we walked past numerous fast food restaurants to see the workers inside the building cheering us on. Surprisingly enough, we received the same favorable treatment from a manager at an upscale department store.

The Libertarian fantasy only works for those who can broker their way to an advantageous position in a power struggle. For those fortunate to be at the top, this libertarian society is a utopia, where they can say, as Michael Badnarik did in his 2004 expose, "it's good to be king".

But just as suffering and misery exists just beyond the glow of Las Vegas' famous Fremont Street, you do not need to go far beyond the castles of these newly minted Libertarian kings to see the suffering upon which these castles were built.

The role of government in these instances is to act as arbiter, to preserve a system where equal opportunity remains, and where race, gender, religion, economic standing, sexual orientation and other variables cannot be used as a tool to wrest undue control over the subservient party. A system where the actions of Martin Shkrelli are criminal and not merely controversial. A system where a birthright need not be bartered for a bowl of pottage.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

To All The Protests I've Loved Before

I've heard it said, and honestly believe it to be true, that culturally we're at a time of racial tension that is as heightened as it has been since the '60's. And as someone who has always been a believer in standing for what is right, this both intrigues me and leads me to some questions about the right and proper role in effecting change.

Please realize in what I am saying in the following words, I am not, nor will I ever, make the decision for you. You must make the decision for where your conscience leads. As must I.

But something telling happened in some of the larger protests. In Ferguson, I would argue, many of the protestors forgot why they were marching. Burning down the businesses that kept that community from becoming a blight accomplished nothing. In fact it hurt the larger cause in Ferguson very badly, because that is all the outsiders saw. Were it not for social media contacts of mine such as Shane Claiborne, it would be easy for me to believe that Ferguson was entirely race baiting, arson and violence.

And that was hardly the case. But the voices of reason were drowned out as the cameras turned towards the next inferno.

Similarly, the blockading of the bridges in New York. Initially I supported it, but then an older protestor brought up some good counter arguments to the contrary. Ultimately it accomplished nothing, and may have even turned some fence sitters against the cause.

The Mall of America protest did much the same. Most people didn't know, or care, what it was about. All they cared about was they couldn't get to the stores.

And before we go railing on about the evils of consumerism, isn't it the right of those consumers to decide? I may not want to shop at a given store, or for a given product, but it really isn't my right to dictate to others what they should or should not shop for, or even where they should or should not shop.

To put it simply, I believe we need to rethink the nature of protests. I am as prolife as they come, but I am repulsed by some of the images put in front of me by very well meaning individuals. I dislike war, but I do not need to see the maimed and mutilated bodies of children. Some would argue that it angers people, and would even argue that the anger is good.

I would argue that the anger is bad, even counter productive. We don't need anger in the discussion, we need rational, intelligent peace makers.

Protests have accomplished much in human history. There's no question about that. But if we continually and repeatedly stage protests, it is very easy to diminish their value. And often a point can be made in a more positive nature.

So I would encourage fellow activists to think about the way they are presenting their messages going forward. Are your opponents seeing anger and hostility? Or are they seeing a message of love, peace, and positive action? Can we find a way to show people that the underlying theme of our cause is producing a positive action, or must we forever be showing ourselves to be angry, chattering mobs?

I don't regret any of the actions I've supported, or in which I have taken part. But I don't believe that a message of anger works, or is in any way appealing.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Is Fast Food Consumption Unethical?

I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the ethics of supporting the fast food industry. In the debate on solutions to hunger and poverty, it is important to note the high levels of food waste in the United States and ask what we could do to solve the problem.

The UN estimated in 2008 that it would take $30 Billion per year to solve world hunger. If we adjust for inflation, the current numbers would be just over $33 Billion, assuming no population growth (source: Adjusting for population growth (from 6.67B in 2008 to 7.2B currently), gives us a figure of just over $35 Billion. So let's assume a figure of $40 billion to adjust for any open variables. $40 billion to eliminate poverty worldwide.

I could compare that with other expenditures in the US government, but for the moment, I am simply focusing on how food waste reduction could impact world hunger.

According to a recent USDA study using figures from 2010, an estimated $161.6 billion in food was wasted in the US. The breakdown is right around 3 to 1 when broken down between retail and consumer food waste (the whole report is available here). Approximately $46.7 billion worth of food is thrown away by the retail industry; about $114.9 billion is attributed to consumer food waste.

Those numbers are sobering, and raise the question as to whether we should encourage the fast food industry to change some of their practices.

See, it's easy to get caught up in blaming the corporations, but in no industry is the direct correlation between consumer demand and corporate practice clearer than it is in the fast food industry. We can cite multiple examples of consumer pressure directly affecting the practice of the fast food industry. So ultimately we must ask ourselves, not a corporate CEO, if practices need to be changed.

We live in a culture where "instant" is the expectation and we fast become impatient with those who do not provide it. I live in a rural area and often have to drive 2 hours to reach job sites. During much of that time I am effectively off the grid. I have, on multiple occasions received several emails during that span of time, each more impatient than the last and expressing frustration that I have not replied to previous emails despite the fact I have not SEEN them.

That expectation often carries over into dining. I have informally observed service times with my stopwatch at the drive through and inside of a restaurant, and what I have noticed is, despite the fact they are very similar, we often perceive the drive through times as being longer because our expectations for faster service are set by the appeal of "drive through" service.

By looking at these numbers, I am inclined to believe that a simple change in our behavior could impact world hunger more dramatically than we realize. There will never be a point where either sector will reach zero food waste, although that number is optimal. But it is not unrealistic to consider that we could reduce our waste by 25% and have adequate resources, properly applied, to solve this problem.

This leads me to the question asked in the title sentence: Is fast food consumption unethical? I am inclined to believe that, as we push demand for a naturally inefficient method of supplying food, the answer is yes. There is more that we could change in our practices, and would need to, before we would even near solving this problem, but the very first, most impactful thing that we could do, today, to begin to address world hunger is to stop consuming fast food. And all indicators are that we would probably find ourselves becoming healthier in the process.

This is indicting for me above all else because, while I don't love fast food, I often default to it when I am on the road because it is easier. After dissecting this report, though, I am starting to think a trip to the produce section of the local market might not be that much more difficult, and would be more consistent with my core beliefs.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Why the Ebola Crisis COULD Be Worse Than What is Being Stated

Before I begin this article, let me be very clear that I am not a doctor. But I am capable of research, and want to note that the source material I used for this article was from one that should be considered reliable. All data, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the following  website:

The CDC and the federal government are advising us not to worry in the wake of revelations that Ebola has now been confirmed in a patient in Dallas. And that is their job, to prevent the public from going into a state of panic. And even with widespread concerns, it's still sound advice to not panic. But it is also sound advice to look at the very real possibilities that this could become more of a concern than they are saying.

Of utmost concern is what we now about the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the US. He first showed symptoms of the disease on September 24. He sought treatment on the 26th, but was sent home because the hospital personnel did not believe it to be a serious disease, despite his advising them that he was from Liberia. He then returned on the 28th, and was quarantined (source:

So there were four days between the onset of symptoms and quarantine. Four days in a large city where the virus could possibly have been transmitted. Note: I am not saying it WAS transmitted, I am just saying that IF it was, it could be a very serious problem. Here is why:

In the United States, many low paid workers do not take off work when symptoms of illness appear. Many do not have sick days, and fewer still have the money to afford a doctor's visit, even with insurance coverage under the ACA. So the first few days of symptoms, they are likely to be at work, and exposed to the general public. Unless the CDC can properly identify everyone who had contact with this individual, the chances of this happening are actually better than we realize.

Here's where it gets interesting: the CDC reports that there is no possibility of ebola being transmitted though airborne contact. Two potential problems with that are possible contradictory evidence (, and the nasty tendency that viruses can have to mutate, the limits of which are still not fully understood. Still, for the sake of this analysis, I will accept the CDC's conclusion on this matter to be absolute (although I would encourage you not to assume it).

So the means of transmission are through blood or bodily fluids, right? Assuming these are the sole means of transmission, there are still plenty of innocent ways that the virus could be transmitted.

First, the fast food culture: The source information from the Public Health Agency of Canada (linked at the beginning of the article) notes that the virus can survive under certain conditions for up to 50 days outside the host. It is particularly viable at low temperatures, so the likelihood of it being transmitted by a grill cook or someone else behind the lines is fairly minimal.

But hot foods are not the only thing served by the fast food industry. The 50 day survival rate was at 4 degrees celsius, or 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit...almost exactly the temperature of the average refrigerator. This means that refrigerated products bear a high likelihood of being host to the virus for almost two months if the body fluids of an exposed individual make contact.

With the holiday shopping season around the corner, I would consider that especially worrisome.

Then, going further, the tables. If infected patients sit at the tables and wipe their noses and touch the tables, there is a potentially infected source. The good news is that ebola can pretty much be wiped out by many commercial disinfectants; the bad news is the tables would need to be wiped with disinfectant between each patron, something I have never seen at any fast food restaurant I have patronized. In fact, it's more likely to be wiped with a wet cloth that has simply been run under the faucet, a condition which could actually further the transmission.

In case someone is reading this wondering how to minimize the risk of infection, I am including the paragraph from the PHAC site below. I would encourage you to follow the first link for additional information:

SUSCEPTIBILITY TO DISINFECTANTS: Ebolavirus is susceptible to 3% acetic acid, 1% glutaraldehyde, alcohol-based products, and dilutions (1:10-1:100 for ≥10 minutes) of 5.25% household bleach (sodium hypochlorite), and calcium hypochlorite (bleach powder) Footnote 48 Footnote 49 Footnote 50 Footnote 62 Footnote 63. The WHO recommendations for cleaning up spills of blood or body fluids suggest flooding the area with a 1:10 dilutions of 5.25% household bleach for 10 minutes for surfaces that can tolerate stronger bleach solutions (e.g., cement, metal) Footnote 62. For surfaces that may corrode or discolour, they recommend careful cleaning to remove visible stains followed by contact with a 1:100 dilution of 5.25% household bleach for more than 10 minutes.

The second area of concern is day care centers and church nurseries. Sick children aren't supposed to go to daycare, and many day care centers are very firm in their policies of not accepting sick children. Assuming the CDC information to be accurate, those centers should really have little to worry about. But again, we live in a world of reality, and there are not enough of those centers to serve all of our children. And children are notorious sharers of bodily fluids, whether it be from chewing on a plastic doll and handing it off to a colleague, wiping snot on the craft table, or the frequent bloody noses from the toddler X Games that frequently go on.

The risk of infection could drop to virtually nil if thoroughly disinfecting contact surfaces with the above noted information in mind were followed, but with the CDC information limited to "don't panic", the information may not get where it needs to go. All of the information, of course, is good general infection control information, but since we are dealing with a disease that carries a high mortality rate, it wouldn't be a bad idea to revisit this.

The third area of concern is public transit. For brevity's sake, I am going to couple this with the scenario of a driver stopping to render aid in an accident. Our daily public contact puts us in places where we may be susceptible, particularly in crowded cities.

The fourth area, though, is probably the area of greatest concern if the disease reaches the wrong population. It can be transmitted through shared needles, as can HIV, but the virus remains viable in a patient from 61 to 82 days after the onset of illness, and transmission through semen has occurred 7 weeks after full recovery. This means that if the "don't panic" protocol is the only one observed in the US, there are entire segments of the population very much at risk without this information.

Let me again restate that I am not a doctor, and am only operating with published information. I researched this in order to alleviate my own concerns, and found additional concerns in the process. It is not as innocent or casually containable as the CDC suggests, though, although you probably will be safe in suburbia. But a large percentage of the population lives outside of suburbia, and they deserve accurate information, not casual dismissal of their fears.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What Independent Contracting Has Taught Me About the Minimum Wage Battle

I work in IT. Despite having a 4 year degree, industry certs, and 8 years' experience in the area, very few employers will hire me to work in house IT. In fact, sadly, all of that often works against me, as I see people hired quite literally out of convenience store jobs into IT because the businesses want $10-12 an hour techs, they do not want $50K a year Network Administrators.

So I decided to go it on my own. Basically, I wind up going to many of those companies to troubleshoot what their nearly minimum wage IT staff cannot. And I do the back and forth dance with buyers over rates.

I am currently holding out against an employer who wants me to drive two hours, pickup a part, deliver it an hour away, wait in line for over an hour to clear security at the site, perform the work, and return home. Basically a minimum of five hours for the company, with a pay rate that nets me less than minimum once all is said and done.

And so I countered with what I needed. They refused.

This is a common scenario. They can pay more, they are authorized to pay more, but their job is to pay me as absolutely little as they can and still function. I've been on holdouts like this before. They will give the job to lesser experienced providers, and after a series of revisits or a provider who gets fed up with the demands of the assignments, will be shopping it out again. This same site has been shopping for consistent techs for the last four years.

Ultimately, though, they need to get the job done, and they will pay what they need to to make it happen.

I used to feel guilty about this, but eventually I realized this is how it works: you have two competing factions, one that will do whatever it takes to pay as little as they can, and you, who have to negotiate to make a livable wage. And yes, there is such a thing.

When this plays out on minimum wage jobs, though, the employee has little room to bargain. Business owners exploit this by paying as little as they can get away with and then complaining about the turnover. Well, a minimum wage worker cannot be expected to have ANY loyalty to their employer, as they have to negotiate the best rate they can (whether that means a better paying job, a job with less travel, or anything else that gives them an advantage). Doing that is doing THEIR job.

It's a delicate dance that shouldn't exist. Workers should never have to feel guilty about negotiating what they need to survive. And employers should never feel that squeezing that dollar harder is more important than protecting their most important assets: their employees. In fact, paying workers more helps retain quality employees by giving employers a competitive advantage in hiring.

I'm not sorry that I work as an independent contractor. It has its ups and downs, but the freedom is a payoff that has incalculable value. But it has taught me more about real world economics than any college course ever could. And it has taught me that making a fair and living wage will always be a struggle for the working class.

Friday, August 22, 2014

There Is No Single Point Solution In Ferguson, Because It's Not a Single Point Problem.

I have had a lot of discussions, some productive, some not, about the events in Ferguson. And it has occurred to me over time that one of the reasons we are disconnected in the discussion is that we are looking to a single point solution.

The problem is, there were multiple causes to this incident some of them are racial in nature, some not. Some valid points have been raised on both sides of the aisle, but all have focused on part of the solution to the neglect of the whole. But the truth is, for white America to speak to the Black community about their lack of responsibility without paying attention to a culture that consistently gives class and race preference would be premature, and carry with it the appearance of racism, if not the facts.

The truth is, one of the core problems in Ferguson is that it is not the inner city; it is a suburb. And the incident carries with it the frightening fact that the problems of the inner city are moving out to the suburbs, and the "ticky tacky" lifestyle is being confronted with the ugly realities of an urban culture.

We have a convenient past of shuttering ourselves away from our social problems rather than dealing with them. And in the 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, we have been able to bottle it away in the inner city, where unemployment and poverty historically run high. But over time, the residents of the inner city have been moving out, to try to build a better life.

To say that race is not a factor would be a display of blind ignorance, but to say that it is the only factor would be equally so. In examining the articles written on privilege, it's fair to note that many things written by middle class authors to describe "white privilege" are in fact, indicators of class privilege. But that doesn't change the reality that white privilege does exist, even for those of us who grew up lower on the socioeconomic landscape.

If you pressed me, I would pinpoint the following factors: poor police training, militarization of police forces, racial inequality, income inequality, lack of leadership, and media sensationalism. There are probably a few I am overlooking, but those factors, I believe, are significant. If we really want to resolve the issues in Ferguson, the best way to do it is to examine what role we can play in the solution. If the answer is "none", the best reply is silence.

For my part, I choose to address the inequality issues and leadership issues. I believe that inadequate leadership is a problem that affects our entire culture, not just the inner city, and that the only remedy is to speak to it and encourage those with leadership skills to give back and assist in developing them among the next generation. That's hard to do when you're working hand to mouth, but it's a better approach longterm.

If we continue to see Ferguson as indicative of JUST a racial issue, or JUST a police brutality issue, we are missing the point. And if we refuse to at least consider the valid points of those who wish to handoff liability entirely to the residents of communities like Ferguson, we won't get anywhere.

Blame is a hard thing to fix; culpability and responsibility can't be pinned down so easily. What happened in Ferguson is something we all need to pay attention to, and a problem we all should have a hand in solving.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why We Do Not GET the Race Issue

We want to believe we live in a post racial America. I want to believe we live in a post racial America, and for a long time that is exactly what I believed. I grew up largely in a community where I never saw racial tensions and struggle; yet the existence of the "black" high school made the past undeniable, even though it had closed some years before I started school.

It's easy to tell someone to "put aside" the crimes of the past, especially when you belong to the culture that perpetrated the injustice. But this is what I would like both sides of the debate to understand.

The problem is, we don't SEE white privilege. Most people in rural America's experience in the inner city is limited to a wrong turn on the freeway or a news article on CNN. We (meaning the royal "We"; I am trying very hard to change that on a personal level) shake our heads, lament the decline of good adult role models in the inner cities, and often simply write the whole region off as being full of thugs and gangsters. We don't see the part we play in the process.

We don't see how capitalism has caused the decline of the inner city, or how it becomes an issue that disproportionately affects minorities. We don't see how often the same conservative role models of minority race who lament the failings of their brothers and sisters in the inner city neglect opportunities to return to the inner city, to be mentors, to educate and lift those kids out of poverty. We have to subsidize teachers going into the inner city because that's a place that most teachers will not go.

When an inner city kid sees a white face, it's usually a cop, a social worker, or a judge. It's never someone wanting to truly connect, to truly speak to that kid as an equal, and as someone with worth and value. And I reject the evangelical outreaches that happen in that area, as I've seen the posts of some of those who attend those churches. While not all are outright slandering the residents of the inner city, very few have spoken up for them.

Perhaps in remembering Michael Brown, we should remember the de facto segregation that gave the kids of an inner city an unequal education system. We need to remember that we have an income inequality that is utterly frightening for a First World Nation, even one in as steep a decline as we are. We need to look to "blockbusting" strategies that devalued properties and left families in the inner city with nowhere to go.

It's all well and good to ask why families in the inner city don't get a job; it's a fairer question to ask "where are the jobs". To a kid in the inner city, the best way to make a living is to start working for the local dealer. There's nothing for them in the job market, even in the fast food joints, where they have to compete with older adults for scant jobs.

I won't pretend to know everything about the inner city. But I know enough to know that standing in a rural environment miles removed from that one and judging the actions of people in the inner city by my values is ignorant at best, racist at worst. I know that the problems go deeper than one incident involving a suspect and shooting, and I know that is why they are marching. The truth of the Michael Brown situation is not that he is innocent; the truth is that he did not deserve to be gunned down. Even affording Officer Wilson every benefit of the doubt, there are ways that he could have addressed the situation from the outset that would have left a better ending for everyone.

Maybe it's time that those of us outside the inner city start listening to those inside the inner city. There are people in the inner city with solutions for change. They need our help going forward.