Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Enlisting the Aid of Hairstylists as Sentinels for Domestic Abuse

A friend sent me this NY Times article about women leveraging social connections to generate an intervention against domestic violence. Not all women work in professional businesses with lots of financial and legal resources, so they don't have those social connections to take advantage of. However, they probably go to hair salons. This article features an program at a Latina-owned hair salon. An excerpt:

Martha Castillo knew her client had a problem because their weekly hair-straightening sessions were always interrupted by phone calls from a boyfriend angrily accusing her of being with another man. Magda Florentino noticed cigarette burns on a woman’s temples when she pulled back her hair for washing — and did not buy the explanation that they had happened accidentally while she was bartending.

And Candida Vasquez received a hysterical call from a customer soon after she had spent three hours knitting extensions into the woman’s hair. Her boyfriend hated the look, and in a fit of rage he had cut off not only the extensions, but also the rest of her hair.

Ms. Vasquez said she was not surprised by the call. Troubled clients tell her their personal stories all the time. “They are so tormented, they just come in and share,” she said.

The privileged, often therapeutic relationship between hairdressers and clients has long been the subject of magazine articles and movies. A growing movement in New York and across the nation tries to harness that bond to identify and prevent domestic violence, a pervasive problem that victims are often too ashamed to reveal to law enforcement or other public officials.

Ms. Vasquez, Ms. Castillo and Ms. Florentino are all stylists in Manhattan who have been trained (or are being trained) as part of a one-year-old program by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services in beauty salons in the Washington Heights area, where many cases of domestic abuse and neglect include violence that is not necessarily aimed at children.

The initiative joins similar efforts that have been sprouting across the nation; perhaps the best known, called Cut It Out and based in Chicago, has trained 40,000 salon workers in all 50 states to recognize signs of domestic abuse. In the past few months, the Cut It Out program was also adopted by the Empire Education Group, which has 87 cosmetology schools, and endorsed by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools, the trade organization representing another 800 schools.

Nearly 600,000 women and girls and 144,000 men and boys nationwide were victims of violence by an intimate partner in 2006, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. In New York last year, the police received hundreds of domestic disturbance calls every day and recorded about 55,000 crimes connected to domestic violence.

Neither the city’s program nor the much larger Cut It Out, founded in 2002, tracks how many women the programs have referred for help, so it is hard to assess their effectiveness. But law enforcement officials in New York and nationally have praised the beauty-shop approach for reaching a population that normally hides from authorities.

Kathy Ryan, chief of the Domestic Violence Unit of the New York Police Department, said that battered women were such a hard population to reach that “preventing even one death should be considered success.”

The police have tried doing outreach to victims by, among other things, setting up domestic violence-education tables at community events, only to find that no one wants to be seen near them. But the atmosphere is different in the safety of a beauty salon.

“The salon may be one of the few places women might be without their abuser around,” said Laurie Magid, a former state prosecutor who is acting United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “This program really addresses a need. You don’t have a case unless you have a crime reported in the first place and that is the difficult area of domestic violence.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Warren Buffett: automakers must rethink business model

Warren Buffett, eminence grise of the US financial community, says that whether in bankruptcy or bailout, the US automakers must completely overhaul their business models. He would prefer a bailout with stringent terms to a bankruptcy. He would rather the President appoint someone to negotiate terms that include a business solution. He would also force management to invest significantly in a new auto industry - that would incentivize them to make it perform.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Domestic violence: Your coworker's dark secret

CNN Money has an article on domestic violence in the workplace.

Cindy Bischof was not the kind of woman who would normally let a boyfriend get in the way of her career.

Driven, persistent, productive, she was everybody's favorite partner at Darwin Realty, a commercial real estate firm on the outskirts of Chicago. She was a role model to the firm's young women, a mentor to junior brokers, a 43-year-old overachiever: in at 5:30 A.M., networking at lunch, so smart about heavy industry that her peers voted her Industrial Broker of the Year.

Cindy was neither submissive nor easily intimidated - which is why what happened to her on March 7 is all the more shocking.

For nearly a year Bischof had been trying to untangle herself from a soured five-year relationship with an out-of-work salesman named Michael Giroux. After their breakup in May of last year, according to friends, family, and police reports, the handsome and charming Giroux suddenly turned strange and dangerous.

The day they broke up, Bischof changed the locks on her house. That night she went to stay with her parents. Giroux smashed the back windows of her house, broke in, and threw paint all over her furniture, rugs, and appliances.

Giroux began calling her incessantly on her cell phone. He stalked her at her house, at her parents' house, even on the golf course.

Bischof's torment became Darwin Realty's nightmare as her co-workers rallied around her. They helped clean up the damage to her house, which cost her $70,000, according to police reports. The head of Darwin's construction department installed a camouflaged infrared deer-hunting camera in the bushes of her backyard to take pictures of her deck at night.

In August, it caught Giroux there with a rope, making a noose. Darwin's president, George Cibula, arranged for Bischof to move into a rental property 30 miles away in Plainfield so that Giroux couldn't find her. Cibula hired security guards for the company Christmas party. Sometimes Cindy's partners walked her out to her car at night, just in case.

But Bischof was alone that Friday afternoon in March as she left her office and headed to her car, looking forward to joining her parents at her condo in Estero, Fla. Minutes later, Brian Liston, a Darwin partner working in a corner office, heard four gunshots behind him. He turned and there, outside his office window, lay Bischof, face down on the parking-lot pavement. Giroux, wearing a baseball cap and a fake mustache, had been lying in wait at the tire store next door. He shot and fatally wounded her before shooting himself in the head.

While police spent hours investigating the obvious, employees huddled in the hallways and conference rooms as shock turned to horror and then to unbearable grief. "It's still not over," Cibula said months later, choking up. "All you can do is endure the shock of it."

As the boss, he doesn't know what he could have done differently. He couldn't shield his staff from the trauma. No amount of security would have stopped so determined a killer, he believes. "If everybody brings their problems to work, pretty soon you're a psych hospital," he says. "Cindy knew that, and she tried. But we butted our way in anyway because she was our friend."

Domestic violence is still a taboo topic in most of corporate America, and no wonder. Logic won't address it. It carries a great stigma. It raises difficult questions in high-powered workplaces that employ - let's face it - both perpetrators and victims.

Many executives believe the issue has no place at work. What happens at home is supposed to stay at home, especially matters of the heart. In a survey of 200 CEOs sponsored by Liz Claiborne Inc. (LIZ, Fortune 500) last year, most agreed that domestic violence was a serious issue, but 71% said they didn't believe it was a problem at their own companies. Only 13% felt that corporations need to play a major role in addressing domestic abuse.

Soon, though, they may have no choice. Employee attitudes, demographics, and the efforts of some CEOs are converging to drag this issue out of the closet. With so many women in the workforce, and with e-mail, text messaging, and cell phones connecting them to the office around the clock, domestic violence comes to work whether executives like it or not. Employees are well aware of this.

However, a recent large survey by the Sam Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas shows as many as 1 in 10 female workers is currently experiencing some form of domestic violence. Additionally, this could happen to anyone - although the article focuses on women, a growing number of men also experience domestic violence.

You get a sense of that in a chilling study of a group of batterers conducted by the state of Maine four years ago to assess the implications for occupational health and safety. Many of the 152 men surveyed described a consuming need to know their wives' whereabouts. They felt compelled to check up on them constantly - by calling or leaving work to see if their wives were where they were supposed to be. The urges were so overwhelming that half said they had trouble on the job, making mistakes or causing accidents, and that the feelings intensified when their wives tried to leave them.

Forget any notions you might have about what makes a person vulnerable. She doesn't have to be weak or somehow masochistic. There is no "type." People we interviewed for this story included an employment lawyer in Kansas City, a Red Cross administrator who worked alongside North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Yale MBA who handled a groundbreaking project for GM, a New York University MBA who's chief of staff to the Bronx borough president, even an FBI agent. (She disassembled her gun when she got home every night and left it in the trunk of her car, having made, she says, a conscious decision: "We were not going to have live fire in the house.")

Anybody, even the strongest, smartest, most talented women - your highest producer, your rising star, your daughter, your granddaughter - can fall victim. "I've met Ph.D.s who say, 'Yes, I was in love with the guy. I got doled out just enough money for food for the kids,'" says Allstate's Tom Wilson. "Money is the weapon of choice, often in combination with other things, because it keeps the victims locked up. It's the keys. If you don't have a car, you can't run away. If you don't have credit, you can't get an apartment."

That's what makes the workplace so central to the struggle. "Economic independence is the strongest indicator of whether or not a victim can leave a batterer," says Stacey P. Dougan, chief professional development officer at the Atlanta law firm Powell Goldstein, who advises companies on how to handle domestic-violence issues.

That means you can count on the abuser to "relentlessly try to interfere with that employment relationship." Work is the one place a stalker can be absolutely sure he'll find his victim. Sometimes it's a target. It's nearly always a flash point. It's the site of a surprising amount of activity in these struggles, as the stories of the women we interviewed demonstrate in chilling detail.

I once recall talking to a student advisor with bruises on her face consistent with being beaten. She said she fell off her bike - I know firsthand what sort of injuries you're likely to sustain falling off a bike, and her injuries were different. Of course, I couldn't ask what happened, and couldn't prove anything. She later died of cancer.

Nothing you can do will stop a truly determined assailant, as Cindy Bischoff's ex boyfriend was. However, domestic violence has to exert a substantial cost on companies. Additionally, the workplace can be a sanctuary for an abused person - and that person's success at work can be a threat to the abuser.

In the US, employers need to be aware of their country's legal complications:

Domestic abuse exposes companies to an increasingly complicated thicket of federal, state, and local laws designed to protect victims. (More than 40 states have some kind of legislation designed to give victims some workplace protections.) In New York City, for instance, it's illegal to punish a victim for the actions of her abuser. So you can be damned if you do and if you don't.

Well-intentioned bosses can violate medical-privacy laws or antidiscrimination laws if they aren't careful about how they approach an employee they suspect might be a victim. That, more than anything, is reason to confront domestic violence head-on rather than ignore it, says Stacey Dougan, who became an expert on the issue after winning a landmark case in Florida in 1998.

Liz Claiborne, an early pioneer, developed a three-word call to action: "Recognize. Respond. Refer." "Recognize" means noticing if a colleague wears turtlenecks in summer, shrugs unenthusiastically at the arrival of flowers, is secretive about home, is absent a lot. "Respond" means inquiring and sharing your concerns. "Refer" means acting as a conduit to the resources and agencies that can help.

What bosses shouldn't do is try to solve the problems themselves. Domestic violence is too complex and potentially dangerous. A victim is at greatest risk when she leaves the batterer, studies show. And she can risk losing custody of her children in divorce courts, where abuse allegations can sometimes backfire on a victim.

There are bound to be similar legal issues elsewhere, of course.

In any case, this is a difficult situation, and employers should be on the lookout for their employees - but ham-handedness might be do more harm than good.

More info on the auto industry

I previously mentioned that the auto industry is linked to 1 in 10 jobs in the US. The NY Times reports that this estimate may be high.

The figure appears to come from a 2003 study conducted by the Center for Automotive Research on the “economic contributions of the motor vehicle to the U.S. economy, to a multitude of U.S. industries in retail, manufacturing and service sectors, and to individual Americans.”

The center is a nonprofit research organization with ties to labor and government. The study was commissioned by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group.

The study concludes that “new vehicle production sales, and other jobs related to the use of automobiles are responsible for one out of every 10 jobs in the U.S economy.” The term “responsible for” is interpreted quite broadly and covers jobs in steel, glass and electronics as well as those in taxi-driving, travel and advertising companies, among others.

The study has two drawbacks in addressing the question of how many jobs are at risk if the Detroit automakers go bankrupt.

First, the study uses data from 1998 to 2001, and the industry has changed significantly since then. Employment in the motor vehicles and parts-manufacturing sector has fallen, for example.

Second, the auto-related jobs covered in the report include more than those dependent on the Detroit automakers; they are related to cars sold by any manufacturer in the American market.

In other words, the loss of a single United States car company would not necessarily dissolve all those jobs that the entire auto industry supports. The failure of General Motors, for example, would not eliminate the entire car-wash industry. If a foreign company could come in to fill the demand left by G.M. with minimal disruption, then, theoretically, car-wash employees would keep their jobs.

That said, the ripple effects from a Big 3 bankruptcy or liquidation would be significant. The Center estimated that 2.5-3 million jobs would be lost (directly and indirectly) in 2009 if one or more of the Big 3 went bankrupt. 40-60% of the jobs could eventually be recovered if foreign automakers stepped in and hired people.

Next, an article on Seeking Alpha debunks some misconceptions people have with the auto industry. Briefly, the author contends that Ford and Chrysler CEOs Mullaly and Nardelli weren't involved at all in the industry's past missteps, that GM CEO Waggoner did more than most past CEOs to try to clean up, that the unions aren't primarily responsible for the Big 3's predicament and that the Big 3 do build some smaller cars - they just don't build desirable ones and their overall lineup is very weak in some models.

They don't build small cars.

The Detroit Three build plenty of small cars - they're just not very good. In the U.S.News rankings of affordable small cars, for instance, seven out of 34 models are domestics. But the highest ranked - the Chevrolet Cobalt - lands at No. 20, while the top three are all Hondas (HMC). So, CEO Rick Wagoner is telling the truth when he says that in 2009 GM will offer 20 models (including a few mid-sized cars, a couple small sports cars, and a few others) that will get 30 mpg on the highway. The question is whether anybody will want to buy them - and if not, is it the government's job to subsidize uncompetitive products.

They don't build any desirable cars.

A few recent Detroit models have been hits, like the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Cadillac CTS, and Saturn Outlook. And even Consumer Reports, which has mercilessly trashed Detroit's shoddier vehicles, recently issued a statement saying, "We've seen some progress among the domestic automakers lately, with improved reliability and performance in certain models."

The problem is that the domestics are strong in a few segments, while weak - or nonexistent - in many others. So when soaring gas prices and a stumbling economy torpedoed their flagship vehicles - trucks and SUVs - there wasn't much else to balance out the portfolio. Neither GM nor Ford offers a competitive minivan, for instance. Their small crossovers and SUVs haven't kept pace with the best offerings from Honda and Toyota (TM). And a puny "B car" that's actually fun, like the Mini Cooper or Honda Fit? Does not compute. And it's pretty hard to survive as a global car company when you simply write off a big chunk of the market.

The same guys asking for handouts are the ones who caused the problems.

Not really. Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli and Ford CEO Alan Mulally are new arrivals recruited from outside the auto industry. Their boards offered them a lot of money because of their expertise on fixing huge, messed-up organizations. Wagoner has been on the job longer, and he bears more responsibility for some of GM's problems. But he wasn't in charge in the 1980s and 1990s, when GM built sprawling factories that are approaching obsolescence, let quality slip, and short-shrifted cars in favor of SUVs. And since becoming CEO in 2000, Wagoner has overseen many improvements at GM, like an improved car lineup, more efficient factories, and success in China and other overseas markets. He may still get the boot, but he's probably done more to fix GM than the three or four CEOs who preceded him.

The CEOs should fly coach.

At about the same time the Detroit Three CEOs were boarding corporate jets to head to Washington for recent congressional hearings, Northwest Flight 234 (on-time percentage: 77 percent) was backing away from the gate at Detroit Metro, headed for Reagan National Airport, across the river from the Capitol building. Obviously, the CEOs should have been on that flight instead of a Gulfstream, relaxing with some free coffee and reading the morning paper before huddling with aides (please remain seated, with your seatbelts fastened) to discuss emergency measures like which division to sell off or which supplier to stop paying. They'd have to speak in whispers, since a couple dozen reporters looking for a scoop would no doubt be sitting in nearby rows - but at least that way nobody would disturb other passengers trying to catch a nap. And if there were any urgent calls from outposts in Shanghai or Dubai, United Arab Emirates, or São Paolo, Brazil, somebody back at HQ with a reliable phone connection could just handle it.

Sure, these are complex global companies with command decisions that need to be made every hour. But if the CEOs are going to ask for the people's money, they should take the people's transportation! Come to think of it, instead of flying, they should have pooled their money and chartered a bus for the trip to Washington.

It's all the unions' fault.

Generous union protections clearly pumped up Detroit's costs in the past and added to bloat, but recent concessions have solved many of those problems. Many other factors now weigh more heavily on Detroit: Soaring healthcare costs, especially for retirees the automakers are still responsible for; poor strategic planning; and buyers who can't get loans. The biggest problem with the unions might be unrealistic expectations fostered by leaders like Ron Gettelfinger - because many of the job and wage protections of the past are no longer there.

They've done nothing to help themselves.

All three Detroit automakers have slashed costs and closed factories over the past few years, in aggressive but methodical efforts to become profitable once again. If we still had the 2006 economy, they might make it by 2010 or 2012. But obviously we don't. What the Detroit Three haven't done is something dramatic that would send the silverware flying, like killing off overlapping divisions such as Mercury, Pontiac, and Saturn, closing redundant dealerships, or demanding universal healthcare to help manage soaring medical costs. If the government coughs up some "bridge" money to tide them over for a few months, there's no reason to think much would change. But if the automakers land in bankruptcy, plenty will change - and self-help will no longer be an option.

I would still have preferred that the CEOs flew on regular airliners, or at least shared one corporate jet. I also wish that the unions had given some ground earlier on.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Does natural gas drilling endanger water supplies?

Abraham Lustgarten writes an article for Businessweek on the increasing suspicions that natural gas drilling is introducing toxic chemicals into groundwater.

There is abundant natural gas in the domestic United States locked in underground shale formations. The shale must be shattered to release the gas.

Chesapeake, Halliburton, and others in the energy industry say hydraulic fracturing is entirely safe. They point to the 2004 EPA study concluding that the process was not dangerous and did not warrant further study. Fracturing fluids aren't necessarily hazardous, can't travel far underground, and there is "no unequivocal evidence" of a health risk, the EPA concluded.

The report's release followed years of industry lobbying to limit study of hydraulic fracturing. After the EPA's study, Congress in 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That effectively eliminated EPA jurisdiction over the drilling technique and left oversight to state regulators and, in the case of federally owned land, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency often characterized as friendly to industry.

"I think fracturing has been given a clean bill of health," contends Kenneth A. Wonstolen, an attorney who represents the Colorado Oil & Gas Assn. "You have intervening rock in between the area that you are fracturing and the areas that provide water supplies. The notion that fractures are going to migrate up to those shallow formations—there is just no evidence of that happening."

The problem should be immediately obvious: the Bush administration as a whole was in complete denial about any sort of environmental problem. Congress in 2005 was full of conservative Republicans and the EPA's administration ignored its own scientists when it released the study:

The industry relies heavily on the 2004 EPA study. But that 424-page report's conclusions appear, on close examination, to ignore some of its own findings. The report actually notes that fracturing fluids migrated unpredictably through rock layers in half the cases studied in the U.S. The agency characterized some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that "can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure." The report also noted that as much as a third of injected fluids used in hydraulic fracturing remains in the ground and is "likely to be transported by groundwater."

In connection with the report's release, service companies voluntarily agreed to stop using diesel fuel in fracturing fluid because it is one possible source of benzene. But that agreement, according to the EPA, isn't legally enforceable, and the agency acknowledges that it hasn't checked to see whether diesel is still being used.

Top officials at the agency's headquarters in Washington stand by the study's conclusions, says Roy Simon, associate chief of the Prevention Branch of the EPA's Drinking Water Protection Div. "Since the agency has not conducted a more comprehensive study for all hydraulic fracturing, we do not have further opinion," Simon explains in an e-mail. Asked whether the EPA can confidently say that drilling is safe, Simon adds: "The EPA does not deny that oil and gas production can result in the types of complaints noted in your examples. However, addressing these types of complaints, including hydraulic fracturing and its associated fluids (other than diesel fuel), is beyond the authorities of the Safe Drinking Water Act."

One of the report's three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA staff hydrogeologist, cautions that the study was narrowly focused and has been misconstrued by the gas-drilling industry. The study looked at the effects of fracturing in so-called coalbed methane deposits; it did not consider the above-ground impact of drilling or what goes on in many of the large new gas reserves being developed today.

"It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study," Jollie says. "I don't think we ever characterized it that way."

Companies aren't yet required to release data on the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing. However, there are a growing number of unexplained releases of toxic chemicals in groundwater:

n June a rancher in Parachute, Colo., was hospitalized after he drank well water from his tap. Tests showed benzene in his water. The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission blamed four gas operators in the area for spilling waste fluids. An investigation is continuing.

Pointing to such episodes, several experts in the EPA's regional office in Denver have begun to raise questions about the agency's conclusion in its 2004 report that hydraulic fracturing is safe. "We've kind of reached the tipping point where the impacts are there," says Joyel Dhieux, an EPA scientist in Denver who reviews the effects of industrial projects.

In rural Sublette County, Wyo., an area the size of Connecticut with two mountain ranges but no stoplights, recent testing by federal and state officials near one of the nation's largest gas fields found 88 contaminated water wells stretching over 28 miles. Fifteen contained benzene, in one case at more than 1,500 times the amount the EPA says is safe, according to the Bureau of Land Management. Wyoming regulators and the BLM, which both assessed the situation, minimize the significance of the contamination. They attribute the spills to leaky trucks, saying improved valves would address the problem.

But the EPA's Denver-based regional water expert, Gregory Oberley, isn't convinced: "You've got benzene in a usable aquifer, and nobody is able to verbalize well, using factual information, how the benzene got there." In written statements, regional EPA officials formally rebuked the BLM for not requiring a more thorough cleanup and investigation of the contamination. In September, the BLM approved 4,400 new wells in Sublette County.

The US Constitution requires just compensation for any regulatory taking - this could be a state using its eminent domain power to take land, or forcing a company to disclose a proprietary formula. That legal barrier could possibly be overcome if there was sufficient evidence. However, some people have done their own detective work:

A list of some of the ingredients for fracturing fluids has been pieced together by environmentalists and regulators who have scoured drillers' patent applications and government records, such as worker-safety forms required by the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Of the more than 300 chemicals thought to be in use by drillers, more than 60 are listed as hazardous by the federal government.

But the exact recipes drillers use, including chemical concentrations and volumes, aren't publicly known. Researchers say that without that information, they can't vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track the effects of hydraulic fracturing. "I am looking more and more at water- quality issues [related to natural-gas drilling]," says the EPA's Dhieux. "But if you don't know what's in [the fracturing fluid], I don't think it's possible."

This is an emerging issue of environmental justice that the US will have to address. US law does not adequately protect the public from companies polluting the air or groundwater. This situation is intolerable. The public health should not be sacrificed for profit - and if the industry is right that they aren't endangering the public's health, they would have nothing to hide by showing everyone.

Editor's Note: Lustgarten is a reporter with ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism organization in New York. For more on the controversy surrounding natural-gas drilling, go to Propublica.org or to Businessweek.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Patient voices: HIV and AIDS

The New York Times has a series of audio interviews of people living with HIV.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Georgia's claims on Russian war called into question

NY Times has an article stating that Georgia's claims that Russia initiated hostilities in their recent skirmish are questionable.

Newly available accounts by independent military observers of the beginning of the war between Georgia and Russia this summer call into question the longstanding Georgian assertion that it was acting defensively against separatist and Russian aggression.

Instead, the accounts suggest that Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.

The accounts are neither fully conclusive nor broad enough to settle the many lingering disputes over blame in a war that hardened relations between the Kremlin and the West. But they raise questions about the accuracy and honesty of Georgia’s insistence that its shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was a precise operation. Georgia has variously defended the shelling as necessary to stop heavy Ossetian shelling of Georgian villages, bring order to the region or counter a Russian invasion.

President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia has characterized the attack as a precise and defensive act. But according to observations of the monitors, documented Aug. 7 and Aug. 8, Georgian artillery rounds and rockets were falling throughout the city at intervals of 15 to 20 seconds between explosions, and within the first hour of the bombardment at least 48 rounds landed in a civilian area. The monitors have also said they were unable to verify that ethnic Georgian villages were under heavy bombardment that evening, calling to question one of Mr. Saakashvili’s main justifications for the attack.

Dark side of the US health care industry: 10 things hospital CEOs won't tell you

From Smartmoney.com

1. “I’m a CEO first and a health care professional second.”

With 46 million uninsured Americans and major health care reform possibly ahead, the roughly 5,000 CEOs at U.S. community hospitals aren’t in an enviable position. In the 1980s almost all hospital heads held advanced degrees in health administration, but the American College of Healthcare Executives says more than one in four of its member CEOs now has an MBA, which President Tom Dolan thinks has “advantages and disadvantages.” One plus: Business savvy sure helps in the $1 trillion U.S. hospital industry.

But along with that have come less welcome changes, like Wall Street–style salaries and perks. Gary Mecklenburg, former CEO of Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, was paid $16.4 million from September 2005 to October 2006, including a nearly $11 million retirement bonus. A Northwestern spokesperson says the hospital complies with IRS standards of “fair and reasonable” compensation.

Cathy Glasson, a nurses union leader in Iowa, says only recently have hospitals internally begun calling patients “consumers” or “clients.” “Even that small shift hints at today’s business model,” she says. “Focus
less on care and more on profits.”

[US nonprofits have been forced to act like for profits to compete. It's a tough industry.]

2. “Just because we’re nonprofit doesn’t mean we’re good guys.”

These days even nonprofit hospitals have become more entrepreneurial. Executives have all but replaced the nuns who once ran Catholic hospitals, and at least a few facilities have upped prices to several times what procedures cost. What’s more, even though nonprofit hospitals get roughly $12.6 billion in annual tax breaks and billions more in government subsidies in exchange for community service, there’s no standard for how much free care they must provide. Studies show many hospitals don’t give enough free care to equal their tax breaks, and figures they report can be misleading. For instance, many facilities claim
the amount they bill for a service instead of what it costs to provide it.

The Service Employees International Union recently criticized Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston for reporting bad debt (unpaid bills for which it had already been partially compensated by the state) as charity care, inflating its free-care figure by about 20 percent. A Beth Israel spokesperson says hospital auditors have “never found any cause for concern.” And no wonder: The hospital was acting in accordance with IRS regulations.

[Free care is only one type of benefit to the community that hospitals provide, and it's a very narrow measure. Under Catholic Health Association guidelines, Catholic hospitals count free care, shortfalls from Medicaid payments

3. “Who says you can’t haggle for health care?”

After media coverage about how they often accept lower payments from insurers while charging higher list prices to the uninsured, hospitals are now more open to bargaining. So how can you take advantage? For starters, many facilities have financial counselors who can set up no-interest payment plans or adjust prices based on financial need—all you have to do is ask. Or team up with an outfit such as North American surgery—which pairs patients willing to pay up front with small hospitals willing to give discounts—and you could save up to 80 percent on common procedures like bypass surgery.

Kelly Proffitt, a 39-year-old teacher in Bassett, Va., knows the benefits of bargaining. In May, when her mother got a $12,000 bill from a hospital after spending almost a week there with a near-fatal blood infection, Proffitt hired a health care advocate—a private individual, often with insurance experience, who helps tackle charges. Weeks later the hospital offered to cut the bill by 80 percent. The advocate “found strings to pull we didn’t even know existed,” Proffitt says. To follow her example, visit www.billadvocates.com to find your own bill bargainer.

[Unfortunately true. Hospital charges are basically a fiction.]

4. “If we build it, you will come.”

The hospital industry is in the midst of a serious building boom, having spent more than $100 billion on construction from 2002 through 2007, double the amount from the previous five years. Hospital executives argue that they’re trying to make patients more comfortable, but critics claim much of the work is unnecessary, “like putting waterfalls in the lobby,” says Maggie Mahar, author of Money Driven Medicine. “And that cost trickles right back down to consumers.”

What’s more, when construction increases the number of hospital beds, doctors tend to fill them and charge accordingly. Researchers at Dartmouth University have repeatedly found that patients with chronic conditions spend more time in the hospital in areas with more hospital beds per capita. And during the last months of life, patients in bed-glutted regions like Miami spend 20 days in the hospital on average, compared with six days elsewhere.

The upshot for patients? “Researchers have never found all that extra care is producing better health outcomes,” says Paul Ginsberg, president of the Center for Studying Health Systems Change. “In some cases, outcomes are actually somewhat worse.”

5. “We don’t like competition, especially from doctors.”

Tensions are up between hospital executives and doctors, especially since many physicians have begun opening small outpatient-surgery centers or mini hospitals in direct competition with big hospitals. The CEOs worry such facilities—which often focus on profitable specialties like liver transplants—will shear off the most high-paying, well-insured patients.

Orthopedic surgeon William Reed has felt the blowback: In 2003, when he and 21 colleagues opened Heartland Spine & Specialty Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., he says the six biggest insurance firms in the area stopped talking to him about adding the facility to their networks. When Reed filed suit alleging tortious interference and civil conspiracy, his lawyers uncovered e-mail showing several large local hospitals had told the insurers they didn’t want them working with Heartland. One hospital allegedly said it would drop an insurer that did. Five hospitals settled for undisclosed sums this spring; the one that allegedly threatened to drop an insurer says its contracting uses a “thorough, lawful approach.” But says Reed, “They were trying to find a way to choke me right out of business.”

[Consider the previous point. Then consider these physician owned specialty hospitals. First, they skim profitable patients from community hospitals. Second, they raise medical usage without necessarily bettering health. The specialty hospitals treat far fewer Medicaid patients; all hospitals lose money on Medicaid payments, which means the specialty hospitals dumped unprofitable patients on the community hospital. Furthermore, specialty hospitals also tend to treat healthier patients with the same diagnosis - the more complicated cases are less profitable. Interested parties can read this letter to Sen. Max Baucus from the American Hospital Association and a couple other associations.]

6. “It’s all about PR.”

You can hardly log on to a hospital’s Web site without a logo proclaiming it “one of the country’s best.” Rankings have proliferated in recent years and are now offered by such varied sources as the for-profit firm HealthGrades and magazines like U.S. News & World Report. The problem is, consumers still don’t know how to assess and research hospitals adequately, says Howard Peterson, managing partner of hospital-consulting firm TRG Healthcare, so “image becomes everything.” That’s why each year when hospital rankings that factor in the reputation of a facility within the health care community get compiled, “I can’t even tell you how many e-mails I get wanting my vote,” Peterson says.

How to find reliable rankings? For starters, look closely at what goes into these calculations. For example, a facility may label itself “best hospital” when only one division (say, ophthalmology) has won an award. Among rankers, HealthGrades (www.healthgrades.com) bases its ratings on more than 90 individual procedures and lets you access ratings based on mortality or complication rates of patients, as well as data on safety and what the hospital charges.

7. “You might be paying for the guy in the next bed.”

Hospital CEOs tend to focus on “the mix of privately insured and Medicare patients at their hospitals,” says Leah Binder, CEO of industry monitor The Leapfrog Group. And for good reason: Because Medicare reimbursements barely cover the cost of procedures, privately insured patients and their insurers often pay more to compensate. One PricewaterhouseCoopers study predicts one of every four dollars spent by private insurers will cover such cost shifting by 2009. That can lead to some pretty outrageous charges. For example, says consumer advocate Nora Johnson, many hospitals bill about $30,000 for appendectomies when the cost to do the procedure is more like $4,200. (Insurers negotiate prices, usually somewhere between those two benchmarks.) But because it isn’t easy to compare prices, Johnson says there are “no checks and balances to keep hospitals from marking things up as much as they want.”

Richard Clark, CEO of the Healthcare Financial Management Association, a professional group for hospital CFOs, says it’s “frustrating” to hear arguments that pricing is arbitrary, since hospitals painstakingly adjust prices based on the number of patients covered by government programs and on market forces.

[Depending on their costs, hospitals may lose a bit of money on Medicare patients, lose quite a bit of money on each Medicaid patient, and obviously lose a lot of money on the uninsured. Given the bizarrely convoluted structure of the US health financing system and the lack of a national insurance solution, hospitals have no choice but to use the privately insured patients to essentially subsidize everyone else.]

8. “Our mergers are pretty messy.”

the hospital industry has been rapidly consolidating since the 1990s, with more than 100 merger-type deals announced or completed in 2007 alone. What does this mean for consumers? When a hospital buys another close by, prices can jump more than 40 percent. That’s because big chains have more leverage to demand higher rates from insurers, says Robert Town, professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota.

Hospitals say mergers ultimately help them improve quality—they’ll spend more on care and less on back-office needs. But the process can cause customer-service snafus and occasionally compromise quality. Hospital consultant Corbett Price says it’s “very common” for hospitals to have problems coordinating accounting systems after a merger, which can result in duplicate or flawed bills, for example. And since mergers gobble up competition, some critics say hospital CEOs no longer feel they have to address black marks—like low nurse-to-patient ratios—to compete.

Price urges concerned consumers to talk with their primary-care doctor about changes at a newly merged hospital and make sure the facility remains accredited by checking www.jointcommission.org. Another option: Wait at least three months for the dust to settle before going back.

9. “If it were up to me, we’d be doing more breast implants.”

With more hospitals focused on financial survival, many are pushing the most profitable types of care. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in advertising: A 2005 study of top academic medical centers’ adsfound that 29 percent of those focused on specific treatments touted cosmetic procedures, while another 38 percent focused on experimental (read: high-priced) services like deep-brain stimulation for Parkinson’s disease.

Critics worry hospitals are becoming dangerously out of sync with the needs of the public. Author Mahar says ERs are often crowded because hospitals don’t want to expand this low-profit unit. Poor financials also explain why the U.S. doesn’t “have nearly enough burn units,” she says, and why more than three-quarters of hospitals don’t offer palliative care. Clark says that while a focus on building up profitable parts of facilities is “definitely going on,” nonprofit hospitals also focus on “making sure they are still providing the services the community needs while making a hospital financially sustainable.”

10. “We don’t like you poking into our business.”

things have improved in recent years, but consumer advocates trying to make data publicly available on such topics as staph infection rates in hospitals often describe a multiphased process of resistance. “First the executives just flat-out oppose you,” says Denise Love, executive director of the National Association of Health Data Organizations. “Then they say they love the idea but begin attacking the data points and methodology.”

At HealthGrades, Chief Medical Officer Samantha Collier says she gets calls “at least once a week” from hospital CEOs or their underlings complaining about everything from her methodology to where they fall in the hierarchy of rankings. Granted, hospital execs have some legitimate concerns: For example, there’s the issue of whether hospital researchers and raters are properly adjusting data to be easier on facilities seeing the toughest cases and thus posting higher mortality rates. But Mahar says hospitals’ stake in keeping the public underinformed is mostly business savvy. “CEOs realize that patients walk away [from the hospital] knowing whether they like the food and the view,” she says. “They’ve got no idea if they actually got good quality health care.”

[This is true and inexcusable. Hospitals are not ordinary businesses. They provide an essential public service and take much public financing, and therefore should be open to scrutiny. That said, hospital operations are highly complex and aren't easy for a layperson to interpret. For example, a layperson might be outraged at the way charges are structured, but there is a reason behind it as discussed earlier.]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Weighing policy options in a bailout of the US automakers

The notion of too big to fail comes to us thanks to our friends in the finance industry. It started in 1980, according to Wikipedia, when the then 7th largest US bank made some idiotic investments and faced a run on the bank. Regulators reluctantly offered assistance instead of letting it fail.

The US is now in a bit of a tight spot. The financial industry is in turmoil. The banks that are too big to fail got government assistance. Some smaller ones have failed or been nationalized. Unfortunately, General Motors chose this very opportune moment to announce that they are soon going to run out of cash. Chrysler and Ford are only marginally better.

Creative destruction is a core tenet of capitalism. In exchange for allowing innovation and wealth, we run the risk that firms will occasionally fail. Sometimes, they fail spectacularly. I'm a staunch opponent of unfettered capitalism. However, unsustainable businesses must either fail, or the government must prop them up. If they aren't critical to infrastructure, like nonprofit hospitals, I would ultimately choose to let them fail.

In particular, the American auto manufacturers abused their political power to escape proper regulation. They also refused to position themselves for a future with higher energy costs - and don't tell me you didn't see it coming.

Additionally, one can make the case that rescuing the automakers would amount to protectionism.

Indeed, Tom Friedman, writing for the NY Times, seems of half a mind to let them fail.

Not every automaker is at death’s door. Look at this article that ran two weeks ago on autochannel.com: “ALLISTON, Ontario, Canada — Honda of Canada Mfg. officially opened its newest investment in Canada — a state-of-the art $154 million engine plant. The new facility will produce 200,000 fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines annually for Civic production in response to growing North American demand for vehicles that provide excellent fuel economy.”

The blame for this travesty not only belongs to the auto executives, but must be shared equally with the entire Michigan delegation in the House and Senate, virtually all of whom, year after year, voted however the Detroit automakers and unions instructed them to vote. That shielded General Motors, Ford and Chrysler from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago.

Indeed, if and when they do have to bury Detroit, I hope that all the current and past representatives and senators from Michigan have to serve as pallbearers. And no one has earned the “honor” of chief pallbearer more than the Michigan Representative John Dingell, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is more responsible for protecting Detroit to death than any single legislator.

In the end, Friedman says to nationalize them.

“In return for any direct government aid,” he wrote, “the board and the management [of G.M.] should go. Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver — someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical — should have broad power to revamp G.M. with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others and downsizing the company ... Giving G.M. a blank check — which the company and the United Auto Workers union badly want, and which Washington will be tempted to grant — would be an enormous mistake.”

I'm not averse to temporary nationalization, unlike small-government conservatives. However, the fact remains that it will be organizationally challenging to oversee the entire auto industry. Congress has a finite amount of time, energy and attention. The financial rescue plan included oversight provisions for the Treasury, but these haven't been put together yet. Assembling enough people with the appropriate skill set takes time, energy and money. Then you have to consider their recommendations and act on them. I'd consider nationalization to be entirely appropriate here, but the government may be biting off more than it can chew, in terms of organizational capacity.

Additionally, there is the question of whether it will actually be possible to restructure the automakers into a sustainable business. Perhaps the North American market isn't large enough for 3 domestic automakers on top of all the foreign ones. I've previously said that at least one of the Big 3 should go bankrupt, and if the government stepped in I would like them to downsize the combined operation significantly - only I'm sure the UAW would go berserk. I have no sympathy for the predicament they stupidly put themselves in. However, I have sympathy for the predicament of workers who will be out of a job, and I consider organized labor to be a critical counterbalance to big business and its political power.

As the Morningstar video I linked above says, the estimated total costs to the US of allowing the Big 3 to go under would be on the order of $370 billion. I believe that figure includes costs to all of society (government and individuals). I believe it includes lost tax receipts and personal income, and additional government expenditures for unemployment insurance and health care. That is a lot of money. The financial rescue package of $700 billion drew tremendous anger, and that is not an expenditure, it is an outlay (much of it should be recovered in time).

It would be nice if the automakers waited until after the recession to go bankrupt. As it is, it looks like the US government will have no choice but to organize some sort of assistance. My opinion is that if they make it a straight loan, the companies will squander the money anyway. The US would be best of if it nationalized or semi-nationalized the automakers akin to what it did with AIG. My preference would be to place them in conservatorship, meaning that the unsustainable operations will be wound down in a controlled fashion. A lot of their international operations are profitable and these can be sold or retained. Of course, nationalization brings its own risks as I discussed above.

Roman Catholic priest faces excommunication over women's ordination

By Laurie Goodstein, for the NY Times

The Vatican has informed a Roman Catholic priest in the United States that he will be excommunicated next week for participating in a ceremony it considers illicit and invalid: the ordination of a woman as a priest.

The priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, 69, has been a member of the Maryknoll religious order for 36 years. He said he was anguished at the thought of excommunication, but could not disavow his actions.

“Who are we as men to say that we are called by God to the ministry of priesthood, but women are not? That our call is valid, but theirs is not?” he said in an interview. “We profess as Catholics that the invitation to the priesthood comes from God, and it seems to me that we are tampering with the sacred.”

Father Bourgeois served as a missionary in Bolivia and El Salvador, and concerned by what he witnessed, returned to the United States and became nationally known as a peace advocate.

He lives in an apartment outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., where he leads an annual protest against the United States Army School of the Americas, which trains military personnel from Latin America. Last year, 17,000 people joined the protest.

In August, Father Bourgeois joined a ceremony in a Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, Ky., in which a friend from the peace movement, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, claimed ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. Father Bourgeois gave the homily and laid hands on her.

He had known that excommunication was possible but said he thought it unlikely. His order summoned him to headquarters and gave him a warning but did not discipline him.

Then he received a letter dated Oct. 21 from the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, warning that if he did not recant, in writing, he would be excommunicated within 30 days.

“When I got the actual letter, I had to sit down,” he said. “I felt nauseous. I thought, this is serious stuff. The first thought that came to mind was, How am I going to explain this to my dad and my family?”

After weeks of prayer, Father Bourgeois informed the Vatican that he would not repent.

Ms. Sevre-Duszynska, a veteran agitator for women’s ordination, is the 35th American woman to claim ordination from an increasingly vocal group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

She grew up in a Polish Catholic community in Milwaukee and grew enamored of a priest’s work after her mother arranged for her to help a nun clean the priest’s sacristy every week.

“I have felt called to the priesthood since my childhood,” Ms. Sevre-Duszynska said.

The Womenpriests group has been holding its own ordinations of women as priests, deacons and even bishops across North America and Europe, starting in 2002 with a ceremony on a boat on the Danube River. Some of the ceremonies in Europe were done in secret, so even Womenpriest leaders say they do not have a complete count.

The Vatican and local bishops have notified the women that they are automatically excommunicated. But Father Bourgeois is the first priest to face discipline for his involvement.

Leaders of the Womenpriests say that three bishops in good standing have performed ordinations in Europe. But they have pledged not to identify the bishops until their deaths.

Pope John Paul II reiterated the church’s position in 1994 in an apostolic letter which said that because Jesus chose only male apostles, “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”

A Roman Catholic nun who worked for the Archdiocese of St. Louis was removed from her position by her archbishop this year, and banned from receiving sacraments, after she attended a women’s ordination ceremony.

Father Bourgeois said he would try to appeal the Vatican’s decision. Excommunication, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty.” The person is forbidden to receive or administer sacraments.

On a practical level, Father Bourgeois also faces the loss of his benefits and the $1,000 he receives monthly for living expenses. But, he said, “if I am without health care, I will be joining millions of people in the U.S. who don’t have health care.”

He has been at peace, he said, since he drove to his hometown in Louisiana and told his 95-year-old father, his 3 siblings and 13 nieces and nephews.

His father cried a little, Father Bourgeois recalled, then said: “God brought Roy back from the war in Vietnam, from his mission work in Bolivia and El Salvador, and God’s going to take care of him now. I support Roy.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Peer to peer lending for payday loans

Jared said...

You mentioned in your post that you don't think payday lenders charge a reasonable fee for their services. Well, that is one of the reasons we decided to create our peer-to-peer payday loan platform. You can see it at www.yadyap.com [The site isn't fully active yet, but they have a blog on Wordpress]

YadYap will offer an auction system that will allow lenders to bid on payday loan requests from borrowers. This platform will determine the true cost of a payday loan, and the rates will be bid according to the market.

Indeed, Yadyap (Payday reversed) is working to use competition to reduce fees. From their Wordpress blog:

What do you do when you want to get the best rate for a car loan, mortgage, or any other loan? Well, like many other people you may visit Lending Tree “when banks compete, you win.” Or any other website that creates competition between lenders. Other great examples now are Prosper and Lending Club. Why do you do this? Because you will get the best rate that the market is willing to give you. Now consider someone with an immediate need for a small amount of money so that a check they just wrote does not bounce, or so they can make their car payment. There are two problems. First, they do not have the time to shop around, and second there is not a marketplace for Payday loans. YadYap will solve this issue by creating 24 hour auctions where multiple bidders will place offers to fund a payday loan request. Now, where would you go if you needed a payday loan?

One of the reasons EBayworks so well is because of their rating system. Who in their right mind would sell a product to someone on line who they know nothing about and trust that it would be a smooth transaction? When you transact on EBay you can see that the other person has for example a 99% positive rating, and you are ready and willing to do business with them. YadYap will bring this same philosophy to payday loans. Lenders will be able to see if the borrower has other outstanding payday loans, and will be rated according to how they have performed on previous YadYap loans.

I certainly commend Jared for attempting to translate the social lending model (like Prosper.com) to payday loans. Introducing additional competition into the market will generally bring prices down. Prices are one of my primary objections to payday loans. Additionally, you obviously know your industry better than I do.

However, I foresee two possible problems.

One, as demonstrated by the NY Times article I quoted from, a lot of the people relying on payday services don't have bank accounts. In my view, this makes it likely that a lot of these folks also won't have easy access to computers, and won't have high internet literacy. In the NY Times article, face to face interaction seemed to play a large role in fostering sufficient trust of Nix's operation. In addition, will folks who don't have a bank account be willing to essentially use an online lender? What does your outreach plan look like?

Two, you are assuming that there are investors out there who are able and willing make sufficient loans to your customers. Money is tight in general. In addition, you run the risk that investors perceive your clients as risky. You say that payday loans last 2-4 weeks, giving your site far more liquidity than Prosper, where an investor might tie up their capital for 3 years unless they can resell the loan on a secondary market. All well and good, but you will need to assemble some sort of track record on default rates. If your default rates are too high, then I don't see a lot of people risking their capital. How do you plan to address this?

Obviously the P2P industry is still in the early stages of its evolution. I do hope you can pull this off, and I would encourage you to consider partnering with credit unions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More comments on payday loans and check cashing facilities

The Bible forbids usury. In the days of ancient Israel, "usury" meant lending money at any interest. God commanded the Hebrews to lend to one another at no interest.

Obviously, we've come to realize that money has a time value - $1,000 today is more valuable than $1,000 in one year's time. Lenders should be compensated for lending. However, credit is essential to business and may be required to regulate a household's cash flow. All people should have access to an appropriate amount of credit at a reasonable rate.

I do not think payday lenders charge a reasonable rate for their services. Check cashing facilities, which serve the unbanked and give people their checks in cash, also do not charge a reasonable rate. I realize a number of people commented on my last post about payday loans, saying that they're not all bad.

If one uses these alternative services judiciously, they're fine. The problem is that payday loans have been known to use predatory lending practices. An MSN Money article maintains that payday lenders have conspired to "ambush" military families:

And payday lenders make a point of targeting people in the military. Why? Because they know military personnel have steady paychecks, are unlikely to get laid off or quit their jobs and -- given that many personnel are young and away from home for the first time -- often have little in savings and not much experience in managing personal finances.

Plus, military personnel tend not to be highly paid. That makes it likelier they'll need to get their hands on cash in a hurry.

Payday loan and check-cashing shops are concentrated around military bases, and online lenders aim their products at military personnel, using ads that trumpet "military loans" and "exclusively serving the military." The Department of Defense estimates that one in every four military service members has taken out a payday loan.

Not only is this a problem for the people who find themselves entering a debt spiral, but service members with low credit scores or too-high debt loads may find their financial problems affect their security clearances. Ultimately, that can mean service members are unable to deploy when needed.

It's easy to see the appeal of payday loans: Lenders promise same-day cash and an easy repayment plan, and they often don't make clear how much borrowers will end up paying in interest. For someone who needs cash fast, especially in these tough economic times, the offer may be hard to resist.


But the real problem is that borrowers can fall into a cycle of debt: If their paychecks don't cover their first loans, they may take out new loans to pay off the initial ones. Nine out of 10 service members who take out a payday loan wind up taking at least five loans a year. By the time you've rolled over your debt several times, the interest rate on that original loan has ballooned out of control. The average borrower pays $834 for a $339 loan, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Defense report (.pdf file) on payday lenders.

Payday lenders don't limit their depredations to military families, either.

Then again, mainstream financial organizations don't offer services that are appropriate to all customers. If done properly, payday-type loans and check cashing services can be appropriate. A recent NY Times article profiled a check cashing service which had been bought by a credit union.

There are two big problems with businesses like Nix Check Cashing. One is that the fees are high. Most cashers pocket between 2 and 4 percent of each check’s value, which a recent Brookings Institution study calculated could add up to $40,000 in fees over a customer’s working life. And their version of credit, a two- or four-week cash advance against a postdated check, known as a payday loan, is even pricier — about 30 times the annualized interest rate of a typical credit card.

The second problem is that cashing your paycheck, instead of depositing it, encourages you to spend all your money rather than saving whatever is left over at the end of the month. (Down the counter, a pair of young black women in tight, bright tops looked around a bit nervously as a cashier counted out thousands in small bills. “It’s tax-refund time,” the cashier told me as the women walked out.)

But it’s also true that traditional banks are far from blameless, especially where low-income customers are concerned, and check cashers and payday lenders do get some important things right. “If they’re properly regulated and scrutinized, there’s nothing wrong with check cashing as a concept and there’s nothing wrong with payday loans as a concept,” Robert L. Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute, a California nonprofit focused on financial services and civil rights, told me. “And there’s nothing automatically good about free checking accounts if you have multiple fees whenever you make the most minor mistake.”

Today’s financial crisis has many origins. But here’s one cause that is often overlooked: Traditional bankers badly misread the market for financial services in low-to-moderate-income communities. “Banks have been approaching these customers purely from a short-term-gain perspective, and they’ve missed opportunities,” Matt Fellowes, director of the Pew Safe Banking Opportunities Project, told me. Banks declined to offer small, simple lines of credit to poor and blue-collar customers, leaving them to payday lenders, while they pushed high-limit, high-interest credit cards on everyone and acquired hundreds of billions in subprime debt. They undervalued the hundreds of billions a year in modest paychecks that pass through a place like Nix and ended up short on cash. Now that the economy has turned ugly, these poor and blue-collar customers are the hardest-squeezed. Payday loans are up, Nix told me when I spoke to him recently, and check-cashing revenue is down.

Legislators around the country have identified savings as a way to shore up low-income communities and expand the middle class. There are a few significant bills before Congress, and more at the state level, that would help poor and working-class families save money — like increasing the amount welfare recipients are allowed to sock away before the system cuts off their benefits. But some 28 million Americans still go without a bank account, including more than 20 percent of Latino and African-American households, and more than 50 million have no credit score, which means no access to mainstream credit. These are the people in line at Nix.

The author details some examples of how mainstream financial services don't cut it for everyone:

Bank of America took heat earlier this year for more than doubling the interest rate on some credit-card accounts, even if the cardholder pays every bill on time. Banks, meanwhile, have nearly quadrupled their fee income in the last decade, according to the F.D.I.C., while credit-card late charges and over-limit charges have nearly tripled. Fees imposed on customers for temporarily overdrawing their accounts — by accident or on purpose — have been particularly lucrative; banks made $25.3 billion in 2006 on overdraft-related fees, up 48 percent in two years, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. On the Web site of Strunk and Associates, a big seller of overdraft programs, bank and credit-union executives offer glowing testimonials. “Strunk’s program has exceeded expectations,” one writes. “We have generated a 100 percent increase in overdraft revenue.”

Some customers choose Nix over a bank because it is cheaper than paying overdraft fees. For others, it’s convenient. Some go to Nix because check cashing is what they know. Others go because they live in communities where nobody takes a check or a card, not even the landlord, and cash machines are scarce. Still others go because they always seem to have a Final Notice in the bill stack, and they can’t wait a week or longer for a paycheck to clear — that includes a lot of people with a bank account somewhere.


Nix’s cashiers also try to never say no. Take photo identification. A lot of customers don’t have a driver’s license. Nix stores have accepted high-school yearbooks. They’ve been known to cash a McDonald’s paycheck if someone comes in wearing a McDonald’s uniform. They even have a phone in the lobby, so a cashier can call a customer’s job site and then patch the customer in, listen to him talk to his supervisor and decide if they sound like a legitimate boss and employee. Nix says he loses as much as 5 percent of his check-cashing revenue on bad checks, but it’s worth it, he says, to be known as a place that says yes.


There’s a bank, just down the street, that could do those things free. I asked him (Oscar Enriquez, an interviewee) why he didn’t take his business there.

“Oh, man, I won’t work with them no more,” Enriquez explained. “They’re not truthful.”

Two years ago, Enriquez opened his first bank account. “I said I wanted to start a savings account,” he said. He thought the account was free, until he got his first statement. “They were charging me for checks!” he said, still upset about it. “I didn’t want checks. They’re always charging you fees. For a while, I didn’t use the bank at all, they charged like $100 in fees.” Even studying his monthly statements, he couldn’t always figure out why they charged what they charged. Nix is almost certainly more expensive, but it’s also more predictable and transparent, and that was a big deal to Enriquez.

So, I'd like to retract my unconditional opposition to payday lenders.

However, that doesn't change the fact that the industry is filled with predatory lenders. To change my mind, the payday loan industry will need to start taking responsibility.

Nix's business was bought by a credit union that was looking to act responsibly:

In the spring of 2007, Nix was working hard to unload his business. He had actually been trying to sell his chain to a bank for more than a decade, and now he was running out of time. He was about to turn 60, and he thought he owed his family (and his investors) an exit. Nix wanted to sell high to a responsible bank, retire well and be a hero, the guy who took real banking to L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods. But the most likely buyer was another check-cashing chain. Nix was prepared to do the deal, but it was not how he dreamed of going out.

Then Kinecta Federal Credit Union called with its offer. “We were trying to understand why check cashers have been successful in underserved areas where banks haven’t,” Kinecta’s president and C.E.O., Simone Lagomarsino, told me. What they concluded was that most banks simply didn’t know low-income neighborhoods or understand them. “We go in with this cookie-cutter approach: This is our branch, this is our way we do business,” she says.

As Nix and Lagomarsino negotiated the sale, he encouraged her to make it easier for his customers to open a bank account. At most banks, if you’ve bounced too many checks, you’re banned for five to seven years. Lagomarsino agreed to reduce that limbo period to one year. Next she realized she would need to deal with the most controversial part of Nix’s business, the payday loans. At first, she told me, “I assumed we wouldn’t do them.” Nix actually felt the same way, once. In the late 1980s, when a few check cashers started to accept postdated personal checks and advance cash for a fee, Nix thought it was a sleazy scheme. He thought so even after California legalized the practice in 1997. “I didn’t want to be a loan shark,” he told me. “But the reality is, customers wanted it.”

He told Lagomarsino why. A bounced check, a fee to reconnect a utility, a late-payment fee on your credit card, or an underground loan, any of those things can cost more than a payday loan. And then there are overdraft charges. “Banks, credit unions, we’ve been doing payday loans, we just call it something different,” Lagomarsino says. “When it starts to get used like a payday loan, it’s worse.”


Kinecta’s executives decided to keep the payday loan and change the terms. Starting with three stores in the spring, and eventually across the entire chain, Nix is increasing the maximum loan from $255 to $400. They are dropping the fee from 18 percent ($45 for a two-week $255 loan) to 15 percent ($60 for a two-week $400 loan). And they will rebate a third more ($20, in the case of a $400 loan) into a savings account, after six months, if you pay your loans back and don’t bounce any checks. People get payday loans because they have no savings, Lagomarsino explained. After six months, heavy payday borrowers will accumulate a small balance. Enough, she and Nix say they hope, to convince them they can afford to save more. Later, they say, they intend to drop fees further for borrowers who always pay back on time.

And so, if done right, this can be a viable solution for low-income people. One should also remember that credit cards are a mainstream financial product, and that anyone can open five credit card accounts, pile on a lot of debt, and get into trouble. We don't say credit cards should be outlawed, so I suppose I shouldn't necessarily say all payday services should be banned.

However, to be frank, I would be perfectly happy if the entire industry were closed to for-profits and given to the credit unions - as customer-owned non-profits, they have no direct incentive to screw over their customers - members, actually. The fact remains that the US banned payday lending to military personnel based on reports from their Department of Defense.

AIG's bailout expanded

American International Group, an insurance firm that was recently given an $85 billion loan from the Treasury, just renegotiated the terms of its bailout.

AIG was facing insolvency. It had written a number of credit default swaps. Firm A might be worried for whatever reason that Firm B will default (e.g. A owns bonds from B); to hedge this risk, A might buy a credit default swap from AIG. As with any insurance contract, the insurer needs to post some collateral in case the insurer defaults. However, if the insurer's credit rating is lowered, the insurer needs to post additional collateral. AIG's credit rating was under threat of a severe downgrade, and it faced a situation where it would need to post more cash collateral than it had.

And so, AIG got a $85 billion bridge loan from the US Federal Government. The loan carried rather high interest. AIG would essentially need to sell off whatever assets it could to pay the loan off; it would be left a fraction of its former sprawling self.

However, the firm hasn't been able to sell assets. No one is able to buy (although some are apparently willing). The Treasury sharply reduced the interest rate on the loan, and purchased preferred stock in AIG (preferred stock is similar to bonds). However, the new package is worth $150 billion. The Treasury will of course maintain its warrants in the company, which give it a claim on 80% of the company's equity.

AIG's demise would have hurt a number of other large financial firms, which would in turn have deleterious consequences to Americans. US taxpayers shouldn't necessarily oppose increasing the loan to the firm ... but the stakes have got a lot higher. An article by the Motley Fool compares AIG to two previous bailouts where the government lost money - $1.1 billion in a 1984 bailout. The author says one of the risk of government bailouts is "becoming bogged down in a money quicksand pit" - there may be good reason to attempt to prevent AIG from self-destructing, but taxpayers do have good reason to be worried.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama already sitting down with an unpopular, aggressive world leader without preconditions

President-elect Obama is meeting President George Bush today in the White House. Although I understand that Obama promised to be a diplomatic President, and the invitation came at Bush's request, you have to admit Obama is moving dangerously fast in sitting down with an unpopular, aggressive world leader without preconditions, as blogs throughout the Internet are saying.

James Dobson didn't pray hard enough during the election season

From Time Magazine:

James Dobson may be the only Evangelical whose Sunday school teacher apparently never warned him to be careful what he prayed for. Two weeks before Election Day, the Focus on the Family founder chatted with Sarah Palin on his radio show and shared his backup plan for the struggling GOP ticket. He was, Dobson told her, praying for "God's intervention" and that "God's perfect will be done on November the 4th."

An alternative explanation is that God's perfect will was for Barack to win the election.

Obama made significant gains among religious voters of all stripes, as the article discusses. This is striking, given that the Democrats had only recently begun outreach to religious voters. However, Obama still did not win a majority of votes from White Evangelicals, who made up a quarter of voters this year. The article mentions that Obama especially lagged among White Southerners who were Evangelical, hinting at a continuing cultural divide in the US among Whites.

Conservative columnist Janet Porter warned Evangelical voters that they might risk their souls voting for Obama. Some Evangelicals continue to teach very dangerous things, and it really is too bad that their influence is not waning faster.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Arkansas Supreme Court rules against payday lenders

The Arkansas Supreme Court just ruled that a 1999 state law allowing so-called payday lenders to charge high fees for short-term loans violates the State Constitution. The State Constitution limits interest rates on loans to 17%. The effective rates on payday loans are much higher, sometimes in the hundreds of percents.

For non-US readers, Wikipedia provides an explanation of what they do:

Borrowers visit a payday lending store and secure a small cash loan, with payment due in full at the borrower's next paycheck (usually a two week term). In the United States, finance charges on payday loans are typically in the range of 15 to 30 percent of the amount for the two-week period, which translates to rates ranging from 390 percent to 780 percent when expressed as an annual percentage rate (APR)[1] The borrower writes a postdated check to the lender in the full amount of the loan plus fees. On the maturity date, the borrower is expected to return to the store to repay the loan in person. If the borrower doesn't repay the loan in person, the lender may process the check traditionally or through electronic withdrawal from the borrower's checking account.

If the account is short on funds to cover the check, the borrower may now face a bounced check fee from their bank in addition to the costs of the loan, and the loan may incur additional fees and/or an increased interest rate as a result of the failure to pay. For customers who cannot pay back the loan when due, members of the national trade association are required to offer an extended payment plan at no additional cost. In states like Washington, extended payment plans are required by state law.

Payday lenders require the borrower to bring one or more recent pay stubs to prove that they have a steady source of income. The borrower is also required to provide recent bank statements.[citation needed] Individual companies and franchises have their own underwriting criteria.

Defenders of the practice say that they provide a valuable service, as banks are usually disinclined to make such small loans, since it's too much trouble for too small a return. The high interest rates translate to relatively low absolute sums of money.

Critics of the practice compare payday lenders to loansharks. It's not a sustainable practice. In addition, the US Department of Defense has called payday lenders "predatory", and a Federal law limits interest rates on loans to military personnel to 36%. Payday lenders have previously targeted soldiers.

A number of other US States have Constitutional or legal limits on interest rates. The payday loan industry also exists in the UK and Canada. In the US and Canada, borrowers seeking small cash advances to cover their expenses would be better advised to join a credit union; credit unions often offer such services.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

John McCain and Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live

Yes We Can - Black Eyed Peas music video

lack Eyed Peas' will.i.am's music video inspired by Barack Obama's message of hope.

Yes We Can!
¡Sí, Se Puede!

If you live in a February 5th voting state, go here:

And click your state. We need you on Feb 5th.

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom.

Yes we can.

It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness.

Yes we can.

It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballots; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

Yes we can to justice and equality.

Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity.

Yes we can heal this nation.

Yes we can repair this world.

Yes we can.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics...they will only grow louder and more dissonant ........... We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

Now the hopes of the little girl who goes to a crumbling school in Dillon are the same as the dreams of the boy who learns on the streets of LA; we will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as our politics suggests; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea --

Yes. We. Can.

Musings on the election

First, congratulations are due to the new President-elect of the United States, Barack Obama.

Second, while it is right to rejoice at the election of an African-American man as President, one must remember that the road ahead in terms of human rights is long. I'm not sure what the record is for racial minority leaders, but a number of countries have already elected female heads of state, so the US lags terribly in that regard. Also, as we saw during the campaign, racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are far from dead. John McCain admitted as much in his very gracious concession speech.

Third, it looks like Proposition 8 is likely to pass in California. It would overturn the California Supreme Court's ruling that the California Constitution allows same sex couples to marry. This is very unfortunate.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, a prominent moderate Evangelical pastor, endorsed Prop 8 recently. He argued that the Bible mandates the traditional definition of marriage. He reckons that no more than 2% of the population is gay or lesbian and that we shouldn't change the definition of marriage for 2%.

The Bible never condemned the practice of polygyny, where one man marries more than one woman. How many wives did David have?

Next, his 2% figure is probably low. As many as 5-10% of the population may have some degree of same-sex attraction.

Finally, God, in a conversation with Lot, said that S/He wouldn't destroy the city of Sodom if as few as ten righteous people lived there. I infer from this and God's other acts that injustice is injustice whether it is against half the population (as with women), 10-15% of the population (as with African American slaves), or 2-10% of the population (as with LGBT people today). Given the very real inequities that same sex couples face (in taxation, immigration rights for partners, inheritance, custody, powers of attorney, etc), it is right to change the secular definition of marriage to accommodate them. Furthermore, changing the definition of marriage does nothing to harm the ability of heterosexual people to get and stay married (or not). Any harm they suffer is self-inflicted.

It is worth questioning whether US politicians who claim to oppose marriage but support civil unions are treating LGBT people as second class citizens. Any arrangement that claims to be separate but equal deserves strict scrutiny.

The sin of Sodom, by the way, was attempted rape. Not homosexuality.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

An Afghanistan Surge?

The Rev. George Clifford writes for Episcopal Cafe about U.S. actions in Afghanistan. Clifford is a former military chaplain.

Increasing violence in Afghanistan represents a significantly different problem than did the violence in Iraq. In Iraq, the recent surge in the number of United States armed forces appears to have produced results. In fact, those results are much more a function of paying Sunnis not to fight (the Awakening Movement), Sunnis and Shiites having largely segregated themselves, Shiites having at least temporarily resolved their internal differences, and growing internal exhaustion and opposition to al Qaeda perpetuated violence. Experts unanimously agree that the United States has never had sufficient troops on the ground in Iraq actually to end the insurgency. Some diminution of violence in Iraq is even attributable to the near unanimous sentiment among Iraqis that the U.S. should leave Iraq. Hence, some Iraqis have exercised restraint, postponing vendettas and attempts to grab power, hoping that the deceptive calm will encourage the U.S. to expedite repatriation of its forces.

In contrast to Iraq, the different characteristics and roots of the continuing violence in Afghanistan include:

• Although Afghanistan like Iraq has no real history as a nation its tribal and ethnic divisions are even deeper and more difficult to bridge than those in Iraq;
• Islam has historically united Afghanis who declare de facto truces in their internal disputes until they succeed in expelling foreign invaders, e.g., the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and now the United States;
• Afghanistan’s central governments have consistently wielded little power, deferring to regional warlords;
• Geography significantly enhances the ability of Afghan warlords to grab and to keep power;
• Literacy and economic prosperity are at much lower levels than in Iraq, making establishing democracy far less likely than in Iraq (where the effort failed);
• Pashtuns, who comprise 40% of Afghanis, also live in large numbers in Pakistan yet unlike Iraqi Kurds have not achieved any autonomy;
• Afghanistan’s largely rural population adheres to a more conservative form of Islam than do most Iraqis, creating more sympathy for both the Taliban and al Qaeda;
• Afghanis take great pride in eventually ousting from their ruggedly mountainous terrain all foreign invaders for the last fifteen centuries and now view the U.S. and its NATO allies as foreign invaders.

In sum, relatively minor increases in the number of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan (seven thousand or even a hundred thousand) will not permanently alter our inability to impose the regime of our choice on the Afghanis. The Karzai government does not and has not ever had the ability to govern Afghanistan.

From a moral perspective, the U.S. needs to take several important steps. First, the U.S. must begin to speak the truth about the situation in Afghanistan. The elections did not create democracy. Without external backing (money and military might), the Karzai government would either openly function as one among several warlords or have ceased to exist. Second, the U.S. needs to focus on the primary reason it invaded Afghanistan, that is, to destroy al Qaeda. Third, the U.S., through the application of excessive force intended to protect its own military personnel, increasingly alienates Afghanis. The recent acknowledgment that an attack on the Taliban resulted in thirty plus noncombatant deaths is only one example of this. All humans are of equal worth in God's sight. A military operation that requires valuing U.S. lives above those of others cannot satisfy the just war criteria of proportionality (the good achieved outweighs the harm done) and of noncombatant immunity (only attack enemy combatants).

In view of the above, the U.S. must rapidly develop an exit strategy that will minimize the loss of life on all sides. Prolonged occupation of Afghanistan lacks both moral justification and a reasonable chance of success, however one might define that term. Concurrently, the U.S., NATO, and their international partners should employ force to apprehend or destroy morally legitimate targets (e.g., Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda training camps). This use of force must always satisfy a high moral standard (attacking only well-identified targets, inserting and then quickly removing troops once the attack is completed, balancing force protection fairly with the imperative to protect non-combatants, etc.). Adhering to this pattern of operations demonstrates that the U.S. does not want to occupy Muslim territory, does not want to impose Western culture on Muslims, but will defend itself against terrorists in a forcefully and morally appropriate manner.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Election Day

For my American readers, I hope you're voting on Election Day.

Voting is sometimes referred to as a civic sacrament. I agree wholeheartedly.

There are billions of people around the world who either cannot vote or have no reasonable hope of their vote influencing an election. For example, China doesn't have elections. Singapore technically does, but the ruling party is more or less guaranteed a victory and would probably gerrymander the districts if it felt otherwise; additionally, the opposition parties are small, scattered and ineffective.

While I always condemn colonialism, I also maintain that democracy is one Western practice that, although imperfect, is good, worth vigorously exercising, and worth sharing with the rest of the world.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Home for Halloween - Irshad Manji

Posted on the New York Times

FOR me and my family, Oct. 31 has always been significant. Not because it’s Halloween, but because that’s the day we arrived as refugees to a free part of the world.

Beginning in August 1972, thousands of Asian entrepreneurs fled the East African country of Uganda after its dictator, Idi Amin, declared us to be bloodsuckers, seized our property and gave us three months to leave or die.

My family and I had only Ugandan passports, so we couldn’t escape to Britain or India like many of our neighbors. We’d been in Africa for two generations; my father and his brothers owned a car dealership in Uganda’s capital, Kampala. We didn’t know where to go, but we knew we couldn’t stay: Amin viciously enforced his 90-day deadline.

By the final week of October, the nations that would otherwise accept Ugandan exiles had exceeded their quotas. My family heard that Sweden and Canada might make room for a few more, and so out of desperation my mother, my sisters and I flew to Montreal, with Dad to follow. We had no guarantee that Canada would admit us.

We also had no guarantee that we’d meet an extraordinary immigration agent. But on Halloween 1972, we did.

Though the middle-aged woman had doubtless been dealing with a flood of Ugandan refugees, and though burnout could have led her to turn us back or indifferently wave us through, she chose to talk with a harried mother shepherding three girls under age 7. “Why do you want to live in Montreal?” the agent asked, en français.

My mother, who grew up in the Belgian Congo, mercifully could respond in French. “Why do we want to live in Montreal?” Mum repeated, buying a few seconds to think. “Well, Montreal begins with the letter ‘M,’ and our family’s name begins with the letter ‘M,’ so maybe God believes we will fit nicely together.”

Sensing my mother’s fear, the immigration agent assured her that this wasn’t an interrogation. “It’s just that I’m looking at your daughters,” she explained, “and I realize that they’re all dressed for tropical weather. Madame Manji, have you ever seen snow?”

Terrified at the prospect of being booted out, my mother blurted out, “No, but I can’t wait to!”

“Then you’ve come to the right country,” the agent assured Mum. “With your permission, however, I’d like to send you and your children to Canada’s version of a mild climate.” Several stamps of the paperwork later, we boarded a plane to Vancouver, where I learned to make peace with rain.

Some would reduce this immigration agent to a shrewd gatekeeper of cheap labor, carting us off to a city that would get rich from the Asian work ethic. And yet she was more complex than a caricature. Instead of simply unloading us on the local authorities, the agent cared enough to ask what we might need more of — peace, yes, but also fleece. Her small act of empathy bucked an ice-cold system.

As an adult, I’ve come to understand why I’m so blessed to have immigrated to an open society. Here, the individual — and the choices she makes — matter. The agent chose to practice the first lesson of human rights: just because a problem doesn’t affect you personally doesn’t mean it ceases to exist.

Mum tells me that she’s never been able to track down the lovely lady who let us into Canada. Still, she won’t be forgotten. As Madame Manji reminded her girls on Halloween in 2002, “When we touched this soil, we won the lottery of life.”

Idi Amin died in Saudi Arabia a year after that. Friends assumed that I’d be cursing his corpse. No. His hatred introduced my family to the gift of choices.

On Halloween, one can be forgiven for obsessing with murderers, but it’s not Idi Amin who will dominate my thoughts. It’s the immigration agent.

Irshad Manji, the author of “The Trouble With Islam Today,” is the director of the Moral Courage Project at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.