A message for our black neighbors – by Charlotte clergy and community leaders

The following brief editorial appeared in The Charlotte Observer on June 2, 2020, signed by about 80 clergy and community leaders.

In the wake of yet one more unjust killing of an unarmed African American, we clergy and community leaders who are white say to our Black neighbors:

We feel outrage, grief, disgust and remorse.
We stand with you in horror, lament and weariness.
We’re fed up. It’s time.
We confess our complicity, inertia and timidity.
We own our responsibility right now.
With God’s help, we will change ourselves.
With you, we’ll change our institutions and our community.”

Having worked in the human services agencies as a volunteer Board Member, I support these words and have benefitted from working with a few of these voices to help people in need. We all must be the part of the solution. We cannot stand silent when injustice is being done to people who feel their voice is not being heard.

We must ask our police officers and leadership to police their own, identifying and improving on non-exemplary behavior or actions, painfully investigating all deaths to ferret out and punish unjust actions (the Pilot’s Union has a good model with their involvement in investigating plane crashes). Police officers have a tough and dangerous job, and even the best of intentions can go awry in a moment’s decision. But, every group has some bad apples, as well. The repeated and unchecked actions of those bad apples paint all officers with a broad brush.

So, police officers must be empowered and supported to call out their own, especially in the heat of moment of questionable actions. It is hard to call your own on the carpet, but that is what is needed and necessary. There is too long a list of names where such behavior led to a death (Floyd, Arbery Taylor, Cooper, Bland, Garner, Scott, Martin, Garner, Brown, Gray…). Eric Garner was also choked to death and the officer was not charged by a grand jury. But, if the others present had told the officer to “cool his jets” or “the man said he can’t breathe,” Garner or Floyd would still be alive.

I am encouraged by police officers participating in and being supportive of the civil protests. I have seen more than a few officers call out the bad actions that killed Floyd. I am encouraged by the diversity of the civil protestors. I am encouraged by people around the globe also protesting racial injustice.

Yet, I am also discouraged by protestors who have conducted violence and looting. That is harmful to their message and punishes the wrong people. We must speak out against such violence, while shining a spot light on the greater majority of peaceful protests. But, we must seek and get change.

The pandemic risk is exponential, not arithmetic

I read today in The Charlotte Observer the president called the North Carolina governor asking for full opening of the Republican National Convention (RNC) with no social distancing or masks required. Think about this. He has the nomination. He just needs the delegates to vote on it. Yet, he is advocating the gathering of Republicans which heighten the risk by people who believe him when he says these protocols are not needed.

Pandemics work exponentially, not arithmetically. Let’s just say 0.5% of the people at the RNC get infected. That is 250 people who expose people serving food, ushering, securing, guiding them around Charlotte. That is 250 people who take the risk back to their communities to expose their families, friends and communities. On February 28, a night the president still called the Coronavirus a hoax, we had the first recorded American death due to COVID-19. We now are passed 105,000 on May 31, three months later. The question to ask is it worth 250 people infected in late August, that will cause a much large number of deaths come the day of the election?

I want Trump supporters to realize the risk the president is placing on the Republican party and others just so he can hear applause at the RNC. Yet, many citizens are smarter than this president and other politicians. While masks being worn by Democrats and Independents exceed 80%, 58% of Republicans are wearing masks, which means more are than are not. So, if this convention occurs without limits, will they come? If they do have the RNC, just maybe only the delegates and a few supporters actually show up; that would help the exposure immensely, but not rid ourselves of it.

Let me update a few ratios in closing. As of today, the US has 5% of the global population and 28% of the COVID-19 deaths. Thinking we solved this problem is a huge mistake in overconfidence and is yet more evidence of misinformation to gloss over the problem. Those US deaths tally 105,000 and counting as of May 31. Remember, we just crossed 100,000 last week. The summer weather will help, but we must keep our social distancing, keep good hand washing hygiene, wear masks in stores, in spite of what some influencers may tell you. It is only your and your family’s health we are talking about.

Pandemic accelerates renewable energy surpassing coal energy in US

In an article by Brad Plumer of The New York Times (see below) called “In a first, renewable energy is poised to eclipse coal,” the growth of renewable energy has been further fueled by the pandemic. This year, renewable energy (solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal and hydroelectric), will surpass coal as the second largest energy source.

Per Plumer, efforts by the current president to keep propping up coal-burning plants have proven ineffective against market conditions. He notes “Those efforts, however, failed to halt the powerful economic forces that have led utilities to retire hundreds of aging coal plants since 2010 and run their remaining plants less frequently. The cost of building large wind farms has declined more than 40% in that time, while solar costs have dropped more than 80%. And, the price of natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal, has fallen to historic lows as a result of the fracking boom.”

Plumer adds the impact of COVID-19 which has reduced electricity usage with fewer stores and restaurants open is hastening this trend. “And because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.”

Further, “Coal is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, and its decline has already helped drive down US carbon dioxide emissions 15% since 2005. This year, the (Energy Information Administration) expects the US emissions to fall by another 11%, the largest drop in at least 70 years.”

Coupled with people driving less and avoiding traveling by airplanes, an upside to COVID-19 is 2020 will be an impactful year on less carbon usage which will help in cleaning air (which is noticeable from satellites) and addressing climate change. As the economy slowly recovers with the majority of people being cautious in their movements and spending patterns, at least this positive impact will continue for more than 2020. And, hopefully with the coal plants being used more and more in the bull pen for extra need, more may be retired.

Still, some folks are surprised by the news of the decline in coal. They should not be. About eight years ago, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens was on “60 Minutes” and said the future energy source in the windy plains states is wind energy. He added fracking for natural gas will buy time until the cost of wind is more economical. Now, oil rich Texas bears that out with wind energy surpassing coal by itself this year. While Texas produces more wind energy than any other state, Iowa gets over 40% of its electricity from wind and most of the top states in percentage of electricity are plains states.

Not only has coal become relatively more expensive due to the cost declines in other sources, its costs and risk continue beyond the life of the fuel and the plant. Duke Energy and TVA have had to clean up messes from coal ash that have bled into the water systems. And, Duke’s Dan River spill was from a long-ago retired coal plant.

The people I feel for are the coal miners whose hopes have been propped up by politicians who have not been forthcoming. I have known about coal’s demise since that Pickens’ interview and through other news and reading sources. My guess is so have the politicians, yet rather than be truthful and help them plan for new careers, they kept feeding their hopes. And, last time I checked, the wind blows and sun shines in those coal producing states. So, these miners are owed long-time-coming truths and help to find and train for new jobs.

Supreme Court rules against a GOP effort to renege on owed payments to health insurers

On Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled against an effort of several years ago led by Senator Marco Rubio to shortchange health insurers money owed to them for accepting higher risk claimants early on under the Affordable Care Act. In essence, Rubio led GOP Senators to eliminate 89% of the funding under a risk corridor agreement to tie insurers through initial adverse risk (due to pent up demand from folks who were not previously covered).

The following excerpt from an article called “Supreme Court rules government must pay billions to Obamacare insurers,” by Susannah Luthi of Politico, may be of interest.

“The Supreme Court on Monday ruled the federal government owes health insurers massive payments from an Obamacare program shielding them from financial risks after the companies accused Washington of reneging on its funding promises.

The 8-1 decision could open the floodgates for federal cash to the insurance industry. Insurers who accused the government of a ‘bait and switch’ claimed they’re owed $12 billion from the Affordable Care Act program.”

The lone dissenting vote was from Justice Samuel Alito who said the insurers were getting a “windfall.” No, Justice Alito and Senator Rubio, they are getting what was promised in writing.

People could easily dismiss this as a fight that does not concern them. That would be a misjudgment. The Republican Senators led by Rubio screwed Americans to win a political argument in attempt to sabotage the ACA. Why do I say that? As a consequence, these insurers had to raise premiums that impacted unsubsidized folks and caused an increase to the offsetting premium credit under the ACA for the subsidized folks. That subsidy increase in turn increased our budget deficit. It also forced some insurers to exit the ACA with the US government owing them money, which hurt competition.

Sadly, all of the efforts noted above, which the Supreme Court just overturned, are true. That is a reason for the near unanimous vote. I encourage you to Google “Marco Rubio and ACA Risk Corridors” and read as much as you like. What frustrates this retired benefits consultant, manager and actuary is very few people know they got screwed. The following links to this article and one of my many pieces on shoring up the ACA are below.

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/27/supreme-court-rules-government-must-pay-billions-to-obamacare-insurers-211184

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2019/07/19/please-stabilize-the-affordable-care-act-now-to-help-americans/

Voices from abroad on reckless defunding of WHO

With the US president defunding the World Health Organization at a time of great need, I think it would be good to highlight the reactions of a few leaders from around the globe and on our shores. The two articles below link to the sources of these quotes.

“President Trump’s plan to put a hold on U.S. funding for the World Health Organization during a global pandemic ‘is as dangerous as it sounds,’ says billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder joined others defending the WHO, which they say is doing vital work to fight COVID-19.”

“‘This is a terrible time to do this and is short-sighted,’ says Jennifer Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, ‘It’s destabilizing and damaging to the global enterprise that we’re all needing to be engaged in’ — in the midst of a pandemic that has so far stricken more than 2 million people and killed more than 128,000, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University.’

“‘Blaming does not help. The virus knows no borders,’ German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said of Trump’s plan via Twitter. He added that even without any U.S. cuts, the WHO is already underfunded.”

“Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, denounced Trump’s decision, saying there is ‘no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever.’”

“The President of the American Medical Association, Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, called it ‘a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world.’”

“Noted UK biologist Richard Dawkins called it ‘another example of ‘America First and to hell with the world as a whole.’”

In addition to these quotes, several Prime Ministers have condemned this action by the US president. Conservative Australian PM Scott Morrison noted while the WHO is deserving of some criticism, they play an important role and serve a greater good. Other leaders were less even handed in their remarks.

It continually frustrates me to see a US president seek to look for scapegoats to avoid scrutiny of his own poor decision-making. For a person so consumed with his perception as a leader, when the time presented itself in January or even in February for the president to forewarn Americans that the Coronavirus is a pandemic we need to be planning ahead for, he whiffed at the ball on the tee.

Instead, he reverted to form and lied, downplaying the risk and blaming Democrats for a hoax. Sadly, more Americans got sick and died because of this delay. Even today, the president is not a good source of information as he has a tendency to revert to his “narcissistic and neurotic self” so says Conservative pundit David Brooks.

https://www.wamc.org/post/dangerous-it-sounds-reactions-us-plan-defund-who-during-pandemic

‘America first and to hell with the world as a whole’: Global leaders and experts denounce Trump for defunding WHO

Missing context

It is not uncommon to see simplistic solutions or rationales skirt passed needed context. The other day, I read an op-ed that more of the blame on education problems should be laid at the feet of parents than teachers.

Actually, the problem has multiple factors, parents being one of them. But, the missing context is the high percentage of single parents and parents living in poverty. It is quite difficult for single parents to juggle a job (or two) and children and be able to attend all parent/ teacher meetings and help kids with their homework. And, kids in poverty have heard far fewer words in the home and start and remain behind as reported by David Brooks in “30 million fewer words.”

It is not unusual to read a letter to the editor say the problem with poverty is too many single parent families. Again, that is one of multiple causes, but why? There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. So, better funded family planning efforts have shown they can address both issues. Holistic sex education, better access to birth control, and straight shooting answers to questions can help young women and men with these issues.

Healthcare access is another concern that impacts people in poverty. The US is a leader in western world countries in a bad area – maternal death rates in delivery. We still have fifteen states who did not expand Medicaid. Rural hospitals have closed without needed funding. As a result, we have fewer doctors and nurses in these underserved communities. And, this does not reflect food deserts and their impact on community health.

Poverty, poor education, and poor healthcare issues go part and parcel with large family size, more single parents, and lack of opportunity in the community. There are multiple factors that drive these issues, but not doing enough to support families and children, whether it is better and safer after-school programs, whether it is more active community policing to address crime that comes with fewer opportunities, whether it is job retraining where companies and community colleges can address shortages, whether it is asset based community development to restore old buildings to something inviting and/ or commerce related, are all contributors in their absence.

I have worked with a number of homeless working families in an organization I was involved with. These folks were not in poverty due to lack of piety. Some of the most pious people I have ever met are homeless mothers. Poverty is simply the lack of money. Many had multiple jobs. They simply lost their home due to a healthcare crisis, due to childcare issue, due to the loss of car or one of the jobs, or their spouse or boyfriend beat them and they had to get out.

When we discuss the reasons why things happen, we need to think of the larger context. Otherwise, we will solve the wrong problem. A community developer from New York noted his chagrin when a community tore down a school (or left it empty). A community needs an asset like this not just for children, but for community activities for adults and children. This is the premise of asset based community development – repair or repurpose buildings.

Let’s think holistically. Let’s dig into the real causes. Let’s think of those who are in need and how we can help them climb the ladder. We cannot push them up the ladder, but we can make sure the rungs are well built and help them make the first few steps. A social worker I worked with used the phrase that she walked side by side with her clients. I like that. Let’s do more of that.

Just Mercy – a movie about a real hero

Between a seemingly endless list of movies about comic book heroes, it is nice to see a movie portray a real life hero. The social justice efforts of Bryan Stevenson are portrayed in the movie “Just Mercy.”

The movie was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Andrew Lanham also co-wrote it) and stars Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson. Jordan plays Stevenson as he starts the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Alabama after earning a Harvard law degree and growing up similarly to his clients. Larson plays Eva Ansley, the director of operations from the outset.

EJI provides free legal support to disenfranchised people who have been wrongly convicted on death row. Not surprisingly, the significant majority of the people on death row in Alabama are African-American and were underrepresented by legal counsel. Also, not surprisingly, the efforts of EJI did not make all citizens happy.

NOTE: If you plan to see the movie, you may want to skip to the last paragraph.

Foxx admirably plays a convicted man named Walter McMillan who was railroaded based on faulty testimony and suppressed evidence. When Stevenson sought a new trial after the key witness (played by Tim Blake Nelson) recanted, a police officer said the crime scene was altered and seventeen witnesses said McMillan was at a fish fry at his house, the judge still did not grant a new trial.

So, Stevenson appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court and the court of public opinion on “60 Minutes.” The Supreme Court granted a new trial and after some posturing the new District Attorney agreed to Stevenson’s motion to dismiss the charges. Stevenson noted that seventeen witnesses were ignored because they were black. As they stood in the back of the new trial, before charges were dismissed, he noted that any one of them could have the same thing happen to them.

Stevenson has gone on to help free countless men on death row. A statistic revealed at the end is for every person put to death, there is 1 in 9 on death row who are innocent, a very high rate of error. A few final thoughts are as follows:

– the trial occurred in Monroeville, AL in the late 1980s, the home of Harper Lee, who wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
– the Sheriff who helped contrive the evidence was reelected six times and just retired.
– it amazes me that law enforcement who contrive (or suppress) evidence to convict someone don’t fully comprehend that the real killer is still out there – the family of the victim deserves real justice over expedience.
– McMillan’s story is not unusual. The story highlights at the end, another death row neighbor of McMillan’s was freed thirty years later.

I have seen documentaries about Stevenson. He is smart, soft-spoken, and determined. He cares about his clients, so when he cannot prevent an execution, it is disheartening. The movie is definitely worth your time, especially with the unnecessary divisiveness going on in our country that is fueling more hate groups. The key ammunition against this is education, awareness and advocacy.