Great Moments in the Census

Tomorrow, April 1st, is the day every 10 years where we are counted. The US Constitution (Article 1 Section2) mandates that an “Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.” The first census was completed in 1790 and we’ve done it every 10 years since.

This year we all received a form in the mail that we fill out and mail back, but it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that the Census Department hired people to go door to door and fill out a form. The questions have changed and some of the questions have led to funny answers. In my family the French spelling of last names drove some of the census workers crazy and we had some great misspellings. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Mailloux and is pronounced “My You.” In different places it was spelled “Mayhew” and (my favorite) “Mayo.”

But the funniest notation I found was in the 1920 Census for Gardner, Massachusetts, Supervisor’s District 3, Enumeration District 73, Sheets 6B and 7A. Here is where the census worker (Lucie Laurence) came to the French Catholic Church, Holy Rosary. When Lucie got to the rectory where the priests live, she listed the pastor as head of the household. That makes sense. But the other priests were listed as “servants.” Then Lucie went to the convent. Again, the mother superior was listed as head of the household, but the other nuns were listed as inmates. Clearly she wasn’t Catholic.

You can look it up yourself. Census records are made public after 73 years. The form you filled out this year will be public record in 2083.

Another Year in my Prius (and yes, I'm keeping it)

A week and a half ago my Toyota Prius turned 4 years old. For the number geeks among us, as of that day I had 98,874 miles on the odometer. That means in the last year I put 20,238 miles on it, down from previous years (and it means the 4 year average was 24,718). In January 2009 my territory at hospice changed and that led to the decrease in my mileage.

The more pressing issue, according to several friends of mine, is the safety of the car. There have been hundreds of stories about gas pedals that got stuck and there has been some concern. I’m not one of them. My Prius was recalled where they put in something that will prevent the floormat from sliding forward and I’m satisfied with that. I think this is part of a larger issue of assessing risk that I addressed in a previous post.

Sometime tomorrow I expect to pass 100,000 miles and have no plans to get rid of it.

Snyder vs. Phelps: the Limits of Free Speech?

The Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear the case of Snyder v. Phelps next year. It’s going to be a lightning rod case when it’s heard next fall, and for me it’s a fascinating examination of free speech, hate speech and the limits of protest. Here are the facts of the case:

Matthew Snyder was a 20 year old marine who died in combat in Iraq in 2006. His body was returned and his funeral was held at St. John’s Catholic Church in Westminster, Maryland. Outside his church Fred Phelps and other members of his Westboro Baptist Church picketed outside the church with signs that claimed Matt’s death was the result of God’s punishment against the United States for permitting (among other things) homosexuality.

Matt’s father, Albert, filed suit in June of 2006 against Fred Phelps (and others). In 2007 a jury awarded Mr. Snyder $10.9 million. Mr. Phelps appealed and in 2008 the verdict was overturned claiming that while Phelps is offensive, his speech is protected by the 1st Amendment. Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case next year.

This raises several interesting issues, though perhaps not the ones you may think. It goes without saying that Fred Phelps and the other protesters are offensive to an incredible degree. He believes that homosexuals, the Catholic Church, Jews, and others are depraved and condemned by God. Because the United States tolerates this, God is expressing his wrath through natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina), terrorist events (9/11), and battle casualties (Iraq and Afghanistan).

And while Phelp’s behavior is offensive, that is not cause for a lawsuit. Simply put, nobody has the right to not be offended; the first amendment protects your right to be offensive. But as we all know, there are limits on free speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater unless it really is on fire. Hate speech is not protected (e.g. leaving a noose on a tree branch).

Neither is defamation. Albert Snyder claimed he was defamed because Phelp’s signs said (among other things) Albert “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity.” He also claimed invasion of privacy (that Phelps and the other protesters “intruded on seclusion”). The defamation charge was dropped and it went to trial on the charges of intrusion on seclusion and intentional affliction of emotional distress. As I said, the jury found for the plaintiff and awarded damages of almost $11 million.

On appeal it was decided that Phelp’s right to free speech outweighs Snyder’s intrusion on seclusion and intentional affliction of emotional abuse. That is the issue the Supreme Court will take up next year.

It’s a tough case. I’m normally a fundamentalist when it comes to freedom of speech. I don’t think we are protected from hearing things we don’t want to hear and we’re not protected from getting our feelings hurt. What happened to the Snyder family, though, goes way beyond hurt feelings. Having to bury a child (no matter how old) is one of the most painful experiences anyone can imagine. Seeing Fred Phelps and others using Matt’s funeral as a platform to push his agenda of hate is beyond painful.

But does it rise to level of limiting free speech? It’s certainly sinful and horrible, and I suspect that when Fred Phelps dies he’s not going to like the all loving God any more than he likes the rest of us. But I have to admit that part of me thinks we would do better by ignoring Fred and the other hate mongers; in a sense telling him that he has the right to say what he wants, but we have the right not to listen to it.

In any case, one nice thing that came out of this is that President Bush signed into law that prohibits this kind of protest. The Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act makes it a crime to protest within 300 feet of the entrance of a national cemetery.

We’ll see how this turns out.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 2: Rethinking Tzedakah

In my previous Justice Chronicles post I talked about the ladder of tzedakah. I’ve been thinking about this ladder and wonder if we need to rethink this. I take nothing away from the brilliance of Moses Maimonides, but he wrote nearly 900 years ago and built his ladder on one very specific theme. He believed that giving charity (or doing justice) becomes more altruistic as the receiver is not able to repay, either because they don’t have the means or don’t know the giver.

I still hold to the validity of the highest rung (enabling the recipient to become self reliant), but I’m not so certain of the 7th rung (giving when neither party knows the others identity). In the last few years we’ve read about and seen devastating tragedies with Hurricane Katrina, the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and most recently earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and we Americans have responded generously. Catholic Relief Services has already raised $90,000,000 for Haiti, and it’s all 7th rung tzedakah. None of us who gave know who will benefit, and nobody who benefits will know us.

But at the end of the day, is that a good thing? In the 12th century it was fairly difficult to be anonymous. Most people lived in small villages and didn’t travel much. If you wanted to give to someone without knowing who, and without them knowing you, you needed to search out a middle man. Now it’s much easier, and I think perhaps not as noble. The sheer volume of money that goes to Haiti, Chile, etc. shows how generous Americans are, but it also shows that it’s easy to write a check or call a toll free number and know we are doing good.

But what about tzedakah that needs to happen close to home? Can we be as generous and give while looking at someone in the eye? Several years ago I met a man from St. Eulalia Catholic Church in Winchester, Massachusetts. A few years before that he attended an event where the speaker was Mother Teresa. He was so impressed with her talk that he came up to her and gave her a $50 bill and said: “Give this to the poor.” She gave him the bill back and said: “No, you give this to the poor. Find someone who needs it and give it to him.” As he told me the story he explained that while it was hard to find someone in Winchester, Massachusetts who was poor, he was on a mission. He eventually found someone to give the money to, and it transformed him to actually meet someone who needed what he had.

I don’t normally do New Years’ resolutions, but last year I made one that I still hold to: I will not avoid eye contact with people who stand at intersections and ask for money. You know what I’m talking about: they hold signs that say “Please help. God bless,” or “Will work for food.” Admit it, you’ve hoped that the traffic light would work in your favor and you wouldn’t have the uncomfortable few minutes when you’re only separated by the car window. Most people don’t give them money because “they’ll just use it for booze or drugs.”

Is that true? Maybe it is, but maybe it’s because we don’t want to do level 3 (giving after being asked). Maybe it’s because giving to someone who asks is, on some level, creating a relationship that we don’t want to create. I’ll confess that I keep a $5 bill handy to give to these folks and in return I ask them to pray for me. Nobody has ever refused my request. OK, maybe they don’t have any intention to pray for me, and maybe they’ll just use the money to make themselves worse, but does that make my tzedakah worse or wasteful? If the only good that happened out of this encounter is that two strangers made eye contact, is that a bad thing?

Maybe it advances the cause of tzedakah.

The Money Chronicles: Volume I

I recently read a book about everyday finances called Stop Getting Ripped Off: Why Consumers Get Screwed, and How You Can Always Get a Fair Deal by Bob Sullivan that has me thinking. The premise of the book is that many of us don’t know much about simple arithmetic and we get ripped off by people who take advantage of that. I’m calling this series “The Money Chronicles” in the hopes that this will (like the Justice Chronicles) will become a recurring theme.

Virtually everyone I know borrows money in some form, be it a mortgage, a car loan, or a credit card. Very few people are going to let you use their money for free, and it makes sense to charge interest. If you borrow $100.00 at 10% interest and pay it back in a year, you’ll pay $110. Easy, right?

Well… It is, but like most debt it isn’t that clear cut. Because we’ve gotten used to phrases like “annual percentage rate” (APR), “revolving credit,” and “compounding interest,” we tend to sign up for a loan, pay the bill each month, and let somebody else do the math. In a world where everyone is virtuous that would be fine. I’m blogging about this because we don’t live in such a world and there are armies of people out there who are happy to advantage of us, and take our money.

I’m going to start with the place that most people first run into trouble: credit cards. I can’t tell you how many offers I get over the course of a year that promise me all sorts of stuff if I sign up for their card. They do everything they can to tell you that by signing this line you can enter a world of free money. Let’s see what happens with this card.

I’m going to use my current American Express bill as an example. My current balance is $1319.19, the interest rate (annual percentage rate or APR) is 15.24% and the minimum amount due is $28.00. If I pay off the entire balance (as I intend to), I pay no interest. As long as I do this, I’ll never pay a penny of interest.

But if I pay only the $28.00 and continue to pay only the minimum, and never use the card for new purchases it will take 12 years to pay it off and I’ll have ended up paying $2677.00. Better than that, if I make the payment even one day late I’ll be charged an additional $39.00 late fee.

If I spend the next 12 years paying off the card, I’ll be 61 years old when I’m done. In fairness I’ll have gotten the benefit of whatever I bought for the $1319.19, but the rest? The rest of the money ($1357.81) does nothing but make the credit card companies wealthier. And frankly, the 15.24% isn’t too bad. If my interest rate were 20%, I would need 23 years to pay it off and the total payoff amount would be $3722.00. In 23 years I’ll be 72 and will probably have no memory of what I bought in 2010.

There’s lots more, but there’s one thing I encourage you to do: buy Bob Sullivan’s book. One eye opener for me was how the credit cards use average daily balance and how you can save money by making large purchases toward the end of the month. If you do nothing else, read pages 84 to 89.