Lead in Our Water? How Did This Happen? That's Easy.

In the last month or so we’ve been hearing about unacceptable levels of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan. How did happen?

First some background: Like cities all over the country, Flint looks to its past for it’s best days. In the first half of the 20th Century, Flint prospered from the automobile industry. But when their plants closed in the 1980s their population dwindled and it became harder to raise the money to run the city.

Previous to 2014 Flint purchased its water from the city of Detroit who got water from Lake Huron (you can read about this here). But in an effort to save money the leaders in Flint decided to switch over and get their water directly from the Flint River. Almost immediately residents of Flint noticed a change in their water quality. You can find an excellent article here.

But the real danger was not the color or smell of the water, but elevated levels of lead. In response to ongoing protests by Flint’s citizens the city began to test the water. There are a few heroes here, and one of them is LeeAnne Walters. She was a loud critic of the water and when the city tested the water coming out of her tap, they found something alarming.

The Environmental Protection Agency claims that no lead is acceptable, but by law 15 parts per billion (ppb) is allowed. The water coming out of the Walter’s tap: 400 ppb. When she had her children’s lead levels tested, they all tested positive and one of them received a diagnosis of lead poisoning. Lead levels in children cause irreversible brain damage.

LeeAnne, digging through city documents, learned that when Flint switched water providers they failed to provide “corrosive controls” that prevented lead from water pipes to leach into the water supply. During this time local and state officials continued to insist that the water was safe even when they knew it wasn’t.

So how did this happen? Alas, this has led to the hand wringing and finger pointing that has become all too common in our current political discourse. There are calls for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder.

This won’t solve anything. I’m frustrated by the fact that whenever we uncover a crisis we look for a scapegoat instead of looking to a permanent solution. The phrase drinking the Kool Aid owns a place in our vocabulary for a reason. In 1978 nine hundred and thirteen people willingly committed suicide by drinking cyanide laced Kool Aid because they were told to by Jim Jones.

Since 1978 the phrase “drinking the Kool Aid” has expanded to people who sacrifice their integrity for job security. This, I believe, informs what happened in Flint. This, I believe, explains why officials in Flint and Lansing continued to lie to the good people of Flint about the safety of their water. They sacrificed the safety of children they will never meet to ensure they won’t lose their job.

Really? Yes. It’s hard to imagine but job security matters to people. Fear is a frighteningly powerful motivator and the fear of losing our job easily leads us into dangerous territory. Flint and Lansing are full of bureaucrats who lied about water safety and prayed they would get away with it.

The other factor is even worse. Those in power knew that they would likely never meet the people their decisions would affect. The African American population in Flint is currently 53.27%. They are poor and black and easy to ignore. Lying about the dangers to children you’ll never meet is easier than lying about your neighbors.

Sadly I’ve witnessed times where people I knew “drank the Kool Aid.” I’ve seen people who, under pressure to “not make waves” or “go along” or “not be a problem” have remained silent when they should have said something. And even more sadly, I have to admit there have been times when that person was me. I pray those times not happen again.

That said, there are heroes in Flint right now. I told you about LeeAnne Walters. I also want to give a shout our to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Let us all aspire to be LeeAnne’s and Mona’s and let us pray that no more children are damaged by cowardice.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 18: Can Anyone Ask Donald Trump These Questions?

I’m certain I’m not alone in this, but I’m weary of listening to Donald Trump making outrageous statements with no follow up. I get that he makes speeches to friendly audiences without taking questions from reporters, but really? Is there nobody who will call him on his statements?

I’m not a reporter but here are the questions I want to ask him:

  • You want to ban Muslims entering this country until “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” What does this mean? Does that include Muslims who are American citizens who went to the Bahamas on vacation want to return home? Does it mean that Muslims from Europe who travel here on business can’t come here for business? And, by the way, how do you know who is Muslim? I just checked my passport and my religion is not listed. I often get mistaken for being Jewish and no government issued ID shows that I’m Christian.
  • A few months ago you promised to bomb the shit out of Isis. Exactly how do you propose to do this? They occupy a large swath of Iraq and Syria and live side by side with civilians who cower in fear of them. Do you plan to bomb both Isis and the men, women, and children they hold hostage? I hope not. I hope you don’t think that everyone who lives in these areas are members of Isis, or people not worthy of mercy. I condemn Isis for using innocent civilians as “human shields” but I don’t think killing these civilians is the answer.
  • I live in Southern California, about 30 miles from the border with Mexico. You have promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Further you’ve stated that you will make Mexico pay for the wall. I can’t even count how many questions I have for this, but let me get started: What plan to do you have when Mexico refuses your demand? Oh, and this: when you say “a wall” does that mean you will block all traffic between the United States and Mexico? Does that include American citizens who live in Mexico because it’s cheaper to live on the beach there? Does that include Mexicans who work here legally and cross the border every day? Does it include truckers who move commerce across the border and enrich the lives of both countries? If not, are you prepared for the economic downturn we will face when we can no longer trade goods and people with Mexico? If so, how do you prevent immigration that sneaks over a porous border (much as we have today).

Well, Mr. Trump, I’m waiting for your answer.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 15: The GOP Confronts Trump and Have Only Themselves to Blame

The Republican Party has been absent from the White House since 2008 and they’ve not been happy.

They see 2016 as their opportunity to regain the Presidency but they’ve run into a problem: Donald Trump. It’s no secret that Trump thinks of himself capable of doing whatever he wants and he now thinks he can be our next President.

Most of the Republican establishment incorrectly assumed he was doing this as a way to gain publicity for his reality show The Apprentice. Somewhere along this path Don decided he could win and the polls seem to back this up, at least for the Republican nomination.

So what’s the problem? Well, Don appears to be run on a platform of lies. He claims that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers. He claims that he witnessed people falling from the Twin Towers even though he was four miles away.

There are more examples, but many Republicans can’t understand why his numbers are strong while he continues to lie.

They shouldn’t be puzzled: they should be ashamed. They gave him the playbook.

The Republican party overflows with experiences where they have encouraged their supporters to ignore the facts and embrace their fears.

Let me give a few examples:

  • On 9/11/2001 we were all united in our grief and fear. We knew almost immediately that Osama bin Laden was behind it. And yet instead of concentrating exclusively on Afghanistan (who harbored bin Laden) the Bush administration claimed that our bigger threat was from Iraq. In 2003 we invaded Iraq, falsely claiming that weapons of mass destruction were poised in our direction. They weren’t and we now know that the Bush administration believed the information not because it was correct, but because it was useful to their beliefs.
  • Despite overwhelming evidence, the GOP continues to deny our role in Global Warming. They continue to insist there is no real evidence that climate change is related to the burning of fossil fuels.
  • During the Bush administration the bookstore at the Grand Canyon was directed to sell the book Grand Canyon a Different View by Tom Vail. Vail claims that the Grand Canyon was formed not by millions of years of erosion by the Colorado River, but by the Noah’s Ark Flood.

Simply put, the GOP spent the last 8 years telling their followers to ignore the facts and instead fear that President Obama and the Democrats are going to destroy America.

And now, much to their despair, Donald Trump has proven the master of their strategy. Don is a polarizing figure and his xenophobic platform virtually insures that he cannot be elected President. I wrote last month how the wheels are coming off on the Republican Party.

They have only themselves to blame.

The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 13: Donald Trump's Operation Wetback: He's Still At It

Ever since he began his presidential campaign Donald Trump has made xenophobia a cornerstone of his platform. He famously promised to build a wall along the entire US/Mexican border and send them the bill.

More recently he’s spoken about mass deportations of undocumented workers and families. Nobody knows how many there are, but most think it’s somewhere around 11 million men, women, and children. He justifies this by claiming it’s been done before, and done successfully.

As with many things Trump, he gets many of the details wrong and is vague on how he will accomplish it.

There was a program in 1954 called “Operation Wetback” that intended to deport large numbers of Mexicans in this country. Many of them came to the United States in the 1940s as part of the bracero program to fill agricultural jobs left vacant by U.S. forces fighting World War II. After the war ended the GI’s came back home and had to compete for jobs with the braceros.

It’s not hard to see where this went. The Mexicans, who were once needed, were now expendable and they were deported.

In an NPR interview, Alfonso Aguilar of the American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership provided some facts. He said this: “The Eisenhower mass deportation policy was tragic. Human rights were violated. People were removed to distant locations without food and water. There were many deaths, unnecessary deaths. Sometimes even U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin, of Mexican origin, were removed. It was a travesty. It was terrible. Immigrants were humiliated. So to say that’s a success story, it’s ridiculous. It shows that Mr. Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Even given this, he gives few details on how he will deport 11 million people. In a CNN article he explains that he will build a “deportation force” and they will do it humanely in 18 to 24 months. But NBC claims it will cost us between $100 and $200 billion dollars.

OK so assuming that he’s right, what’s the result? He and most of his fellow Republicans complain about the size of government and the national debt and yet he favors this expenditure. Interestingly enough we currently spend $76 billion on food stamps to ensure that nobody starves.

He also claims that deporting these 11 million will free up jobs for Americans. And so I ask you: how many of us are willing to pick crops, wash dishes, and mow lawns for minimum wage? I know I won’t.

I’ve spoken on this topic before but I’ll say it again: we all benefit because our ancestors did the jobs nobody else wanted. The people Donald wants to deport are the parents and grandparents of Americans who will lead our country in the last half of the 21st Century and the first half of the 22nd. They will make us proud.

The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 10: Can the American Voters Win a Debate?

The next Presidential election is 13 months away and the campaigns are in full swing. The idea of watching the candidates debate in the public forum goes back to 1858 when Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) ran against Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) for the Senate seat from Illinois.

In the 1960 Presidential election, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy gave us the first experience of a Presidential debate since the invention of the TV. Most people thought John Kennedy won the debate and this contributed to his victory.

After 1960 there were no debates until 1976 when Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter and we’ve been saddled with these debates ever since.

As someone who actually lettered for the debate team in high school it may seem like a betrayal to say this, but I think Presidential debates are a bad idea. Many years ago George F. Will famously described these debates as “parallel news conferences” and I think he’s right. But my concern goes much deeper.

I don’t watch most of these debates because I don’t think the candidates use them to explain what they support and what they oppose. If I’m going to watch candidates on stage I want to learn which one best reflects my beliefs and values.

Alas virtually all of the “analysis” of these debates devolve into reality TV: who won and who lost.

In 1992 George H.W. Bush was famously seen looking at his watch against Bill Clinton. Regardless of his reason it was perceived as “why do I still have to be here?” and many believed it contributed to his defeat. Four years ago Rick Perry famously stumbled on how many cabinet positions he would eliminate and that essentially ended his candidacy.

So far in the 2016 election cycle we’ve had 2 Republican and 1 Democratic debates. Virtually without exception the candidates don’t spend their time honing their views or explaining how they plan to govern. Instead they concentrate on “winning the debate.”

I’m perfectly willing to vote for a candidate who doesn’t win the debate as long as he or she articulates a path to the America I think we’re called to.

But I recognize that many of my fellow citizens want to “back the winner” and vote for the person who they think will win. And it makes me sad.

I think that we are not well served by candidates who tell us (in different ways) that we should vote for them because they will be the next President. The fact that “everyone is voting for him or her” means nothing to me. I respect people who vote their values instead of their need to belong. I just wish there were more of us.

The Election Chronicles Volume 9: We Should All Be Alarmed by Dr. Ben Carson's Words

Last weekend presidential candidate Ben Carson appeared on the NBC program Meet the Press. This show has been a staple of Sunday morning news since 1947 and deserves all the respect it receives.

In 1975 President Ford appeared as the first current President to appear but long before that we’ve recognized the importance of the show in our choice of the next President.

This past weekend Ben Carson made news when he told Chuck Todd that No Muslim should be President. He explained that a Muslim can’t be trusted as his (or her) primary loyalty would be to his (or her) faith over his (or her) patriotism.

This alarms me as a Catholic. It’s hard to believe but there was a time when a majority of Americans felt the same way about Catholics.

Al Smith ran for President in 1928 and lost, in part because he was Catholic. In 1960 John F. Kennedy ran for President even though 25% of Americans believed they couldn’t vote for a Catholic because they felt that his first loyalty was in Rome and the Pope would tell him how to lead.

We Catholics knew how silly this was. We knew the Pope had no desire to rule the United States and we liked the idea that “one of us” could lead our country. We were right.

And as for Muslims? C’mon! Islam calls its followers to 5 pillars: to believe, to pray, to donate, to fast, and to travel to Mecca. It explicitly forbids violence against anyone.

In the nine Presidential elections I’ve voted every time. I’ve voted my values each time. If a Muslim runs in my lifetime who professes a concern for the poor, a belief that our best days are ahead of us, and we can create a nation where our children are better off than we are, I’ll vote for him (or her).

I call everyone who reads this to do the same.

The Election Chronicles, Volume 6: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Constitution, Part 1

As I write this we are 14 months away from the 2016 presidential election and at this point immigration appears the be the primary issue. I hope the national discussion moves on, but for now this is what we have.

I’ve always been fascinated by this because as Americans we recognize that we are a “nation of immigrants” (apologies to our Native Americans) but at the same time we’ve shown a shocking lack of tolerance for our latest immigrants.

In the 1800s (when our nation was about 100 years old) there was a push to limit immigration. In the 1850s we saw the birth of the Know Nothing Party. They got their name because they were instructed to say “I know nothing” whenever anyone asked them to explain their position. It didn’t work: nearly everyone knew that they believed that immigrants (particularly Catholic ones) were going to destroy the United States.

The “No Nothing Party” didn’t last long but the fear of immigrants did. Large cities on the East Coast were replete with anti-immigrant feelings. Nearly everyone who sought a job saw signs on factory windows that said: “NINA.” It was code for “No Irish Need Apply” or “No Italians Need Apply.”

This ran against the reality that these immigrants made us who we are today. Speaking of the Irish, many of us look fondly on President John F. Kennedy. His great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy (1823-1858) immigrated to Boston in 1849. Interestingly enough he came from Ireland to Boston 39 years before my great grandfather made the same trip.

Not impressed with John Kennedy? Fair enough. How about President Ronald Reagan? His grandfather, John Michael Reagan (1854-1889) left England and came to New York in 1871.

Still not impressed? Fair enough. The grandfather of Donald Trump, Frederick Christ Trump (1869-1918) came to the United States in 1885.

Now Donald and all his “Know Nothing” followers will claim that they all came here legally and that makes a difference.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But here’s the problem: Until 1921 nearly anyone who came here could stay. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which made it difficult, even impossible at times, for Chinese immigrants to stay and become citizens. But that applied only to the Chinese.

If you came from nearly anywhere else it was different. My father’s parents were both born in Canada. They loved the land where they were born but knew it was too hard to make a living and they made their way to Massachusetts. And they did it much the same way John Kennedy’s great grandfather, Ronald Reagan’s grandfather, and Donald Trump’s grandfather did the same thing.

They all had the good fortune to arrive before 1921. In that year Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 which limited immigration from all countries. It’s been amended countless times since then but the reality remains: no matter where you were born, no matter what you face in your country, no matter what you can offer in terms of your skills, no matter what you dream about for your children, it’s much harder to come here legally.

If you were born in Mexico, have a high school education, and don’t have a relative to sponsor you, it’s a hard climb. Thousands of undocumented workers currently in the United States came here under the radar and mow your lawn, wash the dishes when you eat at a restaurant, and clean your house.

Donald and his ilk claim that they have no problem with them, they just want them to “wait their turn” and get here legally. Fair enough. So here’s my question: how long do you think it will take for someone with a high school education and no family here to get a green card? Do you think it’s a year? Maybe 5 years? Maybe a little more?

Guess again. I’ve done some research and it appears that it will take you about 25 years to come here legally. So if you first applied in 1990, your phone should ring soon. If you apply today, be by your phone in 2040. Of course if you were 20 years old at the time (and could work hard in difficult situations) you’re now 45. Mexico got your best years.

My grandfather came here in 1915 when he was 23. By 1940 (25 years later) he was married with 7 children. Those years were much better spent here than they would have been in Canada.

Enough for now. My next blog post will discuss how Trump’s position requires amending the Constitution.

The Election 2016 Chronicles Volume 4: Donald Trump Explores New Horizons in Offensive Speech

In a previous post I spoke about Donald Trump and the offensive remarks he made about immigrants. I hoped that either he would grow up or drop out of the race.

Oh well. On Saturday, July 18th he was being interviewed by Frank Luntz at the Family Leadership Summit. In the course of the interview Mr. Luntz referred to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) as a “war hero.” It’s kind of a throwaway line as I think most of us view Senator McCain as a hero. He was a Navy pilot who was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam. From then until 1973, when he was released, he endured horrific injuries, botched surgeries, near starvation, and torture. In 1968 the North Vietnamese offered to send him home but he refused to go unless all those who had been POW’s longer than him were also released. The North Vietnamese refused and he was a prisoner for another five years.

By any definition he was a hero. He was someone whose actions encourage others to serve and live with greater courage and distinction. Simply put, his actions made all of us better people.

Enter Donald Trump. For a full transcript of Mr. Trump’s remarks you can look here.

There’s enough offense here to go around but I want to focus on one line:

.. He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you that. He’s a war hero because he was captured, okay?

If Mr. Trump likes people who weren’t captured he’s telling us one of two things:

  1. He’s not a hero because heroes are those people who are smart enough or skilled enough to not get shot down. This is hard to stomach because it’s only the bravest enough among us to go that far into harm’s way. Senator McCain wasn’t shot down over friendly territory or even neutral territory. Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam and there wasn’t a more dangerous place in the war. He stood tall in Hell.
  2. He’s not a hero because he surrendered. American POW’s were treated harshly in World War II because the Japanese believed that honorable soldiers would kill themselves before allowing themselves to be captured. Japanese captors believed that American POW’s were the “lowest of the low” because they were too cowardly to take the honorable route and commit suicide.

So this is an open question to Mr. Trump: If you believe Senator McCain isn’t a hero, is it because of reason #1 or reason #2?

By the way there’s an excellent article in today’s Washington Post. It gives a timeline of both Mr. Trump and Senator McCain from 1968 to 1973.

In fairness to Mr. Trump, while Senator McCain was being tortured by the North Vietnamese, Mr. Trump spent countless hours collecting rent from tenants in his apartments.

The Justice Chronicles, Part 23: Reflections on the Confederate Flag

While I was born in Washington D.C. I grew up in Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy.

I’ll freely admit that I grew up in Northern Virginia that is in many ways distinct from the rest of the state. My parents, and the parents of most of my friends, came from somewhere else to work for the government, either in uniform or as a civil servant. My southern roots are shallow.

That said, it’s been interesting to listen to the national conversation on the Confederate Battle Flag. There was an official Confederate Flag but it looked too much like the United States Flag and was confusing to Confederate soldiers. The “Stars and Bars” has come to be known as the Confederate Flag.

On April 9, 1965 Robert E. Lee and his Confederate forces surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate States of America ceased to exist.

But the flag didn’t. Many in the South continued to fly the flag for a variety of reasons. Some felt that “the South will rise again” and independence from the United States was only a matter of time. There weren’t many of them, and they really didn’t matter.

The battle flag endured because many in the South wanted to rewrite history. They continue to claim that the Civil War (or “the war between the states” or “the war of Northern aggression”) wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights and southern heritage. They insist the flag isn’t about racism or exclusion but about celebrating their heritage.

Fair enough, but for the descendants of slaves (like Michelle Obama) and even for those whose ancestors came from Africa after 1865 (like Barack Obama) the battle flag is a symbol of only this: slavery. It harkens to a time when they and their children were owned as property. A time where they were believed to be inferior and unable to care for themselves. A time when it was against the law to teach them to read.

And since 1865 it’s become a symbol of ongoing racism. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens insist the battle flag isn’t a symbol of racism while they continue to insist that Americans of African descent are a danger to us all.

The real danger is the ongoing racism and it must stop. And the battle flag must also.

Today is the 239th anniversary of the birth of our nation. Let us all honor the same flag.

The Money Chronicles Volume 12: Managed Care is Often Unmanageable

Last month Nancy’s father suffered a stroke. He’s 96 and in otherwise remarkable health and his recovery is optimistic. It’s been an emotional roller coaster that happens to nearly every family at one time or another, and God knows I’ve been witness to it thousands of times in my role as a hospice chaplain.

In the last four weeks I’ve also found there is a learning roller coaster to this. We purchase insurance for all sorts of things: our life, our homes, our cars. But we also buy insurance for our health and that’s an entirely different equation.

We buy car insurance in the hope that we’ll never need it. In the off chance we do need it, we’re pretty certain what it will do. If we wreck the car our insurance will fix or replace it. Case closed. Same with homeowner’s insurance.

But health insurance is a different animal altogether. It’s fairly expensive and most of us don’t pay the entire premium ourselves. Because of a series of random events, we expect our employers to pay the lion’s share and they do. Before the passage of the Affordable Care Act millions of Americans could not afford health insurance. If they got sick or injured they showed up in a hospital emergency room and made a horrible bargain: fix me and hope I can repay you.

If you couldn’t, it was a lose/lose situation. The hospital wouldn’t get reimbursed for the care they provided and sued the patient. The patient, who couldn’t pay, filed for bankruptcy and destroyed their ability to ever borrow money again. Result: the hospital needed to find another way to achieve financial solvency and the patient spent his life stuck in a cycle of poverty.

Bottom line: if you didn’t have insurance you owed whatever the hospital claimed you owed with almost no ability to negotiate.

But if you did have insurance you were gold. Your insurance company would pay for whatever happened to you. You may have a small copay but it’s at best a small percentage of the cost of caring for you.

And here’s what you didn’t know: your insurance company has the ability to negotiate how much they pay. They will pay less than the cost of caring for you because the hospital can recoup the difference with the individuals who can’t negotiate.

I’ve written this article because we received a bill from Scripps Memorial Hospital for Al’s stay there. He suffered his stroke on the evening of Saturday, April 18th. We brought him to the emergency room that evening where they admitted him. He stayed there until the afternoon of Wednesday, April 22nd.

We were pleased with his health and pleased with the staff and have nothing but nice things to say about the staff at Scripps Memorial. We weren’t sure how much it would cost but we all agreed it was worth it.

A few days ago we got the total. The total cost for his stay was $49,773.00 and the copay was $700.00. Truthfully, that seemed like a good deal for us. The copay was 1.4% of the bill. We were pleased with the insurance.

But there was another line in the bill. Turns out the insurance company didn’t pay $49,073.00. They paid $11,536.56. They have enough patients that they can play hardball with the hospital and negotiate a reduced rate.

In the end it pays off for everyone. The hospital is able to be profitable receiving $11,536.56 from the insurance company and $700.00 from Al (for a total of $12,236.56). Truthfully it’s a win/win/win. The hospital can live with a reimbursement of $12,236.56, the insurance company can afford to pay $11,536.56, and Al can afford to pay $700.00.

But for someone in the exact same position without insurance, they don’t have the option of paying $12,236.56. Their bill is $49,073.00 and the hospital expects every dime. If it’s not paid right away it goes to a collection agency. These patients and families are in an untenable situation: they are willing to pay whatever they can but they just can’t pay enough.

The passage of the Affordable Care Act provides health insurance for many who had been left outside. There are still those who gamble against needing health insurance but that number is much lower. To the extent that many candidates for the Republican nomination promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, we can assume that they choose loose/loose over win/win/win.

As Al’s son in law I’m grateful to be part of the win/win/win.