Wednesday, September 21

Brazen

Allure of Deceit is about charity going awry, serving personal agendas and warping incentives. Of course, charities are a tool and so much of their purpose and worth depend on the creator's vision and managers' skills.

The leading candidates in this year's presidential race each have ties to major charities bearing their names. We have commented about the Clinton Foundation, and the Washington Post now investigates the Donald J. Trump Foundation: "Donald Trump spent more than a quarter-million dollars from his charitable foundation to settle lawsuits that involved the billionaire’s for-profit businesses, according to interviews and a review of legal documents," reports David A. Fahrenthold. "Those cases, which together used $258,000 from Trump’s charity, were among four newly documented expenditures in which Trump may have violated laws against 'self-dealing' - which prohibit nonprofit leaders from using charity money to benefit themselves or their businesses."

Essentially, the article claims that donors receive tax deductions on what they give to the foundation and the foundation turns around and uses those funds to settle various business expenses.The funds were also used to purchase portraits of the foundation's namesake. "More broadly, these cases­ also provide new evidence that Trump ran his charity in a way that may have violated U.S. tax law and gone against the moral conventions of philanthropy," Farenthold concludes.

Many charities serve worthy purposes with dedicated staff and scrupulous research into problems and accounting of expenses. The wisest, most caring charities should support an end to tax deductions for charitable contributions because the charlatans are threatening all giving and charitable programs. Ordinary donors are hit with an unending stream of requests by mail and phone for contributions, and it's easy to say no. 

With increasing numbers of charities emerging to take advantage of tax write-offs, hundreds of thousands created in the last decade alone, too many tackle problems in flighty and inefficient ways.  Or, they don't tackle problems at all: "for every dollar donated and deducted by wealthy taxpayers paying taxes at a 35 percent marginal tax rate, the US loses 35 cents of potential income tax revenue," even as "the government struggles to provide essential health and education services,"  I wrote in 2011.

The essay contributed to the ideas about charity in Allure of Deceit. A murder victim in Allure of Deceit is a wealthy woman whose research focused on cross-country comparisons of charitable giving versus government spending and efficiency. She did not like how the notion of charitable giving could reinforce inequality: "The origin of the word forgiving was giving and traced how charitable practices over the years implied that recipients were wrongdoers who were weak and deserved no control." The victim's mother-in-law disregards such principles, starting a foundation and using its resources to investigate the reasons behind the murder.

"An open public process, prioritizing projects based on needs, would provide more efficient funding than relying on the whims of a few. Individuals passionate for a particular cause or innovation (or those thrilled to see their family names on a museum, clinic, or university hall) would still give – and should," the 2011 essay concluded.

Some basic services like education and health care are too vital for personal agendas and the scattershot approach. Tax deductions for charitable contributions can't end too soon.

Copy of the painting Charity Relieving Distress by Thomas Gainsborough, 1727 to 1788, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Thursday, September 1

Progress

Many appreciated Fear of Beauty, published in January 2013, because of the novel's hopeful message about characters in the midst of  a war against religious fanatics who imposed senseless rules and controls, often targeting women with prohibitions on employment, education and family planning.

But even in the darkest moments, the human spirit can persevere. Women use the available setting and tools at hand to satisfy the natural human yearning to learn and grow and improve.

So it's gratifying to read an article about women organizing small village farm unions in Afghanistan and diversifying crops, a development foreshadowed by Sofi's furtive work in Fear of Beauty. 

"The unions, in updating age-old agricultural traditions, have helped ensure a more reliable and diverse food supply in an often famine-struck region. In the process, the women who run the groups are finding new status and empowerment," explains Mujib Mashal for the New York Times, who describes farms adding cauliflower, tomatoes, beans, all kinds of vegetables in addition to wheat and potatoes. Such diversification boosts both economies and nutrition.  "The unions have put the women of Bamian on the front line of a critical struggle: the effort to shape a sustainable Afghan economy, away from dependence on foreign aid."
 
Foreign aid and the dangers of hidden agendas and over-dependence are also explored in Allure of Deceit.  

The article's descriptions of Afghanistan are reminiscent of those in both novels - from the narrow and winding roads against treacherous mountainsides as well as the descriptions of support and lessons on new techniques from the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, so similar to the novel's stories about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Do check out the article - the story is inspiring, and the photos will bring a rush of memories about fictional Laashekoh.  

Photo of Afghan village, courtesy of US Air Force, Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor,  and Wikimedia Commons.








Friday, August 26

Business

Health care is not a normal business. The demand side - an expectation for quality of life or survival - is just too skewed and at such a disadvantage to the supply side.

The price hike in EpiPens, used by many to control severe allergic reactions, exposes the many problems of running health care like a business. Buyouts in the pharmaceutical industry and fierce competition allow companies to hike prices and gouge desperate customers. Heather Bresch, CEO of Mylan, the company that makes the device, complains that she is frustrated and that "Our health care system is in crisis."

The system is in crisis due to greed and selfishness of a few - those who seek profit from selling life-saving health care, medicines and treatments at any cost.

Charity is not the answer.  "On Thursday the pharmaceutical company announced it would give a $300 coupon to lower- and middle-income customers who have to pay for the device out of pocket because they lack health coverage or have a high-deductible insurance plan (previously, it offered a $100 discount card)," reports Jordan Weissmann for Slate. "Giving patients a 50 percent break after increasing prices 500 percent is not exactly a sweeping act of charity, even if it does help some families erase their entire co-pays."

Charity does not necessarily provide comprehensive coverage. Donors may be generous and kind, but observers can never be certain because other motivations may be involved including tax write-offs, careers, reputations, celebrity status and more.

Prices vary around the world. US customers pay more than $600 for an EpiPen package. "Canadians pay around $120 (Canadian) for a single auto-injector, with the price varying somewhat, depending on an individual pharmacy’s dispensing fee," reports the Globe and Mail. The pack was less than $100 a decade ago.  

Corporations are being put on notice. US consumers are becoming less docile and conducting more price comparisons. 

"I'm running a business" is the hardhearted claim from Mylan's CEO on CNBC. No one should be outraged. She merely spoke the truth about the status of health care in the United States. She stands as exhibit A that some people work in the health care field, or rather industry, for the wrong reasons.

Allure of Deceit is about a large charity and the motivations for providing health care in the developing world.

Photo courtesy of Mylan. 

Friday, July 29

Eulogy for my father

St. Philip's student, Crafton
Joseph Harry was born in Crafton in 1928, just before the Great Depression hit. He is one of the smartest and most competitive people I have ever met. No one has taught me more about the preciousness of friends, family and home. For my father, there was no place like home

Over the years he shared so many memories of growing up on Fountain Avenue. He was the second of five children. He may have been born amidst hard times, but my grandparents did not complain and their children did not realize. He described a happy home, good times and a street where he never failed to find a pals and a pickup game. 

Like so many high school students, he had doubts about his capabilities and place in the world. He graduated high school in 1946 and immediately joined the US Navy, hoping to travel the world, and he often described his disappointment at being relegated to driving trucks endlessly up and down the East Coast during the decommissioning process of World War II.

Senior photo, 1946
He returned home, decided his best subject was math and began studying accounting at the Robert Morris College which had set up temporary classrooms in the William Penn Hotel for returning GIs. While there, a judge teaching his business law class praised his ability for logic and sorting through complex legal matters – giving my dad well-deserved self-confidence. Perhaps that’s a reason we all relished a good argument.  He tested us and wanted us to be our best.

He graduated in 1951 and went to work at Dravo Corporation on Neville Island where he met my beautiful and kind mother Jeanne Marie who worked in the mainframe computer room, helping engineers prepare to run their data with punch cards.

My earliest memories of my father are in our Ingram bungalow. The end of the workday when the front door opened and he entered, a towering and beaming presence in suit and Fedora, carrying his briefcase – and my brother Mark and I rushed to give him a boisterous welcome because we knew that was when the fun began. But he was strict and set limits, too, because he wanted us to do well at school. Nightly, after supper, we sat at the dining table and did homework before listening to stories read aloud. 

Graduate of Robert Morris College, 1951
Soon, a little sister joined us to welcome him home. He expected us to protect and guide her and I was in biggest trouble when something happened to her under my watch … the most memorable was a hot summer day and a long walk. I decided to take a shortcut heading home along a steep slope where she lost control and tumbled down the hill. You can imagine my terror at bringing home his favorite toddler covered in scratches and bruises.

His biggest goal was keeping us safe, financially, mentally and physically, of that there was no doubt.  I’ll never forget the first time our family watched the Wizard of Oz, my absolute terror as the witch came on screen, taunting Dorothy and setting the scarecrow on fire. So my father whisked me up, wrapped my coat over pajamas and carried me out into the snowy night where we trudged up the yellow brick road of Admiral Dewey Avenue to climb Kreston Street, so steep for me back then. Once on top, he tucked his arms around me for an exhilarating and magical sled ride. Just one. And by the time we returned home, the witch was gone and so was fear.

My dad was so spontaneous and in recent years he appreciated our spontaneity, joining us to play basketball in the neighborhood park, heading downtown to see the big Pittsburgh duck at the Point, or heading to Oakland and Conflict Kitchen to try the cuisine of Afghanistan.   

Time and time again, our father taught us to stand up for ourselves – and he did a good job because eventually we used these tools on him, as independent children are wont to do. Of course, we all had rocky periods with him.

But he was okay with that and there was also tremendous honesty, integrity, forgiveness and love.

As children, we never knew that tragedy hit when he lost an infant son in 1959. But we understood tragedy when he lost his wife, Jeanne, in 1964. My father devoted all his free time to care for us over the next five years, and he was so grateful to his parents and his sister for welcoming into their home.
The year after my mother die, he worked so hard to help with our homework, and I’ll never forget my first book report the first October that followed. A good cover was part of the grade and he took me down to the basement and sawed away at plywood and added hinges and we glued a piece of driftwood on that and a little plastic dog. It was early helicopter parenting.

In November 1969, he married beautiful Pat, the only woman I have met whose energy matched his own. These two fearless people who had each lost a spouse took the giant step of combining their families, seven children in all.  There was so much planning, joy and anticipation as they built a new home together. That year was the first season for the Brady Bunch, a time of huge transition in our country’s history.

We were living a story, the American dream, and both our parents prepared us well for the many transitions to follow. Seven children heading off for higher education despite recessions and job changes. My dad was happy and innovative during his last job at the old Kane Hospital until retirement, all the while enjoying his hobby of collecting old clocks and watches.
Night out

Over the years we heard him describe the many accomplishments of his seven children and ten grandchildren with glee and pride, never directly to any of us. At one time Mark couldn’t help but wonder if our dad only boasted about the other six children. But then one night Mark joined my father’s pals at the Martinique Lounge, where in later years my father stopped each night after work. The crew there had heard all our stories, many times over, and Mark listened and knew how much my Dad had loved him.  

My dad was strong in so many ways. And his strength endured to meet his first great grandchild, dear little Penelope Jay, on July 19 of this year.

We realized how rich our lives were in 2009 when we gathered at Terri’s home in North Carolina to celebrate their 40th anniversary and how far we had all come since the late 1960s. 

Admiration for my father has deepened since 2012 when he went to the hospital with severe pain and waited weeks before the doctors informed him that he had colon cancer and needed an operation. He was courageous through the illness and rehabilitation, never complaining or expressing bitterness. All he said was that he looked forward to returning to his home, getting back to Pat’s cooking and sitting in his favorite spot in the back yard to watch deer, rabbits, and a squirrel he had trained with peanuts.

My father had the chance to celebrate Father’s Day twice this year, once with Vince and his family. Then he was sent to the hospital and came home to celebrate again with a dinner that included my husband, me and his sister Betty.

On Father’s Day he was tired, but content and nostalgic, grateful for Pat’s love and care and a chance to share favorite memories with a cherished sister.

Attending Yale College graduation party for grandson
A few days later, he entered the hospital once again and he realized that he would not return home again. Again, he did not complain. Instead, he told stories of home and it became clear that he was reliving so many memories and relishing old friendships and childhood antics once again – one of the last memories he described to me was of friends in Crafton, daring one another to take a shortcut through a railroad tunnel in the neighborhood, racing along the tracks through the darkness to beat a shrieking whistle and make it to the other side before the train came roaring through.

And he marveled how much time had passed. More than once while in the hospital, he took my hand, impressing me with me how complex life is – his words – and how short and how happy and thankful he was to return home from all his adventures.

Dad I’m so proud of you. We love you and you will always be in our hearts. 

Friday, July 1

Fear

Election campaigns, whether in the United Kingdom with the decision to leave the European Union or the United States and the fight over the presidency, are focused on how to change. Those on each side cannot help but holding fears should the "change" not go their way.

Some of the differences are over immigration - how much is needed to keep economies running smoothly. Immigrants fear retribution and separation from families. The unemployed and under-employed fear competition over jobs, and businesses fear labor shortages. Tight communities fear cultural change.


 The voters express their fears in extreme and negative ways. One older woman asked Donald Trump in New Hampshire why more retirees and military retirees could not get jobs with the TSA. "Get rid of all these hibi-habis they wear at TSA."

Such anger comes from a deep insecurity - the fear that others are judging their politics, education background, religious beliefs, worth and society. Few, especially the young, who have experienced or studied previous decades like the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s do not want to return to an era of gender and racial inequality. They do not want the "freedom" to stand in a group and toss off insults about others based on religion, race, gender and more.

Most are comfortable with diversity. But others are deeply troubled when the young or newcomers in a society present a different point of view on politics, entertainment, or religion. Displaying or expressing a difference may suggest traditional ways are wrong.

And thus this poor woman's resentment for the hijab - another religion requires the head covering as a symbol of modesty and this dictate, beyond her control or realm of experience, becomes a source of shame. Her response is to ban such people from her life and her community. As I wrote in Fear of Beauty,

    More opinions came from having more to compare, and too often we fear our preferences... Our minds 
    constantly assess, determining which ways work better and which do not.... Those who prefer continuity 
    avoid comparisons and regard any hint of choice as criticism. New interpretations from others might 
    twist their own opinions in unknown ways....

   Comparisons can establish ideals or form the basis of sins like jealousy, greed, pride, or sloth. 

Intolerance and isolationist tendencies, the inability to compare and accept, are forms of self-torture.

Photo of five Afghan lieutenants working with the US Armed Forces, courtesy of Mass Communications Specialist First Class Elizabeth Burkey and Wikimedia Commons 
 

Thursday, March 24

Diplomacy

The purpose of of protocol is to connect nations and cultures. Yet too often, criticisms about protocol are slung about to impose unnecessary controls, emphasizing social hierarchies and puffing a sense of self-importance among a few.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that that President Barack Obama should not have canceled his trip to Cuba and Argentina. “However, the advance person who let him do the tango, that person ought to be looking for work on somebody’s - in somebody’s campaign very, very far away," Haass said on the morning talk show Morning Joe. “Baseball games and tangos, that’s inconsistent with the seriousness of the day.”

Diplomatic protocol is about representing one's nation and making our relationships and interactions within the diplomatic and host country communities more predictable and more comfortable.

"Protocol is not an end in and of itself. Rather, it is a means by which people of all cultures can relate to each other," notes a US State Department document on Protocol for the Modern Diplomat. "It allows them the freedom to concentrate on their contributions to society, both personal and professional. Protocol is, in effect, the frame for the picture rather than the content of it."

Most importantly, the document urges, "Remember that as a guest, one is expected to respect the host's culture. Culture, of course, is unique to each country." The bold emphasis is mine, but not the italics.

Diplomatic protocol at its finest is not about control.

Granted, some casual ways of Americans may be considered rude. But the president was in Argentina as a guest. He was not in Belgium and he did not initiate the tone of the gathering or the dancing. To turn down the request might well have been considered stuffy and rude in Argentina.

And the citizens of Belgium and Europe would be wise to continue with normal routines and celebrations, including travel, shopping, sporting events, singing and dancing to let the Islamic State know they do not control us. We are certainly not going to let the Islamic State set the tone for on the "seriousness of the day."

Diplomacy is not centered around the United States or the outrageous and outlandish alarms and positions expressed daily in the presidential race. The vast majority of the world is delighted by Obama's charm, candor and easygoing ways, and the unending streams of criticism for this president are wearying.And America is best as lighthearted and free of controls.

Photo of another couple performing the tango, courtesy of Ariel Ambrosino and Wikimedia Commons.



 

Wednesday, March 2

Hero

Some readers often express surprise that my mystery novels, Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, tackle the challenges of Afghanistan and the Middle East from the perspective of families living in a small and isolated village.

"The most powerful force in the universe is a mother protecting [her] children,"contends Marc Edwards, the environmental engineer from Virginia Tech University who identified systematic contamination of the Flint water supply and helped residents raise the alarm. He shows a photo of a mother bear fiercely protecting her cubs. "And even if you don't care about children's health, and I think you should and you should get out of the field, and if  you don't, you don't want to mess with this force because she will go out of her way to track you down and mess you up."

Edwards spoke at a public forum presented by WKAR on his role in the Flint water crisis. To save funds, the city under state emergency management shifted its water supply away from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April 2014. By summer, residents were complaining. Six months later, in October, a General Motors plant discontinued using the city's water. By January 2015, state office buildings in Flint arranged for special water deliveries for their use.

Meanwhile, state officials kept assuring residents the water was safe. 

Lee Anne Walters is a Flint mother who noticed her children had rashes during summer of 2014 after they took paths or left the family's pool. That started a series of trips to the doctor and a pattern of worry. City tests found lead, but officials suggested the problem was with the home's plumbing. In February 2015, Walters contacted Miguel Del Toral of the US Environmental Protection Agency Midwest Water Division and Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Technical University. Blood tests showed her four children were exposed to lead. Edwards tested the water  and found lead levels - more than 13,000 parts per billion and more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. The city had switched water supplies and in failing to treat the water with an inexpensive anti-corrosion agent had virtually ruining the pipes, Del Toral informs the state, and expresses concern that the entire city could have the same problem.

Lead is a toxic metal, especially dangerous for children, that can cause many health problems - neurologic, hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal, reports the World Health Organization.  No level of exposure is deemed safe.


The mother, the EPA staffer and the professor assumed that state environmental officials would do their jobs and take immediate action. A city of almost 100,000 people was slowly being poisoned with lead and other contaminants. The complaints were many, yet state and local government officials resisted raising an alarm.

State environmental officials scoffed at residents who complained about brown water and repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink. EPA regional administrator Susan Hedman reprimanded Del Toral in July 2015. In August, Edwards spent his own money to conduct wide-scale and independent tests of Flint water with the help of students. By September, he announced that the corrosion problem is community-wide with his tests showing that one out of six homes in Flint showed high levels of lead. In September pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha announced a spike in Flint children with elevated blood lead levels. Another month goes by, and in October, the city advised Flint residents to use only cold tapwater for drinking or cooking. State officials accuse Edwards and others of turning the issue into a "political football."

By mid-October 2015, Flint returned to the Lake Huron for its water supply. But pipes were ruined. The governor declared a state of emergency for the county in January 2016. More than 18 months had passed before the the public received a complete warning, and Edwards suggests that action would have taken much longer had the story not hit the newspapers. The contamination may have been caught relatively early because state officials were so callous and didn't even try to fake caring for Michigan residents.

Such unethical behavior is tolerated in the United States every day, Edwards warns, and he describes Walters, the Flint mom, as "ten times the scientist" over anyone at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Edwards is firm about the scientist's role: "Science is about seeking the truth and helping people, and if you're doing it for any other reason, you should look find another career." He urges students, "Do your job, be a human. Revolutionary."

Public goods like water, essential for survival, are taken for granted. "In the US, Clean Water Is No Guarantee," and as I noted in 2011, "During an economic recession, protecting water supplies takes a back seat to industries that promise jobs....Americans may soon regret favoring one commodity [oil] over the other [water]."

Thanks to the tireless work of Walters, Edwards and Del Toral - the EPA has since done a turnaround and issued a memo urging managers of public water supplies to implement the Lead and Copper Rule, adding agents to prevent corrosion of pipes, and inform communities about problems in a timely way. Even so, the country can expect other problems and contamination of water supplies. A culture of corruption has infiltrated American society, and no one is safe until such systems are fixed and ordinary people find the courage to do their jobs and speak out about problems, rather than looking the other way and waiting for someone else to take on the unpleasant task.

Too many political, academic and business leaders try to evade basic truths while protecting their own careers. An investigation is underway.

Update, March 4: The Guardian newspaper examines emails in Michigan and suggests all staff in the governor's inner circle knew of complaints about corrosion and contamination. Some staff members chose to ignore the complaints and other questioned the veracity. The complaints bounced back and forth among staff members with no action or urgency.

A good reminder for any employee. If there is a suspicion of wrongdoing or danger, especially for vulnerable people, do not limit reports of concern to one supervisor. The employee may get fired or reprimanded, like Del Toral, but that is better than later being regarded as callous, incompetent or criminally liable.