Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wal-Mart – A Preferential Option for the Poor?

The Commitment to Justice Conference in Jesuit Higher Education was held at Fairfield University with Faculty, Jesuits and Administrators from over 32 national and international Jesuit Universities. I will be posting reflections from the different panels and seminars attended.

Fr. Stephen Rowntree SJ knew the session’s topic would generate a crowd. The standing room only classroom was there to hear his “What Wal-Mart Reveals about the Global Economy” presentation. Judging by the engaging dialogue post presentation one could say it did not disappoint.

The lens of choice for this academic exercise was simply justice. Is Wal-Mart a corporation that is doing justice work? It appeared the hole had already been dug as an early show of hands overwhelmingly found the basic view of Wal-Mart to be “somewhat unfavorable” with “quite unfavorable” as the closest second. What jumps to mind when you hear Wal-mart and justice? I immediately thought of low waged workers with limited (or no) benefits, no unions and small suppliers being run out of town.

Now imagine the intrigue when Fr Rowntree SJ in front of a cohort of faulty, administrators and alums of Jesuit universities called Wal-Mart a store that has a preferential option for the poor. It is no small reference as the preferential option for the poor is one of the core principles of Catholic Social Teaching and heralded as a rallying call by former Jesuit Superior Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, referred to by one presenter as “the second founder of the Jesuits”.

Rowntree SJ acknowledges the lack of unions is a major problem in the equation but also staunchly supports the constructive benefits of the company. “Wal-mart employs 2 million people world wide, including 1.4 million in the US. The US work force is larger than the US Army" and it is the largest private employer in Mexico and Canada. He is quick to point out that it produces low skilled jobs for the young, the uneducated and the retired who otherwise would have difficulty finding work. In this light it is a company whose hiring practices are rooted in providing options to the many who have been left out of the capitalist system.

Wal-Mart grew from a single discount store in Rogers, Arkansas in 1962 to the world’s largest corporation (by sales) because of innovation – a favorite son of capitalism. According to Rowntree it revolutionized supply chain management by cutting out or squeezing the middleman. This may hurt the manufacturers and small suppliers but in a globalized capitalist system such is the way of life. Furthermore, Wal-Mart implemented a tracking/stocking inventory system that allowed it to lower its margins. Couple these innovations and what you get is the ability to greatly reduced the cost of the items sold. Here is where the second point is cemented. Wal-Mart has a preferential option for the poor due to its low low prices. Not only does it allow people to save money for goods they need and otherwise not be able to afford, but the money saved can be utilized for other spending or saving. Thereby, either further stimulating the economy or helping the costumer stay above water.

Although this was not mentioned in the session if we look at Wal-Mart’s new prescriptions for under $4 program and 90 day fillings for $10 we see the instant impact of Wal-Mart directly on access to cheap medications and medical savings in the community. “For instance, alendronate, the generic version of osteoporosis medication Fosamax, will be added to the list. Company pharmacies will fill 30-day prescriptions of alendronate for $9 and a 90-day supply for $24 at a comparison of $54 and $102, respectively, that women previously paid for the same amounts, the company said.” (Link to quote)

Of course like much of big business the devil is in the details and I have not research or studied them in this case. It is certain that beyond lacking health benefits, manipulating part time versus full time and the lack of unions are troubling, but the constructive creation that comes from the process has made the issues much more complex. The session did alter my view of Wal-Mart. It went from clearly “somewhat unfavorable” to a cloudy and murky “somewhat unfavorable”.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Open for Greed or the Greater Good?

Reflection from First Panel on Commitment to Social Justice

The Commitment to Justice Conference in Jesuit Higher Education was held at Fairfield University with Faculty, Jesuits and Administrators from over 32 national and international Jesuit Universities. Over the next week or two I will be posting reflections from the different panels and seminars attended.

Panel Discussion on Bringing Social Justice into Jesuit Graduate Education

This discussion touched upon the challenges that face administrators in shaping a vision for a program, hiring faculty and getting buy in from all stakeholders particularly students (and prospective students). Led by a team from Loyola Maryland, the heart of the issue that put everything into perspective was - "Do we want a Jesuit Business School or do we want a Business School at a Jesuit University?".

Unfortunately, at first glance it would seem that these two concepts are polar. These days when we think of business it is corporate greed that wears the bulls-eye. Whether it is Eron's accounting tricks, credit default swaps that dropped AIG and others to their knees or predatory lending by credit card companies the examples of turning profits at the expense of the greater good has plagued the business community's image and seemingly produced a corporate culture that alienates the majority.

In March 2008, Jon Sobrino SJ challenged christian universities to play their role in maintaining a preferential option for the poor and building solutions that strived for the greater good. He argued that corporate capitalism and a consumer crazed mentality that stressed the accumulation of wealth were the antithesis of the Christian calling. Where were the economic models that kept in mind the rights of producers and consumers or made the system more inclusive and less exploitative? Who would produce the students that sought to tweak the model or shift the focus?

What I have learned is business is part of the answer and the statement holds true regardless of country, development index or regional location. Job and wealth creation are integral pieces of any functioning economy and put funds directly in the hands of people on the ground. Perhaps the most fitting example is Grameen Bank and other micro-finance institutions (MFI) lifting millions of individuals out of poverty. Individuals who had been left behind or exploited by the corporate capitalist system. It is a great example of for-profit business working toward a common goal for the greater good. The bank, which does has a non-profit subsidiary, has branches throughout the developing world and now even in Queens. Another popular microfinance organization is, which recently announced new initiatives for providing loans in the United States. Many of the recipients of these loans use the funds as entrepreneurs - seeking to build or grow their own businesses.

The most successful microfinance centers incorporate financial training and healthcare in their programs. It is one of the major reasons why all centers are not born the same, particularly given the rise in the industry. There are cases of manipulative policies and even debt collectors intimidating clients - but lets not throw the baby out with the bath water. The industry is still young and ratings systems are now trying to expose the bad apples. Similarly the panel described a relatively new approach of Jesuit graduate programs in the past two decades of "mirroring professional secular graduate schools". The feared consequences are the stress on prestige and success replacing core values of cura personalis (the education of the whole person - sound mind, sound body and sound spirit) and ad majorem dei gloriam (for the greater good of God). The expectation is that business schools at Jesuit University's put into practice their mission statements, strive to innovate and create solutions for the greater good and reproach the ideas of corporate greed and excess profits. In this way they would embrace Sobrino's message and become Jesuit Business Schools. But again, which is it that we want and how will it affect applicants, potential faculty and the Jesuit concepts of inclusion, diversity and meeting people where they are in life? All in all, it was a great start to the conference.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can you go to Jail for having Sex?

Whether it is listening to the sexually explicit lyrics of today's popular music or watching the frequent commercials where "sex sells" is the underlying message, the United States is more than waist deep in the culture of sex. But in what some have branded the age of sexually transmitted infections, what happens if you can go to jail for having unprotected sex?

More specifically, what are the legal repercussions of a person passing the HIV virus to another? The last eight weeks have seen three major stories come out of North America. In Toronto, a man was convicted of two counts of first degree murder and ten counts of aggravated sexual assault. He infected twelve women two of which died of cancer that spread from their compromised immune systems. In May, another Toronto man was charged with attempted murder for not disclosing his status to his partner and allegedly transmitting the virus. Lastly, a man in Texas was charged with six counts of aggravated sexual assault with a deadly weapon.

People who knowingly break laws and inflict harm on others deserve to be prosecuted under the law. However first-degree murder is one of the highest forms of convictions in common law systems and generally requires establishment of a certain state of mind, such as pre-meditated or malicious intent. Therefore the crux of the issue lies in intention and knowingly putting the partner at risk without disclosing ones HIV status; both are not cut and dry. The probability of passing the virus during unprotected sexual contact is not 100%. Much of it has to do with viral loads (the smaller the viral load, less chance of transmission). What if a HIV positive male indiscriminately slept with multiple partners without using protection but never knew his status (remember statistics estimate 20% of the US population with HIV does not know their own positive status – roughly 200,000 individuals). What category would he fall into if a partner (who agreed to consensual sex in the first place) pressed charges? Do both parties assume the risk if no condom is used? What if his last HIV test was negative so he thought it was safe not to use a condom? Well, it takes two to eight weeks for the body to build the antibodies to HIV for a test to signal positive. I think you get my drift. The issues are complex and need to be determined on a case by case basis, which is why public health and HIV/AIDS aficionados are hoping a precedent has not been set with the recent Toronto cases.

The public health voices understand that combating HIV/AIDS within a community is a combined effort of treatment and prevention. To ensure success many criteria need to be met, one is strong emphasis on getting tested. In other words, we should be encouraging testing. In resource rich countries increased testing can be argued to reduce the spread of the virus because more people will be on HIV medications. For instance, getting as many people on medication will lower the viral load within a given community - an argument made by Partners in Health with their "Public Health for the Public Good" approach. If a precedent for attempted murder or first degree murder charges has been established it will only frighten people from getting tested. Why know your status, better to plead negligence.

Another concern is fear of discrimination. It cannot be missed that these high profile cases increase the stigma associated with HIV. We should recall the hoopla following one inmate's conviction of attempted murder for spitting at an officer (no case has ever shown transmission through saliva). It can also not be lost in the media attention that cases in which HIV positive individuals intentionally and knowingly transmit the virus are the fringe minority. In the Bottom Billion, Paul Collier argues if you take a large enough sample of any population you are going to end up with the normal percentage of psychopaths and mentally disturbed people. Do we want these few creating an even deeper hole for the HIV positive community to climb out of?

How do we establish intent or malice? Can we prove without a shadow of a doubt that one person infected another? Do we mandate disclosure? What about civil damages? What if someone passes on multidrug resistant tuberculosis? The majority of these questions will come to light at some point in the future as more and more cases come forth in the criminalization of HIV/AIDS. I caution that each case be treated as independent where the facts and sentencing coincide accordingly. What all people, HIV positive and negative, should take out of these stories is the absolute necessity of being responsible if you chose to be sexually active. What is responsible you ask? It's the topic of next week's blog.

*** Footnote From the CDC ***
The proper and consistent use of latex or polyurethane (a type of plastic) condoms when engaging in sexual intercourse--vaginal, anal, or oral--can greatly reduce a person’s risk of acquiring or transmitting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection.