04.22.13 By Lauren
It’s Earth Day once again, and Google has outdone itself. In its 13th Google “doodle,” the internet powerhouse has designed an interactive mini-Earth, complete with fishes, tiny birds, and a rotating sun and moon. It’s absolutely adorable, and well worth a visit to Google if you haven’t seen it already.
Trouble is, a charming Google doodle may capture one’s attention for a moment or five, but it won’t make significant or lasting changes to the health and well-being of our planet. To do that, businesses and our government would have to band together and agree on a fundamental shift from a kill-or-be-killed model of market competition to a focus on collaboration and sustainability. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.
That doesn’t prevent individual businesses from making meaningful changes, though. A lot of companies have come up with little Earth Day freebies – Disney’s offering a plastic (really?) tote bag, and if you stop by the Body Shop you can pick up a bottle of “Earth Lover’s Body Gel” gratis. But if we really want to stop living as though we had a spare Planet Earth in our collective trunk, we’ll need to make some very basic changes in the way we, and our corporations, survive. It’s Earth Day, and I’m all for it. Now, what are we going to do for the Earth tomorrow?
04.16.13 By Lauren
Prayers and good wishes are going out around our nation today to the victims of yesterday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon. Perhaps the most tragic story is that of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was waiting to hug his daddy at the finish line when the bombs went off and killed him. According to news reports, Martin’s sister lost a leg and his mother suffered a brain injury in the explosions. It’s heartbreaking, inexplicable, and absolutely unforgiveable on the part of the anonymous coward(s) who set those bombs to kill innocent children at a sporting event.
There will, no doubt, be more information available soon about who committed this horrific crime. There will also, I hope, be various ways for people to contribute in honor of Martin Richard and the other victims. Today, though, I’d like to propose that all of those who care about kids participate in Martin’s honor in Toms.com’s “One Day Without Shoes” which, fortuitously, falls today. Toms.com is one of those rare, marvelous companies that embraces a responsibility to the wider world even as it makes a profit in the marketplace. For every pair of its shoes that someone buys, Toms.com donates a pair to a child in need. That’s right – it’s a one for one deal and, if that wasn’t enough, Toms.com helps provide eyecare to needy kids around the world, too.
Why is Toms.com asking people to walk barefoot today? The company’s goal is to call attention to the fact that millions of impoverished children go barefoot every day, not by choice but because they have no shoes. The lack of shoes can permanently damage kids’ health, educational oppportunities and self-esteem, and Toms.com thinks more people should be aware of that. I think so too, and I think it’s especially appropriate to honor marathon runners – whose shoes are the primary equipment of their sport – and their families by taking our shoes off for the day.
So, in honor of Martin Richards, his family, and everyone else whose lives were impacted by yesterday’s tragedy in Boston, and to let everyone know that kids around the world deserve to walk without pain, fear or embarrasment, I propose that we all lose our shoes for a day. Then, if you’re so inclined, drop by Toms.com and pick up a pair or two. You’ll be doing a bit of good for kids, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
04.11.13 By Lauren
It’s been a while since I wrote for my friends at TheStreet, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh in on a major issue pending before the Supreme Court. The Justices are currently pondering two days of arguments for and against federal and state prohibitions on same-sex marriage. Front and center is the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DoMA, which prohibits same-sex married couples from participating in federal programs and obtaining federal benefits that are readily available to opposite-sex pairs. From Social Security to inheritance tax rules, same-sex couples are disadvantaged under DoMA even if they were legally married in a state where same-sex marriage is specifically authorized.
The impact of government prohibitions on same-sex marriage is profound. To provide just one example, same-sex couples who can’t marry often end up spending tens of thousands of on lawyers to create wills, trusts and other legal arrangements to mimic the legal rights that opposite-sex couples take for granted. Even then, they may not enjoy the same protections – when one partner becomes terminally ill, for instance, family members may try to exclude the other partner from the hospital no matter what the paperwork says. If employed in private industry, they’re often unable to include their partners in employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits. DoMA is particularly troubling because marriage has typically been a matter for the states to oversee. By eviscerating many of the rights that states ordinarily confer by allowing same-sex marriage, DoMA interferes significantly in states’ rights.
There are lots of social policy reasons to permit same-sex marriage, and I believe there are a lot of business reasons, too. The best reason, though, is that the marketplace really shouldn’t discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation. Objections to same-sex marriage, however expressed, typically are grounded in conservative religious beliefs. Consumers should be able to obtain the goods and services they need regardless of their religious affiliation, and the business community should support their right to do so.
To read my article on TheStreet, click http://www.thestreet.com/story/11892704/1/5-reasons-why-business-should-support-gay-marriage.html.
04.09.13 By Lauren
Over the weekend, I took my daughter and a few of her friends to the Ringling Bros. circus. I have real reservations about Ringling’s treatment of its animals but, to please my daughter, I stifled my qualms. In terms of entertainment, the show was unexciting but adequate. Still, we couldn’t help noticing that the elephants seemed a little dispirited as they walked in line and struck various poses.
Now I know why.
According to a peittion posted on Change.org, Ringling Bros., Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. and other circuses train elephants to perform tricks by poking and prodding them in sensitive spots with bullhooks, long rods similar to fireplace pokers. Circus trainers allegedly begin using them on elephants in early adolescence. The author of the petition, Caroline Slocum of Norfolk, Virginia, reports that elephants who don’t comply with trainers’ requirements can be so severely punished that they are left with scars and open wounds. Ms. Slocum’s petition asks the Norfolk City Council to ban the use of bullhooks in Norfolk so that circuses won’t be able to display performing elephants there. Her hope is that the loss of revenue will force circuses to reconsider how they treat the animals in their care.
Having just seen Ringling’s elephants, I can personally confirm that the reported torture inflicted upon them isn’t generating great performances. But even if it was, it wouldn’t be justified. Surely, our society has reached the point where we can finally recognize that animals deserve to be treated kindly, and that no business can possibly justify profiting from their misery. Animal abuse is flat out unethical. It’s long past time for Ringling and its bretheren to stop torturing animals in the name of the Almighty dollar. Cirque du Soleil doesn’t use animal acts at all, and its shows are far better. Put down the bullhooks, Ringling, and give us all something less distressing to watch.
To sign Carolyn Slocum’s petition, click http://www.change.org/petitions/norfolk-city-council-office-of-city-council-and-mayor-paul-d-fraim-ban-the-use-of-bullhooks-in-the-city-of-norfolk-va.
03.29.13 By Lauren
Amazingly enough, Congress and the President recently managed to agree on budget-related legislation without coming to near-fatal blows first. On Friday, Congress passed a continuing resolution that will fund the federal government through September 30th, and President Obama signed it into law on Tuesday. That’s the good news, and it’s very good indeed.
The not-so-good news is that, before passing the continuing resolution, someone in Congress slipped a provision into the continuing resolution that protects companies that produce genetically modified seeds and other organisms from lawsuits over health risks posed by consumption of their products. According to news reports, neither the Agriculture nor Judiciary Committees reviewed the language before it was quietly adopted. Consequently, it appears that the potential negative impact of the law on farmers, consumers and the environment may not have been fully considered before the genetic engineers were granted special protection from litigation.
Folks, what were you thinking?
I recognize that humanity was breeding designer plants and animals centuries before Gregor Mendel started playing with his pea pods. But our science is much more sophisticated than it was in Mendel’s day, which means that scientists can quickly make enormous changes to the genetic makeup of plants and animals that would have been impossible even a decade ago, and those changes could lead to disaster. We’ve seen how introduction of non-indigenous species can decimate an ecosystem – just ask any fisherman in my neck of the woods what northern snakehead fish are doing to native fish in the Chesapeake Bay. Additionally, some scientists blame the sudden surge in food allergies, gluten intolerance and obesity on the fact that the wheat and other ingredients in much of our food has been genetically engineered. We get more out of each harvest, but the genetic changes that increase yield can also create unexpected, literally sickening, side effects.
Do we really want the companies who create so-called “Frankenfoods” to be immune from legal challenge if they produce products that sicken consumers or poison the environment? While I’d love to believe that the genetic engineers will carefully self-police, they may be more inclined to cut corners if they know they can’t be held responsible if their “new, improved” products prove harmful when eaten. Congress and President Obama need to reconsider what they’ve done here, and repeal the legislative immunity on genetically engineered organisms before a whole lot of people end up seriously ill.
03.27.13 By Lauren
CNN’s HLNTV.com website invited me to comment today on General David Petraeus’ apology last night. In his first public speech since an extra-marital affair led to his resignation last year, Petraeus said he was sorry, took responsibility for his actions (as he has since news of the affair first broke), and committed to making amends. He then moved on, addressing the needs of wounded service members and the families of fallen military personnel. And so, America, should we.
The fall from grace of powerful people has become a sideshow in this country, albeit with a predictable plot. There’s the initial media splash as the story breaks, hours of chatter from experts who analyze every step taken by the parties involved, then endless speculation about what the scandal will mean for the fallen hero who proved to have the same clay feet as everyone else. The tarnished luminary withdraws from the public eye for some period of time, issues an apology at some point, and sometimes returns to public life, humbler and less effective than before. The American people forgive – to a point – and the societal message that only the blameless deserve to thrive is comfortably reinforced yet again. The problem with this process, though, is that it fails to account for human fallibility and the losses we sustain when our best and brightest are thrust from the pedestals on which we place them. We’ve seen time and again how power and fame can isolate and intoxicate, leading intelligent people to do remarkably foolish things. That doesn’t make those people any less gifted, and perhaps it’s time to put their mistakes into perspective.
David Petraeus has been lauded as one of the finest military minds of this or any other generation. He served his country well for almost forty years, earning an international reputation for superhuman sagacity and self-control along the way. (He may have overestimated his invulnerability to temptation, but then, didn’t we all? Perhaps if we’d allowed him to be a little more human in the first place, he wouldn’t have fallen so far.) According to news reports, he’s currently exploring positions in the financial community, consulting, public speaking and academia, all traditional venues for public figures who tumble from grace. But does America really need yet another formerly famous financier, military consultant, keynote speaker or professor? And would Petraeus’ strategic talents really be put to best use in any of those roles?
Petraeus’ story has both public and private elements, and the question of whether he’s been able to apologize effectively to his wife, family and friends is none of our business. He’s apologized sufficiently to the American people, and his service history speaks for itself. If we’re smart, we’ll accept his apology and put him back to work.
To read my HLNTV. com op ed piece, click http://www.hlntv.com/article/2013/03/27/david-petraeus-apologizes-usc-rotc-affair.
02.26.13 By Lauren
We’re a mere four days away from massive, across-the-board federal budget cuts that will take effect Friday unless Congress and President Obama can come to a deal on how to avert them. Given that Congress and the President can barely agree on what day of the week it is, I’m not especially optimistic that they’ll come to an eleventh-hour consensus. Barring a miracle, we’re likely to see federal agencies furloughing staff, cutting programs and otherwise finding new ways to make do with less for at least the next few weeks, and possibly a good while longer than that.
The sequester cuts will have an immediate impact on federal employees who’ll suddenly find themselves working four days a week for 80% of their current salary. Those folks, many of whom aren’t especially well-paid even before the cuts, will have to find ways to squeeze their remaining wages even more tightly. That’ll mean lower revenues for grocers, restaurants, child care providers, and anyone else who sells to government workers. The Washington, D.C. economy will certainly be hurt, and so will the local economies around military installations and federal government facilities nationwide.
What worries me more, though, is how regulated businesses will react when their regulators suddenly disappear about 20% of the time. We’ve already heard dire warnings about how the sequester cuts will affect air traffic controllers – good luck flying anywhere on time – but what about food inspectors, health and safety monitors, bank regulators and the like? If they’re off the job, can we count on the companies they monitor to step up and run their businesses with extra care while their regulators are stuck at home on furlough?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Maybe the budget cuts will prove what critics of the federal government have been saying all along: that government is wasteful and that industries can be trusted to run well on their own. Right now, though, I’m predicting that at least one huge scandal will come out of the sequester. We’ve already seen banks, oil companies, food manufacturers and airlines cut corners despite existing regulatory oversight, so just imagine how many more opportunities will be created when federal inspectors are forced to stay home. The cat’s going to be away … let’s see how roughly the mice decide to play.
02.20.13 By Lauren
Here we go again… the Department of Defense has announced that it’s about to furlough hundreds of thousands of civilian workers if the automatic spending cuts that Congress passed into law last year take effect on March 1st, and other federal agencies will undoubtedly follow behind pretty soon. Nobody on Capitol Hill wants to boost unemployment and destroy the economy, especially in Washington, D.C., but they don’t want to seem soft on spending, either. That means we’re looking at yet another round of posturing and tough talk leading up to an eleventh-hour scramble to avoid taking a metaphorical meat cleaver to good people who just happen to be in the wrong jobs at the wrong time.
What a mess.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I recognize that something needs to be done about our nation’s growing budget deficit, and that every federal agency really should take a thoughtful look at its programs and personnel. The operative word here, though, is thoughtful. Across-the-board spending cuts that aren’t carefully tailored to the real needs of federal agencies may reduce spending, but they’re also entirely too likely to prevent those agencies from doing important work on the American people’s behalf.
There are, no doubt, some inefficiencies in the federal government – it’s a human-run institution, after all. But the people who work for the federal government are, for the most part, decent, hard-working souls who subsist on surprisingly modest wages while doing everything from delivering our mail to capturing international terrorists. They don’t deserve to live in constant anxiety about keeping their jobs. Instead of letting sequester happen, Congress should repeal the automatic budget cuts and step up to the hard work of crafting a real budget that cuts waste without unfairly punishing federal workers. Use your heads, folks – it’s why we elected you.
02.01.13 By Lauren
As is almost always the case, there’s a lot going on right now. There’s been another terrorist attack on one of our embassies (Turkey this time). An explosion at the Mexico City headquarters of state-owned Pemex oil company killed at least thirty-two people yesterday. Syria is a hellacious mess, a major child sex abuse scandal is emerging in the Los Angeles Archdiocese of the Catholic Church, we’ve had shootings on a schoolbus in Alabama and a law firm in Arizona, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of plastic waste has been joined by at least four more, and Chinese hackers have mounted a sustained cyberattack on The New York Times.
So why is the nation’s attention focused on Beyonce?
A tempest in a teapot blew up after Beyonce delivered a spectacular rendition of the national anthem at President Obama’s inaugural ceremony last month. Somebody suggested that the pop superstar might have – gasp – lip-synched her performance. We had ten straight days of speculation thereafter, with people whom I previously would have considered to be serious journalists and ethicists weighing in on the ethical issues at play. Beyonce finally put the rumor to rest yesterday in a press conference, admitting that she sang along to a recorded rendition (not unusual in the music industry), then delivered another amazing performance – a cappella this time – to prove to the world that she really can hit all those notes. The question is, why do we care?
Yes, recent advances in technology have made it a lot easier for those who want to commit fraud to get away with it. Yes, some entertainers have used technology to enhance their performances, even lip-synching to other singers’ voices. And when fraud does genuine harm, I’ll be the first to say that it should be punished swiftly and severely. But how important is it, really, when a star of proven talent decides to play it safe for an especially important performance? Even if Beyonce had shamelessly lip-synched on Inauguration Day, what real difference would it have made to the fate of the world? As it is, she’s gotten a lot of publicity while matters of lasting significance have received less attention than they deserved. For those of us who care about business and social ethics, it’s been a crashing waste of time and energy. We know the lady can sing, folks. Let’s let her do it, and focus on ethical concerns that really matter.
01.31.13 By Lauren
A while back, I wrote a post about restaurant servers who scrawl nasty notes on their customers’ receipts. Well, it seems that some customers can be just as bad. According to news reports, Pastor Alois Bell of the St. Louis-based Truth in the World Deliverance Ministries recently declined to pay the automatic 18% gratuity that Applebee’s put on her $34.93 check, standard practice at the restaurant for tables of eight or more (Pastor Bell’s party was reportedly twenty). Instead, she allegedly scratched out the gratuity, entered a zero, and scrawled “I Give God 10% why do you Get 18″ on the bill. One of her unfortunate server’s colleagues, Chelsea Welch, posted a photo of the check on Reddit.com that included Pastor Bell’s difficult-but-not-impossible-to decipher signature. When the photo went viral, Pastor Bell reportedly called up the Applebee’s and demanded that everyone involved, managers to servers, be fired. That didn’t happen, but Ms. Welch did lose her job. Pastor Bell has since publicly apologized for what she called a “lapse in judgment,” but I haven’t seen any report so far that she’s asked Applebee’s to re-hire Ms. Welch.
As someone who expects to be ordained as an interfaith minister in June, I’m grateful to Pastor Bell for an exceptionally vivid lesson in how clergy shouldn’t behave. It looks to me as though refused to give her server, a young woman who reportedly makes less than nine dollars an hour with tips, just over six dollars for what was probably a pretty demanding assignment. Waiting on twenty people isn’t exactly a walk in the park, after all. (Pastor Bell claims to have left six dollars cash at the table. Perhaps it’s true but, if so, she went to a whole lot of trouble to save twenty-nine cents.) Worse, when her behavior was outed, Reverend Bell apparently tried to exact vengeance from anyone and everyone at Applebee’s instead of acknowledging that she’d brought the embarrassment down on herself.
Unfortunately, it’s Ms. Welch who’s going to pay for Pastor Bell’s actions. Applebee’s has issued a statement saying that Ms. Welch was fired because she violated Pastor Bell’s “right to privacy” by posting the offending receipt online. Personally, though, I’m not sure Pastor Bell deserves such solicitude, especially after she tried to get everyone at the restaurant fired.
Applebee’s undoubtedly maintains a zero-tolerance policy against employees posting diners’ misbehavior online, and that’s probably a good idea in most instances. (I’m sure most of us would prefer to eat out without fear that we’ll end up on YouTube.) It’s also entirely possible that Pastor Bell is a lovely person who doesn’t deserve to be raked over the coals in the blogosphere. Still, this result just feels downright unjust. It’s great that Applebee’s is so protective of its customers; I just wish the restaurant chain cared a little more about its employees.
Update: An earlier version of this post suggested, based on news reports, that the party’s entire bill was $34.93, but I’ve since learned that it was more than $200. And, if you think Applebee’s overreacted when it fired Chelsea Welch, sign the petition to get her reinstated at http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/applebee-s-rehire-chelsea-we-ll-eat-at-your-restaura.html.