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MSNBC Made Donald Trump

Our latest blog entry comes from Adam Berlin, Professor of English at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 5/6/2016 at newsmax.com.

Blog entry by: Adam Berlin, 5/16/2016

I watch my news on MSNBC.

In the mornings I like “Morning Joe” because conservative Joe Scarborough and liberal Mika Brzezinski speak their biased hearts, yet are willing to call out inconsistencies and stupidities in their own parties.

In the evenings, I tolerate the caricatures that Rachel Madow and Chris Hayes (sometimes interchangeable from their glasses on down) have become, because they’re liberals who sometimes dig deeper into headline news and because, well, they’re smart. (Catch Rachel Madow on any show but her own and she’s a star, so much more powerful and impassioned than her I’m-so-cute-and-interesting-[and falsely humble] TV persona.)

I put up with Chris Mathews who delivers monologues instead of interviews during his interviews, and shills his books during his monologues.

I try to stay patient as Lawrence O’Donnel enunciates every single word, turning twenty minutes of material into an hour.

I’m a liberal and prefer my TV media liberal. And I certainly prefer MSNBC’s hosts to CNN’s more-conservative takes on the news. Perhaps what I like best about MSNBC is that each host has a sense of humor, can laugh openly, can take a breath and crack a joke. That’s not the case with CNN’s dour Wolf Blitzer or buttoned-up John King. I’ll give Anderson Cooper a bye for two reasons: People stop me on the street thinking I’m him, and, far more important, he can laugh at himself and others.

A sense of humor — I’m starting to think that’s the real litmus test when separating liberals from conservatives. Have you ever seen Mitch McConnell’s pursed lips smile? Have you ever heard Rush Limbaugh laugh a genuine, non-sneering laugh? Have you ever noticed what really makes that famous politically-split couple, James Carville and Mary Matalin, so different? Answer — one laughs a lot, the other perpetually scowls.

But when Cruz and Kasich got KO’d by Donald Trump, well inside the distance, MSNBC lost its sense of humor. Sure, there were lecherously-playful comments about Melania’s runway walk toward the podium where Trump would declare victory in Indiana. There were comments about the spokesmodels behind him.

Still, the predominant emotion at MSNBC wasn’t humor, wasn’t an absurdist’s delight in this new reality, a blustering reality star with the ego the size of Manhattan had become the Republican nominee. Instead, there was outrage. Instead there was incredulity and even shock. Instead, there was a reiterative listing of all the things Trump has supposedly done so wrong, so stupidly, so irresponsibly. He was labelled a hater and a racist. He was labelled a man who knows nothing about politics. He was labelled, even as he won, a loser and liability. And, by insinuation, all the people who voted for him were fools.

Here’s the rub: MSNBC is as responsible as anyone for Donald Trump’s victory. The coverage of The Don was non-stop. The discussion about The Don was non-stop. When The Don held a rally, MSNBC was there more than any other network. The reason is crass-clear — MSNBC wanted the ratings. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to criticize and make fun of than to compliment and analyze. (I’m guilty as charged in my first paragraphs here.)

Had MSNBC been principled, had they truly wanted to make a unified effort to stop Trump (which would have reflected their political views, which I’m sure, each MSNBC host would tell you, are based on principle) then they would have put their coverage where their collective mouth was. They would have limited Trump coverage. They would have given their air time to Hillary and Bernie and to some of the larger political issues that this country faces.

Several news stories that highlighted the dangers of free trade might have cut into Trump’s appeal. In-depth reporting on bankruptcies might have helped the cause. A more timely look at the history of Trump’s recently-anointed campaign manager Paul Manafort and Manafort’s relationship to Vladimir Putin might have highlighted the hypocrisy of Trump’s isolationist rants.

Instead, it was Trump-time all the time on MSNBC.

They made a choice: they covered Trump for ratings; they traded integrity for a bigger piece of the viewing pie. There’s a political word for this, a word we hear very often these days — it’s called pandering. MSNBC revealed itself as the Hillary Clinton of news stations.

I’ll keep watching MSNBC. Just like too many democrats will vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election. There’s no better alternative.

But MSNBC should come clean. MSNBC’s talking heads should remove their false masks of outrage and incredulity. They know the truth. They helped make Donald Trump possible. And, for them, that should be no laughing matter.

Civil Asset Forfeiture

A helpful introduction to civil asset forfeiture can be surveyed in the NYT of Oct. 25, 2014. Potential and actual abuse of this legal tool were well highlighted and documented in the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report from Nov. 10, 2015, and attempted federal remedies can be discovered, including H.R. 5212 (113th). Where financial shenanigans are suspected, even where financial crimes cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, civil asset forfeiture remains a powerful mechanism to challenge unexplained accumulations of assets, including cash deposited at financial institutions, under preponderance of evidence standards, a threshold qualitatively and quantitatively lower than reasonable doubt. Allegations of misconduct alluded to by, among other sources, the Panama Papers become subject to wide-ranging federal and state powers, especially where the asset implicated is the deposit of U.S. dollars.

The search for suspicious cash accumulations becomes significantly more convenient where digital money is required (e.g., where possession of currency such as U.S. dollar bills is prohibited): There is no need for law enforcement to stop and seize physically – instead, submit an order to seize the account at the depository institution virtually. However, digital money can flow nearly instantaneously, so the regulatory surveillance needs to be timely, anticipating transfers. One can readily infer that the existence of undisclosed principals (e.g., shell companies concealing real beneficial owners such as individuals) will only proliferate as the movement to replace paper currency with digital money gains acceptance among key public policy-makers, especially those with fiscal and monetary oversight of major global currencies such as the U.S. (petro) dollar. Creating a legal but fictitious identity remote from legal process is not just for those seeking to avoid bankruptcy.

Recognizing that emerging trends and potent tools create opportunities in the affected disciplines (e.g., law, accounting, fraud examination, etc.), individuals with a long-term perspective (i.e., extending beyond the horizon of graduation from college) should consider that an important set of knowledge, understanding, and skills in support of these opportunities will continue to be focused on the individual’s ability to search through data, make connections, exercise imagination, and prepare tables, graphs, and narratives that summarize not only quantitative elements such as monetary figures traversing the globe but qualitative relationships such as associations among the illegitimate and legitimate fictive legal persons, their facilitators (e.g., intermediaries such as law and accounting firms, financial institutions, brokers, etc.), and the directing mind / will (i.e., the controlling individual).

Forensic Accounting Certificate Program

The formal and published description of JJCCJ’s Forensic Accounting Certificate Program reads as follows: “Forensic accounting is the application of general theories and methodologies of accounting for purpose of resolving financial issues in a legal setting. The Forensic Accounting Certificate provides in-depth learning opportunities to advance students’ knowledge of fraud examination and to develop skills in the use of investigative and analytical techniques to resolve allegations of fraud and other potential white-collar and financial crimes. The certificate provides comprehensive coverage of all types of financial crimes, but concentrates on fraud prevention, fraud detection, fraud investigation and remediation. The types of fraud schemes studied include corruption schemes, asset misappropriation, and fraudulent financial statements.

The Program provides educational preparation, which is different from experiential learning and on-the-job training, to address the problems attendant to financial crimes, especially fraud. These problems include unjust enrichment; i.e., individuals (and artificial persons) economically and financially benefit from illicit and unethical schemes that deceive victims and obtain their assets without informed consent (cf. extortion). Broadly, accounting is a methodology (quantitative and qualitative) used both to accomplish the wrongful scheme and to prevent / detect / remedy it. Importantly, accounting is a collaborative activity; i.e., there are many individuals involved in doing it (e.g., review and approvals within organizations, inspection and oversight from outside organizations), as well as collective action in setting up the ground rules (e.g., development of generally accepted accounting principles “GAAP”).

There are at least three layers subject to the forensic accounting methodology of inquiry and discovery:

  1. The negotiations, agreements, understandings, intentions, caveats, etc. between the party and counterparty (there may be many counterparties): This is economic reality – a construct evidenced by records, recollections, and other data reflective of the preservation of transaction history. In brief, economic reality may be lost, misplaced, or otherwise uncreated (e.g., there are limits to budgets and schedules dedicated to such preparations). A current (alleged) illustration of the divergence between economic reality and represented reality under layer no. 2 below is that suggested under the Panama Papers, where the economic substance of a given set of transactions may be to evade taxation and public exposure of corruption under the false cover of actually conducting meaningful business activities in offshore venues and under offshore jurisdictions. This layer may be buried to protect individuals’ privacy, but it is far from dead (even where the individuals are).
  2. The accepted interpretations reported by the party and counterparty: These tend to be mirrored reflections of each other; e.g., one party’s expense is another party’s revenue. However, there are important exceptions (e.g., fair value accounting that allows the reporting of unrealized gains / losses without accompaniment by an actual transaction with a counterparty). Public filings to the SEC are common examples of these interpretations, which are submitted under the overarching guideline of avoiding stating anything materially misleading or omitting something that renders the submission materially misleading. This layer is official reality, which may or may not reflect economic reality under layer no. 1 above. For example, ‘accounting facts’ such as Enron’s earnings per share in a given period may not be factual; these may be later restated as information about improper financial engineering overwhelms the outdated ‘official reality’ of ‘accounting facts.’
  3. The reinterpretation performed by the forensic accounting team (there may be many reinterpretations, especially in litigation, which often features battles of experts): A common misperception about forensic accounting is that it depends entirely or even primarily on the actions of accountants. In practice, specialists from other disciplines are helpful, even necessary. For example, consider submission of a medical expense claim by an insured patient. Under layer no. 1 there may be voluminous records and discussions among the individuals responsible for developing the welfare / health care plan. Specialists’ language would be used to distinguish coverable procedures from those not covered. Lawyers, doctors, hospital, pharmaceutical, and insurance administrators, pharmacy benefit managers, actuaries, etc. would contribute to the development of the plan. The result as exchanged among interested parties under layer no. 2 is the plan with its terms and conditions. To many parties, especially patients / claimants without sophisticated legal, medical, and insurance knowledge (read: an overwhelming majority of us), the outcome of whether a procedure is covered and for how much (e.g., reasonable, necessary, customary, etc.) is usually accepted, perhaps grudgingly, notwithstanding the inherent biases in the system (e.g., insurers have a financial interest in limiting losses, medical providers have a financial interest in maximizing revenues, plan sponsors have a financial interest in preserving the assets of the plan, designated claims review team constituents have their own divergent personal and professional financial interests, etc.) that may distort and prejudice the financial interest of the patient / claimant. In brief, inspection and oversight (i.e., checks and balances) within the system may be inadequate in any given case / claim.

Effective inspection and oversight depends on the funding of impartial and competent forensic accounting teams. Independence is neither sufficient nor necessary. Where impartiality is lacking, independence may function as a misleading amplifier of voices that should be countered – not raised. Where competency is lacking, well – don’t need to go there.

Who Are You (aka the Case of the Unknown Directors)?

According to the NYT of May 12, 2016: “Security experts who have studied the attacks said the thieves probably were lurking inside the bank systems for months before they were detected.” This compilation of expert opinion was directed at fraudulent financial transactions originating inside an unidentified commercial bank that allegedly lost millions of dollars (U.S. dollars?) of its own digital money (not its customers’ digital money!) Thus, it knows the accounts charged (not its customers). It has the audit trail for these electronic thefts by deception (i.e., it has evidence of who did what). However, its internal control systems were not sufficiently robust and redundant to prevent these financial transactions as they occurred under apparently authorized protocols (though the issue as to whether these controls provided “reasonable assurance” will survive this post). The transactions seemed OK at initiation and authorization stages, and they might not have been detected under its review processes until too late (i.e., the digital money was moved from the initial fraudulent transferee to downstream fraudulent transferees – though the soundness of this argument remains to be seen). Let’s hope the bank’s a better custodian of its customers’ digital money than its own.

Compare these instances of corrupt insiders whose credentials were apparently vetted and approved by the principal (i.e., whether the bank as employer of these corrupt employees or the bank as prime contractor of these corrupt independent subcontractors/agents) with the instances of allegedly shady dealings touching the hub of the Panama law firm in the so-called Panama Papers scandal: many of these principals and the actions generating such prodigious amounts of digital funds (U.S. dollars?) were cloaked under the labyrinth of multiple layers of legal fictions spread across the playing field of electronic global finance.

Next Halloween I will be trick-or-treating as the ABC LLC incorporated in Delaware or Nauru – not sure yet. Or I could go as myself, grab handfuls of candies, and run. However, I suppose the strategy offering the greatest return on investment would be to work with a bank – a safe distance from the candy distributors – and absorb whatever digital funds reside in these distributors’ bank accounts and park these under the ownership of some yet-to-named legal fiction in some yet-to-be identified venue while sipping margaritas on a yet-to-be identified beach where it’s way warmer at the end of October than here in the NYC metropolitan area? Or maybe in the woods of Vermont?

Civilian oversight, policing research, and open data: Beginning a new public conversation

Civilian oversight, policing research, and open data: Beginning a new public conversation

Our latest blog entry comes from Dan Stageman, Director of Research Operations for the Office for the Advancement of Research at John Jay College.

Blog entry by: Dan Stageman, 4/19/2016

In February of 2015, the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) held its first academic symposium in partnership with Seattle University. The event – held in the wake of the police-civilian conflict that erupted following the Ferguson verdict, and coinciding a scheduled Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Seattle – was entitled Moving Beyond Discipline: The Role of Civilians in Police Accountability.

This Friday, April 22nd, John Jay College will host NACOLE’s second academic symposium, in the context of the ensuing year of national discourse on police-community relations. The title for this new symposium – Building Public Trust: Generating Evidence to Enhance Police Accountability and Legitimacy – speaks to the nature of how this conversation has evolved in the nearly 18 months since the Ferguson verdict. As the visceral anger and destructive unrest that accompanied those initial protests in Missouri has cooled, the Black Lives Matter movement has coalesced into a social, cultural, and political force to be reckoned with. An initially forceful counter-protest movement, which attempted to connect the ‘Ferguson Effect’ of ubiquitous public surveillance and perceived hostility toward law enforcement with an apparent rise in violent crime and homicide rates in cities across the country, has dwindled to a background murmur.

Perhaps most important for the criminal justice scholarly community, law enforcement policy-makers have begun to listen to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and allied advocacy organizations  – and to respond in ways that push the conversation forward. Many of these responses have the potential to bring fundamental changes to the practice of law enforcement, the philosophy of policing, and – in the long term – the culture that makes many American law enforcement agencies so resistant to change.

The starting point for many of the constructive policy responses to the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement is the Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, to which both NACOLE staff and John Jay College faculty made a number of important contributions. This week’s academic symposium takes as a particular focus the Report’s Action Item 1.3.1:

To embrace a culture of transparency, law enforcement agencies should make all department policies available for public review and regularly post on the department’s website information about stops, summonses, arrests, reported crime, and other law enforcement data aggregated by demographics. (13)

One year after the Report’s release, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this action item, or the impact that it has already had on departmental policies in major city law enforcement agencies across the country. Analyses like those produced by John Jay’s Misdemeanor Justice Project – on many years of misdemeanor arrests, summonses, and enforcement rates in NYC – would not have been possible without data shared by the NYPD. Commissioner William Bratton’s continued support for the project – even as he occasionally takes issue with its findings – perhaps speaks as much to a shift in open-data policy nationwide as it does to philosophical differences between Bratton and his predecessor, Raymond W. Kelly.

For as much as major law enforcement agencies have themselves engendered a shift toward making publicly available important data on law enforcement activity, a more important driver of openness appears in the Task Force Report’s Recommendation 2.8:

Some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement is important in order to strengthen trust with the community. Every community should define the appropriate form and structure of civilian oversight to meet the needs of that community. (26)

Civilian oversight in NYC took a giant step forward with Local Law 70 and the formation of the NYPD Office of the Inspector General in 2013. Appointed to the post in March of 2014, Philip K. Eure (who serves as committee co-chair for the NACOLE Symposium) has approached data-sharing and evidence-based assessment as one of the core functions of his office, pushing the NYPD on its use of litigation data in one of its first official reports.

This push for open data, in response to the concerns raised by recent protest movements and advocacy efforts, is an effort well-suited to the agencies tasked with formal civilian oversight of law enforcement; the question of what to do with this data once it is shared with the public is one that research scholars need to answer. In the hands of social scientists, open data can be transformed into a staggering number of genuinely useful tools: algorithms for predicting potential police misconduct, a relational database and typology for analyzing departmental trends in use of force, or a process-oriented framework for designing the roll-out of a major urban police department’s body-worn camera policy.

All of these tools will be featured, in presentations from the researchers who designed them, at Friday’s Symposium. The conversations that follow – led by leading oversight professionals, and including an audience of academics, policymakers, funders, law enforcement practitioners, and members of the public – should provide an open forum that pushes these researchers to refine their work and better respond to the needs of the communities whose advocacy helped make them possible.

Ultimately, however, these partnerships and the tools to which they give rise are only one link in a chain that should end with the general public. True transparency is about communicating the workings of formerly opaque institutions to the public those institutions are ostensibly intended to serve. Transparency in law enforcement should strive to correct the informational imbalance between the police and highly-policed communities – an imbalance that allows an arresting officer to pull up the intimate details of a suspect’s life on a computer screen with the touch of a button, but prevents community members from knowing the realities of, and the rationales for, the manner in which they are policed.

Both scholars and oversight agencies are often ill-suited to make the final connections that communicate their vital work to the publics – particularly highly-policed communities – they mean to benefit. The vital role for journalists in disseminating the evidence-base that these researchers are working to build cannot be overstated. Resources like The Crime Report’s media toolkits and Guggenheim Fellowships, that support evidence-based criminal justice journalism, make it possible for journalists to better communicate the meaning of publicly available data to a public that might not have the expertise to digest this data directly.

Why the Trump presidential transition has just begun

Why the Trump presidential transition has just begun

Our latest blog entry comes from Heath Brown, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on TheHill.com.

Blog entry by: Heath Brown, 4/14/2016 (original: 4/13/16)

For much of this presidential campaign, Donald Trump (R) has been dismissed as an nonserious performer, capable of drawing large crowds and attention, but not much more. Seemingly unaware of many policy details and unwilling to name who has shaped his view on key issues, what a Trump administration would actually look like has remained a mystery.

That mystery may have just been solved. After a stinging defeat in the Wisconsin primary, Trump elevated Paul Manafort’s role on his campaign to oversee the GOP convention delegate process. The choice of Manafort signals not just a change in direction for the campaign, but also gives a strong indication of what a Trump White House might look like.

Manafort is a seasoned Washington insider, operating at the intersection of money, politics and influence for the last four decades. How Manafort rose to prominence suggests several important, yet largely underappreciated, aspects of electing a new president.

After Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980, Manafort was named coordinator of personnel during Reagan’s transition to power. The presidential transition period — often eclipsed by the attention paid to the campaign — occurs over 77 days between Election Day and the inauguration in January. It is during this period that hundreds of critical decisions are made about public policy and who will be appointed to join the new president in the White House and in the Cabinet.

For Reagan, personnel decisions were no trivial matter. Reagan’s team adhered to the mantra that “personnel is policy” to emphasize how important it was to have a team of ideological loyalists to implement his agenda. Manafort helped Reagan appoint an array of conservative stalwarts across government, hundreds drawn from the new brain centers of the conservative movement: the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Hoover Institution. Many were brand new to Washington, arriving in Washington, D.C. from California after decades of loyalty to Reagan.

Yet when the transition period ended, Manafort didn’t follow others in the conservative movement into the Reagan administration. Instead, Manafort and his partners on the transition team, Roger Stone and Charlie Black, opted to start their own lobbying firm. Manafort traded on his service to a newly elected president not with a job in the White House, but by peddling influence in the then-burgeoning field of high-priced lobbying.

To be sure, Manfort was not the first to lay the foundation of a lucrative future on K Street during a presidential transition. Twenty years earlier, Clark Clifford helped John Kennedy transition from candidate to president, but did not later join the Kennedy administration. Instead, Kennedy joked that “all he asked in return was that we advertise his law firm on the backs of one-dollar bills.”

Fifty years later, Trump’s choice of Manafort suggests several things. First, if Trump hadn’t yet started planning for his transition, he is now. Manafort knows exactly how much work must be completed immediately after the election and that planning must begin long before November.

Second, in choosing Manafort, Trump’s history of vague answers about whom he would appoint will soon change — if not publicly, then at least privately. While he courts delegates for the GOP convention, Manafort will also begin assembling the names of supporters who will be considered for key posts in a possible Trump administration. Given the aversion of many establishment Republican insiders to Trump, these names may come from as far away as they did during Reagan’s transition, likely holding few allegiances to the Republican Party, but a deep commitment to Trumpism.

Finally, during Trump’s pre-election transition, it seems likely that he will not be averse to a prominent role for lobbyists and influence-peddling. President Obama famously imposed strict restrictions on what lobbyists could and could not do during his transition, and every indication suggests that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have upheld this precedent if he had been elected. However, the choice of Manafort indicates that Trump may not be as concerned about the conflicts-of-interest inherent to having lobbyists plan for his administration while at the same time representing clients who have ongoing business with government.

For months, experts have worried about the lack of clarity on policy and personnel issues from Trump. We may now be entering a phase where those worries will shift to the increasingly clear picture of what a Trump administration will look like. As many focus on Manafort’s effectiveness as presidential campaign adviser, all should keep an eye on Manafort as presidential transition planner, too.

On 40th anniversary of Buckey v. Valeo, political consulting booms

On 40th anniversary of Buckey v. Valeo, political consulting booms

Our latest blog entry comes from Heath Brown, assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on TheHill.com. Be on the look out for Professor Brown’s forthcoming book, “Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy,” available this April!

Blog entry by: Heath Brown, 2/17/2016 (original: 1/27/16)

Saturday is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s momentous campaign finance decision, Buckley v. Valeo. A lot has been pinned on that decision, including the establishment of a link between money and free speech, the skyrocketing cost of campaigns, and the recent birth of super-PACs and numerous dark-money groups. We may be looking at a $10 billion election this year, and the Buckley decision should receive some of the credit for that.

A new book adds another legacy: the ascent of political consultants. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, during the last election cycle (2012), the top firm, GMMB, billed for over $400 million in political media services — nearly $100 million more than they had four years earlier.

Business is good, but how did we get to this point?

In Adam Sheingate’s just-published book, “Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy” he argues that in failing to throw out the campaign finance reporting requirements at the center of the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), the Supreme Court blessed a system of nearly unlimited campaign expenditures that simply had to be tracked and disclosed. That tracking of how campaigns funds were spent opened the door for consultants — like those at GMMB, Mentzer Media Services and American Rambler Productions, to name just a few — to amass ever-larger portions of the political pie.

Prior to FECA and the Buckley decision, political campaigns were much freer to spend money to win elections. Without the requirement to report detailed expenditure data to the federal government, campaigns could be cavalier with their funds and freely distribute “walk around” money to local party operatives to turn out voters. During this period, political consultants had been growing in prominence, especially in California, but were still secondary players to the two parties in most campaigns.

After the 1976 ruling, each campaign dollar had to be reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in increasingly specific ways, or campaigns risked a federal audit. Political consultants, all too eager to provide such accounting, could document exactly how and where the money would be spent. Vendors could estimate precisely how much would be spent to shoot and edit an ad and how much it would cost to buy airtime to broadcast that ad on television. As we moved forward from the 1970s to the 1980s, public opinion polls, direct mail fundraising solicitations and multimedia advertising, as well as a variety of other new campaign techniques, could all be contracted for by candidates, and easily accounted to the FEC. Today, the legitimacy of a candidate is often judged by which consultant has been hired.

Sheingate’s claim is not that political consulting started in 1976; in fact, he tells a fascinating 100-year history of the long development of the field. Rather, he argues convincingly that the business of politics was inadvertently transformed and turbocharged by the Buckley decision. As the court eliminated the expenditure limits of FECA, it created an open environment for the escalation of political spending and a perfect regulatory environment for businesses to boom.

Two…Three…Many Flints: America’s Coast-to-Coast Toxic Crisis

Two…Three…Many Flints: America’s Coast-to-Coast Toxic Crisis

Our latest blog entry comes from David Rosner, Columbia University, and Gerald Markowtiz, John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on TomDispatch.com.  

Blog entry by: David Rosner & Gerald Markowitz, 2/9/2016

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control(CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland, Herculaneum,Missouri, Sebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reportssuggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.” Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Two, Three… Many Flints

In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world’s largest corporation. GM’s Buick plant alone once occupied “an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of “this automotive city.” Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids, and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.

The crisis that attracted President Obama’s attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.

As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster.  Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so.  Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint’s population is majority African American and Latino, and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line.  Of its 100,000 residents, 65% are African American and Latino and 42%  are mired in poverty.

The president should be worried about Flint’s children and local, state, and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers, and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It’s already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community. Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has refused to provide Flint’s residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the United States. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg.  Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.

Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck.  A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.

There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America.  It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country.  In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably.  Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only, or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.

In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline.  It was lauded at the time as a “gift of God” by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil, and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced, and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the United States.  During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched.  Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.

Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings until 1978.  Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs, and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.

Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and workplaces across the United States remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live.  Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls. However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today.  As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint’s water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil, and air.

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.

In truth, the United States has scores of “Flints” awaiting their moments.  Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster.  Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive.  Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.

The Future of America’s Toxic Past

A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint’s chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster.  If clueless, corrupt, or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed — that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America’s children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution, or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.

Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country’s poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.

There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city’s damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it’s time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America’s children and face the terrible human toll caused by “the American century.”

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, TomDispatch regulars, are co-authors and co-editors of seven books and 85 articles on a variety of industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and, most recently, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.  Rosner is a professor of sociomedical sciences and history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitz is a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Both have been awarded a certificate of appreciation by the United States Senate through the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has recognized the importance of their work on lead and industrial poisoning.

Cross posted at “TomDispatch.com,” TD.com.

Copyright 2016 David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

Martin Shkreli is not the problem. The fact that a company like Turing Pharmaceuticals can exist is the problem

Martin Shkreli is not the problem. The fact that a company like Turing Pharmaceuticals can exist is the problem

Our latest blog entry comes from Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on Nathan Lents’ “The Human Evolution Blog.”

Blog entry by: Nathan Lents, 12/17/2015

Martin Shkreli was arrested today. Yay! The whole world will (rightly) cheer. Call it karma, call it “getting his,” call it “reaping what you sow,” call it “justice.”

However, keep in mind that he wasn’t arrested for anything to do with drug pricing or the shady business practices of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Turing Pharmaceuticals, and “companies” like it will continue to exist. And that is the real problem.


When Turing announced its price hike of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750/pill, the world reacted with horror and Shkreli quickly became the most hated man in the world. Daraprim is a life-saving medication for people suffering from toxoplasmosis, caused by a rare parasite affecting mostly those with compromised immune systems. In addition to the price hike, Turing made the drug available only at their specified pharmacy (Walgreen’s) for outpatients.

Turing and Shkreli were caught completely off-guard by the outrage. Shkreli tried to explain that it was a “great thing for society” and that he “shouldn’t be criticized” for this, but the public wasn’t buying it. Eventually, his defense shifted to saying that he had an obligation to make money for his company and that the drug was way underpriced. He has employees to pay and they’ll be unemployed if he doesn’t make money.


But what about that company? No one had ever heard of Turing Pharmaceuticals before this debacle. What is it that they do?

The darapram fiasco IS WHAT THEY DO.

Turing Pharmaceuticals has no research labs, no scientists in white lab coats, and no plans for new drug development. They don’t even have drug manufacturing facilities or anything related to the production, distribution, or selling of pharmaceuticals. They are a “pharmaceutical company” in name only. This is their business model:

1.) Scour the pharmacopeia for niche drugs that fit a certain profile and are “underpriced.” (more on this later)

2.) Buy the manufacturing rights to those drugs. (They still won’t actually make anything. They’ll pay the same plants to make the same pills. Nothing changes.)

3.) Jack up the price of those drugs.

4.) Make huge profits. (Buy yachts, helicopters, and $9,000 bottles of wine.)

5.) When others eventually come in and force the price down, sell the manufacturing rights back, probably at a much higher price.

6.) Move on to the next drug.

This company is not about making or developing drugs. It’s about making money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but that is ALL that they do.

This is vulture capitalism at its absolute worst, and the way that they pick the drugs to purchase underscores this. The drugs they want are those that fit a certain profile: old, out of patent, sold by just one or two companies, targeted at a very narrow market, and most important of all…  the drug must be life-saving and without available alternatives.

In other words, they want to find drugs that people will die if they don’t get. This allows them to charge as much as they want and the patients will have no choice but to pay.

Turing knows that their price-hike will be temporary because competitors will get in on the game, but if no other companies are currently making a drug, it can take a couple years to get the operation up and running because they still have to get FDA approval. It’s not as long and involved as approval for a new drug, but they do have to show that they can make the drug safely. During those 2-3 years, Turing can extract millions from patients that desperately need the life-saving medication.

Turing has tried to defend itself by saying that they will price the drug at $1 for the poor and uninsured. First of all, does anyone believe that will actually happen? How would that even work? But even if they could do that and they actually followed through, this is still a horrible situation because when insured patients need the drug – WE end up paying for it!

If the patients are insured, those prices are then passed to insurance companies, who pass it on to consumers through our sky-high premiums and co-pays. If the patients are on medicaid or medicare, we all pay for it through our payroll taxes. Either way, we pay for it.

The end result of Turing’s business practice is the massive transfer of wealth from all of us to Martin Shkreli and his sleazy partners. AND WE GET NOTHING IN RETURN.

It’s true that we all transfer massive amounts of wealth to already wealthy companies every day, but we usually get something in return. I have transferred thousands of dollars to Apple over the years, but I got iPhones and MacBooks in return. But daraprim was already developed and on the market for decades. They didn’t CREATE anything.

Turing doesn’t develop anything, doesn’t invent anything, doesn’t create anything, doesn’t produce anything. They are simply in the business of finding hidden corners of the pharmaceutical market where they can swoop in, like the vultures they are, and extract huge sums of money from unsuspecting, and very ill, patients. And it’s all perfectly legal.

Before August of this year, Martin Shkreli had made himself famous in business circles with this general business model, even if the rest of us had never heard of him. He was hailed as a visionary, a genius. We live in a world where this type of vulture capitalism is not just tolerated, but cheered. The only reason the rest of us now know about him is that he went just a bit too far with his pricing. (Not according to him. He thinks it actually should have been higher.)

Turing Pharmaceuticals is not a visionary company. It is a leech. And we are the host. And like all leeches, they provide nothing to their host. They simply take.

Turing and Shkreli touched a nerve this fall because the product they choose to hold ransom is life-saving medication, but how many other companies are there that operate this same vulture model in other industries? What other products and services are price-inflated so that scumbags like Shkreli can extract their piece of the pie, while giving us nothing in return.

They pat themselves on the back and call themselves visionary geniuses, but they are merely clever thieves. And our regulatory system does nothing to stop them.

Cheap white eggs: Radiolob Dodges All Discussion of Race

Cheap white eggs: Radiolob Dodges All Discussion of Race

Our latest blog entry comes from Nathan Lents, Associate Professor in John Jay’s Department of Sciences. This entry was originally posted on Nathan Lents’ “The Human Evolution Blog.”

Blog entry by: Nathan Lents, 12/7/2015

(This blog has been updated after a twitter discussion between Professor Lents and the host and producer of Radio lab in an effort to soften the attacking tone of the original post)

I have been a regular listener to Radiolab for years and last week’s topic was of particular interest to me:Birthstory, an in-depth, exquisitely produced narrative about in vitro fertilization and surrogacy as way for two gay men to make a family.

I don’t think this was their best work. Throughout the 60 minutes of the podcast, the issue of race and racial disparities were confronted multiple times, but never discussed. There are also glaring unasked questions, whose omission reveals even more than their answers could have.

Only biological children really count.

The podcast is about Tal and Amir, two gay men from Israel who have a baby, actually three babies (!), through IVF with surrogacy. This is not at all uncommon in our modern era and I join the many that cheer when families are made this way. The first “hmmm” moment was just a couple minutes into the podcast. Amir expressed how important it was to have a baby that was ‘truly his own.’

Of course, terms like that are tossed around ubiquitously, but just imagine how that sounds to adopted kids or adoptive parents. We all know that Amir was referring to “biological” parentage and did not intend to imply that adoptive parenting isn’t “real.” But still, is that the best way to say it?

Also, at this point in the podcast, an Israeli journalist is brought in to support the notion that, apparently, having a desire for biological children is, “a very Israeli thing.” [Right, because in no other culture do we see that odd desire!] The speaker validates this point by saying that people who have children are seen as much more valuable to Israeli society than those that don’t. Again, this seems pretty universal to me. If anything, this attitude is much more intense in the Global South.

More to the point, this claim that only the procreative are valuable to society goes without challenge or discussion, even in our era when an increasing number of adults are opting not to have children and facing bizarre condemnation for doing so. On its own, this commentary may seem harmless, but in the larger context, it’s another small example of how dismissive this podcast seems to be of other cultures besides the Western one in Israel and the United States, and of people within those cultures that don’t fit the prevailing winds.

Given the topic of the podcast, this was quite surprising to me.

Foster children aren’t worth mentioning, let alone considering

Then, things started to get more overtly bothersome. While interviewing Tal and Amir about the various options they had to make a family, the hosts discussed insemination, adoption from a foreign country, and even the new phenomenon called “The New Family,” which is picking up steam in Israel and elsewhere. This is a fascinating new social phenomenon in which men and women who, separately, want to have a baby, come together to do just that and then raise the baby jointly, but separately, almost like a divorced couple. Regardless, none of the presented options appealed to Tal and Amir for various reasons.

Nowhere in this discussion was any mention of the possibility of adopting foster children. Not a word. In a podcast in which all manner of family-making was discussed, the issue of foster care was not mentioned even one time the entire hour. I found this especially galling consider the extraordinary lengths that the Tal and Amir went to in order to have their children.

Let me clear. It is not the case that Radiolab simply decided to discuss only those options that Tal and Amir flirted with. The discussion began with this quote: “You basically have two options. It used to be three options, but now just two.” [The previous third option is adoption from “third-world” countries, which is now more difficult for gay couples.] In this podcast, Radiolab basically states that “the new family” and international surrogacy are the only possible options for couples that can’t produce their own children naturally but still want to be parents.

Meanwhile, in New York City, where Radiolab is produced, nearly 17,000 kids are in foster care. Around 2,500 of them are ready and waiting for adoption. Many of those never will be and instead will instead age out of the system as orphans.

That’s just New York City. There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the US and over 100,000 of them are currently awaiting adoption. More than 20,000 kids age out of foster care in the United States every year.

In Tal and Amir’s native Israel, the foster care system is in a full-blown crisis. Emergency shelters are overflowing and just this year, the Knesset passed a bill to build more shelters and funded renewed efforts to recruit more foster parents. Adoption by same-sex parents (even those with no biological connection to the child) has been legal in Israel since 2008.

Somehow, while discussing Tal and Amir’s quest to raise a child together, it never came up that thousands of children need homes right in their own community.

To be sure, I understand that foster parenting is not everyone’s first choice when they think of how they can start a family. That’s why there are so many kids that need homes in the first place. That’s why so many of them age into group homes and then eventually age out of the system without ever getting a real home or a permanent family.

And I understand the reasons people are scared of foster children. There are legitimate concerns about permanency, the resulting pain if children are returned to parents, behavioral or emotional problems resulting from whatever circumstances brought them into foster care to begin with. I get all of that.

But isn’t it worth mentioning that these kids exist? The complete omission of this topic, while other options were at least mentioned, sends a message that foster children aren’t worthy of consideration (a lesson the older ones have probably learned already).

In the case of Tal and Amir, we have Amir’s strong and perfectly natural desire for biological children. (Tal has this desire, too, as they end up making a baby with his sperm as well, which is how they end up with three total.) However, the option of foreign adoption was briefly discussed. This means that the desire for biological children cannot completely explain the lack of mention of foster children in this section of the story.

In Israel, most of the kids in foster care are Ashkanazi, Sephardi, or Arab. In the United States, however, where Radiolab is produced and where the vast majority of its listeners reside, the foster care system is a perfect manifestation of our racial inequality. Because the biggest factors that bring children into foster care are poverty, lack of family and social support, untreated mental illness, and drug abuse, (and because those issues are suffered by Blacks and Hispanics at higher rates than Whites), our foster system is mostly filled with children of color. In 2014, of those in foster care in NYC whose race is known, 95% are Black or Hispanic.

Thus, there is an unmistakable racial element to the complete omission of the subject of foster children in this podcast, maybe not for Tal and Amir, but definitely as a topic for this podcast.

[Edit: Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, pointed out to me that it was Tal and Amir who introduced the options that were discussed, including international adoption, but not including foster care. The hosts then explored those options. There was no omission by Radiolab, intentional or unintentional.]

“Cheap White Eggs”

Because surrogacy for gay couples is specifically banned in Israel, Tal and Amir had to go international. The result was an incredibly complicated and expensive arrangement involving at least four countries and well over $150,000. The two surrogates would be from India, but the implantation, delivery, and neonatal care would actually take place in Nepal because this kind of surrogacy is illegal in India. (And it now is in Nepal, too.)

The eggs, however, would come from Eastern Europe.

Why Eastern Europe? With the surrogate in India and traveling to Nepal, surely eggs could be obtained in one of those countries? Why insert yet another country into this already complicated mix? This meant that they had to fly a woman from Ukraine to Nepal for a lengthy stay to harvest the eggs. That’s more borders, more logistics, more flights, and more cost. Why did they have to come from Eastern Europe?

Because that’s where you can get “cheap white eggs.”

That was the term that was used. Cheap white eggs. When Tal said this, my jaw dropped, but I held out hope that this incredibly racially charged issue would then be explored a little bit.

Nope. They laughed. They repeated the phase and everyone laughed together. Tal and Amir wanted a white baby and were willing to incur the additional logistics, expense, and risk in order to get one. And the hosts gave an understanding laugh.

They laughed because all of us in the West know that of course the baby had to be white. Who would pay that much money only to end up with a black or brown child? After all, if that was an option, they wouldn’t have to do any of this!

The phrase “cheap white eggs” gets more sinister the longer you think about it. First, it implies that white eggs, and thus white people, are a premium. It also reveals that, although there is a desire for thrift, racial preferences trumps all. These aren’t ‘white cheap eggs,’ they are ‘cheap white eggs.’ The baby had to be white. Preferably cheap, but definitely white.

To be fair to Tal and Amir, the desire to have and raise a baby that is the same race as the parents is perfectly natural, especially when the parents are the same race as each other. All else being equal, why introduce the complicated dynamics of transracial parenting into an already complicated family situation? I get that.

But all isn’t equal and the phrase “cheap white eggs” captures it perfectly. Tal and Amir may have simply wanted a baby that was their same race, but in that process they confronted the global machinations of white racial superiority. Rather than a knowing laugh, perhaps some discussion of this was warranted?

This feels like eugenics, but oh well…

The selection of the egg donor had Tal and Amir discussing the various physical characteristics that they hoped their babies would have. While I’m sure healthy and happy were understood and thus unspoken, there was sure a lot of scrutiny about eye color, hair color, and even the shape of the nose of the egg donor. At one point, Amir sort of grapples with the notion that this feels a little unseemly. He even says the word “eugenics” when expressing his discomfort, a word that resonates in Tel Aviv more than anywhere. The issue of race surrounds everything in this story, but no one seems to notice.

The scrutiny of the egg donor brings the story face-to-face with one of the most thorny ethical issues in reproductive medicine today: designer babies. Our society is inching closer and closer to the days when technology may allow us to select and edit the physical and even mental characteristics of our children.

The only discussion of this that we got was one question, “And why do you want your children to be tall?” Amir responds, “Well because it’s just easier!” The story then moves on.

Get those white babies out of there!

Fast forward and we reach the point that the three babies are now born. Then, the unthinkable happens. A powerful earthquake strikes Nepal. Devastation is everywhere. No Power. No water. Pandemonium. Death and suffering on all sides.

Given that they are the subject of the podcast, it is not surprising that the narrative quickly turns to the heroic efforts to rescue the newly born babies, along with dozens of other babies of surrogacy, whom are trapped in harm’s way. What did surprise me is how nimbly that pivot was made. Death and destruction in Nepal, BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITE BABIES?

The story describes how the Israeli government moved mountains to get these new families to safety while, sometimes literally, stepping over the suffering of the Nepalese people around them. In a particularly galling moment, Amir, now a new father, is running desperately on the street looking for help and finds an American in uniform, a security guard for the American embassy. Amir begs for help, “Please, sir, we are Israeli citizens, and we need help!”

The American security officer, of course, snaps into action and rushes them to the safety of the Israeli embassy. Clearly, saving white foreigners is the highest priority even while bleeding and broken Nepalese still filled the streets.

Again, it’s not surprising that the podcasts covered the earthquake mostly in terms of how it affects the story they’re telling. But the earthquake affected more than just this family. It killed tens of thousands and sent millions even further into hopeless poverty. Couldn’t they have paid some respect to that fact? And of course any country’s government and embassy has their first priority to take care of their own citizens, but given the disparity in wealth and resources at play here…  oh nevermind.

A look at international surrogacy

The podcast spends its last 20 minutes grappling with the ethical issues surrounding surrogacy, specifically when the surrogates are from underdeveloped countries. To their credit, their investigation reveals some blatant exploitation, misrepresentations, and the risks these surrogates are subjected to.

However, to say that their analysis is cursory would be generous. Their biggest concern seems to be that, if governments ban surrogacy, it just pushes the whole thing underground because, “the demand will still be there.” [The demand for white babies, just to be clear.]

Only two possible government responses are compared: completely unregulated and unfettered surrogacy, or total ban. I’m no family lawyer, but it seems that a middle ground deserved at least some mention? Maybe a government could allow surrogacy but demand that surrogates’ rights be protected, their risk be minimized, and their compensation be reasonable?

That is more or less what happens in Western countries. Although laws vary by state in a very imperfect legal patchwork, surrogacy happens in the US every day. For the most part, the women that participate make their choice freely, are provided with medical and life insurance, and are well compensated. Most don’t consider them victims of exploitation. Are countries like India and Nepal not capable of anything like this?

When deciding whether to use an Indian surrogate, Tal and Amir grapple with the possibility of exploitation and then quickly satisfy their scruples by assuring themselves that she is receiving a life-changing amount of money that will allow her to lift herself and her family out of poverty and secure their future. They are paying some $12,500 for “surrogacy services” and that’s a lot of money in rural India.

Only later in the podcast do we find out that less than half of that $12,500 actually went to the surrogate.

Even if it is unfair to expect them to have done any diligence regarding their surrogate (hey, that’s what their paying the agency for, right?), it is hard not to juxtapose their apparent lack of interest in their own surrogate’s life and circumstances with the righteous anger we hear from them later when they find out that she was probably paid $5,000 and possibly much less. “It’s not enough!”

I quite agree.

The surrogacy agency defends this by explaining how many middlemen are involved in getting the surrogates from India to Nepal, vetting them, examining them, getting them across the border, etc. and then reminds us that they can’t be responsible for all the problems in the world.

Radiolab asks nothing further of them, but I wish they had. The surrogacy agency is who profits from all of this and has all the power in the situation. Here’s what I may have asked

  • Are you trying to deceive people like Tal and Amir by not making the actual surrogate payment amount more clear in the contract or invoices?
  • In addition to misleading clients, does concealing the amount of payments to surrogates actually hide the exploitation of poor women?
  • What does a surrogate get if she goes through the whole procedure, becomes pregnant, but then miscarries? [This is covered later, but it is asked of the surrogates, not the agency.]
  • How will the surrogate be involved in decision-making if, during the pregnancy, complications emerge that pit her health and well-being against that of the fetus?
  • Who looks out for the legal rights and interests of the surrogates throughout the procedure? Are they provided with independent representation? [They aren’t.] Why not?

Eventually, Radiolab does focus quite a bit of time on the surrogates themselves. They include additional interviews on their website. They seem to be genuinely concerned about the women who choose to do this, why they do so, and what they go through.

Given how unwilling they are to ask any tough questions of the agency, however, this concern starts to look like mere curiosity. This is a science podcast after all. Radiolab doesn’t have human rights or women’s rights or racial equality on their masthead. That’s not what they are about. Their mission is not social justice; it’s science journalism. But this story is about much more than just medical science, and they know it. They seem to try to tell the human side.

The messages we send

Radio lab runs on around 500 radio stations and boasts a million subscribers to their podcast. As such, they have a serious responsibility to consider the messages they send each week. I urge them to consider the messages they may have unintentionally sent in this podcast: foster kids aren’t worthy, white people are more valuable and its okay to laugh about that, and it is exploited women that should be questioned about why they are so easily exploited, not the powers that do the exploiting.

I’m sure they don’t really believe any of those things, but I cannot just give them a pass. For them, as for me, not challenging something is akin to normalizing it.

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