29 November 2007

The Burger King and his serfs

Those of you familiar with the United Methodist Church’s social justice programs may recall a church-endorsed boycott of Taco Bell a little while ago, based on that restaurant chain’s refusal to pay migrant tomato farm workers in Florida an extra penny per pound of tomatoes they harvested. Taco Bell (and McDonald’s) eventually relented, and are now paying that extra penny per pound in a manner that ensures the penny goes directly to the farm workers themselves.

To give you an idea of the workday of the average migrant tomato farm worker, here’s an excerpt from a recent NY Times column:

For 10 to 12 hours a day, they pick tomatoes by hand, earning a piece-rate of about 45 cents for every 32-pound bucket. During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes.

That’s $56 per day, assuming 125 buckets at 32 pounds per bucket. The article goes on to state that the increase of a penny per pound has translated into the workers’ now receiving about 77 cents per bucket, or $96.25 per day. [Note: I have not independently verified any of these figures; I’m merely doing the math based on the facts stated in the article.] So that’s the current situation – workers pick and haul two tons of tomatoes for a little less than $100 per day, or roughly $8 to $10 per hour. Under the prior system, the wages were roughly $4.67 to $5.60 per hour.

However, there’s a new twist. Burger King has adamantly refused to pay the extra penny per pound, and according to the article, “its refusal has encouraged tomato growers to cancel the deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.” In brief, “the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has threatened a fine of $100,000 for any grower who accepts an extra penny per pound for migrant wages.”

Can you imagine any other situation in America where companies would be punished for offering higher wages to their employees? And remember, this new fine structure would not merely maintain a current wage level already in place; rather, it would reverse the gains made in negotiations with Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

The article estimates that paying the additional penny per pound would cost Burger King only $250,000 a year. Let’s see how that stacks up against some other numbers. Burger King’s three principal shareholders are Bain Capital, the Texas Pacific Group, and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, each owning about 18% to 20% of BKC’s shares; thus, each holding is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $600 million. According to Forbes magazine, in 2006 Mr. Lloyd C. Blankfein, the Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, garnered an annual bonus of $27,243,500, bringing his total cash compensation to $43,867,924. Seems as though $250,000 wouldn’t exactly break the bank.

But wait, what about the fact that these migrant workers are, by and large, in this country illegally? If you watched last night’s GOP debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube (I admit I did not), you would have heard much about the supposed plague of illegal immigrants in our nation. In response to one issue, Mike Huckabee’s support of an Arkansas state scholarship program that did not discriminate against children of illegal immigrants, Mitt Romney said, “That’s not your money. That’s the taxpayers’ money!”

Now, stick with me here. Mr. Romney is upset that “taxpayers’ money” is being used to provide government services to illegal immigrant families, who are supposedly non-taxpayers. What about the migrant workers in Florida? Aren’t they also taxpayers? Remember that Florida has no state income tax; it relies on a statewide sales tax for its main revenue source. Mr. Romney, are you telling me that every migrant worker in Florida receives a tax-exempt card enabling him or her to make tax-free purchases in Florida? Or are you saying that if the employers of these workers don’t withhold taxes from their wages, it’s the fault of the workers themselves rather than the corporations that employ them?

Why am I picking on Mitt Romney rather than one of the other GOP candidates who love to rail against illegal immigrants? Because he was one of the founders and, until 1999, the CEO of Bain Capital. Yep, that Bain Capital, the same one that now owns about 19% of Burger King. For the record, Romney’s campaign states that he is "no longer involved in Bain Capital and their investment decisions," yet there’s a delicious irony in the fact that the private equity fund he formerly ran is making money by investing in a company that is profiting from the employment and underpayment of migrant workers (i.e., illegal immigrants) in the tomato fields of Florida. I wonder why that didn’t come up in last night’s debate?

I have a call in to the United Methodist Board of Church and Society to see whether the UMC has an official position on this topic, particularly with respect to any boycotts of Burger King. In the meantime, however, may I suggest you avoid Burger King in favor of other fast food (if you must eat fast food, that is). Also, if you’d like to contact BK directly to express your displeasure, their main phone number is 305.378.3000, and their Consumer Relations number is 305.378.3535, or if you’re inclined to write, you can address your comments to:

John W. Chidsey
Chief Executive Officer
Burger King Corporation
5505 Blue Lagoon Drive
Miami, FL 33126

20 November 2007

Too easy, but I couldn't resist

Today's puzzle: How many turkeys can you find in the following picture?

16 November 2007

Food and wine blogging

This segment will soon be known as “What I’m drinking right now”. FYI, that’s a 2005 chateau-bottled Bordeaux, Chateau Pierredon to be specific. I picked up a few of these in the $9 to $13 range recently, in response to my spouse’s desire to have more French wines on hand. We have been drinking a lot of California and Spanish reds of late, most of which tend to be somewhat fruit forward, and said spouse really wanted to get away from all that sweetness.

I was sitting around with friends Wednesday night, having opened a Cotes du Rhone (also 2005 vintage, I believe), and was surprised by how different it tasted vis-à-vis my recent wines. I had almost forgotten the pleasures of a dry, slightly tart, airy French red, and was quite pleased to re-discover them.

Now, I’m always one to rant and rave against the Parkerization of red wines (that being the high-alcohol, high-sugar, fruit-forward style preferred by so many winemakers these days that tends to yield those “scores” of 90), but of late I had only been doing that in the context of California wines. Having plunged back into French reds, I’m reminded of the joys of these wines. It’s almost as if they taste older (even though they’re not) – and not “older” as in a complex palate (although they often have those also), but “older” in terms of the overall flavor profile. Something just tastes more ancient about these “old-world” wines. It’s as if the wine is telling you, “Hey, nice work in California, but just to remind you, this is what folks have been drinking for millennia, and that many wine drinkers can’t be entirely wrong.”

Oh, and the food element of this entry – dinner tonight was a “pizza puttanesca”, a homemade pizza crust topped with leftover homemade puttanesca sauce, mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses. For those not familiar, puttanesca sauce (literally translated as “the way a whore would make it”, presumably because of the spicy ingredients) features tomatoes, olive oil, capers, peppers, and copious amounts of garlic. Let’s just say it works really well with the cheeses as a pizza topping. (And yes, I left out the semi-traditional anchovies…sorry, Greg.)

I’ve been considering adding a wine & food element to my blog for a while now, but I don’t want to be diligent enough about wine blogging to compete with the super-serious wine bloggers out there. So, dear readers, you’ll have to be content with an occasional mention of good affordable wines that I’m currently drinking – and if you want more, just speak up.

One final note – I did attend a Beaujolais Nouveau release party last night. The 2007 Nouveau is….well…another Nouveau. It was not remarkable, in either a good or a bad way, so I suppose there’s some hope there. Just don’t make me drink it at Thanksgiving.

Rain of God, part deux

So Wednesday night it rained in the Atlanta area. You may recall that Governor Sonny Perdue gathered a group of dignitaries on the Capitol lawn to pray for rain the day before, in an effort to relieve the severe drought conditions. That’s right, God answered Sonny’s prayers…with a third of an inch of rain. Not exactly enough to cure the drought, but it was enough to have Sonny proclaim the next day that God had answered the prayers of the faithful.

IMHO, if this is your god’s answer to a prayer to relieve a drought, it sounds to me like you need a more potent divine being. As an acquaintance said to me last night (wish I could take credit for this line myself), “It’s like God hit the snooze button”. In other words, it’s as if God said, “Oh right, there are those humans in Georgia wanting me to cure the drought. Let me just give them a few drops, hit the snooze button and roll over. After all, I’m pretty tired from trying to combat hunger, war, poverty, disease, and climate change.”

Are you listening, Sonny? Get yourself a better rain deity, because obviously your current one doesn’t quite have the meteorological pull you were hoping for…

13 November 2007

The rain of God

As many of you are already aware, the state of Georgia is facing a record drought that has caused significant declines in the levels of reservoirs that supply metropolitan Atlanta. The worst-case estimates of the remaining available water describe a scenario wherein Atlanta would run out of water in 80 days if the reservoirs are not replenished with sizeable amounts of rain.

Can you imagine a major U.S. metropolitan area actually running out of water? Can you imagine the civil unrest, the health and safety dilemmas? Clearly, this is a time for government to take serious action.

Enter Georgia’s Governor, Sonny Perdue. Today he is taking action to combat the water crisis. What is he doing, you ask? Is he instituting mandatory restrictions or implementing sweeping conservation measures? Yes, there are some significant restrictions now in place in the Atlanta area – most outdoor watering is banned (except for various commercial uses, including car washes, construction sites, and other activities essential to daily business. But now Perdue really means business, as described in this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, Perdue “has asked Georgians to pray for rain today, and at lunchtime will convene with various religious and political leaders on the steps of the state Capitol to seek divine intervention in the state's months-long drought.”

That’s right, Georgia has skipped right over the 20th and 19th Centuries, and has leapfrogged all the way back to the era of the Old Testament prophets (see, e.g., Elijah). So what’s wrong with this, you might ask? Why not invoke a little civic religion in an effort to rally the community together (it should be noted that, to Perdue’s credit, leaders of many religious traditions have been invited to join in today’s Capitol rain dance)?

Where do I start? There’s the bad theology, invoking a divine being’s mercy when you haven’t been doing a damn thing to take care of said divine being’s created works, otherwise known as environmental stewardship. How can you go to your god in prayer when you’ve spent the last decades passing legislation that allowed massive sprawl and reckless development throughout the metropolitan Atlanta area with complete disregard for its natural resources and the capacity of the creation to support the ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs? If you want to pray for something, pray for some wisdom to create smart growth policies. Pray for better mass transit to take some of those automobiles off of Atlanta’s roadways and thus reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they’re emitting, which just might help stem the tide of climate change and thus restore some equilibrium to the region’s weather patterns. Oh, and please pray to shut down the Southern Company’s hideous coal-fired power plants in the state, which are some of the worst sources of greenhouse gas pollution imaginable.

OK, let’s say that even if you disagree with the theology and you assume they’ll be repenting of their appalling lack of environmental stewardship and creation care, you might consider this to be harmless nonsense, albeit nonsense. But then, of course, there’s the whole church-state issue. Are you seriously telling me that you’re spending my state tax dollars to hold a rain dance on the state Capitol grounds? Because that’s what this is, a good old-fashioned rain dance, and I won’t be any happier about it if Governor Perdue dons a feather headdress and paints his face. It’s too bad Perdue isn’t eligible for re-election, because I could design a great campaign commercial for his opponents – something along the lines of Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and Perdue did a rain dance while Atlanta dried up. Just imagine the visuals.

This reminds me of the old joke about the guy whose house is in the path of oncoming floods. A rescue team comes along in a jeep, but he says, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Later the waters rise, and as his first floor is flooded a boat comes along to rescue him, but again he protests, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Finally as he’s stuck on his roof, the waters raging around him, a helicopter flies overhead and drops a ladder, but he stands firm in his faith, “No, I’m staying here, God will save me.” Naturally, the guy dies in the floodwaters, and when he enters heaven and meets God, he asks him, “Lord, I was faithful to you, I trusted you, why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “Save you? I sent you a jeep, I sent you a boat, I sent you a helicopter? What else did you want me to do?”

So that’s God’s message to Georgia – you could have repaired your water infrastructure, you could have controlled your urban sprawl, you could have taken better care of the creation and your natural resources. What else did you want me to do?

12 November 2007

Reverend Dollar and Bishop Moneybags

Senator Chuck Grassley of the good state of Iowa has apparently decided that ministers of the Christian gospel shouldn’t be getting rich off the donations of their flocks, at least not if they’re going to maintain tax-exempt status for their congregations. According to Sen. Grassley’s press release of November 6:

Sen. Chuck Grassley, ranking member of the Committee on Finance, has asked six media-based ministries for information regarding expenses, executive compensation, and amenities given to executives. The inquiry is part of Grassley’s long-standing interest in making sure tax-exempt organizations are accountable to donors.

"I’m following up on complaints from the public and news coverage regarding certain practices at six ministries," Grassley said. "The allegations involve governing boards that aren’t independent and allow generous salaries and housing allowances and amenities such as private jets and Rolls Royces. I don’t want to conclude that there’s a problem, but I have an obligation to donors and the taxpayers to find out more. People who donated should have their money spent as intended and in adherence with the tax code."

Two of the six ministries that are the subject of this inquiry are New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and World Changers Church International, both located in my own metropolitan Atlanta area. (Do check out the links, especially the intro from New Birth – I particularly liked their gym that they call the “Samson Fitness Center”.) Not surprisingly, the head honchos of these religious racketeering operations, I mean, um, faithful ministers of the faithful ministries, those being Bishop Eddie Long and Reverend Creflo Dollar (you just can’t make up a name like that) respectively, are objecting to this government intrusion into the free exercise of religion.

What these preachers are preaching is a perverted version of Christianity known as the “prosperity gospel”. In short, the message of the prosperity gospel is that God wants to bless you, and the more faithful you are in responding to God’s call on your life, the more God will bless you, both spiritually and materially. In other words, the more you give, the more you get, and material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing upon you.

It’s way too easy to take some shots at this message. Whether you start with the Book of James or the teaching of Jesus himself, you’ll quickly realize that the message of Jesus is clearly not one of Wealth = God’s Blessing and Approval. But there are plenty of folks out there who desperately want to believe that the prosperity gospel is true. New Birth claims a membership of 25,000, while World Changers claims 30,000. Oh, and New Birth has a 240-acre campus with a $50 million, 10,000-seat sanctuary, and a 22-seat Grumman jet, while World Changers has an $18 million, 8,500-seat World Dome and a 10-seat Gates Learjet.

Reverend Dollar defends his lavish lifestyle this way: "Without a doubt, my life is not average…but I'd like to say, just because it is excessive doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong."

Maybe that’s true; maybe his lifestyle is not wrong. Maybe when Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions, he really meant that the ruler should give them all to Rev. Dollar and Bishop Long, because they deserved them more than he did. And if you want to preach a religious message that says the faithful should get rich, I say this is America, go for it, that’s your Constitutional right (as wrong-headed as you might be). But you shouldn’t get the protection of nonprofit status under the federal tax laws to promulgate a business empire that makes you rich. That's not religious discrimination; that's simply equal treatment under the law.

06 November 2007

How to lose a “sure thing” election

Today being Election Day 2007 (not that I have any races in which to vote), I thought it would be a good time to lay out a vision of how the Democrats could once again manage to shoot themselves in their collective feet and wind up on their collective posteriors come Election Day 2008.

One would think that given approval ratings for President Bush in the low to mid 30% range and with over two-thirds of those polled saying the country is going in the “wrong direction”, the opposition party (Democratic) would have a pretty darn good shot at retaking the White House in 2008. In fact, one popular online trading/wagering site has a generic Democratic v. Republican matchup running at 62.0% Dem to 36.2% GOP. However, neither party will nominate a generic ticket; they will nominate specific candidates, and that’s where the Dems get into trouble.

Put simply, the problem is Hillary Clinton, love her or hate her. And most of the country does one or the other already. In fact, one survey showed that fully half of those surveyed said that they would NEVER vote for Senator Clinton for President. So, despite national polls showing wide preferences for a generic Democratic candidate over a generic Republican, the actual nominees have very different prospects.

Here’s the nightmare scenario, if you’re a Democrat. Clinton steamrolls her competition in the primaries, and even selects someone relatively “safe” as her running mate – e.g., General Wesley Clark, or Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN), or possibly even Gov. Bill Richardson. There’s really no way she’d choose Obama – why exacerbate potential prejudices by creating a “double minority” ticket? Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani fights his way to the Republican nomination, and chooses a running mate popular with the Christofascist wing of the party, such as Mike Huckabee, in an effort to shore up his support. Hyper-conservative voters who might have otherwise turned away from Giuliani now have two reasons to vote for him – they like Huckabee, and more importantly, they absolutely loathe the idea of the Clintons’ residing in the White House again. More than any anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative, the presence of Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic Presidential ticket will motivate the religious right to turn out in droves. That support gives Giuliani a few key states, locking up his electoral triumph in 2008.

Oh, and let’s not forget that a Clinton-Giuliani matchup actually brings New York into play. Talk about a Democratic nightmare – imagine trying to cobble together an electoral majority without NY’s 31 electors.

I’ll leave it to your imagination what would happen to the image of America abroad if President Giuliani enters office and decides that the biggest problem with the Bush-Cheney foreign policy was that it wasn’t aggressive enough against Iran. Just remember a year from now, you read here about how it could happen.