The Common Good

Fresh Air from Alabama

Sojomail - July 2, 2003

Quote of the Week Orrin Hatch: Pre-emptive strike on downloaders
Hearts & Minds Jim Wallis: A Breath of Fresh Air from Alabama
Funny Business New directions in Pooh studies
By the Numbers America's wealthy get richer
Politically Connect Halliburton: The interactive map
Soul Works Train haiku
Boomerang SojoMail readers hit reply
Eco News Confessions of a dangerous mine
Culture Watch All the presidents' books
Web Scene Jesuits address HIV-AIDS | Keeping an eye on the media | Organic gardening tips

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"If that's the only way, then I'm all for destroying their machines."

- U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, on one way to control people who illegally download music from the Internet

A Breath of Fresh Air from Alabama
by Jim Wallis

Jim WallisWhile the White House and many congressional Republicans seem to believe that the solution to every problem is to cut taxes, there's a breath of fresh air coming from Alabama. Gov. Bob Riley - a longtime conservative Republican - is proposing to raise taxes.

Alabama has long had one of the most regressive tax systems in the country. A family of four earning $4,600 a year has to pay taxes - a lower threshold than any other state. Property taxes are the lowest in the nation, benefiting primarily the timber industry in a state where 71% of the land is timber. State sales tax is 4%, but local governments are free to add to it. Many do; in some counties it's as high as 11%, even on groceries. People with incomes under $13,000 pay 10.9% of their income in taxes, while those who make over $229,000 pay 4%. How's that for fair?

This spring Alabama, like most of the 50 states, faces a severe budget crisis with a deficit of $700 million. Yet it is obligated by its constitution to have a balanced budget. So on May 19, newly inaugurated Gov. Riley convened a special session of the state legislature, and then delivered a speech to the people of the state. Citing the financial disaster the state faced, he said: "We cannot balance our budget with cuts alone, not unless we are willing to lay off thousands of teachers and cancel all extra-curricular activities, open prison doors and put convicted felons back on the streets, and force thousands of seniors out of nursing homes and take away their prescription drugs."

And the governor then went on to propose a tax reform package that included higher property taxes, higher income taxes on the wealthy, and no income taxes on the poorest. The plan raises the threshold to pay income tax for families of four to $17,000 - paying for it in part by raising corporate taxes on the timber industry.

He concluded by saying: "I have spent most of my life fighting higher taxes. While in Congress, I always voted against tax increases because I know the hardships they place on a family and on a business. No one wants to raise taxes - especially me. And I don't like being forced to do it now - but I believe we have no other choice."

Why the governor's change of heart? It turns out that he is deeply Christian, and realized that his faith had something to say about the budget and tax situation. He was recently quoted by CBS News: "According to our Christian ethic, we're supposed to love God, love each other, and help take care of our poor. And this is a step in the right direction."

One of his inspirations was a paper "An Argument for Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics," written by Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama tax law professor. Prof. Hamill took a sabbatical to earn a Master of Theological Studies degree, and in her thesis argued that Alabama's tax system violated moral principles. It was widely circulated, and came to the attention of the new governor.

The plan has been approved by the state legislature, and now goes to a statewide public referendum in early September. Alabama's churches, including the Methodists, Presbyterians, Southern Baptists, and Episcopalians, along with Catholic and Jewish leaders, support the changes. The holdouts are the religious right - led by the Christian Coalition. They, along with some state Republican leaders and business organizations, are leading the opposition.

I often hear people say that the Bible talks about individual charity and has nothing to say about government policies on budgets and tax cuts. Here's one Christian politician whose ideology has been altered by his faith, and who is now trying to do the right thing. Maybe some of his former Republican colleagues in Washington will get the message.

Read more commentary by Jim Wallis at:

SojoBlendDoes your church, office, or school serve fair trade coffee?
There's an appalling imbalance in the coffee industry today. While Folgers' sales topped $1 billion and executives at Folgers' parent company, Procter & Gamble, pocketed nearly $37 million in 2000, the average coffee farmer earns about $300 a year.

Something needs to change! Sojourners - in partnership with PuraVida - provides SojoBlend coffee (fair trade, organic, and shade grown). PuraVida guarantees coffee farmers a set price at least four times higher than the industry average, regardless of world price fluctuations. They also go one step further and contribute 100 percent of profits to grassroots ministries in Costa Rica.

  • Ask your pastor to promote justice while brewing the day's coffee at church events.
  • Ask your employer to wake up workers with coffee that makes a difference.
  • Ask your school to offer a responsible coffee option for all-night study sessions.

For more information, e-mail, call 800.714.7474 x235, or visit .

New directions in Pooh studies

Theologians make such great humorists. Go to:

America's wealthy get richer

The 400 wealthiest U.S. Taxpayers more than doubled their share of income from 1992-2000, while their tax burden plummeted, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service.

The data show...

*Average income of the 400 wealthiest taxpayers was almost $174 million in 2000

*That 2000 income average is nearly four times the 1992 level of $46.8 milion

*Their tax burden fell to 22.3% of their income, down from 26.4% in 1992 and a peak of 29.9% in 1995.

Source: The New York Times and Peronet Despeignes (Washington DC)

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Halliburton: The interactive map

Want to know where to find the 58 off-shore tax shelters used by Halliburton - the defense contractor whose fortunes became bloated with U.S. tax dollars under Dick Cheney's stewardship? Try the Cayman Islands (9 subsidiaries), Barbados, the Dutch Antilles, the Island of Jersey, Bahrain, Mauritius and tiny Lichtenstein. Mother Jones provides an on-line interactive map, complete with individual histories and a list of the company's key Defense Department contracts. According to the magazine, Halliburton's revenues rose 26% in one year after Cheney took over. Halliburton's overseas energy projects were subsidized by $3.3 billion in federal loans and guarantees. Cheney doubled the company's political contributions to $1.2 million. Federal investigators said the company "had the upper hand in the Pentagon, because it knew the process like the back of its hand." Go to:

Train haiku
by Armando Corbelle

reaching for Nirvana
on a speeding train
mindfulness on the Metro

*Note from author: I write this haiku to mark the occasion of seeing a passenger on Miami's Metrorail southbound, 8:24 am, June 26. An Asian man seated across from me was in a full lotus position at prayer as the train sped through several stations.

Web Development and Hosting with Sojourners!
Sojourners is considering a new service for our readers and partner organizations. If you (or your company, church, organization, university) is interested in developing a database-driven Web site on a tight budget, revamping your current site, need a reliable Web site host, or desire peace of mind from working with a like-minded organization, please e-mail Jeremiah at for more information.

SojoMail readers hit reply

Greg Collard writes from Quito, Ecuador:

Finally someone has the courage to say what's good about kids learning to work at responsible jobs! But his comments are not just for countries like Peru - they are for us in America as well.

Only in the last few decades in the US have children been insulated from learning responsible work. I call it "enforced immaturity." Not long ago three young teens in a small town in the US were given summer bag-boy jobs at the local grocery store. Some supposedly socially-conscious adult in town complained to the authorities, and the kids were told they could not work any more. When a news interviewer asked them what they would do instead, one of them grinned and said something like, "I guess we'll just hang around and do graffiti or trash mailboxes." He knew the difference between being responsible and being forced to be idle. Whoever complained about this so-called "child labor violation" should be deeply ashamed.

Thanks to David Batstone for his Peru-learned perspective. I know first-hand what he's talking about: I have lived in Ecuador for thirteen years.


Stewart Lane writes from Malie, Africa:

David Batstone is dead on track. One of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that parents have the right to choose how their children are educated. (The US compulsory schooling actually violates that provision.) For a poor family, the best available education may be work. Given the current state of primary schooling in Africa, for instance, most pupils learn very little that's of use to them. Not only that, but working instills in children a self-esteem that American children who grow up having been of no use to anyone often lack. Abuses and exploitation exist and need to be addressed, but a ban on child labour would be inappropriate and destructive in many Third World settings.


Anne-Marie Hislop writes from Davenport, Iowa:

David Batstone's article about kids who work is an important reminder that we must not be too quick to insist on imposing our western values on poorer nations. During my first trip to Egypt in 1998 with a group of seminary students and professors, we visited the Mena Carpet Factory in Giza. We were shown kids as young as 10 or 11 years sitting on boards on a concrete floor working on large looms. The children earned a very small amount of money and learned a skill. We were told that they were sent to regular school in the afternoons. That night a furious debate broke out in our group. Were these kids better off learning a trade or should they be in school all day? We had no clear answers, but began to assess our assumptions.

In late 1999 I returned to Egypt to do an internship with the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS). During my time there I learned that kids who work often provide 25% of their family's income, that the family could not subsist without their contribution. I also learned that the public schools in Cairo are so poor that even the poorest parents try to scrape together money for "supplemental textbooks" and tutors. Being realistic, CEOSS focuses its child labor efforts on improving the lot of working children. The effort is two fold. First, they work to get the kids out of the jobs that are dangerous or potentially deleterious to their health. Second, they find ways to bring both educational opportunities and recreation to the kids at the job site.

We do a disservice to working children and their families when we insist on that goal blindly without understanding the dire situation that puts children in the labor force prematurely.


Jane Pitz writes from Bangladesh:

Thank you for putting into words the reality of life for many children on this earth. What David Batstone found in Lima I saw in Bangladesh and felt at first, a rush of anger at the lack of opportunity to just "be a child." Then, after a month spent in villages and hostels and mission compounds, talking with teachers and ministers [and, interestingly enough, the American ambassador] my anger was modified by the truths which they spoke, truths which came from their experience in Bangladesh. And my "righteous anger" was quelled. It is too easy for us to make pronouncements and judgments.


Judy Neuhauser writes from Los Osos, California:

I grew up in the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Kids there start helping out in the family picking vegetables, gardening, milking, picking stones from the fields, and washing dishes from a very young age. By age 11 they are responsible members of the household and community, with a sense - not of fatigue - but of pride and self-worth. I look around me at modern suburbia and see kids bored out of their minds and with no sense of self-respect and their own abilities. Which is more positive?! "Child labor," when appropriate in task and time to the age of the child, can be a gift. The danger of child labor comes when conditions are not appropriate to a child's needs. And this is a case-by-case determination. You can't simply define a problem worldwide!


Carol Perrin writes from the United Kingdom:

I read your article regarding child labour in Peru with interest. However the comments from the buyer of a major retailer are to my mind disingenuous! My company has been supplying the UK retail trade for a number of years and here as in the US the retailers supposedly respect a code of ethics regarding this very important issue. However in my experience this is respect is in fact only passing the liability on to the supplier whilst screwing them down on the price. If there were any element of fair trade then by simply looking at the component costs it would be self evident that child labour and/or sweat shop labour was an essential component to them being able to achieve the cost price the retailer wants. Any retailer and I suppose ultimately any consumer who genuinely wants this practice to be outlawed should look more closely at the realities.


Arthur J. Bretnall Jr, President of Raritan Engineering, writes:

I was so struck with your commentary "Kids Who Work." I have flunked marriage, and so have two children in their thirties, five grandchildren, and a five year old son. My sensitivity to children and their needs in development is probably somewhat above the norm. I also run a manufacturing company. I would hate to see my children or grand children in the circumstances you describe, yet the realities of emerging societies and economies defy black and white solutions.


Jean Leith writes from North Wales, United Kingdom:

I whole heartedly endorse Tim Brooks sentiments in last week's SojoMail and would love to see a civil suit against George Bush pursued. I'd like to see a similar action in the UK, unless it could be argued that unbearable economic and political pressure had been exerted by the Bush Regime. Even then, I feel that Tony Blair should have sought a Referendum as to whether the UK should succumb to that pressure or face the consequences of Bush and Co.'s wrath.


Mike Swartz writes from Okemos, Michigan:

The quote from Rev. Stott in last week's SojoMail seems to give biblical correctness to the evangelicals which is absurd. Where in the Bible are we called to exclude vast groups from God's love and mercy for the evangelicals' political agenda? The quote sounds clever but is based on a premise that I am not willing to concede.


Linda Berard writes from Claremont, California:

Re: John Stott's quote, I would argue that the greatest tragedy in the church today is the culmination of a tragedy initiated by our church fathers 1700 years ago: just war thinking. This tragedy of faith is responsible for an increasing lack of moral seriousness among Christians - evangelical and liberal. Love and faith have been gutted of their transformative power. As a result, today we have a Christian president and countless church-going citizens rationalizing not only pre-emptive attacks against "enemy" nations, but even nuclear strikes just as a preventative measure! The church, indeed all humanity, is at the muddy end of a long slippery slope of "just war" thinking. How we respond to the nuclear challenge and the terrorist threat will determine if the mud is quicksand or simply our spiritual bottom from which we faithfully climb out.


Mary Lyn Villaume, US taxpayer and resident in Cairo, Egypt writes:

I want to agree with Tom Brooks of Spokane in taking up a class action suit against the key figures in the Bush administration for fraud, deception, misallocation of public funds etc. What's the next step?


Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Sojourners. Want to make your voice heard? Send Boomerang e-mails to the editor:

Confessions of a dangerous mine
by Josh Harkinson

Illegal gold-mining camps in Ghana provide impoverished locals with a means to earn some much-needed cash - but at a high environmental price. The mercury that small-scale miners use to purify gold threatens not only the miners' own health but also the health of whole communities, as mercury concentrations build up in waterways and fish. But local leaders still prefer the camps with thousands of illegal miners to the large mines run by corporations, which have legal rights to most of the ore deposits in the nation. The multinational mining companies employ few locals, bulldoze hills and trees, pollute groundwater, and destroy streams. The companies channel a small percentage of their profits toward community improvements such as schools, but not nearly enough to help tackle the nation's numerous social and environmental problems. Josh Harkinson reports from the gold fields of Ghana.

For the whole story, go to:

For more environmental news and humor, subscribe to Grist Magazine's free email service:

All the presidents' books

An unscientific Christian Science Monitor survey of the summer reading lists of 48 of America's college and university presidents from 20 states - a third of them women - may provide the impulse, perhaps even inspiration, to seek out more and better books to read this summer. To see the entire list, go to:

*Jesuits address HIV-AIDS

HIV-AIDS is the biggest threat to Africa since the slave trade. The African Jesuit Aids Network is doing excellent work in this area. Check them out at:

*Keeping an eye on the media

With the recent scandals at The New York Times, have you been wondering who watches the news watchdogs? Check out the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists that has a terrific Website:

*Organic gardening tips

Turn your garden into a lush, environmentally friendly paradise with this extensive list of organic gardening tips. Topics include herb gardens, pest control, compost heaps, landscaping, and more to keep your garden healthy and happy! Link to:

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