Roundtable: Insurance Profits, Urban Wal-Marts Topics: The Voting Rights Act being used in Mississippi to protect white voters from alleged discrimination; insurance companies enjoying record profits despite a year of unprecedented natural disasters; and Wal-Mart moves into urban areas and offers grants and free advertising to small businesses who may suffer when the retail giant comes to town. Guests: Economist Julianne Malveaux; Bob Meadows, writer for People Magazine; and Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University.

Roundtable: Insurance Profits, Urban Wal-Marts

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable: Residents of upscale New Orleans' neighborhoods say not in my backyard to FEMA trailers. And Wal-Mart to the rescue, kind of. Joining us today, from our headquarters in Washington, D.C., Julianne Malveaux, economist, author and president and CEO of Last Word Productions, Inc. From our New York bureau, Bob Meadows; he's a writer from People Magazine. And joining us via phone today from Winston-Salem, N.C., Nat Irvin, professor of future studies at Wake Forest University. He's also a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal.

All right, folks, let's talk first about an interesting story that hit the U.S.A. Today this week, and what we are seeing is the Justice Department now launching, what many are calling a landmark lawsuit against a county Democrat chairman in Mississippi. Here's the interesting twist here, Julianne Malveaux. It's about Voting Rights Act, but it's talking about alleged racial discrimination against whites. Many people are concerned that what the Bush administration may be doing is trying to cloud this area. What do you think?

Dr. JULIANNE MALVEAUX (Economist, President and CEO, Last Word Productions, Inc.): Well, clearly, the injustice department has consistently has been crowding the area of--clouding the area of voting rights. This particular story is almost amusing. When you look at the fact that you're talking about a city that's 80 percent black, and the mayor is white; so where's the racial discrimination?

But indeed, Ed, since the passage of the HAVA, Help America Vote Act, in the wake of the disastrous 2000 election, we've seen the kind of parsing where some of us will talk about voter protection--making sure that voters well treated--the Republican injustice department has talked about so-called voter integrity, or making sure that people are properly documented as voters, and so taking a principle of protecting voters and turning it on its head.

And this case looks like the same thing. You've got an aggressive African-American man who is playing hardball Democratic politics. I don't see any racism there, and it's just ironic that in Mississippi, where people died for the right of black people to vote, suddenly this injustice department is deciding that white people have been discriminated against.

GORDON: Well, Bob Meadows, the Justice Department says of this chairman, Ike Brown--and he's one of those old, grizzled veterans who's been around. We should note, he doesn't receive a salary for this. I mean, he's in it for the love of politics. The lawsuit suggests--and here are just some of the allegations--that Brown recruited black candidates to run in the county knowing that they did not meet state residency requirements, that he excluded whites from participating in county Democrat affairs by using such tactics as moving sites of meetings, that he attempted to prohibit whites from voting in Democratic primary elections by challenging their registrations and absentee ballots. We know that these are all tactics that were used against blacks.

Mr. BOB MEADOWS (Writer, People Magazine): They were and they are. Still, as one of his friends says, is that things that Ike is doing are things that are happening in other counties as well. These are very serious charges, and you know, Ed, Ike doesn't really seem to deny any of this. He says that he wants to only have Democrats who are going to stay Democrats, and they're not going to, all of the sudden, turn into Republicans, and I guess he means--obviously he's talking about white people doing that. I think these are serious charges. You do always have to look at it, well, this is Mississippi, of course, as Julianne pointed out, you know, where Medgar Evers was shot and Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, etc. But still, it's something that, well, if you're looking at in this county, you need to be looking at it in every single county of Mississippi.

GORDON: Nat Irvin, we should note that while he does not rebut specifics of the suit, he does suggest, as the article says here, a blanket dismissal by calling all of this bogus.

Professor NAT IRVIN (Future Studies, Wake Forest University): Well, that would be--that would certainly be what you would expect from Ike. I think that this whole suit is mostly about style rather than substance, although as Bob and Julianne noted, or certainly Bob noted, that he has pushed the line, and perhaps, maybe has even crossed the line when it comes to how he is going about trying to bring about what he sees as justice.

But, you know, I don't think, overall, that there is any movement to disenfranchise white voters in the South, which is what I think would be--I mean, that would be something serious, and for the Bush administration to get itself caught in trying to prosecute a guy, who, basically, is just a hardball politician--you know, plays hardball politics, has just, maybe crossed the line, I just--it just strikes me so odd that you would be using the Voting Rights Act to try to affirm the rights of whites to vote in this incident.

It just doesn't make much sense, especially when you think about, you know, the, I guess, this 2003 case with Tom Delay and how the Republicans went about trying to recreate opportunities for Republicans to be elected in several districts, you know, even managing to--you know, not only on a state level, but on a federal level, essentially to try to create an opportunity for Republicans to be elected to Congress. I mean, when you look at that in context, it seems like--and of course, to be fair, I should say that the Justice Department and the Bush administration did have questions about that, but it just puts--and finally, I guess, I'll just say that it puts the Bush administration in an odd position to pick Ike Brown as an example of how whites are being discriminated against.

Dr. MALVEAUX: It's selective prosecution, and nothing but. It's simple, selective prosecution. It's consistent with these people's notion of colorblindness and the level playing field. I mean, if, as Bob said, if you're going to go through county by county and prosecute everybody, I would warrant that there'd be more white folks you're prosecuting than this lone, you know, pitbull of an African-American political activist.

GORDON: But that doesn't excuse the point if in fact it's true, Julianne.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, if in fact it's, but it sounds like this guy is just doing hardball politics. But more interestingly, how much energy has this injustice department--I will continue to use the term injustice because, I mean, you know, here they're anti-affirmative action--but they can find this black man to prosecute, but how much energy have they put into keeping voters away from the polls. Why weren't they, you know, in St. Louis when people snaked around hours in line, in Ohio where polling places were closed? This is where you need to look and not at this little bitty town in Mississippi. I'm not excusing anything. If the brother's wrong, he's wrong. But it seems to me that the bigger wrong is the selective prosecution of this injustice department.

GORDON: Well, but as you know, Julianne, sometimes it's easier to make a statement in a small town like this, and they just want to set the precedent, and obviously, that's what they're attempting to do. But Bob Meadows, here's the interesting point. This was the kind of tactic we saw early on in the Bush administration when Mr. Ashcroft was moving this. We saw it kind of go away after he stepped away. Are we seeing now this last gasp of the Bush administration saying, let us teach you something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, considering, all that they have taught us thus far, like war is good and all that kind of thing, this is actually, I guess, is probably in line as getting back to it. And it's interesting you bring that up, because, of course, one of the things that Ike said was the reason he got so riled up was because of the 2000 election, as Julianne pointed out, where there were all these injustices going on, and people couldn't actually get to the polls and the miscount and all that kind of stuff. So here's one more lesson.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention--and Julianne, I'll ask you to put your economist hat on for me here--where we see--this is the headline from the Los Angeles Times: “Insurers Saw Record Gains in Year of Catastrophic Loss,” and what we are finding out is that the insurance industry made a almost 45 billion dollar profit last year, even after accounting for all the claims of policy holders wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and other big storms of 2005. Here's what executives described in terms of the profit, which was 18.7, almost 19, percent. They said it was simply a fluke.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, I'd like to be a stakeholder in one of those flukes, you know. It's fascinating, Ed, that part of the contribution to the profit has certainly been the hardball that has been played with Katrina survivors, where the--you know, the calculus of was it flood or hurricane or--I mean, I think--or wind that damaged people's homes, and people have to go back and prove that all these things do happen at the same time. But people are going to have to go back, are being challenged to go back, and prove was it flood, hurricane or wind in order to get their money. All they know is that their house is messed up.

GORDON: Right. So your policy may have covered you, for instance, for flood damage, but they may have said, well, the wind caused this damage or vice versa.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Precisely. And so it seems that this hardball is a direct contributor this 18.7 percent, you know, profit. It's an amazing--it, literally, is an amazing rate of return, and at the same time, these insurance companies are talking about getting out of disaster relief, out of catastrophic coverage, which is absurd. So it's sort of like, let's take the money and run. They come into communities, you know, basically wooing communities, and now they want to go out.

This really is a--it's a cry for more regulation, and I know a lot of people don't like regulation, but clearly, this is an industry that provides a public good, and as John Garamendi from California, who's a very good, progressive insurance commissioner, says, you know, this--it's time, you know, it's really time to regulate this. Policyholders are left holding the bag. You know, insurance companies, clearly, are there to make a profit, but this rate of return is extraordinarily high.

GORDON: Nat Irvin, put this next to what we saw earlier in the year and that's the oil companies that talked about record profit that they found after Hurricane Katrina. It does leave you a bit vexed sometimes.

Prof. IRVIN: It does, Ed, and you know, and most people are just going to go look at, going to look at this and say, how in the world? And of course, the whole argument when the oil company executives went before Congress was that, look, we're not able to make a profit. We're--our investments are huge, that our refinery costs are up and that, you know, we can't find any new places to drill oil and, you know, listen we're barely making it here. And, of course, the next day, or the next quarter, you've got these, I don't remember exactly what the profit numbers were, but they were extraordinary. And then, second, you see then, not only were the profits extraordinary, but then the price of oil, the price of gas was going up.

And, you know, people are starting to put some things together and this insurance company, the fact that the insurance companies are making so much money when people who, thousands of people lost their homes, as Julianne said, and then you have to have a lawyer to be able to exact a claim. And many people have not been able to get any justice at all. And what this fits into is part of what, and I don't want to blame the Bush Administration for it, but it is…

Dr. MALVEAUX: Oh, go ahead.

Prof. IRVIN: …the terminology of the ownership society. You see people losing their pensions, you see companies--everything being shifted towards the individual, in other words, the responsibility of the individual. You not only have to figure out--you have to be--everything being directed toward single payer--individuals being responsible for every aspect of their lives. And you don't look for relief, even in this instance, apparently, not even from the government.

GORDON: All right, Bob, let me put on my USA capitalist hat…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: …and that simply says that I'm in business to make a profit and make money. And the fact that I'm in the disaster business shouldn't prevent me from making money.

Mr. MEADOWS: Absolutely, I completely agree with you, you are in business to make money, as we all are. The--as Nat just said though, the thing that's most upsetting about this is, okay you're making profits, great. Don't then raise your rates to exorbitant levels where we can't afford. Don't scale back your coverage so that I'm paying more and getting less. Sure, go ahead and make your money, but keep your service up, don't backslide.

GORDON: All right, Julianne Malveaux…

Dr. MALVEAUX: You know the question is…

GORDON: …isn't that the American way though? I hate to say it, but isn't that the American way?

Mr. MEADOWS: Oh, no.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well, you know what? The point is that, I mean, profit maximization certainly is at the basis of U.S. capitalism, okay, now I've said it. Ugh! But the fact…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MALVEAUX: …you know, but the fact is that you could also contain profits and that's why some industries are regulated. That's why we have regulation in telecommunications industries, because we believe that people have a right to have a telephone. You provide telephone service for the poor. That's why you have regulation with things like oil, because, basically, people need energy. And what insurance companies are signaling, frankly, is that there needs to be more regulation in that industry. The--if you liken capitalism to a wolf, Ed, then we have to look at government or citizen activists as dentists, to try to file the wolf's teeth down. Because, you know, predatory capitalism…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MALVEAUX: …literally, I mean…

Prof. IRVIN: Oh, that could be good.

Dr. MALVEAUX: …extraordinary profits at the expense of the people.

GORDON: All right, let's bring the good old mom, apple pie, flag-waving Wal-Mart into this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: What we're hearing from Wal-Mart is--this week--that they're suggesting that they're going to bring 50 stores into distressed areas and help small businesses around those locations thrive. Because what they've been fighting and facing is that mom-and-pop operations suggest that when Wal-Mart comes into the neighborhood they are eliminated. So, Wal-Mart is suggesting that they are going to develop grants for nearby companies and give them free in-store advertising as part of a new economic development plan. And that they'll also hold seminars for minority and female-owned businesses, and show them how to become Wal-Mart suppliers. Is this altruism, Bob Meadows, or is this simply Wal-Mart trying to evade the fight?

Mr. MEADOWS: Well, if it is, you know, either way--either way I'm glad that they're coming into these neighborhoods and I'm glad that their doing these types of things. I would hate it, you know, I hope they set one up right in, you know, two or three down in Detroit. I'm hoping that's what happens.

Is it altruism? You know, again Wal-Mart's in the business to make money. They hired Andrew Young earlier this year, a PR stroke, they're doing this PR stroke, great. You know, they've been accused of unfair labor practices; but again, I just want to look at--for me, the bottom line is that they're coming into these communities, they say they're going to do all this stuff--as long as they do it, then I have no problem with it.

GORDON: Nat Irvin, we had Andy Young on when the announcement was made, and quite frankly he said, look, for those of us who live in suburbs and have a Wal-Mart down the street and can get in our fancy cars and drive to wherever we want, it's easy for us to say that they're carpet baggers and coming in. But for people who don't have it, be quiet and let them get in there and stabilize this community.

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah and he's absolutely right, too. Easy for me to say, or easy for--as you pointed out, easy to make judgments about Wal-Mart when you don't have, you know--but when you're in the situation where you don't have opportunities, one for employment, or two to access--to get goods at a reasonable market, then what do you say to folks like that?

I'm absolutely happy that Wal-Mart is making this move and I think that, as it, you know, as this development evolves, there will be a lot of input from a lot of community people who will, frankly, I think, help Wal-Mart to deal with some of it's other issues about how much it pays, is it able to provide a living wage and healthcare benefits--some of the practices that it's been criticized for from some of the other sectors of our economy.

But I think this is not only smart, this is not only good for the community, it's a smart business sense. Wal-Mart understands that roughly, and this is a whole black community, you know, but you're looking at a trillion dollars in a couple years of buying power that comes from the black community alone. And then, when you start to think about, in terms of the employment, where will the growth come from in terms of people who can actually work, that also comes from minority communities.

So they're both smart from a business standpoint, they're not saying from, in terms of their image, it does something for them. And I think they're also going to get something from listening to what community people have to say about how do you help develop small businesses, which I hope continue to grow within the minority communities.

Dr. MALVEAUX: You know, let me just rain on this parade…

GORDON: Julianne, real quick cause we've only got about a minute left, but what about the long term of this, Julianne?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MALVEAUX: Well that's, you know, my brothers are sitting here with pom-poms for Wal-Mart and let's just be clear. Not, it's not about Wal-Mart being “bad,” it's about the terms and conditions of work for Wal-Mart. They're paying less then competitors are paying. They are running small business out of areas where they settle. Certainly they're blighted areas here in Washington, D.C., and New York, all over the country, that could benefit from the--from the effects of having a vibrant store there. But we have to look at the terms and conditions that they come to communities. People need to be paid fairly, they need health insurance. You're running around doing seminars, on one hand, and paying people $9 an hour on the other, is just untenable. And so we need to just, you know, let's step back a bit and make sure that activists are involved, make sure that zoning is fair, make sure that healthcare is offered, which isn't offered to everyone at Wal-Mart…

Prof. IRVIN: Yeah.

Dr. MALVEAUX: …right now. Make sure that there are full time jobs and not part time. Remember, these are the people who locked immigrants up to keep them from leaving the store.

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

Dr. MALVEAUX: So, you know, let's not get too happy. Here's the issue, can you have economic development and economic justice at the same time?

Prof. IRVIN: Sure, you can.

Dr. MALVEAUX: That's a question. Well, let's see.

GORDON: All right. All right. Well, we'll have to see if, in fact, that is the case, and if I can quote the great American poet Don King, only in America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORDON: Julianne Malveaux, Bob Meadows and Nat Irvin, thanks, so much. Appreciate it.

Dr. MALVEAUX: Thanks, Ed.

Prof. IRVIN: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. MEADOWS: Thank you, Ed.

GORDON: Up next on NEWS AND NOTES, NPR senior correspondent Ron Williams wraps up this very busy week in Washington with his panel of political insiders on our weekly installment of “Political Corner.”

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