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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Signs of Progress in Reducing Carbon Emissions

On Earth Day, the anti-climate change agreement that had been hammered out in Paris back in December was officially signed by representatives of 175 countries.

There’s no doubt about the importance of the Paris Agreement priorities.  We keep hearing about climate change and its dramatic consequences.  On the face of it, this seems to be an overwhelming situation and is full of challenges and bad press.  For instance, we hear that car companies in Germany – no less – have cheated in their reports of gas mileage.  We hear horror stories about the poor people in China who go around the streets of Beijing wearing face masks to filter out the extreme air pollution.  We hear that the Arctic ice cap is melting rapidly.

Thus, on the face of it, it seems that nothing good is happening.  Clearly there is lots to do to rectify these conditions.  But indicators we consulted from the International Energy Agency show that some trends are headed in the right direction.  Yes, there’s a long way to go in counteracting climate change, but there is progress. [1]

Lower Emissions in Several Parts of the World
Carbon dioxide emissions are already drifting lower in industrialized regions.  For the 34 major industrialized countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), total emissions peaked in 2005 and by 2013, the latest available, they had fallen 6.1%, overall.  In the U.S., emissions are down 10.2% in that timeframe, and in Europe, 11.7%.  Granted, there is more to do toward achieving the Paris Climate Change agreement goals.  But this is certainly a start.  We’ll come back with a couple of examples shortly.

Emissions are, though, still rising in many of the world’s regions.  China and India are two obvious examples, with CO2 output up 67.5% in China from 2005 to 2013, and 72% in India.  Emissions in Africa are up 25.3%.

Even in these places, there are some signs of improvement.  In both China and India, the increase in emissions is evidently tied to economic growth, which has been quite rapid.  But notably, emissions have increased by less than GDP.  In China, GDP was up at a 10% average pace from 2005 to 2013, while emissions increased at “only” a 6.7% rate.  Two positive developments are producing the slower rise in emissions:  energy usage is also expanding less than GDP and the energy that’s being used produces somewhat less emissions over time.  In India, GDP grew at a 7.5% rate, while emissions rose at 7.0% pace.  There, energy use is also growing more slowly than GDP, although the specific kinds of energy used there are still producing increasing amounts of CO2.

By contrast in Europe and the U.S., the decline in emissions is resulting from declines in energy use and declines in the CO2 content of the energy used.  So there’s a shift toward “cleaner” energy.  Here is a little bit about the efforts of two major U.S. companies to reduce their own carbon footprints.

Specific Companies Take Specific Actions
General Electric reduced its energy use by almost 19% from 2004 to 2014.[2]  For carbon emissions, companies’ carbon footprints are often characterized as emissions per dollar of revenue, and over that ten-year period, GE cut down that measure from 59 metric tons per million dollars of revenue to 33.9 metric tons.  Among other projects, it has redesigned the engines it makes for Boeing aircraft, and it has restructured operations at a power plant in Greenville, South Carolina, by simply installing real-time sensors and instituting a measuring system.  Its plans going forward are directly tied to the 2-degree-Celsius formula emphasized in the Paris agreement

American Airlines has found several interesting ways of reducing fuel consumption, obviously the main source of any airline’s carbon emissions.[3]  They’ve learned they can taxi around airports using just one engine.  They’ve learned they can reduce the weight of a flight meaningfully by switching from paper flight plans to using iPads and also having flight attendants use small Samsung tablets instead of a 5-pound paper instruction manual on the planes.  Finally, they attached “winglets” to the tips of the wings of 240 of American’s planes, improving the planes’ “lift”; this change alone saves 700,000 metric tons of carbon emissions a year.

Low-Carbon Investment Strategies
In addition, from a different perspective, we note with considerable interest that companies with low carbon emissions or small carbon footprints constitute a growing theme for investors.  Standard & Poor’s has even devised indexes of stocks for low-carbon-emissions companies and fossil-fuel-free companies.[4]  The “S&P 500 Carbon Efficient Index” has been marginally stronger than the full S&P 500 index over most time periods in the last several years.  Since the beginning of 2012, an index of fossil-fuel-free companies has outrun the overall market by 5%.  While that’s not a huge difference, it does suggest that investors view lower-energy or clean-energy companies in a favorable light.

Here are two examples of that investment strategy.  At that Paris Climate Change conference, the New York State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, announced that the New York State Common Retirement Fund would invest $2 billion in a fund created by Goldman Sachs which emphasizes companies with small carbon footprints.  The Common Retirement Fund is the pension fund for New York State employees and is said to be the country’s third largest pension fund.[5]  Similarly, the non-profit McKnight Foundation, with a total of $2.1 billion in assets, can perhaps be identified as a pioneer here; back in 2014, it invested $100 million in a broad-based carbon-efficient fund managed by Mellon Capital.[6]

The distinction for these two investment initiatives is that they are active in-vestment strategies.  Previously, funds that wanted to emphasize climate and environment concerns generally used a di-vestment strategy, eliminating coal and possibly oil companies from their portfolios.  But selling these shares has had little impact because those companies are so large that having a few shareholders sell out doesn’t mean much.  Instead, enlisting fund managers to devise investment strategies for companies that operate using desirable practices makes a more positive, constructive statement.[7]

Thus, there are tangible efforts at individual investor and company levels that encourage and support the implementation of carbon reduction actions.  Environmental issues have the advantage that they are clearly measurable, so we can see progress.  As we said at the outset, there is a lot to do, but there is progress.


[1] International Energy Agency.  CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion Highlights (2015 Edition).  All the country data cited comes from Chapter 6, “Summary Tables”.

[3]  American Airlines. .  Accessed May 2, 2016.

[4]  Standard & Poor’s Indices.  An option on this page permits the comparison with the S&P 500; those daily data can all be downloaded for as much as the last 10 years.  Other pages include the Fossil-Fuel Free Index and similar indicators.  Accessed April 29, 2016.

[5]  Tina Rosenberg.  “An Investment Strategy to Save the Planet,” The New York Times. “Fixes” blog.  January 5, 2016. .  Accessed April 30, 2016.

[6] Marc Gunther.  “McKnight Foundation: Investing for climate Impact,” Nonprofit Chronicles, April 24, 2016.   Accessed April 29, 2016.

[7] Tina Rosenberg.  Op. cit.

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Friday, February 26, 2016

The FBI versus Apple: A Catch-22

We knew this would probably happen sometime – a court fight over smartphone security issues.  Sure enough, the FBI is hard at it with Apple.  The terrorists in San Bernardino, California, back in December were using an iPhone.  The FBI wants Apple to hack the phone and Apple is saying no.  That would compromise one of the main features of those phones and set a most unfortunate precedent.  However, law enforcement officials of all kinds are anxious for resolution because all kinds of criminals use smartphones, which at present can be “tapped” only with great legal and technical difficulty.

We do think this issue is worthy of discussion.  It’s obviously controversial for Apple to even have objected at this point in time, since the immediate cause is a domestic terrorist attack in which 14 people were killed.  And it’s easy to say, “but of course Apple should provide the mechanism for opening the phone’s contents.”  But Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, does have a point that this is precedent-setting and the way to deal with it should be discussed openly.

6 Weeks' Worth of Data Locked in the Phone
This San Bernardino event is a great test-case.  iPhones are secure to the owner/user.  They can be backed up to a storage area on a “cloud”.  Data that are transferred to the cloud can be obtained by investigators, and indeed, the FBI has already obtained those data from terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook’s account.  However, the attack took place on December 2, and Farook had not backed up the phone since October 19.  So plenty of fresh and helpful information was likely recorded on the phone during the last six weeks just before the attack: who Farook’s associates and ISIS connections might be, whether other projects similar to his are being planned, and so on.  The phone itself is owned by San Bernardino County, which employed Farook; those officials, the owners, think it’s fine for the FBI to inspect the phone’s contents.

But Apple Worries about Construction of a "Backdoor"
Apple, through a public statement by its Chairman Tim Cook and also in an official court filing, is objecting to unlocking the phone.  The company argues that the work it would do to enable decryption of the contents of an iPhone could be applied to any iPhone, thereby potentially eroding the extraordinary security provisions on all iPhones.  As it stands, the data on any given iPhone are associated with the owner’s “Unique ID”.  The FBI is wanting Apple to devise a workaround to get to the data without the ID.  This is known in the jargon as a “backdoor”.  Apple is, quite logically, very concerned about creating such a backdoor technology.  Conceivably, then, any iPhone a thief or other criminal got hold of could be hacked.

We were watching a Fox News program late last week in which a retired Army colonel was being interviewed on this issue.  The colonel said something like, “this is a national security issue and of course Apple needs to develop this decryption software!”  The news anchor conducting the interview instantly blurted out, “but that’s why I have an iPhone – precisely because it can’t be decrypted by anyone else.”

FBI Does See the Importance of the Phone's Security
FBI Director James Comey initially sounded impatient with Apple, claiming that Apple’s defense, spontaneously described by the anchor in that newscast, is based on marketing and reputation, not on the technology.  Apple and many of its customers would not agree; the security of the phone is a basic characteristic of the product. Given that there are in fact some 825 million iPhones around the world, their interests would seem a worthy consideration.  And evidently, Mr. Comey himself has come to a deeper understanding of what he was asking of Apple.  Later, on February 25, he testified before the House Intelligence Committee that this encryption issue is “the hardest question I’ve seen in government.”[1]

Addressing the Law Enforcement Need Now
There is legal precedent, of course, for telecommunications companies to provide call data to law enforcement agencies.  In 1994, Congress passed the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act which requires carriers to build surveillance capability into their networks.[2]  So AT&T and Verizon automatically provide whatever such “wiretap” access is called for in court orders; in the last half of 2015, there were more than a quarter million such requests from all kinds of law enforcement agencies in both criminal and civil proceedings.  In the first half of last year, 998 requests came specifically for national security purposes.  Sprint also has had many thousands of such data requests.  Apple in fact does address these requests too.  It reports that it had 971 law enforcement requests for “account data” stored on iCloud or iTunes accounts in the first half of last year, and it responded to 81% of them.  In addition, it had 499 requests based on national security needs.

The difference is evidently that the information the carriers provide is only phone numbers and text message connections.  According to The Wall Street Journal, it “can’t provide access to . . . message content or calls made over mobile apps such as WhatsApp, Skype or the blue iMessages sent between two iPhones.[3]

Formal Legislation Likely Needed
Regardless of the specific outcome of the San Bernardino case itself, it is likely to add to already building momentum for formal legislation on this situation; that is, there should be some general rules so people who own phones can know what to expect, and representatives of the people should make those rules.  Indeed, the Chairman of AT&T Randall Stephenson this week noted, “The rapid pace of technological innovation is challenging laws crafted in a very different era for totally different, and much less complex situations.  Recent developments, in particular, bring home the need for legal clarity.”  And the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee is working on a bill that would create criminal penalties for companies that don’t comply with court orders to decipher encrypted communications.  It remains to be seen what the specific language of such a law might require.[4]

So, most immediately, the dilemma remains.  More, in the San Bernardino situation, there is considerable irony.  We noted that the county government owns the phone; Farook was only the user of that phone.  That government is in possession of software called “mobile device management” that would have enabled the county to make provision for the FBI to open the phone.  But Farook’s department did not sign up for it to be installed on their inspectors’ phones.[5]  Another irony is that, even as the federal government is fighting for the right to get Farook’s phone decrypted, the federal government provides grants to tech developers to create more encryption software.[6]

A clear summation of this Catch-22 was given last spring by a former CEO of Sprint at a cybersecurity conference: “Which CEO is more patriotic, the one who provides all the information the government requests to help catch a criminal or prevent a terrorist attack?  Or the CEO whose company creates tools that make it difficult for law enforcement . . .  to acquire a customer’s information, believing that protecting civil liberties is a higher calling?”[7]

+ + + + + +
We don’t cite all the general sources about this story, which are plentiful; most of our material is from various articles in The Wall Street Journal, beginning right after the federal court order to Apple was made public on February 16.  We also sourced The Economist magazine and, as well as Apple CEO Chairman Tim Cook's "A Message to Our Customers", a letter dated February 16 and found on Apple's homepage at

The footnotes cover specific aspects and quotes.

[1] Devlin Barrett.  “FBI Chief Says Finding Right Balance on Encryption Is ‘Hardest Question’.  The Wall Street Journal. February 25, 2016.

[2] Ryan Knutson.  “Why Encryption Fight Divides AT&T and Apple”.  The Wall Street Journal.  February 18, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Associated Press.  “Common software would have allowed FBI to unlock San Bernardino shooter’s phone.”  Fox News. February 22, 2016.

[6] Damian Paletta.  “How the U.S. Fights Encryption – and Also Helps Develop It”.  The Wall Street Journal.  February 22, 2016.

[7] Ryan Knutson. Op. cit.

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Monday, February 08, 2016

A Lenten Task: Write Your Will

Many people give up something for Lent.  Others might approach the season differently: they take on some special task or duty during this time of penance and meditation.  What we present here takes the latter tack; our idea is hardly original, but it’s still important and bears repeating.  We propose that, if you do not have a Will and/or a Health Care Proxy, you take on the crucial lifetime duty of composing these documents.  That surely contributes to a worthy observance of Lent

We’re currently involved as the proposed executor of an estate and we’re learning a great deal almost every day about how the process works in New York State.  Our commentary here is not meant to outline this but to highlight for you a few things that have struck us as surprising.  We also include a few resources that may help.  In addition, some churches and other community groups offer classes in this project, and we urge you to take advantage of these whenever they might take place.

Resources for Writing a Will
Obviously, you can enlist a lawyer to help you write a will.  But for some simple wills, there are other ways.  Some time ago, Debbie Loeb of the Farm’s Hodgepodge page gave some relevant references.  You can see them here:   In particular, she mentions a book published by Nolo; that book is now (2014 edition) titled Quick & Legal Will Book ($24.99).  It includes links to downloadable forms for making a will.  Among Debbie’s other sources, the forms on the site cost $29.95, and the widely advertised services appear to begin at $69.  Clearly there are other books and websites, including Wills and Trusts Kit for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wills and Estates.  While each of those is part of a popular series, they were published in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and with law changes, newer books might be better choices.  Look on and for their full inventories.  While we have a lawyer, we’re also into the Quick & Legal Will Book for ourselves; it – and others, we presume – are careful to explain the conditions under which one should actually consult a lawyer rather than using books or on-line forms.

Even if you already have a will, it perhaps is years old and may well need to be updated.  Indeed, this last point, an old will, is where we started in our current estate venture, with a 35-year-old instrument.  Fortunately, most of it still applies.  But it is the case that the decedent’s father is named as a substitute or “successor” executor, and he passed away 20 years ago.   In addition, the age of this will means that in our local Surrogate’s Court, extra documentation is necessary for authentication.  Witnesses to the will may need to give sworn statements that they know the decedent; in one case, it is the secretary to the lawyer who drew up the will who is furnishing some of this back-up material the Court is requiring.  This court filing process itself could thus be much easier if the will had been kept up to date.  A word to the wise here.

Be sure to keep a will in an accessible place that someone knows about.  While it might sound logical to put it in a safe deposit box, it could then become tricky to get access to it.  We did find out, though, that in New York State, we could get a court order to open a box and inventory the contents; in fact, our laws enable a survivor to do that to look right away for a will, a life insurance policy and a cemetery deed.  And the court order we used was obtained within hours of our requesting it, so if it is needed immediately on someone’s passing, that might be manageable.  In a different example, a friend we knew some years ago simply stashed some of these kinds of papers in a box on the floor of her bedroom closet; the box was labeled “for Ruth”, her niece who would manage affairs upon her passing.  That worked fine in the otherwise tense days right after that woman’s death.

Beneficiaries on Bank Accounts?  In fact . . .
We lately also learned another fact about managing assets and leaving them to people.  Bank accounts and some securities accounts, especially IRA’s, can have beneficiaries.  In this case, the assets go immediately to the beneficiary upon the person’s death.  They do not become part of the estate, so the beneficiary gets use of them right away.  We had long known this about insurance policies, but it’s true for other assets, and in fact in some cases, it is legally required to name a beneficiary.  This is a similar notion to owning real estate “with rights of survivorship”, so the property immediately becomes fully owned by the relevant joint owner.  So visit your bank or securities account manager and arrange for this.  It greatly simplifies the transfer process, and that may help a lot if your survivors need funds before an estate can be settled.

Health-Care Proxy
Another document that’s vital is a Health Care Proxy/Living Will.  In New York State, these are now combined into a single document.  Perhaps they are in your state as well.  The need for this is clear.  If you can’t speak for yourself, how do you let people know if and when it’s all right with you to let you go?  Here’s a Hodgepodge commentary about this issue, actually written by a hospice chaplain:  It’s especially hard to think about these things, particularly in the prime of life.  But doing so can help a lot.  This document, too, needs to be in an accessible place; our own lawyer advised giving copies to, obviously, the proxy person themselves and to the alternate and also to our primary care physician.  Carry a copy in your purse – maybe a man could have one on a flash drive he carries in a pocket? – and tack a copy to your refrigerator door, a place where, we understand, emergency personnel often look.

So, yes, all this is hard to think about.  But you do everyone a favor and give yourself peace of mind if you have an updated will.  And you help everyone around you by outlining your own preferences in case there is a bad time in your life when discussions of life and death are required, and when, by definition, everyone is terribly upset.  Important Lenten observances, these are, indeed.  Good luck with them.

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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Consumers' Sense of Inflation

Some weeks ago, at lunch with some friends, one of them was complaining about the absence this year of a cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits.  Indeed, that feels irritating, and, more, for people who have their Medicare Part D premiums deducted from their checks, their net benefit will actually go down a little.

The complainer at our lunch table further asserted that the government “manages” the consumer price index so it can avoid the benefit increase.  Fortunately, the meal-time conversation then shifted to more pleasant topics, but her comments registered with me as something to talk about here.  This is especially the case because it seems people also have a sense that there’s more inflation in general than the official numbers seem to show, making them believe that the purchasing power of whatever their income, whether retirement benefits or actual earnings from jobs, is being squeezed.  Maybe it is . . . .

In the 12-months through November, the consumer price index (CPI) was up a mere 0.5%.  And in the period ended in September, which determines the following January’s Social Security “cost of living” increase, the CPI was flat: it did not increase.  And as our accompanying graph shows, that had been true in most months of 2015.  Thus, according to this measure, there was no inflation.

The CPI Comes from Thousands of Items and Thousands of Stores and Service Providers
It's important to know that the government does not, in fact, “manage” these consumer price index data.  They are collected in great detail, according to huge surveys that ask about what people buy and where they buy it.  Then,  every month, employees of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) visit thousands of stores, service businesses, apartment management offices, doctors offices and hospitals, among other outlets, to collect price information on carefully specified items; these items currently number some 80,000 every month.

The businesses they visit are selected from among those specified in an occasional “Point of Purchase” survey also conducted by the BLS from about 14,500 families.  The items themselves come from the “Consumer Expenditure Survey”, which collects information on what people buy; if you happen to be a participant in these surveys or you know someone who is, thank them for their help.  Some of them, 7,000 of them, have kept a diary of every single purchase they have made over a two-week period, and another 7,000 have answered detailed questions in a quarterly interview.  Altogether, in a recent two-year period, 28,000 diaries were consulted, along with 60,000 interviews.

Finally, when the current prices are collected, they are examined by BLS specialists who check to make sure the specifications for an item have been followed as closely as possible so quality changes are not factored in – for instance, the “car” is the same make and model with the same features as the one last month.  All these BLS survey-takers and fact-checkers are civil servants, not political appointees.

If the CPI Is Flat, Why Might People Think There’s Inflation?
If you think, contrary to these carefully compiled government data, that there is in fact “inflation”, you are hardly alone.  A couple of private surveys agree: the Conference Board’s monthly Consumer Confidence Survey shows that its 5,000 participants estimate that the CPI is running up at about a 5% rate and has been for some time.  A smaller poll of 1,200 nationwide taken for the New York Federal Reserve Bank indicates that people think the CPI will go up 2.6% in the next year.  Both of these exceed the growth in weekly earnings also compiled by the BLS.  From December 2014 to December 2015, these wages for non-management workers were up 2.1%, less than either private survey inflation estimate.  So workers’ pay as well as Social Security benefits can seem inadequate to keep up.

We tried to figure out how this discrepancy might have developed; how might people feel there is more inflation than there really is?  We identified two factors.

One is that people’s inflationary expectations vary by age and income.  In the New York Fed’s survey, participants over age 60 see a 3% advance in the CPI over the next year, while those between 40 and 60 look for 2.4% and those under 40, 2%.  Big difference.  Income matters, too:  people with incomes over $50,000 expect about 2.4%, while those whose incomes are under $50,000 believe inflation will be 2.9%.  So if someone is better able to absorb price increases, they are less worried about higher inflation.  While there are just 2-1/2 years’ worth of responses in this survey, this relationship has pretty much held throughout.

The other factor that stood out concerns energy prices.  We all know that gasoline has been much cheaper throughout the last year than it was through 2014.  That and other energy items, such as electricity, turn out to be the main force slowing the overall CPI.  Excluding energy, the CPI was up 1.9% in November from a year ago, compared with the mere 0.5% rise in the total index.  So clearly, there were a bunch of items whose prices rose noticeably.

The most visible of these include rents and homeownership costs, up 3.6% and 3.1% in November from November 2014.  The demon health insurance rose 3.6%, medicines were up 2.7% and dentists – which  many people pay out-of-pocket – 2.8%.  Local public transit fares were up 2.5%, boys’ clothes 3.6%, infants and toddlers’ clothes 4.9%, certain fresh vegetables 4.1% and restaurant meals 2.5%.

Clearly many other items either fell or rose much more moderately, for instance, prices of women’s clothes fell 2.7% and shoes and boots fell 0.5%.  But the increases in such basic items as rent, transit fares and medicines can give the subjective impression of more general upward price pressures.  And people can easily extrapolate this impression into a forecast that more widespread inflation will return, rendering their limited earnings even less adequate.

An Inflation Outlook for the Year Ahead
We checked out some economists’ forecasts of inflation for 2016.  Their projections are not as high as the consumer surveys, but they do look for some inflation.  The National Association for Business Economics survey published in early December shows the CPI up 2.0%.  Another composite, the Survey of Professional Forecasters, compiled by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank, also has 2.0%, while the Federal Reserve Board’s compilation of its officials’ forecasts shows a slightly different inflation measure at 1.6%.  These numbers are close to the recent pace that excludes the drop in energy prices.   What this suggests is that if people’s earnings are up 2.0% next year, they can “keep up” with inflation, and maybe after a few more months, they will feel better about the adequacy of their paychecks.  But Social Security beneficiaries – and government workers whose pay is also tied to the CPI – are still stuck until early 2017.  Just know that the price index data are carefully and objectively collected and combined.  The government did not push the numbers down deliberately to try to save itself money.

* * * * * *
For information on the CPI data collection methods, see

The Conference Board is a nonprofit organization that studies and advises businesses in leadership issues, the economic and regulatory environment and human capital topics.  It conducts conferences and publishes articles on these topics.  Its consumer confidence survey dates from 1967.

The Survey of Consumer Expectations from the New York Federal Reserve Bank is new, just from June 2013.  It is conducted by The Demand Institute, an organization operated by The Conference Board and Nielsen.  One of the New York Fed’s motivations, besides compiling the basic information, is to provide additional background information for monetary policy decision-making.

The National Association for Business Economics forecast survey is here:  This is a composite of forecasts from 49 of this trade association’s members.

The Survey of Professional Forecasters is ; this is a similar group of economists to the NABE survey.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Alcohol and Families

Following our article last month on alcoholism, our good reader Lynn pointed out that we had missed an important dimension of that issue, family relationships and alcohol.  This is, in fact, a multi-dimensional dimension and well worth our attention.

Basic, Readable Information on Alcohol
Before we move into that, we do want to give you a couple of helpful links to general information about drinking and alcohol problems.

We buried a reference in our previous piece to a treatment guide from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  It is clearly written and meant give basic information about recognizing the extent of a drinking problem and the various ways to seek help.  It's called "Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help".  Find the guide here: .  You can read it online or download a print "pdf" version.

Also we came across another NIAAA brochure on drinking itself, "Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health".  Very basic stuff on quantities, calorie counts, even an "alcohol budget", that is, the amount of weekly spending.  And resources if you decide you have a problem you need help with.  Find this guide here: .

Now to our topic at hand on families.  You may have noticed in our previous article that the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder ("AUD") are not necessarily physical.  They also include mental or emotional conditions, such as depression, trouble with concentration on work, school or other activities, a need to drink more to achieve the same pleasurable feeling, forgoing other pleasurable activities in order to have time to drink more, and so on.

With issues like these resulting from excessive alcohol consumption, it would come as no surprise that family relationships and friendships face extra complications when drinking is involved.  Two kinds of reactions take place among other people in a home or with close relatives who have AUDs.  First, those people have greater probability of incurring an AUD themselves, and second, they also have emotional challenges getting along with family members and with associates outside the family.

Alcoholism Increases Children's Likelihood of Drinking
To begin, here are some numbers.  In the 2001-2002 NIAAA survey we cited last time, a surprising number, 52%, of the total adult population had some family history of alcohol use disorders.  This includes the immediate family as well as grandparents and aunts and uncles.  The chances an individual in a particular family will develop an AUD themselves depend on how extensive the alcoholism already is in the family.   When there is no family history of alcoholism, someone's chances of having had a drinking problem in the last year are just 9%.  But if any close relatives experience alcoholism, the chances go to 16%, that is, nearly twice as high.  Further, if a parent is an alcoholic, chances a child will be one are 19%.  We do caution that various surveys give various results on these numbers; we chose this one because the number of people surveyed was so very large; 43,093 people actually participated.  And the question here pertains only to the last year before the survey; the results would be higher if a total lifetime were considered.  The point is that the frequency of alcoholism is remarkably affected by alcoholic situations already in the family.

One specific chain of causation we explored is the age at which the young people in a household begin to drink.  If there's no family history of AUD, the median age at which someone begins to drink is around 19 years.  But if there's any family history, this drops by at least a year or perhaps two to 17 or a bit younger.  The public data we found aren't precise enough to be more specific.  But what is clear is that the younger someone begins to drink, the greater are the prospects that they will themselves have AUD and/or various psychological conditions.  If someone started drinking at ages 18 to 20, chances they have an AUD are just under 11%.  But if they started drinking in the 15 to 17-year age range, this doubles to 22%.  So drinking problems in a family reduce the age at which the children begin to drink and that increases the chances that they will at some point develop their own alcohol issues.

Psychological Problems from Alcoholism in Your Family
Reader Lynn comments that a family history of alcoholism is really difficult for a child, and professional research backs this up.  Besides the drinking tendency itself, Lynn points out that many children of alcoholics are subject to any number of emotional and psychological conditions.  They never learn good coping skills for facing ordinary life situations because they don't face life in an ordinary way.

As Lynn's comments and a handy summary from a professional association explain, a number of detrimental factors come into play:  daily routines are shuffled constantly, children feel guilt, anxiety, embarrassment, confusion, anger and depression.  They don't know how to build close relationships with other people, much less raise children of their own in a constructive way.  They might fail in school, commit various delinquent acts and take huge risks, because they simply don't know basic ways to live positively.  And, of course, as we have already alluded, the coping mechanism they do learn is drinking or drug abuse, which they tend to fall back on much more than the population as a whole.  See "Facts for Families: No. 17 Children of Alcoholics" from the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry; go here:

Support Groups for Families 
This is all tough stuff.  It's important for people to know they're not alone in dealing with these situations; the support of others who grapple with these issues is helpful, as well as professional care.  Alcoholics themselves can, of course, go to Alcoholics Anonymous.  For family members, whom we emphasize here, there are two groups we know of and call to your attention: Al-Anon and ACoA.  Al-Anon – and its partner, Alateen – is specifically intended for "families and friends of problem drinkers", to quote the website,  Meetings, sponsor relationships and literature all work to ease the tension family members and good friends feel when constantly surrounded by the alcohol issue.

"ACoA" stands for Adult Children of Alcoholics, found at   This organization is also based on the "12 Steps" and includes, literally, adult children:  people who are now adults out in the world and who grew up in families where there were alcohol problems, or similar issues that cause dysfunction.  While we had heard of ACoA, it is another resource offered to us by Reader Lynn.  She highlights again that these people have grown up without developing constructive approaches to problem solving; ACoA gives them a chance to talk to others who must now also feel their way forward against the same background.  These groups are a huge help.  Both websites help you locate meetings in your own vicinity.

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That big survey of alcohol use is the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions ("NESARC").  Find an introduction on the website of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: .  Extensive data tables are available and much scholarly work has examined many facets of the survey.  Many of the same people were re-interviewed three years later, giving some notions of changes in their habits.  And then a whole new survey was done in 2012-13, which those results just now beginning to be published.

The federal government is hardly the only party to conduct surveys about this issue.  Reader Lynn recommends a piece with the striking title, "This surprising factor can make people 4,600 percent more prone to addiction".  It's from the "Raw Story" website, found here:, and talks – logically enough these days – about Whitney Houston and her daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown.  The survey work described there, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences ("ACE"), is by Kaiser Permanente in California; they initially talked to 17,000 people just in the San Diego area alone.  ACE work is now done in many state government surveys of drug problems, as well as alcohol. 

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alcohol Problems and Getting Help

Readers who follow developments in the Episcopal Church may know that resolutions were passed at the recent General Convention calling our attention to the role of alcohol in the church and among its clergy and people.

This is certainly enough on its own to elicit commentary from us.  But we were in fact already checking out issues on alcohol that we might explore in a Ways of the World article, and the General Convention resolutions only add to the timeliness.  Perhaps our information here can serve as one small step in discussion within the church that carries out the mandate of the resolutions calling for all of us to give attention and action to the impact of alcohol in our lives.

We had previously been working on this topic for two reasons.  First, we had lately become acquainted with the Right Rev. Chilton Knudsen, current Assistant Bishop in the Diocese of Long Island.  She visited our home parish, St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn, to conduct the ordination of our deacon into the priesthood.  This indeed took place on June 13 and was a very exciting celebration.  But Bishop Knudsen is about to leave Long Island and move to Maryland; beginning in the fall, she will minister there to people and clergy left quite troubled after their now-former Suffragan Bishop (a kind of associate) was involved in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol.  A young bicyclist was killed.  Bishop Knudsen is a strong advocate of recovery programs and a very good, compassionate person to work with the heartbroken people of Maryland at this sensitive time.  Meeting her just when her move was being announced thus brought this tragedy closer to home for us.

Secondly, just over a month ago, results of a brand new government study of alcohol and alcohol use disorders were published on a major AMA journal website.  The work, which we learned about in a brief New York Times feature, presents a substantial body of information on the scope and treatment of alcoholism.  Its major conclusion is that, regardless of the type of treatment, only a modest fraction of people with alcohol use disorders seek out any treatment in the first place.  There remains so much stigma that people continue to hide their situation from themselves and others, so that it continues to plague them, their lives and their companions.  This study, like the General Convention resolutions, urges us to bring this problem out into the open and work on it; it can be managed with constructive effort.  We'll try to do at least a little of that here.

The government study provides important background.  It comes out of a nation-wide survey taken in 2012 and 2013 of more than 36,000 people over age 18.  It shows that during the 12 months before the survey, 13.9% of this adult population experienced some kind of drinking problem and 29.1% had experienced such a problem sometime in their lives.  Recalibrated to the total civilian population, this is equivalent to 33 million in the last year and 68.5 million during their lifetimes.  It is all clearly worth talking about.

What is a "drinking problem"?
"Drinking problem" is our phrase.  It has only partly to do with the total amount of drinking and is also concerned with symptoms that arise as a result.  In terms of drinking amounts alone, lots of people do it; in this survey, some 71% of respondents had done some drinking in the past year, including beer, wine and liquor.  Of those who drink, nearly 40% had occasions when they consumed 5 drinks in a single day, and almost 10% of those who drink had 5 drinks in a day at least once a week.

Alcohol affects people differently, of course, and even moderate drinkers can show reactive symptoms.  They may repeat prolonged drinking sets and suffer the attendant hangovers; the drinking may interfere repeatedly with other activities, including job, school or family relations; the people may believe they can take undue risks while or right after drinking, which might include driving, swimming, or unsafe sex; they may feel repeated cravings or believe they need to drink more before any desired effect is felt.  Alcohol use disorders are defined as the occurrence of two or more of these reactions, out of a total of 11.  Two to three conditions constitute a "mild" alcohol use disorder ("AUD"), four or five make a "moderate" AUD and six or more, a "severe" AUD.  The phrase  "alcohol use disorder" is in fact a medical term and comes from the latest American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as DSM-5; so these people have a medical condition.

Over the 12 months before the survey, 7.3% of the population had "mild" AUD, 3.2% "moderate" and 3.4% "severe," bringing the total to 13.9%, or the 33 million people we mentioned before.  The mean age at onset for these disorders was 26.2 years, that is, pretty young.  The share of 18-29 year-olds with an AUD was 26.0%, while among 30-44-year-olds, it was 16.2%, and 10.0% of 45-64-year-olds.  Even if you notice that this share goes down with age, it's still unnerving that 10% of upper-middle-age people have had an identifiable "drinking problem" in the last year.  Over their whole adult lifetimes, 37% of 18-29-year-olds have had a problem, 34.4% of 30-44-year-olds and 28.2% of 45-64-year-olds.

What about Treatments?
If this is a medical situation, do people seek treatment for it?  Unfortunately, not a lot.  Of the people with an AUD over the past year, just – just – 7.7% of them have sought help.  Now, maybe you could say that it could take longer than a year to realize there is something amiss that needs treatment.  Sure enough, in the survey, the mean age for seeking help was 29.4 years, that is, three years after the mean age of onset of AUD.  However, the survey still shows that for people with AUD sometime during their lives, only 19.8% have sought help.

This "help" comes in lots of forms.  By far the most prevalent is AA or other 12-step-type approach, in which 15.4% of those with AUD participate.  The next most frequent are rehab programs, 9.1%, followed by physicians or other health-care professionals, 8.7%.  The doctors often prescribe a drug called naltrexone hydrochloride, as well as at least two other widely used medications.  Some doctors also use something called "12-step facilitation."  Various cognitive-behavioral therapies also help.

It's important to be clear that these treatments do help.  Apparently the current survey results do not cover effectiveness of treatment, but other previous surveys do report on it.  Thus the authors of the report we have been citing here make this statement:  ". . . participation in 12-step groups increases the likelihood of recovery, consistent with randomized clinical trials testing the efficacy of 12-step facilitation administered by health care practitioners.  Reviews . . . of randomized trials involving thousands of patients have demonstrated the efficacy of brief screening and intervention in primary care settings among individuals whose alcohol problems are not yet severe."  This discussion goes on to comment on the effectiveness of other treatment forms, including the medications we mentioned above.  In one of the previous surveys of this type, people were interviewed in two rounds, three years apart, and asked in the second round about the extent of any recovery.  Results there showed in particular that attending a 12-step program was distinctly helpful and that it enhanced the outcomes of other treatment programs.

Why People Don't Get Help
This latest survey asks people who didn't go for help, why that was.  A list of 29 reasons was provided, and people could mark all that applied.  Here are some of the most frequently chosen answers, shown as a percentage of people who had thought about going for help, but never did:
            I should be strong enough to this handle alone     37.5%
            Thought it would get better by itself     33.8%
            Stopped on my own or with family help      26.4%
            Didn't think it was serious enough     23.3%
            Too embarrassed to talk about it     23.2%
            Didn't want to go          23.1%

Much less frequently chosen reasons include not knowing where to go or lacking insurance coverage.  A few respondents mention lack of child care, even as others fear that their children will be taken from them if they go for help.  Do note that about a quarter of these people who didn't get help were in fact able to solve the problem by themselves.  But this means that three-quarters of them couldn't or didn't.

So indeed, we all have a ways to go in education and reassurance.

Other Conditions Can Complicate
We've not mentioned another major issue called "comorbidity".  Alcohol problems often accompany other illnesses and the two or more conditions work together.  PTSD, identifiable personality disorders, prolonged depression, drug-abuse and nicotine disorders, among others, are found, complicating the treatment and recovery of people with AUDs.  These added conditions make it all the more important to address the subjective concerns, like those listed above, of people who have "drinking problems" but don't seek help.

Finally, we want to mention AA again.  An article in the April issue of The Atlantic asserts that AA has not been medically proven to be effective, and that writer is critical of the weight given to it as the primary approach to treating AUD.   We are hardly in a position to take an informed position on this topic.  We do know a number of people who are active in another 12-step program and that has certainly worked for them, many of them for many years.  You probably know such people as well.  It is the case that it's hard to conduct scientific, controlled studies of the effectiveness of these programs due to their voluntary and anonymous nature.  What we see in the studies we looked at here is that AA is by far the most widely used source of help and that earlier survey work showed clearly that AA enhanced the recovery prospects of other treatments.  A major point to be made is that there are a number of treatment formats and people can certainly try more than one at any given time.  That earlier survey work also noted that belonging to a religious community is constructive in facing an alcohol problem.  Participating in a community of caring people and regular attendance at services are indeed good things.


We could have broken the text with numerous footnotes throughout, but the material is already complex enough not to break the sentences with the source designation.  So here are the sources.  We call your special attention to the NIAAA treatment guide, the fifth item below:

The "current survey" is the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III, often called NESARC-III, conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health.  The survey was taken from April 2012 through June 2013.

The main report of results:
Bridget F. Grant, PhD, Risé B. Goldstein, PhD, MPH, and co-authors, "Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder".  JAMA Psychiatry  Published June 3, 2015.  This article is free to the public; no subscription is necessary to access it, though a simple account identifier must be devised and registered to download the pdf.

We accessed the "General Codebook" of the main survey for various details not cited in the article.  This information is found here:

The New York Times reference is "Problem Drinking Affects 33 Million Adults, Study Finds".  The New York Times, June 3, 2015.  Accessed July 17, 2015.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a treatment guide.  One early section of it is a quite readable list of the "Signs of an Alcohol Problem".  Find this guide at .  A 20-page pdf "Print Version" can be accessed right by the title.  The list of symptoms is given on page 3, and the entire guide looks quite helpful.

The "prior survey" we mentioned is NESARC, taken in 2001-2002, with follow-up interviews of many of the same people in 2004-2005.  Information from it on recovery prospects is reported in Deborah A. Dawson, Risé B. Goldstein and others,  "Correlates of Recovery from Alcohol Dependence: A Prospective Study Over a 3-Year Follow-Up Interval".  Alcohol Clinical & Experimental Research.  Vol. 36, No. 7, July 2012.  Pp 1268-1277.

The Atlantic magazine article:  Gabrielle Glaser, "The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous." The Atlantic.  April 2015. .

And the news story about the General Convention resolutions can be found here: Bishop Knudsen is quoted in it, as is the Right Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Bishop of Ohio.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Magna Carta and America

Our annual July 4 commentaries on the American Revolution seek to highlight the role of common people in the Revolutionary process:  women who refused to buy household goods imported from Britain, a local blacksmith in western Massachusetts who led an early sit-in-type revolt against British authorities in that region, lay people who discovered they could preach during the associated Great Awakening period.

This year, 2015, marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and that event has a link with common people and contributes to the American Revolution.  Thus, it can be our topic for this year's Revolution article.   The agreement between King John and a group of barons was sealed on June 15; this very first document was a group of "Articles of the Barons".  It was recast and publicized on June 19 as "Magna Carta", the Great Charter.  Just last Monday, June 15, 2015, there was a special commemoration at Runnymede, and you have also perhaps read articles about the document which have already appeared in major press outlets.  Obviously, I am not a historian, but on such a propitious occasion, I would offer some thoughts.

Some of these current commentaries want us to downplay the role of Magna Carta, and writers of those might take issue that I link the document to "common people".   Those critics are in fact correct:  we cannot say that Magna Carta marked the foundation of democracy, nor that it represented a granting of freedom to "common people".  Not at all.  What it did was exact from a ruler an official statement that the position of ruler was itself subject to expressed laws, that the actions of the ruler could not be arbitrary and that the ruler could not impose indiscriminate demands or fees on those ruled.  In the very beginning on June 15, 1215, the document applied to "any baron", an elite group, to be sure.  But the scope widened immediately: just days later, on June 19, this became "any freeman".[1]  While broader than just the 40 barons, the group "freemen" was still not very large; the vast majority of people came under various conditions of feudal servitude.  Then, in the 1350s, during the reign of Edward III, "Six Statutes" were enacted by Parliament that included the phrasing "no man of what Estate or Condition that he be, shall be put out of Land or Tenement, nor taken nor imprisoned, nor disinherited, nor put to Death, without being brought in Answer by due Process of the Law."[2]  Thus, virtually everyone would now benefit, and even common people had rights that had to be respected by rulers.

There's another important phrase in that quote, of course:  "due Process of the Law".  While those exact words are not in Magna Carta, the concept is.  In Article 39, it says, "No free man will be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined, nor shall we go or send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers and by the law of the land."  So here is the invention of "due process".  Article 40 further exerts a "rule of law": "To no one shall we sell, to no one shall we deny or delay right or justice."  Defendants can't get off by paying a bribe, nor can anyone be held because they can't pay one.  Note that from the beginning, from Magna Carta itself, such even-handed dispensing of justice applied to everyone, with no restriction to "barons" or "freemen".[3]

There is at least one other major item in Magna Carta.  The barons were upset with King John because of the sudden and arbitrary imposition of "aids" and the high rates of "scutage" he demanded.  Scutage is a fee a baron could pay instead of providing military service.  John spent lots of money, but he lost lands and other resources in his conduct of various wars and battles.  The barons wanted some protection from his consequently exorbitant takings.  Thus, Article 12 reads, "No scutage or aid is to be levied in our realm except by the common counsel of our realm."  And Article 14 goes on to outline how representatives of the realm would be chosen for and given adequate notice of meetings to design the required funding orders.  This part was not particularly democratic in construct, but it still formulated the operation of "no taxation without representation".

Colonists arrived in North America carrying these rights with them.  In writing.  Every one of the 13 colonies was organized as a "company" granted land and legal right by the Crown.[4]  This was implemented through a "charter".  The charters included clauses with some phrase granting due process of law.  And more explicitly, they included statements that the settlers and their descendants were entitled to the ancient rights of English people.  The charter of the Virginia company was quite explicit: The emigrants and their children "shall have and enjoy Liberties, Franchises, Immunities, . . . as if they had been abiding and born, within our Realm of England."  In Massachusetts Bay in 1629, the Charter said settlers would "have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and naturall subjects . . . as yf they and everie one them were borne within the Realm of England."  These Charters thus granted the rights of English citizens to the colonists, and they also established the practice of written constitutions.

American colonists' reliance on Magna Carta is easily illustrated in a statement that Ben Franklin made to Parliament during the wrangle over the Stamp Act.  Franklin, a representative for Massachusetts in the Royal Court in London, "was hauled in front of Parliament and asked on what basis he called for the repeal of the Stamp Act.  The colonists, he answered, could not 'be taxed but by their common consent [. . . based on their rights] as Englishmen as declared by Magna Carta.'"[5]

Several contemporary writers indeed point out that the Magna Carta seems more revered in the U.S. than in Britain.  One in particular is a British member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan.  In a recent Wall Street Journal article[6], he says, “Magna Carta has always been a bigger deal in the U.S.”  He explains that the site at Runnymede went unmarked until 1957, and when a memorial stone was finally erected, it was the American Bar Association who sponsored it.

A New York Times writer, Sarah Lyall, highlights further the longstanding importance of the Magna Carta here.[7]  Just last month, she explains, the Supreme Court cited Article 40 in one of its own decisions, on judicial integrity:  “Upholding a Florida law that forbids judges to solicit campaign contributions, Chief Justice Roberts … wrote: ‘This principle dates back at least eight centuries to Magna Carta.’”  Lyall further quotes William Hubbard, current president of the American Bar Association: “The idea that the law comes from the people, and it’s not the law of the king, is fundamental.”

Thus, while governments changed and revolutions occurred in England and in America, the principles set forth in Magna Carta not only live on but assist in our government and in protection of common people to this day.  Lyall quotes Hubbard in conclusion, “To think that those principles have survived 800 years gives me great hope for the future.”


[1] U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.  "Magna Carta and Its American Legacy". Accessed June 5, 2015.

[2] Ralph V. Turner.  "The Meaning of Magna Carta since 1215." History Today. Volume 53, Issue 9, September 2003.  Reprinted on  Accessed June 20, 2015.

[3] All quotations of actual paragraphs of the Magna Carta come from Nicholas Vincent: Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2012. Pages 111 to 124.  There are 63 paragraphs in the original document, one of which, number 35, actually establishes a standard size for a glass of wine, "namely the London quarter," and also standard measures of cloth.

[4] Matthew Shaw.  "Early America and Magna Carta".  British Library:  Accessed June 22, 2015.

[5] Shaw, op.cit.

[6] Daniel Hannan.  “Magna Carta: Eight Centuries of Liberty.” The Wall Street Journal.  May 29, 2015.

[7] Sarah Lyall.  “Magna Carta, Still Posing a Challenge at 800.”  The New York Times. June 14, 2015.


Prayers after the Shootings in the South Carolina Church

A week ago, a young man shot nine African-American people in cold blood in a church in Charlston, South Carolina.  We interrupted work we were doing to send an email to Ways-of-the-World readers.  As the funerals for these dear people are about to begin, we post much of the text of that email here.  Note that this was written just as people were first hearing about this awful act.

My own Bishop, Lawrence Provenzano of the Diocese of Long Island, has responded immediately, and I write just now to share his message with you all.

"From the Office of the Bishop  
The BBC reported this morning at 8 am, EDT [June 17], that "Nine people have been shot dead at a historic African-American Church in Charleston, SC, and a hunt is under way for a white gunman. 

Police described the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a 'hate crime.' 

They issued surveillance images of the suspect and said he had sat in the church for an hour before opening fire.

Bishop Provenzano sends the following Pastoral Message to the clergy and members of the Diocese of Long Island: 

Prayer.  Deep, deep, soul-stirring prayer for the victims,  their families, their church community, the city of Charleston, and for this nation! 

Words can no longer suffice for the senseless hatred of this sinful act. Prayer and the witness of prayer by God's people must be our response. 

I call upon our Diocese to pray with each other across parish lines, and neighborhood lines, and county lines.

Hold each other in prayer and witness to the unity in Christ we profess. 

This is our response to hatred and sin.

The Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano  
Bishop of Long Island

Also included in that message is a note from the Brooklyn Borough President's office, which contains the information that among the dead is the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator.

May Rev. Pinckney and all those killed rest in peace.  May light perpetual shine upon them.

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As we write this afternoon, June 24, Rev. Pinckney lies in state in the South Carolina Capitol Building.

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