St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5
Just as World War II was ending, Pentagon commanders decided it was time to update their research on chemical weapons as a non-nuclear battlefield option. For unexplained reasons, they decided that testing had to be conducted on humans. Thousands of unwitting soldiers were "volunteered" for the honor.
Their stories don't vary much from the one Arla Wayne Harrell recounts from 1945, when at age 18 he was serving at Camp Crowder in Missouri. Now 89, he says he was twice exposed to mustard gas, then ordered never to talk about it. The exposure almost certainly is linked to the serious lung disease and skin cancer he has suffered during his adult life.
Harrell deserves at least some compensation for enduring a lifetime of suffering in service to his country. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has introduced a bill named in his honor to help those whose lives and health were compromised by reckless commanders in the Chemical Warfare Service.
Congress should approve this bill and formally acknowledge the dirty secret that ruined the lives of troops and their families.
Researcher John Lindsay Poland, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, first exposed the tests in 1998 after tracking down numerous survivors of experiments conducted on U.S. military bases in Panama. His exhaustive study, "Test Tube Republic," documents chemical tests as far back as 1944 and continuing well into the 1960s.
The tests also included VX nerve agent, phosgene, cyanogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide — the same gas formerly used in executions. Animals were used in many tests, and eyewitnesses reported goats being cooked alive and flesh dropping from their bodies after exposure.
Here's an example of the hideous lengths to which commanders took the tests on humans: They approved the separation of Puerto Rican troops and isolated them on San Jose Island, on Panama's Pacific coast, where they were exposed "to determine if any difference existed in the sensitivity of Puerto Rican and Continental (Anglo) U.S. Troops," said a military document that Poland uncovered.
Liquid mustard agent was applied directly to the troops' skin, which blistered horrifically. Imagine what it did to Harrell's lungs. San Jose Island was rendered uninhabitable because of all the unexploded chemical munitions left behind there.
Harrell's experience at Camp Crowder closely resembles what other soldiers described in Panama, being placed inside a "gas chamber" where they were forced to deeply breathe mustard gas. Because the experiments were top secret, Harrell and many others have been unable to prove their claims for compensation.
They've suffered in silence, like the good soldiers they were. But the time is long past due for the military to own up to its actions, track down those whose lives were destroyed by these experiments and stop denying them and their families the compensation they deserve.
Kansas City Star, June 3
Despite a long-awaited new federal rule, the payday loan industry in the Kansas City area and elsewhere will continue to reprehensibly trap low-income Americans under mountains of debt.
A hearing held Thursday at the Music Hall in downtown revealed grim personal stories of those who have been forced to repay many times the amount they borrowed in payday loans.
The lenders and supporters got their own chances to claim that some changes proposed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would stifle their ability to provide cash to people who desperately need it.
That's outrageously misleading, which is par for the course.
Especially in Kansas City — where some of the top promoters of the payday loan industry have thrived — we've seen the damage done to individuals and families who have become trapped into nearly endless borrowing/repaying cycles.
Even the term "payday loan" is often a misnomer. It implies that the customers will be given only enough money that they can quickly repay, with minimum interest, when their next payday arrives.
But real-life expenses often interfere with these plans, especially for people who already are underpaid or underemployed. When they can't make good on the initial loan, the industry is only too happy to extend more credit and more time to repay it.
As the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau aptly put it, "Faced with unaffordable payments, consumers must choose between defaulting, reborrowing, or skipping other financial obligations like rent or basic living expenses like food and medical care."
All of this too often leads to far higher costs than first thought for consumers, with effective annual interest rates that climb past 300 and even 400 percent.
Politicians in Missouri have been notoriously absent from any productive discussions on how to protect consumers. Instead, fueled by contributions from the payday loan industry, General Assembly members have allowed it to flourish, even after seeing some of the despicable actions engaged in by Kansas City-area payday loan officials.
At Thursday's forum, part of the discussion focused on a positive-sounding federal rule that supposedly will require lenders to ensure that their customers can repay their loans and "still meet basic living expenses and major financial obligations."
Other parts of the rule attempt to limit how many loans a customer can take out.
These are common-sense ideas, but they don't go far enough in limiting the damage this industry can cause as it preys on people's desire to make ends meet.
Indeed, the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts said this week that the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule is "heading in the wrong direction."
Specifically, Pew officials said, it would "allow unaffordable payday loans with 400 percent" interest rates to continue, while largely preventing banks from offering lower-cost alternatives.
On other fronts, it is positive to see that the giant search engine Google will ban payday loan ads.
However, consumer protection remains spotty across America because government agencies and elected officials won't go far enough in cracking down on the industry. Even a simple cap on total interest paid for a loan — or limiting the fees that payday lenders can charge — remain elusive in too many states, including Missouri.
The experts at Pew Charitable Trusts think that the new federal rule should limit a customer's monthly payment to 5 percent of monthly income. That would allow regulated banks to be more competitive in lending to Americans, at a lower price to them.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should err on the side of putting in place the strongest possible ways to kill the bad actors in the payday loan industry. There are too many of them, and they are earning outrageous profits on the backs of far too many people.
Columbia Daily Tribune, June 1
In a voice vote, the Missouri Republican State Committee recently approved a change to closed primary elections in which only voters registered with a specific party may participate. This is an unworkable idea in our current electoral system, but it reflects a general principle of considerable merit, to wit: The popular primary is a flawed process.
Republicans, and no doubt many Democrats, don't like the idea of voters from the other party crossing over in primary elections. In the context of the American popular primary, this would require an unacceptable intrusion into voter allegiance and intent. There is no way to combine the freedom of the voter with that much control by the party.
In the good, bad old days, party control was ensured by nominations by members of caucuses or conventions bound by avowed party allegiance. Once we turned over this process to the general electorate, the function and power of the political parties were irretrievably lost.
I have said here often without much evidence of success we might be better off with the old system, which I playfully characterize as the smoke-filled room without the smoke, in which experienced party devotees choose nominees for electoral offices. Such enclaves have the advantage of professional calculation in choosing candidates most likely to win and serve effectively.
How the parties perform this function is the most telling factor in developing their images. These all-important choices, the nominations, would not be left to the vagaries of a popular election process where show business overwhelms careful analysis.
I think we'd have better candidates, but we would do so at the expense of a ragtag process in which vast sums of money must be raised and spent. We can see which system is winning out.
Skeptics of my old-fashioned plan will say we must in the end depend on the wisdom of voters freely going to the polls to express their wisdom or lack of same. Even though our modern system eviscerates the parties and erodes the quality of their candidates, we will continue to opt for the big-money free-for-all. Legislatures would have to initiate any reversion over the wishes of the same big-money interests always in waiting for the next popular election.
Springfield News-Leader, June 3
When seven Andy Warhol screenprints were stolen from the Springfield Art Museum in April, it rightly raised questions about security.
The results of a News-Leader investigation show the museum's leadership has been asking its own questions about security, and how to pay for it, for several years.
As some suggested, the museum may have prioritized other things over security, because the maintenance needs especially were substantial.
And as museum director Nick Nelson said, 100 percent security means no access for patrons.
It's hard to know if the museum was striking an appropriate balance without more information about its security procedures, and changes, but it's clear the museum was always going to have to sacrifice somewhere.
The struggle to balance security with all other needs at the Springfield Art Museum shows a common problem — we're constantly trying to stretch public money as far as it can go, sometimes to a breaking point.
Of course, we expect good stewardship of tax money, and we desire efficiency.
However, at some point efficiency becomes cutting corners, and that's when we start losing value.
There's an interesting dichotomy in Springfield. Its residents are rather tax averse, but enjoy fine arts. And, nobly, the city tries to make the arts accessible.
Naturally, that's going to mean trying to do more with less. And in this case, it means the museum is always trying to stretch a dollar.
It's not only the art museum that runs into this problem. Springfield is constantly trying to decide if it's a big town or a small city, and the growing pains can be awkward.
If we, as a community, decide we don't want to pay more for public amenities, we must either scale back the amount of services we provide or be content with mediocrity.
Essentially, we can be average at many things or great at a few things. At least right now, that's all we can afford.