The Hightower Lowdown

Wal-Mart cares about its employees -- especially the dead ones; giving the finger to corporations could cost you your privacy; and Tattered Cover stands up for its customers' rights.

'Dead Peasant' Insurance

Wal-Mart loves its employees so much that it takes out life insurance on them. But this is not an insurance policy that pays death benefits to the family of a deceased employee -- instead, it pays the benefit money to Wal-Mart!

These policies are known within the insurance industry as "dead peasant" life insurance, and industry lobbyists have quietly been going state to state to get Legislatures to approve them. Legislative approval is necessary, since most state insurance codes (and common sense) say that a corporation has no "insurable interest" in the death of its rank-and-file employees.

But in today's Brave New CorporateWorld where everything -- even death -- can become a commodity to be traded by profiteers, there's big money to be made by gaming the system. The insurance companies themselves reap hefty premiums from selling these "dead peasant" policies to money-grubbing outfits like Wal-Mart, which can take out as much as $750,000 worth of life insurance on a single clerk, janitor, or other employee. For the Wal-Marts, the laws are jiggered so they collect tax-free investment income on these policies while their employees are alive, then receive the life insurance payout tax-free as employees die off. One consumer watchdog has noted that this insurance can make employees worth more dead than alive to low-wage companies like Wal-Mart.

The only ones who get nothing out of this flim-flam are the "dead peasants" and their families. The state laws do require that employees "consent" to having their lives corporately insured, but in Texas, for example, where Wal-Mart is being sued for the practice, employees effectively can "consent" without knowing it, or they can be forced to "consent" as a condition of getting the job. Wal-Mart is reported to have taken out 350,000 of these death policies.

Rep. Gene Green of Houston is working to stop these secret death policies. Contact his office at 202/225-1688.

Giving Them the Finger

McDonald's, Thriftway, Kroger, and other retailers, for example, now want to save you the trouble of carrying around your checkbook or credit cards. Instead, they offer "finger scanning." They put your index finger on an image reader that digitally records 13 unique points about your finger and stores the encrypted information in the central computers of a data management corporation. Henceforth, you don't need a credit card to pay -- just run your own personal finger under the scanner, and the central database records your purchases and deducts money from your bank accounts or charges it to your credit card.

In addition to your finger biometrics, you do have to turn over your personal account numbers to the faraway database corporation, which gets a transaction fee every time they ring up a purchase on your digit. But don't worry about your privacy, says a Thriftway executive, because the system is "foolproof." Oh, yeah? Tell that to the teenagers who seem to be having no trouble hacking into the top-secret database of the U.S. military.

But it's convenient, says the man from Thriftway. It takes only about a minute to input your index finger into the system. One short minute ... and it's in there forever -- you'll never get it back. But this selling of your privacy biometric is a small price to pay for not having to worry any more that your credit card might be lost or stolen, say those pushing this latest technological marvel. Hello ... criminals are clever. Instead of mugging you for a credit card, now they can just chop off your finger and go on a shopping spree!

If some corporation asks for your index finger, I suggest giving them your middle digit instead.

The Battle of Tattered Cover

Joyce Meskis is a small businesswoman who owns one of our nation's vibrantly independent bookstores: Tattered Cover, in Denver, Colo.

But she's interested in more than selling books, for she is imbued with the freedom-loving spirit that books embody -- and, when pushed, she's not hesitant to stand up for this freedom and the Constitutional rights of readers.

A couple of years ago, Joyce was pushed. Drug authorities hit her with a search warrant, claiming that suspects might have bought "how-to" drug-making books at the Tattered Cover, so the drug cops wanted her sales records. Saying that it's nobody else's business what books a customer buys, she defied the order and landed in a protracted court battle.

Like all struggles for liberty, the Battle of Tattered Cover was not fought by Joyce alone. The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the American Civil Liberties Union rallied to the Constitutional cause, as did other bookstores publishers, authors, and just plain readers. They lost in a lower court, but then kept fighting, and in April, their perseverance paid off when the Colorado Supreme Court rule 6-0 in favor of the Tattered Cover's right to protect the privacy of its readers. "The beauty of living in this country is to be able to pick and choose, peruse, weigh and debate. And I am not going to interrogate you on what you read," Joyce said after the victory.

Now that's the American spirit at its best. If we don't stand up for our rights, the Powers That Be will snatch then away from us.

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, call toll free 866/271-4900. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit

For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

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