Monday, March 29, 2010

It’s certainly not yesterday’s Vietnam - by Judge Jim Gray

My wife Grace and I just returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. This column will discuss today’s Vietnam — which has certainly changed since I was there briefly during the war — and next week’s column will talk about Cambodia.

The first thing we noticed about Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the chaotic traffic: mostly motorbikes and motor scooters, but also lots of cars, trucks and bicycles mixed in, and precious few traffic signals. So with these pesky two-wheelers darting all over the place, it’s kind of like driving in spaghetti. But, amazingly enough, although we saw and experienced many near misses, we didn’t see even one collision while we were there. And we didn’t even see many scratches on the cars. So, one way or the other, the system is working.

We also saw that most of the Vietnamese women driving motor scooters wore a mask over their faces, long sleeves and gloves. The reason we were given was that having the fairest skin possible is considered to be much better looking in Vietnam.

We also were told about an example of the true new Vietnamese (and American) entrepreneurial spirit. A few years ago during the bird flu epidemic, the people in Vietnam simply stopped eating chicken. Many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets compensated by importing chickens from France, and publicizing that fact to encourage sales. But it didn’t help. So until the epidemic waned, KFC became KFF, which stands for Kentucky Fried Fish. And they got along nicely.

The most sobering experience on our trip to Vietnam was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were dug by the Viet Cong during the French occupation, and continued during the fighting with our troops. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese guerrillas who fought as against the U.S.-backed Saigon regime. Cu Chi was a cobweb of about 120 miles of tunnels about 40 miles from the center of Saigon. The tunnels were often three stories deep, and contained quarters for storage, sleeping and eating, as well as kitchens and rooms for medical operations. The entrances and breathing holes were highly camouflaged, and the system allowed the Viet Cong fighters to appear in and disappear from most areas above ground virtually at will.

The Viet Cong also built booby traps in the same area, examples of which were demonstrated to us. These would be holes dug in the ground and camouflaged. When our soldiers stepped on the traps they would fall upon metal spikes laced with feces that would pierce their feet, or long sharpened poles that would pierce their armpits. There were others that, when triggered, would release metal balls covered with spikes that would swing down upon our soldiers on a vine from a tree. And, of course there were homemade land mines. These traps reflected the realization that the Viet Cong could obtain greater and more lasting psychological advantages by severely injuring our soldiers.

Imagine being a U.S. soldier on the ground in this area. In the first place, you couldn’t distinguish the friendly Vietnamese from the enemy. And secondly, imagine being with your best buddy when he had his foot punctured by a metal spike or lost his legs from a land mine. It is not an accident that about one-quarter of all of the disabled homeless people in Orange County are military veterans.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of Viet Cong were killed or injured during this “police action.” The conditions in the tunnels alone were terribly unhealthy, with the dampness and the poor air quality caused by oil-burning lamps. And many of the wounded died from infections contracted simply from being in the dampness under ground. We also noted that the Viet Cong remolded the metal from the bombs that our forces dropped on them into the spikes for their booby traps, and also that some of the VC would cut some unexploded bombs open so they could reuse the metal and the explosives inside. One spark and you were history.

But all of this vividly brought home to me the commitment of the Viet Cong to kick out what they saw as foreign occupiers.

While I was stationed with the Navy in Guam from April 1972 until October 1974, I routinely saw large military trucks on our roads carrying 500-pound bombs from the Naval Magazine over to Anderson Air Force Base, where they were loaded onto B-52s. Their motto at Anderson was “Bombs on Target,” which is certainly understandable, because that was their job. But I had never before really appreciated the significance of being on the receiving end of a B-52 raid. As we could see at the tunnels area, each bomb left a crater about 30 feet in diameter and about 15 feet deep. Imagine being on the ground or in the tunnels during such a raid!

When we departed Vietnam, I was left with the thought that North Vietnam would have been far better off had it lost the war because then we probably would have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their country to spur their economy and well-being. They would also have more freedom, and we would probably be driving Vietnamese cars. Or, on the other hand, we should have had the courage of our philosophy from the outset and not put in troops in the first place. How so? Because communism simply doesn’t work. Our guides in Vietnam routinely said that their country had moved away from communism and over to capitalism exactly for that reason, because once the subsidies from the Soviet Union stopped after its demise, they had no choice. The same thing happened to a major degree in Cambodia and Cuba — and also in China. So today the Vietnamese government only really runs its oil industry, and, of course, the newspapers and the radio and television stations.

Of course, the communist government in Vietnam committed many human rights atrocities before and after it won the war, and, although the situation is somewhat better, it continues to do so. Furthermore, although our guides often said there is freedom of speech in Vietnam, reality shows otherwise. And even though the government appears to have the money, it is not spending much of it to address the problems of creating or maintaining the country’s infrastructure with regard to paving roads, cleaning water, disposing of trash, and making toilets available. Nevertheless, one way or the other, both sides are worse off because we pursued a military solution.

On the positive side, Vietnam has radically changed for the better in almost every regard. Its government has shifted from taking a highly dogmatic and doctrinaire approach to a more practical one. Vietnam is actively trading goods and services with other countries, and is successfully soliciting investments of foreign capital. With all of that progress, it surprises me that the visa process was so cumbersome and expensive. But these are good signs because only rarely do people shoot their customers, and most investors do not place their money in countries that are not stable.

As a result of this progress, the average wage per person has increased from about $1,000 per year in 1975 to about $2,700 today. Prices are still low there, as, for example, an hour’s massage costs about $12. But who could have imagined seeing a Mercedes or a Cadillac being driven down the streets of Ho Chi Minh City by a non-government official? That is a revolution all in itself.

In summary, we had a great trip, meeting good people, seeing interesting sights, and eating good food (try some Pho noodle soup at one of our local Vietnamese restaurants). And on no occasion while in Vietnam did I perceive any rancor or ill will toward me as an American as a result of the war. Nevertheless, and after due consideration, both Grace and I have decided that we would still prefer to live in Newport Beach instead of on a self-constructed 30-foot houseboat with no toilets on the Mekong River that is floating on bamboo poles.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Sunday, March 21, 2010

To protect the state — and the church - by Judge Jim Gray

Last week we discussed a sermon I gave at the Garden Grove United Methodist Church, which focused on the decisions that Christians are called upon to make, and whether it makes any difference that we are Christians.

That discussion leads into another discussion I was involved in recently at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar, about the importance of the separation of church and state. This subject can be considered controversial because some people consider that it could be seen as an attack on religion. I simply do not agree with that assessment.

I view this separation as being one of the most important war-and-peace issues of the 21st century. Of course there will be some exceptions, but in general governments that maintain the separation of church and state will be far less likely to be involved in war than those that do not. For example, we all should be concerned today about the governments of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and others where religion plays a large part in the affairs of government.

Although we generally consider separation of church and state to be addressed in our Constitution, it is not all that clear. The 1st Amendment specifies that Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof, but that could be read as only controlling the actions of Congress, not those of individuals or churches.

The most-cited reference to the separation doctrine comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, well after the Constitution was ratified, to the Danbury Baptist Assn. of Connecticut.

In this letter Jefferson said that there must be a “wall of separation between church and state.” Nevertheless, the 1st Amendment was later interpreted by the United States Supreme Court as forbidding anyone from bringing religion into government, and vice versa.

This is considered an important issue because of the two goals connected to it. The first is to protect government from the undue influence of the church. That is not to say that governments cannot be influenced by religious values, and it does not imply that we should become a secular society. That is not even a part of the discussion, nor should it be! But if you look back into the history of our country, you will find that churches strongly influenced the Salem Witch Trials. Elsewhere, you will find similar tragic results with the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the Holy Roman Empire. That is not to say we are in imminent peril; it is simply to say that we should be aware that the seeds are there.

Similarly, the Catholic Church in the 1600s caused Galileo to be prosecuted for proposing the scientific belief that the Earth rotated around the sun. This is not an untypical response when churches have some controls over governments and governments attempt to question church dogma. The seeds are there as well for the suppression of such an inquiry.

More recently we see the involvement by the Taliban in blowing up statues of Buddha in Afghanistan because they presented “inappropriate influences” to the people. Similarly some governments require women to cover themselves with scarves and burqas, or countenance the stoning of women for perceived sexual or other transgressions. Religion is often corrupting of government, and it should be kept separate.

Furthermore, it is not hard for one person or a small group of people to accumulate a large amount of power and influence in a church. Most churches are designed that way, with examples being the pope in Rome, and the ayotollahs in Iran. No one should want church officials to become in any way in charge of civilian governments.

Besides, probably anyone who does not see the problem can almost immediately be helped to see the light by being asked the following question: How would you feel if the other guy’s religion is chosen to lead or have undue influence on your government? I think we all know the answer.

If our country were to choose to have a state religion, or even be strongly influenced by a particular one, a conservative Christian religion would probably be selected. But in reality it is too late. We have long since also become a nation of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, less conservative Christian religions and many other religions, and also of people who are atheists, humanists or who have no religion at all. And if those people felt that someone else’s beliefs were going to have undue influence with their own government, it could very well lead to a civil war. Why? Because they are Americans, too and would rightly not want formally to be discriminated against by their own government.

So what about “In God We Trust” on our currency, or “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance? Is it unconstitutional? No, fortunately the courts understand that these are a large part of who we are, and an expression that, from the Founding Fathers on up until today, we are generally a God-fearing people, and that we trust and believe in God. The same thing is true for us to continue to celebrate Christmas as a national holiday, or for religious events or servants like Mother Teresa to be celebrated on our postage stamps. Of course, there will be those who try to “push the envelope” on both sides of those issues. But fortunately, the courts have seen it appropriate to celebrate and maintain the historical and traditional parts of our nation.

By analogy, probably aspirin would not be cleared today by the Food and Drug Administration, because it can be used in a dangerous if not life-threatening fashion. But we have grown up with it, it is a part of us and our culture, and there is virtually no chance that it will be recalled. Nor should it be. But had the phrase on our money been “In Jesus We Trust,” or the pledge instead contained “one nation under Buddha,” that would appropriately have been held to violate the Constitution and the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

The second critical goal is to enforce this separation for the protection of churches from the undue influence of government. When my wife, Grace, and I took our fabulous trip to Turkey, we learned that the government actually pays much of the salaries of the imams, who are the Muslim prayer leaders. When I asked why, our guide simply said that this was an effective way for the government to exercise some control over the actions of religious leaders. Obviously, these religious leaders would have a tendency to ease back on their criticism of the same entity that was issuing their paychecks. But the danger to religious freedom under those circumstances is obvious.

Similarly, we should be quite concerned about our government funneling charitable funds through religious institutions. It sounds fine in concept for the government to fund wonderful organizations like the Salvation Army and church-sponsored food kitchens for the poor, but remember that where government money is given, control is sure to follow. And then the “strings” attached to the funding invariably become ropes and chains. So in many ways it would be better for the money to be funneled to non-religious organizations. Besides, if the government funds your religious group’s charities, why shouldn’t it also fund mine? And that only begins the friction, because one person’s charity can quickly become another person’s terrorist group. Those conflicts will never end, so it is better not to get started down that road in the first place.

So for those reasons, we should try as firmly as we can to keep the function and control of government and of churches as separate as possible. That should not be seen as a comment that we are not supportive of religion or of government. In fact, it is a statement to the contrary — we actually support both. But true religious freedom can only be enjoyed, and government can only better provide equity, justice and protection for all, if the separation between the two of them is maintained.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts.” He can be contacted at or via his website at .

We are all living in the arms of God - by Judge Jim Gray

Recently I was asked to give a sermon at Garden Grove United Methodist Church, the church I belonged to before I met and got married to my wife, Grace, and I was truly happy to do so. So when you have an opportunity to speak on a topic of your own choosing in church, what would you talk about?

Well, I reflected for a while on the subject, and eventually landed on the theme: We are Christians – does it make any difference? Of course, there are significant differences because of Christian theology, and the story and teachings of Jesus. But are there any other differences as well? And if there are, what are they? See if your answers are the same as mine.

I began my talk by saying that I recently had published a book on judging in an attempt to pass along to new judges any wisdom I had gathered from my 25 years on the bench. And the first sentence of the preface of that book said that the best decision I had ever made in my life was choosing my parents. Of course, the benefits of that “choice” had made enormous differences in my life. My parents were a huge support system, and they provided me with love that was both unconditional and unending.

I confess that sometimes I put that love to the test. For example, when I was 10 years old I once attempted to shoplift a bag of Tootsie Rolls I got caught, and then was forced to inform my parents. They stood by me without recrimination, but I could tell that they were as disappointed in me as I was in myself. Since that time I have never again stolen anything from anybody, and I also have not been able to look another bag of Tootsie Rolls in the face!

But what a gift my parents gave me with this love and support! Of course, I believe that gift also came with a moral obligation to help those people on this Earth who did not “choose” their parents quite so well.

Like me, most people at least originally became Christians only by accident of birth. Thereafter, many people actually focus on the teachings of Jesus, weigh the Christian theology against that of other religions, and then choose to continue to follow the Christian faith. But many people did not choose to stay as Christians any more than I actually chose my parents. In fact, if their parents had been Hindu, the odds are overwhelming that they would still be Hindu to this day.

Did God choose us? Well, I certainly do not know the answer to that question – it is well above my pay grade. But I do know that God did give us choices in life, and then, just like my parents, is proud when we choose well, and disappointed when we choose poorly. But He still loves us regardless of the choices we make, without condition and without end. And that is a difference, in fact a big one.

As we discussed previously in this column, our attempts in peer court to have high school students focus on the fact that we are not a thief not because we fear being caught, but because we are better than that! Even if no one else in the world will know that we had taken some other student’s watch from his locker, we would know. And our parents did not raise us to be a thief! And, as Christians, neither did our Father who art in heaven.

Like many other people, I have tried to live the type of life that would allow me to be satisfied when I looked back on it from my deathbed, just as St. Peter would as we try to enter the Pearly Gates. So if I could give myself some advice from that position at the end of my life, it would be three things. First, love the people who treat you right, and absolutely forget about those who don’t. Second, if you get a chance in life, take it! In that regard, try to make the lyrics of the song “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” as your motto. “Until my number’s up, I’m gonna fill my cup / I’m gonna live, live, live until I die.”

And third, treat people like people. In so many ways, my wonderful father was my role model in this regard, as well as many others. When he was a federal judge in downtown Los Angeles, he would know the names of not only the custodians who kept our office spaces clean, but also the names of their children. And they loved him for it.

So without thinking about it, I naturally followed his lead. One day when I was a federal prosecutor in the same courthouse, I saw one of the men who worked on our floor, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Wicks.” At this point, this man completely stopped what he was doing and said, “Mr. Gray, I have been working here for 18 years, and you are the first person ever to call me by name.” What a shame. (As a further but irrelevant part of the story, I later found out that this nice and hardworking man was the father of Sidney Wicks, the All American basketball player for my treasured UCLA Bruins.) This experience also resulted in my lifelong tendency to try to leave bigger tips for people who wait on tables at cafes and who clean our hotel rooms. They work hard, but are generally taken for granted and unappreciated.

Similarly, my mother told me that one time she had accompanied my father on a trip to inspect Lompoc Federal Prison.

It so happened that the inmates had a talent show on the day of the visit, and my parents stayed to watch the show. As such, my father was seated with the warden on one side and my mother on the other. But next to my mother was an inmate who struck up a conversation with her by saying that my father happened to have sentenced him to prison, and that he had received a maximum sentence. With that piece of news, my mother said she literally tried to move over closer to my father and away from this inmate.

But he went on to say that nevertheless, because throughout the trial and sentencing my father had always treated him with dignity and respect, my father was his favorite judge he had ever appeared before – and he had been before lots of judges!

That is why in so many ways our state’s drug courts have been a positive revolution in our court system. Why? Because it forces judges, prosecutors, probation officers and even the arresting police officers to treat the defendants as real people. No longer are the criminal defendants who happen to be drug-addicted thought of or labeled as “hypes,” “junkies,” or even statistics. Instead, they are thought of as fellow human beings, who have the same desires, needs, dreams, and failings that all of the rest of us have. So treating people as people does not at all mean that we have to be taken advantage of by them, or that we do not hold them accountable for what they do. It just means that we treat them as individuals.

On this subject, I recommend you read the book, “The Anatomy of Peace,” by the Arbinger Institute. This well-crafted and easy-reading book discusses the difference between treating another person as a person, or as an object. If we treat others as people, we do not need to justify our own prejudices, depressions, self-righteousness, or fears, because those issues simply don’t arise. But if we treat them as objects, all of these harmful and degrading traits within us often increase and harden, which will in turn allow them to poison us. Then we proceed to use the injustices that are done to us as justifications to do injustices to others. At that point, we become our own enemies by using our mistreatments to destroy our own peace.

So it is not just the dictators of some nations of the world that inflict bad things upon others in order to get or maintain power. All of us can do that as well.

Jesus said: “If you love me, then feed my sheep.” With the blessings we have received, we can help administer to the needs of others who, through nothing they have done, are not as fortunate as we are. I think that is the answer. Oh, I know that we can’t bring peace to the whole world, and it may be na├»ve to believe otherwise. But we can bring peace to our world! Like the hymn says, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

We are truly blessed. We have chosen well, or, one way or the other, we were eternally lucky to have been chosen. Our Father loves us – without condition, and without end. He cares about us, and wants to be proud of us. It matters, and what a difference it makes!

So in the time remaining to us upon this earth, we should stand up extra straight. Walk proud. And fear not. Because we are Christians. We are living our lives nestled in the arms of a loving God!

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Take heart: a proposed tax that is ‘fair’ - by Judge Jim Gray

No one should need any convincing that our present federal and state income tax system is costly, oppressively complex, and economically inefficient.

The present federal tax code exceeds 54,000 pages and contains more than 2.8 million words, and much of it is for providing special tax breaks for individual companies or industries. Well, take heart because help is on the way.

A Fair Tax Plan has been introduced into Congress in the form of House Bill 25 and Senate Bill 25, and, if passed, would establish a federal progressive national retail sales tax.

We have previously discussed a Flat Tax in this column, which is a severely modified income tax that would be a vast improvement over the present system, and one that we should seriously consider.

But the FAIR Tax, as taken from an open letter from 80 college professors and financial experts to the President, Congress, and the American People, would be different, and in many ways far better.

The FAIR Tax is a national retail sales tax that would be levied upon only the final sale of goods and services.

It also provides that all income, capital gains, payroll, Medicare, and estate taxes, and social security (FICA) withholdings would be abolished upon its implementation!

Among other things, this would enable all workers and retirees to receive 100% of their paychecks and pension benefits because, since there would no longer be an income tax or these other taxes, there would be no need for any withholding from their paychecks. That would further mean that the woes of April 15 would be gone forever with regard to the federal government!

Importantly enough, this tax would not fall disproportionally upon the poor.

This would be assured by a rebate to all households each month on all of the sales taxes that were paid on necessities, up to an independently determined poverty amount of spending. That poverty level would probably be determined by a government agency like the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition, there would be no sales tax attached either to the rental of or mortgages to purchase real property.

The sales taxes would be collected on all retail transactions, just as 45 states do already. And, importantly enough, the sales tax itself would be revenue neutral.

That is to say, it would not increase or decrease the amounts of tax monies that are paid each year to the federal government.

But it would significantly reduce the amount of administrative, collection, and enforcement expenses that the government now expends – and it would also materially reduce fraud.

How so? Because the only audits that would be required would be those of retail providers of goods and services.

And since the transparency of the tax system would be increased to almost complete, and the complexity would be reduced almost out of existence, it would increase everyone’s belief in the fairness of the system.

Obviously the imposition of this system would also result in similar enormous savings in compliance costs to individuals and corporations, which conservatively cost a total of about $225 billion per year.

And, importantly enough, this would also allow individuals and corporations once again to make family and business decisions based upon family and business considerations, instead of tax considerations.

In other words, for the most part the only people that would lose under the FAIR Tax would be some of the accountants and tax preparers of this world, as well as the employees of the Internal Revenue Service.

In addition, members of Congress would also lose a great deal of their power with the passage of this measure.

Why is that true? Because the ability to designate tax breaks for particular special interests directly results in a great deal of power for the members of Congress. And this power translates into campaign contributions, which, in turn, keep politicians more beholden to those same special interests. Passing the FAIR Tax would substantially do away with that problem area.

There would be other favorable tangible and intangible results as well. For example, all people, whether citizens or documented or undocumented residents, would end up paying their appropriate share of taxes. So this measure would materially enlarge the federal tax base.

Furthermore, it would also make our domestic goods more competitive with foreign goods both inside and outside of our borders.

Why? Because under our present system, payroll, Medicare and social security taxes are now paid on the labor to produce the goods and services that are created here, but not on those created abroad. With this new system, the taxes would be the same for all goods and services in our country, regardless of their origin. This is the system that most foreign countries use already, to our competitive disadvantage.

Similarly, the tax biases against working for the extra dollar and saving and investing money would also be removed, thus strongly re-encouraging these beneficial practices. Today’s income and capital gains taxes to an appreciable degree punish working for the extra dollar, and the saving and investing of those dollars. So removing these disincentives would directly lead to higher economic growth, a faster growth in productivity, more jobs, lower interest rates, and a higher standard of living for the American people.

Finally, even though the FAIR Tax would be designed to be revenue neutral, it would probably eventually increase gross revenues for the government, for each of two reasons. First, the savings both to individuals and to businesses would probably spur the economy significantly just by themselves, so more tax money would be generated. And secondly, since simplicity of enforcement as well as the reality and perception of fairness would all be increased, more people would pay their full share of taxes without feeling that they were being treated as chumps. So what’s not to like?

So how do we implement this change? Well, people are getting excited, and not only those involved with the Tea Party, and they are communicating that excitement to their members of Congress. That is what it takes, so please join them. Imagine the positive changes. Yes, the sales tax will probably be around 23% of all retail transactions, but keeping all of your income until you decide to make a purchase, no longer keeping records for the filing of tax returns, repealing all taxes on savings and investments, and so much more would truly result in a much better, less expensive, and more equitable system, for the prosperity of us all.

For further information, please visit, or call (800) 962-8237.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .

Monday, March 1, 2010

Human trafficking is still big business - by Judge Jim Gray

There is no question that the United Nations has become enormously political and petty. But it still offers some hope for addressing and even resolving some disputes around the world, and it should be allowed to continue to exist — if only to keep that hope alive.

One of the best ways for the U.N. to regain some positive status would be to find, focus upon and work to resolve a serious problem in the world, and it would be more likely to be successful if the actions that spawned that problem were condemned by every government in the world. Well, such an opportunity exists, because human trafficking, or human slavery, exists all around the world and generates about $9.5 billion each year! So this is an unimaginably large problem, and the United Nations should make the eradication of slavery its top priority.

The most common definition of a slave is a person who is in a social or economic relationship in which he or she is controlled by violence or the threat of violence, forced to work without being paid, and is not permitted to leave. Depending upon which institution you consult, there are somewhere between 12.3 million and 27 million slaves in the world today. And, hard as it may be to believe, it is estimated that about 15,000 people are brought into the United States each year to be enslaved. About 80% of the world’s slaves are women, and 50% are younger than 18. The reason for this is that women and children are usually more docile, which means that they are more easily held in bondage.

With globalization, it is far easier now to transport slaves around the world. In fact, after illicit drugs and guns, slaves are the largest illegal commodity in the world. Slaves are used worldwide not only in prostitution, but also as agricultural, garment and domestic workers. Often they are lured from poverty areas by the promise of food and jobs in another country. But once they arrive, their passports are confiscated, and they are enslaved. Some children are even sold by their desperate parents so that the parents will have more resources to feed and clothe their other children.

As it is required to do by the Trafficking Persons Protective Act, each year the U.S. secretary of state’s office provides a list of countries that are turning a blind eye to the existence of slavery within their borders. As of 2009, these countries are Burma (Myanmar Republic), Chad, Cuba, Eritrea, Fiji, Iran, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mauritania, Niger, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Swaziland, Syria and Zimbabwe. Slavery occurs in these countries because many police, government officials and judges either look the other way to its presence or actually take bribes to allow it to continue.

As a result, and contrary to what most people would think, the 20th century saw a three-fold increase in slavery over what was present in the 19th century. In fact, slavery is so prevalent that the costs of owning a slave today are far lower than before. For example, in many places a slave today can be bought for about $90, whereas in the 1850s the average price in today’s currency was about $40,000. That means that, among other things, there is far less of an incentive to keep one’s slaves alive today than there was before, because it is so cheap to purchase replacements. For that reason, slaves are often referred to as “disposable people.”

It is hard to imagine how there could there be a more important and non-controversial issue that the world could unite and rally behind, and the United Nations would be the best place to start. How could any civilized society publicly refuse to take part in the total eradication of slavery?

Well, unfortunately, the answer to that question often is money. Imagine how hard some governments around the world are pushing OPEC countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on this issue, considering at the same time that they desperately need to buy oil from those same countries. In addition, often the enslaved people who are discovered and liberated in various places around the world are so fearful about what may happen to their family members back home if they testify against those who sold them into bondage, or kept them there, that prosecutions are difficult. Therefore, often the traders are simply deported instead of being prosecuted.

But if there is the political will, progress can be made. For example, in direct response to the public outrage that resulted from discovering a farm that was using hundreds of slaves, the government of Brazil began taking action to punish slave trading, and has been successful in freeing thousands of slaves. In addition, Brazil has also taken the action permanently to deprive any company from receiving any government grants or loans if they have been involved in using slaves in their businesses.

Another successful manner of fighting slavery comes from consumers organizing themselves to boycott companies that use slave labor. Traditionally one of the industries that has engaged in this despicable behavior was the cocoa plantations in West Africa. Of course, sometimes it is difficult to determine on a retail level which producer is involved and which is not. Nevertheless, when consumers boycotted the entire industry it was so effective that most of the companies that were using slaves changed their ways. That means that, with a little caring and effort, all of us can do our part to reduce and even eventually eliminate this practice.

For more information about the slavery problem of the 21st century I recommend you read two books. One is Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl L. WuDunn’s “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” (Borzai Books, 2009), and the other is Kevin Bales’ “Ending Slavery: How We Free Today’s Slaves” (University of California Press, 2007). You can also visit or (which stands for Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking) to learn more about how you can get involved.

Finally, as fortune would have it, Kevin Bales, who is considered to be one of the foremost authorities in the world about modern day slavery, will be speaking at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles near Los Angeles International Airport at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Hilton Hall, Room 100. I encourage you to attend this sobering and important presentation and then get involved.

JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at or via his website at .