The Dirty Little Secret of How CEOs Enrich Themselves at Your Expense

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 6:28pm
Stock buybacks take money from your pocket and put it into the hands of corporate titans.

Everyone from Warren Buffett toRobert Reich is talking about a favorite Wall Street trick called stock buybacks. But what are they and what do they mean to you?

William Lazonick is a leading expert on the history of the American business corporation. A professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he directs the Center for Industrial Competitiveness, he has long been watching a trend that has only recently been attracting media attention and forcing many to reassess the nasty form of capitalisim that has been unleashed on us in recent decades.

In an email interview with Lazonick, I asked him about how the widespread and little-understood obsession with stock buybacks among American executives is driving inequality and pushing prosperity further away from everyone except those at the very top. (Lazonick's in-depth exploration of this topic is available in the current issue of theHarvard Business Review.)

His answers are a clarion call for changing the way America does business.

Lynn Parramore: You’ve been studying stock buybacks over the last 30 years. What exactly are they and why are you so interested in them?

William Lazonick: Let me start by answering the second part of your question first (in part because if I had just been studying stock buybacks over the past 30 years, I would be bored out of my mind by now).

In the mid-1980s, I was at Harvard Business School (HBS), working with the Business History Group led by the preeminent business historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.  Previously I had spent 14 years as a graduate student and faculty member in the Harvard Economics Department where the main focus of my work was, as it remains, the role of business enterprise in the development of the economy. In working closely with Chandler, who in 1977 had published his pathbreaking book The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, I learned five crucial lessons about my subject.

1) From the last decades of the 19th century, the growth of major business corporations drove the development of the U.S. economy.

2) Professional salaried managers controlled resource allocation in these business corporations, and hence their decisions determined the direction and intensity of corporate investment strategies. 

3) The key investments that these executives made were in organizational structures made up of employees who had the abilities and incentives to engage in collective and cumulative learning.

4) The financial foundation for making these long-lived investments in organizational capabilities was after-tax earnings retained out of profits.

5) Public shareholders who received a portion of after-tax profits in the form of dividends were rentiers who had nothing to do with the investment strategies and organizational structures that would determine the success, or possibly the failure, of these companies.

By the mid-1980s, I was already a longstanding critic of the conventional theory that argues the "invisible hand” of markets will allocate resources to their most efficient uses in the economy. Rather, in line with Chandler’s notion of the "visible hand,” employment opportunities and standards of living depend on the resource-allocation decisions of executives who run large business corporations.

Based on 2007 data (the most recently collected), 1,925 companies in the United States that employed 5,000 or more people represented just 32-thousandths of one percent of all companies, but had 33 percent of all business employees, 37 percent of all business payrolls, and 43 percent of all business revenues. How the executives in control of these very large corporations allocate resources has a profound impact on how the economy performs.

In 1991, based largely on papers I presented at the HBS Business History Seminar over a six-year period, I published a book, Business Organization and the Myth of the Market Economy, in which I drew out the implications of the Chandlerian perspective (informed also by economists such as Marx, Marshall, Schumpeter, and Penrose) for a theory of how managerial capitalism can support stable and equitable economic growth.

Meanwhile, at HBS in the last half of the 1980s, I witnessed first-hand how free-market ideology became dominant in the teaching of MBAs. Legitimized by a new ideology that for the sake of economic efficiency corporations should be run to “maximize shareholder value” (MSV), a breed of Chicago-trained economists known as agency theorists argued that U.S. corporations should disgorge their cash flow to shareholders, not only in the traditional form of dividends, which reward shareholders for continuing to hold their stock, but also in the form of stock buybacks, which, by manipulating the company’s stock price, reward “shareholders” for selling their stock. Agency theorists argued that incumbent managers could be induced to disgorge corporate cash to shareholders either by the stick of a hostile takeover or the carrot of stock-based executive compensation.

I was one of the first academic critics of MSV. It is an ideology that argues for the allocation of corporate cash to those economic actors, public shareholders, who matter least to economic performance. I realized that MSV was not actually an ideology of public shareholders, either as individuals or institutional investors (for example, pension funds). Rather it quite quickly became an ideology of top corporate executives. If, as has certainly been the case since the 1980s, the companies that they control face new competitive challenges, they can just lay off thousands of long-serving employees, use corporate cash to manipulate their companies’ stock prices through stock buybacks, and join the top 0.1% of the richest households with their ample stock-based pay. It is a corporate allocation regime I call “downsize-and-distribute.” 

That, in a nutshell, is what my article in the current issue of Harvard Business Review is all about.

What exactly are stock buybacks? As I explain in the HBR article, some stock buybacks, done as tender offers, can actually reinforce the control over resource allocation of executives who want to “retain-and-reinvest.” They retain corporate earnings, and reinvest in the productive capabilities of the companies that they control. Warren Buffett used tender offers in this way in the 1980s to take complete control of the insurance company Geico, which has been a key business for financing the growth of Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway (of which Geico became a wholly owned subsidiary in 1996). “Retain-and-reinvest” is what enabled large numbers of Americans (especially white males) who had secure career employment with corporations in the post-World War II decades to enjoy higher standards of living.

But that era of relatively stable and equitable economic growth is now gone, and the trillions of dollars that corporations have spent over the last three decades on open-market repurchases, which constitute at least 90 percent of stock buybacks, reflect the dominance of a “downsize-and-distribute” corporate allocation regime that is largely responsible for the concentration of income at the top and the disappearance of middle-class employment opportunities. Open-market repurchases have one, and only one, purpose: to manipulate a company’s stock price. And, with ample stock-based pay through which they can realize gains from a volatile stock market, prime beneficiaries of this mode of corporate resource allocation are the top executives who make the decisions to do buybacks, often on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars per day when it suits their purpose to give their company’s stock price a manipulative boost.

LP: How do stock buybacks enrich CEOs at the expense of workers?

WL: On its Executive Paywatch website, the AFL-CIO charts the average pay of CEOs of major U.S. corporations to the average American worker, and for recent years has come up with a ratio of about 350:1. Actually, if executive pay is measured properly, the ratio is around 900:1. Even at 100:1, however, it would be way out of whack in cross-national and historical comparison. But a focus on the CEO:worker pay ratio misses the point. It is not the amount of pay CEOs rake in that causes untold harm to workers. It is how they get that high pay that is the major problem.

Let’s say (hypothetically) that by doing a billion dollars in open-market repurchases over several days, a CEO can boost his or her stock-based pay by $50,000 annually. It’s the billion dollars of buybacks that cost workers pay increases, career opportunities, and maybe even their jobs. The extra $50,000 in stock-based pay to the CEO is just an outcome, and redistributing some of that income to workers after the fact of corporate resource allocation will not restore the career employment opportunities that they have lost.

In my research, I provide lots of examples of ways in which a downsize-and-distribute corporate resource allocation regime characterized by massive stock buybacks hurts most Americans not just as workers but also as taxpayers. As a case in point, it is well known that in the United States, the price of pharmaceutical drugs is at least twice as high as anywhere else in the world. From time to time, this discrepancy has become an issue in Congress, with the drug companies responding that the profits from the higher drug prices enable them to do more drug R&D in the United States. Yet, even after paying dividends, it is not unusual for a major drug company to spend 50-100% of its profits on buybacks. To make matters worse, through the National Institutes of Health, American taxpayers provide critical R&D inputs to drug companies to the tune of $30 billion per annum. In effect, as both consumers and taxpayers, ordinary working households pay high drug prices so that corporate executives can do massive buybacks that serve to pump up their own pay.

LP: Take the case of a company like Apple. How do its stock buybacks impact ordinary Americans?

WL: In its history as a publicly listed company going back to 1980, Apple did a lot of buybacks from 1986 through 1993, and then got into major financial difficulty. When Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997, he eschewed buybacks and dividends, and the rest is history. Since April 2013, under CEO Tim Cook, Apple has put in place two buyback programs totaling $90 billion, and through June 2014, in just over a year, the company has repurchased $51 billion. Nevertheless, Apple remains a highly profitable company, with $164 billion in cash and securities at the end of June 2014. So why not “return” some of these billions to public shareholders? Here’s why not:

Except for $97 million that Apple raised in its IPO in 1980, public shareholders have never invested in the company. So why should the company “return” money to non-investors? Apple’s investors have been taxpayers through government expenditure on science and technology and workers through their involvement in organizational learning. The public pressure on Apple to disgorge its cash to shareholders has come from corporate predators (aka hedge fund activists) such as David Einhorn and Carl Icahn who have taken big stakes in Apple’s shares, but have never made any contributions whatsoever to Apple’s competitive success. They are value extractors, not value creators. The gains they can extract as Apple does massive buybacks to manipulate the price of its shares will flow into a financial system in which those funds will be mobilized to extract even more value from Apple and other companies in which the financiers played no roles in productive investment.

From this perspective, Apple is part of a productive economy that in large part through stock buybacks has permitted the growth of a financial economy that, as we saw in the Great Financial Crisis, systemically reaps where it has not sown. And whatever Apple’s past and current success in selling its innovative products, its CEO and board are supporting the further financialization of the U.S. economy. 

In the 1980s when a corporate raider such as Icahn went after a company’s assets, it was called a hostile takeover. We don’t hear the word “hostile” that much anymore because a CEO such as Apple’s Tim Cook, with $209 million from the vesting of stock awards in 2012-2013 alone, is not at all hostile to the wolves of Wall Street. They have joined together in the financialized feeding frenzy.

So that’s one big problem exemplified by Apple. Corporate executives have become self-centered and greedy – some have called them sociopathic – with apparently no interest in or understanding of the roles of taxpayers and workers in making their successful companies possible. Drunk on the ideology of MSV, they fail to see the relation between economy and society, and the central role of the business corporation in shaping that relation. I am doubtful whether such financialized corporate executives can have much of a vision about the innovative future of the companies that they head, let alone a vision of the path to sustainable prosperity of the society in which they are privileged and powerful participants.

As for all of the ways that Apple as a business enterprise could use its cash hoard rather than fuel the financialized economy with buybacks, let’s save that for another interview.

LP: You mention that stock buybacks took off with deregulation in the 1980s, particularly the SEC’s adoption of Rule 10b-18. How do we put this genie back in the bottle?

WL: As shown in research that I have done with Ken Jacobson, in 1981, with President Reagan’s appointment of Wall Street banker John Shad to head the SEC, this government agency was transformed from a regulator to promoter of the stock market. Shad, like the Chicago economists who influenced his thinking, really believed that a more unregulated stock market would be a more “efficient” stock market, mobilizing that nation’s savings for corporate capital formation.

Today, the SEC remains captive to this erroneous view of the world. A fundamental role of the stock market for business enterprises in the United States has been to permit private-equity investors to exit their investments in companies, not to bring in fresh capital to finance new investments in productive capabilities. SEC Rule 10b-18, passed under the radar in November 1982, encouraged companies to do large-scale buybacks to support their stock prices, and effectively legalized stock-price manipulation. As a result of buybacks, over the past decade net equity issues of U.S. stock markets have averaged minus $376 billion per year. Companies fund the stock markets; the stock markets do not fund companies.

How do we get the SEC to actually regulate manipulation and fraud, as is its mandate? I suggest that we start with a massive re-education of the economics profession on the relation between business organizations and stock markets in a successful economy. The intellectual and ideological issues involved go far beyond the particular use of stock buybacks as tools of value extraction.

LP: If we can’t curb buybacks, where are we headed?

WL: The current commitment of corporate executives to MSV, and their liberal use of buybacks to achieve that objective, can only serve to reinforce the orientation of U.S. business to “downsize-and-distribute.” The concentration of income among the 0.1% of richest households, among whom top corporate executives are by far the most numerous single group, will increase, while the 30-year-old erosion of U.S. middle-class employment opportunities will escalate as “retain-and-reinvest” companies in other parts of the world out-innovate their U.S competitors.

It is not that difficult to see where the United States is headed once we understand how, over the past three decades, we have gotten to where we are. More employment instability, more income inequity, and a gradual but perceptible decline in innovative capability. Sorry for the pessimism. I am by nature an optimist!

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What's New: First Canada-wide Peoples' Social Forum opens this week

Socialist Project - August 20, 2014 - 5:00pm
A press conference was held at Bezpala Brown Gallery in Toronto to highlight the historic gathering of thousands of activists and progressive organizations in the first Canada-wide Peoples' Social Forum from August 20-24. Speakers at the press conference included: David McNally, Vanessa Gray, Raul Burbano, and Carol Baker.
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3 Ways America Enables Slaughter in Gaza

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 4:44pm
The U.S. government plays a central role in perpetuating the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

American debate on the hundreds of civilian deaths in Gaza and the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict is polarized between feelings of sympathy with civilian victims on either side and mutual vilification of the Likud-led government of Israel and the Hamas-led government in Gaza.  But it may be more constructive for Americans to think about the role that the U.S. government plays in perpetuating this never-ending and heart-rending conflict.

Opinion polling during a crisis tends to reflect the passions of the moment, but Americans have told pollsters for decades that we want our government to take an even-handed position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  A Chicago Council Global Views survey in 2012 found that 65% of Americans want the U.S. to "not take either side", while only 30% want it to "take Israel's side". That majority rose to 74% vs 17% at the height of the U.S. war in Iraq in 2004.  

But despite decades of presenting itself as an "honest broker" for Middle East peace, there are three ways that the U.S. unequivocally takes the Israeli side in the conflict and effectively supports the Israeli occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) with all it entails, from illegal settlement building to horrific violence:

1. Military aid. The U.S. has provided Israel with at least $73 billion in military aid and currently gives it $3.1 billion per year.  Under the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) and Arms Export Control Act (AECA), the U.S. is obliged to suspend or terminate military aid when U.S. weapons are used against civilians or in other ways that violate international humanitarian law, but these provisions have not been invoked or enforced in the case of Israel since 1982.  After resupplying the Israelis with ammunition during the Gaza crisis, the Obama administration has finally begun reviewing Israeli arms requests on a case-by-case basis and is witholding a new shipment of Hellfire missiles. Compliance with the FAA and AECA would require a suspension of military aid until recent alleged violations of U.S. law have been fully investigated, and stricter compliance could justify ending all military aid until a permanent peace settlement is reached and the occupation is ended.

2. Diplomatic cover. Since 1966, the U.S. has used its UN Security Council veto 83 times, more than the other four Permanent Members combined.  Forty-two of those vetoes have served to kill resolutions on Israel and Palestine, effectively shielding Israel from accountability under international law.  Israel has taken advantage of this effective immunity from the rule of law to violate the Geneva Conventions and other human rights laws, to continually expand its illegal settlements in the OPT and to ignore UN Security Council resolutions that require it to withdraw from the OPT.  The U.S. also uses its diplomatic, military and economic power in other ways to shield Israel from international accountability.  This extraordinary use of the U.S.veto and American power to shield a foreign state from the rule of law must end, before it further undermines a fragile system of international law that has already been badly damaged and weakened by the U.S.'s own illegal actions since 2001.

3. Moral support.  Israel is now a wealthy, developed country with an advanced weapons industry, so it could adapt to even a complete cut-off of U.S. military aid.  But U.S. diplomatic and Congressional support is critical to the Israeli government's ability to ignore otherwise universal condemnation of its illegal settlement building, human rights abuses and failure to end the occupation.  The UN General Assembly passed 21 resolutions on Israel-Palestine in 2013, mostly by at least 165-6, with the US and Israel in the minority. But U.S. support confers a false sense of legitimacy on Israeli policies.  Unconditional moral support encourages the Israeli government to press ahead with an illegal territorial expansion that the world will never recognize, leading only to endless conflict and growing international isolation for Israel itself.

These three elements of U.S. policy form a stable tripod, a three-legged stool upon which this otherwise unacceptable state of conflict grinds away without end and regularly flares up in horrific slaughter and mass destruction.  

Decades of UN resolutions require Israel to end its occupation of the OPT, to dismantle illegal settlements in the OPT and to treat Palestinians, both in Israel and in the OPT, according to the rights guaranteed to people everywhere by international humanitarian law.  The U.S. officially stands with the rest of the world on the fundamental questions, that the occupation must end, that Israel's international borders are the ones recognized by the UN in 1949, and on the protections guaranteed to civilians living under occupation by the 4th Geneva Convention.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry adopted a public posture of "getting tough" with the Netanyahu government over negotiations and settlement-building.  But the unwavering U.S. commitment to its three pillars of unconditional support for the Israeli occupation sent Netanyahu an unmistakable message that he could safely ignore Obama's and Kerry's "get tough" posture.  This left them looking impotent and more than a little naive, and it emboldened Netanyahu to launch the deadliest and most destructive assault yet on Gaza.  The Israelis seem to have achieved their goal of tightening the blockade by destroying the tunnels that were Gaza's only lifeline to the world, but this has only hardened the determination of Palestinians in Gaza to resist the even more restricted future the Israelis are seeking to impose on them.

Will Americans keep pretending that our government has been an "honest broker" in its efforts to end this horrific conflict?  Or will we finally demand real changes in the three aspects of U.S. policy that perpetuate war and occupation and deny peace to innocent civilians on both sides?

 

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Hit by Creationist Backlash for Explaining Universe Is Billions of Years Old

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 4:39pm
In an interview with AlterNet, Tyson talks about the success of his TV show 'Cosmos.'

In the wake of the success of the "Cosmos" television series, which picked up four Emmy Awards earlier this week, Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed politics, religion and science in a recent interview with AlterNet. 

When I asked if the success of "Cosmos" had surprised him, Tyson said he had not anticipated the kind of coverage the show would get by entertainment sites and blogs. Because of the show's major network backing and primetime slot, he said, it was covered like any other television show. He said this forced many entertainment writers to write about all sorts of science topics not often covered in these publications, exposing the show to a new and possibly unintended audience.

Tyson was not as shocked by the backlash the show garnered from certain religious and political groups, mainly creationists who took issue with Tyson’s insistence on discussing evolution, the Big Bang theory and the history of scientific discovery. Their criticism of the show did not bother Tyson at all. “You have to ask yourself, what are the numbers behind the people making these claims? Someone like Ken Ham [owner of the Creation Museum] has beliefs that are even crazy to many Christians.”

Ken Ham’s criticisms came in the form of a weekly review on his website Answers in Genesis, a creationist organization. Ham's comments gained some attention from the media and were often answered by science writers all over the Internet. 

But Tyson wondered how Ham was even able to get anyone’s attention. He speculated it had something to do with Ham's debate with Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

"Everyone knew Bill Nye, but almost no one had heard of Ken Ham," Tyson said. "But after the debate [Ham] realized he had some media attention. You have to wonder—if that debate never happened if he would have even bothered covering the show at all?”

Tyson said he has no interest in addressing the claims AIG made against him or the show. 

“What I say is not an opinion,” Tyson said. “Life is too short to debate people's opinions. There is an old saying, if a debate lasts more than five minutes, both sides lost.”

This is the reason Tyson says he doesn’t debate. “My publicist wanted to set up a series of debates with me about Pluto, but I don’t care that much—call Pluto a planet, call it a planetoid, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Just make sure that whatever you call it, you are doing so informed.”

Tyson said as an educator, his goal is not to tell people what to think, but to teach them how to think and provide them with scientific facts. It's up to them to decide what to do with this knowledge. “I am not a totalitarian, I don’t want to tell you what to believe. I want to provide you with the tools and evidence to arrive at your position on your own, and if you disagree with me, that’s fine, as long as your disagreement does not harm others.”

Tyson was seemingly verging on a more political discussion, though he has stayed guarded on his political leanings. “I have opinions and I lean one way over another, but I am not here to share my opinion or tell someone how they should vote,” said the scientist. He also had a fear that his fans could adopt his opinions simply because Tyson had stated them and not because they arrived at the same conclusions on their own.

Tyson has a long history of not openly endorsing any political party. He believes that science is apolitical, and politicians should come to scientists for information when it is in regards to public policy. “One thing that brings me great sadness is when a scientific discovery that should be apolitical is politicized, and suddenly people are choosing sides on their own and not consulting with scientists.”

He reminded me that the National Academy of Sciences was formed for this very purpose. If politicians needed to gather scientific information in order to write public policy, they would reach out to NAS, but today they choose sides that only seem to serve them personally.

“When you cherry-pick information to serve a need, there is a problem,” he said, referring to politicians who ignore evidence that does not support their political position or religious beliefs.

While Tyson says he does not like to tell people what to believe, he has spoken out against many types of science denial, especially on episodes of "Cosmos" in which he addressed issues like climate change and discussed that you can really take it to climate deniers by hitting them where it hurts most, their wallets.

Tyson insisted he was providing the overwhelming evidence in support of the anthropogenic global warming theory, not simply by telling people it was true, but by showing them how we know it’s true and the significance of its impact. Tyson's mission is to educate as many people as he can to think critically and to arrive at their conclusions and beliefs informed. He knows he cannot make everyone agree, but believes that if people are making informed decisions about science, we have a chance of making fewer bad decisions with the knowledge we have.

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I Am a 15-Year-Old Immigrant Who Came to America Because Gangs Murdered My Family. All I Want to Do Is Stay and Learn

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 4:12pm
This is my undocumented limbo.

When my father was murdered by gangs in El Salvador when I was seven, I thought nothing could get worse.

But then the gangs started threatening me, too, and beating up my brothers. I couldn’t go to school because the gangs there would come after me, and I wasn’t safe at home because the other gangs there came after all of us. There was nothing the police would or could do.

I was constantly under threat, as were my siblings. So in June 2013, scared of this situation, we made the decision to go to the United States – to try to escape the violence. I was 14, and my brothers were nine and 12.

We were all frightened to go, and we knew that it was very risky and dangerous. But it was riskier to stay where we were.

Still, fleeing El Salvador was scary: we knew there were lots of bad people who kidnap and capture travelers along the way to America, so we never really felt safe. We took buses, cars and taxis to get through Guatemala and Mexico, and everything looked so strange.

Through it all, I just kept thinking about our father’s murder, and our cousin’s murder, about all the bad people who wanted to hurt us in El Salvador, and prayed that we would find somewhere safe in America.

But when we got to the border, we had to make a choice. We were told that we probably wouldn’t get caught if we traveled through the desert, but people die there, and we were just children. So we went through the immigration checkpoint at Tijuana and were detained.

The American border agents handcuffed us, even my youngest brother, which was scary because none of us had ever been handcuffed before. We didn’t know what would come next. We didn’t know if they would just send us back right away, if we would even have a chance to tell our story to anyone, to make them understand, or if we would ever have any chance of living in the United States.

We were in the immigration holding center for about two days, and only then were we moved to a shelter for children, where we stayed for about two weeks. There, we were able to go to school, and the workers at the shelter helped us out a lot.

But that’s also when they told us about the court that would decide if we get to stay in America, because of how we got here. We got very worried, because we were thinking to ourselves, “Now we have to go to a court, and we don’t have a lawyer!”

After we were released from the shelter in July 2013 to await our date with the judge, we went to Washington so we could be with my mom. I had not seen her since she had been forced to flee El Salvador years ago (also because of the gangs). Seeing my mom again was the best day I had had in so long. I finally felt safe.

I’ve been attending high school, just like any other American teenager. Because our teachers don’t speak a lot of Spanish, they’re having us use the Rosetta Stone program – so each day we learn a bit more. It’s been difficult, but I’m really loving being so excited about school. This year, I’ve had excellent grades – as have my brothers – so it’s helped us feel better about our decision to leave, despite all the troubles.

But our court date is in September, so we’re more concerned than ever. We still don’t have a lawyer. We don’t know what to tell the immigration judge. We don’t know what the American laws are like. We can’t defend ourselves in front of a judge if we don’t even know the language, let alone the laws of this country. We really want to stay in the United States, but it feels like, if we go to the judge without a lawyer, it’s almost certain that he’ll send us back to our home country no matter what we say.

We have the chance for a better future here, a future that we can’t have in El Salvador: there’s so much violence there, and the opportunities to get ahead in life – education, work – just aren’t safe because of the violence. All we’re asking for is help: the help of an attorney, so that we can have a chance to stay and access opportunities that will help us be better and help society. 

We just want to go to school and work hard and not have to worry about being hurt or killed, the way we would back home.

As told to Rafael Noboa y Rivera, in Spanish. “Ashley” is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in a class action lawsuit against the US government for the right to be represented by a lawyer in her deportation hearing.

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Drugs Are Fun and That Should Figure Into Our Understanding of Addiction

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 3:58pm
Factoring drug-related pleasure into a cost-benefit analysis of laws and regulations could be a positive step.

How do you measure the pleasure that you lose when you end an addiction? To most formerly addicted people, the question makes little sense because by the time they quit, it’s often been years since the benefits of the drugs in any way outweighed their negative consequences. However, pleasure is an essential part of life: It’s not for nothing that the pursuit of happiness is highlighted in America’s founding document. Including measures of pleasure is critical to regulating addictive drugs, in fact—but only if it’s done right.

This issue is now faced by the FDA, which, under federal law, must weigh benefits against costs when creating regulations and avoid making rules that are too expensive. The agency must calculate the value not only of health gains from reduced smoking rates, but also of enjoyment lost by smokers who quit. Not surprisingly, that sort of pleasure is difficult to quantify in dollar terms, as the FDA is learning to its dismay.

The government’s calculations recently caused consternation among antismoking groups, who claim that the agency has given too much weight to the hedonic “benefit” of smoking—and the loss of this that comes with quitting—in making its latest tobacco rules and rejecting the idea of graphic warning labels on cigarette packs.

Earlier this month, a group of heavyweight economists (including a Nobel laureate) released a critique of the new regulations as part of the public comment period required when new rules are considered. Here’s how the New York Times described it:

Buried deep in the federal government’s voluminous new tobacco regulations is a little-known cost-benefit calculation that public health experts see as potentially poisonous: the happiness quotient. It assumes that the benefits from reducing smoking—fewer early deaths and diseases of the lungs and heart—have to be discounted by 70% to offset the loss in pleasure that smokers suffer when they give up their habit.

Experts say that calculation wipes out most of the economic benefits from the regulations and could make them far more vulnerable to legal challenges from the tobacco industry. And it could have a perverse effect, experts said. The more successful regulators are at reducing smoking, the more it hurts them in the final economic accounting.

Described that way, the cost-benefit analysis includes measuring pleasure when regulating addictive drugs like cigarettes is pernicious. Reducing the financial “benefit” side of the calculation by 70% to “balance” the pluses of longer lives and better health against the “lost pleasure” of smoking clearly goes too far. Indeed, in their critique, the economists note that more than three-quarters of all smokers start their habit while underage, meaning that they are probably not making a completely rational consumer choice. It’s well-known that youth are not always good at linking their current actions with future consequences—and indeed, most young smokers believe that they will have quit long before they actually do so.

Antismoking groups say that the FDA has given too much weight to the hedonic “benefit” of smoking—and the loss of this that comes with quitting—in making its latest tobacco rules.

Moreover, the authors note that if smokers were making a rational choice about the benefits of smoking compared to its risks, the proposed graphic warning labels would have no effect—since the smokers would already have taken into account the risk of cancer and other gruesome outcomes. They suggest instead applying that 70% discount only to the 9% of smokers who say that knowing what they now know about tobacco, they would still choose to start smoking.

But while the way the FDA did its calculations here is troubling, we shouldn’t entirely reject the idea of including pleasure in calculating the viability of a particular drug policy.

Indeed, one reason that we have failed to think rationally about drug laws is that we don’t give any weight to the positive experiences of drug users. When people say that alcohol relaxes them or that marijuana inspires them, we tend to think they are, at best, thinking wishfully or, at worst, in denial. When people claim benefits like enjoyment or even enlightenment from LSD or MDMA, we write them off as dirty hippies.

Though my own heroin and cocaine addiction certainly wound up being more painful than pleasurable, there were plenty of times, especially early on, when those drugs gave me relief, euphoria, a sense of social connection and energy that I cannot deny. When it worked, heroin gave me what I now find to be a primary benefit of antidepressants—not euphoria or a “high,” but simply a feeling of wellness, instead of constant dread. The use of all these drugs persists outside of addiction because people do find the experience valuable.

Consequently, cost-benefit analysis should include pleasure in proportion to the percentage of people who are addicted to a drug—the higher the rate of addiction, the less pleasure should count. That’s because addiction actually robs people of pleasure: There is little fun about using when you know you are hurting yourself and/or those around you, but can’t manage to stop. While there may be some pleasure and relief in avoiding withdrawal and craving, it doesn’t outweigh the harm—otherwise, you wouldn’t be addicted, you’d be rationally choosing to take drugs.

Because different substances produce different rates of addiction, rational drug laws would adjust for pleasure in considering their regulation in a way that would take this into account.

An appropriate accounting, then, would mean that cigarettes’ pleasure should be given very little weight: 60% of smokers smoke daily, for example, meaning that they are both physically dependent on nicotine and qualify as being addicted to it. The comparable figure for marijuana smoking is just 17%—and even here, not all of these users qualify as addicted (some are medical users, for example, and others do not have the compulsive behavior despite negative consequences that would define them as addicted, just as many daily drinkers are not alcoholics).

Because different substances produce different rates of addiction, rational drug laws would adjust for pleasure in considering their regulation in a way that would take this into account. And because different substances produce differing amounts and types of benefits, these, too, need to be considered—all, of course, in light of their risks and harms.

Drug laws for too long have only weighed risks—seeing only addiction, health problems and crime while failing to account for why people who are not addicted risk addiction in order to take them and failing to quantify the harm done by prohibition itself.

If we analyzed sports this way, we would outlaw them, too: There’s far better data showing that football can produce irreversible brain damage, for example, than there is for marijuana. But few people call for outlawing football because we see team sports as a valuable pursuit that teaches things like teamwork, persistence and courage.

Drugs, in contrast, are not valued because the pleasure they bring is seen as unearned: The culture that has sprung up around illicit drugs is viewed as entirely detrimental; its positive facets—like accepting the weird kids who don’t fit into other social groups—are almost never mentioned. Indeed, saying anything positive about drugs is virtually a taboo in the US and Europe: In Britain, for example, when a drug reform group tried to run an anti-stigma campaign with the tagline “Nice people take drugs,” the ads were banned from appearing on public transit.

Factoring drug-related pleasure into a cost-benefit analysis of laws and regulations, then, could be a positive step. Its results, however, might produce outcomes that make us deeply uncomfortable—like having to face the profound irrationality of current drug laws.

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The Best Sex Tips You’ll Ever Hear — From a Man With No Penis

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 3:03pm
This guy is proof you don't need to be fixated on a certain body part to have great sex.

Leave it to a man with no penis to school the Internet on sexual intimacy. That’s what happened when a man who allegedly lost part of his genitals in a childhood accident took to Reddit to answer questions about life without a phallus.

Under the evocative screen name “penisindoor,” he claimed that at age 12 he put his erect member through a door crack to tease his buddies and one of them — a friend who was, in “penisindoor’s” words, unfamiliar with the basic laws of physics — slammed it shut. After a trip to the hospital, he says he was left with just the stump of his penis, fully intact testicles and a rerouted urethral opening. (He provided photographic evidence, if you’re interested.) The 30-something-year-old is fully capable of orgasm and ejaculation, he says. And, no, the absence of a penis does not prevent him from having sex with his girlfriend.

This last bit came as a shocking revelation to some redditors. How, they wanted to know. Sex equals penis in vagina, right? How can you have sex without a penis?! “I still have part of my shaft under there which still has nerve endings,” he wrote in response. “Use your imagination for the rest.” He added, importantly, “Any loving couple can be intimate.” Those just might be two of the best sex tips around: 1) Use your imagination, and 2) Any loving couple can be intimate. Seriously, sit with that for a minute. So much energy is spent trying to gather wisdom on being “good at” sex. From puberty on, we develop encyclopedic knowledge of all the many positions and moves two or more people can do. We agonize about our anatomy: Is my penis too small? Is my vagina tight enough? Are my boobs big enough?

Great sex is so much simpler than all that — and “penisindoor” has that figured out. Don’t get me wrong: Penises are great. They’re super awesome. Indeed, “penisindoor” misses his enough that he’s hoping to get an experimental and risky penile transplant — and best of luck to him. But his story shows that sexual pleasure and intimacy are way bigger than any dick could ever be. Relatedly, a study just came out finding that lesbians and men of all sexual orientations experience more orgasms than heterosexual women. (We needed science to tell us this?) It just goes to show that penis-in-vagina sex is just one kind of sex, and that it certainly isn’t inherently the most mutually pleasurable kind.

Sex therapist Ian Kerner told me, “As a culture, we are very much caught up in the ‘intercourse-discourse’ which privileges penis-vagina sex over other forms of sex-play, but there are many pleasure-paths worth exploring,” he said. “Between a creative, caring sexual mind and a fully functional penis, the former will more consistently generate orgasms than the latter.” And, for the record, sexual pleasure is not all that uncommon in extreme cases of injury like this one. “Orgasm and ejaculation are separate processes and even men with severe spinal injuries are known to experience the former, so it’s not at all unlikely that this man would be able to experience the pleasurable sensations of gratifying sex in his own particular way,” says Kerner.

I showed the AMA to Debby Herbenick, a sex research at the Kinsey Institute, and she loved “penisindoor’s” perspective. “We all have things we cannot change in life whether it’s our body shape or our age, or that we’re all aging, or our breast asymmetry or an STI or a special interest,” says Herbenick, author of “Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered — For Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex.” “Whether we approach this feeling ‘stuck’ or from a perspective of possibility is a huge part of it.” She added, “Knowing that openness and imagination are important is valuable, as is understanding that intimacy is about more than parts. Arousal is about more than parts.”

Speaking of intimacy, “penisindoor” honored his girlfriend’s request that he keep the details of their sex life private. He gamely answered redditors questions unless they veered into territory his girlfriend was uncomfortable with. What a man, eh?

Now, all this comes with a great big caveat: His story has yet to be verified, his original post has been taken down and he didn’t respond to my requests for an interview — so who knows just how legit it is. But whoever “penisindoor” is, he exhibited a startlingly enlightened view of sex, the kind you rarely ever see in online forums filled with identity-obscuring screen names. It’s a welcome reminder in our dick-obsessed culture that sex can happen without a penis. Oh, also? Not all men have penises.

 

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My Heartbreaking Walmart Story: How Working There Devastated My Family

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 2:36pm
We were used to doing without things—then came my son's prom.

I was born and raised in a middle-class family in East Chicago, Illinois. My dad worked for over 25 years as a machinist at Inland Steel, caring for me, my sister and our mom with his single income. He was able to buy us a comfortable house and car and put food on the table. When we got treated to the movie or a restaurant, I felt special, but I also knew my dad didn’t feel stressed out by the expense – he wanted us to be happy and to believe in working hard and in enjoying the rewards. Above all, he felt hopeful that his children were on a path to greater security and success.

By the time I was ready to enter the workforce, I didn’t feel that same hope. In fact, it no longer seemed like you could take care of a family with one full-time job. I have my own children now, and I worry that they aren’t growing up with any belief in a better life.

For the past eight years, I’ve been stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart store in Glenwood, Illinois. I had thought that working for the largest employer, in one of the fastest growing industries in our country, would put me on a path for a steady paycheck and opportunities. But Wal-Mart jobs create financial insecurity, not a path toward the American Dream.

Still, I want my kids to enjoy their childhood now, and so my husband and I work multiple jobs to make ends meet and take them to an occasional movie or meal out – just like my dad did for me and my sister.  I am able to get extra work substitute teaching or picking up odd jobs like working at the fireworks stand.

Even with these side jobs and after working at Wal-Mart for eight years, I only bring home about $400 each week. That means that each month I have to make a decision about which expenses to prioritize and ultimately I have to call one of the bill collectors to see if I can pay late or adjust the payment.

I have spoken with management as part of OUR Walmart, an organization of Wal-Mart associates pushing for more respect, and I receive annual performance evaluations. But these have resulted in small raises – of no more than 50 cents an hour.

I dread opening bills when they arrive because anything higher than usual means another thing my children have to do without. This is especially hard in the summer and winter when higher electric bills mean that we have to cut expenses to the basic needs – no snack foods for the kids and definitely no fun activities with their friends or for our family.

This May, I had a conversation with my son Dennis I will never forget. He told me he had decided not to go to prom because he knew we could not afford it. I was heartbroken that he knew our finances were so stretched that there’s no way we could think about paying for a tuxedo, flowers and prom tickets. In the end, we had to pay the electric, water and car insurance bills – things we really can’t make do without — and there was no extra money for prom.

With my job, I also miss out on important times for my kids. I’ve had to miss their basketball games and tell their teachers I can’t attend the parent-teacher meetings. I don’t want my kids growing up thinking this is as good as it gets and that even with a job you have to live paycheck to paycheck.

At the store and in TV ads, I’ve been hearing Wal-Mart talk about investment in manufacturing, which is laudable. But we cannot let the dollars and cents that they’re putting into this jobs campaign distract us, as a country, from the jobs at Wal-Mart stores and the need for the retailer to improve jobs for hundreds of thousands of workers. And they don’t need an advertising campaign and a big summit to make this change. They could raise pay and provide more hours tomorrow.

When I was growing up, my dad was so proud of his work. Manufacturing was seen as the way to a higher standard of living. But that reality is gone. Today, most of my neighbors, friends and family work in service and retail jobs, and sadly, the hard reality is that Wal-Mart’s treatment of workers continues to hold our country back. Being paid less than $25,000 a year – as most Wal-Mart associates are – while the company brings in $16 billion in profits and spends millions on ads is not OK.

The truth of the matter is that, like me, most Americans now work in retail and depend on these jobs to raise a family and enter the middle class. With its vast reach, Wal-Mart has the power to make a tremendous difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of these workers and their families and transform the retail jobs that are here at home and here to stay into great American jobs. When Wal-Mart praises good manufacturing jobs in the U.S., I hope they also remember the millions who work in retail.

 

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4 Worst Right-Wing Reactions to Michael Brown's Killing and the Protests

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 2:23pm
Conservative media wasted no time making racist, imbecilic comments about Ferguson.

The fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown hardly occurred in a vacuum. It hit television and Twitter just weeks after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD, and amidst a public still stung from the protracted battle over the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Brown’s death and the subsequent protests rapidly revived a phalanx of imbecilic, racist, kneejerk reactions, some of which had just been shelved after George Zimmerman’s trial last summer. Conservative media wasted no time in making Brown’s death into grist for their mills.

1. To cover or not: While CNN and MSNBC had live, on-the-ground coverage when the protests metastasized Sunday night, Fox News trained its cameras on Mike Huckabee jamming with a country singer, followed by a rerun of Megyn Kelly interviewing Bill Ayers. By the time Fox noticed the protests, it revived of its oldest tricks: finding an African American leader to repeat its talking points back to it. Up this time were Kevin Jackson, who spouted Fox-approved rhetoric about the decay of black communities, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece.

That’s not to say the other networks did all that better. It took Morning Joe a while to cover the protests in Ferguson, but perhaps it was better off not bothering. When the Beltway-fretted program finally did get around to punditing, it aired an inexplicably brief clip of a radio reporter being threatened, before defending the police officers doing the threatening, even suggesting the cops were acting out of concern for the press’ safety. This could have been refuted by reporters on the scene, which MSNBC had. Alas.

2. Smearing Michael Brown: Conservative media has never met a young black man it couldn’t retroactively enlist into the shadowy urban gangs of its fevered imagination. Enter Pat Dollard and Jim “the Gateway Pundit” Hoft, both of whom posted photos of Brown “making gang signs” (which, in fact, was nothing more than Brown “doing things with his hands,” in Asawin Suebsaeng’s phrasing). Hoft allegedthat the signs were unique Blood codes, though the worst Brown does is give the middle finger. Dollard went further: “The red gear seals the deal on proof that Brown was a member of the notoriously violent Bloods street gang,” he noted.

Then came the toxicology report indicating Brown had marijuana in his system. And never count out Pat Robertson. The 700 Club host didn’t even need a toxicology report. “Now, was he high on some kind of drugs?” Robertson asked on his show. “That hasn’t come out yet… But the next thing we understand was he was walking down the middle of the street and obstructing traffic, which says to me he probably was high on something.” As Dollard put it, “He got everything he deserved.”

3. Smearing the protestors: It only takes one bad actor in a protest for the Fox News crowd to see anarchy in the street. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham said, “We know now that thugs are thugs,” and went on to blame the media for turning the protests into “a reality show.” “People who are going to take advantage of the situation are going to do that especially if they know that the media’s all there, right? Got the cameras on everyone. It’s become its own reality show. So, there’s going to be cameras trained on you. You’re going to be looting and you might get stopped but you probably won’t get stopped.”

Meanwhile, one of the right’s most portable complaints is why Obama/Sharpton/Jackson/et al. will not address “black-on-black crime.” There have been some great responses from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie that should (but won’t) squash this talking point for good, but in the meantime something interesting happened: the Rally for Michael Brown featured Al Sharpton and Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson doing the thing the right falsely claims black leaders never do: addressing the African American community about the shooting.

The result? It was as if the right didn’t hear a word of the speeches. In fact, the Fox legal analyst lambasted Ron Johnson’s impassioned speech, even accusing him of being “too close” to the community to police them: “He’s emotionally overcome by the moments and the nights he’s been subjected to. I think he’s become too close to the situation to be dispassionate and to be objective going forward.”

But the media wasn’t just vitriolic with regard to the protests. CNN international anchor Rosemary Church wondered why cops were tear-gassing protestors when they could just turn a water cannon on them. The look her cohost gave her communicated what every viewer was thinking: water cannons and African American protestors don’t exactly have a great history together.

4. Smearing Barack Obama: Fox News munchkin Todd Starnes hasn’t let a single event pass without using it to tar Obama, even if his current critique contradicts his previous one. Having spent the preceding few days sniping at Obama for not interrupting his vacation to address his various issues, Starnes pulled a sharp right last week and denounced Obama for interrupting his vacation to address Brown’s death.

“Obama sends ‘deep condolences’ to family of MO teen killed after allegedly attacking police officer,” Starnes tweeted. “No condolences for the cop.” For Starnes, this is part of a long line of Obama’s closet racism. “First Obama speaks out for the Harvard professor—then Trayvon—and now Michael Brown,” he tweeted. “I'm sensing a pattern.”

But it takes a true pro like Rush Limbaugh to ride Starnes’ crazy train to the end of the line, aka the Benghazi stop. “This is the Democrat Party, folks,” Limbaugh said on his show Tuesday. “The president of the United States is in charge of what's happened here. I think it is time for everybody to come to grips with a simple reality. I don't care what scandal you name —Benghazi, Fast and Furious, take your pick, IRS… This is about wiping out anybody who opposes Obama…All of this is Barack Obama. Every event, every detail, every occurrence is Obama. And the end result is the end and absence of any opposition. So that's what Ferguson's all about, like all the rest of this has been about."

And that’s how you get from the shooting death of an unarmed man to a widespread concerted conspiracy by the President of the United States without leaving your radio booth.

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Dispatches from disadvantage: Indian women living on the margins speak up

New Internationalist - August 20, 2014 - 1:15pm
On our Radar collects experiences from women who would not normally find a voice in the media.
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What's New: The Peoples' Social Forum

Socialist Project - August 20, 2014 - 1:00pm
Will the largest gathering of activists in years succumb to the left's culture of complaint, self-victimization, and fracture, or can platforms for renewed organizing and real strategizing emerge from a weekend in Ottawa?
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The Poisonous Racism Driving Violence in Ferguson and the Rest of America

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 12:31pm
Many cities and towns confront the same problems of poverty, alienation and inequality as metropolitan St. Louis -- or even worse.

The past week's unfolding tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, with its militarized and overwhelmingly white police force confronting angry and hopeless African-Americans, is not a story unique to that place or this moment. Many cities and towns in this country confront the same problems of poverty, alienation and inequality as metropolitan St. Louis -- or even worse.

But beneath the familiar narrative, there is a deeper history that reflects the unfinished agenda of race relations -- and the persistence of poisonous prejudice that has never been fully cleansed from the American mainstream.

For decades, Missouri has spawned or attracted many of the nation's most virulent racists, including neo-Nazis and the remnants of the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan. Associated with violent criminality and crackpot religious extremism, these fringe groups could never wield much influence in the post-civil rights era. Beyond those marginalized outfits, however, exists another white supremacist group whose leaders have long enjoyed the patronage of right-wing Republican politicians.

The Council of Conservative Citizens, headquartered in St. Louis, is a living legacy of Southern "white resistance" to desegregation, with historical roots in the so-called citizens councils that sprang up during the 1950s as a "respectable" adjunct to the Klan. Its website currently proclaims that the CCC is "the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights!" What that means, more specifically, is promoting hatred of blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, and Latino immigrants while extolling the virtues of the "Southern way of life," the Confederacy and even slavery.

The group's website goes on to brag that the CCC is the only group promoting "white rights" whose meetings regularly feature "numerous elected officials, important authors, talk-show hosts, active pastors, and other important people" as speakers.

Although that boast may be exaggerated, it isn't hollow. Founded in 1985 by the ax handle-wielding Georgia segregationist Lester Maddox and a group of white activists, the CCC remained obscure to most Americans until 1998, when media exposure of its ties to prominent congressional Republicans led to the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader. Six years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group monitoring racist activity in the United States, reported that the CCC had hosted as many as 38 federal, state and local officials at its meetings (all of them Republicans, except one Democrat) -- despite a warning from the Republican National Committee against associating with the hate group.

Over the years, the CCC's friends in high places included such figures as former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who shared much of the CCC agenda as governor, when he opposed "forced desegregation" of St. Louis schools -- along with the CCC members who served on the city's school board. When President George W. Bush appointed Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, the CCC openly celebrated, declaring in its newsletter, "Our Ship Has Come In."

Recently, far fewer Republican officials have been willing to associate in public with the CCC's racist leaders. Then again, however, Ashcroft himself tended to meet secretly with those same bigots while outwardly shunning them. When asked about his connections with the group during his confirmation hearings in 2001, he swore that he had no inkling of its racist and anti-Semitic propaganda -- a very implausible excuse, given the CCC's prominence in St. Louis while he served as governor.

Despite the CCC's presence, Missouri is home to many fine and decent people, of course -- but malignant traces of the group and the racial animus it represents have spread far beyond the state's borders. The most obvious example is Rush Limbaugh, the "conservative" cultural phenomenon who grew up south of St. Louis -- in Cape Girardeau, Missouri -- and who has earned a reputation as a racial agitator over many years on talk radio, where he began by doing mocking bits in "black" dialect.

In 1998, the talk jock defended Lott when other conservatives were demanding his resignation over the politician's CCC connection. Today Limbaugh echoes the CCC line on the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, which suggests coldly that the unarmed teenager deserved his fate because he may have been a suspect in shoplifting or smoked marijuana. Why would a young man's life be worth less than a box of cigars? Back in Rush's home state, the answer is all too obvious.

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What Is Something You Regret?

Operation Maple YouTube - August 20, 2014 - 12:24pm
What Is Something You Regret?
SUBSCRIBE and check out our other videos! http://www.operationmaple.com http://www.facebook.com/operationmaple http://twitter.com/#!/operationmaple. From: OperationMaple Views: 21 2 ratings Time: 03:44 More in People & Blogs
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Beekeeping, the sweetest hobby

Two Row Times - August 20, 2014 - 12:09pm

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestWithout bees, so much of the food we enjoy, from apples to avocados to broccoli, would simply not exist. That’s because these foods are dependent on the pollinating that the bees do as they travel from flower to flower in search of their food source, pollen. According to backyardbeekeepers.com honeybees account for upwards of 80%

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The Beheading of James Foley and the Daily Horrors of the Internet

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 12:08pm
Think hard before clicking on images of atrocities.

With depressing frequency in this summer of diverse horrors, we hear tales of desperate human misery, suffering and depravity – and because we live now in an era where virtually every phone is a globally connected camera, we are confronted with graphic evidence of tragedy.

The footage of the apparent beheading (to refer to the atrocity as an execution serves only to lend a veneer of dignity to barbarism) of the US photojournalist James Foley at the hands of a British Isis extremist has raised particularly strong feelings.

Social networks are banning users who share the footage. Newspapers are facing opprobrium for the choices they make in showing stills or parts of the video. Others, of course, will seek out the video after seeing the row, or else post it around the internet in a juvenile form of the free speech argument.

Before considering the rights and wrongs of the position, there is one fact we should face: we are presented with images of grotesque violence on a daily basis. Last month the New York Times ran on its front page the dead and broken body of a Palestinian child.

Like Foley, that child was someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s friend, and in a connected world there is just as much chance his family saw the photo and its spread as Foley’s will see the latest awful images of their loved one.

That photo raised little controversy in comparison to the use of images of Foley. Photos of groups of civilian men massacred by Isis across Iraq and Syria – widely shared on social media and used by publications across the world – caused no outcry whatsoever.

It’s hard to look at that and not see a double standard: like many other courageous and talented people, Foley had chosen to travel to the region, and knew the risks that entailed. Others were killed simply fleeing their homes. In a strange and bitter irony, one of the duties of photographers such as Foley is documenting bloodshed in order to show the world.

To see an outcry for Foley’s video and not for others is to wonder whether we are disproportionately concerned over showing graphic deaths of white westerners – maybe even white journalists – and not others.

That’s not to say there aren’t good reasons for outlets to think hard when selecting what, if anything, from the footage they should show. Foley’s apparent beheading was released not at the editorial decision of a photojournalist, but as a propaganda tool by thugs. Outlets should consider whether they are furthering or challenging such aims when they use such images.

There is also simple human decency, and the difficult trade-off of not insulating comfortable western audiences from the world’s horrors, while not needlessly causing a dead person’s loved ones additional suffering by showing gratuitously violent imagery.

The Guardian’s stance on Foley is a demonstration of the fine balance of those decisions: at present, one image of Foley from the video is used, but not as a lead picture. None of his forced speech is portrayed, and the short audio elements from the video – some of his murderer’s speech – have been used against a still image.

But more relevant by far is the choice each of us makes about whether to view the many horrifying real-life murder videos that circulate the internet. Before clicking, serious self-examination is required: why do you want to see this? Do you need to see it to understand something important? Still deeper self-examination should certainly be engaged before even contemplating sharing such material.

It’s that self-examination, or self-censorship, that best serves ourselves. As individuals, we’re making very different decisions to publishers and news outlets, but we should trust our own judgment rather than rush to ask social media companies to become the arbiters of our free expression on a knee-jerk basis.

There is a coda to this tale, another aspect of James Foley’s life that is also being shared far and wide across the world. It is the short statement by his mother, released on his Facebook page.

“We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people,” her statement began.

It has already been shared more than 2,500 times. This is how we win: not by suppressing the worst of us, but by sharing and saluting the best – people such as Foley and his family.

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Plight of MMIW added to Haldimand/Norfolk school curriculum

Two Row Times - August 20, 2014 - 12:04pm

A small group of agencies from Haldimand and Norfolk counties as well as people from Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation (MNCFN) and Six Nations, are collaborating on a project that will bring the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, into the school curriculum. Using the Faceless Dolls project, which was created by the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) to help raise awareness on the alarming statistics of violence against Indigenous women, the group got together last Friday to assemble the faceless dolls.

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Meeting with “the people” must start somewhere

Two Row Times - August 20, 2014 - 12:02pm

SIX NATIONS – The main disconnect between western style corporations and most Indigenous societies is that one deals with governments put in place to act on behalf of their people, while most traditional indigenous societies work alongside with “the

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Missouri's Shockingly Ugly Racist Past and Present: Why Ferguson's Inferno Is No Surprise

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 11:24am
The state has long spawned and attracted virulent racists.

The past week's unfolding tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, with its militarized and overwhelmingly white police force confronting angry and hopeless African-Americans, is not a story unique to that place or this moment. Many cities and towns in this country confront the same problems of poverty, alienation and inequality as metropolitan St. Louis -- or even worse.
        But beneath the familiar narrative, there is a deeper history that reflects the unfinished agenda of race relations -- and the persistence of poisonous prejudice that has never been fully cleansed from the American mainstream.
        For decades, Missouri has spawned or attracted many of the nation's most virulent racists, including neo-Nazis and the remnants of the once-powerful Ku Klux Klan. Associated with violent criminality and crackpot religious extremism, these fringe groups could never wield much influence in the post-civil rights era. Beyond those marginalized outfits, however, exists another white supremacist group whose leaders have long enjoyed the patronage of right-wing Republican politicians.
        The Council of Conservative Citizens, headquartered in St. Louis, is a living legacy of Southern "white resistance" to desegregation, with historical roots in the so-called citizens councils that sprang up during the 1950s as a "respectable" adjunct to the Klan. Its website currently proclaims that the CCC is "the only serious nationwide activist group that sticks up for white rights!" What that means, more specifically, is promoting hatred of blacks, Jews, gays and lesbians, and Latino immigrants while extolling the virtues of the "Southern way of life," the Confederacy and even slavery.
        The group's website goes on to brag that the CCC is the only group promoting "white rights" whose meetings regularly feature "numerous elected officials, important authors, talk-show hosts, active pastors, and other important people" as speakers.
        Although that boast may be exaggerated, it isn't hollow. Founded in 1985 by the ax handle-wielding Georgia segregationist Lester Maddox and a group of white activists, the CCC remained obscure to most Americans until 1998, when media exposure of its ties to prominent congressional Republicans led to the resignation of Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi as majority leader. Six years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit group monitoring racist activity in the United States, reported that the CCC had hosted as many as 38 federal, state and local officials at its meetings (all of them Republicans, except one Democrat) -- despite a warning from the Republican National Committee against associating with the hate group.
        Over the years, the CCC's friends in high places included such figures as former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, who shared much of the CCC agenda as governor, when he opposed "forced desegregation" of St. Louis schools -- along with the CCC members who served on the city's school board. When President George W. Bush appointed Ashcroft as U.S. attorney general, the CCC openly celebrated, declaring in its newsletter, "Our Ship Has Come In."
        Recently, far fewer Republican officials have been willing to associate in public with the CCC's racist leaders. Then again, however, Ashcroft himself tended to meet secretly with those same bigots while outwardly shunning them. When asked about his connections with the group during his confirmation hearings in 2001, he swore that he had no inkling of its racist and anti-Semitic propaganda -- a very implausible excuse, given the CCC's prominence in St. Louis while he served as governor.
        Despite the CCC's presence, Missouri is home to many fine and decent people, of course -- but malignant traces of the group and the racial animus it represents have spread far beyond the state's borders. The most obvious example is Rush Limbaugh, the "conservative" cultural phenomenon who grew up south of St. Louis -- in Cape Girardeau, Missouri -- and who has earned a reputation as a racial agitator over many years on talk radio, where he began by doing mocking bits in "black" dialect.
        In 1998, the talk jock defended Lott when other conservatives were demanding his resignation over the politician's CCC connection. Today Limbaugh echoes the CCC line on the Michael Brown killing in Ferguson, which suggests coldly that the unarmed teenager deserved his fate because he may have been a suspect in shoplifting or smoked marijuana. Why would a young man's life be worth less than a box of cigars? Back in Rush's home state, the answer is all too obvious.

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WLU/YMCA plans to build on disputed Nathan Gage lands

Two Row Times - August 20, 2014 - 10:49am

FacebookTwitterGoogle+PinterestA One-man delegation from Wilfrid Laurier University and a representative from the YMCA were before Six Nations Elected Council last week during a Committee of the Whole meeting in a duty-to-consult capacity to let them know their plans for building a brand new athletic center. Brian Rosborough, Senior Executive Officer for Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU) –

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Why Do We Count Unmarried People in Relationships As Single?

AlterNet.org - August 20, 2014 - 10:44am
Our view of modern relationships is totally warped.

What makes someone “single”? When it comes to official forms, news and punditry, and even in fictional movies and TV shows, the world seems to be divided into two kinds of people: Married people and single people. But in people’s day-to-day lives in America, that simple formulation is changing. People may be marrying later in life, but that doesn’t mean they’re putting off love, commitment, or even having children. But the stereotypical belief that non-married means “single” persists in many circles. The conflation of “single” and “non-married” leads to many serious misunderstandings of how Americans are living.

Take for instance, the discourse around what is understood as “single motherhood” in America. The stereotype of the single mother that is pushed by the media is of a woman who gets pregnant without being in a committed relationship and who ends up raising her children all by herself, with little input or support from a male partner.

But new statistical evidence from the Centers for Disease Control shows how wrong that stereotype is. Four out of 10 births in the United States are to an unmarried woman, a statistic that tends to cause conservatives in the media to hand-wring about the dangers of “single” motherhood and “fatherless” children. But if you drill down into the numbers, you’ll see that, actually, 58 percent of the women giving birth without being married are cohabiting with the father of their baby, which is way up from 41 percent in 2002. Which actually means that fewer than 2 out of 10 children are born to a single mother, something you won’t be seeing in many headlines about these statistics.

Because of the hyper-focus on marital status, a serious shift in family structure in the past few years is being obscured. At first glance, it would seem that single motherhood rates have been holding steady compared to the overall birth rate. But if you look past wedding rings and instead count children being born to coupled parents who live together, what we’re seeing is that the rate of children being born into houses with both parents living there has surged in recent years. In 2002, 7 out of 10 babies were born into a household with two parents living together, and now it’s up to 8 out of 10 and rising. The hyper-focus on the wedding ring is obscuring the fact that Americans are becoming more, not less, interested in waiting until they’re in committed relationships to have children.

These statistics reflect a quiet revolution that’s been going on across America, a revolution in what Americans think of when they think of love and commitment. It’s not just that more Americans spend at least some part of their lives cohabitating. It’s also that the amount of time we spend cohabitating has expanded. It’s becoming normal and even expected these days for couples to spend years living together before they get married. In some cases, couples never even bother getting married, either because of a reluctance to involve the government or even just a general if-it-ain’t-broke attitude towards their relationship.

Because of this, the social and familial privileges that used to be marriage-only have been expanded in most cases to cohabitating couples and even to couples that haven’t moved in together yet. While some religious or conservative Americans still demand that couples put a ring on it before getting treated like a single social unit, most people nowadays don’t think twice about non-married couples acting and being treated with the same regard that used to be only for married couples.

In some circles, the wedding has slowly evolved from being something you do to start a commitment and is now something you throw to celebrate an ongoing commitment. Part of the problem is that weddings are really expensive. “Marriage is for people who have money and want to spend money just on the wedding itself,” Gail Wyatt, the director of the University of California Los Angeles’ sexual health program told Bloomberg News. While she was talking about the pressures that might convince lower income people not to marry at all, the expense of weddings subtly reinforces the idea that everyone of all income levels should probably not marry someone unless they’re really, really sure. Why would you spend all that money to celebrate something that hasn’t started yet when you could, instead, live as a couple for years? Then, when you get married, your wedding is more a celebration of who you already are as a couple instead of what you could be—a much safer bet.

Because of this shift in what a wedding means, many couples deliberately elect to have a child or two before they have a wedding—or even have children without ever bothering to get married at all. Half of all births to non-married but cohabitating couples started with an intended pregnancy, suggesting that people increasingly see the commitment of living together as good enough and see the wedding as merely a formality that may or may not be indulged in the future but certainly isn’t necessary to start a family now.

Like it or not, Americans en masse are deciding that couples who live together are just as good and deserve to have their commitments honored as much as couples who actually marry. Our government and media needs to catch up, starting with how we track and report on family life. The categories “married” and “non-married” aren’t doing it anymore, particularly when you’re lumping millions of couples whose emotional and financial lives more closely resemble those of married couples than of single people living without a partner. We need to talk more about how the children that the conservative media often describes as “fatherless” are not, in fact fatherless: Most children born to unmarried women live with their fathers, and quite a few of the ones who don’t see their fathers on a regular basis anyway.

Hopefully, if the way we talk about families adjusts to reflect the new shift in how Americans view marriage and commitment, policies will finally start catching up, making it easier for people to do what they want, which is reap the benefits of commitment without necessarily marrying right now, or ever. But changing the way we talk about families and becoming more nuanced and flexible is the first step to getting there.

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