Monday, June 29, 2015

ANS -- Sixth Great Mass Extinction Event Begins; 2015 on Pace to Become Hottest Year on Record

This is a report on the current state of the planet.  It's worse than you thought. 
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Sixth Great Mass Extinction Event Begins; 2015 on Pace to Become Hottest Year on Record

Monday, 29 June 2015 00:00By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Report

An irrigation canal near a parched field in Manteca, Calif., Ap An irrigation canal near a parched field in Manteca, California, April 24, 2015. California's drought has made the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's limited supply of freshwater, which helps feed more than 3 million acres of farmland, a central battle zone between farmers and environmentalists. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

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At the end of May, a few friends and I opted to climb a couple of the larger volcanoes in Washington State. We started on Mount Adams, a 12,280-foot peak in the southern part of the state.

We were able to drive to the Cold Springs Campground at 5,600 feet, where the climb would begin. This itself was an anomaly for late May, when the dirt road tended to still be covered with snowpack. But not this year, one in which Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee has already declared a statewide drought emergency, given this year's record-low snowpack.

To see more stories like this, visit "Planet or Profit?"

In fact, we hiked up bare earth until around 7,500 feet before we even had to don our crampons (metal spikes that attach to climbing boots to improve traction), itself another anomaly. During a short visit to the Forest Service ranger station the day before, the ranger had informed us that we were already experiencing mid- to late-August conditions, though it wasn't yet June.

Climate Disruption Dispatches A few days later and much further north on Mount Baker, a 10,781-foot glacial-clad volcano not far from the border of Canada, we experienced the same thing. We camped on terra firma at around 5,500 feet, in an area that normally would have found us camping on several feet of snowpack. When we headed up the peak, the route was already in late season (August) conditions. We found ourselves having to navigate around several large open crevasses where snow bridges that had offered access had already collapsed due to rising temperatures and melting snow.

During our descent after visiting the summit, two of my climbing partners punched through snow bridges over crevasses, and the lower part of the route was more like a Slurpee than a glacier. I would not have wanted to be on the mountain a day later than we were.

The signs of the increasing rapidity and intensification of our warming planet are all around us. And bigger-picture reports, studies and warnings are multiplying every day.

If current rates of ACD continue, "Life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on."

NASA recently released its global temperature data for the month of May, and it was 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. The agency's data also revealed that 2015 has had the hottest five months of any year ever recorded. As of right now, 2015 is already hotter than last year, according to NASA; in fact, if it stays on the same track, it will be the hottest year ever recorded for the planet.

Things are bad enough that President Obama's science adviser issued a warning that anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is currently barreling forward so quickly that the entire state of California could be "overwhelmed": The state's efforts to adapt will be unable to keep pace with the rapidly intensifying developments on the ground. Essentially, this means the state does not have the financial nor physical resources to keep pace with rising seas, drought and wildfires that are all becoming the norm there.

Scientists like Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") are warning us to expect even more weather extremes as ACD progresses. For example, they predict the recent deluge of rain and flooding in Texas will become the norm for that state going forward.

A study recently published in Nature Climate Change has shown that if carbon dioxide and methane emissions are not dramatically cut extremely rapidly, ACD is set to bring about the most dramatic and encompassing rearrangement of ocean species in at least the last 3 million years. For example, the study shows that by 2100, the polar regions, which currently host some of the most diverse and widespread sea life on the planet, will likely be drained of much of their marine life.

It's not news that Arctic sea ice is melting at a record-breaking pace and that the odds of there being summer ice-free periods by next year are high. But an interesting twist resulting from this development is that this thinning Arctic ice, along with a lack of air support, has officially forced an end to trekking expeditions to the North Pole this year ... and quite likely, forever.

All of these changes are portentous.

However, the most important development this month is clearly a recently published study in Science that states, unequivocally, that the planet has officially entered its sixth mass extinction event. The study showed that species are already being killed off at rates much faster than they were during the other five extinction events, and warned ominously that humans could very likely be among the first wave of species going extinct.

The lead author of the study, Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autónoma de México, told reporters that if current rates of ACD, deforestation and pollution are allowed to continue, "Life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on."

Another alarming feature of the study is that it is admittedly conservative. On page three it states: "We emphasize that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis."

Study co-author Paul Ehrlich, a Bing professor of population studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told Stanford News, "[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event. There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead."

As we explore ACD's impact upon the four quadrants of the planet this month, we see developments that certainly confirm the aforementioned report's findings.


As warming from ACD continues to fuel increases in diseases and pests, moose in North America are dying by the thousands, according to a recent scientific report.

Another report revealed recently that the warming waters in Long Island Sound are dramatically altering fish populations, as summer flounder and sea bass that usually prefer warm water are now appearing in the northern locale.

As California's mega-drought lumbers on, redwoods and other iconic trees in that state are now dying in record numbers. As one example, Monterey pines - in one area that covers nearly 15 square acres - are already as much as 90 percent dead.

Even more disturbing is a recent report that polar bears have been seen killing and eating dolphins. That in itself isn't news, but the fact that it happened this spring, instead of during the warmer summer months, has never been seen before.


Recent NASA data has given us some remarkable graphics that show how the world's aquifers are losing their water at "alarming" rates, according to scientists. The data shows that more than half of the planet's 37 largest aquifers are being depleted. Given that the groundwater reserves take thousands of years to accumulate, one of the scientists described the situation as "critical."

São Paulo, Brazil, a mega-city of over 20 million people, has been pushed to the verge of severe water rationing, as its largest water reservoir is on pace to dry upcompletely by August.

In Chile, most of the ski areas have completely bare slopes. Santiago, which sits below all the ski resorts, has seen a scant 1.2 centimeters of rain this year, which is a jaw-dropping 86 percent less than normal.

North Korea is facing its worst drought in recorded history, which has sparked fears of a worsening of already severe food shortages.

The worst regional drought in nearly 10 years is hammering southern Africa, causing Zimbabweans to go hungry as crop failure has become rampant. The drought threatens to persist.

Meanwhile Nicaragua, the country with the most abundant water sources in its region (it even has the word "agua" as part of its very name), is experiencing one of its worst water shortages in five decades.

California's drought has taken at least a $2.7 billion toll on the state's agriculture.

In the United States, a record drought in Oklahoma has given wheat farmers there a glimpse of what is to come, although recent wet weather has ended the drought for now. Scientists are warning that the region should brace itself for a growing number of hotter, drier days in the future.

Farms in Utah are being wracked by drought, as officials in that state have begun rationing water, causing farmers there to worry about even more cutbacks as summer progresses.

In California, the Salton Sea - the largest lake in the state - is drying out of existence, giving us another indicator of how deep the drought is now embedded in the state's climate.

In monetary terms, a recent report shows that California's drought has taken at least a $2.7 billion toll on the state's agriculture. Obviously, that number is sure to continue to rise.

As is happening globally now, residents in some towns in central California are suffering from a health crisis that stems from not having running water and breathing increasingly dusty air, due to the drought. Respiratory problems are becoming rampant throughout the state.

In Canada, John Pomeroy, the director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, recently spent time high up in the Rocky Mountains, along the British Columbia-Alberta divide. He witnessed clear signs of the highly damaging drought plaguing his country. Due to record dry spells, dramatically decreased river flows and the shortage of runoff water, Pomeroy said that western Canada is likely in the midst of a long-term drought.

The flip side of the water climate coin is flooding. In the United States, unprecedented amounts of rainfall across Texas and Oklahoma recently are evidence of what happens when a warming atmosphere becomes saturated with more water vapor than it used to be able to hold: yet another harbinger of our future.

By the end of the century, it is feasible that Mount Everest could be entirely without glaciers.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report showed that this May was the wettest month ever recordedin the United States, despite the mega-drought in California and the West. Obviously, scientists have linked these phenomena to ACD.

Dramatic changes are happening in most of the planet's highest places, given the rapidly accelerating melting of glaciers. Even Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, is witnessing massive changes. A recent report in the journal The Cryosphere found that thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas will likely shrink by 70 to 99 percent by 2100.

Thus, by the end of the century, it is feasible that Mount Everest could be entirely without glaciers.

Another recent study linked intensifying weather events - like the extreme cold that wracked the eastern United States last winter and spring, along with the record flooding that hit Britain - to the rapid loss of Arctic ice. This doesn't bode well, as the Arctic summer sea ice will likely begin to vanish entirely for short periods, starting as early as next summer.

A unique photography project in Alaska has captured ACD impacts over time in a stunning way. The photos are hard to look at, but everyone should see them. They represent a kind of before-and-after view of what ACD is doing to one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. The project shows dramatically reduced glacial coverage in multiple areas of Alaska, including areas that used to be heavily glaciated, which are now completely ice-free.

The project became even more relevant when a recent report was published that shows how glaciers in Alaska have lost 75 gigatons (75 billion metric tons) of ice per year, from 1994 through 2013.

In comparison, this number is roughly half of the amount of ice loss for all of Antarctica (159 billion metric tons). This new data also indicates that the Alaska region alone likely contributed several millimeters to the global sea level rise in the past few decades.


The changing chemistry of the planet's atmosphere is causing new positive feedback loops to occur. For example, in Mexico City, warmer temperatures are exacerbatingthe already horrible smog in that mega-city, as higher temperatures mean that industrial pollutants are released more rapidly into the air.

Another recent report from NASA begins with this worrisome observation: "In the third week of May, it was warmer in Fairbanks, Alaska, than in Washington, DC. The small town of Eagle, Alaska, was hotter on May 23 than it has been on any day in Houston or Dallas this year. In what has become a frequent occurrence in the past few years, temperature profiles in North America appeared to be upside down."

The report, titled "Baked Alaska," includes a fascinating temperature anomaly map, and notes:

On May 23, the air temperature at Fairbanks International Airport reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), breaking the record of 80°F (26.7°C) from 2002. That same day, thermometers hit 91°F (32.8°C) in Eagle, marking the earliest 90-degree day in state history. The town had nine consecutive days above 80°F. In Barrow, Alaska, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures climbed to 47°F on May 21, close to 18°F above normal. Temperatures normally do not reach that high until mid-June.

Thus, not surprisingly, Alaska had its hottest May in recorded history.

India, ranked as the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, recently had to cope with one of the single deadliest heat waves to ever have hit the country, which killed over 2,500 people. The heat wave was at least the fourth deadliest in world history.

"Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon," Harsh Vardhan, India's earth sciences minister, told Reuters. "It's not just an unusually hot summer; it is climate change."

As the heat and death toll continued to rise in India, scientists asked if this was really a glimpse of earth's future: a planet rife with skyrocketing temperatures and the human impacts to match.

Lastly in this section, a recent study published in Geophysical Research Lettersshows that the warming generated by carbon dioxide released by burning coal exceeds the heat generated by said combustion in a mere 34 days. In other words, ACD does not take years or decades for its impacts to be felt, as was previously believed: Changes can happen alarmingly quickly.


As wildfires burn out of control from southern California all the way up the West Coast of the United States and across Alaska, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is worth highlighting. The group has warned of the direct links between ACD and drier soil, less moisture, changing precipitation levels and patterns, droughts, and the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires. Scientists emphasize that the connection between the fires and ACD must be recognized and confronted.

Denial and Reality

This month, the voices of climate denial did not fail to disappoint.

Not surprisingly, shareholders of the top two largest US oil companies, Exxon and Chevron, recently rejected proposals to add directors with expertise in studying ACD to their boards. It'd be bad for profits, of course.

The oil giants got some help from the US House of Representatives, which this month passed a bill that would make funding cuts to climate research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On the other hand, Pope Francis let loose on ACD deniers in his recently released encyclical, in which he stated unequivocally that "the bulk of global warming" is anthropogenic, and called on everyone to take steps to mitigate the damage by reducing consumption and reliance upon fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, another recently published report has shown that as carbon dioxide levels continue to increase over time, the planet will become progressively less able to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil or deep in the oceans, as both carbon sinks become supersaturated.

"If all of the carbon of permafrost was released, at that point, this is not going to be a habitable planet for humans."

A climate researcher with the Woods Hole Research Center, Susan Natali, recently told a reporter that as global temperatures continue to increase, thawing permafrost is releasing larger amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which of course cause temperatures to warm even further. Thus, the positive feedback loop feeds upon itself, a phenomenon that underpins runaway ACD.

"If all of the carbon of permafrost was released, at that point, this is not going to be a habitable planet for humans," Natali warned.

All of this information, taken together, paints an increasingly bleak scene for the planet and its species - including, of course, humans.

This could be why James Lovelock, the celebrated scientist and environmentalist who created the Gaia hypothesis, recently stated, "Saving the planet is a foolish, romantic extravagance."

He added that as climate disruption spins further out of control, "The civilizations of the northern hemisphere would be utterly destroyed, no doubt about it. But it would give life elsewhere a chance to recover. I think actually that Gaia might heave a sigh of relief."

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

ANS -- The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat

Here's an interesting thing: there's more right-wing violent attacks than Muslim extremist attacks.  This is from the NYT.
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 The Growing Right-Wing Terror Threat



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THIS month, the headlines were about a Muslim man in Boston who was accused of threatening police officers with a knife. Last month, two Muslims attacked an anti-Islamic conference in Garland, Tex. The month before, a Muslim man was charged with plotting to drive a truck bomb onto a military installation in Kansas. If you keep up with the news, you know that a small but steady stream of American Muslims, radicalized by overseas extremists, are engaging in violence here in the United States.

But headlines can mislead. The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.

In a survey we conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum last year of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with Al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations. And only 3 percent identified the threat from Muslim extremists as severe, compared with 7 percent for anti-government and other forms of extremism.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State's efforts to radicalize American Muslims, which began just after the survey ended, may have increased threat perceptions somewhat, but not by much, as we found in follow-up interviews over the past year with counterterrorism specialists at 19 law enforcement agencies. These officers, selected from urban and rural areas around the country, said that radicalization from the Middle East was a concern, but not as dangerous as radicalization among right-wing extremists.

An officer from a large metropolitan area said that "militias, neo-Nazis and sovereign citizens" are the biggest threat we face in regard to extremism. One officer explained that he ranked the right-wing threat higher because "it is an emerging threat that we don't have as good of a grip on, even with our intelligence unit, as we do with the Al Shabab/Al Qaeda issue, which we have been dealing with for some time." An officer on the West Coast explained that the "sovereign citizen" anti-government threat has "really taken off," whereas terrorism by American Muslim is something "we just haven't experienced yet."

Last year, for example, a man who identified with the sovereign citizen movement ­ which claims not to recognize the authority of federal or local government ­ attacked a courthouse in Forsyth County, Ga., firing an assault rifle at police officers and trying to cover his approach with tear gas and smoke grenades. The suspect was killed by the police, who returned fire. In Nevada, anti-government militants reportedly walked up to and shot two police officers at a restaurant, then placed a "Don't tread on me" flag on their bodies. An anti-government extremist in Pennsylvania was arrested on suspicion of shooting two state troopers, killing one of them, before leading authorities on a 48-day manhunt. A right-wing militant in Texas declared a "revolution" and was arrested on suspicion of attempting to rob an armored car in order to buy weapons and explosives and attack law enforcement. These individuals on the fringes of right-wing politics increasingly worry law enforcement officials.

Continue reading the main story

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Law enforcement agencies around the country are training their officers to recognize signs of anti-government extremism and to exercise caution during routine traffic stops, criminal investigations and other interactions with potential extremists. "The threat is real," says the handout from one training program sponsored by the Department of Justice. Since 2000, the handout notes, 25 law enforcement officers have been killed by right-wing extremists, who share a "fear that government will confiscate firearms" and a "belief in the approaching collapse of government and the economy."

Despite public anxiety about extremists inspired by Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the number of violent plots by such individuals has remained very low. Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years.
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In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a studyby Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy'sCombating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012.

Other data sets, using different definitions of political violence, tell comparable stories. The Global Terrorism Database maintained by theStart Center at the University of Maryland includes 65 attacks in the United States associated with right-wing ideologies and 24 by Muslim extremists since 9/11. The International Security Program at the New America Foundation identifies 39 fatalities from "non-jihadist" homegrown extremists and 26 fatalities from "jihadist" extremists.

Meanwhile, terrorism of all forms has accounted for a tiny proportion of violence in America. There have been more than 215,000 murders in the United States since 9/11. For every person killed by Muslim extremists, there have been 4,300 homicides from other threats.

Public debates on terrorism focus intensely on Muslims. But this focus does not square with the low number of plots in the United States by Muslims, and it does a disservice to a minority group that suffers from increasingly hostile public opinion. As state and local police agencies remind us, right-wing, anti-government extremism is the leading source of ideological violence in America.
Correction: June 19, 2015

An Op-Ed article on Tuesday omitted the given name of a scholar of counterterrorism at West Point. He is Arie Perliger.

Charles Kurzman teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. David Schanzer is director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University.

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Tuesday, June 09, 2015

ANS -- and getting ready for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage

Here's a fragment of Doug Muder's summary of his summary.  I thought it was interesting. it's very short. What do you think?
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and getting ready for the Supreme Court to rule on marriage

Tom Delay says "all Hell is going to break loose" if the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality. He pledges "to stand for marriage even if it takes civil disobedience."

I'm having trouble picturing which laws he's planning to disobey. If you google "civil disobedience against gay marriage" you can get all kinds of pledges and petitionsand whatnot. But they're all a little vague about how the campaign would work. Your neighbor's marriage doesn't really need your cooperation, so refusing to cooperate with it doesn't accomplish much.

Here's Glenn Beck interviewing the organizer of "The Future Conference: what you thought was coming … is here now". Beck says he believes 10,000 pastors "are willing to lay it all down on the table and willing to go to jail or go to death because they serve God and not man."

I'm not sure who these 10,000 pastors expect to kill them. What I fear is that having gotten all revved up and then discovering there actually are no jack-booted troops coming, the Right is going to create violent incidents of its own.

Another possible response to the Court: Secede from the Union. Joseph Farah, editor-in-chief of World Net Daily, explains what a bonanza secession could be for any state that could pull it off:

I know there are millions of Christians, Jews and others who would pull up stakes and move to another country that honored the institution of marriage as it was designed by God – a union between one man and one woman. … Is there one state in 50 that would not only defy the coming abomination, but secede in response? The rewards could be great. I would certainly consider relocating. How about you? … We need a Promised Land. We need an Exodus strategy.

He's ignoring, of course, all the people who would immediately leave his theocratic utopia. (I would expect the net population flow to be out rather than in.) But I think the interesting question is: Should the rest of care?

I mean, suppose one of the redder states ­ maybe Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, or some combination thereof ­ decides to become the New Israel for people who can't stand the idea of continuing to be Americans after marriage equality becomes the law of the land. Suppose the seceding state(s) even agree to reasonable conditions: (1) a period of time for people to move in and out freely before either side closes the border; (2) assuming a fair share of the national debt; (3) letting the U.S. military remove any WMDs before turning over its bases; and maybe some others I haven't thought of yet ­ nothing punitive, just making sure they're not taking advantage of the rest of us.

In that scenario, I'm not seeing a reason to go all Abe Lincoln on them and force them back into the Union. What do the rest of you think?

ANS -- Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, but what does that term mean?

This is an interesting piece about various forms of socialism and capitalism.  I don't agree with the author's assessment of worker-owned businesses completely, but it's a very interesting article nonetheless.  I also am not sure I agree that Bernie has no chance.  The public seems very excited about him.
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Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaking before an overflow crowd in Minneapolis
Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, but what does that term mean?
Jun 07, 2015 9:44am PDT by Stephen Wolf
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Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders running for president as a Democrat and self-styled democratic socialist provides the need for an explanation of what capitalism, socialism, and even communism actually are. The great myth of American civic education is that our economy is the most dynamic and successful because of the free market, which defines capitalism.

However, capitalism is not actually defined by the market, but rather the social relationship between capital and labor. You could ask the simple question of what type of economic system supposedly communist China uses or see that free markets have existed in pre-industrial societies to realize that capitalism has little to do with government involvement in the economy.

Capitalism is a development in political economy, or the economic system created through and influencing the political system, in which the vast majority of the population is forced to sell their labor to the owners of capital for mere subsistence. Labor is an obvious term, but what do we mean by capital? This economics term entails both money, such as cash or financial assets, as well as the means of production, such as machinery, land, or natural resources.

Thus, it is not the mere presence of government's involvement or lack thereof that determines a capitalist economy. China has been a capitalist country for three decades, along with nearly every other industrialized society on the planet, while true socialism has never existed anywhere, even in the former Soviet Union, where economic activity was heavily regulated and directed by the government.

So what might socialism look like and what is Bernie Sanders' vision for it? I'll explain this in more detail below.

There is no fixed vision of socialism that its proponents agree to. This term first arose in the 19th century as the Industrial Revolution took hold and Western Europeans moved from the farm to the city factory. No longer could tenant farmers support themselves on their land and burgeoning industry was an economic draw. Thus, Western European society left aristocratic feudalism behind and capitalism commenced in earnest.

However, many factory workers soon found that they had to work all day, practically every day, just to earn enough wages to survive. Radical thinker Karl Marx called this wage slavery and lamented that the lower class had to work to live and in turn lived to work. Fast forward to the present day and Westerners no longer work in factories en masse, but this system of forced wage labor persists for most people, who have no option but to obtain a job working for someone else's benefit if they are to make enough money to get by.

So-called communist China has seen something similar to the European Industrial Revolution take place over the last three decades. Millions of agrarian peasants were forced by economics to move to crowded, polluted cities to find work in industry where they serve to enrich the ruling elite. Horror stories about the working conditions in Chinese factories are frequent reminders that the true cost of your cheap widget is human misery.

China is officially communist, but a true communist such as Marx would be horrified at what had taken place in his name. He would deem it state-directed capitalism. For you see, in China, the ruling Communist Party is a class unto itself. The national legislature has a higher proportion of billionaires than any other in the world. For Marx, capitalism would give way to socialism and eventually communism, which was defined by two characteristics: the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and classlessness.

Of course, anyone familiar with the history of the last several decades can see that communism in practice was a horrible failure that led to neither of those two outcomes. The Soviet Union was a brutally oppressive regime whose legacy is a modern Russia where the richest men rule with a nuclear-powered military at their disposal. By some estimates, President Vladimir Putin is the richest man in the world and Russia is commonly called an oligarchy.

So what do modern socialists advocate for their vision of an alternative to capitalism? At its core, socialism isn't just government regulation of economic markets. Socialists like Bernie Sanders want to end the system of what Marx called wage slavery, where workers have no choice but to labor for others' profit so they can survive. What this means in practice, though, is not easily defined.

There are essentially two types of socialists in modern Western democratic politics. Social democrats are effectively what the left is in nearly every Western European and North American country. They might find socialism laudable, but have made peace with enacting changes to capitalism to make it more equitable. Social democrats enacted policies typically referred to as the mixed economy or welfare state, such as Social Security and universal health care. While U.S. Democrats don't use these labels, social democrats generally define the center-left of the political spectrum in the West.

Democratic socialists on the other hand are typically seen as more radical left-wingers and advocate the outright replacement of capitalism with socialism. European parties such as Greece's Syriza or Spain's Podemos aim to drastically reduce inequality through radical changes in policy. Democratic socialists would have government inject itself into the financial system and take control of natural resources to help the broader populace before private profit.

Despite his chosen label of democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders is very much a social democrat. He repeatedly will tell you how much he admires Scandinavia. That region is the modern poster child for social democracy and its countries are the most progressive, happiest, and equal in the entire world. Sanders is not proposing radical policies, but simply what many Europeans have realized is common sense. Even in America, many of his proposals enjoy broad support, just not among elected officials.

What are these policies? In general, social democrats like Sanders want to ensure that every person has access to housing, health care, education, meaningful employment, and transportation. Furthermore, Western socialists of all stripes typically support progressive social policies such as gender equality and tolerance of differences.

In particular however, Sanders advocates for three things that should be the backbone of the Democratic Party. These include reducing economic inequality, removing the rigged influence of the rich on our political system, and of course most importantly, preventing climate change. These aren't just issues that the far left supports. These are broadly popular issues on which our political system is massively out of step with what the public wants.

To address these issues, Sanders wants to do make our taxation system more progressive by ensuring the rich pay their fair share, given how much they benefit from the labor of others. He wants to ensure that every person has access to food, shelter, health care, and a good-paying job.

Politically, Sanders wants to ensure we keep our democracy by furthering the principle of one person, one vote. To do this he would get the big money that the Roberts Court introduced throughCitizens United out of political campaigns and would support publicly funded races. Under this system, politicians would no longer have to spend 80 percent of their time begging the rich for money and could instead campaign for the popular support of the people themselves.

Climate change is the most important issue of our time, and I fear that when I am old it will have become the only issue that matters. Sanders proposes taxing carbon and would do what it takes to reduce emissions in a country that emits far more per capita than practically any other industrialized country. Climate change and inequality are intertwined, as the latter enables the former by depriving those most at risk of the power they need to avoid disaster.

Sanders' platform hardly looks like radical socialism. Instead, it is what nearly every Democratic voter would support deep down and what most Americans realize is fair. Sanders simply has the audacity to call himself an actual socialist and for that he is maligned by the press and treated like a joke. His candidacy, however, is not a joke­its purpose is to advance these issues which matter to every-day Americans.

Sanders will not win the Democratic primary. I will happily vote for him, but hope Clinton wins, as much as I dislike her. Why? Because the American electorate is not ready for someone who openly calls himself a socialist. The press already has it out for Hillary and you can just imagine what they would do to someone who so openly challenges the plutocracy of modern America. We've already seen how a candidate who is viewed as ideologically extreme can provide a historic defeat for his own party. Extremist Republican Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964 ushered in the most progressive government we have ever had.

However, Sanders running is an excellent thing because it forces these progressive issues upon the political discourse. A neo-liberal like Hillary Clinton will not be able to avoid debating Sanders. Even if she welcomes his running as a "Sister Soulja" type of moment, he changes the subject of debate to issues of economic inequality. That in itself is a victory for the left, because fighting inequality is both popular and correct.

So with Sanders running a campaign I've described as being social democratic, what might true socialism look like? Underscoring how socialism doesn't require government involvement, there is a brand of it called libertarian socialism as advocated by philosophers such as Noam Chomsky. Instead of government directive, workers would directly own their place of employment and there would be a free association of firms that aimed to benefit those who were employed. At its most extreme, this is a brand of socialism that anarchists advocate.

However, this vision of libertarian socialism is problematic because of the inherent selfishness and irrationality of human beings. It is quite unlikely that a society of worker-run businesses would be able to both maximize production or innovate and also keep its egalitarian structure, given that even in the breakdown of government we do not see anything but elite-driven economic systems in practice.

Ultimately, we should want a democratic socialist government to shape society for the benefit of all. So what might that look like? Along with the aforementioned access to housing, health care, education, meaningful employment, and transportation, we should want a government that protects its' denizens rights, advances their standard of living, promotes equality, and plans for the welfare of future generations by preventing climate change.

Policies that would promote these values include:

Guaranteed Housing­Government should ensure that no one is homeless by providing all with the bare essentials of housing. Even in the U.S., local governments that simply paid to have the homeless housed have shown it is more cost-effective than leaving them on the streets.

Universal Health Care­The United Kingdom's National Health Service is a government-run and provided healthcare system that consistently ranks at the top compared to every other country while costing less than half of what the U.S. system does per capita. Health care should be a human right, given that none of us chose to be born. Everyone uses the healthcare system at some point and it makes zero sense that everyone should not be covered by it.

Free Education­All education should not only be free, but higher education should pay a stipend to counteract the opportunity cost that comes with forgoing employment as a young adult. Several European countries already do this and have some of the most educated citizens in the world. We should want our citizenry to know as much as possible, and having a robust education system is key to scientific, technological, and culture advances.

Access to Transportation­Every person should be able to easily commute to their place of employment, to basic services such as health care or food, and to basic entertainment or socializing, so that they can be happy. This entails drastically strengthening public transportation and radically reworking our economic system to reduce sprawl, reduce car use, and eliminate fossil fuel use.

Guaranteed Employment­This is perhaps the most difficult value to enforce. Many European countries have far stricter regulations on hiring and firing than the U.S., but that doesn't necessarily benefit workers. We should desire that anyone wanting to work should find a job, but it's also necessary that firms be able to hire the best labor and fire those who aren't up to the task at hand.

Employment should ensure that society gains from it. This means that workers are treated with respect and allowed to unionize and bargain on their own behalf. It means that those who become unemployed receive both financial support and assistance in finding a new job. It means that those who have newly entered the work force are assisted in finding jobs that maximize their potential. We should want a system of employment that advances humankind and the individual simultaneously, rather than one that simply allows workers to survive while others profit.

Universal Income­Along with employment, socialism would use the resources of society (such as natural resources) for public benefit. Every person would be guaranteed a minimum level of income simply for being alive. This would enable freedom to choose one's own profession, while allowing industries such as the arts to thrive without the pressure of economic necessity. Many people in our society such as homemakers do work that the market cannot fairly value, but which has merit. This would be further encouraged by a universal income.

Fighting Climate Change­Finally, there is the issue of climate change. Human beings today have a duty to their children, their children's children, and so on to provide a world that benefits them. By allowing businesses and consumers to limitlessly emit carbon, policymakers have committed a sin that could possibly destroy the human race itself. Socialists would have a duty to limit carbon pollution and eliminate climate change by drastically reducing emissions and promoting carbon-capturing technology and plant growth.

The two policies commonly discussed are a carbon tax, and cap and trade. The latter would place a maximum limit on emissions and allow the market to determine the price of available permits to emit. A carbon tax, however, provides a clear cost-per-ton emitted and provides the government with revenue that would allow it to reduce taxes elsewhere if chosen. Both methods have their merits, but something needs to be done so that we stop destroying the habitability of our planet for future generations.

Ultimately, a system of socialism is for the advancement of humanity. Communism says "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." However, socialism holds that "from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution" to society is the way for us to not only advance society, but ensure that the average person's well-being increases too. Socialists would consequently want to create a society in which people do work for the betterment of humankind. That includes both their own personal advancement as well as society's.

Sanders may have no hope of winning the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. However, his candidacy brings to the table issues that might otherwise be ignored and that in itself is a win for the left. At best, he will normalize talk of socialism and inform Americans why they are screwed by our current system of political economy. One day, when our climate has changed for the worse, and the elite who benefitted from it live in luxury while the rest of us live in squalor, will we finally wake up?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

ANS -- Universalism, Politics, and Evil

Here is a really important message, from Doug Muder, about how people think and how our tribal nature effects us.  It's in the form of a sermon, but don't let that fool you.  Read it.
Find it here:  


Universalism, Politics, and Evil


May 3, 2015 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois.

Opening Words: "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham

Introduction to the Reading: Historically, Unitarian Universalism gets the "Universalist" part of its name from the Christian doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that Jesus' sacrifice paid the freight for everyone, so sooner or later ­ no matter what they believe or how evil they are ­ everyone is going to wind up in Heaven. There couldn't possibly be a Hell, because God is too good to create one, and God loves each human soul too much to give up on it and cast it away forever.

As you might imagine, the Catholic Church considered universal salvation a heresy. They started stamping it out in the third century, but no matter how many books or heretics they burnedit kept popping up every few generations, until in colonial America it became the Universalist Church.

What made universal salvation so hard to suppress was that unpredictable people at unpredictable times kept having the same religious experience: a vision of the goodness of God and the unconditionality of God's love.

Christians are still having that vision, whether they've ever been exposed to Unitarian Universalism or not. Occasionally they have it at very inconvenient times. In 2005, the radio program This American Life devoted an episode to the extremely inconvenient universalist awakening of Carlton Pearson.

Carlton was a rising black televangelist, a protege of Oral Roberts. He had appeared in the pulpit with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. His Higher Dimensions megachurch in Tulsa was drawing 5,000 people a week. And then this happened:

Reading: From This American Life ( December 16, 2005)

Well, my little girl, who will be nine next month, was an infant. I was watching the evening news. The Hutus and Tutus were returning from Rwanda to Uganda, and Peter Jennings was doing a piece on it.

Now, Majeste was in my lap, my little girl. I'm eating the meal, and I'm watching these little kids with swollen bellies. And it looks like their skin is stretched across their little skeletal remains. Their hair is kind of red from malnutrition. The babies, they've got flies in the corners of their eyes and of their mouths. And they reach for their mother's breast, and the mother's breast looks like a little pencil hanging there. I mean, the baby's reaching for the breast, there's no milk.

And I, with my little fat-faced baby, and a plate of food and a big-screen television. And I said, "God, I don't know how you can call yourself a loving, sovereign God and allow these people to suffer this way and just suck them right into Hell," which is what was my assumption.

And I heard a voice say within me, "So that's what you think we're doing?"

And I remember I didn't say yes or no. I said, "That's what I've been taught."

"We're sucking them into Hell?" I said,

"Yes." "And what would change that?"

"Well, they need to get saved."

"And how would that happen?"

"Well, somebody needs to preach the Gospel to them and get them saved."

"So if you think the only way they're going to get saved is for somebody to preach the Gospel to them and that we're sucking them into Hell, why don't you put your little baby down, turn your big-screen television off, push your plate away, get on the first thing smoking, and go get them saved?"

And I remember I broke into tears. I was very upset. I remember thinking, "God, don't put that guilt on me. You know I've given you the best 40 years of my life. Besides, I can't save the whole world. I'm doing the best I can. I can't save this whole world."

And that's where I remember, and I believe it was God, saying, "Precisely. You can't save this world. That's what we did. Do you think we're sucking them into Hell? Can't you see they're already there? That's Hell. You keep creating and inventing that for yourselves. I'm taking them into My presence."

And I thought, well, I'll be. That's weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. That's where the pain comes from. We do that to each other, and we do it to ourselves. Then I saw emergency rooms. I saw divorce court. I saw jails and prisons. I saw how we create Hell on this planet for each other. And for the first time in my life, I did not see God as the inventor of Hell.

Talk: If you read my Weekly Sift blog, you probably know that I reliably take the positions that are known as "politically correct": I support marriage equality, I think black lives matter, I believe women when they talk about rape, I defend Muslims, I wish the rich paid more taxes, I advocate negotiating with unpopular countries like Iran and Cuba, I think voting should be easy, I believe in unions and a higher minimum wage, I think poor people usually work harder than rich people, I want everyone to have access to health care, and the idea that a few cheaters might be abusing food stamps doesn't bother me nearly so much as the possibility that there still might be some hungry people out there.

Down the line, politically correct.

Now, describing those positions that way is disparaging, because it implies that they are just a fashion. These are the chic ideas among the liberal tribe these days, and we display them so that we will recognize each other.

And it works. If I meet a stranger and she says, "It's a shame Elizabeth Warren won't challenge Hillary" I think: "Ah, one of my people."

Because human beings are like that. We're tribal. It's evolution ­ another one of those fashionable liberal ideas. One explanation for why the brains of primates got bigger was that we needed to do a lot of social processing to hold together larger groups. Larger groups have a survival advantage, so evolution favors larger brains.

If you compare humans to other primates, our brain size says we should run in tribes of about 150, compared to under 100 for chimpanzees and bonobos. That's called "Dunbar's number" and even today, it shows up in the literature about church size. In congregations with less than 150 members, everybody can have a personal relationship with everybody else. But 150 members is often a crisis point, and requires some kind of reorganization. It's biology.

Now, one way our ancestors got around those limitations and held together tribes larger than 150 was to invent fashion. We learned to identify with each other's external trappings even if we didn't have a personal relationship. So we'd paint our bodies red or put bones through our noses, and that way if we met someone we didn't recognize, we could tell whether or not he belonged to our tribe. And if the next tribe started to copy us, then we'd have to change to a different color or a different kind of bone. Because that's how fashion works. It's how like-minded people recognize each other.

Naturally, it's easier for me to spot political fashionability in people I disagree with. For example, I'll bet most of you know some smart, scientifically literate conservative who for some reason is blind to the evidence for global warming. You can be having a perfectly intelligent conversation, but something strange happens when climate change come up. He just can't go there.

It's tribal. Ten or fifteen years ago, a John McCain or a Newt Gingrich could acknowledge global warming. But fashion shifted, and climate change became a global socialist conspiracy. Today, a conservative who admits to believing in it risks being ostracized from his political community.

Of course, liberals and conservatives aren't perfect mirror images of each other, so just because the other side has some fault doesn't mean my side necessarily has it too. But in this case I think it's fair to say that sometimes we do. Because tribalism and fashionability aren't flaws in the conservative worldview, they're part of basic humanity. We are all tempted to bend over backwards to fit in with the people we recognize as our own.

But just because an opinion or a practice is fashionable doesn't mean it'sjust fashionable. There also might be some good reason for it. For example, children are still reciting "Eeny Meeny Miney Moe", but they say it differently than I did. Today they say, "Catch a tiger by the toe." But if you're my age or a little older, maybe you remember saying, "Catch a nigger by the toe." We didn't necessarily think about what we were saying, that's just how the rhyme went in those days.

That version is out of fashion now, but it's not just fashion that keeps us from teaching it to our children. There's a reason to say it the new way, and I don't think the old rhyme is ever going to come back.

So yes, I understand that all the opinions I listed at the beginning of this talk are fashionable among liberals, but that doesn't mean that nothing more than fashion links them all together.

Conservatives usually will grant me that. My views aren't just liberal chic, they come from a higher principle. Like: I hate America. Or I want to destroy western civilization. Or maybe I just hate myself, so I push against whites and men and Americans and anybody else who resembles me.

Those certainly are unifying principles. But they're not the one I had in mind. To me, all those positions on all those diverse issues arise from the spirit of Universalism as I understand it. Which is not to say that Universalism has a political dogma, or that you can't be a good Unitarian Universalist if you disagree. But this is where Universalism takes me.

When I introduced the reading I talked about the origins of Universalism in the doctrine of universal salvation. When you describe it that way, Universalism seems very etherial and other-worldly. It's all about God and the afterlife, and doesn't seem to have much to do with food stamps or foreign policy. But those theological ideas laid the groundwork for a radical kind of Humanism that we're still practicing today.

You see, in orthodox Christianity, as in many other faiths, the afterlife isn't one place, it's two places: a blissful Heaven and a torturous Hell. And that creates a fundamental division in humanity between the Saved, who will be on the boat to Heaven, and the Damned, who will be on the boat to Hell. Orthodox believers see this not as some unfortunate accident, but as divine justice. The Damned are bound for eternal torment because that is what they deserve.

That vision of the afterlife doesn't force believers to take a harsh view of life here and now ­ many people who believe in Hell are kind and generous here on Earth. But if you have any harshness already in you, this vision of the Saved and the Damned will magnify it. Because it does lend itself to the harsh view that once you step off the path of righteousness, you deserve whatever you get.

So if a young woman gets raped, well, what did she think would happen when she went to that party dressed like that? If a gay man gets AIDS, if a petty criminal gets killed by police, if a Muslim villager becomes collateral damage in a drone strike, why do they deserve our compassion? They stepped off the path laid out in a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, and they got what was coming to them.

If you're not careful, the Saved and the Damned can come to seem like two different species. In the New Testament, Jesus uses Judgment Day metaphors that seem to say that. He talks about God separating the sheep from the goats, or about the harvest, when the grain is kept but the weeds are burned.

John Calvin went a step further. Not only would humanity be divided at the end of time, but it had been two species all along. From the moment of Creation, God had predestined some souls for Heaven and others for Hell. That was the kind of Christianity that many of the early American Universalists grew up with.

Human beings, as I was saying before, have a tendency towards tribalism. And if you're not careful, this theology of the Saved and the Damned can ally itself with your tribal impulses. And then the Saved become the Good People, the people like us, and the Damned are the Bad People, the people like them. It becomes easier to look at someone who is different, and see not a fellow human being, a child of the same God, possessed of the same rights and faculties I have, but rather someone whose ticket to Hell is already punched and only the formality of death is delaying the completion of his damnation.

That is certainly how colonial Americans behaved sometimes. These heathen Indians ­ why shouldn't they be driven off this land where I want to build my City on a Hill for the greater glory of God? These pagan Africans ­ why shouldn't they be my slaves? And if I convert either of them to Christianity, well then they should thank me. I get their land and their labor, but they get eternal salvation, so it works out for everyone.

Universalism said no to all this. There aren't two afterlives or two boats to the afterlife, no Saved and Damned. There are just people. Humanity is one species, and we are all in the same boat. We all have the same basic set of emotions, the same drives, the same temptations, and the same yearnings for a better life.

From the very beginning, that had political implications. When American Universalists began to think of themselves as a national movement, one of the first things they did was to call for the abolition of slavery. (They were the second denomination to do that, after the Quakers.) And perhaps the beginning of American feminism was the essay "On the Equality of the Sexes", written in 1779 by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of Universalist leader John Murray.

The political upshot of Universalism ­ which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don't believe in God or the afterlife any more ­ is that since God isn't writing anybody off, we don't get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

That's an easy thing to say, and easy to nod to when somebody else says it. But in actual practice, it is difficult and radical. Not many people manage it consistently, and I know I find it a struggle.

When people live far away from us, or live so differently from us that we are afraid of them, or if they act in ways we find inconvenient, or if they are unpopular and lack the power to make us respect their point of view, it's easy to slip into imagining them in stereotyped ways rather than seeing them as human beings as deep and as complicated as we are.

When this country first started debating marriage equality, I'd often hear someone say, "I can't understand why two men would even want to get married." Of course the people who said this were often married themselves and knew exactly why they had done it: They wanted to share a life with someone, to tell the world that this relationship was special, to build a secure household for raising children. Why a same-sex couple might want to marry was a mystery only to straights who could not let themselves imagine that gays and lesbians could be so much like them.

When protest ­ and sometimes violence ­ was erupting in Ferguson, and again last weekend in Baltimore, I heard the most amazing explanations of why people were out in the streets: Looting and burning weren't isolated responses to mistreatment, they were the whole point. Michael Brown or Freddie Gray were just excuses to throw off the constraints of law and civilization.

Again and again, I heard TV pundits talk about our fellow citizens as if they were animals to be tamed or vermin to be controlled. So few called on us to imagine our own neighborhoods being similarly tamed and controlled, or to ask ourselves how we would respond to such treatment.

Even when the poor are quiet, I hear astounding things about them. They are "lucky duckies" because they don't have to work or pay taxes. They have no pride or ambition, and they don't want their children to work hard and get an education and succeed. Somehow, that description is easier to believe than that the poor want the same things from life we do, but just have a harder time getting them.

Foreign countries are also split into the Good People and the Bad People. The Good Foreigners accept the place in the world order that the United States has assigned them, and the Bad Foreigners don't.

And the reason they don't is not because they love their land and their people the way we love ours. It's not because they want their country to find its own place in the world or to shape its own system of government like we did. It's not even because they fear and distrust us the same way we fear and distrust them.

No, they oppose us because they are all madmen and monsters. They hate freedom. They are enemies of all human civilization. There is no understanding them or talking to them; all we can hope to do is go to war and kill them.

Universalism says no to all that.

It says that if you want to understand other people, the place to start is with our shared humanity and all that it implies. People living very different lives from us may have been shaped by different experiences, but underneath all that nearly all of them have the same needs, the same drives, the same fears, and the same hopes that we do. They aren't a species of Bad People pledged to the Devil with a reservation on the boat to Hell. They have the same ticket to life and death that we all do.

Now I can't just stop there without responding to the most common objection to Universalism: Universalism, people will tell you, is a rose-tinted worldview. Everybody is nice. Everybody is trustworthy. Everybody is like us. If you believe that, the critics say, you'll be a sucker. Because bad people exist, evil exists, and you won't be able to deal with that evil, because you have made yourself blind to it.

There is a difficulty there, a challenge. But it's not the one the critics claim. If you approach the world as a Universalist, if you envision all people as human in the same way that you are human, then you won't be able to deal with evil ­ if you imagine that there is no evil in you.

But if you give in to the tribal temptation to say "We are the Good People", if you give in to the egotistic temptation to say "I am Good", then you need to believe in the Bad People. Because how else could the world be this way? We didn't do it.

Earlier in the talk I criticized a couple of things Jesus said. Now I'd like to give him credit for an observation I find insightful: "Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer."

A lot of people interpret that in a way that doesn't do Jesus much credit. They think he's holding us responsible for the bad thoughts we don't act on. But I think he's saying that you're kidding yourself if you imagine that some great moral divide separates you from the Bad People.

Have you ever hated someone? Then you know where murder comes from. Have you been afraid and humiliated? Then you know why people lash out. Have you ever wanted to slough off inconvenient responsibilities? To forget a promise? To look at someone else's suffering and say, "I don't have anything to do with that" when deep down you know you really do? Then you know why people cheat and betray each other's trust. Don't act like evil is some great mystery; it isn't. We all live with it all the time.

Universalism doesn't deny the existence of evil, or the struggle between good and evil. It just refuses to frame that struggle as an external battle between Good People like us and Bad People like them. It doesn't see the battle between good and evil as something that's happening far away in Syria or the Ukraine, or in Washington, or in the poor neighborhoods of St. Louis or Baltimore.

Good and evil are both part of our human inheritance, and not even an Almighty God can divide them so neatly as to send the Good to Heaven and the Evil to Hell. The battle between good and evil is always happening, right here right now, inside each and every one of us. We win some and we lose some. All of us.

I want to close back where I started, with political correctness and the liberal tribe. One consequence of recognizing that humanity is one species and we're all in the same boat is that we have to own up to feeling the same tribal temptations that we see in our opponents. Universalism can warn us against that human tendency, but it can't completely inoculate us.

And so every day on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I see link after link about the horrible things the other side is saying or doing;links that are there mainly to raise my anger, and to reinforce the idea that I and my friends are the Good People fighting the Bad People. And the Bad People do not have their own, perhaps misguided, view of right and good. They are monsters and maniacs, committed to falsehood and impervious to reason or compassion. So if my side doesn't do whatever it takes to win, the world will plunge into eternal darkness.

That's not a Universalist style of rhetoric.

I face that issue every week when I put the Sift together. Whatever outrageous thing Michele Bachmann or Louie Gohmert said this week, am I tempted to include it because my readers need to know the full range of the ideas that are out there? Or am I just trying to raise their blood pressure and build their sense of our common righteousness?

I can't ignore that question. Because there is a weakness in the Universalist position, one that the other side doesn't share: We can lose by winning. If we win by demonizing and stereotyping, if we win by casting ourselves as the Saved and our opponents as the Damned ­ then we've lost. If good vs. evil is a battle inside each person, then evil can win in us at the very moment that we are winning in the external world.

Polarization is a fact of today's political landscape, and we have to deal with it. But we can't afford to lose ourselves in polarization. Because our virtues are not divine, they're human. And their vices are not demonic, they're human.

Good and evil are both part of the human inheritance that everyone shares. And whenever we forget that, no matter what is happening on the battlefield out there, we're losing.

Closing words: "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost
Posted by Doug Muder at 2:39 PM 1 comment: []

ANS -- The Democratic Party needs a swift kick in the ass

This is a bare-bones outline of what the left should be doing right now to turn the country around.  Listen up.  This is important. 
sent to me by one of our readers.
Find it here:

Al Jazeera America

The Democratic Party needs a swift kick in the ass

A grass-roots revolt from the left could remake the party into something electable again

June 2, 2015 2:00AM ET
by C. Robert Gibson   @uncutcrg

The Democratic Party's official symbol is a jackass ­ and that's exactly how the party is perceived by the American electorate right now. Only 18 states have Democratic governors, and Democrats hold a majority in both legislative houses in just 11 states. As the New York Times noted, the party hasn't had this little power since Herbert Hoover was president. And Democrats will continue to get their asses kicked in every election until grass-roots movements organize to oust the party's corporate-backed incumbents, make a mockery of state party bosses and take the helm once they've all been driven out.

Of America's two major political parties, the Republicans have become the party of extremists determined to privatize the commons, neuter the government's ability to police polluters and corporate tax avoiders and redistribute wealth to the rich. The Democrats, on the other hand, have simply failed to stand for anything other than a watered-down version of what Republicans are proposing. State Democratic Party chairpeople, committee members, top-level elected officials and check writers have made it clear they have no interest in changing course in their embrace of policies that disenfranchise the middle class, nor are they listening to the grass-roots movements demanding economic, environmental and racial justice. Even as the country moves further to the left, Democrats continue to lose. The 2014 midterm election cycle was a perfect example.

Last November, voters in Illinois passed a nonbinding ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, and Massachusetts voters approved a measure guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers. Voters in Republican-controlled Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota moderately increased the minimum wage. Alaskan voters even legalized marijuana. Despite this outburst of populism, all these voters simultaneously elected Republicans ­ who are notoriously against all those things. This is partially due to record-low voter turnout. The last time such a small percentage Americans bothered to vote was more than 70 years ago, when a huge chunk of the country was an ocean away, immersed in war. But blame can also be laid at the Democrats' feet for failing to provide a noticeable alternative to GOP extremism.
The American left can have a voice in politics if it channels organized grass-roots energy into electoral mutiny.

If Democratic leaders were smart, they would take their embarrassing 2014 losses to heart and truly embrace the economic populism voters are demanding. Yet at the federal level, Senate Democrats caved in near-record time last week to grant the president trade promotion authority, paving the way for fast-track congressional approval of trade deals ­ permitting only up or down votes, without amendments or filibusters ­ including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest, most secretive global free trade deal in modern history. The backtracking of top Senate Democrats such as Ron Wyden and Patty Murray was especially disappointing, considering how Democrats held the line just 24 hours earlier in their refusal to allow debate on the bill because of the trade deal's lack of even the most basic of protections for workers and the environment. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid lent assistance to Republican leader Mitch McConnell to whip the last few senators in line who had been intent on blocking the legislation. Bipartisanship seems to be possible only when it's for the benefit of global corporations. The House is poised to vote on the agreement in June, where it is expected to face much stronger opposition from progressive-leaning Democrats and Republicans staunchly opposed to anything President Barack Obama proposes.

Even state Democratic committees in the midst of changing leadership are repeating the same mistakes. In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker won elections three times in the last four years, state party leaders and big-name party bosses have consistently anointed conservative-leaning, uninspiring candidates such as Tom Barrett and Mary Burke while working hard to keep more progressive gubernatorial candidates from being competitive.

What the blue party needs right now is a swift kick in the ass. And as much as independent parties like Socialist Alternative or the Green Party try to draw enough disaffected leftists from the Democratic Party in the next few election cycles, their ascent will remain a fantasy as long as America has winner-take-all elections. But the American left can have a voice in politics if it takes an example from the tea party and channels organized grass-roots energy into electoral mutiny, just as Indiana Republicans did in 2012. Dick Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana, voted with Republicans almost every time during his long career, other than one instance in spring of 2006, when he worked with Obama on helping central Eurasian countries with nuclear disarmament. The tea party faction of the GOP vowed to defeat Lugar in the Republican primary, even though establishment Republicans warned that ousting Lugar would open the seat up to a Democrat. Sure enough, tea party favorite Richard Mourdock won the primary, then ended up losing to a Democrat after a gaffe referring to pregnancy from rape as "something God intended."

Because primaries are almost always low-turnout elections, grass-roots movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street can make powerful statements by running their own candidates and mobilizing their members to vote in Democratic primary elections against entrenched incumbents. If the incumbent is ousted in the primary, one of two things will happen: Either a candidate with an unabashedly progressive platform will be your new state representative, governor or member of Congress or a Republican against all those things will win the seat. Either way, the grass roots will have pulled the state party organization significantly to the left, making it known that all future candidates had better adopt the populist values demanded by the people or be defeated.

And when the grass roots have successfully shifted the conversation to be about the issues affecting their communities and livelihoods rather than the false issues trotted out by party bosses, conservative Democrats and Republicans won't hold their seats for long.

C. Robert Gibson is an independent journalist and a co-founder of the anti-austerity group US Uncut.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

ANS -- Feast for investors sells workers short

Here's an article about corporate investment strategies and what went wrong in our economy.  I'll highlight a bit you should see.
Find it here:  


Feast for investors sells workers short

As US companies spend billions repurchasing shares, employees and economy may pay the price

 210COMMENTS PRINTCEO John Chambers was pressured by investors and had a compensa


CEO John Chambers was pressured by investors and had a compensation package that included incentives to boost Cisco's stock prices.
By Michael Kranish GLOBE STAFF  MAY 31, 2015

One in a series of occasional articles on issues that polarize the American electorate.

More from the Divided Nation series:
Part 1
In Colo., stark view of wealth gap
Part 2
Old battle lines drawn anew in Kansas
Part 3
In Ark., divide on religious, gay rights
Part 4
Suspicion of US government in Texas
Part 5
Feast for investors sells workers short

BOXBOROUGH ­ Bob Ordemann's team of 80 software developers and engineers filed into a conference room here one day last September at the offices of the giant networking company Cisco. The room was deep within the company's bucolic campus, nestled amid woodlands where employees brainstorm while strolling along tranquil creeks and ponds.
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The news this day was anything but serene. Ordemann and his team were laid off, along with 100 others in Boxborough, part of a sweeping cut of 6,000 employees that hit 8 percent of Cisco's overall workforce.

"Cisco was so easily willing to let us go; it just seemed mad to me," Ordemann said in an interview, as he recalled the "dead quiet" reaction to the layoffs.

This was not, however, the case of a company cutting back because it was struggling to make a profit. To the contrary, Cisco's chief executive officer, John T. Chambers, this month called the California-based company a "cash and profit machine." Cisco has a cash stockpile of $53 billion, the fifth-largest among US companies, according to Moody's Investors Service.
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Special section: Divided Nation

A series examining the issues that polarize the American electorate.

How Cisco spends that cash is another matter.

The Boxborough workers learned that at the same time they were being laid off the company was continuing to spend billions of dollars to buy back its own stock, a move designed to reduce the number of shares on the open market and perhaps boost its relatively stagnant share price.

Cisco has spent $91 billion on stock buybacks since 2001. In some years, they helped boost the company's share price. But over the long run, the effect has been modest.

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Many other major companies are similarly spending much of their profits repurchasing their own shares, making April the biggest month for buyback announcements in US history.

This stock buyback boom, while obscure to much of the public, has become one of the most pervasive and divisive practices in corporate America. It affects jobs, investment, and the health of the economy, all in the search for higher share prices. It is also a major driver of the widening economic divide in this country, which could make it a prominent issue in the 2016 presidential election.

It boils down to a basic question being asked more and more these days, and not only by workers in Boxborough: Why are so many companies spending record sums of money buying back their shares instead of reinvesting more of their profits in their business and their workers?

The raw numbers are startling and revealing. Since the early 1980s, the nation's top publicly traded companies have gone from having 70 percent of their profits available to reinvest in their business to just 2 percent in 2014.

The rest is being plowed into dividends and stock buybacks that mostly enrich a select group of investors and executives, according to William Lazonick, a University of Massachusetts Lowell professor whose research was published last fall by Harvard Business Review.

"Stock buybacks should be illegal," Lazonick said in an interview at his Cambridge home. "They are manipulation of the market."

Buybacks are booming because US companies have earned record profits and are hoarding a vast amount of cash. The companies use buybacks to share some of that wealth with their executives and shareholders. Many CEOs were given record compensation, and shareholders may have benefited from higher stock prices.
“Stock buybacks should be illegal,” said William La


"Stock buybacks should be illegal," said William Lazonick, a University of Massachusetts Lowell professor. "They are manipulation of the market."

But most stock is owned by the nation's wealthiest 10 percent; about half of Americans don't own a single share, directly or indirectly. And buybacks can squeeze the economy in another way: Dollars not reinvested by a company in expanding their business can also mean fewer jobs in construction and other fields.

Supporters of buybacks stress that the nation's top non-financial companies spent a record amount on capital expenditures in 2014 before declaring their profits. They say that the best way to benefit the average non-stock-holding American is to make sure companies are financially strong enough to withstand Wall Street corporate raiders who might have less allegiance to employees. And they say that shareholders spread wealth throughout the economy.

"The reason [companies] buy back their stock with cash is because they don't have productive ways to invest the money," said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business professor who has written about buybacks. Boosting the share price through buybacks enables "individuals to reinvest in the economy more productively."

But in recent weeks, Lazonick's scathing criticism of the buyback trend has been echoed by a growing cast of politicians and business leaders. Laurence Fink, the head of the world's largest money management company, condemned the practice as short-term thinking that often backfires.

Senator Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the practice. SEC commissioner Kara Stein, in turn, warned that many large publicly traded companies this year are in line to spend all of their profits on dividends and buybacks instead of reinvesting those funds in their businesses ­ possibly a tipping point in the nation's history.

Cisco, which declined comment for this story, provides a road map of how the practice has skyrocketed, and how it affects executives, shareholders, and workers.

It is a tale of unforeseen consequences, one that began at the tangled intersection of politics and economics, with obscure rule changes in Washington that insiders and others saw and seized on.

Stage is set

Bevis Longstreth was serving as a commissioner on the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1982, when the rule change that launched the buyback boom came up for a vote.

Proposed by Reagan administration officials who favored deregulation, the change enabled corporations to repurchase much larger amounts of their stock on the open market. The measure was intended partly to offset stock options and awards granted to company employees and partly to pump up the stock market. Companies were assured that they would not be prosecuted for price manipulation, as they had feared, and the measure was approved unanimously.

It happened in a simpler time for corporate America, when investors typically held stock for the long term. Many companies viewed their commitment to their employees as a measure of their success. Profits were heavily reinvested into business expansion. If a company had excess cash to return to shareholders, it typically was paid out in dividends.

Gradually, however, the freedom of corporations to make massive buybacks of their stock changed the calculation. The more stock that was bought back, the fewer shares were on the open market. The shrunken stock pool meant share prices often went up. Stock buybacks were now seen as a quick way to boost share prices ­ without the hard work of increasing investment in the company or coming up with a breakthrough product.

Today, Longstreth is aghast at what the rule change has wrought. He is appalled that the S&P 500 corporations last year spent all but 2 percent of their profits on buybacks and dividends. He said none of that was anticipated when he voted for the proposal.

"It is a terrible thing for the economy because the growth of the economy and the growth of individual companies depends upon their reinvesting in their business and expansion into other lines of business, and paying 98 percent of your earnings out as dividends or stock buybacks implies that you have no future," Longstreth said in an interview. "It is a stunning number no matter how you say it. It is pathetic."

A second obscure rule, approved in 1993, played a key role. This one came on then-President Bill Clinton's watch.

Clinton railed against what he called "excessive pay of chief executives" in a way that now seems almost quaint, decrying CEO pay that reached $1 million or more. He urged Congress to pass legislation that he hoped would discourage high salaries by making amounts paid to executives above $1 million not deductible as a business expense.

But the measure, as it rattled through the congressional gantlet of politics and influence, gained a Wall Street-backed proviso that made any amount of compensation deductible if it was tied to a measure of the executive's performance, such as stock price.
Bob Ordemann was laid off despite record profits at Cisco.


Bob Ordemann was laid off despite record profits at Cisco.

Thus was launched an era of sky-high CEO pay. Companies handed out enormous options and awards to CEOs that were tied to the value of their stock. Companies found that making a stock buyback, as allowed under the decade-old SEC rule change, could at least briefly boost share prices, perhaps increasing the value of stock options given to top executives. The result: CEOs now had a vested interest in buybacks that could quickly boost the value of their own personal options.

Today, thanks largely due to stock options, the 200 top-earning CEOs at large publicly traded companies made more than $12 million in 2014, and the top 20 made more than $33 million apiece, according to compensation analysis firm Equilar.That helps explain why CEOs today earn 354 times as much as rank-and-file workers, compared with 20 times as much in 1965.

Christopher Cox, who was a Republican House member at the time the measure was passed and who later served as SEC chairman, said the legislation should be enshrined in "the museum of unintended consequences."

"It was a populist impulsive act, a way for Congress to advertise that it thought that executives were overpaid and to apparently do something about it," Cox said in a telephone interview. "In fact, even at the time, it was clear enough to some that this was not going to have a prayer of achieving its intended effect."

(Clinton, for his part, got over his aversion to big paydays after leaving office, collecting $105 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2013, including from many corporate sponsors, according to a Washington Post analysis.)

For many on Wall Street, buybacks are a natural outgrowth of an economic theory that says a company is run for the benefit of its shareholders ­ not its workers and not society. Under this "shareholder value" theory ­ pushed aggressively by hedge funds and activist investors who want quick returns on their money ­ stockholders pressure management to boost share prices regardless of the consequences for workers or their communities.

The theory holds that such pressure will ensure that companies are managed efficiently and dispassionately ­ that what is good for the shareholder will be best for the company, and society in the long run.

But critics say the theory has no basis and is a way of rationalizing excesses and inequities that threaten to undermine the nation's long-term economy.

Lynn Stout, a Cornell Law School professor of corporate finance, said in an interview that Washington policy makers created "a perverse incentive" for corporate leaders to cut investment in factories and research and development in order to put aside billions of dollars to repurchase shares.

"You have CEOs whose pay is tied to share price," said Stout, author of "The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public." "You have, sadly, a lot of pension funds and mutual funds who are only thinking two or three years ahead. An investment bank shows up and explains to these people, 'You know, if you borrow a bunch of money, you can repurchase shares and drive your share price up.' Who is going to say 'no' to that? The problem is when all of our companies are doing that, no one is investing in the future."

While many on Wall Street support and benefit from buybacks, one of the most prominent critics has been Fink, the chairman of BlackRock, the world's largest asset management firm. Fink, whose company invests long term, in April wrote the CEOs of the top 500 publicly traded companiesabout his concern that corporate leaders are too focused on trying to "deliver immediate returns to shareholders [through means] such as buybacks or dividend increases, while under-investing in innovation, skilled workforces, or essential capital expenditures necessary to sustain long-term growth."

Few companies have been more aggressive in the buyback boom than Cisco and its longtime chief executive officer, John T. Chambers ­ who, as it happens, has a long history in Massachusetts.

A leader in buybacks

Chambers grew up in West Virginia, became an IBM salesman, and by 1983 worked for a Lowell-based company, Wang Laboratories. Wang then was one of the world's dominant computer firms, anchored by its iconic set of three 12-story towers in the former mill town, one of the most visible symbols of the "Massachusetts miracle."

But the company failed to foresee the shift from minicomputers to the personal computer. Chambers, in his role as executive vice president, was given the responsibility for laying off 5,000 people, after which he resigned. The Wang towers, built for more than $50 million, were later auctioned off for $525,000, according to a Globe story at the time , a sign of how far the company and the state's fortunes had fallen.

Chambers's distress over having to lay off his employees was emblematic of the times. Layoffs were an admission of failure, as he described it.

"We let down our customers. We let down our employees. We let down our shareholders," Chambers said in an ABC-TV interview about ordering the Wang layoffs. "I'll do anything to avoid that again . . . You look at people in the eye and you realize that you're wrecking their lives and their families'."

Chambers left Wang for a job at a then-obscure company named Cisco, which had 254 employees in 1990. Chambers became executive vice president in 1991 and chief executive officer four years later. As Cisco's CEO, Chambers foresaw earlier than most that the fast-digitizing world needed better ways to connect computers. The company specialized in routers and other devices, as well as software, that connected this world. Sales took off.

By 1999, Chambers was being glowingly profiled in prime-time television shows. ABC-TV's Diane Sawyer asked Chambers how much he made.

"Couple million," he answered.

That apparently was a reference just to his salary and bonus. His stock options that year were worth an astounding $121 million, with an incentive clause for another $179 million if the stock rose 10 percent annually for the following eight years, according to a report at the time by the Los Angeles Times.

In other words, Chambers had an extraordinary incentive to keep the stock price going up.

Chambers seemed on a path to make that happen. In March 2000, Cisco was the world's most valuable company, with a market value of $555 billion, surpassing Microsoft. Its stock price reached an all-time high of $80. But then the tech bubble burst and by September 2001 the stock sank to $14. Investors clamored for Chambers to boost the price. Unveiling a new product or buying another company ­ which Chambers did frequently ­ wouldn't be enough.

So it was that Chambers put Cisco on the path to becoming one of the nation's leading practitioners of stock buybacks. The company has spent $91 billion on stock buybacks since 2001, according to its latest securities filing. The company's share count has dropped from 7.3 billion in 2001 to 5 billion this month.

In some years, the buybacks helped boost Cisco's share price. But over the long run, the effect has been modest. The share price was $20 shortly after the first buyback was announced in late 2001, rose to $27 in January 2004, and closed at $29 Friday.

While the stock price stagnated, the company's profits have consistently been among the best in the tech world, including record profits last year. Chambers was well rewarded. He received $680.3 million in compensation from 1993 to 2014, mostly from stock options and awards, according to Lazonick's research.

But to get to those profits, Chambers has had to scale back some plans, including his vision that Boxborough would be home to one of Cisco's biggest facilities.

Focused on share values

The future couldn't have seemed brighter for Cisco's New England Development Center when Chambers opened the Boxborough campus in 2003. Here he was, 18 miles from the scene of his disastrous last days at Lowell's Wang headquarters, hoping to bring 5,000 jobs to Massachusetts. Five years later, he returned to Boxborough and assured the assembled workers and politicians that his grand vision for the campus would still come through.

Over time, however, it became apparent that Boxborough might shrink, not expand. Employees often debated the wisdom of Chambers's strategy of spending billions of dollars on buying back stock. Some employees vented in online discussion groups about whether the company should be spending some of the funds on long-term innovation instead of chasing short-term boosts to the share price.

In 2010, amid investor concern about the company's stock price, Chambers urged President Obama and Congress to give companies such as Cisco a huge tax break ­ known as a "tax holiday" ­ that would allow them to bring overseas profits to the United States at a tax rate of just 5 percent. Otherwise, under US law, a company has to pay the 35 percent corporate tax rate, minus credit for whatever foreign taxes have been paid.

This is a huge matter for Cisco: It currently has 94 percent of its $53 billion stockpile overseas, where it typically is much more lightly taxed than in the United States, according to a report issued earlier this year by Moody's Investors Service.

While Cisco had one of the largest offshore cash hoards, it was hardly alone, the Moody's report said. The nation's non-financial companies now hold a record $1.73 trillion in cash, including $1.1 trillion overseas ­ money that in another era might have been partly spent on hiring US workers and building facilities and expanding product lines. But many companies today are so averse to paying tax on their offshore cash that they borrow billions of dollars to buy back their stock rather than tap foreign reserves.

In 2004, when Congress granted a tax holiday by charging only 5.25 percent on repatriated profits, companies were expected to use the liberated cash to create US jobs. But a US Senate report found that companies created relatively few jobs. Instead, they used some of the money to repurchase their stock. Still, Chambers was one of the leading voices calling for a new tax holiday, publicly threatening to ship jobs overseas unless he could bring Cisco's overseas cash to the United States with little taxation.

"I prefer to have the majority of my employees right here in America. That's the right decision for us. But if we can't bring our cash back, we're going to grow dramatically overseas in terms of job placements," Chambers told CNBC in 2013 .

Congress did not declare the tax holiday that Chambers sought. Soon, he was announcing rounds of layoffs, while stressing that he was "focused on shareholder value creation."

Years earlier, Chambers had said he never wanted to go through anything again like the 5,000 Wang layoffs. But now Chambers made it clear he had gotten over his aversion, announcing the August layoff of 6,000 employees in what he called a realignment of company priorities.

"I oversaw five rounds of layoffs during a period of 18 months" at Wang, Chambers wrote in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review. "It was a painful time, but I learned what happens when companies lack the courage to disrupt themselves."

The disruption began hitting Boxborough last September.

Lives upended

Bob Ordemann understood the concept of disruption, but he thought his team of software experts in Boxborough was uniquely qualified to help Cisco. He hoped to go to the San Jose, Calif., headquarters to make the case directly to Chambers.

But the trip never happened. Chambers had made up his mind. The Boxborough facility would be among those hardest hit.

Massachusetts taxpayers have a stake in all of this. The state and town of Boxborough lured Cisco to its current location with tax breaks that so far have been worth $39.2 million, according to the Massachusetts Office of Business Development.

In return, Cisco promised to retain 824 jobs and create 669 in Boxborough, for a total of 1,493, according to the state. Cisco told the state it had 1,344 employees in Massachusetts as of last June. The state said it will reevaluate the tax breaks later this year, taking the layoffs into account.

Chambers, who is slated to step down as CEO in July but remain chairman of the board, didn't come to Boxborough to deliver the news to workers. He sent a recently installed senior vice president from San Jose to lay off 182 employees.

William Stoner, who oversaw a 14-person team, was among those who got the news he dreaded. Abruptly out of work at 52, and carrying the college loans of two children, he faced the challenge of restarting his career. Many laid-off employees did find work elsewhere, and some relocated within Cisco. Stoner, as a mid-level manager, faced higher odds; he often competed against 100 other applicants. He eventually got work as an IT consultant, with fewer benefits and a much longer commute, 62 miles to Connecticut.

He and other Boxborough workers spent weeks asking each other questions that are surely being asked at other companies making similar choices. Would it have been different if Cisco had invested more in its business? Would the layoffs been necessary if there wasn't so much focus on the stock price?

William Stoner was among those laid off at Cisco. “Years


William Stoner was among those laid off at Cisco. "Years ago there was a lot more loyalty to employees. Now there is more to shareholders than the employee," he said.

"There was a lot of debate about stock buybacks," Stoner said. "Years ago there was a lot more loyalty to employees. Now there is more to shareholders than the employee."

Ordemann, who had spent 16 years working for Cisco, including the last 11 in Boxborough, watched movers load his team's gear on trucks headed to Cisco operations in Canada, California, and North Carolina. Then he left behind the corporation's meticulously tended grounds and headed into the wilderness. Traveling to the northern Massachusetts border, he put on a pair of backcountry skis and shouldered a backpack. For the next five weeks, he skied the spine of Vermont, taking the 300-mile Catamount Trail to the Canadian border.

Somewhere along his journey, as he bundled against temperatures that dropped to 9 degrees below zero and glided atop snow that was often more than two feet deep, he decided he would switch careers and set new goals. He could try to use his background to develop solutions to cope with the Earth's changing climate.

"Cisco has been a very, very good place to work," he said, sitting in a Starbucks recently built on land that Cisco once eyed for expansion. "It's hard to walk away from a position like this, so when they show you the door, you can decide to be upset or you can treat it as an opportunity, and I chose the latter."

At summer's end, after time with his family, Ordemann plans to begin his job search in earnest.