2018
August
03
Friday
Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Sure, 108.1 sounds like an off-the-dial pop radio station.

It was also the average temperature in California's Death Valley in July, the hottest average month ever notched anywhere in the United States and second only, worldwide, to the 108.5 degrees F. recorded in Iran in July 2000.

Heat records are being erased. More are expected to fall this weekend in Europe. The thermometer has already soared past 90 degrees F. above the Arctic Circle.

This isn’t just a patch of brutal weather, though even among those who accept the evidence-based scientific consensus that Earth’s climate is warming there’s lingering debate about the degree of humans’ role. Against that sweltering backdrop, the Trump administration slammed the brakes yesterday on agreed-upon moves to improve automakers’ corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and lessen greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmentalists groaned. Perhaps more important, not even carmakers love the move. One reason: uncertainty caused by inevitable legal tangles and the prospect of different rules for different markets. Another: While shareholders, as one automotive writer I know points out, salivate over old-tech, high-margin luxury trucks (sold on 96-payment plans), automakers also keep eagerly dipping into new tech. That means lighter (yes, still safe) materials and means of propulsion that require less fossil fuel.

Innovation serves a growth market no firm can ignore. Apple this week became the first US firm to score a $1 trillion valuation. It got there by giving consumers features and products they didn’t know they wanted. By giving them efficiencies they hadn’t heard about. By never looking back.

Now to our five stories for your Friday.

1. Who’s left to hire? Tight job market grabs those hardest to employ.

A tight job market means opportunity – including for Americans with prison records, disabilities, or health challenges. And their participation could strengthen the economy in the long run.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The strong US economy is creating so many new jobs – 157,000 in July – that it’s pulling even people on the margins into the labor force. It’s sometimes a messy process, marked by rejections along the way as people with less than ideal résumés get hired, fired, and then work to gain the right skills to make themselves hirable again. “You try to change your life and it's not working,” says a former mechanic recently rejected for jobs at two garages because of his criminal background. But little by little, as employers become increasingly desperate to find workers, they’re willing to consider job applicants they never would have looked at before. That trend offers several benefits. It can heal lives ​– sometimes pulling people off the dole or preventing a relapse of problems like addiction. And it boosts economic growth, especially if it helps end a long-term trend of declining labor-force participation among Americans in their prime working years. Whether that trend is truly reversing should become clearer in the next six months, says labor-market analyst Jay Shambaugh.

Collapse

Who’s left to hire? Tight job market grabs those hardest to employ.

Almost like clockwork, a growing US economy cranks out new jobs. In July, it added 157,000 positions, the US Labor Department reported Friday; in June, 248,000.

But with unemployment near 20-year lows and some analysts touting “full employment,” are there enough available people to keep filling them?

Population growth can account for about a third to a half of the new hires. But to keep the economy growing, people not currently working need to come off the sidelines to reenter the workforce. And that’s what’s happening. The story of who and how is a sometimes messy process, with people struggling with issues from health to criminal backgrounds getting jobs, losing them, and then gaining the courage to try again.

It’s also a tale of progress and hope.

Down the corridor from a law office, 10 floors above Boston’s bustling financial district, a dozen men and women are seated around tables shaped in a U. They’re taking an intensive two-week course here at JVS CareerSolution, learning how to find work despite a background of addiction or criminal activity.

There’s general agreement here that the economy is strong and that it’s a good time to look for a job. But there are complications.

“I have never had a problem finding a job; I have always had a problem keeping a job because of my CORI,” says Alonzo, wearing a bright white T-shirt. (The Monitor did not ask for last names in order to respect the privacy of the class.)

Massachusetts’ CORI, or Criminal Offender Record Information, is an obstacle for many in the class. Mark, a former mechanic, was recently rejected for jobs at two garages because of his criminal background. “You try to change your life,” he says, “and it's not working.”

Then there’s James, who had worked two years at a 24-hour health-food restaurant in nearby Cambridge. “I was willing to stay nights. I am really liking this work,” he says. “I felt that I was headed toward assistant manager.”

A month ago, he got fired. “I think it was my CORI, but I can’t prove it,” he says.

Get-tough policies across America, often resulting in prison terms for minor infractions, are sometimes credited for reducing the nation’s crime rate. But an unintended side effect has been to marginalize many Americans, mostly men and often minorities, which often keeps them from reentering the workforce.

And that’s one reason that, worryingly, the share of people in the labor force has been declining in recent years. But employers are so desperate for workers that they’re lowering requirements for new job applicants and, perhaps, reversing that decline.

“Every single day, we have new employers saying: ‘We are looking,’ ” says Doreen Treacy, vice president of career services at JVS CareerSolution. Where before companies required bachelor degrees, now they accept an associate’s degree. Local hospitals used to ask for two years’ experience before hiring certified nursing assistants. Now, they line up at the JVS CareerSolution’s graduations of CNAs to recruit them, she adds.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Mentees work under the tutelage of mentors in the auto-repair training shop inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, La., on March 23, 2016. Judges see evidence that a program to build job skills for nonviolent offenders is helping to break a cycle of crime for its graduates.

The overall labor participation rate has been sliding partly because a growing share of Americans are retirees. What concerns economists is that the rate has been falling even among Americans in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54). For women, it’s been falling since 2000; for men, since 1953.

A falling share of working-age people in the labor force makes it harder for the economy to grow.

The hopeful sign is that in the past three years, the participation rate has rebounded strongly, especially for women. In July, participation among prime working-age women ticked up to a seasonally adjusted 75.5 percent, an eight-year high, according to the Department of Labor. For men, it dipped to 88.8 percent – higher than the all-time low of 88 percent reached in 2015, but the lowest level so far this year. (See chart.)

The question is whether the rebound is simply a return to the trend after the ravages of the Great Recession or the start of a rise that will reverse the long-term slide, says Jay Shambaugh, director of The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington and coauthor of a new Brookings study on the rebound. The next six months should provide a clearer answer, Mr. Shambaugh says.

Anecdotally, employers appear to be willing to overlook a background of criminal activity or substance abuse.

“This is my first time in recovery,” says Toi, one of two women in the JVS CareerSolution group. “I have been in a couple job interviews but they haven’t worked so well. That’s why I came here. Basically, I’m just trying to find my way.”

JVS CareerSolution boasts that 92 percent of those who complete its two-week course either get a job or further training to acquire job skills – Toi’s challenge.

But it’s often a difficult process, with backward as well as forward steps.

“I was an EMT [emergency medical technician] for years; I left there because of my drinking,” says one man who doesn’t give his name. “I think about it all the time. I see an ambulance and I think: ‘I should be doing that instead of flipping eggs.’ ”

Of the people in the group, he says: “It's not bad people, it's just big bad mistakes.”

SOURCE: The Brookings Institution using census data (via Haver Analytics) and US Bureau of Labor Statistics
|
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

One huge hurdle for women to enter the workforce is care-giving. More than half of prime-age women outside the formal labor force say they can’t get a job because they’re caring for children or the elderly. “Without child care or elder care, it would not be possible to increase these people’s participation,” the Brookings study says.

Another big obstacle to labor participation is health. Almost 30 percent of prime-age Americans not in the labor force say a disability keeps them from looking for work, according to the study. Even though the recession-linked surge in disability cases is largely over, many would-be workers struggle with health issues.

Ashlee Smith worked as a personal care assistant until last year, when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She quit her job and has since strung together a series of administrative positions, which don’t require a lot of physical movement, through a temp agency. But her lack of administrative experience has made it hard to land a full-time job.

“I need something more permanent,” she says, typing in her personal data to apply for services at JVS CareerSolution. “The job market is really good, but it’s very much according to your past experience.”

SOURCE: The Brookings Institution using census data (via Haver Analytics) and US Bureau of Labor Statistics
|
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Share this article

shadow

2. Wildfires force California to reckon with a not-so-new normal

With 18 wildfires burning across the state and a “new normal” that's several years old, wildfire experts say it may be time for California to take what has been a given – development with more growth – and rethink that model.

Kent Porter/The Press Democrat/AP
A 747 outfitted as a tanker plane makes a drop in front of an advancing wildfire in Lakeport, Calif., Aug. 2.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Wildfires in California scorched some 292,000 acres and forced 52,000 residents from their homes in the first seven months of 2018. Researchers say the ferocity of California’s recent blazes provides a chance for state legislators to prod cities and counties toward an approach to land-use planning that restricts housing growth in fire-prone areas. “Maybe it’s time to take what has been a given — development with more growth as the driving model — and rethink that model,” says Char Miller, a wildfire expert at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. The legislature has formed a bipartisan committee to craft proposals intended to strengthen the state’s wildfire-prevention policies, but land-use planning remains absent from its agenda. State Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd, the panel’s co-chairman, recognizes the spiraling costs of battling wildfires, but he believes a legislative attempt to guide local land use in fire-prone areas would provoke unbending resistance. Yet Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks that a case can be made “because we all end up paying for the destruction. We also publicly fund all the fire suppression, the fire agencies, the disaster support systems. So there’s a place for saying that we need a more science-based approach to land management.”

Collapse

Wildfires force California to reckon with a not-so-new normal

The wildfire destruction over a wide swath of California moved Gov. Jerry Brown to offer a sobering prognosis for the state’s future. “This is the new normal,” he said, “and this could be something that happens every year or every few years.”

He made his comments in December after surveying the damage wrought by fires in Southern California that caused more than $3 billion in losses. Nine months later, the Democratic governor echoed his own words as 18 wildfires burned across the state, most of them in its northern half. At a press conference Wednesday, he forecast a rise in the number, intensity, and cost of fires, warning of “the new normal that we will have to face.”

His choice of phrase draws polite but firm rebuttals from wildfire experts, who commend the state’s sense of urgency in fighting fires while lamenting what they regard as a chronic flaw in its prevention efforts. They argue that for too long lawmakers have avoided prodding local officials, developers, and residents toward an approach to land use planning that restricts housing growth in fire-prone areas.

“This isn’t the new normal,” says Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. “It’s become normal, and there needs to be recognition and acceptance on the part of politicians at every level and citizens that this has been going on for several years.”

The first seven months of 2018 reaffirmed the hot, harsh reality as fires scorched some 292,000 acres statewide and forced 52,000 residents from their homes. In Dr. Miller’s view, the widening devastation reinforces the need to create more natural buffers between communities and wilderness that provide adequate space for humankind and wildfires alike.

“If we take climate change seriously and assume that fires of this magnitude and greater are a constant, then the question that should get the attention of legislators is, ‘How are we going to manage our presence in the fire zone?’ ” he says. “Maybe it’s time to take what has been a given — development with more growth as the driving model — and rethink that model.”

The California legislature formed a special conference committee this summer to craft proposals intended to strengthen the state’s wildfire prevention policies. Lawmakers established the bipartisan panel after fires last year killed 46 people, burned 1.2 million acres, and resulted in almost $12 billion in damages.

The committee’s focus on improving utility grid safety and examining the liability of power companies reflects the causes of several blazes in 2017. The absence of land use planning from its agenda suggests what Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, describes as a “political will problem.”

“If you want to keep communities safe, then you have to think about living differently, about where and how we build our communities,” he says. “But there’s no bill in the legislature about that.”

A familiar obstacle

The largest of the blazes ravaging California has claimed six lives, more than 1,500 structures, and almost 132,000 acres since July 23. The Carr Fire has besieged the city of Redding, 160 miles north of Sacramento, and remained only 39 percent contained early Friday.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, (D) of Napa, co-chairman of the special legislative committee, understands the dread of residents in the line of wildfire. Last fall, one of two fires that ripped through Napa County stopped about a block from his house, barely sparing him the fate of 150 neighbors who lost their homes.

Mr. Dodd supports the work of state agencies, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, that offer counties guidance on assessing fire danger when planning developments. He further recognizes the spiraling costs of battling wildfires and the deepening risks to firefighters as they confront blazes of greater size and stamina. The state has spent $130 million battling this year’s wildfires to date, more than a quarter of its annual fire budget, and pressed nearly 13,000 firefighters into service, with volunteers arriving from other states and countries.

Despite the depth and urgency of the crisis, Dodd says that an attempt by lawmakers to propose a legislative prescription for managing local land use in and near fire zones would meet with unbending resistance.

“A one-size-fits-all solution for the entire state of California probably won’t work,” he says. At the same time, he adds, “People in more rural areas have to know and understand that life may be more difficult and it certainly will be more expensive if these fires continue the way they have been.”

The reluctance of state legislators to broach guidelines for curtailing development in fire zones represents a familiar obstacle to Bill Stewart, co-director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach at the University of California, Berkeley. He has advised lawmakers on wildfire prevention and found that even modest ideas related to curbing growth in what is known as the “wildland urban interface” draw little interest. He doubts that will change as the legislature’s session resumes next week.

“When you’re in the middle of fire season, you’re thinking about fire suppression, which is important and which we’re good at,” he says. “But we continue to underinvest in prevention, and at some point, we have to do something different because the fire trends are scary.”

‘A little bit of a cop-out’

The wildland-urban interface refers to areas where housing meets or mingles with wildland vegetation and that have the greatest potential for fires. A study this year found that the number of homes in such settings grew by 12.6 million nationwide from 1990 to 2010.

The ferocity of California’s blazes the past 18 months provides a chance for legislators to persuade cities and counties to reconsider land use planning, Dr. Moritz contends.

“Saying that all building code and building permit decisions are local — that’s a little bit of a cop-out because we all end up paying for the destruction,” says Moritz, who has written about communities learning to coexist with wildfire. “We also publicly fund all the fire suppression, the fire agencies, the disaster support systems. So there’s a place for saying that we need a more science-based approach to land management that could reduce the amount of damage.’ ”

In the wake of wildfires, most homeowners want to rebuild in the same place. Miller, the Pomona professor, suggests that local officials offer to purchase properties from owners willing to sell and buy undeveloped land that borders communities near fire zones, raising the funds through bonds. The small city of Monrovia, tucked into the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, took that approach 20 years ago to limit its exposure to wildfires.

“We need to change our thinking about building and what we assume is normal, which is building houses anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “We need to accept the reality we’re living in.”

The severity and early arrival of the fire season has exacted a stark human and financial toll, and the worst summer heat still lies ahead. But as gray smoke smears California’s skies, researchers sense an opportunity for the state to make the case to local officials that the shared costs of better planning can yield shared benefits. Assemblyman Chris Holden, co-chairman of the special legislative commission, asserts that the broader discussion of possible solutions can’t wait much longer.

“We’ve been in this new normal for a while,” he says. “So on the larger planning level, we need to have the conversation that looks at all prevention ideas. It’s too important not to.”

shadow

Siberian crossroads

3. In remote Buryatia, a mingling of Russia’s Asian and European halves

Russia isn't just the cathedral-and-Kremlin society pictured by the West. In the remote – and struggling – republic of Buryatia, a mix of Cossacks and Mongols, Orthodox Christian exiles and Buddhists populate a decidedly different Russia. First in a five-part series.

Ogorodnik Andrei/TASS/ZUMA Press/Newscom
A hospital dominates the low-slung skyline of Ulan-Ude, capital of the Russian republic of Buryatia.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

When most people think of Russia, they think of onion-domed cathedrals, bundled-up babushkas, and stark Soviet architecture. But most people haven’t been to Buryatia. Only 63,000 foreigners, mostly Mongolians and Chinese, visited it in all of 2017, and Russians themselves rarely travel to the Siberian republic, which was largely closed off during the Soviet era. It is a very different sort of Russia. Its million inhabitants illustrate Buryatia’s place in between worlds: a mix of ethnic Mongols, descendants of Cossack settlers, and members of a Russian Orthodox sect exiled by the czars, among others. The republic’s forested mountainsides and steppes are today dotted with Buddhist monasteries. At Buryatia’s heart is Lake Baikal, considered to be sacred by native Buryats, and today a recognized UNESCO protected zone. The world’s deepest lake, it has scenic rocky shorelines, broad sandy beaches, and a unique ecosystem. The landscape is surprisingly diverse, as are the people, who seem comfortable with their differences and united in their desire to reinvigorate a region neglected by Moscow.

Collapse

In remote Buryatia, a mingling of Russia’s Asian and European halves

On a June evening, everyone in a downtown restaurant of this river valley city is cheering wildly for Russia’s World Cup soccer team. This is not surprising. Ulan-Ude is very much part of Russia.

But this is a Russia remarkably different from expectations in many ways.

The city and the Montana-sized republic of which it is the capital, Buryatia, is unmistakably Asian. Some 2,700 miles to the east of Moscow, Buryatia is physically closer to Mongolia and China than to the land most associate with the word “Russian.” Buryatia’s million inhabitants illustrate its place in between worlds: a mix of ethnic Mongols, descendants of Cossack settlers, and members of a Russian Orthodox sect exiled by the czars, among others. The republic offers proof that Russia is more than the cathedral-and-Kremlin society envisaged by the West.

But while Buryatia’s destiny is married to a Western-oriented Russia, there has been little economic development here since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Buryats appear torn between the perceived opportunities of the red-hot “Asian tiger” economies nearby and the more familiar Kremlin-run programs proposed by Vladimir Putin. So far, Moscow’s direction has won out, perhaps because they share not only the Russian language, but 300 years of Russian political control. The republic has been stalled on this crossroads for almost three decades.

“We can't have our own economic or social policy here. Everything depends on Moscow,” says Andrei Rinchino, an economist at Buryat State University. “We know there are dynamic economies, like China and South Korea, that are right in our neighborhood,” he says. “About 35,000 young Buryats are guest workers in South Korea at any given time, and we have considerable trade with China, which is just a few hours' drive away. A lot of young people here are learning to speak Chinese, for practical reasons, but the public mood is quite anti-Chinese. There is a fear that if we let them in, they will buy everything up and squeeze us out.”

A surprisingly diverse landscape

Buryats, who make up about half the population, are ethnic Mongols, descendants of Genghis Khan’s hordes that once conquered and ruled over half the known world, including Russia. They still identify closely with their brethren in independent Mongolia just a couple hours away.

Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Buryats have been embracing their ancestral religion, Buddhism, and the republic’s forested mountainsides and steppes are today dotted with Buddhist monasteries, or datsans, whose soaring pagoda-like temples and cone-shaped stupa reliquaries stand out from miles away.

The origins of the ethnic-Russian half of the population are varied. Some are related to the Cossacks who came to conquer this land in the 17th century in a process analogous to the US settlement of North America. Others are Old Believers, religious dissidents who were exiled from European Russia 250 years ago, who unexpectedly thrived here amid the wilds of Siberia.

Karen Norris/Staff

At Buryatia’s heart is Lake Baikal, considered to be sacred by native Buryats, and today a recognized UNESCO protected zone. It’s the world’s deepest lake, containing a staggering 22 percent of our planet’s fresh water supplies. It has a unique ecosystem, with scenic rocky shorelines in some places, and broad sandy beaches in others.

It all makes for a surprisingly diverse landscape, and a population who appear – so far – comfortable with their differences. They share the common goal of finding a path out of the economic malaise that has engulfed them since most Soviet-era industries shut down and big Russian companies took over most of Buryatia's natural resources, such as coal, gold, uranium, and jade. That launched an ongoing exodus that sees the best and brightest young people head for opportunities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.

An attractive locale?

Given all this, it may seem that developing tourism is an obvious route out of Buryatia's deep economic torpor. But the republic's government, which is dependent on subsidies from Moscow to keep operating, didn't even have an official tourist department until this year.

During the Soviet era, Buryatia was completely closed to foreigners amid security concerns over its military industries and its proximity to Mongolia and China. Only 63,000 foreign tourists came to Buryatia in 2017, the vast majority of them on Mongolian and Chinese bus tours. The Mongolians even come on day trips, and tend to spend very little on local services. Fewer than 100 US citizens spent at least one night in a hotel here in all of 2017.

The new minister of tourism, Maria Badmanatsirevnova, is an enthusiastic booster of her republic, but also cautions that mass tourism is not an option for Buryatia because of environmental concerns around Lake Baikal, the tremendous distance from most of the developed world, and the very short summer tourist season.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters
The Burkhan cape of Olkhon Island in Baikal Lake, Russia, in September 2016.

“We want to make Buryatia a center for eco-tourism,” she says. “We have diverse landscapes, an abundance of animal species – some of which can't be found anywhere else in the world – and unmatched hiking trails. We have great beaches too, but we don't want large numbers of people on them, and our season is too short anyway. We are going to create new national parks, and build an infrastructure” to cater to high-end, environmentally conscious travelers.

Local experts fear there are very few available alternatives to end the exodus of young people and turn the republic's economic fortunes around. Unlike some of Russia’s 22 ethnic republics, Buryats are divided by tribal differences and dialects, and have not been able win enough political power to deal with Moscow with a united voice.

“If Buryatia is the last on Moscow’s list of priorities, it’s because the situation here is calm and stable. There are no conditions that might lead to a social explosion, or anything that would get the Kremlin’s attention,” says Stanislav Beloborodov, editor of the local edition of the Moscow tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. “So, we are funded in a minimal way. Enough to maintain national standards, but not enough to engage in any major infrastructure projects or develop new industries.”

Asian alternatives

And while Buryatia’s Asian neighbors offer alternative ways forward, they generally hold little appeal.

Next-door Mongolia, where traditions and language are almost indistinguishable, has embraced its national independence since the Soviet collapse, and also taken the path of enthusiastic capitalism. Five years ago visa requirements were abolished for Mongolians visiting Buryatia, and the interchange between the two is increasingly intense. But it doesn't seem to generate any desire for change in the Russian republic.

“Everyone who wants to has visited Mongolia, and nobody idealizes the country or the way they live,” says Tuyana Zondueva, editor of Inform-Polis, an independent local newspaper. “They live differently from us, but not better. They do have a democratic system, and people here discuss that. Some people say that's a good thing, but others say it's a big drawback because their government keeps changing. Nobody gets very excited about it.”

Nor does the Chinese model seem to exert much attraction. That could change as Beijing rolls out its $1 trillion “One Belt, One Road” project to restore the old Silk Road – which ran through here – with massive infrastructure upgrades. But any decisions about that would have to be made in Moscow, and no one in Buryatia seems to be holding their breath.

“Some people look at Chinese investment with great hope,” says Timur Dugarzhapov, editor of Novaya Buryatia, an independent journal. “But the Chinese are not generous. In our experience they are very hard-nosed about how they invest. Until they attain the most beneficial conditions for themselves, they will not invest a single penny.”

Maybe time, and advancing technology, will bring solutions.

“I have a friend who is a very successful designer of book covers,” Ms. Zondueva says. “He has orders from all over the world, but he lives in Ulan-Ude because it's his native city and the nature around here cannot be matched anywhere else. In future, it may not matter where you live. Let's hope for that.”

Karen Norris/Staff
shadow

4. What technology workers want from the powerful firms they serve

Big tech has come under fire in recent months following breaches of public trust. But the industry is also feeling pressure from within, as workers press their bosses to take a moral stand on human rights.

Courtesy of Color of Change
Activists outside Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., protest the firm’s contract with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

A successful revolt led by workers at Google to get the company to end its contract with the Pentagon to develop surveillance software for drones has spawned similar uprisings at other tech companies. At Microsoft and the cloud computing company Salesforce, workers are petitioning the companies to cancel contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At Amazon, workers are demanding the company stop marketing face-recognition software to law enforcement. The worker mobilization comes amid a growing awareness of technology’s potential to spy on people and manipulate them psychologically. “We’re at a moment of reckoning for the entire tech industry right now,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a Boston-based internet advocacy nonprofit. “As the industry matures and some of these companies get very, very large, people are starting to see the profound power that this technology has to be used to violate human rights.”

Collapse

What technology workers want from the powerful firms they serve

Google is no stranger to petitions, like the ones asking the company to let users customize the Chrome browser, to put Palestine on Google Maps, or to honor Muddy Waters with a Doodle.

But there was something different about the April 4 open letter to Google chief executive officer Sundar Pichai, which now bears more than 4,000 signatures. This one, which asked Google to immediately cancel a contract with the Pentagon for a drone surveillance program and to promise never again to build technology for war, was signed by the company’s own workers.

Google agreed to not to renew its contract with the Defense Department next year, and, in the weeks and months that followed, workers at other tech giants began staging similar rebellions. A June letter by workers to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, asked the company to cancel all contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and with any clients who support the agency. Comparable protests have arisen at Amazon, where workers demanded the company stop marketing its face-recognition software to police departments, and the cloud computing company Salesforce, where workers protested the company’s contracts with ICE. 

“We’re at a moment of reckoning for the entire tech industry right now,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a Boston-based internet advocacy nonprofit. “As the industry matures and some of these companies get very, very large, people are starting to see the profound power that this technology has to be used to violate human rights.”

The revolt came as a surprise to tech companies, who not long ago were touting ICE contracts in press releases. Technologists, workers known more for radical libertarianism than solidarity with the oppressed, are suddenly organizing. 

“There is a sort of political agnosticism that goes on in a lot of the tech industry,” says Jessa Lingel, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “But however true that was as a general norm has become harder and harder to swallow the in wake of certain geopolitical events.”

Chief among those events, observers say, was the election of Donald Trump and the federal policies that ensued.

The Trump administration has woken up a lot of different people in a lot of different areas of the economy,” says Kade Crockford, the director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, citing the Trump’s campaign promise to assassinate members of terrorists’ families and his administration’s attempts to deter migrants by forcibly separating young children from their parents. “It’s policies like that,” says Mx. Crockford, “that have driven many people including people in the tech sector to organizing when those folks have not been so political before.” 

A moral awakening?

The worker rebellions also reflect a broader public shift in our moral reasoning about technology over the past five years. From the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013 to the Cambridge Analytica scandal this year, individual whistleblowers within tech companies have revealed how the internet, envisioned early on as way to help people around the world share knowledge and culture, can be easily repurposed as a tool for surveillance, psychological manipulation, social fragmentation, and addiction. 

This shift has prompted some companies and trade groups to update their ethical guidelines. In June, the Association for Computing Machinery, the world’s largest computing society, updated its code of ethics for the first time since 1992. Last month, a number of tech leaders, including Elon Musk and the three co-founders of Google’s AI subsidiary, DeepMind, signed a pledge agreeing not to develop lethal autonomous weapons. Last week, a proposal appeared in the eminent science journal Nature proposing that computer scientists should have to disclose “any possible negative societal consequences” in order to have their research be considered for peer review.

“The level of specificity of knowledge that technologists have about the ways that the internet can be used for a profoundly negative effects on our society is part of why this movement is arising,” says Ms. Greer, whose organization last week helped deliver an anti-ICE petition bearing more than 300,000 signatures to Microsoft offices around the country. “These are people that really understand the direction that we could end up going in.” 

Professor Lingel suspects that tech workers’ real power lies in influencing public behavior.  “If customers were willing to say, ‘Well we’re not going to buy from these companies unless they reject all government contracts,’ ” she says, “that may actually be more powerful than the programmers saying it.”

But Crockford suggests that some tech workers, thanks to their highly specialized skills, may wield more power over their employers than traditional workers. “This isn’t the kind of scenario where cafeteria workers or janitorial staff are organizing to form a union, and the big boss just fired everybody and hires a bunch of new people,” Crockford says. “They’re not easily replaceable.”

shadow

Data viz

5. You could always ‘get there from here.’ ‘There’ keeps getting closer.

Supersonic commercial flight was a fun little blip. Today, even if you’re an infrequent traveler, you know you can still be practically anywhere in the time it takes to watch a couple of inflight movies and take a nap. Here’s a fun then-and-now visualization. 

In the industrialized world, August has long been one of the most popular months for vacation travel. But, as you see from the two maps below, travel isn’t what it used to be. The top map, based on a map created in 1914 by the acclaimed cartographer John George Bartholomew, shows how much time a person living then would have expected to take to travel from London to any point on the globe. Back then, most of Europe could be reached within five days. Traveling from the British capital to New Orleans, Khartoum, or Irkutsk would take about 10 days. Travel to Wellington, Assam, or Tierra del Fuego would have taken more than 40 days. Today, thanks to vastly improved air, rail, and road infrastructure, nearly every city and town on Earth can be reached within a day and a half. – Eoin O’Carroll

SOURCE: John George Bartholomew, “An Atlas of Economic Geography”; Rome2Rio
|
Jacob Turcotte/Staff
shadow

The Monitor's View

A departing president’s lesson for peace

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 2 Min. )

When he leaves Colombia’s presidency on Tuesday, Juan Manuel Santos will take with him a Nobel Peace Prize – and an endorsement from the United Nations Security Council – for a 2016 agreement that ended a half-century of war with the leftist rebel group FARC. He will also be taking with him a lesson learned during years of negotiations. He listened to representatives of the 8 million people who lost loved ones or suffered at the hands of armed groups on all sides. And Mr. Santos found that their thinking could soften the hearts of negotiators and make compromise possible. He discovered that the victims were less interested in the harsh justice of prison sentences for perpetrators than in knowing what had happened to the missing, in being given reparations, and in helping to prevent similar violence. They put truth and mercy ahead of punishment. Now, though parts of the deal remain unpopular, few in Colombia are ready to return to war. The agreement has proved an incentive for a smaller leftist group, the ELN, to negotiate. Santos’s key lesson – how forgiveness can bring peace – will find a home in other world conflicts.

Collapse

A departing president’s lesson for peace

When he steps down as Colombia’s president on Tuesday, Juan Manuel Santos will take with him a medal for the Nobel Peace Prize, given to him for an agreement in 2016 that ended a half-century of war with a leftist guerrilla army. In addition, his historic achievement will have the strong endorsement of the United Nations Security Council. On Thursday, the Council voted unanimously that the peace process designed by Mr. Santos is “a source of inspiration for efforts in many parts of the world to end conflicts and build peace.”

Yet Santos will also be taking with him an important lesson, one that he had to learn during more than four years of difficult negotiations with the rebel group known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

The lesson was that he had to listen to the 8 million victims who lost loved ones or who suffered at the hands of armed groups on all sides. An estimated 265,000 people were killed during Colombia’s civil war. By giving a seat at the negotiating table to the organizations representing victims, Santos found out that their thinking can soften the hearts of negotiators, create trust and empathy, and make compromise possible.

“The victims have taught me that the capacity to forgive can overcome hatred and rancor,” he said in a recent talk.

To the surprise of many in his government, the victims were less interested in the harsh justice of prison sentences for perpetrators than in knowing what happened to the missing, in being given reparations, and in helping prevent similar violence.

They put truth, mercy, and an end to the conflict far ahead of punishment. As a result, the victim groups were key in gaining political support for the peace plan’s main result: rehabilitation and reintegration of rebels who confessed their crimes.

This type of forgiveness lies at the heart of the deal. In return for leniency, some 7,000 FARC rebels have now laid down their arms while many of their superiors have started to appear before a special tribunal for restorative justice. The ex-guerrillas have also been encouraged to run for political office and seek their leftist aims peacefully.

The incoming president, Iván Duque, ran against parts of the agreement. But after winning, he has softened his tone. His officials told the UN that he will “guarantee” the ongoing peace process with demobilized FARC rebels.

By studying other peace processes around the world, Santos knew that he had to come up with one that would be irreversible. Few in Colombia are now ready to return to war even though parts of the deal remain unpopular. And the agreement has proved an incentive for a much smaller leftist group, known as the ELN, to negotiate with the government.

Santos will now be giving lectures around the world about what he learned from negotiating peace. His key lesson – how forgiveness can bring peace – will find a home in other world conflicts.

shadow

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

When faced with anger, choose to love

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 3 Min. )

Rather than letting others’ anger spark our own, each of us can be a force for peace and progress by letting God’s love, instead of hate, guide us.

Collapse

When faced with anger, choose to love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

As I watched a TV program laced with anger over government policies and positions of elected officials, I started to feel angry. My insides tightened, and I became critical and gloomy about my country’s future. The more I listened, the angrier I got.

After a while of soaking in this negativity, I realized that I wanted to break free from being caught up in the on-screen rage. I saw that fiery anger and across-the-board condemnation were not constructive ways to promote progress. So I protested. “Wait!” I mentally declared. “I don’t have to get angry because someone else is angry. I can think for myself and let love, not anger, lead me.”

I thought of something I’d learned in Christian Science: that God is the one true Mind we can trust to govern us, His creation. This divine Mind is also Love (see I John 4:8), and Love does not impart hatred, fear, and intimidation but governs with tenderness and care.

As God’s children, we are divinely endowed with the ability to express qualities of compassion, thoughtfulness, forgiveness, and goodwill toward our neighbors, no matter what side of the political spectrum they may stand on. The temptation to be cruel or feel self-righteous toward another is not of God, and therefore not an inescapable state of mind. We can choose to let divine Love lead our thinking, to stay open-minded and respectful.

I knew that my country had its share of problems begging for resolution, and as I considered how to help, I found comfort in the idea that God, Mind, inspires ready solutions to any problem. The need is not to get embroiled in further fearmongering, but to listen for Love’s calming, healing direction. Each of our fellow men and women also has the innate ability to do the same.

As I mentally committed to being a healing influence rather than a perpetuator of negative emotion, the change in my outlook was dramatic. I no longer felt like a mindless puppet manipulated by political spin. I was expressing more of my true nature as a child of God: in possession of good thoughts, and also showing love and consideration toward others.

The lessons learned from this experience can be applied to any number of different scenarios in life – any scenario where we may feel justified in getting angry because the atmosphere around us is an angry one. For instance, if a friend gets mad, we may feel compelled to get mad with him. Or others who are upset may strive to get everyone around them upset in order to justify their own anger.

But when we understand that there is one Mind – divine Love – that governs all and meets the needs of the moment, we can humbly listen for solutions and overcome mental turbulence. We can prevent our thoughts from being swayed by heated emotions and wild fears, instead allowing divine Love to work in us, inspiring the restoration of peace and calm. As children of God, we are not unthinking beings destined to believe and accept whatever is thrown at us. We reflect the intelligence and wisdom of God, enabling us to reason through issues with grace and poise.

Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, wrote, “Love must triumph over hate” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 43). It’s the primal nature of God’s sons and daughters to love, not to be angry and self-righteous. We all reflect the one Mind, divine Love, which we can turn to in keeping our thought at an inspired height that feels and knows God’s presence. This in turn dissolves fear and opens our perspective to discern doable solutions.

Adapted from an article published in the Jan. 30, 2017, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

shadow

Viewfinder

Hot new world

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters
People filled water bottles at the Barcaccia fountain in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna (Spain's Square) as temperatures soared to dangerous levels throughout Italy Aug. 1. Heat records have been broken from Africa to the Arctic, leaving people to take creative steps to keep cool. For more images of such efforts in a few other parts of the world, click on the blue button below.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( August 6th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Have a good weekend, and we’ll see you Monday. Ned Temko will tee up another Patterns column. As China extends its geopolitical reach, he’ll be examining the parallels to the Soviet play for third-world engagement during the cold war. Partial spoiler: China’s strategy is far more coherent – and will demand fresh tools to shape any possible response.

Monitor Daily Podcast

August 03, 2018
Loading the player...

More issues

2018
August
03
Friday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.