Friday, Jul 25, 2014 • 12:56 pm

Walmart CEO Jumps Ship

By Carlos Ballesteros

After a four-year stint as CEO, Walmart’s chief U.S. executive Bill Simon will be stepping down. According to the Huffington Post, Simon will be replaced by Walmart’s president and Asia CEO Greg Foran.

While there is no official statement regarding Simon’s departure at this time, many analysts have speculated that Walmart’s spiraling U.S. sales may be a primary factor in the decision.

Walmart’s image has also taken a major hit in the last decade, particularly since Simon took over as CEO in 2010. The company has seen a rise in worker protests in many of its stores across the country, with labor organizing groups such as Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) organizing in-store protests and wildcat strikes over the company’s low wages, short hours and poor working conditions. Such claims were emboldened by an April 2014 report from American for Tax Fairness, which found that Walmart’s low wages force its employees to go on food stamps and other social services, costing U.S. taxpayers $6.2 billion a year.

In an effort to mitigate the negative sentiment towards the company, Walmart has pushed for more of an online presence (a fight it has been losing against Amazon); it also plans on opening smaller stores this year.

Simon, who’s worked with Walmart since 2006, will remain on as a consultant for six months before leaving the company.

Friday, Jul 25, 2014 • 11:39 am

Congress Slapped With 10-Day Ban on Editing Wikipedia Entries

By Stephen Quillen

With approval ratings at staggering lows, Congress has even managed to aggravate Wikipedia. For 10 days, edits will no longer be permitted from a particular IP address from within the U.S. Congress building. The ban comes amid a flurry of edits from that source, including ones that dubbed the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld an "alien wizard" and attributing wild conspiracies to the Cuban government.

However, the United States government is not alone in its tampering. The Guardian reports:

In early July, [journalist Tim] Scott created Parliament Edits, a Twitter account tracking anyone making edits to Wikipedia from a parliamentary computer.

Scott's creation followed in the footsteps of numerous news stories of embarrassing edits to Wikipedia coming from within the House of Commons.

Someone added information about MP Mark Pritchard's divorce; someone excised a "controversy" section from Andy Burnham's page entirely; and someone cleared references to Lord Razzil's shareholdings in an African mining company.

There have been at least 5,900 edits from parliamentary IPs in the past decade.

Scott also released the code to the Parliament Edits bot, allowing similar accounts to be set up for other nation's legislatures.

Those led to their own stories: In mid-July, the Russian clone, RuGovEdits, discovered that someone inside the Russian government was editing the Wikipedia pages referring to the attack on MH17, changing the text to accuse Ukrainian soldiers of downing the Malaysian Airlines plane.

In the U.S., recent edits appear less nefarious, and users can traverse the block by creating an account. Still, Congress is not pleased with Wikipedia's censure. In fact, one defector, writing from a Congressional IP address, denounced the decision on Wikipedia: Out of over 9000 staffers in the House," the user wrote, "should we really be banning this whole IP range based on the actions of two or three?"

Perhaps not, but then again, Congress should be well acquainted with unjust rulings.

Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014 • 4:25 pm

Alleged Labor Violations Lead to Class-Action Suit Against Apple

By Carlos Ballesteros

On Tuesday, the California Superior Court certified a case filled by four Apple employees in 2011 as a class action, potentially affecting 20,000 current and former Apple employees in the state.

The plaintiffs, represented by the firm Hogue & Belong in San Diego, claim that the tech giant did not provide its employees in California “timely meal breaks, timely rest breaks, and timely final paychecks according to California’s Labor Code and Wage Orders.”

As reported by TechCrunch, the accusations made against Apple vary in degree and magnitude:

One person cites a five-hour working stint without a break, for example, while another refers to a 72-hour notice period and getting a final paycheck two days after that ended (two days late).

This is not the first time Apple has been hit with a class action lawsuit. In April, the company, along with Silicon Valley brethren Google, Intel, and Adobe, settled a case for $324 million in response to accusations from high-tech workers that the companies conspired to hold down salaries by agreeing not to poach each other’s employees. Meanwhile, the company continues to prosper: It reported $7.7 billion in net profits during the third quarter of FY 2014 alone.

Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014 • 3:34 pm

Florida Town Threatens Jail Time for Sagging Pants

By Stephen Quillen

The city of Ocala, Florida recently voted to criminalize "sagging pants," officially defined as wearing trousers "two inches below [the] natural waist," local ABC-affiliate WFTV reports. While police must give warnings first, two-time "offenders" could face a hefty $500 penalty or even six months in prison. City Council member Mary Rich, who championed the new restriction, claims the measure will help improve the city's image. However, critics fear the law is simply the latest attempt to profile and harass young adults, particularly black youth. Several residents voiced their concerns with WFTV on Thursday: 

"I think this is a form of harassment," said resident Curt Brown. "[It] gets you pulled to the side, [so they can] harass you, search you and have a right to do whatever they want to."

"It just makes no sense whatsoever," said resident Adia Crumley. "It's another way to lock people up and put them in jail so the city can make money off of that."

Various cities throughout the country have passed similar ordinances in the past, such as Louisiana's Terrebonne Parish, which ruled in April to issue fines or community service to people wearing sagging pants. That law also prompted public opposition, especially from civil-liberties advocates who pointed out that law enforcement have "bigger concerns."

Indeed, they do, especially in Ocala, Florida, which faces disproportionate levels of violent crime. But the latest measure deals solely with legislating apparel, making it hard for many activists to see it as anything but a pretext for increased profiling.

Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014 • 3:10 pm

NHL Releases Sustainability Report

By Jessica Corbett

On Monday, the National Hockey League released a report addressing growing concerns regarding the NHL's environmental changes, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity.

“Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey is impacted by environmental issues, particularly climate change and freshwater scarcity,” the NHL report reads. “The purpose of the 2014 NHL Sustainability Report is to address our recent efforts and the challenges we face from an environmental perspective.”

In addition to identifying the league’s concerns for sustaining both the NHL and the environment, the report reveals the league’s current operational carbon footprint, shares updates about the NHL Green Initiative, establishes resource management goals for the future and briefly lays out the game plans to reach those goals. The report also details the league’s partnerships with environmental organizations, as well as the environmental programs of the NHL’s corporate partners.

The report also found that there are an average of 408 metric tons of CO2 emissions released per game, and powering the arenas and league offices make up 80 percent of the league’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

To counteract its own contribution to climate change, the league is working to grow its own initiatives, but clubs within the league are also getting involved. The Chicago Blackhawks host annual Go Green Games, “during which all electricity used is matched with an equivalent investment in renewable-energy credits, enough to avoid approximately 63 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions (or roughly the equivalent of burning 146 barrels of oil).” 

Monday, Jul 21, 2014 • 12:00 pm

Fewer Americans Support U.S. Military Intervention Abroad, Poll Shows

By William A. Hudson

In a poll released today, a majority of American voters are opposed to U.S. military intervention abroad that is not related to direct threats to national security. The poll, conducted by Politico, shows a decline in support for intervention after over a decade of U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. As Business Insider reports:

“Only 22 percent [of those polled] agreed with the statement that the United States, ‘as a moral leader,’ has a ‘a responsibility to use its military to protect democracy around the globe.’ Around 66 percent of respondents said the U.S. military should be ‘limited to direct threats to our national security.’”

In addition, around 75 percent of survey participants supported a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, while in a separate poll, only 17 percent support further U.S. action against Russia. The poll numbers were not divided by partisan affiliation and thus show a growing consensus of U.S. voters on both the left and the right against military incursions. 

Wednesday, Jul 16, 2014 • 5:07 pm

How Standardized Tests Are Rigged Against Poor Schools

By Ethan Corey

Critics of high-stakes testing often argue that it leads to a single-minded focus on “teaching to the test,” emphasizing not general knowledge or understanding of a subject, but mastery of the very specific set of skills and knowledge that will show up on the exam.

But as Meredith Broussard writes in The Atlantic, for many schools, teaching to the test isn't even possible. That's because that specific set of skills and knowledge measured by standardized exams happens to only be available in textbooks written by the same companies who make the tests. If your school can't afford those textbooks? Well, you're out of luck.

As Broussard reports, the tests that states use to measure students’ progress (and often to set teachers’ pay) all come from one of three companies: McGraw-Hill, Pearson or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Not-so-coincidentally, these three companies are also the three largest manufacturers of textbooks, a fact which is reflected in the content of their tests:

If you look at a textbook from one of these companies and look at the standardized tests written by the same company, even a third grader can see that many of the questions on the test are similar to the questions in the book. In fact, Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook.

The result is that schools that can’t afford to buy the right textbooks are bound to see their test scores suffer. And according to Broussard’s research, this is an all-too-common problem in America’s chronically underfunded public school districts.

Focusing on Philadelphia Public Schools—the eighth-largest district in the country—Broussard found that the average school had only 27 percent of the books recommended by the district’s curriculum, and as many as 10 schools had none of the recommended books at all. Making matters worse, many of the schools that did have books didn’t use them, due to mismanaged inventory systems and inaccurate records.

As Broussard notes, this is largely a money problem. During the 2012-2013 school year, the district allocated $30.30 per student for middle-schools to buy new textbooks—a mere quarter of the price of just a single textbook. And in 2013, the district eliminated funding for textbooks completely after a $300 million budget shortfall.

If that’s not depressing enough, consider this: Even when schools have the money to buy new textbooks, they become obsolete fast. According to Broussard, state testing standards change nearly every year, requiring schools to buy new textbooks to meet the new standards. In other words, textbook companies profit while underfunded schools suffer.

Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014 • 4:10 pm

Oops! Top 1% Even Richer Than We Thought

By Ethan Corey

By now, everyone knows the wealthiest 1% of Americans have a lot of money. From the Occupy protests to presidential speeches on economic inequality, many Americans recognize inequality as "a fundamental threat to the American Dream," to quote President Obama.

A new report from the European Central Bank (ECB) suggests, however, that wealth inequality might be even worse than previously thought. While prior estimates had pegged the top 1%'s share between 30 percent and 34 percent of all wealth in the United States, the actual figure might be closer to 37 percent, writes Philip Vermeulen, a senior economist at the ECB

That might not sound like a huge difference, but even this revised estimate still might understate the severity of wealth inequality in the United States, Bloomberg reports:

“Our knowledge of the wealth distribution is less than perfect,” Vermeulen wrote. “The results clearly indicate that survey wealth estimates are very likely to underestimate wealth at the top.”

Richer households have a lower response rate to surveys measuring their assets, so holdings are undervalued, Vermeulen wrote. He uses data from Forbes billionaires lists in his analysis to provide new wealth distribution estimates for the U.S. and nine European nations.

The ECB also measured other countries' wealth gaps, and some, such as that of the Netherlands, rose even more significantly. Accounting for billionaires there boosts the estimate to somewhere between 12 and 17 percent, far more than the previous estimate of just 9 percent found by earlier surveys—though still far lower than the United States.

Monday, Jul 14, 2014 • 5:10 pm

Poll: Chicagoans Say They Want Rahm Emanuel Out, Karen Lewis In

By Ethan Corey

For the past three years, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis  has been a constant source of headaches for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, even (allegedly) causing the mayor to drop the f-bomb during one of their first meetings.

Polling data released by the Chicago Sun-Times will likely have Mayor Emanuel again reaching for Excedrin Extra Strength (and calling up his wealthy donors). In a hypothetical head-to-head match-up for the next mayoral race, Lewis beat Emanuel by a 9 percent margin. According to the Sun-Times, 45 percent of the roughly 1,037 Chicagoans surveyed say they would vote for Lewis, while only 36 percent expressed support for Mayor Emanuel; 18 percent of voters remain undecided.

Although Lewis has not declared her candidacy, she has told several media outlets that she is "seriously considering" a mayoral run, and this new data will likely bolster confidence among Lewis' supporters.

However, the Sun-Times cautions that the results only offer a "snapshot" of voters' opinions:

Lewis admitted she was surprised by the findings. And the pollster cautioned that the results are a snapshot in time — arguably taken at a time when Emanuel has been taking a beating in local and national media coverage.

But the poll underscores two political realities: Emanuel is vulnerable as he gears up for re-election next year, and voters are assessing the strength of various potential rivals.

For his part, Mayor Emanuel claims to be unconcerned, calling the poll results "laughable" in response to a request for comment from the Sun-Times, but one can only guess what words (possibly beginning with "f") he may be using behind closed doors.

Monday, Jul 14, 2014 • 11:23 am

Abortion Rights Take Another Hit in Mississippi and Florida

By Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff

Last week, Mississippi and Florida became the latest states making it harder for women to access safe abortions.

The new law in Mississippi, frequently called the "20-week ban," forbids abortion 20 weeks after a woman's last period. Twenty-one other states in the country have enacted similar legislation; however, as RH Reality Check reports

Mississippi’s version of the legislation contains no exceptions for rape or incest, and only a limited exception for the health of the pregnant person or for fatal abnormalities in the fetus. ...  Like in Missouri,  Mississippi’s governor and state lawmakers have been targeting the state’s lone abortion clinic with restrictions and regulations. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant said that it is his goal to “end abortion in Mississippi."

In Florida, the new law imposes additional restrictions on third-trimester abortions, banning them outright once a fetus is deemed viable.

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