2023
February
03
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 03, 2023
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TODAY’S INTRO

A brief history of spy balloons

Peter Grier
Washington editor

A spy balloon over Montana? Really?

Really, according to the Pentagon. United States officials say a big white object now drifting in the stratosphere over Western states is a Chinese espionage airship.

“Clearly the intent of this balloon is for surveillance,” said a senior Defense Department official on Thursday. Its flight path has carried it over some sensitive military sites, he said.

China on Friday apologized for the intrusion and said the object was a weather balloon that had veered far from its intended course.

But the White House took the incident seriously enough to postpone a trip to Beijing by Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously planned for Sunday.

The fact is, high-altitude balloons have been used by military and intelligence services, including those of the U.S., for decades.

During World War II, Japan loaded balloons with incendiary devices and lofted them into prevailing westerly winds, hoping to start forest fires in the U.S. The effort was unsuccessful, though a few civilians were killed.

The U.S. military began spy balloon programs to surveil the Soviet Union in 1946, eventually developing balloons that rose higher than Soviet fighter jets could fly. Project Genetrix launched some 500 spy balloons from Western European nations in 1956. Only 31 provided usable photographs.

Today the Pentagon is studying the use of balloons to operate in what it calls “near space” – the upper stratosphere of 60,000 to 100,000 feet. It plans to spend about $27 million on advanced balloon projects in 2023, according to Politico.

Among possible balloon missions: tracking super-fast hypersonic weapons under development by Russia and China.

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Why diversity hasn’t changed policing

The police killing of Tyre Nichols shows that hiring Black officers is not a solution for violence against Black communities. Instead, for policing to change, culture needs to change.

Peter
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Sean Nicholson-Crotty studies the effect of representation in government. In institutions – education, for example – having officials who look like the people they’re serving improves treatment. In other words, diversity matters.

But not in policing, says the professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. According to his research, a higher share of Black officers in a department doesn’t reduce police killings.

The world caught a glimpse of this with the brutal police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee. The culture of policing flows from field officers to rookies: that police are often in danger, that their authority is essential, that a “warrior mentality” protects them. The process stifles efforts at reform, and for Black officers, can present a wrenching choice with the same outcome: Stay and conform to the culture, or just leave.

“You change the officer’s race, but you don’t change any of the other things and you get the same style of policing with people of a different color doing it,” says James Forman, author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” “That’s what we see in Memphis.”

Why diversity hasn’t changed policing

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Gerald Herbert/AP
Pastor Monica of the Devine Life Church speaks at a prayer gathering at the site where Tyre Nichols was beaten by Memphis police officers, in Memphis, Tennessee, Jan. 30, 2023. Mr. Nichols later died from his injuries.

For 10 years, Thaddeus Johnson worked as a police officer, most of that time in Memphis, Tennessee, a majority-Black city where those in blue reflect the city’s gritty, brash attitude.

As he rose through the ranks, Dr. Johnson began laying plans to one day become the chief of a department. Through his patrol work, he gathered ideas for how to make policing more humane, how to curtail a cycle of confrontation and arrest, and how to focus officers on addressing root problems – especially in the kind of Black communities from where he came.

Yet the higher he climbed, an obstacle came into focus: There was only so much even a chief could do to change a deep-rooted policing culture. At the end of the day, he saw a profession bound by honor and service but accepting of a more brutal, largely unspoken mission of accomplishing the dirty work that society as a whole demands – even if it causes needless suffering.

So a few years ago, newly married, he made a major life decision. Tired of arresting people who looked like him, he turned in his badge.

“Some research shows that Black officers can be harder on people of their own race because they want to clean up communities,” says Dr. Johnson, now a criminologist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “They have a much more emotional attachment. Misconduct can stem from nobility.”

Being a Black police officer, he adds, is “a very, very lonely place. It’s a very fine line of walking.”

American policing is an institution in search of a solution. Tyre Nichols was buried Wednesday at a funeral attended by Vice President Kamala Harris and the Rev. Al Sharpton. If trends hold, he will be one of about 1,000 people who die from police violence in the United States this year. Despite significant police reforms since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, that number is no lower now than it was then.

Mr. Nichols’ death at the hands of five Black police officers is an alarming reminder that one answer advocated for more than a century hasn’t worked. Diversifying police departments alone doesn’t solve police brutality.

The problem, former officers say, is that the culture of policing matters more than the race of police officers. From field officers to rookies flow certain lessons: that police are often in danger, that their authority is essential, that a “warrior mentality” protects them. The process stifles efforts at reform, and for Black officers, can present a wrenching choice with the same outcome: Stay and conform to the culture, or just leave.

“You change the officer’s race, but you don’t change any of the other things and you get the same style of policing with people of a different color doing it,” says James Forman, a professor at Yale Law School and author of “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” “That’s what we see in Memphis.”

City of Memphis/AP
The image from video released on Jan. 27, 2023, by the City of Memphis, shows police officers talking after a brutal attack on Tyre Nichols by five Memphis officers on Jan. 7, 2023. Mr. Nichols died on Jan. 10. The five men have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses.

New officers, same results

The movement to integrate police departments began in the mid-1900s with a simple slogan: “105,000 negro citizens rate at least one negro police.”

Atlanta’s Black community leaders marched under that banner for decades, according to Professor Forman’s book. At the start, the idea was radical. The ability to enforce a society’s laws was a sign of first-class citizenship – something African Americans didn’t have in the Jim Crow South.

The effort was in pursuit of equality and better policing, since white officers often couldn’t tell different members of the Black community apart. Leaders like Martin Luther King Sr. campaigned for integration. They succeeded in 1948, with the hiring of eight Black police officers, exhorted by the mayor at their swearing-in ceremony to do for policing what Jackie Robinson had done for baseball.

Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, affirmative action accelerated Black hiring. But it also coincided with the country’s intensifying war on drugs, which featured new, militarized policing styles, including the emergence of SWAT and aggressive quick-strike units that prioritized arrests in volume.

Police began to look different, but policing didn’t.

That’s still true today, says Sean Nicholson-Crotty, a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, who studies the effect of representation in government.

In most other institutions – education, for example – having officials who look like the people they’re serving improves treatment. But not in policing, he says. According to his research, a higher share of Black officers in a department doesn’t reduce the number of police killings.

The reason why, Professor Nicholson-Crotty argues, is culture. Policing is a high-stress job widely perceived as extremely dangerous within the field by officers themselves. It’s also structured with clear, hierarchical ranks, which makes it easier to communicate norms.

Professor Nicholson-Crotty’s research suggests training new officers to manage stress and de-escalate confrontations. But the effect is somewhat muted unless the department has high personnel turnover. Otherwise, new officers just learn from their superiors.

Alex Slitz/AP
Demonstrators march Jan. 28, 2023, in Atlanta, over the killing of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by five Black Memphis police officers. Research shows that hiring more Black officers doesn’t reduce killings by police.

“If you ask any police officer ... what did you learn from your field training officer, they will tell you [they heard] ‘Hey, kid, you know, you learned that stuff at the academy, right? Throw that book out. I’m gonna show you how it’s really done.’ That’s the culture of policing,” says De Lacy Davis, a former 20-year officer in New Jersey and founder of Black Cops Against Police Brutality.

The view from Memphis

By many accounts, that is the state of affairs in Memphis, where both the city and the police department are about 65% Black.

Begun in 2021, a specialized unit named SCORPION – to which the officers who beat Mr. Nichols belonged – scoured the city at large for reckless drivers. In some ways, that unit was the result of a majority-Black city calling for an aggressive response to its then-rising violent crime rate. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis debuted the 40-officer unit in 2021. She disbanded it on Saturday.

“If the only thing you are offered is cops gone wild, there is some segment of a [Black] community that is terrorized at all levels, that will say, ‘This [is terrible], it’s putting my family members at risk, but I will take that over what [people committing crimes] are doing,’ ” says law professor Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project in Chicago.

That desire signifies the core issue for many Black Americans, by far the most likely to suffer from crime but also by far the most likely to suffer from police brutality. Many view police as a highly flawed but still essential institution. And many leaders have also been divided on whether diversity will help.

Regardless, there are other reasons to become an officer. Policing has historically been a path to the middle class, with ample benefits and a solid pension. “We sort of assume that everybody or even most people who are joining a police department have a strong position on” policing itself, says Professor Forman – not so.

Dr. Davis – with Black Cops Against Police Brutality – has lived those dynamics. Dr. Davis, who is Black, worked for two decades as a police officer in New Jersey, starting in the 1980s.

Courtesy of Thaddeus Johnson
Dr. Thaddeus Johnson spent 10 years as a police officer, most of that time in Memphis, Tennessee. Being a Black police officer is “a very, very lonely place,” he says. He now brings a Black perspective to police reform as assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.

As a young officer, he quickly came to understand how there are different standards for different suspects. It was department policy to handcuff all those brought to the jail. But he watched suspects who were white women regularly show up without cuffs.

Yes, he says, police officers have to use discretion or drown in a waterfall of citations. Enforcement is selective, but unevenly distributed.

Throughout his career, Dr. Davis says he chafed against such double standards.

Dr. Davis says he believes that Black people are fundamentally loyal to the interests of other Black people. But policing can distort that affinity.

“For a Black officer ... you’re expected to demonstrate that you’re not them. You’re us. It’s the dominant culture.”

For Dr. Johnson, the former Memphis officer, his change of profession hasn’t felt like giving up. Along with his wife, Natasha Johnson, also a professor at Georgia State, he continues to bring a Black perspective to reforming a struggling profession.

“Once you put that uniform on, you realize it’s a misnomer that Black people don’t want to be policed or don’t respect the police,” says Dr. Johnson. “They want what everyone wants: to be treated with respect and treated fairly. That makes a Black police officer a walking paradox.”

Editor’s note: The bracketed text in Professor Futterman’s quote has been changed to more accurately reflect his meaning. In addition, an attribution has been added for Professor Forman regarding details about the history of policing in Atlanta.

Inequality in decline? Tech jobs fade, waitstaff jobs boom.

Tech-firm layoffs, coupled with hiring in lower-wage industries like restaurants, signal a shift back toward pre-pandemic job patterns. But for the first time in 40 years, the wage gap is declining.

Peter
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The latest job numbers from the Labor Department are surprisingly positive: Hiring is booming in the shadows of a potential recession. Yet the pattern is uneven: The companies that are hiring are places like restaurants while big-name companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and IBM are laying off workers in numbers not seen since the dot-com crash two decades ago.

Could current trends not only avert a possible recession but also begin to reverse more than four decades of ever-growing U.S. income inequality?

Key factors that widened the pay gap between rich and poor people – automation, globalization, and immigration – have shown signs of reversing. U.S. companies are bringing some factory work back to the United States. Immigration slowed. And automation in the form of artificial intelligence has reached the point where it might begin to thin the ranks of white-collar industries rather than blue-collar ones.

From the pre-pandemic peak through the end of 2022, hourly pay for restaurant workers jumped 25%, more than double the average pay increase for computer systems designers, who earn more than twice as much as servers, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Says MIT economist David Autor: “For the first time in four decades, wage inequality is falling.”

Inequality in decline? Tech jobs fade, waitstaff jobs boom.

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Brian Snyder/Reuters
A help wanted sign hangs in a restaurant window in Medford, Massachusetts, Jan. 25, 2023. Many service sector jobs remain in high demand. Wages have risen faster for restaurant workers than in the economy overall.

On one side of Chauncy Street in downtown Boston last week, laid-off tech workers came to the headquarters of internet provider Starry to drop off their company equipment and say goodbye. “It’s sad,” says the security guard downstairs. “I tell them I’m sorry.”

On the other side of Chauncy Street, the Lotus Test Kitchen is hopping. You can smell the spices even before opening the door. Inside, seven food-prep workers make rice bowls for delivery services that will bring lunch to customers all around Greater Boston. The newest employee, who just started that morning, tentatively places toppings on the rice under the direction of a fellow worker. Owner Thomas Xie is interviewing two more applicants that afternoon.

“We have been having a heck of a time finding people,” Mr. Xie says, sitting at the register. At his suburban grocery store, he adds, he could use two or three more workers in addition to the current half-dozen already on staff.

An economy that is firing high-paid tech workers and hiring low-paid kitchen staff may not sound very healthy. On Friday, the Labor Department reported that the United States added a whopping and unexpected 517,000 jobs last month. Nearly a quarter of those jobs came from restaurants and the rest of the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes travel and art and music, while tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have been shedding workers. But in this topsy-turvy economy, fewer programmers and more cooks and servers might actually represent a healthy re-balancing.

At the very least, it’s a snapback to a kind of pre-pandemic normalcy, before lockdowns closed restaurants and boosted home-office tech sales. And if such big job gains continue, it suggests that the U.S. might be able to bring down inflation without sinking into a recession, a so-called soft landing that in practice is very difficult to achieve.

Perhaps the most intriguing question, however, is whether something more fundamental is underway. If the snapback from the pandemic turns out to be a long-term trend instead of a blip, it could begin to reverse more than four decades of ever-growing U.S. income inequality. Automation, which economists believe was a major factor in decimating some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs, may now have advanced to the point where artificial intelligence (AI) could begin to thin the ranks of white-collar industries. 

“If you asked people, let’s say a decade ago, they would have thought, ‘Oh, the waiters are easier to automate than programmers,’” says Anton Korinek, an economist and fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Based on what we have seen just in the last year or two, it actually turns out that the opposite is true.”

Big slowdown in Big Tech

After years of growth, the tech sector is retrenching. Although layoffs were well underway last year, they began to accelerate in November after super-entrepreneur Elon Musk bought and tried to remake Twitter, laying off half the workforce in the process. Those cuts were followed by Salesforce (1,000 layoffs); Meta, the owner of Facebook (11,000 layoffs); and DoorDash (1,250), according to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks the announcements. The tech sector announced more cuts last year – 97,000 workers – than any since the dot-com crash in 2000, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a career transition firm.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
President Joe Biden speaks about a Labor Department report showing strong job creation during January, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, Feb. 3, 2023. Amid pandemic supply-chain challenges and rising tensions with China, the trend of globalization has downshifted, which may buoy wages for U.S.-based workers.

“We got caught up in some hiring mania the last two years,” says Andy Challenger, senior vice president at the Chicago-based consulting firm. Tech “companies are recognizing they got out ahead of themselves.”

The pace of cuts accelerated even more in January as Salesforce announced further layoffs (8,000) along with Amazon (a total of 18,000 over two rounds of cuts); Microsoft (10,000); Google’s parent, Alphabet (12,000); IBM (3,900); and a host of smaller tech companies, such as Spotify, Coinbase, and Shutterfly. In 2023, “a major theme will be tech layoffs as Silicon Valley after a decade of hyper growth now comes to the reality of cost cutting,” securities firm Wedbush predicted in a note in January. “The Cinderella ride has ended (for now).”

Some of these cuts may have been overdue as tech firms were hesitant to trim unprofitable units while everyone else was hiring. 

“You tend to see a little bit of a piling-on effect of companies just saying, ‘I can let people go right now because the cuts at Amazon and Google are getting all the headlines and I’m not going to get as many,’” Mr. Challenger says.

A 25% jump in pay

For cooks and servers, the picture looks much brighter. After the pandemic closed restaurants and cut industry employment by nearly half, the workforce has steadily expanded and is less than 5% from its pre-pandemic peak. Nearly 9 in 10 restaurants say they’ll hire more workers this year – if they can find them, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The big surprise is the wage hikes for low-income workers. From the pre-pandemic peak through the end of 2022, hourly pay for restaurant workers jumped 25%. That’s more than double the average pay increase for computer systems designers, who earn more than twice as much as servers, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

This disparity isn’t limited to servers and systems designers. 

Young high school graduates and workers on the lowest rungs of the income ladder are seeing bigger pay raises than higher-income employees, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor told an audience at Princeton’s Bendheim Center for Finance in December. “For the first time in four decades, wage inequality is falling.” 

Whether this narrowing of inequality is a blip or a long-term shift is something many economists are now pondering, says Aaron Terrazas, chief economist of employer review service Glassdoor Inc. For the moment, the data isn’t strong enough to say for sure. At worst, the tech sector has eliminated a year’s worth of employment growth. “A lot of laid-off tech workers are finding new jobs relatively quickly,” he says. “The reality is that there is still demand for their skills.”

A third to half of the widening of income inequality since the 1980s stems from automation, many economists believe, as machines replaced highly paid factory workers, while rewarding knowledge workers with ever higher pay. Globalization also played a role by shipping off those jobs to China and elsewhere. So did immigration, which swelled the ranks of low-income workers, making it easier for employers to keep wages low.

Now these trends appear to be reversing. U.S. companies are diversifying away from China and beginning to bring some of their factory work back to the U.S. Due to the efforts of the Trump administration and the pandemic, immigration has slowed, making fewer low-income workers available. The retirement of baby boomers has heightened the employee shortage, and so far, former workers are not returning en masse to the workforce, according to Friday’s Labor Department report. At the same time, AI has reached the point where it can write everything from computer programs to (gulp!) news stories.

Needed: Less-harmful automation?

Mr. Korinek of Brookings calls this new phase “cognitive automation.” “Automation will continue everywhere, but it’s probably going to be a very new feeling for the cognitive workers that are suddenly going to experience it on a much larger scale,” he says.

Tech companies have the option of shaping the future of automation, perhaps away from job-destroying to job-enhancing technology.

“What is needed is a new direction for the tech industry,” writes Daron Acemoglu, another MIT economist, in an email. “This new direction should prioritize more worker-friendly and citizen-friendly technologies.” For example, he writes, it should try to improve the productivity and experience of workers in workplaces, and protect and empower users, rather than “incessantly” collecting their data and using that for digital ads or as inputs into new AI programs. However, he continues, “I don’t see any evidence that there is a realization that the previous direction was deficient (harmful to society at large and failing to deliver the promised huge returns).” 

Back at the Lotus Test Kitchen in Boston, Mr. Xie marvels at some of the applicants he’s now getting for the delivery jobs he needs to fill. “It’s these young students who have just gotten out of college, one with a master’s degree,” he says, who are applying for positions that only pay $18 an hour.

Across the street at Starry, the future looks uncertain. Failing to get the investment needed to rapidly expand its fixed wireless internet service, the company had to lay off half its workers last fall and more of them last week. But the confidence in tech remains. Says a company spokesperson in an email: “If history is a guide, there will be a rebound and the tech industry will continue to deliver a lot of economic growth and value.”

Editor's note: A sentence in this story has been updated to more accurately characterize the timing of layoffs at Amazon.

Podcast

At heart of teachers’ stories, basic questions of fairness

Their work is central to a thriving society, but teachers typically can’t realize that value – at least not monetarily. Our writer talks about reporting on a U.S. push to lift teacher pay. It’s a high-stakes story about equality and fairness.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Jackie Valley recently joined the Monitor as an education writer. She visited the Boston newsroom in December 2022.

Do teachers’ paychecks reflect their value to society?

That’s one question at the core of an early-stage push – by way of the American Teacher Act – to put in motion the establishment of a $60,000 base salary.

“There tends to be broad public support for teacher raises,” education writer Jackie Valley says on the Monitor’s “Why We Wrote This” podcast, “and we’ve seen [after] issues such as teacher shortages and pandemic learning loss that maybe people will galvanize around this.”

That’s not a given, says Jackie, who recently wrote about the issue. Among the pushback factors: the need to find funds by raising taxes or cutting other services to offset higher teacher compensation. That’s “always a dicey political conversation,” Jackie notes. 

One effect: Some teachers weigh transferring their skills to more lucrative jobs. Or keeping their day jobs and moonlighting, putting themselves at risk of burnout. And if compensation were improved? Jackie’s interviews hinted at an alternative picture. 

“If [teachers] feel like they’re making decent money, and say they’re not working at Kohl’s at night or on the weekends, they’re fresh, they’re ready to tackle the day, and be 100% there for their students,” she says. – Clayton Collins and Jingnan Peng

This interview is designed to be listened to, but you can also find a transcript here.

What’s a Teacher Worth?

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On Film

‘Full Time’: Propulsive film turns getting to work into a thriller

Perseverance is something working parents demonstrate daily. “Full Time,” filmed like a thriller, offers a lens on that life – and on the strength people draw on to get through tough times.

Peter
Courtesy of Music Box Films
Julie (Laure Calamy), a single mom looking for a new job, tries to catch a ride in Paris during a transit strike in the movie “Full Time” from director Eric Gravel.

‘Full Time’: Propulsive film turns getting to work into a thriller

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Considering how much of our days and nights are taken up in the workplace, it’s remarkable how rarely this is dramatized in the movies. People in films may hold jobs, but we do not often see how their lives might revolve around them. Perhaps the reason why is that audiences go to the movies to get away from their work routine. But, artfully done, the working life of a protagonist is no less rich or redeeming than any other subject.

Case in point: “Full Time,” the propulsive new French film about Julie (Laure Calamy), a divorced mother who is attempting to care for her two young children while balancing her life as the head chambermaid of a five-star Parisian hotel. Written and directed by Eric Gravel, the film, paced like a thriller, picks up Julie’s life at a particularly fraught juncture: A nationwide mass transportation strike has turned her commute from the suburbs to Paris and back again into a frenzied obstacle course.

We follow Julie’s whirlwind life for a week – from dawn, when she feeds her kids and drops them off with a grandmotherly neighbor (Geneviève Mnich), to sunset, when she retrieves them, often profusely apologetic for arriving late.

In between, Julie’s life at the hotel is depicted in such granular detail that it’s as if we were privy to the inner workings of a secret, largely female society. Julie instructs her charges to obey the first rule of housekeeping: “We’re invisible.” We learn the lingo and code words they use to designate problem guests. The women’s harried conviviality belies their dissatisfactions, none more so than Julie’s, who trained as a market researcher and longs for a career change.

She places her co-workers in jeopardy to cover for her while she pursues a job interview on the other side of town. All the while, the metro and the trains are not running, the bank is dunning her for lapsed mortgage payments, she can’t get her ex to come across with the monthly alimony, and she is frantically organizing her son’s impending birthday party. (She wants to purchase a mini-trampoline.) Julie’s life was already hard-pressed. The strike delivers the coup de grâce.

And yet, she never really succumbs to despair, perhaps because she is in too much of a hurry. In the rare moments when we see her in repose, gazing silently through a window during one of her commutes as the landscape whizzes by, or sinking into a warm bath at home, she is almost eerily placid. Julie is most herself when she is on the go, and the film suggests that, for all her exhaustions, perhaps this is the way she feels most alive.

Calamy’s quicksilver performance certainly implies this. Julie confronts her hurdles as winnable challenges. She’s a fast talker and a quick thinker, and she has a gift for pivoting away from bad news. It might be stretching the point to call Julie a heroine – after all, she didn’t ask for any of these travails – but her tenacity to do the right thing for herself and her kids is valiant. (She chooses to live in the faraway suburbs because it provides a better environment for her children.) Her resilience has a heartfelt core that keeps her from seeming too shrill or strident.

Although Gravel doesn’t make a big deal about it, Julie also represents something larger than herself. Her plight as a single working mother is far from unique. But “Full Time” doesn’t ennoble the working class. Julie’s covert absenteeism, for example, inadvertently endangers the livelihood of another chambermaid who, it turns out, also has children to support. And fellow workers like Julie are the ones who are most affected by the striking transit employees. 

For all her impulsive imperfections, it’s clear by the end that Julie will survive, and that survival represents a balm amid this maelstrom. It will take much more than a railway strike to shut her down.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Full Time” starts a national rollout on Feb. 3. The film is in French with English subtitles.

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Plucking Peru from a democratic plunge

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Violent clashes between protesters and police in Peru in recent weeks have sharpened fears that the South American country is edging closer to a failed state. At least 58 people have been killed during demonstrations since President Dina Boluarte assumed office Dec. 7.

Peru’s crisis coincides with similar upheavals in other Latin American countries where new types of leaders and prosecutors are challenging entrenched elites that often evade the law. Ms. Boluarte herself may have reflected this shift by apologizing for the conduct of the security forces.

Popular protests are a release valve for faltering democracies. They have led to striking turnovers in leadership across Latin America. In countries like Honduras and now Peru, they have lent new resolve to tackling impunity, requiring new attitudes – such as contrition, service, and honesty – that can build public trust in governance.

Plucking Peru from a democratic plunge

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Angela Ponce/Reuters/File
Peru's President Dina Boluarte meets with foreign press in Lima, Peru, on Jan. 24.

Violent clashes between protesters and police in Peru in recent weeks have sharpened fears that the South American country is edging closer to a failed state. It has had six presidents in as many years. At least 58 people have been killed during demonstrations since President Dina Boluarte assumed office Dec. 7. She already faces a motion of impeachment.

Peru’s crisis coincides with similar upheavals in other Latin American countries where new types of leaders and prosecutors are challenging entrenched elites that often evade the law. Ms. Boluarte herself, in a rare moment of public contrition for a new head of state, may have reflected this shift by apologizing last month for the conduct of the security forces.

In an echo of her apology, Peru’s attorney general, Liz Patricia Benavides Vargas, has opened multiple investigations into police brutality. Appointed just eight months ago, she has already shown her mettle. Her corruption inquiry into then-President Pedro Castillo last year led to his removal from office and subsequent arrest as well as Ms. Boluarte’s rise to the presidency.

“When I was appointed attorney general last June, I promised the citizens that I would act with order, determination, and haste,” Ms. Benavides said in a national address on Tuesday. “The distinctive mark of all civil servants should be always to honor their word, to accomplish what they promise, to recover the trust of the citizens in their institutions.”

Popular demands for Ms. Boluarte to resign after less than two months in office underscore the impatience felt not just in Peru but also across the region for democratic renewal. The latest Transparency Index, published earlier this week, showed that perceptions of corruption have changed little in Latin America during the past four years even as voters have tossed out several governments. Protesters in Peru seek immediate elections. Many want a new constitution, echoing similar calls in neighboring Chile.

“Right now, the political situation merits a change of representatives, of government, of the executive and the legislature,” a protester named Carlos told CNN last month. “That is the immediate thing. Because there are other deeper issues – inflation, lack of employment, poverty, malnutrition and other historical issues that have not been addressed.”

Frustrations like those are leading to new responses. In Honduras, for example, President Xiomara Castro, who came to office in early 2022 pledging to curb widespread graft, has established a new anti-corruption commission with the United Nations. Judges and prosecutors from 15 nations across the region, meanwhile, are working with the European Union to create joint investigation teams to strengthen their judicial institutions.

“Pervasive corruption across the Americas fuels the many other crises facing the region,” noted Delia Ferreira Rubio, a legal expert from Argentina and chair of Transparency International, in the new index report. “The only way out is for states to do the hard work, rooting out corruption at all levels to ensure governments work for all people, not just an elite few.”

Popular protests are a release valve for faltering democracies. They have led to striking turnovers in leadership across Latin America. In countries like Honduras and now Peru, they have lent new resolve to tackling impunity, requiring new attitudes – such as contrition, service, and honesty – that can build public trust in governance.

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.

Full employment for all

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Where can we turn when it seems impossible to find the right job? God is always here to guide us to fulfillment and satisfaction.

Full employment for all

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

The economic landscape seems to change all the time. Global events and technological progress alter the availability of jobs and increase competition. Even without the push and pull of these forces, sometimes it can feel as though we’re holding ourselves back. Is it even possible to secure a good job and keep it? And where is God in our journey forward?

Here are a few pieces from the archives of The Christian Science Publishing Society, each grappling with the challenge of employment. For many of the writers, a spiritual approach to employment brought greater job prospects, as well as a clearer sense of their unlabored relation to our Father-Mother God. Whether you’re content with your job or seeking new work, this collection will have something to fuel your prayers.

The author of “Can we be certain of anything these days?” shares how a desire to love and praise God put an end to sleepless nights worrying about how a recent career change might impact his ability to provide for his family, and brought growth in his profession.

Even within a competitive market, we always have our perfect place in the “secret place of the most High,” where God is blessing us and everyone. In “Rejoicing in our perfect place,” a former teacher shares how learning this spiritual lesson led to a fulfilling career.

Always meaningfully employed” explores the idea that wherever we are, our job is to be a blessing – “and that’s a job God has for all of us.”

In “Limitless worth and employment,” the author explains how a better understanding of her God-given identity at a time when she found herself underemployed brought a greater sense of worth, ability, and direction to her life, with practical benefits for her career.

Throughout a varied career, the writer of “Employed by God, our dependable Life” relied on a spiritual sense that God was meeting her needs and giving her the ability to be a blessing. Leaning on God as her support, she overcame a tough job search and the aftertaste of an unfair work environment, and she found success in self-employment.

The author of “You can never be obsolete” shares how a more spiritual view of employment brought practical solutions after technological advances forced her to shift gears with her career.

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The blues of winter

Kiichiro Sato/AP
People walk along an icy pier in Chicago as the sun rises over Lake Michigan on Feb. 3, 2023. Tens of millions of Americans are experiencing unusually cold temperatures this weekend.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Peter Grier
Washington editor

Come back next week, when we’ll have a story on the state of the Biden presidency as the State of the Union address nears.

More issues

2023
February
03
Friday

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