Monitor Daily Podcast

April 12, 2017
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Monitor Daily Intro for April 12, 2017

In Russia today, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a hard line. The message: Stop supporting Syria’s inhumane regime.

It would appear that something changed within Donald Trump after the sarin gas attack in Syria. He’s spoken of his absolute revulsion at seeing the humanitarian toll. Since that moment, his kind words for Russia have all but disappeared.

Time will tell whether Mr. Trump has pivoted on Russia. But the US approach to this week’s talks in Russia speaks to something greater: The power of humanity to change hearts. The world’s refusal to accept atrocity is a sign of progress.

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What Russia wants: hints of an endgame

At the moment, Russia and the US appear to be engaged in a diplomatic shouting match. Each side is dramatically expressing exasperation. But beneath the surface, Russia may be looking for practical answers. And the US might be able to give them. “I believe we understand each other better after today,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told journalists just hours ago.


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In Moscow today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered something like an ultimatum to Russia: Choose between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the United States. The Kremlin isn’t interested in ultimatums. But a range of Russian analysts say that the door could remain open to the kind of wide-ranging Syria deal that Donald Trump hinted at during his presidential campaign. What the Russians want to know: What strategy – what desired endgame – led Mr. Trump to strike at a Syrian airfield last week? Cooperation may still be possible, with work. Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, says that Russia would be happy to have an exit strategy. They could even walk away from Assad. "But that's a complex and subtle conversation," he says, "nothing like the crude all-or-nothing dialogue that's taking place now."

What Russia wants: hints of an endgame

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (l.) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrive for a news conference following their talks in Moscow Wednesday.

Seldom in the strained history of US-Russian relations have signals seemed more dangerously crossed, or the misunderstandings more unfathomable, than they are right now, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to chart a way forward on Syria in meetings with Russian leaders.

No breakthroughs occurred during Mr. Tillerson's visit to Moscow, but after lengthy meetings with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and with President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson and Mr. Lavrov emerged Wednesday to tell journalists that despite the "low level of trust" between the US and Russia, they were prepared to move forward on diplomatic solutions to the crises in Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea.

"I believe we understand each other better after today," Lavrov said.

After investing high hopes in things President Trump used to say, such as a desire to "get along" with Mr. Putin, some Russian experts are now wondering if the Trump White House has any coherent foreign policy – or even whether it's possible to make any lasting deals with it at all.

"It's dawning on a lot of people in Moscow, as some of us warned, that we may be confronted with someone who is trying to behave like Putin, but who does not have Putin's savvy in conducting these games of brinkmanship. Of course he's trying to prove that he's tough, that he's not Obama," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "But Putin knows the limits of these things, he's pretty experienced at this. We are very unsure about Trump."

What's the plan?

As Tillerson was arriving Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry complained of a growing list of "irritants" between the two countries, and not just over Syria. Putin warned that relations were at "their lowest since the cold war."

The overt message Tillerson brought to Moscow – that Russia must choose between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the US – looks too much like an ultimatum to be even worthy of discussion, Russian experts say. Rather, they argue, any US-Russia deal over Syria is going to have to take Moscow's interests squarely into account. For the first time in decades, they warn, the specter of Russians fighting Americans looks like something other than a far-fetched Hollywood thriller.

"The message from Trump's missile strike is that the US is back in Syria, and intends to play a role in the settlement of that conflict. We get that," says Mr. Lukyanov. "But Putin does not respond well to pressure, and this will make him redouble support for Assad in the short term....

"And if there is a plan, or if Trump develops the habit, to keep striking Syria to put pressure on Assad and Russia, then Russia will have no option but to escalate," he adds. "This time Russia did not employ any of the military defenses it has in Syria, but it will probably have no choice if such attacks continue. That opens up the possibility of war, and it's quite scary.... And if [Trump's] strike was not part of any plan, then it just looks ridiculous to us."

Russia has consistently supported the Assad regime – Syria has been a Moscow client state since 1971 – since the civil war began almost six years ago. It intervened directly 18 months ago when the regime appeared on the verge of collapse, and has since bought Assad a wave of battlefield victories that have ensured his survival and practically guaranteed him a place in any peace deal.

That addresses one of the key reasons Russia intervened in the first place, says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy hand. "We were drawing a 'red line' of our own against any more wars of regime change," he says. "This policy does not lead to more democracy or stronger world order. It leads to chaos and disaster, and we've seen as much in Iraq, Libya, and other places. We are open to different ways of solving problems, and we are not married to Bashar al-Assad, but there is no chance that we will abandon him at this point."

A second key reason for Russia's involvement was fear of jihadi victory in Syria, a very real threat in 2015. Such a victory could have major repercussions for Russia – in its restive north Caucasus region; among its very large mainly Sunni Muslim community; and in the mainly Muslim Soviet successor states of central Asia, where dictatorship and poverty have created fertile ground for Islamist extremism. In an interview with a Russian TV station Wednesday, Putin estimated that 9,000 Russian Muslims were fighting alongside jihadi groups in Syria. "We understand the scale of this threat, and will do everything possible to minimize it," he said.

A third motivation for the Kremlin was to bolster its traditional client, Assad, and to expand Russian influence in the turbulent Middle East. Russia has a long-standing naval station at Tartus, and has built at least one big new air base in Syria that it clearly intends to keep.

"We have a lot of interests in Syria, including economic and military ones, and we're not going to give this up," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the independent Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow. "Assad is our long time partner there, and Russia believes that no acceptable settlement is possible without him."

'A complex and subtle conversation'

The Russian presence in Syria is now entrenched, and any suggestion that Trump might revisit Obama's 2013 decision to intervene in Syria to effect regime change there is unrealistic, Russian analysts say.

"Maybe it was possible a few years ago for the US to go in and remove Assad, and they might have made it into another Iraq," says Lukyanov. "But it is not possible today when the regime is protected by Russian military force. This path can only lead to confrontation between us."

Cooperation, however, remains possible down the road, says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.

"Russia would be happy to have an exit strategy, but demanding that we should just ditch Assad will only antagonize Putin," he says. "Russia will need to preserve its gains and its hard-won leading role in Syria, but it could walk away from Assad. But that's a complex and subtle conversation, nothing like the crude all-or-nothing dialogue that's taking place now. Our main question right now is: are the Trump people capable of that?"

Why the United fiasco stirred such anger

The video of a United Airlines customer being dragged from his seat points to many travelers' pent-up frustrations. While those in first class get everything short of a shiatsu massage, coach passengers get hassles, delays, and maybe a bag of peanuts, it seems. But here's the thing. Air travel is cheaper than ever. You get what you pay for, experts say.


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Has air travel really gotten this bad? The video of a man being dragged from a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat for airline employees has raised that question. And the incident also hints at a deeper public frustration with the airline industry and the service economy. Most customers feel they are being treated worse, with little financial consequence for corporations. Increased stratification of services – where a select group of elite travelers get the perks while seats get smaller and fees pile up for everyone else – may be increasing that sense of dissatisfaction. Still, experts say, that resentment may stem in part from the fact that travel is cheaper and more accessible than ever. The travel industry makes the bulk of its profits off big-ticket customers, “so they make the steerage people as uncomfortable as they can so they will pay more [to get more],” says travel agent Jeff Wagg. “We get complaints all the time that people feel they are being nickel-and-dimed to death.”

Why the United fiasco stirred such anger

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune via AP
People with Asian community organizations from Chicago hold signs to protest after Sunday's confrontation where David Dao, 69, of Elizabethtown, Ky., was removed from a United Airlines airplane by Chicago airport police at O'Hare International Airport Tuesday.
[Update: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.]

When video circulated early this week of a man being dragged from a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat to make room for four airline employees, the footage left many wondering: Has air travel really gotten this bad?

The fallout from the footage, in which a man, whom witnesses overheard saying he was a doctor who had to see patients in the morning, is forcibly removed from his seat by Chicago airport police, was swift and disastrous. It didn’t help that United CEO Oscar Munoz initially responded by characterizing the passenger as “belligerent” and praising the actions of United employees. David Dao suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and lost teeth, his lawyers said Thursday.

The company’s stock plunged Tuesday. Members of the US Senate called for an investigation. United customers posted videos and pictures of themselves cutting up their frequent flier cards, and in China the incident went viral amid allegations of racism toward a passenger of Asian ethnicity.

But if the outcry reflected the shocking details of this one incident, the incident also hints at a deeper public frustration with the airline industry and the service economy more broadly.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff SOURCE: Department of Transportation

Many customers feel they are being treated worse and worse, with few financial consequence for corporations. (United, the world’s fourth-largest air carrier, made $2.3 billion in profits last year). Increased stratification of services, where a select group of elite travelers get all the perks while seats get smaller and fees pile up for the rest, may be increasing that sense of dissatisfaction.

And it’s not limited to aviation or even the hospitality industry. Cable and internet service companies came in high in one 2015 survey of customer dissatisfaction, conducted by Ipsos. Health care, insurance, and utilities were also high on the list. But airlines are the venue for some big disappointments.

“United’s policy is make the most money you can, but at some point that interferes with your actual job moving people from A to B,” says Jeff Wagg, a licensed travel agent and partner in Absolutely Cruises!, a cruise-focused travel agency based in Cambridge, Mass. “There’s no other industry where you pay for a service way ahead and then you might not get it if it isn’t convenient to them.”

“This is an oligopolistic industry that has become increasingly callous toward customers as it rakes in billions in profits thanks to strong demand and low oil prices,” The New York Times editorial board wrote Tuesday. “Disgruntled travelers may howl on Twitter or send furious emails, but airline executives know their bottom lines are for the moment secure.”

One twist, though: This week’s social-media furor was a very high-profile reminder that consumers aren’t actually such helpless victims. In at least some cases their concerns can drive stock prices and corporate behavior. (Mr. Munoz has said United will never again have a passenger dragged from a flight.)

And to some degree, consumer dissatisfaction is a mirror of rising consumer expectations or aspirations in an era of ever-advancing technology.

When it comes to airlines, the dissatisfaction may also stem in part from travel becoming cheaper and more accessible than ever before, giving more people a chance to experience it but also come face to face with those receiving better, more expensive treatment.

The (certain type of) customer is always right

United initially said that the passenger who was removed from the plane was randomly selected after no one else would give up their seats on the full flight to make room for employees who needed to travel in order to be the crew on another flight. But according to Mr. Wagg and others, that “random selection” is anything but.

“If you’re in first class you’re not getting picked. In economy plus you’re not getting picked. If you’re a frequent flyer you’re not getting picked,” he says. “It’s people who don’t fly all the time who don’t know the game.”

But even if that’s the rule, there are exceptions. In the wake of the incident, the Los Angeles Times ran an account of a first-class United passenger on a trip to Hawaii being threatened with handcuffs after initially refusing to give up his seat to an even higher-priority traveler.

The dragged-passenger incident has raised questions of whether airline tactics to fill all available seats and maximize profits have gone too far.

“No one deserved the treatment he received,” says Robert Stuart, a sometime customer of United from Tallahassee, Fla., who says he will never fly the airline again. “When employees trump the rights of paying customers, the problem is taken to a new level. And when employees resort to violence against customers, a clear line has been crossed.  I hope this doctor pursues some type of legal action. This is assault.”

At the same time as most air passengers are facing more fees for luggage, seat assignments, and even bathroom use, amenities for business class travelers, from flat beds to private bathrooms, are getting more luxurious.

That aggressive sorting of travelers according to what they are willing to pay is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Herman “Dutch” Leonard, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “There is much more work on price discrimination, trying to figure out who would be willing to pay a little bit more and how can we get them to pay a little bit more,” he says. People have come to resent all the extra airline charges – bags, carry-on, there’s this sense of, 'if we can take more money from you we will.' ”

“The entire travel industry is going in this direction,” agrees Mr. Wagg of Absolutely Cruises! “Hotels overbook all the time, too [to avoid the sunk cost of empty rooms when people don’t show], and you are more likely to get bumped based on how much you paid.”

On cruise ships, he says, first- and second-class passenger tiering is now common, with exclusive areas blocked off for VIP customers. “We weren’t seeing that in the '80s and '90s.”

The travel industry makes the bulk of its profits off big-ticket customers, “so they make the steerage people as uncomfortable as they can so they will pay more,” he continues. “We get complaints all the time that people feel they are being nickel-and-dimed to death.”

More accessible, less loved

Part of the reason more customers have complaints, however, is that more customers are actually traveling in the first place. Since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, inflation-adjusted ticket prices have fallen by about 50 percent, according to Airlines for America, an industry trade group.

But in recent years, increased industry consolidation has reduced competition between air carriers, which have ridden added fees and low oil prices to record profit margins.

Overall, North American airlines have cleared $20 billion in profits in each of the past two years, and in 2014 Delta and United each made an estimated $1 billion in extra fees for things like checked bags, seat preference, and other formerly taken-for-granted amenities. That, combined with the practice of cramming more seats into smaller spaces, feeds the perception that air carriers aren’t exactly a customer-first enterprise (“Push the sardines in the can and shut the door,” is how Mr. Stuart described his handful of United experiences).

If the short-term fallout for United is any indication, however, the case of the dragged-off passenger could be a tipping point – especially as incidents are increasingly documented on video and spread online.

“Everyone is on notice that all actions of employees should be thought of as available for public display. I don't think companies realize how vulnerable they are to this,” says Professor Leonard at Harvard. “I think this means that if you’re United, you push the discretion to front line staff and emphasize the importance of maintaining relationships with your customers.”

Staff writer Lonnie Shekhtman contributed to this article.

Where a new political middle may rise

It's easy to blame Washington for political hyperpartisanship, but most experts say it's the country that's polarized and D.C. is just amplifying it. A key Georgia election raises the question: Are we seeing a rebellion of the middle or simply another turn in the cycle of partisan backlash?

John Bazemore/AP
Jon Ossoff, Democratic candidate for Georgia's 6th congressional district, will challenge for a long-held GOP seat in a special election April 18.

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What would in calmer days have been a sleepy special election important only to partisans has become a wide-open race with national attention. Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, holds a big lead in Georgia’s Sixth, Newt Gingrich's old district. Around the US, races like this one are giving Democrats a chance to hone a new bargain with American voters, one that favors economic populism and social justice, and reclaims the mantle of the working class. Will the anti-Trump sentiment that has reared up in town halls carry them into office? It’s a question that’s cropping up in Republican strongholds from Georgia to Kansas to Montana. At a rally on Tuesday in Dunwoody, Ga., baby boomer Paul Flexner says Americans like him are ready for a fresh perspective. "More and more people realize that the problem in this country is that we've lost the political middle," he says. "We can't solve actual problems if we're all extremists."

Where a new political middle may rise

Patrik Jonsson
Democrat Jon Ossoff (right), shown with Paul Flexner in Dunwoody, Ga., April 11, has a commanding lead in Georgia's Sixth District, which has been held by a Republican since 1979.

Amid honking horns and kids waving “Vote Your Ossoff” signs, Lisa Duncan relishes the excitement driving Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, to a commanding lead in a district that Republicans have owned since the 1970s.

“Jon is a really positive guy, and he’s part of a movement to get smart people in that are sincere, conscientious, and want to stay with the party,” says Ms. Duncan, a local activist. “So, not negative – that’s what we really need.”

As she talks, a lot of drivers honk, their thumbs up; a man in a pick-up truck boos, his thumb down.

Duncan is one of thousands of anxious Georgian Democrats in search of hope at the ballot box. She says she has found it in Mr. Ossoff, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker whose name recognition has skyrocketed as the stakes have risen here in Atlanta's northern suburbs.

A big question for Ossoff and other Democrats vying for success in conservative corners of the United States is whether the anti-Trump sentiment that has reared up in rallies and town halls is deep enough to sway a race in a state that handily elected Trump in November. It’s a question that’s cropping up unexpectedly in Republican strongholds from Georgia to Kansas to Montana, where districts that the GOP has held for decades are suddenly developing a tinge of violet.

Such contests, like the one to represent Georgia’s Sixth District – Newt Gingrich's old district – are giving Democrats a chance to hone a new bargain with American voters, one that favors economic populism, social justice, and reclaims the mantle of the working class. Some pundits call them a new breed of Democrats. For Duncan, it’s an effort to “take [Democrats] back to their strength and their values.”

Democratic candidates “like Ossoff will try to capitalize, perhaps not intentionally, on the same attitudes that helped Trump. They’re outsiders who can tap into the same voters who are dissatisfied with what they see happening – [a] ‘curse on both your parties,’ ” says Chuck Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. “This is a time to take out incumbents where [rookie candidates] can say, ‘I haven’t been part of the problem.’ ”

What would in calmer days have likely been a sleepy special election important only to partisans has become a wide-open race with national attention. At rallies around the suburban district, the energy has been akin to a state fair, in no small part because voters concerned by the early days of the Trump presidency sense an upset-in-the-making.

“There’s a renewal of civic engagement in America right now,” Ossoff, a former congressional aide who comes off as earnest, yet polished, says in an interview. From the environment to reproductive rights to press freedoms, he says, “there’s a greater awareness of the stakes and the consequences of inaction than any time in recent history. That’s why folks here in Georgia are, as you can see, so intensely engaged in this campaign. The stakes are high.”

Aside from Ossoff, Democrats trying to breach red state bulwarks include Montana rancher and troubadour Rob Quist, whose campaign notes that “there’s nearly 300 millionaires in Congress but not one Montana folk singer,” and Kansas Democrat James Thompson, who has forced Republicans to play defense in the run-up to a special election Tuesday in what was once a safe district. His latest ad features him firing an AR-15 while a narrator calls him a “fighter who grew up in poverty.” Republicans are concerned enough that President Trump recorded a last-minute call this week urging people to vote for Republican Ron Estes.

A first-time win for Democrats?

Democrats haven't won the district since Mr. Gingrich won it in 1979, the longest such drought in the state. But Ossoff has a commanding lead in an 18-person field, including 11 Republicans, several of whom are battling to hoist Trump’s standard. And Ossoff has surged, breaking fundraising records and raising more than $8 million from nearly 200,000 individual donors, much of it pouring in from other parts of the country.

The Georgia Sixth District is “better educated, more sophisticated certainly than most Georgia districts and probably most districts around the country, so that assumes that a larger share of the electorate would be attentive,” says Professor Bullock. A higher turnout likely won’t be fueled by “real hard-core partisans,” he says, but by less politically active people “inspired to go to the polls.”

That’s enough to make Republican operatives like Todd Rehm, the editor of GaPundit.com, nervous. How nervous? “I’d say a 7.5” on the anxiety scale, he says.

The hints of a possible shift were there: Hillary Clinton won in Cobb County, which is part of the Sixth and only lost the district by 2 percent. And Tom Price, who left the district to become Trump's Health and Human Services Secretary, had seen his once decisive vote totals dwindling in recent elections.

Ossoff is shooting for a 50 percent + 1 vote knockout in the so-called "jungle primary" on April 18. He is currently polling at 42 percent. But if a Republican snags the second spot for June, Ossoff will face a more concentrated Republican machine.

Liberal Moms of Roswell

For his part, Ossoff agrees that, in some respects, he has become a vessel for a broader political movement.

He also acknowledges one group of voters in particular have fueled his campaign: women. "I think the most interesting part of the story is the thousands of people, mostly led by women, standing up to make a difference."

Count Emile Toufighian among them.

Two years ago, feeling lonely, Ms. Toufighian started Liberal Moms of Roswell and Cobb as a social club, expecting maybe 10 people to join. Turns out she wasn’t as lonely as she thought. Her group now has more than 1,700 members. She says it’s one of a growing number of “resistance groups” that are tipping from energized voter to full-fledged street activism. Up until now, she says, “I felt like I had no voice.”

“People are definitely shifting their focus,” says Toufighian, a Roswell, Ga., midwife. “There’s been a sense of looking to other people to get it done, then realizing, after the election, ‘Wait, this is us – we’ve got to produce these candidates or be these candidates.’ ”

'Can't solve actual problems if we're all extremists'

Among the outsiders is Debra Rodman, an anthropologist running for the Virginia General Assembly.

As part of what’s been called a “huge organic surge” of women candidates in Virginia, Professor Rodman, a professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., joins 42 other Democrats running to represent districts currently held by Republicans. In 2015, only 21 Democrats challenged incumbent Republicans.

Advisers have asked her to tone down references to her volunteer work with Syrian refugees, especially Muslim women, helping them to adjust to life in America.

Given Trump’s win in November, she says she is ignoring such advice, noting that “being moderate and centrist, I don’t think that’s worked, and I don’t think it’s going to work.”

To her, the electoral formula is a mix of “integrity” and holding true to “very progressive values” around immigration, women’s rights, and education but also bolstering the working-class economy.

“True Democratic values have to hold true to very progressive values,” says Rodman. “We can’t go too center because then we’re not speaking to the people who really need us – and we are us. I’m a college professor, but my husband [drives a forklift at a brewery], we struggle to pay the bills, we have a child with special needs, we struggle to get health care.”

“This is about helping neighbors. We’re all in the same struggle.”

She says the Georgia election and next month’s gubernatorial primaries in Virginia are testing a message that “is not quite formed yet, but that we’re seeing emerge.” The Virginia general election is in November.

At a rally on Tuesday in Dunwoody, Ga., baby boomer Paul Flexner says a lot of Americans like him are ready to see a younger generation step up to the plate, if only to get a fresh perspective. Ossoff's focus on shared values over partisan talking points also resonates with him.

"More and more people realize that the problem in this country is that we've lost the political middle," he says. "We can't solve actual problems if we're all extremists."

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that, to win outright, a candidate in the Georgia Sixth District would need to win 50 percent of the vote, plus 1.

Johannesburg’s high-stakes trash war

From Africa to India, some of the best-run public services aren't public at all. They're run by citizens who step in where the government fails – from recycling to transportation. Now, these countries face a balancing act: How to improve services without squelching the remarkable entrepreneurship that has sprouted. 

Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images
Waste pickers sort through garbage for products worth recycling at a dump site in Sasolburg, South Africa.

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For years, informal recyclers – tens of thousands of them – were the only system for sorting the salvageable from the sludge in residents’ garbage in Johannesburg, South Africa. Some worked the dumps. Others mined household trash bins. But over the past few years the local government has been developing a system of curbside recycling like those found in most Western cities – complete with sorting facilities. Today that is raising the kind of “development” question that has long flummoxed Africa’s cities: How to meld two distinct and competing economies – one formal and regulated, the other informal and entrepreneurial. It’s a question that goes far beyond recycling, into areas like public transport. For now, informal collectors remain the core of recycling here, diverting about 80 to 90 percent of paper and packaging from landfills. “We are providing a huge service to the city, and to the environment,” says one. “In return we just ask that they recognize us as workers and as human beings.”

Johannesburg’s high-stakes trash war

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A street scene from the Central Business District, or Newtown, in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009.

In another lifetime, Louis Mahlangu was an electrician.

It was a good job, challenging and respectable, the kind of profession that could make his family proud.

There was just one problem.

“There was no work,” he says. No matter how hard he looked, Mr. Mahlangu was barely finding enough jobs to scrape by. Then his sister invited him to tag along to her job. The hours were good, she promised, and the pay – well, it was better than anything he was likely to earn replacing wiring in suburban houses.

And so he put on a pair of rubber rain boots, hiked to the top of a squelching mountain of Johannesburg’s garbage, and began digging for plastic.

Twenty-two years later, he’s still there, along with thousands of others like him, collecting dinged Coke bottles and pulverized yogurt cartons discarded by the city’s residents and selling them on to private recycling companies. At his peak, Mahlangu says, he made up to $1000 each month, a respectable wage in a country where the newly proposed minimum wage is around $250 per month.

For years, informal recyclers like Mahlangu – there are some 60,000 to 90,000 of them countrywide, according to South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology – were Johannesburg’s only real system for sorting the salvageable from the sludge in its residents’ garbage. Some worked the dumps, while others traversed the city on foot, plucking recyclables directly from household trash bins.

But lately, these informal recyclers have acquired a new competitor: the city itself. Over the last few years, Johannesburg’s government has begun building up a system of curbside recycling like those found in most Western cities – complete with its own sorting facilities and sleek new trucks huffing their way through the hilly suburbs.

That growing footprint – and the looming threat it poses to informal recyclers like Mahlangu – speaks to a broader development question that has long flummoxed Africa’s cities. It’s the puzzle of how to meld the two distinct economies that seem to walk in lock-step through the streets here – one formal and regulated, the other informal and entrepreneurial, competing to serve metropolises growing at a breakneck pace.

And it’s a question that goes far beyond recycling. Take public transport. Across most of sub-Saharan Africa, city buses, if they exist at all, compete with well-organized private networks of wheezing passenger vans – Senegal’s cars rapides, East Africa’s matatus, Ghana’s tro tros, South Africa’s minibus taxis – that traverse cities on routes written nowhere but known to almost everyone.

In many African cities, it is not uncommon to see women hawking trays of tomatoes, onions, or bananas just feet from air-conditioned supermarkets, or shacks backed up against ultra-modern apartment complexes. Outside Johannesburg, thousands of men descend daily into the abandoned shafts of the city’s old formal gold mines, informally – and illegally – collecting whatever is left.

“What many developing countries are now grappling with is that there are very deeply entrenched and often quite well organized informal sectors” in industries like recycling, says Linda Godfrey, principal scientist on the “Waste for Development” project at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a parastatal research organization. “These informal pickers have mobilized themselves and have systems that work. We're now introducing advanced policy instruments that can affect their livelihoods and that can cause friction.”

In Johannesburg, the government has puzzled over what to do with informal recyclers nearly since the word "go" on the city’s first pilot recycling program in 2009, says Nelly Rampete, who manages recycling for Pikitup, the municipal waste collection agency. Should the city hire them? Ignore them? Try to beat them at their own game?

Over time, the sector's observers say, it's attempted a bit of all three. They city has made scattered efforts, for instance, to support waste-picker “cooperatives,” giving designated groups of recyclers material support – like working clothes or storage facilities – in return for agreeing to sell their goods back to city-designated recycling companies.

But recyclers have often bristled at the inefficiencies and rigidities of the city’s systems. They’ve been doing it longer, they argue, and they simply know how to do it better. And efforts to outdo the recyclers – for instance, by getting city trucks to collect recycled goods early in the morning, before informal collectors have a chance make away with them – have gone about equally well.

“They just get there earlier and beat the trucks,” says Musa Chamane, an activist with the environmental justice organization groundWork, where he organizes waste pickers. “When you exclude recyclers, they just re-include themselves.”

For now, indeed, informal collectors remain the core of recycling here. The city collects recycling curbside in only about 30 percent of its neighborhoods. Countrywide, meanwhile, informal recyclers are still responsible for about 80 to 90 percent of paper and packaging diverted from South African landfills, according to a study by Dr. Godfrey and her colleagues at the CSIR. Collectively, they save the country’s cities as much as $50 million, according to that research, with each individual recycler diverting about 20 tons of material from landfills every year.

“The main thing we are asking is to be recognized as the backbone of this economy,” says Mahlangu, who sits on the organizing committee for a group of reclaimers at the Marie Louise landfill west of Johannesburg. Since the city began introducing curbside recycling, he says, his and his colleagues' incomes have dropped off steeply from their peak of $1000 a month, now coming in somewhere closer to $300. He often hears that the city supports informal recyclers, he says, but has yet to see much practical evidence of that.

“We are providing a huge service to the city, and to the environment,” he says, his eyes following the queue of trucks lumbering toward the top of the dump. “In return we just ask that they recognize us as workers and as human beings.”

Taking names, easing interactions

And finally, we look at the transforming effect of knowing someone's name. We all know we don't want to be treated like a number. A recent study examines why. When we begin to see others as real people, behavior changes for the better.


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In an age marked by xenophobia and polarization, studying onymity – yes, that’s the opposite of anonymity – may offer insight into practical ways of helping strangers get along. That was a key finding from a study published recently in the journal Science. In it, Chinese students were teamed in a two-player social experiment in which the most “rational” choice was betrayal. What researchers found: Participants who learned each other’s names opted for cooperation over treachery. Even small steps toward getting to know one another can bring benefits for society, whether it's in a town hall meeting or on a jammed roadway. Internet behavior has shown that anonymity can make people less inhibited and less civil, so this study has been particularly intriguing for researchers and developers who study online interactions. Said a media-studies scholar who was not part of the study: “People act differently when their identity is intact.”

Taking names, easing interactions

Courtesy of Potsdam Institute/Hokkaido University/Yunnan University
Students participate in an updated version of the classic Prisoner's Dilemma social experiment at Yunnan University of Finance and Economics in China.

Dale Carnegie famously called one's own name the “sweetest, most important sound in any language.” And according to new research, knowing each other's names might also help bring out the best in us. 

A study published earlier this month in the journal Science Advances examines the effects of onymity – that is, the opposite of anonymity – on Chinese students in a classic two-player social experiment in which the most rational choice is betrayal. What researchers found, however, seems to defy rationality: Participants who learned each other’s names opted for cooperation over treachery.

In an age marked by xenophobia and political polarization, studying onymity may offer insight into practical ways of helping strangers get along. This particular study suggests that even small steps toward getting to know one another can bring big benefits for society as a whole, whether it's in a town hall meeting, on a jammed roadway, or in an online discussion forum.

“Since the spirit of cooperation that social cohesion is based upon is crumbling away in some places, be it on Facebook or in societies that are about to be torn apart about issues such as immigration, we sought insight into what enhances cooperation,” said co-author Jürgen Kurths from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Germany, who contributed statistical analyses, in a statement.

Humans have been engaging with the concept of anonymity since the dawn of civilization, with the oldest known masks dating back 9,000 years. The idea of a link between anonymity and immorality goes back at least to the 4th century BC, when Plato discussed the potentially corrupting effects of a magical ring of Gyges that would render its wearer invisible.

More recently, psychologists have examined the role that anonymity plays in promoting impulsivity and a disregard for social norms and reducing one's ability to accurately weigh risks. In 2004, John Suler coined the term "online disinhibition effect" to describe how anonymity, when combined with the absence of a recognized authority and face-to-face real-time interaction, results in people behaving in ways that they would not in the real world.

"Our focus was on onymity as the opposite of anonymity," says Marko Jusup, an assistant professor of mathematics at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan. Rather than explore how anonymity erodes civil discourse, Professor Jusup and his colleagues sought to understand how onymity might promote cooperation by adapting a classic social experiment known as the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Developed in the 1950s by researchers at the RAND Corp., the classical formulation of the Prisoner's Dilemma supposes that two criminals are under arrest and held separately. Each prisoner can choose either to testify against the other or to remain silent. If both prisoners testify, each serves two years in prison. If the one testifies and the other remains silent, the silent one gets three years and the stool pigeon walks free. If both keep mum, they each serve just one year on a lesser charge.

Because snitching on your partner results in a sentence of either zero years or two years, and keeping quiet results in a sentence of one year or three years, from a purely self-interested standpoint, you should always betray your partner, even though you would both be better off by cooperating.

“A purely rational perspective then dictates that onymity should have been disregarded, and people should have kept playing the game as if they were anonymous,” says Jusup. “Rationality, however, is just a part of human psyche, which is nicely emphasized by the results of our experiment.”

Jusup and his colleagues found that, when the participants did not know each other’s names, they cooperated about 25 percent of the time. When they did know each other’s names, they cooperated between 50 percent and 75 percent of the time. In this particular game, onymity offers no additional benefit, suggesting that this willingness to cooperate may be driven by deeper psychological mechanisms that can potentially be leveraged, for good or ill, in the real world.

The researchers added a few twists to the classic game, including a 75 percent chance of there being an additional round and the option for one player to "punish" another player by incurring a small cost to make that player pay an even greater one.

But "punishment did nothing to promote cooperation," says Jusup. Rather, it prompted players to betray their partners again or to retaliate with a counter-punishment. Overall, the participants in the experiment acted on short-term thinking, mostly just responding to the previous move.

"This would suggest that one bad (or good) move may outweigh a series of good (or bad) prior moves," says Jusup. "We must acknowledge that human decision-making is a combination of rational thinking and quirky cognitive biases," he says.

But Justin Grana, a postdoctoral fellow at New Mexico's Santa Fe Institute who specializes in game theory and who was not part of this study, is hesitant to describe the player's cooperation under onymity as a cognitive bias, instead seeing the players as incorporating their anticipated feelings into their cost-benefit calculations. 

"These people are actually incurring a cost," says Dr. Grana. "They don't like it when other people see them as selfish. They care about their self image." Grana also speculates that familiarity may increase sympathy between the players, and that acting against feelings of sympathy may make them feel bad.

The idea that something as simple as a name encourages people to be more sympathetic is particularly intriguing for researchers and developers who study interactions in online communities.

"People act differently when their identity is intact. If you know my name, if you know my face then I'm apt to be a more humane person," says Arthur Santana an assistant professor at San Diego State University's School of Journalism and Media Studies who was not part of this study. In 2014 Professor Santana published a study of newspaper comment boards that found that more than half of anonymous comments included language that was vulgar, racist, profane, or hateful, compared with less than a third of non-anonymous comments. "People's inhibitions drop when they are anonymous," he says.

Grana interprets the online disinhibition effect in traditional economic terms, noting that anonymity greatly reduces the cost of leaving a comment: "If costs go down to do something, more people will do it, especially the people who possibly value it less or maybe put less time into it," he says.

That said, eradicating anonymity online entirely might not be desirable. "Before we all jump on this bandwagon that we say anonymity is terrible, it's important to recognize the counterargument, that there might be some value in anonymity in the sense that you get the raw, unfiltered comment," Santana says.

"Of course, there's no value in hate speech online," he adds, "but I think we're making a mistake in completely removing a person's ability to speak openly and freely."

For his part, Jusup was wary of extrapolating these findings to address real-world problems, pointing out how marketers have used behavioral economics exploit and manipulate our cognitive biases. "How far we should go in using these biases to achieve certain goals – even if these goals are geared towards improving the society – is first and foremost a matter of an ethical debate," he says.

[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the location of the Santa Fe Institute.]

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The Monitor's View

In Egypt, working across faiths

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The Islamic State, which attacked two Christian churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday, seems intent on sparking a religious conflict between that country’s majority Muslims and minority Christians. Yet if anything, the attacks have drawn the faiths closer. The best attempt to safeguard Muslim-Christian coexistence comes from the top two religious leaders, Grand Imam Muhammad al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. Since 2011, the two have pushed to reform religious teachings about one another’s faiths and seek to end the root causes of religious violence. Other countries that seek a defense against ISIS should take note of that approach to countering the militants’ message.

In Egypt, working across faiths

Minarets of a mosque and the cross above a church are seen near Cairo, Egypt, April 11.

As it loses ground elsewhere in the Middle East, the Islamic State (ISIS) has stepped up terrorist attacks in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country but also home to the region’s largest Christian community. The latest attack was the killing of 45 people at two Christian churches on Palm Sunday. ISIS seems intent on sparking a religious conflict between Egypt’s majority Muslims and minority Christians. Yet if anything, the attacks have drawn the faiths closer. Other countries that seek a good defense against ISIS should take note of how Egyptians are countering the militants’ message.

A good example was an interview on Cairo’s Dream TV with the nephew of a Muslim policewoman assigned to protect Coptic Christian churches but who was killed in the April 9 attacks. “I say to our Coptic Christian brothers and sisters. Do not be sad. Muslims and Christians are one. It’s not about Muslim attacking Christians,” said the nephew, Islam Fathi. His words echoed those of many leaders in Egyptian society.

Egypt has struggled for decades to calm sectarian tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims. ISIS is well aware of the occasional violent flare-ups in local communities. And the government could be doing far more, such as giving Copts greater rights and privileges while also offering better protection of churches.

Yet the best attempt to safeguard Muslim-Christian coexistence comes from the top two religious leaders, Grand Imam Muhammad al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II. In 2011, the two launched an effort, known as “The House of the Egyptian Family,” to reform religious teachings about the others and seek to end the root causes of religious violence.

The program sends out teams of Islamic imams and Coptic priests to meet with young people and to go into villages with high sectarian tensions. The teams hold sessions on reconciliation that focus on each faith’s shared message of peace for a diverse society like Egypt’s.

The rest of the Middle East needs similar models of such cross-faith harmony. They would be a soft but powerful weapon against the hate and violence of both ISIS and Al Qaeda.

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.

Love still works

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The noise is getting louder. Opinions and extreme views are becoming too much of the core of society’s conversation. And they are increasing a sense of division among us. The problems are complex, but fresh answers are available from a new/old idea that can bring healing if we take it seriously. Christ Jesus said we should focus on doing two things – loving God with all our heart, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. When our sense of God becomes Love itself and our sense of our neighbor becomes a real person instead of someone’s view we may not like, there’s opportunity for real healing. Love still works.

Love still works


It’s an indisputable fact that we live in a world of sharply divided opinion. Many sincere thinkers are devoting time and energy to finding answers.

A recent issue that has been discussed is that in a frantically busy world where we’ve lost touch with our neighbors both local and global, we conclude the only valid position is the one we presently hold. So why doesn’t everyone get it?

In seeking answers to division, a first resort could be to look at how Jesus handled problems given his unparalleled success in solving them. He healed all manner of conditions, both mental and physical, and in many of these cases the person seeking healing was of a race or religion despised or scorned by his own. Jesus gave no weight to these things. He simply stated and proved what he knew of the power of God to heal. In no case did he say a person or nation should give up their glorious diversity in terms of cuisine; of language; of beauty, music, or art; or their struggle for more humane laws.

In a word, he said two requirements sum up our role in healing a hurting world: First, we are to love God, heart and soul and mind. Second, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Mark 12:29-31). And he proved that obedience to these two edicts would have immeasurable effect in terms of healing for all who would follow them.

The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, discovered spiritual and demonstrable laws behind the understanding of what God is and the practice of pure love that comes from this understanding.

Expounding on the far-reaching effect of her favorite Bible text, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), she wrote: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, – whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 340).

Starting from the premise that there is one God, one intelligent creator, or Mind, can help anyone see that we all are able to express the wisdom of the all-knowing Mind. I take great comfort in being able to pray daily: “Thank you Father, you are my real Mind and the Mind of every person on earth and every person I meet, or read about, or hear about this day. You are easily able to provide each of us with the thoughts we need to love You as Mind and Love and to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Fervently praying to obey the two all-embracing commandments that Jesus preached and lived by opens thought to a happy recognition of the equal worth of each of God’s children – my local and global neighbors – and leads to a very natural acceptance of unity in diversity.

( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

That’s a wrap for today. Thank you for taking the time to think more deeply about the day’s news. If you’ve been following along, then you know that we’ve been developing this daily digital offering to showcase our approach to news: Reaching for nuance, adding perspective, and filtering out noise. 

We’ll be back several more times before our official launch May 8. We hope to see you regularly beginning then!

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