2017
December
26
Tuesday

Sometimes we just need a nudge to do something that’s really good. 

Early this month, an anonymous donor at Severna Park United Methodist Church in Maryland offered $100 bills to 100 congregants. Their charge was to look around them and see where they could brighten a dark hour. And as The Washington Post reported, her hunch was that the resulting gestures would enrich both recipient and giver at Christmastime.

It was really more than a hunch. Over the summer, weighed down by the death of Heather Heyer, who was killed during the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., the donor spontaneously gave a coffee shop cashier a gift card, telling her to treat customers until it ran out. As she left, her spirits lifted.

So she shared that joy with fellow congregants, who spent the $100, and often more, on everything from having pizza with homeless individuals on the steps of a Baltimore church to paying off strangers’ layaway accounts. They told their pastor they took the charge particularly seriously because of its provenance. “That to me is good theology,” he said. “It’s a good way to think about your life, that you’ve been entrusted with great gifts. And how do you turn around and use them?”

My guess is more than a few will continue to ask themselves that question as the new year begins.

Now here are our five stories, showing the spirit of integrity, exploration, and conservation at work. 

1. On tax cuts and growth, a mixed track record

Sparring continues about how President Trump's tax cut package will affect economic growth. We thought it would be good to turn to history to see what it tells us.

Amelia

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Forecasters are predicting a real – but not very large – boost to economic growth over the next decade from President Trump’s tax cut plan. But that’s not the same thing as saying the tax measure will make the economy healthier in the long run. Yes, some businesses are already announcing wage hikes or new investment plans that they link to their expected tax windfall. “There's good policy in there,” says conservative tax expert Gordon Gray. “And the proof will be when and if companies actually bring [profits] home and put it to work.” But the track record is actually murky. Whether researchers look at long historical periods or at specific instances like the Reagan tax cuts, many don’t find a link between lower taxes and higher long-run growth. “It's a very big gamble,” says Joel Slemrod at the University of Michigan. “The political benefit from this hinges on an economic effect that is not at all assured.”

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On tax cuts and growth, a mixed track record

Within hours of Congress’s passage of a historic tax package last week, at least five corporations announced they were handing out worker bonuses, employee-related investments, or raises in their starting pay.

Two of them – AT&T and Comcast – also pledged big new investments in US facilities and infrastructure.

These moves are exactly the kind of economic kickstart that Republicans say will propel the economy into higher gear, creating new jobs and putting more money in the pockets of ordinary Americans through higher wages and tax cuts.

"All of this, everything in here, is really tremendous things for business, for people, for the middle class, for workers," said President Trump last week as he signed the measure into law.

Will real and lasting economic gains follow the announcements and sound bites? That’s an important question not just for Republican political prospects, but more broadly for the conservative idea that tax cuts help build a stronger economy.

Some growth spurt is likely, in part because corporate tax cuts could lure some multinationals’ money from overseas to be invested in the US. Yet many forecasters are skeptical a bump-up in gross domestic product will be very large. Add in predictions of larger federal deficits, and a risk for Mr. Trump is that his plan will end up solidifying already large public doubts about putting tax cuts at the heart of fiscal policy without paying for them.

At some point, a nation’s debt payment gets so large there’s no money left for private investment, which chokes off growth altogether. When Reagan enacted his 1981 tax cut, the federal debt represented 25 percent of GDP. Today, it is around 76 percent.

“One of the criticisms of building debt is that it really does leave you with less room to maneuver,” says Alan Viard, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

An estimated $1 trillion or more in extra debt under the Trump plan will mean less wiggle room on federal spending in an era of rising entitlement costs. It also means less leeway to address emergencies such as a recession.

‘A very big gamble’

Fans of the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act hope it will unleash a virtuous cycle of investment and optimism, expanding the economy in a self-sustaining way. A multiyear boom occurred after President Ronald Reagan pushed through a huge tax cut in 1981. Economies are too complex and dynamic to know for sure whether a comparable boom will happen again.

“There's good policy in there,” says Gordon Gray, fiscal policy director of the American Action Forum, a center-right think tank in Washington. “And the proof will be when and if companies actually bring [profits] home and put it to work.”

Others are worried.

“It's a very big gamble,” says Joel Slemrod, director of the Office of Tax Policy Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “The political benefit from this hinges on an economic effect that is not at all assured.”

Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation predicts the US economy will be about 0.7 percent larger in 2027 with the tax cuts than without them. That’s pretty similar to other mainstream forecasts, while some optimistic outlooks call for roughly double that extra economic growth. Gains could be front-loaded in the early part of the 10-year period, with GDP rising perhaps an extra 0.3 percent next year.

What about that boom after 1981? Wasn’t that growth triggered by the tax cut? Actually, the causes are open to wide interpretation. Some researchers conclude it was the big decline in interest rates that fueled the growth. Other economists say the economy was bound to recover on its own after a sharp recession.

Trump’s tax cuts also aren’t enormous by historical standards. Reagan’s 1981 tax measure actually stands as the biggest since the World War II era – more than three times as big as Trump’s, when the estimated drop in revenue is measured as a percentage of the economy.

One advantage of Mr. Reagan’s measure was timing. Often, tax cuts for individuals are prompted by recessions and geared to boosting demand and short-term growth. Reagan’s tax cut took hold just as the deep 1981-82 recession was getting under way. Trump’s tax cut for individuals is smaller and looks ill-timed since the economy is growing solidly and is at or near full employment.

A test of corporate behavior

Crucial to the Trump plan’s success is corporate behavior. How much will their cash windfall flow into wage hikes and job-creating investments? Democrats point to a flurry of announced share buybacks as a sign companies will plow more of it into enriching shareholders, with few benefits to the wider economy.

Still, although corporate tax cuts are hugely unpopular with voters, there is fairly broad agreement among economists that they can give some boost investment and economic growth.

“The business side of this reform is the beating heart of the economic growth promise of this bill,” says Mr. Gray of the American Action Forum.

The reasons are twofold. First, the 35 percent US corporate tax rate is higher than those of any other developed nations. Even though many corporations pay far less than that, the loophole-ridden system was ripe for reform that could make it fairer and simpler.

Second, amid lackluster economic growth since the Great Recession, GOP policymakers argue a lower corporate rate will induce more companies to locate in the United States.

The idea hews to timeless economic logic: Tax something less and you’ll get more of it.

Long-term growth trends

But America’s economic record of the past seven decades doesn’t exactly leave one brimming with confidence that tax cuts are the key to faster growth. Correlation between tax rates and long-term growth is hard to prove.

From 1950 to 1970, for example, the highest-earning households paid an average top marginal income tax rate of 85 percent. And yet the economy grew at nearly 3.9 percent. From 1971 to 1986, when the average tax rate fell to 52 percent, the economy grew more slowly: just 2.9 percent. Growth in more recent years sometimes suggests the same pattern: lower taxes, lower growth.

That doesn’t mean that tax hikes stimulate growth, point out Jane Gravelle and Donald Marples, economists at the Congressional Research Service (CRS), in a 2014 study. But it does suggest that tax rates alone don’t determine economic growth, they write.

“If the economy tanks within the next three years, it makes it harder to claim this tax bill was a miracle,” says Professor Slemrod in Ann Arbor. But “it's not going to end the argument.”

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2. What does it mean to be a 'real man'?

The "man box" has long defined the social constraints placed on American men, with a strong bias toward macho behavior. But more men say they are breaking through its limitations to give voice to a more positive expression of masculinity.

Amelia

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In the wake of the #MeToo movement, thinkers are grappling with the notion of what some scholars have dubbed “toxic masculinity.” For many conservatives, such efforts might actually undermine an essential part of being a man. “There’s this weird dichotomy that’s been drawn between ‘toxic masculinity’ and no masculinity,” says Ben Shapiro, a conservative thinker. The recent widespread revelations of sexual harassment and assault, he says, only serve to show how essential it is for men to cultivate a positive traditional masculinity – in a way that used to be called being a “gentleman.” At a recent discussion at West Point,  male cadets listed the virtues of honor, integrity, country, duty, and sacrifice when asked what it meant to be a “good man,” says Michael Kimmel, founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities. “They also said, ‘to be a provider,’ ‘to be a protector,’ and ‘to stand up for the little guy,’ ” he says.  “But then I asked them, are these the values that come up when someone says to you … ‘Be a real man!’?” The answer was no. “Be a ‘real man’ means to be tough, to be strong, to be powerful, to win at all costs.” Mr. Kimmel says this is not a “toxic” versus “healthy” thing, but about a lived ambivalence between the two concepts – being a “good man” and being a “real man.”

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What does it mean to be a 'real man'?

Dave Fishman has spent a lot of time pondering what it means to be a man during his four years in college.

He’s a 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound senior at Richmond College, the all-male coordinate college at the University of Richmond in Virginia. And as a student leader who heads the college’s interfraternity council, he admits that he can sometimes cut an imposing figure with his brush-cut haircut, “huge eyebrows,” and generally conservative “military style.”

But like many Millennial men, Mr. Fishman, who is also a former congressional intern, has been consciously trying to break free of what he and others sometimes call the “man box,” an elusive but deeply-ingrained set of social expectations that have generally defined American manhood for generations.

As a former athlete who spends a lot of time with fraternity members, he’s no stranger to what he calls “macho” culture and its expectations: A man should be tough and aggressive, master his own emotions, and should never, ever show any signs of weakness.

And while such traits aren’t necessarily bad, Fishman says, there is indeed a sense in which they put men in a box, limiting their full humanity. There’s a sense, too, that such limitations have played a role in the country’s widespread problem with sexual harassment, even at the highest rungs of American power.

“As an athlete, and with my involvement with Greek life – it’s unfortunate, you hear stuff that makes you cringe,” says Fishman. “I have a sister, I have a mother, I have a girlfriend who I love, and I really care about these issues that mostly women have to face in our society: sexual assault and violence, patriarchy, harassment in the workplace.”

Indeed, the emergence of the #MeToo movement has helped expose the extent of how powerful men in America’s most powerful institutions have harassed and assaulted women as a matter of routine. The examples have run from entertainment and journalism to the highest rungs of government – from Matt Lauer to members of Congress. In a videotape that became public during his election campaign, Donald Trump describes himself grabbing women in ways that can constitute sexual assault.

Some scholars have labeled the roots of such behavior as a “toxic masculinity,” a masculine code geared toward dominance, control, and a contempt for weakness. It can see tenderness as unmanly and violence as means to prove what it means to be “a real man.”

“And if there are violations of that code, or if you try to get out of ‘the man box,’ you’re policed back in,” says Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College and one of Fishman’s mentors. “ ‘Stop acting like a girl,’ ‘Stop acting gay’ – all of those kinds of expressions that both men and women use to police guys.”

But there are signs, scholars say, that younger Americans are starting to break out of such constraints. “Millennials, Gen Y men – they’re more aligned with women,” says Michael Kimmel, founder of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at Stony Brook University in New York. “And their views on acceptable behavior, they align in the same percentages as women when they all say, this is wrong.”

Millennial men are more likely to behave in more respectful ways than their older counterparts, a YouGov poll, commissioned by The Economist, found this past November. And though it's hardly the case that all Millennial men are models of perfect behavior toward women, the poll also found little divergence among men and women in their early 20s on acceptable behaviors in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of good going on,” says Fishman, who has helped institute a mental health initiative at his school, training men on campus to be “first responders” to the mostly unacknowledged issues that many college men shoulder in silence. “It’s gotten better, and it’s part of huge cultural shift, I think, us trying to get out of the ‘man box.’ ”

From ‘toxic masculinity’ to ‘no masculinity’

For many conservatives, however, such efforts might actually undermine a very real and very essential part of being a man.

“There’s this weird dichotomy that’s been drawn between ‘toxic masculinity’ and no masculinity,” says Ben Shapiro, the conservative thinker and writer who has been called the voice of conservative Millennials. And in many ways, he says, the recent widespread revelations of sexual harassment only serve to show how essential it is for men to cultivate a positive and robust traditional masculinity – in a way that used to be called being a “gentleman.”

Like many conservatives, Mr. Shapiro sees a deeper and in many ways more primitive human nature at work. “There’s an animal part of the male brain that is built to seek sex wherever possible – and be aggressive about it, if you have to be,” he says. “And that’s a terrible thing, morally speaking. So that’s why you build entire civilizations, to prevent men from following those instincts.”

Earlier this year, Shapiro poked a little fun at a men’s organization that promised to teach men “to be a man” for the low cost of $25,000. Recalling his own experience being bullied, he noted how the organization tests men’s mettle through a “warrior week,” which included regimen of hikes carrying logs, endurance challenges that include being punched in the face, and reciting poems like “Invictus.”

But it had a certain appeal, he says, because men have something deep within them, an inner aggressive instinct that often drives men to test their limits. Yes, it’s dangerous, and if it’s not responsibly disciplined, unchecked masculinity can lead to destruction and chaos.

“What society has decided to do is try and basically say, the men that we want are not going to be responsibly masculine – meaning aggressive in pursuit of the right purposes or in defense of the right people,” says Shapiro. “No, that’s too parochial and patriarchal.”

True, society should not allow men to be “toxic” in the ways exhibited by so many men, he says. But when that becomes efforts to “de-testosteronize” men, it will ultimately backfire. “Women don’t like those people, and a sexless notion of men is not something that people either find attractive politically or useful politically.”

Conservative cultural and political writer Donna Carol Voss agrees. “Harvey Weinstein and his ilk have all but killed masculinity,” she says. “The idea that men find women attractive, act on that attraction, are frequently stupid in their behavior, and occasionally commit unethical and criminal acts is music to the ears of the already masculinity-hating Western world.”

“It’s tragic to lose sight of the fact that men are designed to protect women, and both men and women are designed to enjoy that protection when it’s proffered in a healthy way,” Ms. Voss says.

Professor Kimmel, who has been called “the world’s most prominent male feminist,” does not think the idea of a “toxic masculinity” is helpful as he tries to enlist the support of men to combat the problems of sexual harassment.

“I use the idea of, what does it mean to be a good man?” he says. “Most men already have ideals and values about what that means, and I try to help men to live up to those ideals.”

A ‘real man’ or a good one?

He’s been a sought-out consultant for companies such as Amazon and LinkedIn, and when he gives sexual assault awareness lecture, he often asks those in his audiences that question: What does it mean to be a good man?

At a recent discussion at West Point, he says, male cadets listed the virtues of honor, integrity, country, duty, and sacrifice. “They also said, ‘to be a provider,’ ‘to be a protector,’ and ‘to stand up for the little guy,” says Professor Kimmel. Cadets told him that these values were basic, infused throughout Western culture, from Homer, Shakespeare, and the entire Judeo-Christian heritage.

“But then I asked them, are these the values that comes up when someone says to you, ‘Man up!’ or ‘Be a real man!’?” Kimmel continues. “And they said, ‘Oh, no, that’s something completely different. ‘Be a real man’ means to be tough, to be strong, to be powerful, to win at all costs, to suck it up, to play through pain, to get rich, to get laid.’ Where did you learn that? ‘My father, my coach, my older brother, my friends.’ ”

“Here’s what I know,” says Kimmel. “Everyone is carrying around two ideals of masculinity in his head. This is not a ‘toxic’ versus ‘healthy’ thing,” he says, but about a lived ambivalence between what it means to be ‘a good man’ and what it means to be ‘a real man.’ ”

Traits such as aggression, mental toughness, and quiet strength can be traits of leadership, Fishman says, but they don’t need to be exclusively male traits.

The pillars of his own masculinity are “being empathetic and being proximate,” he says, and even being vulnerable. “For me, that became a part of my masculine identity, in order to be a leader for other people,” says Fishman.

“But not because I’m a man, but because that’s something that I’m able to do,” he continues, referring to the opportunity for men generally. “And I hope all those traits are part of my sister’s feminine identity, too. That’s what we were raised on, and that’s what will become a huge part of our identities as leaders.”

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3. As space race enters next lap, many new runners

If you were headed to space, what would you take with you? As SpaceX aims for a January launch of Falcon Heavy, a reusable rocket, its payload will include founder Elon Musk's Tesla roadster. And in further proof that this is not your previous generation's space program, the rocket will head skyward to the tune of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."

Amelia

On Friday evening, a mysterious burst of light tore through the southern California sky. The spectacle was SpaceX's final performance of 2017, an encore launch of a recycled rocket. Drivers pulled over as onlookers gaped and shared dumbfounding footage on social media feeds. Yet this launch was but a comma really in an age of inspiring feats of space exploration. This past year, the banter of billionaires has dared us to dream of orbital tours at the edge of space, futuristic communities on Mars, and even an entirely space-based nation. Around the globe, world leaders are urging citizens and scientists to think outside Earth's orbit. In October, the United Arab Emirates announced plans to build a simulated Martian city in the Arabian Desert. This summer, the tiny nation of Luxembourg took steps to establish a legal framework around mining asteroids. And in the United States, President Trump this month directed NASA to resume crewed flights to the moon as a step toward human spaceflight to Mars and beyond. The space race, it seems, is back on. But this time around, there's more than one main event. – Noelle Swan

Jacob Turcotte and Noelle Swan/Staff
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4. Russia's vanishing village life

Most Russians are only a generation or two removed from a connection to the countryside. But villages, those essential symbols of Russia's pastoral roots, are being abandoned amid economic pressures, and many wonder how that will affect the outlooks of future generations.

Amelia
Fred Weir
Pyotr and Natasha Volkova stand by their home in this former, once bustling, Soviet state farm in Komsomolskoye, Russia. Of Russia's 115,000 Soviet-era rural communities, 13,000 have been completely abandoned and 35,000 more have shriveled to fewer than 10 inhabitants, according to the latest census.

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The novels of Gogol and Tolstoy depict a vast universe of villages scattered across Russia, snowbound in winter and made almost inaccessible by seas of mud in spring and fall, but bound together by a common language, religion, and sense of Russianness. During the Soviet era, those villages became the basis for state farms, where hundreds of workers lived and labored. But today, of Russia's 115,000 Soviet-era rural communities, 13,000 have been completely abandoned and 35,000 more have shriveled to fewer than 10 inhabitants. Increasingly scholars, some politicians, and the aging inhabitants of vanishing villages warn that citified Russians are being cut adrift from their nation's roots. “Once there was everything here: schools, a clinic, a whole working community. Children played in the streets out there, workers brought in the harvest, life was good. Now all the villages around are gone,” says Alexander Sergeyev, an older resident of the former Soviet state farm Komsolmolskoye. “No one will ever come back here, because there is nothing to do.”

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Russia's vanishing village life

Strewn with abandoned buildings, ruined grain silos, and muddy streets lined with empty, tumbledown Russian-style cottages, this community is mostly a ghost town. The current population numbers just 10 people. Pyotr Volkov and his wife Natasha are already pensioners, yet they are the youngest inhabitants here.

Perhaps due to a bureaucratic error, Komsomolskoye still has a functioning post office. It's only open three days a week, but that's enough to ensure that pensions are paid, newspapers delivered, and the mail comes. A single working pay phone, standing amid the overgrowth outside the post office, is for some the only direct link to the outside world.

But Mr. Volkov remembers other days, when this was an industrial farm – an important building block of the Soviet system – specializing in the production of beetroot seeds.

Barely two decades ago, it was home to at least 200 workers and their families, with its own administration and Communist Party organization. Volkov was a skilled machinist, with his own house and garden plot, and life was OK by Soviet standards.

But then the USSR collapsed, the restrictions binding workers to their appointed places were lifted, and the youth started to flee to the cities, soon followed by even middle-aged people. And Komsomolskoye is far from alone: former Soviet farm communities across the country are lost and dying today. Increasingly scholars, some politicians, and the aging inhabitants of doomed villages warn that citified Russians are being cut adrift from their nation's roots.

“The rate of disappearance of our rural heritage is so high, that the present generation will be the last to know it firsthand,” says Alexander Merzlov, an expert with the Timiryazev State University in Moscow, Russia's oldest agrarian school. “We need urgent programs to improve the life of the remaining rural population, and cultivate sustainable sectors of the rural economy. Right now, many local populations feel completely left behind.”

'An objective process'

According to the latest census of Russia's 115,000 Soviet-era rural communities, 13,000 have been completely abandoned and 35,000 more have shriveled to fewer than ten inhabitants. A way of life is dying, and with it the tight-knit community values, the intense relationship with nature, and a national identity shaped by centuries of existence within an immense archipelago of tiny, isolated communities.

Fred Weir
The post office in this former, once bustling, Soviet state farm is only open three days a week, in Komsomolskoye, Russia.

This is not a dire story about the fate of Russian agriculture, which has recovered from its post-Soviet collapse and happens to be booming today. The rich, black-earth fields once run by the Komsolmolskoye state farm are owned and tilled by a few private farmers and big agribusinesses, who produce much more with a fraction of the workers once employed by the Soviet enterprise. But the demographic impact is major.

“It's an objective process, and it can't be reversed,” says German Poltayev, a journalist with the independent online newspaper Vremya Voronezh. “On the whole Russia's population is aging, and you see this clearly in the remaining villages. Our whole population is declining, but especially in the countryside. People are nostalgic for Soviet times, but those huge collective farms were wasteful. Today two people can do what 100 did then, and farming has been taken over by efficient business interests, who invest money and get results.

“I know it's jarring to see these ruined, forlorn places, and the older people who are still walking around in them. But what can be done about it?”

Village culture

Most pre-revolutionary Russians were subordinate to the absolute power of czars and serf-owning nobility, but they also ran most of their own local practical affairs through traditional self-governing communes, known as obschina. The novels of Gogol and Tolstoy depict a vast universe of scattered communities, snowbound in winter and made almost inaccessible by seas of mud in spring and fall, bound together by a common language, religion, and sense of Russianness.

In fact, the language bequeaths four different words corresponding to the English “village.” A posyolok is a semi-urban place where city people often have their summer dachas; a selo is a large rural settlement distinguished by having its own church; a derevnya is a collection of peasant dwellings, usually the heart of an obschina; and a khutor – a very rare thing even in czarist Russia – was a private farming settlement.

The Soviets collectivized agriculture, amalgamated villages into industrialized state and collective farms, destroyed the churches, and made it legally difficult for people to leave. Yet traditions survived. The pre-revolutionary village that stood on the site of the Komsomolskoye state farm was called Poddubny, meaning Under-the-Oaks. And indeed, there is still a vast oak forest here, where older city folk still come in summer to gather berries, mushrooms, and forest herbs.

Most Soviet-era Russians were only one or two generations removed from the countryside, and many Russians still retain their close links with nature and growing things through the ubiquitous dacha culture. Though it is declining in favor of package-tour seaside vacations, most modern Russians still have a country place where they can take refuge in the heat of summer.

In hard times like the economically catastrophic 1990s, millions of Russians returned to the land just to grow food to keep their families alive.

“A lot of people who already had one foot in the city came back here for awhile, and it was awfully lucky for them that they still knew how to plant and grow things like potatoes,” says Volkov. “But once the economy stabilized, they were gone. I wonder, if disaster strikes again, whether the next generation will even know how to feed themselves.”

A pleasant, disappearing life

Komsolmolskoye's oldest inhabitants, Alexander and Anna Sergeyev, fear that once they have gone the forest will move in and take over.

“Once there was everything here. Schools, a clinic, a whole working community. Children played in the streets out there, workers brought in the harvest, life was good,” says Mr. Sergeyev. “Now all the villages around are gone. No one even wants to obtain a dacha here, perhaps because it's too far away from the cities and the roads are so bad. No one will ever come back here, because there is nothing to do.”

To keep himself busy, Volkov has created a little museum of traditional agricultural life, including tools, musical instruments, cooking utensils, harnesses, an old samovar [boiler], and an item he claims was essential to maintaining one's sanity: a powerful short-wave radio. Otherwise he and Mrs. Volkova grow most of what they consume, including potatoes, vegetables, and herbs. He says visitors these days are few and far between.

“The young people went because there is no perspective here, no jobs, and no social life,” he says. “They established themselves in the city, and often brought their parents to join them. Sometimes they come back to visit, to see the old place. They always remark on how quiet and peaceful it is, so close to nature, such a pleasant life. But they never stay long.”

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5. What's behind a less thirsty America

Getting Americans to cut down on water usage – and to recognize water's scarcity – hasn't been easy. But the message is getting through, and changing habits at home and in communities are making a difference in conserving an ever more precious resource.

Amelia
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
A jogger makes his way past sprinklers in Washington in October 2017. A recent US Geological Survey report found that daily water use of Americans dropped six gallons per capita between 2010 and 2015.

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Americans are becoming better about conserving water. The US Geological Survey’s National Water Use Science Project has estimated water use in the United States every five years since 1950. In its most recent estimate published this fall, the USGS found that American daily water use per capita went from 88 gallons in 2010 to 82 gallons in 2015. Together, California and Texas (because of drought-related restrictions) accounted for 78 percent of the nationwide water use decline. Conservation of fresh water is important because it is a limited resource: Less than 1 percent of all the water on Earth can be used by humans. Amid growing populations and changing climates, fresh water is becoming increasingly valuable, says Edward Osann, a senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director at the National Resources Defense Council. “One of the effects of climate change is we are seeing more extremes: more substantial droughts, followed by substantial floods,” says Mr. Osann. “If we can sustain ourselves while using less fresh water, we will be more resilient while going into these fluctuations in the hydrologic cycle of the future.” 

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What's behind a less thirsty America

The average American is using a lot less water on a daily basis. Six gallons less, to be exact.

The US Geological Survey’s National Water Use Science Project has estimated water use in the United States every five years since 1950. In its most recent estimate published this fall, the USGS found that American daily water use per capita went from 88 gallons in 2010 to 82 gallons per capita in 2015.

Conservation of fresh water is important because it is a limited resource: Less than 1 percent of all the water on Earth can by used by humans. With growing populations and changing climates, fresh water is becoming increasingly valuable, says Edward Osann, a senior policy analyst and water efficiency project director at the National Resources Defense Council.

“One of the effects of climate change is we are seeing more extremes: more substantial droughts, followed by substantial floods,” says Mr. Osann. “If we can sustain ourselves while using less fresh water, we will be more resilient while going into these fluctuations in the hydrologic cycle of the future.”

The US population grew by 4 percent between 2010 and 2015, or 12 million people, but total withdrawals for public supply – water that comes out of kitchen faucets and lawn sprinklers – decreased by 7 percent. According to the USGS, total public-supply withdrawals were at their lowest levels since 1995.

Household water use in the United States has been tracking downward since President George H.W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 1992, says Osann. October 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the policy, which required the first national standards for water efficiency in new consumer products such as faucets, shower heads, and toilets. For example, the law required a change in toilet water use from 3.5 to 5 gallons per flush, to a mandated 1.6 gallons or less.

Max Whittaker/Reuters/File
A City of Sacramento water conservation representative walks back to his truck after delivering a citation to a Sacramento, Calif., home where sprinklers were running on a mandatory "no watering" day.

But while the country is using less water, many Americans are still receiving expensive water bills. Joseph Kane, senior research associate at the Brookings Institution’s Metro Policy Program who focuses on issues of water and infrastructure, explains that although water utility companies are not in the business of making money, they still need to ensure they have the revenue needed to repair infrastructure that is between 50 and 80 years old.

“We’re at a time of great maintenance and replacement needs,” says Mr. Kane. “The challenge beyond increased sustainability and efficiency is the issue of affordability.”

Along with improved product efficiency, droughts in the country’s two most populous states – California and Texas – were significant drivers of water use decline in 2015, says Cheryl Dieter, a hydrologist with the USGS and coauthor of the recent report. Together, California and Texas accounted for 78 percent of the nationwide water use decline, due to drought-related restrictions. “A lot of the states had a lot of small decreases,” says Ms. Dieter. “But when things happen in those big states, they affect the overall national trends.”

In January 2014, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency because of the state’s record drought, asking Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. In 2015, Governor Brown increased his request to 25 percent.

To reach this goal, the state and local governments have imposed stricter water use regulations. While the national toilet-flush standard is 1.6 gallons per flush, California lowered its standard in 2016 to no more than 1.28 gallons of water per flush.

“As much as people turn toward Washington, a lot of the solutions we are seeing are coming from the bottom up, from states and localities,” says Kane. “These times of drought and greater climate uncertainty are compelling many communities to start deciding what their longer-term strategies are.”

And while Texans reduced their daily use by 46 million gallons a day in 2015, California’s statistics were especially dramatic: The Golden State reduced its water use by roughly 680 million gallons – or 1,030 Olympic-sized swimming pools – per day.

“If they are able to do this right during a period of drought, it does tell a positive story and perhaps give precedent for other regions,” says Kane – regions that, he adds, may not be seeing such be reductions. “What are they doing that other places can learn from?”

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The Monitor's View

Two steps to purify international sports

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In less than a month the world of international sports has seen two giant scandals result in sharp penalties. In early December the International Olympic Committee ruled that Russian athletes would not be able to compete in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of evidence that Russia illegally doped its athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Then last week a New York court found two officials of FIFA, the international soccer governing body, guilty of racketeering, bribery, and wire fraud. They join nearly two dozen others connected to FIFA who have already pleaded guilty. About 3.6 billion people – half the world’s population – watched at least some part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Some 3.2 billion people watched at least some part of the last World Cup tourney in Brazil in 2014. Both groups suffer from a lack of transparency. Combine that with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake in determining who will host these mega-events – and in awarding contracts to media corporations to televise them, and the result is a breeding ground for corruption. But now two moves to expose these deep-seated problems are bearing fruit. They’re necessary steps toward full, radical reform.

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Two steps to purify international sports

In less than a month the world of international sports has seen two giant scandals result in sharp penalties. While such events are shocking, their exposure is providing a first necessary step in support of integrity and reform.

In early December the International Olympic Committee ruled that Russian athletes would not be able to compete in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of evidence that the country had allowed its athletes to use banned substances at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Some individual Russian athletes, if proved to be drug-free, will be able to compete in the coming Winter Games, but they will not be allowed to wear Russian uniforms or march under the Russian flag.

Then last week a New York City court found two officials of FIFA, the international body governing soccer, guilty of racketeering, bribery, and wire fraud. They join nearly two dozen others connected to FIFA who have already pleaded guilty. Others also have been indicted and are contesting extradition orders to avoid trials.

The New York federal court had jurisdiction because illegal financial transactions allegedly went through US-based banks and some alleged illegal activities took place in New York. In addition, prosecutors in three other cities (Bern, Switzerland; Paris; and Rio de Janeiro) are pursuing cases involving global sports, including the bidding process to host several recent World Cups and the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

About 3.6 billion people – half the world’s population – watched at least some part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

FIFA oversees events including the quadrennial World Cup tournament that will be played in 2018 at 12 Russian venues, with the championship match in Moscow July 15. Some 3.2 billion people watched at least some part of the last World Cup tourney in Brazil in 2014.

The defendants in New York – Juan Ángel Napout, former head of the football (soccer) association in Paraguay, and José Maria Marin, former president of the football confederation in Brazil – were accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes to steer their votes on key FIFA issues.

That stands as only a fraction of what prosecutors say has been at least $150 million in bribes paid out over decades. 

Questions surrounding the integrity of international soccer are unlikely to fade anytime soon. Other investigations are under way, including a look at the process by which the tiny but wealthy Gulf country of Qatar managed to win the competition to host the 2022 World Cup. 

Both the Olympics and FIFA suffer from a lack of transparency in their operations. When combined with hundreds of million of dollars at stake in determining who will host these mega-events – and in awarding contracts to media corporations around the world to televise them – the result is a breeding ground for corruption.

But now two moves to expose these deep-seated problems are bearing fruit. They’re necessary steps toward full, radical reform.

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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.

A new identity

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When someone has witnessed a crime and testifies in court, he or she may be placed in the witness protection program – provided with a new identity and moved elsewhere to start a new life. The individual thus becomes safer from any possible retribution for their testimony in court. But we don’t need to be in this program to gain an entirely new sense of our identity. As God’s creation, everyone is inherently good. Everyone has the ability to find this new, or true, spiritual sense of themselves and experience its redeeming influence. Reformation and progress are never out of reach.

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A new identity

When someone has witnessed a crime and testifies in court, he or she may be placed in the witness protection program, meaning that the individual is provided with a new identity and moved elsewhere to start a new life, having no more ties to the former life. The individual thus becomes safe from any possible retribution for their testimony in court.

That’s the analogy I used when an inmate asked me about Christian Science during a church service at a county jail where I was volunteering. Like the witness protection program, Christian Science brings to light an entirely new sense of identity. In this case, though, it’s actually our spiritual, eternal, God-given identity; and this helps us leave the old habits and ways of thinking behind. The Bible says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, New King James Version).

I went on to explain that even though the inmate needed to finish his jail sentence, he could find a whole new way of thinking and acting – one that reforms the heart and brings freedom from resentment. He could gain an entirely new view of himself as the child of God – as the perfect, spiritual idea of divine Love.

The Bible’s account of God’s view of His creation says, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Each one of us, as the creation of God, is very good. Even if we haven’t acted consistently with this, reformation is never out of reach, because this is the eternal truth of our identity.

When a mob confronted Christ Jesus, demanding that a woman be stoned to death for committing adultery, his response was to turn away from that scene. The Bible says that he “stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground.” Finally, he arose and stated, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (John 8:6, 7). And the accusers, chastened by the knowledge of their own sins, left one by one.

When there was no one left but the woman, he asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied that no one had. And Jesus put the entire event into perspective by saying, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:10, 11, NKJV). If she would let God govern her, she would be free from sin and would carry no stigma from her past.

This points to the truth that God has given all of us a better, purer identity than the kind of mortal identity that we are used to associating with ourselves. “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” by Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy, states: “Man is not made to till the soil. His birthright is dominion, not subjection” (pp. 517-518).

Everyone has the ability to find this new, or true, spiritual identity and experience its redeeming influence. One never has to do without good in life. Even those who have committed crimes can discover, and learn to live in accord with, a newfound spiritual identity. Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7, NKJV). Gaining a new identity, a new birth, is like what the witness protection program is designed to do. This kind of rebirth, though, elevates us to behold and express our permanently established, divinely bestowed identity.

Once we have discovered this, we can never go back to the way things were before. We have been made new. That old identity is no longer recognizable. We have embraced our new “neighborhood” – our eternal, God-given identity, made in His image – complete, cared for, and protected. This sets the stage for redemption and progress.

Adapted from an article in the Nov. 20, 2017, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Game night on the town

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Sean Faeth (l.) and his children, Rebeka and Ryker, play Pathfinder, a fantasy role-playing game, at Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass., on family game night, Dec. 13.
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Game night on the town

Game night for the Faeth family can take a little more preparation than clearing off the coffee table and getting out the Scrabble board. This time of year, it means putting on coats and hats and heading out the door to Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass.

Mr. Faeth is such an ardent gamer that he helped the cafe organize a “Family Knight,” where his two kids – 8-year-old Ryker and 6-year-old Rebeka – could play along.

“Ryker and I … we’ve come a bunch of times and learned new games, which then translates into us buying games at home,” he says.

The board game renaissance has continued to defy the digital age, with sales of hobby games in the United States and Canada growing a reported 21 percent in 2016, with more than $1.4 billion in sales. More than 208,000 people attended GenCon, a tabletop-game convention, in 2017.

Now, board game cafes are popping up all over – from Texas to India to Australia – offering patrons food and drink, as well as access to libraries of as many as 1,000 games, as at GameHäus Cafe in Glendale, Calif. Titles stretch well beyond Monopoly, Risk, and even Settlers of Catan to Pandemic, Ticket to Ride, and Codenames.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Faeth and his son, Ryker, chose a game from a cupboard full of options at Knight Moves Cafe. The cafe offers coffee, snacks, and a massive board game library.

“Games are so expensive ... it’s nice that you pay $5 [cover charge] and get to play whatever you want,” says JJ Evans, from Lexington, Mass., and a customer at Knight Moves Cafe who was playing Settlers of Catan with friends earlier this month.

Space to hang out together

But the desire for a shared experience – offline – drives at least as much business as the chance to try laying out a medieval French city in the game Carcassonne Classic without first plunking down $69.99.

“The thing that … we hear from our customers that’s appreciated is just the sense of community,” says Emily Conway, manager at Emerald Tavern Games & Cafe in Austin, Texas.

When board game cafes began a few years ago, the idea took advantage of something that was already happening, she adds.

“Everyone thought they were the only ones taking a favorite board game to a bar or to a restaurant and hanging out with their friends,” Ms. Conway says. “[As] the idea is spreading of this board game store-cafe hybrid, people are realizing, ‘Oh, this is really what I've been looking for.’ ”

Customers also welcome the chance to put down their smartphones, says Taylor Christianson, a manager at Knight Moves Cafe. “It deters people from using screens, which is a big deal in today’s socializing, for sure,” Mr. Christianson says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Game pieces for Pathfinder, a fantasy roll playing game, are ready for use at Knight Moves Cafe in Somerville, Mass.

Many cafes say that they do see a concentration of college-age students and Millennials among their clientele, the age groups one might expect to patronize these kinds of establishments. But Robert Cron, co-owner of California’s GameHäus, says they’ll also see everything from families with young children to senior citizens. “It is a very broad spectrum,” he says.

Beyond Boggle

Perhaps you’re looking for a game to entertain family when you’re together over the holiday week? Christianson suggests the fast-paced card game Sushi Go! “It’s a very inclusive game,” he says. “The whole family plays at the same time.”

And an almost universal recommendation from board game cafe staff was Codenames, which has two teams facing off and challenges players to say one word that will make their team guess the right clues. “It's similar to more of the old-school party games [like] Charade, Pictionary, [and] Taboo where you have a lot of group interaction,” Conway says.

It’s all about tailoring the game to the skill level and expectations of the players and avoiding the complicated ones – and some board games can be infamously complicated. Cron says he says he has seen people at the cafe get in over their heads very quickly.

“[People] will come in and see this giant wall of games. They'll have only played Monopoly or Trouble or Sorry as a kid and they'll grab something off the shelf because the box is pretty,” he says. “And they'll open it and be like, oh my God, what have I gotten into? What is this? Am I playing a game or am I doing my taxes?”

( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 27th, 2017 )

Thanks for joining us today. In keeping with the holiday spirit, we'll point you toward our story on board game cafes, where many of the titles may be new, but the spirit of competitive fun hasn't changed a bit. And if you're into Scrabble, take note of this year's world champions for the team title: the Nigerians

Monitor Daily Podcast

December 26, 2017
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