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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2018
January
05
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Sometimes good news deserves a harder look, too.

You don’t need to have just endured a “bomb cyclone” to be cheered by actions to reduce carbon emissions, widely held to be at least one factor in the climate change behind extreme weather.

The new year brought a new emissions tax in China, aimed at mitigating the effects of rapid industrialization. In its bid to become a green leader, China has taken a range of aggressive steps, including ending its handling of many of the world’s recyclables (it says it found hazardous waste in too many of them).

But China took in more than half of the world’s plastic last year. So as with Beijing’s recent ivory ban, which critics say will just push the illegal trade to harder-to-police hubs in Laos and elsewhere, the ripples of nice-sounding moves sometimes only amount to displacement.

I caught the Monitor’s Michael Holtz in Beijing just before he went to bed. Yes, “while China is closing many of its own coal-fired power plants,” he pointed out, “it also has plans to build new ones overseas.”

That’s social responsibility tempered by global economic competitiveness. Is the grass-roots thinking among those in China’s rising generation any different? Michael’s roommate had just shown him a new app that monitors socially responsible behavior – using bike shares, taking receipts by email, repurposing rather than discarding. Get points, and the app arranges for a tree-planting on your behalf.

That’s personal – and global.

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Now to our five stories for today, intended to rise above the daily churn to focus on understanding the needs and motives of others – as well as our own. 

1. How Iran’s uprising of the poor dents a revolution’s legitimacy

Leaders of the Islamic Republic made a lot of assumptions about rank-and-file Iranians, it turns out, that are now emphatically proving to be untrue. This is a story about the public pressure that can build over decades of promises unfulfilled.

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From its inception, the 1979 Islamic Revolution aspired to offer poor Iranians a new social contract. “Only those who have tasted poverty, deprivation, and oppression will stay with us to the end,” said the father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Revolutionary officials established a vast welfare and charitable network and a far-reaching education and health system. Standards of living rose. Which is why, say analysts, Iranian leaders were surprised by protests that have spread to presumed bastions of regime support. Revelations about vast spending on clerical institutions and cuts in welfare and subsidies have fueled a sense of pervasive inequality. “There has been a long assumption that the so-called base of the Islamic Republic is the shoeless peasant and the religious conservative and the [Iran-Iraq] war veteran family,” says Kevan Harris, an assistant professor at UCLA. The nature of the protest “is surprising not just to the political elite, which is split and don’t know how to react. It’s also surprising to even the opposition intelligentsia in Iran, which always thought they were leading the charge on issues of political and social change.”

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How Iran’s uprising of the poor dents a revolution’s legitimacy

After a week of violent anti-establishment protests across Iran, in which anger welled up most vociferously among the country’s poor, even a perfume seller in Tehran knows the harm that has been done to one pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic was “based on the ideal of a better world for the oppressed and the poor,” says Ashkan, a 32-year-old with a master’s degree in chemistry, who has had to settle for a job selling perfume in a friend’s shop.

“In the early years there were efforts to materialize this, because we used to have sincere and hardworking authorities,” says Ashkan, who was contacted by phone and asked that only his first name be used. “But as time went by, corruption replaced those principles, and the hardship of economic life continued to press that very layer of society…. This explains why they are now frustrated with the system that they once rose up for.”

Iranian leaders have been surprised by the scale and location of the protests that first erupted over economic grievances on Dec. 28, then quickly turned political and spread to more than 70 cities and towns – many of them long-considered conservative bastions of regime support.

Posters of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been burned, as chants rang out of “Death to the Dictator!” and government offices and security force bases were attacked and set alight.

The shock to Iran’s ruling elite has not been that some Iranians detest them – posters of Ayatollah Khamenei were torched in 2009, too, when millions of protesters in Tehran and beyond took to the streets over a disputed election – but instead which demographic fearlessly voiced its anger this time.

The result that has so unsettled power centers in Iran is that protesters are complaining about broken promises that stretch back to 1979, about guaranteed prosperity and attention to equality and “social justice.”

Recent revelations about vast spending on clerical institutions, especially, and cuts in welfare and subsidies while Iranians have often seen wages stagnate or decline in recent years, have fueled the sense of pervasive inequality. For many, that has dented the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and damaged its long-standing revolutionary social contract.

“There has been a long assumption that the so-called base of the Islamic Republic is the shoeless peasant and the religious conservative and the [Iran-Iraq] war veteran family, and I think that era of Iran is not what Iran today is like,” says Kevan Harris, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The nature of the protest “is surprising not just to the political elite, which is split and don’t know how to react. It’s also surprising to even the opposition intelligentsia in Iran, which always thought they were leading the charge on issues of political and social change,” says Mr. Harris, author of the 2017 book, “A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran.”

After a week of unrest, the violence appears to have abated in most towns, though video uploaded on social media indicated that sporadic protests continue. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared the “end of the new sedition,” after two days of pro-government counter-rallies in many cities on Wednesday and Thursday. The Guard only “briefly intervened” to quell rioting, he said.

No more than 42,000 people protested nationwide, Interior Minister Abolreza Rahmani Fazli told reporters, adding that protests continued for days because the Islamic Republic “showed mercy.”

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian worshipers chant slogans in support of the regime and against anti-government protesters at a rally after Friday prayers in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 5, 2018.

Revolution's social contract

From its inception, the Islamic Revolution aspired to offer Iranians a new social contract, alongside its anti-imperial, independent foreign policy that castigated the US, Soviet Union, and Israel alike.

The father of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, set the standard decades ago, during the monumental event that toppled the pro-West shah and his regime’s elitist, secular worldview.

“Only those who have tasted poverty, deprivation, and oppression will stay with us to the end,” Ayatollah Khomeini declared. Following through, revolutionary officials established a vast welfare and charitable network and a far-reaching education and health system, and raised standards of living across the board.

But as the revolution and its leaders matured, so too did ingrained social problems and political infighting, and an ever-increasing gap between Iran’s haves and have-nots that has bred resentment.

“Unlike during the first decades of the post-revolutionary Iran, the rich now heedlessly flaunt their wealth,” wrote Iranian novelist Amir Ahmadi Arian in an opinion piece in The New York Times this week.

The generation of the revolution “cared about appearances and never dropped the veneer of fealty to the ideals of the 1979 revolution,” while their own offspring “hardly care,” wrote Mr. Arian.

“They brazenly drive Porsches and Maseratis through the streets of Tehran before the eyes of the poor and post about their wealth on Instagram,” he wrote. “Iranians see pictures of the family members of authorities drinking and hanging out on beaches around the world, while their daughters are arrested over a fallen head scarf and their sons are jailed for buying alcohol. The double standard has cultivated enormous public humiliation.”

Elite is 'out of touch'

The protests have “challenged and in many places broken the social contract of the promise of the revolution. It’s a sense that the elite is so out of touch with what’s going on in regular people’s lives that they didn’t even see this coming,” says Narges Bajoghli, a postdoctoral research associate at the Watson Institute at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Authorities will have no trouble controlling the unrest, says Ms. Bajoghli, author of the forthcoming book, “Anxieties of Power: Sustaining the Revolution in Iran,” but it is the manner in which protesters showed their faces and shouted against Khamenei in small and more remote towns that is resonating in Tehran.

“It’s one thing to do that in the big city, where you can get lost in the crowd, but it’s something else to do it in a place where you are very easily identifiable,” she says. “I think it shows they have lost fear of the state itself, which is a very big deal.”

Officials have said some 90 percent of those hundreds arrested in the protests are under 25 years old, and so have little experience of the 2009 Green Movement protests, she notes.

“They are very young; this is a whole new generation, and they are protesting beyond the politics of the regime. It’s not about the reformists anymore,” says Bajoghli. “They are going above the ways we traditionally define politics within the system in Iran.”

Foreign enemies?

And yet, while analysts widely cite economic and political issues – and the protesters’ own slogans – as fuel for the unrest, Khamenei and senior officials this week accused “foreign enemies” of orchestrating the violence in a bid to undermine the Islamic Republic.

That unsubstantiated claim has been easier to sell inside Iran, due to clear support for the protests voiced by President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and leaders of Saudi Arabia, who had vowed that the next clash between the two regional rivals would take place “inside” Iran.

But not all are convinced.

“The entire world plays a role in these protests except the Iranian people themselves, and there is nothing to be blamed on the establishment’s political, economic and social performance,” the reformist analyst Sadegh Zibakalam wrote sarcastically in an open letter to Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, who had blamed foreign players.

“I wish only for once, you [authorities], instead of resorting to conspiracy theories and accusing the Western world, would get down from the Ivory Tower, talk to the people who are weary to their bones of your policies, and ask them what their pain is,” wrote Mr. Zibakalem.

Uneven growth

That disconnect has put a sharper point on the fact that Iran’s economic growth since the 2015 nuclear deal has been uneven, with nearly all benefits accruing to Tehran while rural areas and those beyond the capital have not improved.

“If you look at the pictures of the young men who’ve been killed … these guys look like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever,” says Harris, the Iran scholar at UCLA. “They have that spiky hair, coming from Jersey and hoping in New York they are going to make it – essentially a working class hero-type.”

“It’s not that there’s a huge increase in people living hand-to-mouth,” says Harris. “It is the perception of, ‘I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my life, and my dad was my age when we heard the same promises.’”

The result is that such protests, even if controlled now, are likely to come again, he says: “These kinds of grievances of course aren’t going to go away, and who knows what the next spark is going to be?”

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2. For Republicans, blueprint for 2018 may hang on civility

Some party alignment, needless to say, is critical for party survival. Think of a slightly less ominous variation on Benjamin Franklin’s “hang together” line. For this year to work out for Republicans, the president may need to match party leaders’ willingness to put personal differences aside.  

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, joined by, from left, Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri and Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, arrives to speak to a group of small-business owners Nov. 30.

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After Steve Bannon’s banishment by President Trump, the drain-the-swamp movement may have lost a general, but the army of rebel-rousers marches on – continuing to divide the GOP. That can make governing difficult and is not conducive to fighting the electoral backlash that often comes at midterm elections. But Mr. Bannon's outcast status could help Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell strategically, analysts say. Bannon was a mobilizer of anti-establishment voters, and that function is now greatly diminished by the president’s turning on him for his comments in the new book “Fire and Fury.” As for other GOP “establishment” wins, one could argue that Mr. Trump – rhetoric and tweets aside (and that’s a big aside) – has finished a year of collaboration with the “swamp monsters” to reach key Republican goals: a conservative Supreme Court appointment, deregulation, a big tax cut, and the rollback of a core element of the Affordable Care Act – the individual mandate to buy health insurance. After a rough start with a nonpolitician president, Senator McConnell said he goes into the new year “with a high level of confidence” in the ability to work with the White House. He’ll get a crack at that this weekend, when he and other GOP leaders discuss the 2018 elections and agenda with the president at Camp David.

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For Republicans, blueprint for 2018 may hang on civility

When President Trump ruthlessly denounced his former chief strategist Steve Bannon this week, the political team behind Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell put out a short video tweet of him breaking into a smile.

No comment, just Senator McConnell smiling. The tweet befits the majority leader, a man of few and carefully considered words and sharp political elbows. The video’s understated emotion also conveys a reality check for mainstream Republicans who might be relishing this political earthquake.

Certainly, the Senate leader is pleased with the banishment of Mr. Bannon, who has been working to elect outsider Republicans to push “establishment” McConnell from his leadership post. Score one for Team Mitch. But Bannon’s political demise (however long it lasts), comes with a caveat for GOP leaders in Congress.

The drain-the-swamp, anti-establishment movement may have lost a general, but the army of rabble-rousers marches on – continuing to divide the GOP. That can make governing difficult and is not conducive to fighting the historic electoral backlash that often comes halfway through a president’s first term, observers say.

“I don’t think this means that grassroots conservatives will suddenly fall in love with leader McConnell,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. The president’s public repudiation of Bannon “doesn’t change the anti-establishment sentiment within part of the Republican Party.”

But Bannon's outcast status could help McConnell strategically, he says. Bannon was a mobilizer of anti-establishment voters, and that function is now greatly diminished by the president’s turning on him for his comments in the new book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.” It’s significant, too, that Bannon no longer has the backing of the wealthy Mercer family.

“Steve Bannon planned to mobilize voters and this makes it difficult to do that,“ says Mr. Gonzales. “If Bannon doesn’t have the president, and he doesn’t have the money, I don’t see how that plan works.” That doesn’t preclude others, however, from stepping into that role.

Before he left for the Christmas break, McConnell cuttingly referred to Bannon’s “political genius” for “throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America.” He was speaking of the populist’s backing of Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. He lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a special Senate election last month – costing the GOP a Senate seat.

With a thin 51-to-49 Senate majority to defend, McConnell told reporters that he plans to keep backing candidates who can win general elections. That compares with 2010 and 2012, when the McConnell political machine was “passive” in the primaries, and Republicans lost four seats because of fringe candidates.

Bannon’s political demise “is a positive development for us, and we can get back to work nominating good, electable candidates who can win in the general election,” Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas told reporters on Thursday.

One of those candidates would be former governor and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy to replace the retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. Mr. Romney is popular in Utah, and his election would be another win for McConnell. Despite his open criticisms of Trump, Romney is seen as a bridge builder. As Gonzales put it, the former nominee is not interested in coming to Washington “to create chaos.”

Key GOP goals attained

As for other GOP “establishment” wins, one could argue that President Trump – rhetoric and tweets aside (and that’s a big aside) – has finished a year of collaboration with the “swamp monsters” to reach key Republican goals in Congress: a conservative Supreme Court appointment, deregulation, a big tax cut, and the rollback of a core element of the Affordable Care Act – the individual mandate to buy health insurance.

After a very rough start with a non-politician president over the failure to repeal Obamacare, McConnell said he now goes into the new year “with a high level of confidence” in the ability to work with the White House and set priorities. He’ll get a crack at that this weekend, when he and other GOP leaders discuss the 2018 elections and agenda at Camp David with the president.

As for the elections, Gonzales says the president can help minimize expected losses if he helps turn out his core voters to support electable candidates – even if that means voting for more establishment figures.

In Nevada, a Senate race that Democrats believe they can win, Republicans are wondering where the president will come down. In photo-ops, he’s put incumbent Republican Sen. Dean Heller close to him – a visible sign of solidarity, despite the fact that Senator Heller was an avowed anti-Trumper. Yet Bannon has helped Heller’s primary challenger, Danny Tarkanian.

“Both [Mr.] Tarkanian and Heller are urgently seeking the president’s support, and the president really hasn’t come down on that choice,” says the former Republican governor of Nevada, Robert List. With Bannon in political exile, “this could boost Heller’s standing in the White House, compared to Tarkanian.”

On the other hand, he says, Trump is very popular with Nevada Republicans, and if he came out against Heller, that would be “horrible” for the incumbent.

Trump loyalists key to midterms for GOP

In Arizona, another state where Democrats hope they might pick up a seat, Bannon-backed candidate Kelli Ward has distanced herself from the Trump outcast. But Bannon’s new status makes no difference, says Arizona Republican consultant Constantin Querard.

“I don’t see anyone bailing on the president or on the larger struggle because Steve Bannon set himself on fire,” says Mr. Querard.

Candidates like Ms. Ward will still fight the establishment, he says, even if McConnell backs a more mainstream Republican like Arizona Rep. Martha McSally (R). The congresswoman, representing the swing district of Tucson, has not yet said whether she will run to replace retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake – a staunch Trump critic who had been a Bannon target.

For the president, it could be very tough to align with McConnell to support incumbents or back more mainstream candidates when he embodies the anti-establishment wing of the party. He’s used to firing salvos at his own party, which Gonzales says is harmful.

Republicans who are loyal to the president must turn out in the midterms, he says. “If they don’t – because they don’t like Republicans on the Hill or think Republicans on the Hill aren’t doing enough to support the president – then Republicans will suffer significant losses.”

But if the president can convince his supporters that the Republican majority is important, and that it’s good for his agenda, “then that could help Republicans avoid a catastrophic election.”

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3. The quieter substory around the US push for deregulation

Apart from stirring hot reactions – enthusiasm over big stock market gains, criticism over moves like Thursday’s announced expansion of offshore drilling – President Trump is trying to do something that has proved historically difficult: to halt or even reverse the growing body of federal rules. It's not clear if he'll achieve this.

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Deregulation is a central pillar of President Trump’s economic policy agenda. He’s rescinded coal-mining constraints and halted an Obama administration push for cleaner electric utilities. He’s removed assurances that consumers can sue banks. He pledges to streamline approval for infrastructure projects. And he says all this will unleash faster economic growth. A rising stock market over the past year may be, in part, a vote of approval from investors. Yet critics say Mr. Trump has ignored the way regulations benefit society, while exaggerating the gains from removing them. Amid the debate, one thing that’s clear is Trump’s zeal. As our chart shows, he’s allowed far fewer new rules than other recent presidents in their first year, including those named Bush and Reagan. And he’s trying to buck history – the ever-upward trend in federal rules – by setting up teams at federal agencies looking for ones to eliminate. “My bigger sense is that they are serious about doing bigger, deeper, impactful work,” says Philip Wallach, an expert at the Brookings Institution. So we can expect more deregulation news in 2018 for fans and foes to clamor over.

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The quieter substory around the US push for deregulation

Three days before new federal regulations required him to install an electronic logging device in his semi, Chuck Paar put his 2012 rig up for sale and started driving his 1997 truck instead.

The truck is so old it isn’t required to have the device, which logs how long a driver stays behind the wheel. Big fleets like the automation, but small trucking companies like Mr. Paar’s in Mount Jewett, Pa. have struggled to use the devices, which became mandatory Dec. 18.

“It’s overregulation; it's overkill,” he says. And although he’s exempt, his drivers are not. This past Tuesday, one of Paar’s best drivers was on his 28th minute of a mandatory half-hour break when he pulled around to a fuel pump so he could get ready to fuel. The electronic device logged the truck as moving.

“On a paper log, you log that as a half hour,” Paar says. But “he had to sit another 30 minutes!”

A year ago, the Trump administration swept into office promising to rid business of regulations that shackle productivity. In its first year, it has made a splash, eliminating the ban on mandatory-arbitration clauses used by banks, repealing “net neutrality” limits on cable companies, and moving to overturn numerous environmental rules – including an announcement Thursday seeking to open more than 90 percent of coastal waters to offshore oil drilling.

Many of the moves are controversial. They pit Trump’s value of raw economic freedom against the view that regulations safeguard people and the environment, delivering much more in benefits to society than they cost. (Better tracking of truck-driver hours, for example, is a response to a very real safety challenge.)

Many policy experts say at least some thinning of bureaucratic underbrush is warranted – and rarely happens. Seen through this lens, there are potential benefits from a deregulatory push, if it’s directed in positive ways.

“It's amazing to see so far this [first] year how much the president has done,” says Patrick McLaughlin, director of the program for economic research on regulation at the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented think tank at George Mason University. “The growth rate [in regulation] has certainly slowed under Trump – and it has slowed more than we've seen from other presidents in their first year.”

Already affecting economy?

Moves like the turnabout on internet regulation and climate change have gone sharply against public opinion. The dramatic shift on offshore drilling this week is drawing criticism even from Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Yet the concerted push to remove constraints already appears to have boosted business optimism, which in turn can often increase investment and hiring in the short term.

“Deregulation is probably a major driver of the post-election stock market rally,” economist Gary Shilling wrote in a late-2017 report.

Quantifying the costs and benefits of regulation is inherently difficult. The Mercatus Center has estimated the economy could have grown 0.8 percent faster per year since 1980 if overall regulatory burdens had been held steady since that year. That’s a pretty big deal for an economy that, since the Great Recession, has until recently failed to hit a 3 percent annualized growth rate.

But one Goldman Sachs analysis, looking at opportunities to reduce rules outside the banking sector, figured any added growth from Trump’s efforts will be small – in part because the process of revising or removing rules is slow and can require help from Congress. 

And not all deregulation spurs faster economic growth. After all, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, experts widely see prudent financial regulation as a vital underpinning of stable growth. The Goldman Sachs report pointed to the importance of cost/benefit analysis, noting that environmental rules impose the biggest financial burdens but also bring big benefits to society.

Still, there is evidence that smart, streamlined regulation can make a difference.

“We do need regulations, but that doesn't mean regulations can’t adapt with the times,” says Gabe Horwitz, an economic policy expert at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington. He says doing such a rethink well “requires people to come off their ideological side,” even if it’s not a fully bipartisan effort.

With bipartisan support, Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan deregulated airlines, trucking, and other industries in the late '70s and early '80s and those industries grew. Under President Clinton, who pushed to reinvent government and eliminate outmoded regulations, the economy boomed.

Yet none of those leaders managed to shrink the number of federal rules over the course of an entire administration, says Mr. McLaughlin.

Scale of Trump's push

At a press event last month, the president highlighted his achievements so far, claiming to have canceled or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulatory actions in his first 11 months in office. He also showed off a stack of 20,000 pages, representing the pages of federal regulations in 1960, and another stack of 185,000 pages, representing the pages of federal rules today.

“We’re getting back below the 1960 level and we’ll be there fairly quickly,” he said.

Some of this is hyperbole, says Philip Wallach, an expert on governance most recently at the Brookings Institution, which has created a Trump deregulation tracker. For example: The claim of 1,500 rules canceled or delayed includes initiatives that were merely planned by the Obama administration. Likewise, the idea of shrinking the federal rulebook to the level of 1960 is fanciful. The departments of Energy and Education, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t even exist back then.

Nevertheless, “a lot of what’s happening [in deregulation] in the Trump administration would look the same under a Ted Cruz administration or a Marco Rubio administration,” Mr. Wallach says. Trump exaggerations aside, “my bigger sense is that they are serious about doing bigger, deeper, impactful work.”

For example: The administration is setting up teams in each federal agency to review rules with an eye toward cutting those that are outdated or counterproductive. And although it’s criticized as arbitrary, a policy to eliminate two older rules for every new one nudges agencies to actually carry out such reviews. Trump also is working on speeding up the permitting process for new infrastructure projects, such as highways and his proposed border wall.

Just the promise of a slowdown in regulations has buoyed business groups. The Business Roundtable’s survey of CEOs last month found their optimism for sales, investment, and hiring outlook at a five-year high and regulatory cost concerns at a six-year low.

Risks to the environment

However, watchdog groups warn about the negative consequences, especially in the environmental arena. For example: Trump has drawn sharp criticism for moving to kill President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a major effort to respond to climate change with a roughly 30 percent cut in power plant emissions.

Repealing the CPP will “allow people to continue to live with dirty air and dirty land,” says Bill Price, field organizing manager for the Sierra Club in West Virginia, referring to the prospect of continued mining and use of coal.

Local industry groups applaud the repeal. “EPA's proposed rule repealing the CPP is another initiative by Administrator [Scott] Pruitt to prevent job-killing, onerous rules from going into effect,” says Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. Nationwide, the coal industry has added a modest 1,200 jobs since Trump took office.

Another area of concern is the push to loosen financial regulation passed after the financial crisis. Many experts on the left and right say the Dodd-Frank financial reforms could use some revision or streamlining. But businesses aren’t for simply jettisoning regulations, says John Arensmeyer, founder of Small Business Majority, a nationwide employer group advocating for policies to help small firms. “Small businesses recognize that you need rules of the road to run the economy.”

Not easy to ditch regulations en masse

Whatever the merits and demerits of Trump’s aspirations, history suggests a hard road ahead in pruning regulations. Some of the early steps involved low-hanging fruit, such as Obama executive orders that are relatively easy to reverse. To reverse rules based on laws already passed by Congress, the administration will have to go through the same arduous process as getting a regulation approved, says Susan Dudley, director of the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University and former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the George W. Bush administration. That means more time and great care. “If they’re not careful, the courts will overturn their actions.”

Another challenge will be solving a Trump paradox. On the one hand, eager to keep government employment down, he has been slow to fill political positions in agencies. On the other, getting buy-in from the bureaucracy will require a full complement of administrators who can implement his deregulation ideas, Ms. Dudley says.

Paar, the Pennsylvania trucker, says he’s doubtful the administration will repeal the electronic device legislation passed by the Bush administration. “I have written President Trump. I've called,” he says. But “I'm not optimistic that Secretary [of Transportation Elaine] Chao or President Trump are going to make any changes.”

Mark Trumbull and David Sloan of the Monitor's staff contributed to this article from Washington.

SOURCE: Patrick McLaughlin, Mercatus Center
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Karen Norris/Staff
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4. Hard-to-explain phenomena? Why some reach for ‘it must be aliens.’

At our morning planning meetings we have stories that are “talkers.” This was one. Humans are primed to look for driving forces in the world around us, ones that we can explain though our own collective experience. That’s “part of what it means to be a thinking human,” as one of our science writers put it. It’s also what drives our desire to discover.

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The strange dimming and brightening of KIC 8462852, a distant star that made headlines in 2015 after scientists proposed that it may have large artificial bodies orbiting it, may have a more commonplace explanation. A paper published Wednesday in the Astrophysical Journal ruled out the “alien megastructures” conjecture, arguing that it is far more likely that the flickering is caused by space dust. But scientists’ willingness to entertain the idea of extraterrestrial engineers speaks to a fundamental trait in human psychology: a predisposition to assume agency. When faced with something mysterious in nature, says University of London psychologist Christopher French, "we do have a natural tendency to assume ... that there must be some sort of intentionality behind it, some sort of intelligence." This tendency, say psychologists, not only helped our ancestors avoid becoming lunch, but it also continues to help us navigate our complex social environments, by helping us identify with others.

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Hard-to-explain phenomena? Why some reach for ‘it must be aliens.’

The idea that there might be gigantic alien structures orbiting a distant star just bit the dust.

After citizen astronomers spotted data in 2015 revealing that KIC 8462852, a star about 1,000 light years away, was dimming and brightening in a strange way, one of many explanations proposed by astronomers involved some sort of "megastructures" orbiting the star – perhaps built by aliens to harvest stellar energy.

That imaginative suggestion rocketed the star to fame. But Louisiana State University astronomer Tabetha Boyajian and colleagues collected more data on the star, nicknamed "Tabby's Star" for Dr. Boyajian, and they found that the star’s strange flickering was thanks to something much more mundane: ordinary dust.

"There's dust everywhere in our universe. We see it in many different ways, and the data that we took showed a clear signature of this being what we would see from dust," Boyajian says.

This may be a disappointing outcome for those hoping for proof of an alien civilization. But Tabby’s Star’s rise to stardom highlights a deeply entrenched human psychological quirk: When presented with a puzzling phenomenon, our knee-jerk instinct is to ask not what created it, but who. Scientists say that as social animals, we are evolutionarily predisposed to see agency and intentionality in the world around us. And when it comes to astronomical mysteries, aliens seem to fit.

"It's the duct tape of science," says Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the SETI Institute. Because we don’t know what aliens might do, they could explain anything.

But why do we do that?

"It's not just aliens," says Christopher French, a psychologist and founder of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. "We do have a natural tendency to assume that anything odd, or, superficially at least, inexplicable, that there must be some sort of intentionality behind it, some sort of intelligence, there must be a purpose, somebody or something has done that for a particular purpose. Aliens is one possibility, but of course another possibility would be ghosts, spirits, a whole range of as-yet-unseen entities."

UFO sightings are often laughed off, but there might be a less laughable reason for such a seemingly crazy reaction to the mysterious. A bias toward intentionality likely confers an evolutionary advantage, Dr. French suggests.

If a prehistoric human saw a bush rustling, for example, his first thought might be that it's a saber-tooth cat, even if it's much more likely that it is just the wind. Assuming some sort of agency tends to be a safer bet.

"It's better to err on the side of assuming intentionality," says Christine Looser, a social psychologist affiliated with Harvard University, agreeing with French.

Anthropomorphizing our world

Psychologists have long noted our tendency to map human characteristics onto inanimate objects, even when we know they’re not alive. In a classic experiment conducted in 1944, Smith College psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel showed subjects different shapes moving around on a screen and then asked the viewer to describe what they had seen. The subjects described interactions between the shapes that were motivated by human-like thoughts and feelings. Instead of saying things like, "the triangle moved to the left of the screen," subjects described one triangle as being a bully, and other shapes as being afraid and wanting to hide.

"It kind of makes sense for us to try to interpret all the uncertainties in the world around us in terms of things that we do understand so that we are able to, to the best extent that we can, predict and control what's going on," French says. "And what do we understand more than anything else? Ourselves."

This tendency might not have only saved our ancestors from becoming lunch, but it also might have helped promote social cohesion, Dr. Looser says. In a study conducted with colleagues at New York University, she showed subjects images of human faces digitally merged with doll faces to different degrees along a continuum. Subjects were told either that the face was a member of their social group or a member of an outgroup. Looser and her colleagues found that outgroup faces required a higher threshold of humanness to be identified as having a mind.

Because we are not solitary animals, Looser suggests, identifying with and understanding the thoughts and feelings of others in our society must confer a survival advantage, too.

= 1, for now

On Earth, our perception of what does and does not have agency is a helpful tool that relies on understanding our own agency and intelligence. But when it comes to alien civilizations, their intelligence might look nothing like ours.

In what astrobiologists refer to as the "= 1 problem," we have just one data point of life. Because all life on Earth is related, scientists have just one model from which to extrapolate general biological principles to search for – and that sample size might be limiting.

The same is probably true of intelligence, says Susan Schneider, a philosopher of cognitive science affiliated with the University of Connecticut and a member of the Ethics and Technology group at Yale University. "We can kind of try to extrapolate from known laws of physics, and look for large-scale architectural features out there that maybe an intelligent civilization created," Dr. Schneider says. "But I think it's still inevitable that we're extrapolating from our own case. We have to be really humble as we think about these issues."

Still, we might not be at a total loss when considering what to look for when watching for intelligent aliens. We may already be creating a second model of intelligence: artificial intelligence.

"It will give us another datapoint, and a really different one," Schneider says. "And once we have one example of a highly intelligent AI, then we can tweak it so that we can make all kinds of other cognitive systems, and we can start to explore the scope and limits of cognitive systems. So we could start to explore this space of possible intelligences and maybe draw some principles of what other intelligences need to be like to succeed."

In fact, Schneider has suggested that AI might be the cosmic norm. The extraterrestrials we meet (assuming that they're out there) might actually be "post-biological," artificial intelligence created by an extinct life form that was more like us.

The idea is that, if you extrapolate from our own trajectory, a civilization "graduates from biological intelligence" to synthetic intelligence, Dr. Shostak at SETI says. And because any being capable of intergalactic spaceflight is more advanced than we are, and we’re already building artificial intelligence, that certainly seems possible.

“It may be that what aliens do may not be terribly visible to us,” Shostak says. “I hope that's not true, because my job involves looking for signals that say they're present, but you really don't know what they're going to do. All you can do is say, whatever it is, it can't violate the laws of physics.”

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On Film

5. In ‘Phantom Thread,’ a fitting finale for an acting legend

Peter Rainer is a pretty tough grader, so when he sends in a review marked 'A-,' we make plans to add his pick to our Netflix queues. If you read Peter’s best-of-2017 column then you have an idea where he stands on Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest (and reportedly last) film. Here’s his full critique. 

Laurie Sparham/Focus Features/AP
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in 'Phantom Thread' as Reynolds Woodcock, impresario of the House of Woodcock, with its Georgian London townhouse and its armada of seamstresses catering to socialites, celebrities, and royalty.

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Aside from the terrific ensemble acting and the pleasures of watching an expertly designed human board game being played out – Daniel Day-Lewis plays a famed couturier in 1950s London – director Paul Thomas Anderson is also getting at something deeper with  “Phantom Thread.” Many of his movies, most conspicuously “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” are about grand-scale obsessives who ultimately bring about their own downfall. In “Phantom Thread,” he is showcasing not an oil baron or a spiritual guru, as in those films, but an artist. The self-immolation of an artist who is both inspired and undone by his muse is the true subject of the film. What is so bafflingly fascinating about “Phantom Thread” is that Day-Lewis’s imperious character, Reynolds Woodcock, is an ascetic at the center of a movie that is anything but. The dry ice in this film burns with a hothouse intensity.

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In ‘Phantom Thread,’ a fitting finale for an acting legend

The ads for writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis as a famed couturier in 1950s London, suggest a stately period production in the Merchant Ivory mode. What soon becomes clear, though, upon seeing the movie, is how inexorably creepy it is. Its antecedents are not Merchant Ivory movies but, rather, “Rebecca” and “Vertigo” – except it’s even freakier than those films. It’s closer in some ways to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but made by real artists and not pulpsters, and minus any overt sex. The eroticism is all in the fittings of fabric and the power plays of a couple who make Mr. and Mrs. de Winters in “Rebecca” seem like Ward and June Cleaver from “Leave It to Beaver.”

Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is the imperious impresario of the House of Woodcock, with its Georgian London townhouse and its armada of seamstresses. His exclusive clientele includes socialites, celebrities, and royalty, but he disdains the trappings of high society. He cares only that his moneyed clients are worthy of his creations. (The film’s costume designer is Mark Bridges.) In one startling scene, he is so aghast at the sight of a drunken woman in one of his gowns that he summarily has it removed from her.

Reynolds regularly attracts and discards women, and his steely sister, Cyril (the marvelous Lesley Manville), who alone among his entourage has the power to rebuff him, keeps a beady eye on the procession of consorts. Both Reynolds and Cyril meet their match in immigrant Alma (Vicky Krieps, equally marvelous, in a very difficult role), whom Reynolds first meets at a seaside country inn where she is waitressing. She is smitten, as is he, and soon he is measuring her for a custom dress. 

This dress-fitting sequence is their true courtship, but it also reveals their developing dynamic. He lavishes his attentions on her form while at the same time citing its flaws; she accepts his autocracy but doesn’t shrink from it. In her own passive-aggressive
way, she gives as good as she gets, and she becomes his live-in companion. He also makes her one of his models, but she is also, surreptitiously and perhaps not altogether knowingly, molding him as well.

It’s a folie à deux that only becomes more intricate as the duet becomes more combative. Living with Reynolds is no picnic – even the scrape of his companion’s knife across buttered toast at breakfast can ruin his day. His pathological persnicketiness, his mania for detail, is both his genius and his incubus. His specialty is sewing little trinkets into the linings of his dresses, and this fits perfectly with the elusiveness of his life. Symbolically, if not actually, Alma exposes those secret trifles. But she is no redeemer, at least not for most of the movie. She isn’t trying to normalize Reynolds, which in any case would be an impossibility. Instead, in a development right out of gothic melodrama, she holds onto him in a way that demonstrates she is just as deranged as he is. (To her great credit, Krieps never telegraphs any of this for us.) For much of the movie, we have been led to believe it is Reynolds who is the nut-case genius. Now we realize he has competition. Like I say, a folie à deux.

Why should any of this matter to us? Aside from the terrific ensemble acting and the pleasures of watching an expertly designed human board game being played out, I think Anderson is also getting at something deeper. Many of his movies, most conspicuously “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” are about grand-scale obsessives who ultimately bring about their own downfall. In “Phantom Thread,” he is showcasing not an oil baron or a spiritual guru, as in those films, but an artist. The self-immolation of an artist who is both inspired and undone by his muse is the true subject of “Phantom Thread.” In the film’s final jolt of perversity, Anderson holds out a halcyon hope for these two. In their complicity with each other’s manias, he sees a kind of salvation. 

One last note: Day-Lewis has announced that this will be his last film. Far be it for me to tell him how to live his life, but might perhaps our greatest living actor want to reconsider? As Reynolds, he is so galvanizing that the slightest flicker of his hand, of his brow, opens up for us a wide thoroughfare into this man’s stricken soul. What is so bafflingly fascinating about “Phantom Thread” is that Reynolds is an ascetic at the center of a movie that is anything but. The dry ice in this film burns with a hothouse intensity. Grade: A- (Rated R for language.)

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The Monitor's View

When families flee, will the US open its arms?

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The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees calculates that worldwide 22.5 million refugees have fled their homelands based on well-founded fears of persecution. If a broader definition is used that includes people displaced within their own countries, the figure rises to 65.6 million – the highest number since the refugee crisis that followed World War II. In 2017 the United States set a record of its own, accepting the fewest number of refugees, just 29,022, since just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The seesaw political arguments over the benefits and dangers of immigration are well known. Refugees, however, represent a special – and tiny – part of the immigrant story. Nations that take them in make a statement about their moral commitment to help those in clear and urgent need. When guiding US policy, fears about accommodating refugees need to be weighed against the enduring American spirit of compassion for others.

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When families flee, will the US open its arms?

Rita Joy Osazee, a refugee who fled from Nigeria, is training to work in an elder care facility in Budapest, Hungary. “It is not easy to be old,” she says. “I feel a strong desire to take care of the elderly. I don’t know why but I just love them.”

Iman Khatibe escaped the brutal civil war in Syria and has found a new home in Frankfurt, Germany, as a seamstress. She learned her skills from her mother, aunt, and uncle; now she designs and makes garments from evening dresses to wedding gowns, decorated with her own intricate embroidery. “I don’t copy what I see on the street,” she says. “My inspiration comes from inside.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) collects and tells stories such as these to help remove stereotypes about who refugees are. Each individual has a unique situation; what they share are lives that, through no fault of their own, have been severely disrupted.

The UNHCR calculates that worldwide 22.5 million refugees have fled their homelands based on well-founded fears of persecution because of their religion, nationality, race, or politics. If a broader definition is used that includes people displaced within their own countries, the figure rises to 65.6 million – the highest number since the massive refugee crisis that sprang from World War II more than 70 years ago.

Today, while record numbers need help, the United States has set a record of its own: In 2017 the US accepted the fewest number of refugees, just 29,022, since at least 2002, the year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The US took in 84,995 refugees in the last fiscal year of the Obama administration that ended in September 2016. In 1980 the Reagan administration took in more than 200,000 refugees. The Trump administration has set a limit of 45,000 admissions for 2018.

The seesaw political arguments over the benefits and dangers of immigration are well known. This much certainly can be said: Throughout American history immigrants have been the engine of growth and prosperity. And given today’s low unemployment many areas of the country face worker shortages that immigrants could fill.

Refugees, however, represent a special – and tiny – part of the immigrant story (about 1 million legal immigrants are added to the US population each year). In many cases refugees literally have fled for their lives. Nations that take them in make a statement about their moral commitment to help those in clear and urgent need.

In his recent Christmas message Pope Francis compared the plight of refugee children to Jesus, who after his birth was forced to flee Bethlehem with his parents, crossing into neighboring Egypt to escape harm. 

“We see Jesus in the many children forced to leave their countries to travel alone in inhuman conditions and who become an easy target for human traffickers,” he said. “Through their eyes we see the drama of all those forced to emigrate and risk their lives to face exhausting journeys....”

In guiding US policy, fears that refugees bring with them crime, or even terrorism, or that they will put severe or unfair demands on social services, need to be weighed against the enduring American spirit of compassion for others.

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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.

The refuge of spiritual calm

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How does one remain calm and at peace when facing down fear? The Bible says, “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them” (Psalms 119:165). That peace is something we’re all capable of finding through an understanding of God’s law, the universal law of harmony. Christ Jesus proved this when he stilled a storm through reliance on God’s law. Contributor Nancy Gingras relied on it, too, on a transatlantic flight. Fellow passengers were frightened by a disruptive, angry passenger, but through prayer and her trust in God’s law of love, she felt calm, confident the situation would be resolved harmoniously – and it was. We can find peace amid anger, hate, or fear when we know God is an ever-present, omnipotent help, a law of harmony that overrules discordant situations.

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The refuge of spiritual calm

After a recent visit to London, I was struck by the calmness and evenness of the people I met. I was reminded of the now popular “Keep calm and carry on” motivational poster, once intended to raise the morale of the British public during World War II.

British fortitude and calmness were once again evident during a series of terrorist attacks in London. Instead of letting fear dominate, residents chose to calmly carry on yet remain alert and vigilant.

However, there is more to be done than simply staying calm as one keeps on with daily life. To face down fear, I’ve found strong help in the Bible, including the following in the book of Psalms: “Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them” (119:165). God’s law overrules all that is unlike good because it is the universal law of harmony. The Bible shows how the understanding of this was proved throughout the life of Christ Jesus.

For example, the book of Matthew shares an account of Jesus and his disciples traveling in a boat that was caught up in a boisterous storm (see 8:23-27). The disciples were terrified, but Jesus met the storm with calm resolve. He understood God’s law to be ever present and in constant operation. Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” The account continues, “Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.” Jesus proved to his disciples that their fears were unfounded. God’s love and their God-given safety was with them wherever they were.

The healing power of relying on this law was proved for me while traveling on a flight over the Atlantic Ocean. I had fallen asleep and was awakened by loud, angry voices. On the other side of the plane, a young man was shouting at a woman sitting near him. A flight attendant moved the woman to another seat, and she told the man, “If you do not calm down, we will have to turn this plane around and return to the airport.”

My thought naturally turned to prayer, and I affirmed that there was only the presence of God’s love. The Monitor’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures”: “The depth, breadth, height, might, majesty, and glory of infinite Love fill all space. That is enough!” (p. 520). I prayed that Love was present to meet the need of every individual. And how could infinite Love fail to be enough?

As I looked around, I saw fear on the faces of my fellow travelers. But I continued to affirm silently that we were all God’s children. The man of God’s creating forever reflects spiritual strength, dominion, peace, calm, and fearlessness. Not only do we express those qualities, but we also all have the innate ability to feel God’s law of love assuring us of His ever-presence and all-power.

I looked up at the man and found myself filled with compassion. I perceived his spiritual nature; I recognized that he could feel God’s love, just as I was. Then the flight attendant walked over and handed me his newspaper. She said: “Please take this; he wants you to have it. If you take this, it will help quiet him.” I was surprised he had noticed me. Perhaps he had seen me smiling at him. I thanked the flight attendant, nodded and smiled at the man, and took the newspaper. Soon a sense of peace resumed, and we continued on our way.

Words of the Psalmist assure us: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Psalms 46:1). We can remain calm amid anger, hate, or fear when we know God is our ever-present, omnipotent help, a law of harmony that erases all human discord. So keep that spiritual calm, and carry on with joy!

Adapted from an article in the Nov. 27, 2017, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Fighting to preserve old ways

Taylor Weidman
A Dukha man herded reindeer in the East Taiga near Tsagaan Nuur, Mongolia. The Dukha, one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in the world, have long led a traditional nomadic lifestyle dependent on the reindeer they herd. In 2011, the Mongolian government established a national reserve to protect the region's many endangered species. Some of the hunting practices of the Dukha were outlawed. Restrictions were placed on where they could graze their herds. Now the Dukha worry that their traditions will die out. Some have continued their practices illegally and in secret. While the government has been proactive in preserving the environment by creating this park, many Dukha believe that the planning was conducted without adequate consultation. Ultimately, both the Mongolian government and the Dukha want the same thing: to preserve the forest and the species that thrive there.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( January 8th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Thanks for being here today. Many of you said that you enjoyed last summer’s series "American Close-ups," by Doug Struck. We did, too. So when Doug let us know that he was driving back across the country, we asked him to take it slow, and to ask people what they’re thinking these days about this place called America. We’ll have installments, with audio clips, all week. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

January 05, 2018
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