2018
March
09
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

March 09, 2018
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TODAY’S INTRO

Monitor Daily Intro for March 9, 2018

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

The idea of “adjusted expectations” can carry a whiff of compromise. This week brought reminders that the adjustment can also be upward.

It began with post-Oscar buzz about Frances McDormand’s rousing call for “inclusion riders” – at least one production company quickly got on board. Melinda Gates would opine about the transformative power of putting money in “the hands of women who have the authority to use it.”

It was mostly symbolic that some outlets of American cultural juggernaut McDonald’s flipped the logo to form a W in a salute to women. It was arguably at least a small cultural shift when carmakers at a major international auto show shed the tradition of decorative “booth babes.”

Then there were those penguins. A supercolony of more than 1.5 million birds – Adélies, thought to be in rapid decline – is now known to exist on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Perspective about the tiny birds’ plight was shifted from space. Satellite images had revealed massive guano fields.

Finally, a development on solar power in California. The state is overproducing relative to its goals. It set two big records this month alone. That stands to renew a push to adopt much more aggressive targets. Old mandate: half the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Now, how about 100 percent by 2045? That’s raising expectations.

Now to our five stories for your Friday, highlighting the importance of equal opportunity, of always favoring a closer look, and of choosing innovation over closing doors.

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More jobs, better wages narrow America's income gap

Yes, the monthly job-creation numbers that came out today were very strong. But there’s more. Wages at the bottom end of the pay scale are improving, possibly in a more persistent way than usual. That’s significant in an era of high income inequality. 

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It’s a pattern that’s not uncommon during a long economic recovery: As the job market tightens, wages start rising and the gains increasingly start spreading to workers at the bottom of the income ladder as well as the top. The cycle doesn’t always last long. But forecasts suggest that this time around, as in the mid 1990s, the poor may continue to make outsize gains for a few more years before a recession hits. Policymakers also have a role to play in adding more stability and opportunity to the job market. But already, employers like Target have raised pay multiple times in the past few years. And people like Jammie Baker, a certified nursing assistant, are benefitting. The extra income has taken away the financial stress as she and her husband plan for a new baby. “That burden,” she says, “was definitely lifted.”

More jobs, better wages narrow America's income gap

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Students attend a nurse's aide training program at Jewish Vocational Service that will help them find employment, on Feb. 11, 2014, in Boston. The program prepares students to pass the Certified Nursing Assistant certification exam.

Things have changed at Jewish Vocational Services in Boston. The number of people served by the JVS career center has plunged from 20,000 in the depths of the Great Recession to 12,000. And about a year ago, the staff began noticing that clients were starting to get multiple job offers.

“For folks in our career center, they can be a little more choosy,” says Mandy Townsend, vice president of employer engagement at JVS. “Our real focus is to get higher than minimum wage jobs” for clients.

Wages are rising because a booming economy has created a shortage of workers, forcing companies to pay more to fill jobs. On Friday, the Commerce Department reported the biggest one-month surge in employment in a year and half – 313,000 jobs in February – with hourly earnings up 2.6 percent over the past year.

The effect is especially noticeable for Americans at the bottom end of the pay scale. It’s not just rising wages. Some 806,000 people entered the workforce last month – the biggest monthly rise in 15 years – while the unemployment rate stayed at 4.1 percent, a 17-year low. That means that many sidelined Americans, who had given up on finding jobs, are now finding employment, boosting their income.

And that surge in jobs and pay has pushed the United States into one of those rare periods where the growth in the income gap between rich and poor Americans has slowed – or perhaps stopped altogether.

“That's what happens when the economy recovers,” says Diane Lim, principal economist at The Conference Board, a business membership and research group based in New York. “You see some collapsing of the inequality because the bottom comes up.”

Such periods typically don’t last long enough to reverse the long-term widening of the income gap. And they typically come at the top of an economic cycle, so that just as poor people are gaining jobs and earning more, a recession comes along and knocks them out of the workforce again.

But there are signs that this time, as in the mid-1990s, the poor may be able to continue to make outsize gains for a few more years before a recession hits. That would be a meaningful boost, and it would give policymakers and nonprofits more time to figure out ways to create more stable employment for those at the bottom of the income ladder.

From $12 to $14 an hour

Things are certainly looking up for Jammie (pronounced “Jamie”) Baker. Eleven months ago, she noticed an ad on a Boston subway for nursing assistant training. Now, instead of earning $12 an hour as a housekeeper, she’s making $14 an hour (and often $17 by working nights) as a certified nursing assistant at a local hospital.

“We will go out to Dave & Buster’s [a national restaurant and sports bar chain] just because,” says Ms. Baker, whose husband works as a housekeeper. For the first time they have begun paying a babysitter. With a second child on the way, she says, the extra income has taken away the financial stress of planning for a new baby. “That burden was definitely lifted.”

That dynamic is playing out around the country.

Nam Y. Huh/AP
A job seeker, standing, talks with a Target human resources representative at a Target store in Chicago on Oct. 15, 2017. Target is raising its minimum starting pay for workers for the second time in less than a year after seeing a bigger and better pool of candidates. Target, which hiked starting pay to $11 an hour last fall, said that all workers this spring will receive a minimum of $12 per hour. CEO Brian Cornell said Tuesday, March 6, 2018, that Target will offer workers $15 an hour by 2020.

This past October, Target announced it would raise its starting hourly wage to $11 in its nationwide chain of stores. This week, it announced another raise to $12 an hour and reiterated its promise to push the minimum to $15 by the end of 2020. After Congress passed a giant corporate tax cut in January, a slew of corporations – from Starbucks to Walmart (the world’s largest employer) – also announced they would raise their starting pay.

Raises from big and small employers

It’s not just big corporations that are bumping up wages.

Americans for Tax Reform, a nonprofit that opposes tax increases, has listed hundreds of companies that are boosting wages, bonuses, and payments to retirement accounts, including small businesses in rural areas. Anfinson Farm Store in Cushing, Iowa, is handing out bonuses and raising pay 5 percent for its employees. AaLadin Cleaning Systems, an Elk Point, S.D., manufacturer, instituted a new starting pay policy March 1 and is giving bonuses to its more than 80 employees. Amarillo National Bank in Texas is boosting annual salaries by $1,000 for more than 300 employees.

One factor is the Trump tax cut, which this year will put billions of dollars into the pockets of businesses. A big question mark is how they will spend that windfall: how much on dividends and share buybacks that boost their share price, which helps middle class retirement accounts and wealthy share owners, and how much on raising the minimum pay and training, which tends to help the poor.

Another factor is the booming economy itself. Well before the tax cut, banks for example had been raising their minimum wages: Amalgamated Bank (2015), J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America (2016), and Wells Fargo (2017).

As a result of the growth in income, the gap between the rich and poor may be widening more slowly.  From the end of the Great Recession in 2009 through 2014, the income of a household in the exact middle of the top fifth of US households grew by 9 percent. That was more than twice the 3.9 percent growth of income in the middle of the bottom fifth of US households. But in 2015, that situation reversed: the middle or “mean” income of the bottom fifth outgained the top fifth: 6.7 percent to 4.3 percent. It reversed again in 2016.

For the next poorest fifth of households, the percentage income gains have outpaced those of the top fifth for both years. (The Census Bureau numbers for 2017 aren’t out yet.)

The reductions in inequality have not been uniform geographically. During the 2014-2016 period, the Brookings Institution found that income inequality fell to a significant degree in eight of the nation’s top 100 cities (Charlotte, N.C.; Dallas; Jackson, Miss.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and Salt Lake City) but rose in five others (Baltimore; Detroit; Omaha, Neb.; Rochester, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.). By contrast, only eight metro areas (which include the suburbs) saw income disparity fall while 12 metro areas saw it rise.

How to help the gains persist?

Still, the broad trend now is rising incomes and more jobs, and economists widely see that continuing this year. The challenge is that any outsized income gains by the poorest Americans tend to be short-lived because they usually appear near the top of the economic cycle. The broad-based wage increases typically spur inflation, which causes the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, and most often a recession follows. Then, those low-income and less-experienced workers are more likely to get fired and their income falls. That’s what happened in the past two recessions.

“It's the regularity of business cycles,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, a risk-management subsidiary of Moody’s Corp. in New York. “And the way that policymakers could or should address it is to invest in things that raises the productivity of the workforce, especially the lesser skilled, lesser educated worker.”

There have been years, such as 1995 and 2015, when the bottom fifth outperformed and a recession didn’t hit. The next 12 months could shape up to be another one of those years as government stimulus – through tax cuts and other federal spending – further gooses the economy and causes the unemployment rate to fall to between 3 and 3.5 percent, Mr. Zandi says. The last time unemployment was that low was 1969.

But moving beyond the boom and bust of the bottom fifth’s income will require more holistic solutions. One way is worker training. If workers at the bottom of the income ladder become more productive, then employers can boost their wages without sparking inflation.

In the JVS program that helped Baker, the hospital did the job interview and hired her before the nurse’s training and paid for the six weeks of classes. That assured the hospital of a trained employee while easing Baker’s worries about leaving a fulltime job with benefits and going six weeks without pay.

The new job has boosted her confidence and allowed her family to do “the little things that people take for granted,” she says. “It felt amazing to know that if I wanted to go ahead and take my son to the arcade, I didn’t have to say: ‘If I take my son to the arcade, what [bill] do I have to not pay?”

What Ghouta tells us about the world's ability to protect civilians

In an opinion piece in The New York Times Thursday, Sen. John McCain and actor-activist Angelina Jolie decried what they called America’s “failure to hold accountable those who commit mass atrocities and human rights abuses” in Myanmar, calling years of progress “squandered.” Syria, too, now presents a sobering question: Can humanitarian concern no longer overrule what seems to be cold reality?

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Not so long ago, when civilians were at risk of unbearable atrocities, Western governments were prepared to step in to protect them. NATO defended Kosovars from Serbian troops; US and other warplanes kept Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi’s soldiers from storming Benghazi. The idea that states have a “responsibility to protect” people threatened with massacre was beginning to take shape. But nobody is talking like that today in Syria, even though government forces are bombarding civilians indiscriminately in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. Partly that is because most nations were upset when Washington and its allies went from protecting civilians to overthrowing the Libyan government, so they won’t give the West any leeway any longer; partly it is because nations such as Russia and China, which do not see Western values as universal ones, wield more clout than they used to. And partly it is because the US no longer plays such a dominant role in the world. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies are winning the war in Syria and they play rough. Nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop them in eastern Ghouta. 

What Ghouta tells us about the world's ability to protect civilians

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Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
A man walks on the rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria Mar. 5.

“Save Ghouta however you can.”

That desperate plea to the outside world comes from Alaa Abu Zeid, a young man trapped in the besieged suburb northeast of the Syrian capital with 400,000 fellow civilians, many sheltering in basements as their homes crumble above them.

Working for a charity handing out scarce food, and moving his family members from house to house to protect them from Syrian and Russian bombs, his vision is stark.

“If the situation continues like this there will be new massacres, more children killed … and more women dying of fear,” he tells the Monitor by telephone. But he knows his cry is ultimately falling on deaf ears. “Until now, the world has taken no serious action,” he laments.

What can other countries do to save eastern Ghouta’s non-combatants, caught in crossfire between Islamist rebel forces and advancing Syrian troops, backed by Russian air power, who have killed more than 800 civilians in indiscriminate bombardment over the past two weeks?

“Distressingly little” has appeared to be the answer so far, as humanitarian instincts run up against hard political realities, and “might makes right” routinely trumps moral considerations. Washington has shown signs of shrugging off its role as a world leader, and nations such as Russia and China, which do not see Western humanitarian values as universal, wield growing global clout.

“Unfortunately, scandalously, there is nothing to be done but wait for Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin to achieve their goal” of capturing eastern Ghouta, says Bernard Kouchner, the founder of “Doctors Without Borders” and an early champion of the idea that governments have a humanitarian duty to intervene forcefully to defend human rights internationally. “It’s too late now.”

Such a pessimistic view raises questions about how the international community has seemingly become so impotent. But it does not preclude the possibility of making the case to Russia that avoiding a massacre in Ghouta could help it achieve its postwar aims.

Rodi Said/Reuters
Former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Bernard Kouchner (l.) greets a Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) fighter during his visit to the Ras Al-Ayn countryside in northeastern Syria, Nov. 28, 2014.

Responsibility to Protect

Not so very long ago, people like Mr. Kouchner, who rose to become France’s foreign minister, had the wind in their sails. In 2005 the United Nations General Assembly endorsed a new humanitarian concept: the Responsibility to Protect. That proposes that if a state does not protect its citizens from atrocities, the international community has a responsibility to step in – using force if the UN Security Council so decides.

Similar thinking had inspired the “no-fly zone” in northern Iraq, which Western air forces imposed after the 1991 Gulf War to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. NATO justified its bombing of Serbia in 1999 – deterring Slobodan Milosevic’s soldiery from threatened massacres in Kosovo – with a version of the same theory.

Most consequentially, France, Britain, and the United States invoked “R2P” – as the responsibility to protect civilians had become known – to explain their bombing runs against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s forces as they approached the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in 2011.

And yet last year, when 650,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims fled in terror from rampaging Myanmar troops setting fire to their homes, the world barely lifted a finger in their defense. A top UN official said the military operation “seems like a textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. Hobbled by objections by permanent member China, though, the UN Security Council could do nothing more than issue a watered-down statement with no legal force condemning the “excessive use of military force.”

This was scarcely an isolated incident.

“Time and again … I have brought to the attention of the international community violations of human rights which should have served as a trigger for preventive action,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, complained last month. “Time and again there has been minimal action” because China, Russia, or the United States, who each wield a veto on the UN Security Council, has blocked it.

The Libya effect

Syria is a case in point. Since the conflict broke out in 2011, Moscow and Beijing have used their veto eight times to kill UN resolutions meant to address crimes against humanity or war crimes. In the meantime, some 460,000 people have been killed.

“Had there been a strong and united response … to the Assad regime’s violence in 2011, the descent into hell thereafter might have been averted,” argues Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister who was one of the key architects and proponents of the R2P concept.

But the international community did nothing.

Mr. Evans traces that passivity to events in Libya earlier in 2011, when London, Paris, and Washington (known as P3) effectively transformed their UN civilian protection mandate in Benghazi into a regime-change mandate to unseat Qaddafi.

This, Evans recalls in his recently published memoirs, so incensed other Security Council members that when the question of sanctioning Damascus arose they resolved “they were not going to concede an inch if there was any chance the P3 would take that inch to run a mile.”

The Security Council has been deadlocked over Syria, and other humanitarian crises, ever since.

A shift in the global balance of power has not helped.

Moves to enforce human rights at gunpoint gathered strength in the heyday of US power and influence around the end of the last century, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. When NATO decided to aid Kosovo and bomb Serbia in 1999, even without a UN mandate, there was nothing that Russia – in the dying days of Boris Yeltsin’s government – could do to defend its old ally.

“That moment has gone,” points out Joost Hiltermann, head of Middle East affairs at International Crisis Group, a prominent conflict-prevention organization. “We are in a different world now. The main champions of international humanitarian law are no longer the main arbiters of conflicts.”

In Syria, “they are not in the driver’s seat,” he adds. “They have lost, and they have no means of enforcement.”

Obama’s ‘red line’

Most notably, says Mr. Hiltermann, “the United States is in retreat” from its traditional role as a world leader – a trend that began under the last US administration.

As president, Barack Obama spoke boldly about crimes against humanity. In 2011 he declared that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States,” the first time such issues were put at the heart of the US international agenda.

But two years later, when the Syrian Army crossed the “red line” that Mr. Obama had declared – using a chemical weapon, sarin gas, to kill hundreds of civilians in Ghouta – the US president did not carry through on his earlier threat to retaliate militarily.

While Obama did subsequently back a diplomatic solution to remove Syria’s chemical stockpiles, the military inaction was a critical error, says Karin von Hippel, head of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based defense and security think tank. “You have to back your threats with force, or you should not make them,” she argues. “Now the Russians know that we won’t do any more than shout at them.”

But if Obama judged that civilian deaths by sarin did not justify an attack on President Assad’s Army, he was not alone. The US Congress was deeply divided, the British Parliament voted against retaliating, and opinion polls found most French and Germans opposed to any strike.

Russians may be apathetic about their government’s Syria policy, but they have not stopped President Putin from vigorously supporting Assad in a way that Mr. Yeltsin could not support Mr. Milosevic. If the United States tried to protect people in Ghouta today by imposing a “no-fly zone,” “that could get us close to World War III with the Russians,” warns Dr. von Hippel.

In order to impose a no-fly zone, the US would have to destroy Syria’s Russian-made and Russian manned air-defense batteries. “They’d have to kill a lot of Russians,” says Justin Bronk, an air power specialist at RUSI.

US fighter jets would also be up against some very capable Russian planes. “The West has enough tactical air power to impose a no-fly zone, but we’d have to fight to enforce it, and we’d take losses,” says Mr. Bronk. “And that’s even if you could avoid the potentially cataclysmic consequences of attacking Russian forces, which you can’t.”

Since President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air field last year, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack, Russia has very publicly increased its presence at Syrian facilities. That sends the message that “if you want to do that again, you will have to go through us,” says Bronk. And reports of chemical attacks continue.

Non-war options?

So if war is not the way to help Ghouta’s suffering citizens, what else might help?

Some suggest the Syrian and Russian forces might be dissuaded from their most flagrant violations of international law, such as the use of chemical weapons and bombing raids on hospitals, if their officers were threatened with prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which was set up to try atrocities.

But neither Moscow nor Damascus are members of the court; the ICC could only investigate and try alleged Russian and Syrian crimes if the UN Security Council referred them to The Hague. Russia, of course, would be able to veto any such decision.

“You could take punitive measures short of war,” such as sanctions, says the ICC’s Hiltermann. “But there is no appetite among Western governments for that because they don’t lead anywhere.”

That's especially true when you are dealing with the Syrian Army’s historic mentor, the Russian Army, which displayed its own brutal, no-holds-barred tactics against urban rebels when it flattened the Chechen capital of Grozny and did the same in Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, last year.

The best to be hoped for in Ghouta, suggests Hiltermann, is that an appeal to Moscow’s self-interest might work. “The Russians and the regime are going to win,” he predicts. “It’s a matter of how they win.

“Is it in Moscow’s interest to allow a massacre? In the end they will want a political solution in Syria, and economic reconstruction,” he predicts. “For that they will need European input and money and investment,” which will not be forthcoming unless Russia prevents the most grotesque outrages and facilitates some sort of rebel evacuation from Ghouta.

This is vastly different from the ambitious optimism about the West’s humanitarian purpose in confronting the Taliban that Mr. Kouchner, then French foreign minister, expressed in 2008 when 10 French soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.

“What’s at stake is first and foremost our values,” he wrote then in the daily Le Monde newspaper. “We are fighting to offer the Afghan people acceptable living conditions: equality, justice, a step back from arbitrariness and violence.”

But Kouchner still sticks to his faith. Even if the balance sheet of foreign intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya is “not very satisfactory,” he admits, “it is always better to save a life than not to save one.”

“The idea of a responsibility to protect is going through a moment of great weakness,” he says. “But in juridical and human terms, it is still right.”

Evans, too, sees a future for R2P, though in a more circumscribed and closely monitored shape. But that won’t help the people in Ghouta. In that martyred suburb, ambitions are more limited.

If the Russian government can be persuaded to allow an organized evacuation of rebel fighters and the civilians who want to go with them, “it may still be possible to dismantle the enclave in eastern Ghouta with less destruction and human suffering than that which afflicted eastern Aleppo,” says Aron Lund, an analyst who has followed the Syrian civil war closely, in a paper published recently by the Century Foundation in New York.

“And in Syria’s vile and criminal war,” he argues, “protecting civilians remains a worthy goal – perhaps the only one.”

Dominique Soguel contributed reporting from Basel, Switzerland.

Why Texas midterms may be less ‘blue wave’ than ‘blue ripple’

You can’t wish a bellwether into being. Primary results early this week in Texas had some poll-watchers setting up the state as a microcosm of a national political shift. This piece looks at the problems that can come with that sort of extrapolation. 

Eric Gay/AP
A podium awaited speakers at a Democratic watch party following the Texas primary election March 6 in Austin.

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Texas Democrats could be looking at one of their most successful midterm elections in decades. Democratic candidates are contesting every congressional race for the first time in years. And President Trump’s approval rating is lower in Texas – 39 percent – than in any other Republican state, according to Gallup. But those looking for early signs of an anti-Trump “blue wave” sweeping the country may have to look elsewhere. In Texas, it may be more of a blue ripple. Yes, in a state with very few contested congressional districts, Democrats have a legitimate chance to win three. But they could still fail to win a single statewide race. Tuesday’s primary saw a little more than 1 million Democratic voters turn out. That's more than have done so since 1994, coincidentally the last year a Democrat won statewide in Texas. But they were still outvoted by the 1.5 million Republicans who went to the polls – that party's best showing since at least 1970. That’s not to say all talk of a blue wave this November is premature. “If I was an Arizona Republican, I’d be a little nervous,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. “A Georgia Republican … or a Nevada Republican, you should [also] probably be pretty nervous.”

Why Texas midterms may be less ‘blue wave’ than ‘blue ripple’

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More than 1 million Texans voted in the state’s first-in-the-nation Democratic primary, in a show of enthusiasm not seen here for decades. Fernanda Hernandez was one of them, dashing to a polling site in south San Antonio during a work break on Tuesday. Her 18-year-old sister and her friends were all planning to vote as well, she said.

So, could this be it? Could the long-predicted shift from red to blue in Texas finally be happening?

“I don’t think so,” says Ms. Hernandez, before heading back to work. “I hope so, but I don’t think so.”

To be sure, Texas Democrats could be looking at one of their most successful midterm elections in decades. There are Democratic candidates contesting every congressional race for the first time in years. And President Trump’s approval rating is lower in Texas – 39 percent – than any other Republican state, according to Gallup.

But those looking for early signs of an anti-Trump “blue wave” sweeping the country may have to look elsewhere. In Texas, it may be little more than a blue ripple.

Any coming wave is “likely to show itself much more starkly in other states around the country that are more purple rather than deep-red,” says Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Indeed, Democrats could have their most successful midterm here in years – in a state with very few contested congressional districts, they have a legitimate chance to win three – but still fail to win a single statewide race.

The biggest reason for that is that Democrats remain at the most literal of disadvantages. Tuesday’s primary saw more Democratic voters – a little more than 1 million – than they’ve had since 1994, coincidentally the last year a Democrat won statewide in Texas. But they were still outvoted by the 1.5 million Republicans who went to the polls – that party's best showing since at least 1970.

This decades-long run as the Harlem Globetrotters of Texas politics has allowed the GOP to develop some strong institutional advantages.

“Republicans have not lost a statewide race in Texas since 1994,” says Professor Jillson. That kind of dominance means “voters are used to supporting your candidates, you’ve got a fully blown-out campaign organization, and you’ve got deep fundraising experience – and the other side has none of that.”

That imbalance is starkly exemplified in the governor’s race. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has been running statewide since he was a state supreme court justice in 1998, and since becoming governor in 2015 he has raised $41 million for his re-election campaign. His Democratic challengers, Lupe Valdez and Andrew White – who will face off in a May run-off – have raised $600,000 between them.

Michael Ciaglo /Houston Chronicle/AP
A voter walks past campaign signs outside the West Grey Multipurpose Center on March 6, in Houston. Democrats had near-record turnout during Texas' first-in-the-nation primaries. Republicans, however, broke their previous record, showing that theories about a blue wave engulfing the Lone Star State may be premature.

Even when Democratic candidates are able to compete financially, building name recognition can be a challenge. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso who is challenging Sen. Ted Cruz (R), has been handily outraising his opponent and has visited 224 of the state’s 254 counties – but an October 2017 poll found that almost 70 percent of voters didn’t know who he was.

Controlling all branches of the state government has also allowed Republicans to consolidate their advantage by redrawing district maps. Federal courts have invalidated on three separate occasions parts of the map the state Legislature drew in 2011, after the 2010 Census, most recently last August when a three-judge panel ruled that two congressional districts – one held by a Republican and one held by a Democrat – constituted “an impermissible racial gerrymander.” (The US Supreme Court will hear a challenge to that decision in April, and could order the districts to be redrawn before the November election.)

This Republican dominance in the state “makes it difficult to recruit high-quality candidates for many races, and it makes it hard to convince donors to commit serious dollars to build a Democratic party,” says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston.

“Even many Texas donors who are progressive prefer to send money out of the state to races where they think they could have more influence,” he adds.

False dawns have not helped Democrats here. There was similar excitement in 2014 around Wendy Davis, who was running for governor after a highly publicized filibuster against new abortion restrictions in the state. She raised nearly $40 million but still lost to Governor Abbott by 20 points.

There are signs, however, that Texas Democrats could be moving out of their Washington Generals phase (to continue the Harlem Globetrotters analogy), according to Professor Jones.

“One way to look at this is Democratic enthusiasm leading more voters to turn out – but another is, it’s encouraging very talented individuals to run for office as Democrats, who in previous cycles did not run,” he says. Even if many of those candidates wind up losing, “they’ll have experience [and] name recognition that could be useful in future races.”

It is unclear how long the current enthusiasm will last, however. After the primaries this week and run-offs in May, voter fatigue could set in by November. Or fears of a Democratic takeover could send Republicans to vote in droves.

“Texas is just deeply red,” writes Elizabeth Simas, a political scientist at the University of Houston, in an email. “It's going to take more than one election to see that kind of major change.”

That may not be the case in more purple states, however.

“If I was an Arizona Republican, I’d be a little nervous,” says Professor Jones. “A Georgia Republican … or a Nevada Republican, you should [also] probably be pretty nervous.”

And some Texas Democrats say they are looking beyond November.

After voting at a polling site in north San Antonio on Tuesday, Andy Short, a Democrat, says it is “definitely an exciting time” but predicts that Democrats are unlikely to make significant gains in Texas this year.

“I’m trying to remind people [to vote]. I’m not, like, crazy on Facebook” about it, he adds. “But maybe in 2020.”

Special Report

Gun laws and gun violence: What states’ experiences show

What’s the relationship between gun laws and lives saved? We gave four young staffers with a keen interest in data journalism three days to probe that question at the state level. By last night our lead designer reported having “work dreams” about how best to express their mound of findings. (You’ll want to click through the email to the enriched, site-hosted version for this one.)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act on Friday, after meeting with the families of those affected by last month’s mass shooting in Parkland. The new law raises the minimum age to buy a rifle, imposes a three-day waiting period on all gun sales, and permits the arming of some school employees. In the past two weeks, governors in Rhode Island, Oregon, and Washington have strengthened state gun laws. Amid this shifting patchwork of state laws, the Monitor has examined variations in gun laws and firearm death rates across US states, using data from Boston University’s State Firearm Laws Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Examining gun laws at the state level,” says BU’s Michael Siegel, “is critical to understand what policies are effective and what policies may be ineffective.” Last week Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts urged federal legislators to consider following cues from his state, which adopted a statewide ban on assault weapons when a federal ban expired in 2004. “The assault weapons ban in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, based on all the data that's available, has served this commonwealth well,” Governor Baker said. “It would be appropriate at this point for the federal government to adopt something similar.”

–  Story Hinckley, Rebecca Asoulin, Noble Ingram, Asia Palomba

SOURCE: State Firearm Laws Project; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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RESEARCH: Story Hinckley, Rebecca Asoulin, Noble Ingram, Asia Palomba; GRAPHIC: Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Baths, power source, or both? Japan’s tug of war over geothermal

What happens when a long-cherished tradition clashes with sustainability? Sometimes it forces a tough choice. But as this piece from a Japanese city shows, it can also bubble up innovation.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Hot springs create steam above the quiet neighborhood of Ogura in Beppu, Japan.

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In Japan, hot springs are synonymous with relaxation. But for a country that has almost no oil and gas of its own, hot springs also offer a way to produce electricity, particularly with the mass shutdown of nuclear reactors after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Today geothermal power plants are popping up across Japan. They still make up a modest share of overall power production, but for owners of hotels and bathhouses that rely on underground hot springs to fill their tubs, the threat is real. Their fear, as yet unproved, is that diverting spring water to power plants will mean less for them – and that the wellheads could be polluted. Another possibility is that smaller generators could eventually be installed by innkeepers themselves, allowing them to sell power back to the grid and keep their customers soaking in a hot tub. Says one geothermal expert in Tokyo, “There are a lot of unknowns.” 

Baths, power source, or both? Japan’s tug of war over geothermal

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Spread over a hillside high above this city lies Ogura, a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes and traditional inns. White plumes of steam billow from dozens of metal chimneys that sprout from rooftops across the neighborhood, fed by the hot springs that lie underground and pipe scalding spring water into baths known in Japan as onsens.

When Kazunori Ueda sees this steam, he doesn’t think of a two-hour soak in a tub (not that he minds taking one). He sees untapped geothermal energy that can help power Japan, an industrial nation that relies on imported fossil fuels to keep the lights on, all the more so since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear-reactor meltdown.

Mr. Ueda is the managing director of Sanko Electric, a company founded by his father in 1975. In 2016, Sanko Electric installed its first power generator over an onsen in Ogura and is building another one in the nearby neighborhood of Horita. The generators are small, about 70 to 110 kilowatts each, but represent a modest geothermal boom in Japan, with support from a government mindful of the backlash against nuclear power.

Thanks to a nearby volcano, Beppu, a city of 120,000 people on the southwestern island of Kyushu, sits atop a geothermal gold mine: 2,217 wellheads that discharge a greater volume of hot water than any place in the world except Yellowstone National Park. “It would be a shame to let them go to waste,” Ueda says.

Michael Holtz/The Christian Science Monitor
Kazunori Ueda, the managing director of Sanko Electric, in Beppu, Japan on Feb. 2, 2018.

But not everyone in Japan is on board. For decades, many onsen hotel and bathhouse owners have opposed the development of geothermal energy for fear that it would divert water from their baths and spill effluent into the underground hot springs, spoiling a beloved form of relaxation that Japanese have indulged in for hundreds of years. 

With dozens of geothermal plants scheduled to open in Beppu, Goto Mitsuteru, the manager of a local hotel where rooms can cost $190 a night, is anxious to see if they have any effect on the onsen where his guests go to soak. So far, the answer is negative, but he still seems on edge about the geothermal boosters making a play for his town’s aquifers.

“I haven’t noticed any changes in the water since we opened 12 years ago,” admits Mr. Mitsuteru. “I just don’t know how long that will last.”

'A lot of unknowns'

In many ways, the rise of geothermal energy in Japan is long overdue. The country has the world’s third-largest geothermal reserves, behind the United States and Indonesia. The International Energy Agency estimates that Japan only uses about 2 percent of its geothermal capacity, which, at 23 gigawatts, is the equivalent of 23 nuclear reactors. 

“There are a lot of unknowns,” says Ali Kharrazi, an assistant professor at the University of Tokyo who has researched geothermal energy in Japan. “We’re still waiting for better technology and better modeling that can tell us what is happening to these underground springs.”

Here in Beppu, scientists successfully demonstrated for the first time in 1925 how onsens could be harnessed to generate electricity. Yet today only 0.3 percent of Japan’s electricity comes from geothermal plants; natural gas, coal, oil, and hydropower supply the rest. 

Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors had generated 29 percent of the country’s electricity. All 54 were shut down and only three have been allowed to restart. To help fill the gap, Japan has begun to tap geothermal energy with a flurry of projects from the northernmost island of Hokkaido to Kyushu in the south.

The country’s first new geothermal plant in 15 years opened four years ago in Kumamoto Prefecture. Next year, a 42-megawatt plant, the largest built in Japan in 23 years, is scheduled to start operations in Akita Prefecture. And in Beppu, dozens of small-scale projects, like Sanko Electric’s generators, are getting underway.

Japan wants to triple its geothermal output by 2030. To reach that goal, the government has lifted a decades-old ban on building geothermal plants in national parks, which contain close to 80 percent of its reserves. It also plans to conduct more geothermal surveys this year.

Yoichiro Kono, director of the Fuel Policy Planning Officeat the Agency for Natural Resources and Energy in Tokyo, says while this progress is encouraging, geothermal represents a small part of Japan’s overall energy consumption.

“The public is generally in favor of geothermal energy,” Mr. Kono says. “The biggest opposition comes from onsen areas. We must do everything we can to protect them.”

A win-win for innkeepers

Some of the small-scale projects in Beppu may provide an answer to this problem.

Sanko Electric’s generators rely on onsen water, which is relatively low in temperature (about 250 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with traditional generators that need water at 575 degrees or hotter. That means they’re less invasive because they don’t need to pull water from springs deep underground. Instead, they can siphon off water from springs that lie just beneath the ground all over the city. Sanko Electric’s generator sits on a plot of land about the size of a semi-trailer behind a black metal fence on a residential street.

Mini-generators that run on 300-degrees-or-less water could even prove to be a boon for the innkeepers that currently stand in the way of geothermal energy.

In a report published in December, Frost and Sullivan, a US market-research company, estimated that thousands of hot springs could produce as much as 7.5 gigawatts of electricity. As the technology improves and prices drop, the report says, hotels and bathhouses could install their own geothermal generators to produce electricity before transferring the water into their spas, effectively a double dip on the same natural resource.

Since 2012, operators of small electricity plants can sell power to Japan’s grid at a preferential rate, compared with larger facilities, while plants rated at less than 7.5 megawatts don’t require the same environmental assessment that often delays larger projects for more than a decade.

Hori Hideki, director of Beppu’s Environmental Planning Office, says the city has approved the construction of 30 small-scale geothermal plants that will begin operating this year. “So far we haven’t turned down any new projects,” he says. When asked whether they pose a threat to the onsens that local hotels and bathhouses rely on, he says it’s too early to know and that the city is closely monitoring the water and temperature levels of hot springs.  

Kenji Tsukazaki, an engineer at a geothermal plant at the Suginoi Hotel, an upscale resort in Beppu, tells a different story. When he started work at the plant 30 years ago, the average temperature of the water was 300 degrees Fahrenheit. It has since dropped to 250 degrees. If it drops any lower, it won’t be hot enough for the plant to operate. Mr. Tsukazaki predicts that will happen in the next 10 years as more plants are built. He admits that he doesn’t exactly know why the temperature keeps dropping, but he has a theory.

“There are too many wells,” he says. “Too many people have tapped into the onsens.”

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The art of listening in a Trump-Kim summit

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Over the past year, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have called each other nothing but belittling names. Now they are calling for a historic befriending summit. Yet personal interaction is what will be needed for peace on the Korean Peninsula. Each side needs to take a measure of the other’s trust and respect. Each side also believes it is negotiating from a position of strength. Yet standing down from tough positions will require stepping up to cleareyed perceptions of each other’s ultimate intentions. How much will the United States help revive the dormant North Korean economy? Is North Korea afraid of China’s bullying of its Asian neighbors? Is Mr. Kim, yet again, just buying time or angling for aid concessions? The diplomatic prep work for this summit must narrow down such questions to the essential few. Only then can Mr. Trump and Kim use their time together for the hard work: building a relationship of trust that can lead to verifiable results. The world will be listening to how well they listen to each other.

The art of listening in a Trump-Kim summit

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A woman in Tokyo walks by a huge screen showing President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un on March 9, 2018.

In the history of diplomatic firsts, there has never been something quite like this: Over the past year, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have called each other nothing but belittling names. Then suddenly on March 8, they called for a befriending summit, perhaps by May.

In just one year, the two men have gone from demonization to fraternization. Instead of a military face-off, they will now engage in mannerly face time.

The about-face is head snapping. And yet isn’t personal interaction exactly the secret sauce of any successful negotiation? Each side needs look-you-in-the-eye moments to take a measure of each other’s trust and respect. They need to shed stereotypes. They must listen carefully for each other’s cry for dignity and for the narrative of fear that drives them toward an often unspoken goal. Only then, after the de-demonizing, might a summit between enemies get down to hard issues.

The historic summit will come preloaded with minor concessions. North Korea claims it is ready to denuclearize, will refrain from any nuclear or missile tests for now, and accepts that the annual joint military exercises of South Korea and the United States will take place this spring. For the US, simply granting the North’s longtime wish – being treated as an equal to the US in a summit – is a victory for its desire of legitimacy.

The US came close to giving away that gift in 2000. A top North Korean general visited the Clinton White House and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang. But President Bill Clinton, just before he left office, decided not to pursue a summit.

The Trump-Kim summit will be made easier by the fact that Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in will meet a month earlier. While the 1950-53 war on the Korean Peninsula and the simmering conflict since then have been a power play of ideology and big-power maneuvers, the real issue is the civil divide of the Korean people. China and the US, for all their influence, must wait for that reconciliation.

Each side in this US-North Korea meeting may believe it is negotiating from a position of strength. Kim has nuclear weapons in place with rockets to carry them. Mr. Trump sees his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions as working along with hints of a stealth attack on the North’s nuclear facilities.

Yet standing down from such tough positions will require stepping up to cleareyed perceptions of each other’s ultimate intentions. How much will the US help revive the dormant North Korean economy? Is North Korea afraid of China’s bullying of its Asian neighbors? Does the US want regime change in Pyongyang? Is Kim, yet again, just buying time or angling for aid concessions?

The diplomatic prep work for this summit must narrow down such questions to the essential few. Only then can Trump and Kim use their time together for the hard work: building a relationship of trust that can lead to verifiable results. The world will be listening to how well they listen to each other.

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.

Hope for the addicted

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Today’s contributor shares how she found freedom from a three-pack-a-day smoking habit as she gained a more spiritual sense of her identity.

Hope for the addicted

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

My prayer sitting in church that day was, “God, help me get there!” “There” was making it through the service without a cigarette. I had a three-pack-a-day smoking habit. Because of circumstances that morning, I’d been taken to church without being able to have even one cigarette, never mind the 10 or more I would usually have had by then.

This addiction had started by thinking I’d be able to choose if and when I would smoke. However, before long it became obvious that I couldn’t choose. I was addicted, craving a constant supply of nicotine, even though smoking wasn’t something I wanted to hang on to. I wanted to be free.

Willing myself to stop didn’t work. I would quickly give in and then despise myself for being weak.

Then I started to study Christian Science, and as I began to understand life more spiritually, I felt that somehow God had to have an answer. Turns out He did.

In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, writes, “Desire is prayer” (p. 1). I found that was a good place to start. This statement offers the hope of freedom to all, including the addicted. When our desires are pure, our heart is open to the presence of the Divine.

However, it’s not just about cultivating a sincere desire for freedom. It’s also the desire to learn about God’s nature and what we truly are. This can lift us above the destructive cycle of craving, momentary satisfaction, and then the descent into more craving.

As we get to know what God is, we begin to find out what we are as the man and woman of His creation. Christian Science, based on the Bible, explains that God is infinite Spirit, and that we are made in God’s image. Therefore, our real identity is spiritual. That fact stands in sharp contrast to the view of ourselves and each other as mortal, but it is this spiritual reality that provides us with a basis for finding freedom from sensual, addictive desires. It’s an identity thing – because our identity truly is a vital part of God’s creation, not physical and mortal.

When we genuinely yearn to understand this, crippling habits fall away. It’s not that we become someone else, but that we recognize what we truly are. The dignity inherent in knowing we are children of God rises to the surface of our daily lives, and we are transformed. Not only do addictions drop away, but all kinds of character reformation take place.

During that service at a Church of Christ, Scientist, many years ago, a fuller recognition of this real identity suddenly filled me with inspiration, and when I walked out, I knew I was done with smoking for good. The craving was gone.

And while full freedom came in that sudden burst of spiritual illumination, that didn’t occur in isolation. I had actually been praying for this healing for months. I’d been gradually exchanging my concept of identity as a mortal for the recognition of my true identity, and that had led up to this sudden turnaround.

Letting in the light of this truth of our being as God’s dear children, we can trade addictive behaviors that wreak havoc with our health and relationships for freedom to express more and more fully the pure and free, spiritual individual we really are. We can be free!

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The other momentous meeting

Jason Lee/Reuters
Ushers pose for a photo in Tiananmen Square as delegates attend the second plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing March 9. The most high-profile issue this year: announced plans to drop a clause in the country’s Constitution that limits the president to two consecutive five-year terms.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Thanks, as always, for being with us today. Enjoy the weekend. Among the stories we’re working on for Monday: The announced meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un almost certainly won’t lead to North Korea’s denuclearization. But that doesn’t mean it won't have positive results. We’ll look at what could go right. 

Bonus weekend read: Peter Rainer’s review of Roland Joffe’s powerful film “The Forgiven,” about the interaction between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and an unrepentant white separatist in newly post-apartheid South Africa. 

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