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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
October
11
Thursday
Kim Campbell
Education Editor

What if we retired the word “bullying”?

It’s a bold suggestion, especially during Bullying Prevention Month. But setting aside a word educators, parents, and students often disagree on is exactly what expert and veteran administrator Jim Dillon suggested in a column last week.

As a former teacher, I understand what he’s getting at: Disputes over whether a behavior constitutes bullying can hamper effectively addressing the underlying problem. More importantly, he notes, a criminal justice framework is often applied in schools to acts that are not always observable.

Mr. Dillon is not implying that bullying doesn’t happen, or that it shouldn’t be dealt with using state laws and policies, when necessary. Parents are most worried about their children being bullied, according to surveys. And the prevalence of social media adds to those concerns. Just this week, Instagram announced new measures to combat such harassment.

Even so, Dillon makes a compelling case for why it’s time to let go. The word is tied to the criminal justice approach, which makes people more self-centered, because of fear of repercussions. That approach also focuses on perpetrators and victims, disempowering bystanders, whom research suggests are a key deterrent. Rather than “merely stopping a negative behavior,” he suggests reframing the problem to make it a positive challenge, where a whole school community (or, potentially, one online) is involved in creating a safe environment. 

That is sometimes easier said than done. But efforts to promote kindness and inclusion, like Unity Day on Oct. 24 and Instagram’s new “kindness camera effect,” offer opportunities to get the conversation started.  

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Now here are our five stories for your Thursday.

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1. Amid dire climate warnings, blue state pledges carry new weight

With thousands of scientists calling for transformational climate action, many Americans are looking to local governments to lead the climate action charge. How close can regional efforts take us? 

Kim

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When President Trump announced plans to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, a wave of blue states vowed to fill the void left by federal leadership. Those pledges have taken on new significance in the wake of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscores the importance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. While the actions of individual states and cities may not be enough on their own, these regional efforts can provide testing ground for strategies that might work at a larger scale. Of the governments committing to climate action, California is the main driver, both in its size and its ambition. Its efforts, energy economist Danny Cullenward says, could ripple far beyond the state. “The process of planning and thinking through really radical transformations in the energy sector is a process everyone is going to have to go through,” says Mr. Cullenward. The work that happens at the regional level, he adds, could inform broader national efforts.

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Amid dire climate warnings, blue state pledges carry new weight

Last month, a major new climate commitment came out of the United States: a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045.

It’s the sort of commitment that scientists say is increasingly necessary if the world wants to avoid the most severe repercussions of global warming.

And it involved a major economy – the world’s fifth largest – but not the federal government.

Instead, it was California Gov. Jerry Brown who signed the executive order, in advance of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in mid-September.

As a major new climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscores the need for transformational action, many experts have criticized the United States for its lack of action and for its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement commitments.

But below the federal level, states, cities, and companies are stepping into that leadership void in groundbreaking ways. Seventeen governors of US states and Puerto Rico have pledged to reduce their climate emissions in keeping with the Paris agreement guidelines. More than 3,500 entities – states, cities, businesses, and other institutions – have joined the “We Are Still In” coalition, also pledging to support climate action to meet Paris commitments. It’s a group that represents almost 60 percent of US gross domestic product. If it were a country, it would be the world’s third-biggest economy.

The action, say experts, is encouraging. But it may not be enough.

Since President Trump announced he planned to withdraw from Paris more than a year ago, Nathan Hultman says he’s been “both surprised and heartened by the amount of engagement that we have seen in this country by an extraordinarily diverse set of actors at different kinds of organizational levels.”

“There has been a kind of grassroots momentum and an embracing of the opportunities for fast action on clean energy that do deliver change that we want,” says Dr. Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, and a key author of a recent report put out by Bloomberg Philanthropies that looks at climate action by states, cities, and businesses. At the same time, he cautions, “It can’t be just a half or two-thirds of the states in the US carrying all the burden for the next 20 years. We can’t get there from here if we have partial engagement.”

The Bloomberg report, “Fulfilling America’s Pledge,” looked at the actions taken by the entities in the “We Are Still In” network, as well as actions that could feasibly be taken if states, cities, and companies were to increase their climate engagement. Currently, the authors determined, the US is about halfway to its Paris Agreement target of a 26 to 28 percent emissions reduction by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. A continuation of the current commitments would get the US to about a 17 percent reduction by 2025: roughly two-thirds of the way there. A “plausible best-case scenario,” with more states diving in and adopting more of the best climate strategies, could get the US to a 24 percent reduction by 2025, says Hultman.

Can California lead the charge?

Of the governments committing to climate action, California is the main driver, both in its size and its ambition.

It’s the largest economy to have made a commitment to carbon neutrality, which the latest IPCC report has said the whole world needs to achieve by 2050 if it wants to avoid warming of more than 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels.  

“California is in the interesting situation of exploring the path to deep decarbonization,” says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and policy director of Near Zero, a nonprofit that analyzes ways to quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions with a focus on California.

Its efforts, he says, could ripple far beyond the state.

“The process of planning and thinking through really radical transformations in the energy sector is a process everyone is going to have to go through,” says Mr. Cullenward. The work that happens at the regional level, he adds, could inform broader national efforts.

For instance, California’s efforts to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2045, as pledged in a new law signed by Governor Brown, is “going to set up a real planning process to start talking about how we transition the grid,” Cullenward says.

California’s effort to regulate vehicle emissions could become template for other states if they survive challenges legal challenges posed by the Trump administration.

Not everyone is happy that California is so aggressive in pursuing its own climate agenda. Carol Seperas, a retired insurance agent in Sacramento, Calif., says she worries Brown’s carbon-neutral pledge could hurt the state’s economy.

“It’s overregulation, and I’m concerned that as time goes by, we’ll fall behind because other states aren’t doing the same thing,” says Ms. Separas, who tends to vote Republican. At the same time, she says, “people who don’t live here don’t understand what California has to deal with in terms of its population, how fast we’re growing, the number of cars on the road. So we have to make sure we do what’s right for the environment – within reason.”

California, though, is not alone in taking action. The states that make up the US Climate Alliance include Colorado, Virginia, and Minnesota, notes Dan Lashof, US director for the World Resources Institute (WRI). “It’s not just the coastal dark blue states,” he says.

Will state-led action be enough?

Many experts say that, while the actions of individual states and cities may not be enough on their own, especially in light of the new IPCC report emphasizing the need to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C, they’re often the testing ground for strategies that can work at a larger scale.

“The early movers create momentum that’s far beyond their own direct impact,” says Derek Walker, vice president of US climate for the Environmental Defense Fund. Cities, for instance are “at the roll-up-your-sleeves and get-things-done-on-the-ground level,” says Mr. Walker. “City actions can be hugely transformational.”

And as more states and cities and companies spearhead climate solutions, often at the behest of voters or customers, the success they find can be catalytic, he says.

“There’s not much ground to stand on anymore to say that there aren’t solutions. When even big companies are saying this is going to be good for our bottom line, there’s less and less solid ground to stand on to be against progress,” says Walker. “It doesn’t even need to be about the science for people out in real America to get behind it, because people are seeing [the effects of climate change] with their own eyes and feeling it with their hands, whether that’s a farmer, whether it’s someone that owns property that’s been damaged by a storm.”

Some individuals, too, say they’re happy to be seeing action at any level, even if they wish more was happening at the federal level. “I’m very proud of my state for being part of it,” says Elizabeth Derderian, a practice support specialist at the Boston Medical Center, of Massachusetts’s pledge to meet Paris targets.

“It really should be the federal government doing it, but it’s not happening, so someone has to do it,” she says.”Hey, if you’re going to drown in a small room or in an enclosed space, which is basically what’s happening right now, even tossing a salad bowl of water out is going to help you more than not doing anything.”

Experts agree. The contributions of states and cities is meaningful, “but it’s nowhere near enough,” says Lashof of WRI. “And in fact, what the latest IPCC report shows is that we should be accelerating US emission reductions, going well beyond the existing pledge, not struggling to get most of the way there. Having the federal government not only not helping, but pushing in the wrong direction, is a huge problem and it gets bigger over time.”

What those smaller actions do is provide hope, say Lashof and others, that the answers exist and huge technological progress is being made. Where solar cells once cost about $300 a watt, they now cost $0.37 a watt, notes Lashof. “There are examples of most of the solutions we need that are being implemented in various locations. The problem is that they’re not being implemented universally, at the scale that’s really needed given the urgency underlined by the IPCC.”

Elena Weissmann and Martin Kuz contributed to this report from Boston and Sacramento, Calif.

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2. Faces of a new capitalism: How Millennials are embracing socialist values

Many Millennials are rebelling at an economic system that they believe puts profits over fairness and equality. Is capitalism too harsh?  

Kim
Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Bernardo Vigil Rendon works at a bicycle shop in Baltimore owned by its employees. The pay isn’t huge, he says, but the job comes with perks that are unusual for such a small shop: a retirement savings plan, no staff cuts in the off-season, and a familial atmosphere. He supports the replacement of capitalism with socialism.

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In the elections this fall, some candidates are turning heads by identifying as democratic socialists. And a Gallup poll found that “socialism” is viewed favorably by 51 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29. That’s a higher share than for “capitalism.” Why all this when unemployment is near a 50-year low? Partly it’s that a young generation, coming of age around the time of the Great Recession, is exerting a leftward tug on politics. But capitalism has also lost some luster with the population more broadly. Few actually want a state-planned economy. Yet many worry about trends like high inequality and rising concentrations of corporate power within industries. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job at all of sharing the dividends from growth in a way that’s ... good for society,” says Elena Botella, a young Millennial. For some businesses, like one bicycle shop in Baltimore, a system of shared ownership by the workers is part of the answer. “Are we all best friends? No,” says co-owner Bernardo Vigil Rendon. “[But] we’ve all made common cause here.”

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1. Faces of a new capitalism: How Millennials are embracing socialist values

You might say that it was in a bread line where economics came into focus for Bernardo Vigil Rendon. He was employed, actually, at a bread factory.

One day, word came from on high: A new client needed the loaves packed in a different kind of box. The workers would be packing the same amount of bread, but the job would now be more difficult, and there would be no extra time allowed to do it. No extra pay. 

“We just have to do this” was the message that filtered down, he recalls.

What Mr. Vigil Rendon could see, along with fellow workers and even his immediate manager, was that, at about 15 cents extra per loaf, it meant a substantial new chunk of profit for the bread factory but nothing for those on the line.

“It was exceedingly hard” for the workers, he says, and “quite a windfall for the owners.”

Today, Vigil Rendon has moved on to a workplace he likes much better, a bicycle store that’s owned by the workers collectively. The pay isn’t huge, but the job comes with perks that are unusual for such a small shop: a retirement savings plan, no staff cuts in the off-season, and a familial atmosphere that sometimes brings the shop’s adopted cat, Falkor, into an amiable nose-to-nose encounter with another worker’s towering dog. And in weekly meetings, everyone has a voice in decisions.

Now, as Baltimore Bicycle Works looks to open a second store (after 10 years in operation), it’s also hoping to be a harbinger of a wider transformation in the US economy. The workers here want to prove, one employee-owner at a time, that an egalitarian business model is a viable step up from a corporatist system that too often enshrines profit and greed, not workers and customers, as the overarching reason for existence. 

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Bernardo Vigil Rendon (foreground) and other employees work in a Baltimore bicycle shop that has a more egalitarian business model.

The bike shop, tucked under the brightly painted Howard Street Bridge in central Baltimore, is just one example of a leftward stirring on economic issues across the United States, especially among the young: 

• In a shift since 2016, young Americans today view socialism more favorably than capitalism, according to a Gallup poll this year. 

• The public has been embracing ideas like “Medicare for all” (59 percent support, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll) and a federally guaranteed job (46 percent, says a Rasmussen survey), tilting the energy in the Democratic Party toward its left wing. 

• Labor unions have been edging up in popularity and scored a ballot-initiative win this year even in Republican-dominated Missouri.

• Worker ownership – both partially and through full-fledged worker cooperatives – is growing.

If Occupy Wall Street back in 2011 was a relatively short-lived protest, its spirit seems to be persisting and even expanding. 

All this hardly means that a Marxist revolution is imminent. But, beyond a mere symptom of polarized politics, it reveals a discontent with the economic system that’s echoed even by some economists on the conservative end of the spectrum.

“Clearly US capitalism failed in providing what it promised,” says Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, referring to the benefits delivered by truly competitive markets. “Either we fix capitalism to provide what it promised, or we might end up losing capitalism or ... democracy, or maybe both at the same time.”

That’s a stunning assessment since the economy, by many measures, is not just strong but thriving. Unemployment is approaching half-century lows. Consumer confidence has revived. Economic growth topped 4 percent in the second quarter. Yet many Americans still feel fearful or disillusioned. Why? 

In some ways, capitalism is a victim of its own success. When Soviet socialism essentially collapsed in 1989 and China started opening up its economy, both caused a surge in the pool of global labor to compete with Western workers. And the sheer magnitude of technological innovation, while widely cheered as capitalism’s biggest triumph, feeds insecurity as machines threaten jobs across the economy. 

Still, in other ways capitalism’s flaws are on display. Experts say moneyed interests have encouraged trends that fuel inequality and resentment. These include attacks on organized labor, rising concentrations of corporate power within industries, soaring pay for executives, and trade policies that have protected elites while putting blue-collar workers at risk.

A “Trump effect” may have added some fuel. The Gallup-tracked attitude shift among Millennials since the 2016 election reflects a decline in their affinity for capitalism (not rising support for socialism), and the change comes alongside negative views of a billionaire president who has cut taxes for the rich.

All this, coupled with the legacy of the Great Recession, has helped shape a young generation eager for economic change and whose collective voice may be large enough to have some impact. Many Millennials appear to have more interest in tempering capitalism than replacing it. Still, the questions they’re raising are consequential, touching on values such as freedom and fairness and the viability of the American dream.

In short, while the travails of the economic system aren’t the sole cause of America’s political disarray, they’re a piece of it. Where citizens take that system next will do much to define America’s strength and social cohesion as a nation.

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If you summed up what rankles Elena Botella about US capitalism today, it might boil down to two issues: equality and opportunity. Even in a land of abundance, she says a lot of people will “never have enough in savings to stop worrying,” let alone to fulfill their larger potential.

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
‘I don’t think we’ve done a good job at all of sharing the dividends from growth in a way that’s either fair to workers or good for society.’ – Elena Botella, who worked for five years in the credit-card industry in Washington, D.C.

 

“I don’t think we’ve done a good job at all of sharing the dividends from growth in a way that’s either fair to workers or good for society,” says Ms. Botella, a Millennial in Washington, D.C., who has worked in the credit-card industry and is now doing research for a possible book.

For Botella, like many other younger Americans, the financial crisis and ensuing recession was a defining event. Back in 2011, as a college student, she was part of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

But her view now is a nuanced one – a search for better ideas, not a firm commitment to socialism. “I think it’s clear that capitalism has done a good job of creating a lot of abundance and prosperity,” she says.

That statement is a reminder that Millennials are hardly lockstep foes of capitalism. She’s also voicing an assessment that’s widely shared among economic historians. By the early 19th century, in Europe and America, forces coalesced that helped spur a historic rise in living standards. Specific breakthroughs and discoveries played a role. But undergirding it all was the interaction among shopkeepers and consumers, investors and inventors, that Adam Smith had glorified as the “invisible hand” in his 1776 work, “The Wealth of Nations.”

Note that Smith didn’t use the word “capitalism” in his paean to free markets. Yet as industrial organization scaled up, the term emerged and quickly became a magnet for vilification as well as praise.

In suburban Los Angeles, Asma Men is a young mother who can relate to both responses. Her parents came to America as refugees: Her father fled Vietnam when Communists took over the south; her mother is Khmer from Cambodia.

“[Socialism] sounds good on paper,” she says, “but knowing the trauma of such political environments based on where my family comes from, it’s easier said than done.”

Yet “when we talk about the economy, I do feel a little bit disillusioned in the sense of just how the middle class is getting really strapped and the rich are getting richer,” says Ms. Men, who has a master’s degree in public policy. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘[W]hen we talk about the economy, I do feel a little bit disillusioned in the sense of just how the middle class is getting really strapped and the rich are getting richer.’ – Asma Men, a young mother in Cypress, Calif.

In fact, some of the earliest concerns about capitalism are the very ones that remain salient today: that the system fuels inequality, degrades the environment, and tears the social fabric with disruptive change.

Ben Packer, a young technology worker in New York City, has no qualms about identifying as a socialist. 

“I think people in my generation have had a pretty profoundly negative experience with capitalism,” he says, citing student debt burdens, high rents, and the nation’s faltering progress on things such as poverty.

Mr. Packer says you can preserve a market system of producers and consumers even with state-owned enterprises involved. Already, he adds, a lot of innovation comes from the public sector ​– from biomedical research to computers and the internet. “You really get innovation when the government subsidizes the costs and the risks.”

Packer is a member of the modest but growing Democratic Socialists of America. The DSA has expanded its ranks from 6,000 in 2016 to about 50,000 today. He works in politics, using his computer skills to help elect left-wing Democrats.

For now, few people who proudly accept the socialist label hold elective office. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is a self-
described democratic socialist, and two DSA members appear poised to win House seats this fall, including Alexandria Ocasio-
Cortez, who made national headlines by ousting a longtime Democratic representative in a primary in New York.

But already, even without socialists wielding much power, ideas such as worker ownership and transcending the profit motive have been making inroads in the US economy. Companies organized as worker cooperatives are on the rise. Some 32 million Americans have at least some equity in their workplaces through employee stock ownership plans, stock option plans, and 401(k) plans. Publix Super Markets, with 190,000 employees, is the nation’s largest employee-owned company. 

Another growing realm is “social enterprises” or public-benefit corporations – businesses that seek to earn profits but also frame their mission around benefits to society or the environment.

Some economic research suggests employee ownership can enhance a company’s performance. And depending on the details, it’s an idea that can draw support from both liberals and conservatives. 

“Capitalism works best when normal people can freely participate in the economy, when they are rewarded for hard work, when they have a stake in the company that they work for, and when they can easily start a business,” says Andrew Kidd, a conservative economist and a Millennial in Columbus, Ohio. “It just leads toward innovation.”

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The presumption is often that young people will naturally migrate toward more conservative views, including about economic issues, as they age. But will that happen this time?

SOURCE: Gallup poll conducted July 30-Aug. 5
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

For a hint of why that may not be the case, meet Alison Macrina. Like many people, her political attitudes didn’t spring forth fully formed. As a high school student in the early 2000s, she was a vocal opponent of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but her critique, she says, didn’t expand beyond that.

“I had only really identified those problems in their own little bubble,” she says. “I hadn’t really connected [the wars] more deeply to capitalism as a global economic structure.”

But the economy was very much on her mind after she received her master’s degree in library science in 2009, when employment was scarce. “Saying that I was having trouble is a massive understatement,” she says. “It took me, I think, a whole year to find a job.”

Ms. Macrina wasn’t alone. “There was this great influx of people who were moving back home,” she says of her peers. “People were working multiple jobs.” Everyone was “freaking out” about student loans.

Macrina had initially placed her hopes in President Barack Obama. “I thought he was going to take care of us,” she says. 

But she was quickly disillusioned by the bailout of a few Wall Street firms and auto companies and Mr. Obama’s failure to prosecute the bankers. “The Democrats are not going to help us, let alone the Republicans,” she says, “so we have to do our own thing.”

Macrina went on to found the Library Freedom Institute, which trains librarians in online privacy. Along the way, she joined the DSA.

Macrina’s trajectory is typical of many people her age, says Ruth Milkman, a sociologist at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. “These are kids who did everything they were supposed to. They graduate from college or whatever, and then comes 2008,” she says. “That, combined with the economic restructuring that’s creating all these horrible jobs for everybody, that feeds your disdain for capitalism pretty personally.” 

Professor Milkman argues the past 10 years have turned Millennials into a “political generation.” Their outlook, she and others say, may continue to be influenced by these experiences.

Of course, many Millennials never became disillusioned by what they saw as the collapse of the American dream because it wasn’t promised to them in the first place. 

Joshua Ham was born in South Central Los Angeles in 1995, when the neighborhood was known for poverty, drugs, and crime. “The gentrifiers [now] call it SoLa,” he says, laughing at the moniker. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
‘They’re not doing that in Beverly Hills, but they’re doing that in the ’hood.’' – Joshua Ham, on the harsh penalties kids like him got for missing school when they were growing up in South Central Los Angeles

Mr. Ham’s political awakening came at the age of 15, when he received a three-day suspension for talking in class. The harshness of the punishment, along with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s policy of handing out $250 tickets for truancy, opened his eyes to the links between the severe punishments given to black public school students and the disproportionate incarceration rates of black adults. “They funnel you to the prison-industrial complex basically,” he says.

Forty-four percent of Millennials are, like Ham, nonwhite, making them the most ethnically diverse generation in US history – a factor that contributes to their liberal tilt.

Today, Ham works for the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition, a youth organizing nonprofit. And he’s politically active on the issue of prison reform. “What saved my life was youth organizing,” he says, “and having mentors that looked like me.”

***

If the US economic system needs some repair or reinvention, what are the options? And what might the electorate support?

The public at large isn’t calling to ditch capitalism. Gallup this year found that 56 percent of Americans have a positive view of capitalism, compared with just 37 percent for socialism. Even younger US voters show a mix of conservative and liberal traits.

At the same time, younger voters are pressing for change. They’re more likely than their elders to embrace things such as government-provided health care and greater help for the poor. And to many Millennials, the change they seek is not so much bigger government as a power shift away from wealthy and privileged elites.

“I’d love to live in a world that is just democratic in every sense,” says Nick Fuller Googins, a fiction writer and solar-panel installer who lives in Mount Vernon, Maine. 

An older Millennial who’s done a range of jobs from auto repair to teaching, he says too many people today lack the opportunity to reach their potential because they’re just grinding out a living or trying to hang on to a job with health benefits. 

“Capitalism ... is having the opposite effect of creating freedom,” he says. “A more equal society could unleash these amazing waves of creativity and entrepreneurship.” 

His views reveal how, on the political left, the affinity for socialism doesn’t mean espousing the central planning of yesteryear.

More often it means strengthening social-welfare programs and addressing perceived flaws in the private sector through new regulations and incentives. And although the prescriptions vary, it’s hardly just avowed socialists who are calling for major changes.

Darrell West, a Brookings Institution expert on governance and technological change, writes in a new book (“The Future of Work”) about how America adapted to the wave of industrialization and dislocation that spanned from the late 1800s Gilded Age through the Great Depression. The nation’s response included antitrust laws, major commitments to public education, and the adoption of safety net programs such as unemployment insurance and Social Security. 

In the same way, Dr. West and others argue, fresh responses are needed for today’s era of inequality and technological disruption. Among Democrats, some likely aspirants for the 2020 presidential nomination are embracing universal health care and government-supported college or technical school. They also aim to rebalance capitalism through proposals such as higher taxes on the wealthy or requiring big corporations to give workers 40 percent of boardroom seats – a plan sought by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

While Republican leaders are hesitant to expand entitlement programs, some are considering worker-oriented themes. These ideas include expanding the earned-income tax credit, which can bolster lower-income bank accounts without discouraging work.

For both government programs and corporate reforms, economists caution against assuming there are simple fixes. New government spending, for example, can mean higher taxes or boosting public debt. Still, they see the potential to reduce inequality without harming growth. 

Dr. Zingales, the Chicago economist and author of the 2012 book “A Capitalism for the People,” urges a restoration of well-functioning markets, ​not socialism, as the answer to concerns about fairness and prosperity. To foster more competition, he suggests, for example, antitrust reforms, taxes on corporate lobbying, and a school-voucher program with extra support for less-privileged students. “[Socialism is] such a defeated concept that only young people who don’t remember enough of history can find that appealing,” he asserts.

At the Baltimore bike shop, whether you call it socialism or not, workers say their collective-ownership model could benefit small and large companies alike. On a recent Thursday, the employee owners have just finished a staff meeting. Some are busy checking on inventories while others help customers or fit a bike with new fenders.

As co-owners, “Are we all best friends?” asks Bernardo Vigil Rendon. “No, but ... we know at the end of the day, if I have an idea, everyone’s going to vote on it. We’ve all made common cause here.”

SOURCE: Gallup poll conducted July 30-Aug. 5
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. As Iran’s economy stumbles, tension grows between rich and poor

How does one assess a society's resilience? One measure might be social cohesion. With Iran bracing for tougher US sanctions, resentment is growing against the well-connected who flaunt their wealth.

Kim
Vahid Salemi/AP/FILE
A woman in Tehran, Iran, drove past a billboard for a Western brand in 2015. Today even well-heeled Iranians complain about how renewed US economic sanctions are causing economic volatility and raising prices.

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After President Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal last spring, renewed US economic sanctions were imposed. Iran’s currency has plummeted, prices have soared, and economic protests have swept across the country. Even well-heeled Iranians grouse about how sanctions and economic volatility are raising prices. Yet Botox treatment centers are still packed with clients, for example – even as most ordinary Iranians brace for new medical shortages. Amid the protests, resentment has grown at the wide gap between Iran’s very rich who flaunt their wealth and the majority of Iranians who struggle to get by. The result is that Iran’s long-simmering social divide increasingly resembles two parallel universes. “It’s astonishing the last few years, this desire to show their wealth. It’s a sickness,” says a veteran observer in Tehran. “Ten percent of Iranians have lots of money, and 90 percent of people are in disaster,” says a middle-aged Iranian professional, who notes how some nights the wealthy gather with glittering cars outside certain malls. “I don’t understand it: If [most] people are in such a disaster, why is so much money spent on something not essential to life?”

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As Iran’s economy stumbles, tension grows between rich and poor

There is wealth in Iran.

Decades ago, money here was a well-hidden secret, rarely flaunted, in keeping with the socialist ideals of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

But today? Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini sports cars navigate as best they can through Tehran’s ever-congested traffic, their finely tuned engines designed more for racing along European motorways.

Rich Iranian youth post photographs online of themselves being, well, rich – at parties and poolside, in their cars and mansions, and spending money at shimmering luxury malls.

Into this picture of wealth insert renewed US economic sanctions, first reimposed after President Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal last spring.

Even well-heeled Iranians grouse about how sanctions and economic volatility are raising prices. And yet Botox treatment centers are still packed with clients, for example – even as most ordinary Iranians brace for new medical shortages.

As Iran’s currency has plummeted in value and as prices have soared, hundreds of economic protests have swept across the country this year. Anger over corruption and mismanagement has been exacerbated now by sanctions and the expectation of more hardship.

And in their midst, resentment has grown at the wide gap between Iran’s very rich who flaunt their wealth and the majority of Iranians, whose struggle to get by has become more daunting by the day. Many of the very rich are part of the regime, or are offspring of the well-connected, known by the derogatory term aghazadehs, which means “born to a nobleman.”

That tension is being made worse as Nov. 4 nears, after which new US measures aim to completely sever Iranian oil sales and deprive the Islamic Republic of its primary income.

Parallel universes

And tensions have been made even worse, for some, by the fact that the revolution promised economic “justice” and equality for all Iranians. Back then, even the wealthiest often lived humble lives.

The result is that Iran’s long-simmering social divide increasingly resembles two parallel universes, in which everything from conversations to lifestyles on one side are seen as foreign and unbelievable to the other.

“It’s astonishing the last few years, this desire to show their wealth,” says a veteran observer in Tehran who asked not to be named. “It’s a sickness. It’s a social disease, when there is so much pressure on ordinary people.”

He points to recent violence in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where Iraqis took to the streets and burned cars and buildings to protest electricity and water shortages, and compares it to the added pressure that sanctions are already bringing upon Iranians, and upon their social divide.

“It’s the same here: Things are in short supply, and no hope in sight,” says the observer. “Before there was a socialist mentality in the head of everyone. It was a shame to show your wealth. These aghazadehs, they just want to show they are rich, no matter what.”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Pedestrians in Tehran pass a shop window with traditional objects, Sept. 18, 2018, as Iranians try to lead normal lives while bracing for worsening US sanctions. So far this year the Iranian currency, the rial, has tumbled in value, prices have soared, and shortages of some goods have appeared.

Such lifestyles could not be more different from those of average Iranians, who have seen their purchasing power fall, struggle to make ends meet, and have borne the brunt of large-scale layoffs – all while watching the youth of Iran’s ruling elite, especially, parading their silver-spoon lives.

“The government should act seriously [against] these people, who take these special privileges to become that rich, to hand them in to the judiciary,” says Mahdi Rahmanian, managing director of the reformist Shargh newspaper. “This money has been earned through illegal and illegitimate ways.”

On Sept. 30, Iran’s judiciary handed down three death sentences to people convicted of corruption and disrupting the exchange rate market. Also last week – amid another bout of currency volatility – the Tehran police chief announced the closure of 15 websites for publishing “wrong” dollar exchange rates, and said market brokers were “under police surveillance and they will be severely punished,” according to Reuters.

The Iranian rial has fallen from 43,000 per dollar at the start of the year, to a record low two weeks ago of 190,000 per dollar. Though the rial has gained in recent days, the International Monetary Fund this week forecast that the Iranian economy would shrink 1.5 percent in 2018, and a further 3.6 percent in 2019, due to declining oil exports.

The currency’s collapse has decimated the savings of many Iranians, so the backlash against luxury living has been sharp on social media, where Iran’s economic chasm often appears at its widest. One young cleric, for example, launched a “name and shame” campaign on Instagram called “No to Rule by Aristocrats,” in which he upbraids Iranian officials for their flashy lifestyles and lavish spending of state money.

An app for the wealthy: 'Luxagram'

Now with a quarter of a million followers, Seyed Mahdi Sadrossadati has criticized top representatives of Iran’s supreme leader in far-flung provinces. He has also questioned the amount of cash spent on the gilt-domed mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the revolution renowned for his ascetic lifestyle, who died in 1989.

“Whoever has a responsibility in the Islamic Republic but doesn’t adhere to Islamic values is acting against Islam,” Mr. Sadrossadati told the news website Al-Monitor last month. He said images often come secretly to him from close relatives of those he exposes.

The result is that many officials and their children deleted social media accounts or “removed pictures of their rich lifestyle,” he said. “It has also made it harder for others to boast of their luxurious lives.”

Wealthy Iranians have nevertheless created “Luxagram,” a private social networking app with monthly fees. It calls itself a “VIP service” that “is a fun and quirky way for you to share your luxury moments with your affluent friends.”

“Ten percent of Iranians have lots of money, and 90 percent of people are in disaster,” says a middle-aged Iranian professional who asked not to be named. He notes how aghazadehs gather with glittering cars outside certain malls, especially on Thursday and Friday nights.

“I don’t understand it: If [most] people are in such a disaster, why is so much money spent on something not essential to life?” asks the professional.

“Iranians are very flexible people, they can live in very good conditions, and in very bad conditions,” he says. “I’m tired of this disaster… Every morning you wake up like in front of a black hole. You think: ‘If I go out of my home, I must pay for food and a taxi. But if I do not go out, I will have no job.’ ”

Such resentment helps drive increased social tensions, which are not unnoticed by regime insiders.

'We should let them vent'

Hamidreza Taraghi, a conservative analyst and senior official in Iran’s largest charity, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, acknowledges the disparities and the tensions but says the important question is how far Iranians have come since 1979, when “the social-economic gap was huge.”

“Of course, we want it to be much better than where we stand now,” says Mr. Taraghi. He counts more than 2,000 protests nationwide in the past six months, almost all over economic complaints and lost jobs. Ostentatious displays of wealth, even in remote towns, have only helped fuel local rage.

“We should let them vent their anger and their protests,” says Taraghi.

He then lists statistics from what he says are 40 years of accomplishments, including widespread literacy and higher education rates, and dam, railway, and airport building, adding that the country’s youth have no memory of the dire situation before the revolution.

Still, while some note that Iran’s social and economic fault lines are decades old, norms are changing.

“Corruption has run too deep to be tackled,” says a former journalist in Tehran. “Nowadays for many people it’s not a shame, it’s being smart. If you can rob a piece of the cake for yourself, this is considered being smart enough to do this, not being too corrupt or a bad person.”

He adds, pithily: “It’s not ‘name and shame,’ it’s ‘name and get credit for it.’ ”

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4. On college campuses, a question of what constitutes anti-Semitism

When does political speech become intimidation and harassment? As the Department of Education begins to use a definition of anti-Semitism that includes certain criticisms of Israel, how will the stormy debates on campuses change?

Kim

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Protesting Israel on campuses has intensified in recent years, and like most of American politics in the current era, the debates have often been heated and volatile. Students host “Israel Apartheid Weeks,” which include “checkpoints” simulating those in occupied Palestinian territories. Professors participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-led effort to ostracize Israel and galvanize international pressure to end the occupation. These coincide with increasing incidents of anti-Semitism, including the distribution of racist fliers at the University of California, Davis, and several other colleges earlier this week. Now, the Department of Education plans to reassess how it investigates harassment. In August, it announced it will reopen a complaint about anti-Semitism from 2011 against Rutgers University. Celebrated by some as a step toward creating a better environment for Jewish students, the decision concerns other observers who wonder about the chilling effect the new definition of anti-Semitism being applied may have on free speech. “What this means is that students and professors who want to engage in legitimate conversations about the actions of the state of Israel, the founding of the state, and the idea of the state, are now going to feel threatened,” says Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wake Forest University.

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On college campuses, a question of what constitutes anti-Semitism

When Liran Kapoano finally went back to college after taking a hiatus from his studies a few years ago, he never expected to become so embroiled in the rancorous campus controversies over the state of Israel.

He’s conservative – or at least as conservative as a person who grew up in New Jersey can be, he jokes – and strongly pro-Israel, even a Zionist, he says. But when he returned to Rutgers University in his home state about a decade ago, he found a campus climate that was, overall, less-than-welcoming for students with political views like his, he says.

“We went through a period for about two semesters worth of time where it was just like continual, ever-escalating, and in-your-face kind of aggressive anti-Israel stuff,” he says. And at least some of the actions on campus, Mr. Kapoano and others contend, crossed the line from political opposition to Israeli policies into the darker corners of anti-Semitic bigotry.

In August, the Trump administration reopened a complaint advocates helped bring on behalf of Kapoano and other Rutgers students. More than seven years ago, they alleged that Jewish students were subjected to a hostile education environment as students protested the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Obama administration said it found little evidence for the specifics of the charges, however, and closed the investigation in 2014.

The university has pledged to cooperate, but refers all question to the Department of Education. “There is no place for anti-Semitism or any form of religious intolerance at Rutgers,” officials said in an emailed statement.

Part of the reason the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights reopened the complaint is because it recently made use of a general definition of anti-Semitism that policymakers have been developing over the past decade. While the classic anti-Semitism definition includes hatred toward Jewish people and the Jewish religion, the “new” version also incorporates hatred towards the Jewish state. 

The effort to define anti-Semitism more precisely with regard to the state of Israel includes what scholars have generally called the “three Ds” test: Delegitimizing the state of Israel, holding it to a double standard not expected from other democratic states, or otherwise demonizing it as a Jewish state.

Yet many scholars, including a number of Jewish thinkers who’ve worked to crystallize these connections between politics and bigotry, say the “three Ds” definition was never intended to apply to the rough and tumble of academic debate and political engagement on college campuses, where freedom of speech remains a bedrock value critical to the educational process.

“What this means is that students and professors who want to engage in legitimate conversations about the actions of the state of Israel, the founding of the state, and the idea of the state, are now going to feel threatened, feel very hesitant to engage in those questions,” says Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“Universities ... draw students in who are at a moment when they’re trying to figure out their world, which means they’re going to ask questions that are often ill-defined,” he continues. “That may be clumsy. But to demonize them, to say that they’re engaging in illegal actions because they’re questioning historical processes and political decisions by governments, that’s very, very alarming to me.”

Heated campus debates

Protesting Israel on campuses has intensified in recent years, and like most of American politics in the current era, the debates have often been heated and volatile.

Students host “Israel Apartheid Weeks,” which often feature “checkpoints” simulating those in occupied Palestinian territories. Professors and academic departments, too, participate in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led effort to ostracize Israel and galvanize international pressure to end the occupation.

“Looking at the overall context of the situation, when is [anti-Israel or anti-Zionist sentiment] actually a camouflage for hatred of Jews?” says Susan Tuchman, director of the Center for Law and Justice at the Zionist Organization of America in New York, and one of attorneys who helped Kapoano and others bring their complaint. “It’s not always easy, especially for non-Jews, to discern when something does cross the line.”

That is just one reason, she says, that the nation’s policymakers and civil rights enforcers need a more clear-cut definition of where that line falls.

“Kids on campuses have to feel safe, they have to feel welcome, and that’s the real issue,” Ms. Tuchman says. “How do we ensure that, and how do we make sure that these students’ legal rights are protected?”

In general, both Europe and the United States have seen a surge in expressions of anti-Semitism. In 2017, the incidents of anti-Semitism on college campuses rose to 204, up from 108 in 2016, according to a February report by the Anti-Defamation League. Earlier this week, anti-Semitic flyers were distributed on the University of California, Davis, campus and at several other colleges blaming Jews for protests against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This fall, two instructors at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, reportedly withheld letters of recommendation from students after they learned they wanted to study in Israel.

Kenneth Marcus, the current head of the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement division, said the agency used the working definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a fully developed version of the “the Ds” idea, to reexamine the Rutgers case. The US State Department embraced a similar definition in 2010, and a number of government agencies and international organizations have also used it to clarify potential anti-Jewish hatred.

Technically, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act covers on-campus discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin – but not religion. Mr. Marcus and others, however, said that Title VI does cover any discrimination based on “actual or perceived” ancestry or ethnic characteristics, in which those who discriminate might conflate religion and ethnicity. This happens particularly towards Arab Muslims, Sikhs, as well as Jews. This was also the stated policy of the former Bush and Obama administrations. 

Questions about the government’s motives

Critics worry that the Trump administration has applied this definition to education policy not simply as a guideline to clarify the scope of anti-Semitism, but as a weapon to silence criticism of Israel. The BDS movement and events such as apartheid weeks on campuses could now possibly be defined as civil rights violations, critics contend.

“This case at Rutgers University is consistent with the coordinated efforts of multiple interest groups, including the Israeli government, to control and reshape the definition of anti-Semitism, to effectively criminalize criticism of Israeli policies,” says Atalia Omer, professor of religion and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Susan Walsh/AP
Kenneth Marcus speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill, Dec. 5, 2017. Mr. Marcus, assistant secretary for civil rights at the Department of Education, announced in August plans to reopen a discrimination case at Rutgers University, prompting debate about the definition of anti-Semitic he is adopting.

The debate about the definition comes at a time when the Trump administration has shaken long-standing traditions of forbearance, transferring the US embassy to Jerusalem in May, even as dozens of Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers during protests at the Gaza border.

In September, the US closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, and critics say the administration continues to remain suspicious of Muslim Americans in general, as well as the pro-Palestinian movements on American campuses. At the same time, Israel has recently demoted Arabic as an official language, and declared Israel to be “the national home of the Jewish people,” which some critics say challenges its status as a liberal democracy.

Genesis of the definition 

Ken Stern has helped draft previous versions of anti-Semitism definitions based on the "three Ds" idea. Years ago, he and others were charged with addressing the the troubling rise in anti-Semitism around the world, and to help international political bodies have better guidelines to identify a full range of its expressions.

“But the idea of using a definition like this on campus is to me just absolutely deplorable,” says Mr. Stern, a fellow at Bard College’s Human Rights Project in upstate New York. “And what happened is, within a few years after the definition was adopted by [government agencies in Europe], I started seeing examples of the Jewish right trying to use it as a hate speech code.”

Marcus, from the Office for Civil Rights, had long been an activist at the vanguard of conservative efforts to use the “three Ds” definition, particularly to bring complaints against political activities on campuses, Stern and others say.

“They were including in those cases complaints about programs about the occupation, texts the professors used in classes that were being taught, and speakers who were coming to campus to criticize Israel – all clearly protected political speech,” says Stern, an attorney who has successfully litigated civil rights cases in which Jewish students faced hatred and discrimination.

Jewish scholars like Stern, Professor Trachtenberg, and others also point out that efforts to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism on college campuses ignore a critical fact: Many liberal Jews and some ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects, among others, have also criticized the idea of the Jewish state.   

“It is important to note that many Jews increasingly express publicly their criticism of Israeli policies, as well as their gradual unease with Zionist premises,” says Professor Omer, a Jewish-Israeli and author of “Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians.” 

Wrestling with the issues at Rutgers 

Kapoano recalls how he had wrestled, both intellectually and morally, with the issues of the occupied territories in Palestine during his time at Rutgers. The pro-Israel groups he became involved with sponsored an event in which a Palestinian woman described living a life without her father, who had been locked up in Israeli jails her entire life. The event also included an Israeli woman, too, who described the ordeal of losing friends to the actions of a suicide bomber.

He was frustrated that the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups could never co-sponsor events like this, he says – challenging discussions that try to see both sides.

“And I’ll tell you, as someone who is very very much pro Israel, even a Zionist, it was not easy to sit through some of those discussions,” says Kapoano, who now works as a marketing consultant in New Brunswick, N.J. “You know it was a real dose of reality.”

Instead, the climate on campus when he was a student was aggressive, he says. During an event sponsored by the Hillel House chapter on campus, anti-Israel protesters flooded the first three rows of a talk given by an Arab Israeli, disrupting and chanting over his account of living well as a citizen of Israel, Kapoano recalls.

“On the one hand, we all felt attacked by that, because that was like our house,” he says. “Imagine this was happening in your own home, in your own church or temple. And none of the Jewish and pro-Israel students were able to ask any questions.”

And then an event sponsored by a pro-Palestinian group began to single out Jewish students like him who were perceived to be pro-Israel. They tried to charge them, and only them, with a fee to attend the open campus event – which became a key part of the complaint they brought seven years ago.

At the same time, liberal Jewish students have also been subjected to harassment. “I saw those things too, Jewish students who were pro-Palestinian who were called kapos and traitors and also victimized, too,” says Stern.

Which is one reason why campus discussions need to become more critically engaged, says Mehnaz Afridi, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York and the director of its Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center.

Still, she sees a point in the fact that when it comes to the state of Israel, there does seem to be a special focus, if not indeed a double standard that hints at anti-Semitism.

“I’m not saying we should leave the Palestinians out, but I wonder why it’s always the issue of Israel here,” says Professor Afridi. “I mean, for me as a Muslim, honestly, I worry about Myanmar, I worry about the Chinese Muslims, I worry about Syria, or about so many other Muslims who are being killed and tortured,” she says. “I’d like to have a more nuanced conversation about that, too.”

Conservative Jewish students continue to feel that the current climate on campus is one of harassment and intimidation.

“I mean you could call it whatever you want, and they can come up with any academic definitions, or whatever, but when one group of people who happen to have been regularly targeted for centuries are on the receiving end of intimidation and discrimination on campus?” Kapoano says. “Well, that might just be anti-Semitism.”

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5. The internet’s outpost of civility: Why Wikipedia (mostly) works

As tech giants like Google and Facebook battle misinformation, one online platform has managed to remain above the fray. What is Wikipedia doing right that Silicon Valley is getting wrong?

Kim
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Every month, nearly 200 million users around the world search for information on Wikipedia, making the online encyclopedia the fifth-most-used website in the world.

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For many internet users, checking a fact is synonymous with visiting a page on Wikipedia. Now in its 17th year, the free online encyclopedia has defied the expectation of its critics, who predicted that an encyclopedia produced by anonymous volunteers would quickly succumb to marketers, propagandists, and other bad-faith actors. Instead, it has been the for-profit tech giants that have stumbled, while Wikipedia’s credibility has risen. The organization attributes its resilience to its core principles: a neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research. “Anybody using the encyclopedia can check that information comes from a reliable source,” says Kui Kinyanjui, a spokeswoman for the Wikimedia Foundation. “It’s not a completely rosy picture when it comes to the content we have,” she says. “But it is a work in progress.”

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The internet’s outpost of civility: Why Wikipedia (mostly) works

Visit the Wikipedia entry for Apollo 11, and you’ll read about how NASA landed two men on the moon. Visit the Wikipedia entry for the Rothschild family, and you’ll see nothing about shapeshifting lizard people. Go to the entry on the Earth, and you’ll learn that the planet is basically spherical.

No political rants. No conspiracy theories presented as fact. It’s almost like not being on the internet.

As the information age has shaped up to be the misinformation age, with multi-billion-dollar Silicon Valley giants struggling to deal with hatemongers, propagandists, and all manner of crackpots, Wikipedia, the world’s fifth-most-visited website, has seen its credibility grow. By hewing close to a set of core principles, the free, collaborative encyclopedia recalls the optimism of the web’s early days, before the like buttons, clickbait headlines, and political bots began to strain the relationship between technology and the truth.

“Wikipedia now is one of the lone survivors of that original Web 1.0 type of world,” says Joseph Reagle, an associate professor at Northeastern University and author of “Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia.”

To be sure, it’s not hard to find an error on Wikipedia, especially if you include errors of omission. Groups marginalized in real life, such as women and ethnic minorities, are likely to be marginalized on Wikipedia. But those same groups are less likely to face the kind of overt vilification seen on Facebook, YouTube, or Reddit.

To find the kind of rancor common to these sites on Wikipedia, one has to peel back the site’s outer layer – the neutral and authoritative entries on nearly every subject – and visit each entry’s “talk” page. There, you can see the back-and-forth that goes into each article.

Sometimes these exchanges can get contentious, on topics ranging from the monumental to the mundane. In the event of an “edit war,” where dueling editors continually overwrite each other’s work, the site’s volunteer administrators can step in and restrict how a page is updated and by whom.

That’s what happened beginning in 2005 for the entry for “Hummus,” which became a proxy battleground for the Arab-Israeli conflict, with each side claiming to have invented the mashed garbanzo bean dip. Admins intervened, and today, any would-be “Hummus” contributor must have made at least 500 edits to other Wikipedia entries and have had an account for at least 30 days. As of this writing, the dish is described as “Levantine” in origin.

But even on the talk pages, a sense of shared purpose generally prevails, with adversaries on all sides agreeing, for the most part, that the goal is to create a high-quality encyclopedia entry.

“Indeed the purpose of Wikipedia, to create a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” says Professor Reagle, “that singularity of focus is the thing that holds Wikipedia in good stead in light of all of the propaganda and this information that we see now.”

According to Wikipedia’s entry for itself, the site was founded by tech entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger in 2001, as a way of quickly expanding the number of entries on their Nupedia project, a more traditional online encyclopedia written by experts. Wikipedia’s initial aim was to turn a profit, but it transitioned to a non-profit model in 2003. Unless you count the year-end fundraising appeals, Wikipedia runs no ads.

“If you are in the business of making money out of people’s attention, fake news would be so helpful for your business,” says Mostafa Mesgari, an assistant professor of management information systems at Elon University in Elon, N.C. “Wikipedia is very different from social media.”

Today, Wikipedia – a collection of about 300 encyclopedias in various languages – is maintained by a community of about 200,000 volunteers, and is operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, which also runs sister sites Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikisource, Wikimedia Commons, and other sites that offer free content produced and curated by volunteers.

Early on, the site was derided for its open-access approach. A 2006 piece in The New Yorker described it as “a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old.” In 2007, a New Jersey middle-school librarian made headlines around the country when she posted signs that read “Just say no to Wikipedia.” That same year, then Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska proposed banning the site in public schools.

“Wikipedia inevitably will be overtaken by the gamers and the marketers to the point where it will lose all credibility,” wrote law professor Eric Goldman in a 2005 blog post titled “Wikipedia Will Fail Within 5 Years.”

Instead, it seems the opposite happened. Studies on Wikipedia’s reliability began comparing the site favorably with the centuries-old Encyclopædia Britannica. More and more professors began suggesting to their students that the site can be a good starting point for further research. As Professor Mesgari and his colleagues noted in 2014, the preponderance of studies comparing Wikipedia with professionally produced encyclopedic information find that Wikipedia is a “generally reliable source of information.”

“I don’t think any of their predictions and ruminations came true about Wikipedia,” says Reagle of the site’s critics. “But I think some of the concerns did apply more widely.”

Wikipedia credits its resiliency against misinformation to its three core content policies: a neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research. “Anybody using the encyclopedia can check that information comes from a reliable source,” says Kui Kinyanjui, a spokeswoman for the Wikimedia Foundation. “We don’t publish original research. What we cover is what is out there and what has been reliably cited by knowledgeable sources.”

This epistemic conservatism often leads Wikipedia to reproduce the biases that exist in the larger culture. For instance, up until she won the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday, University of Waterloo physicist Donna Strickland lacked her own Wikipedia entry, an oversight that Ms. Kinyanjui chalks up to an absence of media coverage about her.

“We consider ourselves a mirror of the world,” she says. “And that means that we are a mirror of some of the shortfalls of the world.”

Sometimes the demographics of Wikipedia’s community – which is overwhelmingly male and more than a little nerdy – can distort that mirror. For instance, just 17 percent of the biographies in the English-language Wikipedia are of women. And the entry for the Xhosa language, which is spoken by nearly 20 million people, is shorter than the entry for the fictional Klingon language. “It’s not a completely rosy picture when it comes to the content we have,” says Kinyanjui. “But it is a work in progress.”

Despite its gaps, Wikipedia remains a far better launching point for research than most other sites hosting user-generated content. (If you doubt this, just imagine a high-school student researching, say, chemtrails, and whether she would be better served by starting off with Wikipedia or with YouTube.)

YouTube recognized this particular shortcoming earlier this year, and now it posts links to Wikipedia or Brittanica at the top of search results for particularly charged search terms, such as “Holocaust” or “climate change.” The move marks something of a concession by Google, the company that owns YouTube, which acknowledged that even a company worth nearly a trillion dollars can’t outperform a nonprofit that relies on volunteers committed to getting the facts right.

“It’s the best sum of all human knowledge,” says Mesgari.

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The Monitor's View

Brazil alters a ‘destiny’ of corruption

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Until last Sunday, when Brazilians voted in a pivotal election, corruption in Brazil was generally seen as an intrinsic part of the national character. As a pair of scholars put it in a new book, a culture of corruption in the world’s fourth-largest democracy was considered “an unavoidable destiny.” After the shocking results of the Oct. 7 vote, that destiny is in doubt. Voters delivered a strong message to the traditional parties of the left, right, and center. They removed two-thirds of incumbents in Congress. And more than half of politicians charged with corruption, or who are being investigated, were not reelected. Brazil was primed for such an election. After anti-corruption protests broke out in 2013, the country’s prosecutors and judges were emboldened to end the culture of impunity. One probe in particular, called Lava Jato (Car Wash), has become the biggest corruption case in the world, felling dozens of elected leaders. Perhaps the “destiny” of political corruption in Latin America’s biggest country may not be “unavoidable” after all.

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Brazil alters a ‘destiny’ of corruption

Until last Sunday, when Brazilians voted in a pivotal election, corruption in Brazil was generally seen as an intrinsic part of the national character. As scholars Heloisa Starling and Lilia Schwarcz put it in a new book, a culture of corruption in the world’s fourth-largest democracy was considered “an unavoidable destiny.”

Yet after the shocking results of the Oct. 7 vote, that destiny is now in doubt.

Voters delivered a strong message to the traditional parties of the left, right, and center. They removed two-thirds of incumbents in Congress. And more than half of politicians charged with corruption, or who are being investigated, were not reelected, including the president of the Senate.

Voters also favored new or lesser political parties, many of which promised to end corruption and promote honest, transparent governance. Brazil’s lower house will now have the highest number of parties in Congress since democracy was restored in 1985.

In addition, voters all but ensured that a little-known legislator, Jair Bolsonaro, would be the next president. He took 46 percent of this first round of voting, handily beating a dozen other candidates in a campaign in which he relied largely on social media. Known as “Brazil’s Donald Trump” for his crude statements, Mr. Bolsonaro nonetheless promises zero tolerance of corruption.

In a runoff election on Oct. 28, the right-wing former Army captain will face off against a leftist candidate, Fernando Haddad, who garnered only 29 percent of the ballots last Sunday.

Brazil was primed for such an election upset. After anti-corruption protests broke out in 2013, the country’s prosecutors and judges were emboldened to go after the political elite, many of whom took bribes with impunity or laundered money taken from the state-run oil firm, Petrobras. Prosecutors were driven by a desire to instill a new culture in Brazil – equality before the law – and end the culture of impunity.

One probe in particular, called Lava Jato (Car Wash), has become the biggest corruption case in the world, felling dozens of elected leaders. In a scene that riveted the nation last April, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose popularity was once 87 percent, was led off to prison for corruption.

One Brazilian columnist summed it up perfectly: “Lava Jato bomb explodes at the polls and sweeps almost everything in its path.” Brazilians used the election to reveal their hope for the kind of clean governance that reflects their values.

Perhaps the “destiny” of political corruption in Latin America’s biggest country may not be “unavoidable” after all.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A foundation for ethics in business

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In today’s column, a businessman explores how Christ Jesus’ teaching about building a “foundation on a rock” can inspire honesty – and the courage to express it – in our lives.

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A foundation for ethics in business

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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While running a business years ago, I had to prepare for what was shaping up to be a difficult board meeting. Several months of declining revenue had left me with little positive news to share with my investors.

Then a colleague suggested we could inflate the profitability of the company, not by increasing sales, which is how businesses normally grow, but by reducing future expenses needed to grow the company. That’s like thinking we can make our personal budget look better by going without food! It was an attempt to lessen bad news by ignoring common sense, and it was a recipe for failure. Nonetheless, thinking this would make for a more positive meeting, I followed the advice.

Thankfully for the company, a board member saw through the charade. I was censured for creating an illusion of good news by undermining the principles of good business. Lesson learned.

To me this illustrates something I love in Christ Jesus’ teachings, where Jesus likens those who heard and followed his teachings to “a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.” Those who were familiar with his teachings but failed to put them into practice he likened to “a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great” (Luke 6:48, 49).

Jesus wasn’t lecturing engineers; those who heard his sermon were from all walks of life. The message was clear: When building our lives and legacies, we have choices. We can dig deep into, and build upon, the enduring spiritual foundation of values that bring health, joy, and prosperity. Or we can build on the shifting, insubstantial, and oftentimes alluring sands of the kind of values, such as selfishness and deceit, that end in lack, limitation, and destruction.

Whether we’re in business or some other endeavor, everyone has the God-given ability to choose the good foundation. Christian Science explains that we are all God’s children, and therefore eternally anchored to the rock of Christ, the true idea of God that Christ Jesus manifested. Our spiritual oneness with the divine Father can never be undermined because it stands on the foundation of God, infinite Love. The only building we have to be concerned with is reinforcing, or nurturing, our receptivity to the Christ, which inspires honesty, creativity, and diligence.

On another occasion, I witnessed the indisputable benefits of building on the sure foundation of honesty and truth. My company was in discussions with a new investment firm about a much-needed infusion of money. The investor expressed particular interest in a person we had just hired as our new vice president of sales.

Two days before the investment firm was to make its final decision, this employee informed me that he had been offered a dream job at another company and was leaving us. My first thought was that this would derail the investor discussions, and I considered not sharing the news until after the transaction was completed.

But as I considered some of these ideas about everyone’s true, spiritual nature as one with God, divine Truth itself, it became clear to me that the right thing to do was to tell the investor about the departing executive before the decision was made.

I called a meeting with the firm, and despite feeling some trepidation, I shared the news. A deafening silence fell upon the room, then smiles appeared. The firm’s representatives told me that they had already heard of the employee’s decision to leave. They wanted to see how I would handle the situation, and my honesty was exactly what they had been hoping to see. They decided to work with me on the spot. Basing my decisions and actions on an honesty founded on the rock of Truth blessed me, my company, and the investor.

When confronted with adversity, our best defense is to know that the rock of divine Truth is already firmly established as everyone’s enduring foundation. We have spiritual authority for asserting the presence and power of God and His goodness. Filled with this understanding, we find our lives and legacies increasingly based securely on this rock.

Adapted from an article in the Sept. 17, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

Display of girl power

Ajay Verma/Reuters
Schoolgirls in Chandigarh, India, wave during celebrations Oct. 11 to mark International Day of the Girl Child, an annual United Nations initiative. This year’s theme: 'With Her: A Skilled GirlForce,' marks the start of a yearlong effort to boost entrepreneurship and help prepare young women worldwide. The UN estimates that 600 million adolescent girls will start work in the next decade.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 12th, 2018 )

Kim Campbell
Education Editor

Thanks for joining us. We are following the effects of hurricane Michael. Watch for our coverage in the coming days. 

We also want to leave you with some news from Asia: This story, on Nepal's artists aiding in earthquake restoration efforts, written by Monitor contributor Atul Bhattarai, recently received an award from the South Asian Journalists Association.  

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October 11, 2018
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