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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
12
Friday
Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Hurricane Michael made a lot more noise when it bombed the Florida Panhandle this week. But the quiet arrival on a British beach of a 47-year-old empty plastic detergent bottle merits some consideration too.

Find the central Gulf Coast on Google Earth. Or find that beach in Somerset, England. Now zoom out to the Big Blue Marble. Linger there.

Consider that even though global markets have been rocked of late, sending privileged shareholders scurrying to check retirement accounts, the world keeps getting incrementally richer. A new report from the Brookings Institution notes that “for the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty.”

That’s big. And that’s progress. More households of all kinds have money to spend on something other than subsistence. Will the consumer-supply end serve them responsibly? This week our economy team wrote about corporate moves toward mitigating actions widely connected to climate change, which is, in turn, widely linked to more destructive storms.

As thinkers sift through carbon-pricing schemes and poke at feats of geoengineering (we’ll explore the ethics of those Monday), it will be new consumers – led by longtime ones – who’ll be challenged to make the choices that force the change that shapes the future.

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Now to our five stories for your Friday. 

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1. Will the Khashoggi affair change the course of US-Saudi relations?

A president who is generally laissez faire when it comes to other countries’ internal affairs now faces a Congress that is far more critical. Which approach will shape relations with a Mideast ally whose behavior now is under scrutiny?

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Members of the Turkish-Arab journalist association carry posters with photos of missing Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi as they protest near the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul Oct. 8.

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US policy toward Saudi Arabia has run into serious trouble. There is mounting evidence that a prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in Turkey by a Saudi hit squad. The Trump administration’s reaction to the case was criticized as being delayed, but the allegations have spawned a bipartisan call from Congress for sanctions to be imposed on Saudi Arabia if it turns out Mr. Khashoggi was indeed killed by Saudi operatives. President Trump “has a longstanding position that he doesn’t care very much about internal affairs – ‘How you run your country is up to you’ is how he likes to put it – so I would assume that would be his impulse in this case,” says Patrick Clawson, an expert in US-Saudi relations. Others say what is already known about Khashoggi’s disappearance is enough to trigger some action. “I can’t imagine the outcome is going to be no change,” says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But the outcome is not going to be the US ending its close relationship with Saudi Arabia,” either, he adds. “It will be a calibrated approach that will be criticized as inadequate by some people.”   

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Will the Khashoggi affair change the course of US-Saudi relations?

Ever since President Trump accepted the counsel of son-in-law and Middle East adviser Jared Kushner to make Saudi Arabia the first foreign trip of his presidency, it was clear that the kingdom was to be the linchpin of his administration’s regional policy.

From countering Iran and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace to promoting sustainable reforms of rigid Arab societies, Saudi Arabia under its young crown prince (and de facto leader) Mohammed bin Salman would be Washington’s go-to partner in the region.

Now the Saudi strategy Mr. Kushner engineered has been rattled and indeed threatens to come crashing down.

The reason? The stunning allegations – which Mr. Trump this week hinted are likely more fact than accusation – that a prominent Saudi journalist and US resident, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered in Turkey by a Saudi government hit squad dispatched by the crown prince.

Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance Oct. 2 while with Saudi officials in Turkey has prompted little in the way of clarifying information from the Saudis. But it has spawned vociferous reaction from rights groups and a bipartisan call from Congress for answers – and for sanctions to be imposed on Saudi Arabia if it turns out Khashoggi was indeed killed by Saudi operatives.

Trump, too, has expressed his disapproval of Khashoggi’s disappearance – although it took the White House more than a week to comment on the case. That delay, as well as the president’s stated reluctance to take punitive action, suggests to some regional analysts that any rough period ahead for US-Saudi relations could be short-lived.

“This president has a longstanding position that he doesn’t care very much about internal affairs – ‘How you run your country is up to you’ is how he likes to put it – so I would assume that would be his impulse in this case,” says Patrick Clawson, an expert in US-Saudi relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Reflecting that, the US position toward the Saudis is going to be that ‘This [the Khashoggi affair] is not good for your interests,’ ” Mr. Clawson adds. “It’s not going to be that this is a moral outrage that calls into question our relations or that outweighs our common interests.”

Others say the facts of the case will determine the US response, but that what is already known about Khashoggi’s disappearance is enough to trigger some action.

“I can’t imagine the outcome is going to be no change, based on the unrefuted pattern of facts” already established, says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and a former special assistant to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

“But the outcome is not going to be the US ending its close relationship with Saudi Arabia,” either, he adds. “It will be a calibrated approach that will be criticized as inadequate by some people.”

Intelligence picked up 'chatter'

Kashoggi’s last verified whereabouts was the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where his fiancée says he made an appointment to get documents for their upcoming wedding. Saudi officials insist Khashoggi left the consulate after his appointment and that they do not know where he is.

But Turkish officials assert he was killed in the consulate by a hit squad of 15 agents dispatched from Riyadh, his body dismembered and transported to Saudi Arabia. On Thursday, Turkish officials claimed to have audio and video tapes of Kashoggi’s interrogation, torture, and murder in the consulate.

US intelligence officials confirm that over recent weeks they had picked up chatter among Saudi officials discussing a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and then to detain him, as first reported by the Washington Post.

That information raised questions about whether Khashoggi was informed of the plan concerning him – US intelligence agencies operate under a “duty to warn” individuals of such intercepted plots, even if the individual is not an American citizen.

Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was no radical anti-regime dissident but rather a Saudi insider who gradually soured on the royal court — and in particular on the crown prince.

And senior Trump administration officials have lent credence to the darkest conjectures about Khashoggi. The White House announced this week that Kushner, national security adviser John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo each called Crown Prince Mohammed and implored the kingdom to come clean – officially “be transparent” – about Khashoggi’s fate.

And then there was Trump’s assertion Wednesday to Fox News that, while he did not like where the evidence appeared to be pointing concerning Khashoggi, he also did not foresee taking actions – such as cutting off arm sales to Saudi Arabia – that would hurt US industry and jobs.

Following Iran's playbook?

At the same time, some regional analysts say the Khashoggi affair can’t help but cast doubt on US relations with Saudi Arabia – in particular concerning the kingdom’s role in the Trump White House’s plan for countering Iranian adventurism and malign activities – including ruthless repression of political dissidents at home and abroad.

If Saudi Arabia is increasingly seen to be following the Iranian playbook, they say – mounting elaborate missions to silence journalists and dissidents by jailing or even killing them, and wreaking havoc across the region, as exemplified by the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen – it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the White House to follow its Saudi strategy.

Congressional pressure to hold Saudi Arabia accountable in meaningful ways intensified all week. “Any message from Congress that support is being threatened has a deep effect on the kingdom – and that message is being sent every day,” says Mr. Alterman at CSIS.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent Trump a letter formally requesting the White House conduct an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The act was first passed in response to Russia’s jailing and death while in custody of anti-corruption activist Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. It calls on the president to conduct an investigation into a case of state-sponsored human rights violations and to report back to the Senate committee with findings and a determination of whether sanctions should be imposed.

Recourse to the Magnitsky Act is a “pretty strong step,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee said Thursday that any determination of a Saudi role in Khashoggi’s disappearance would put the administration under “immense pressure” to follow through with action, such as sanctions.

From 'reformer' to 'rogue'

Other senators are going further, suggesting that arms sales to Saudi Arabia should be halted if it is determined the Saudi state killed Khashoggi.

Calling for a “fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia” if an investigation reveals that a “US resident” was “murdered” by Saudi officials, Sen. Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut said cutting off arms sales would be an obvious step. “The United States cannot be in a military partnership with a country that has this little concern for human life,” he said.

Other senators acknowledge that Saudi Arabia is likely to remain a strategic partner of the US under almost any scenario, but they insist that after Khashoggi it can’t be business as usual.

Regional analysts who have been supportive of close US-Saudi relations, and in particular of the two powers’ efforts to counter Iran, lament that the Khashoggi case will likely act as something of a last straw that tips relations, perhaps back to the days of tensions experienced during the Obama administration.

Crown Prince Mohammed, familiarly known as MBS, is on the brink of shifting in US perceptions from “reformer” to “rogue,” says Elliott Abrams, a former US diplomat and National Security Council Middle East director who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Indeed over the past year MBS, hailed in some circles for allowing Saudi women to drive and for anticorruption initiatives against some Saudi high and mighty, has also ordered a string of blatant extraterritorial exercises of power that went largely unchallenged and that experts say may have led the prince to conclude that his crackdowns on regime critics had Washington’s tacit approval.

MBS has detained thousands of rights and reform activists. Last March, in a move that some say presaged the Saudi state’s Khashoggi mission, a Saudi women’s rights activist was nabbed in Abu Dhabi and whisked back to Saudi Arabia where she was jailed. And in a bizarre caper last November, Saudi officials detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri while on a visit to the kingdom – even ordering him to go on TV and announce his resignation. (He is still in office.)

'Act first and think later'

More recently, Saudi Arabia in August cut trade ties with Canada, ordered all Saudi students in Canada to return home, and expelled the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh after the Canadian Embassy issued a tweet calling for the release of jailed women’s rights activists.

Saying the Canadian episode showcased MBS as an “impetuous leader who tends to act first and think later,” the Washington Institute’s Clawson says he expects the White House to have harsh words for the Saudi leadership over Khashoggi – but, as Trump has already indicated, not to fundamentally disrupt relations if the White House can avoid it.

Alterman of CSIS says the one thing that might prompt a rethinking by the crown prince is a sense growing in the kingdom that his actions have gone on to the point of undermining US-Saudi relations.

“There’s no question that the most significant accomplishment Mohammed bin Salman has is revitalizing the US-Saudi relationship,” says Alterman, who notes that there was a sense that the strategic partnership was “slipping away” under President Barack Obama, presenting a “profound challenge to the security of the kingdom.”

What that means, in his view, is that US actions in response to the Khashoggi affair “intended to somehow change the Saudis’ behavior” will have an impact, “more profoundly on the crown prince than on anything else.”

The question will be “how much anything the US does will change Saudi behavior,” he says, “and that remains very unclear.”

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2. How hurricane Michael could affect Florida’s high-stakes midterms

During previous natural disasters, bipartisan cooperation was the order of the day as everyone worked to help those in harm’s way. That unwritten code of civility has faded, as seen in Florida, where political gamesmanship continued even as the storm hit.

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As hurricane Michael gained force and barreled toward Florida’s Panhandle earlier this week, TV viewers in the storm’s path were treated to a bizarre combination of official warnings about the storm, and then ads slamming those same officials – Tallahassee's Democratic Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for governor, and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate – as untrustworthy. In Florida, the nation’s biggest political battleground, the massive hurricane has only driven a deeper partisan wedge into tight Senate and governor’s races. Pundits are gaming out political winners and losers, even as search and rescue operations continue. And so, like so much else in the Trump era, unwritten political norms around natural disasters are fraying or vanishing altogether. “The tradition in Florida was that it was not only inappropriate to be running negative ads [during a hurricane] ... but also it wasn’t good politics,” former Florida Gov. Bob Graham told The Miami Herald. “People responded to candidates who, at a time they were deeply concerned about their families and neighbors’ safety, didn’t want to be bombarded with negative ads.”

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How hurricane Michael could affect Florida’s high-stakes midterms

“One Result of Hurricane: Bipartisanship Flows.”

That headline from The New York Times seems a relic from a bygone era. Indeed, it’s not a reference to hurricane Michael, the Category 4 storm that slammed into the Florida Panhandle earlier this week and wrought devastation across the southeastern United States.

It dates to Oct. 31, 2012, days before that year’s cliffhanger presidential election. Superstorm Sandy had just struck the New Jersey coast, and the state’s then-governor, Republican Chris Christie, greeted a visiting President Barack Obama warmly. At a joint news conference, Mr. Christie praised their “great working relationship.”

Six years later, on the eve of President Trump’s first midterm elections, such bipartisan comity seems unimaginable. The political stakes are just as high, with control of the House, if likely not the Senate, and numerous governorships on the line. But in Florida, the nation’s biggest political battleground, the massive hurricane has only driven a deeper partisan wedge into tight Senate and governor’s races. Pundits are gaming out political winners and losers, even as search and rescue operations continue.

Earlier this week, as the storm gained force and barreled toward Florida’s Panhandle and Big Bend region, negative ads continued to run in the races for Senate and governor. TV viewers in the storm’s path were treated to a bizarre combination of official warnings about the storm, and then ads slamming those very same officials – Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum (D), who is running for governor, and Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running for Senate – as untrustworthy.

The candidates themselves had stopped advertising in the storm zone, but outside groups – and both parties’ state committees – initially did not. Campaign events stopped, but the airwaves stayed alive with political rhetoric. The campaigns of both Mayor Gillum and Governor Scott have sent out “cease and desist” letters ordering Florida TV stations to stop running ads the campaigns say are false.

And so, like so much else in the Trump era, unwritten political norms around natural disasters are fraying or vanishing altogether.

“The tradition in Florida was that it was not only inappropriate to be running negative ads [during a hurricane] ... but also it wasn’t good politics,” former Florida Gov. Bob Graham (D) told The Miami Herald. “People responded to candidates who, at a time they were deeply concerned about their families and neighbors’ safety, didn’t want to be bombarded with negative ads.”

Mr. Trump himself entered the fray when he opted to proceed with a campaign rally Wednesday night in Erie, Pa., just hours after Michael made landfall as the biggest hurricane to hit the Panhandle in recorded history, after saying that morning he might postpone.

“I cannot disappoint the thousands of people that are there” in Erie, the president wrote on Twitter later in the day. At the rally itself, Trump offered prayers to the people in harm’s way and promised a robust government response, plus a visit to Florida soon, before moving on to politics.

Democrats attacked Trump for sticking with the rally, and dug up a Trump tweet from 2012 slamming Mr. Obama for campaigning days after superstorm Sandy.

In Florida, the hurricane could prove to be the “October surprise” that sways just enough votes to determine both the governor and Senate races. The two executives running – Scott and Gillum – have the most to gain or lose, depending on how their performances are judged.

Scott earned high marks for his handling of previous hurricanes during nearly eight years as Florida governor, and a strong performance with hurricane Michael could put him over the top in his battle to unseat three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, analysts say.

“If Scott lives up to his previous standards, it should be political gold,” says Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon polling, who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. “The potential downside, of course, is how long it takes them to clean up, restore power, and get things back to normal.”

For now, Scott is getting lots of “in the field” TV airtime – sleeves rolled up, his signature Navy cap atop his head – allowing him to counter the ads that portrayed him steering contracts to friends after the last hurricane, says political analyst Susan MacManus, retired professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa.

“Plus, being able to delay the debate is helpful to him,” Ms. MacManus says.

The Scott-Nelson debate originally scheduled for Oct. 16 has been delayed two weeks.

In the governor’s race, which will elect the chief executive of the nation’s third largest state – who will preside over legislative redistricting after the 2020 Census – Gillum also has a made-for-TV role as mayor of the state capital. He has been active on the ground, photographed filling sandbags before the storm and videotaped clearing trees with a chainsaw in the aftermath.

On the eve of the storm, Gillum also got the political gift of an attack from Trump, who was trying to help his ally and Gillum's opponent, former Congressman Ron DeSantis. During a TV interview in Orlando Monday, Trump blamed Gillum for Tallahassee’s high crime rate and “tremendous corruption.” (The FBI is investigating corruption in the city’s government, but Gillum says he is not personally under investigation.)

The Trump attack gave Gillum the opportunity to stand up to the president (and Mr. DeSantis), allowing the mayor to portray himself as above partisanship at a time of crisis while in fact landing a neat political punch.

“Hey @realDonaldTrump – don’t come to my state and talk trash about my city while we are preparing for a Category 3 hurricane,” Gillum tweeted. “We need a partner right now, not a partisan.”

Gillum faced criticism for his performance in the last hurricane to hit Tallahassee, and hurricane Michael has given him a chance to overcome those charges. DeSantis resigned his seat in Congress last month to focus on his gubernatorial campaign, and thus has no official platform from which to weigh in on the storm.

Senator Nelson has been on the ground in the storm-affected part of Florida and appearing on cable TV, but doesn’t have a direct role in addressing the immediate aftermath of the storm.

Still, in perhaps the only old-style, bipartisan element of the Florida midterms, Nelson and the state’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, have a record of working together to help Florida, and that has not changed in the aftermath of the hurricane. In March, Rubio had said he would not campaign against Nelson.

Nelson, too, has long advocated on the issue of climate change – a matter of special concern to a low-lying state with 1,350 miles of coastline – and activists are calling on the senator to push hard on the issue now, even as residents of the Florida Panhandle dig out. Scott’s environmental record is a matter of fierce debate in Florida, including his support for Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

“In Defense of Politicizing Hurricanes,” reads the headline in The New Republic.

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3. An end to dollar's rule as global currency? The Kremlin sees an opportunity.

The dollar has long been the world's reserve currency. But some countries, angered by sanctions, are  challenging that status, potentially undermining one of the US's most influential tools for shaping global policy.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
An exchange-office screen on a Moscow street shows the currency exchange rate of the Russian ruble and US dollar in April. The Kremlin has begun making moves to insulate the Russian economy from escalating US sanctions.

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The idea might have sounded quixotic a decade or so ago, when Russia and China first started talking about it. But the Kremlin is seizing what it sees as an opportunity to force the dollar out of its privileged position in global trade and finance. The Trump administration has been using the dollar – which holds a hegemonic position – to punish any entity or country that attempts to defy proliferating unilateral US sanctions against Russia, Iran, and China. But this has chafed globally; even the European Union is creating a financial institution beyond the dollar's reach in order to maintain trade with Iran. The Kremlin hopes that this means there is finally momentum to move away from the dollar. “More and more countries, not only in the East but also in Europe, are beginning to think about how to minimize dependence on the US dollar,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists last week. “And they suddenly realize that (a) it is possible, (b) it needs to be done, and (c) you can save yourself if you do it sooner.”

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An end to dollar's rule as global currency? The Kremlin sees an opportunity.

For average Russians, a small personal hoard of US dollars has always represented a place of safety amid the wild ups-and-downs that continue to beset the country's national currency, the ruble.

So it triggered a touch of panic among them when the Russian government confirmed long-standing rumors that it is working on a plan to insulate the economy from escalating US sanctions through “de-dollarization.”

The Trump administration has increasingly worked to weaponize the US dollar, by using its hegemonic position as the world's “reserve currency” to punish any entity or country that attempts to defy proliferating unilateral US sanctions against Russia, Iran, and China. And the Kremlin is seizing what it sees as an opportunity to force the dollar out of its privileged position in global trade and finance.

The idea might have sounded quixotic a decade or so ago, when Russia and China first started talking about it. For advocates, it has a rousing rhetorical ring to it, but experts say it's an extremely difficult reality to change in practice. Even Russia and China, the world's leading anti-dollar activists, have so far only managed to shift about a quarter of their own $60 billion bilateral trade into other currencies.

But now the European Union has announced that it will create a special financial infrastructure to continue trading with Iran, despite the threat of “secondary sanctions” from Washington. It will have to be built from scratch, to effectively avoid any use of the US dollar or the global banks and financial circuits that fall under US regulation. The EU, whose own currency, the euro, is a potential contender to take the dollar's place, has indicated that other signatories of the Iran nuclear deal, such as Russia and China, might have access to their new payment system for “legitimate” trade with Iran.

In the changing environment other countries, even India, which purchases weapons from sanctioned Russian companies, may find themselves looking for ways to circumvent the dollar and the US scrutiny that comes with it.

“Of course this plays into Putin's hands, because anything that makes the US look like the enemy, with other countries supporting us, bolsters his public image,” says Andrei Movchan, economic policy expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “But this is being driven by the threat that new sanctions, being prepared in Washington, would prohibit Russian banks from dealing in US dollars.”

“In fact, this whole discourse about sanctions and how to evade them is becoming permanent. And, in principle, switching to the use of other currencies is feasible; it wouldn't be easy, and would impose a lot of new costs, but it can be done.”

The dollar's deep reach

There are short-term risks for the Kremlin in moving against the dollar. The Moscow daily Moskovsky Komsomolets reported this week that nearly $20 billion has been withdrawn from Russia in the past three months, almost 50 times the outflow for the same period last year, in part due to the growing official talk about banning the dollar.

But Russian officials have rushed to reassure average citizens that their hard-won right to hold bank accounts denoted in foreign currency is not under threat. Instead, they have cast the issue in geopolitical terms, warning that the multiplication of US sanctions against Russia is reaching a point where Washington itself might ban Russian banks from any transactions in dollars. Thus, they say, the country needs to ready its financial system to meet that challenge.

“More and more countries, not only in the East but also in Europe, are beginning to think about how to minimize dependence on the US dollar,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists last week. “And they suddenly realize that: a) it is possible, b) it needs to be done, and c) you can save yourself if you do it sooner.”

Since the end of World War II, the US dollar has been the world's de facto reserve currency. Most goods traded internationally are priced in dollars, as is 40 percent of global debt and 64 percent of all governments' foreign currency reserves.

Besides spreading a net of subtle American financial control over much of the world, this has benefited the US in a variety of other ways. The widespread demand for dollars in international trade, particularly oil and gas, keeps the dollar strong and US interest rates low, and contributes to its reputation as a “safe haven” currency. Even during the financial collapse of 2008, people the world over rushed to buy dollars, and dollar-denominated assets such as US treasury bills, in order to keep their money safe.

That, in turn, enables the US government to run very high budget deficits which, despite frequent cries of alarm from conservative commentators, has yet to create anything like the debt crises that often sink lesser economies, such as Greece.

Speaking to an international economic forum in Vladivostok last month, Vladimir Putin warned that US debt is a time bomb that threatens global stability, and it behooves everyone to get as far away from the dollar as possible as fast as they can. “US foreign debt amounts to $20 trillion. What will be next? Who knows?” he said.

‘No one wants to hold rubles’

But it's easier said than done. Russia would like to be paid for its exports, especially oil, in a currency other than dollars. The new Russian government plan will reportedly offer tax incentives for Russian companies that do business abroad in rubles, which would boost the Russian currency and its international reputation.

“You can talk all you like about de-dollarization, but no one wants to hold rubles, which have lost value consistently over the past four years,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow-based political think tank. “When you sign contracts, do business over a period of time, everyone needs a reliable currency that preserves its value. So we are talking about dollars, or maybe euros.”

Russia has succeeded in making the ruble the only currency for domestic transactions, and it has created a domestic payment system, the Mir card, which is independent from US-based international payment systems like Visa and Mastercard, and hence sanctions-proof. Yet the Mir card has only 400 participating domestic banks and companies, and is used mainly by the Russian government to pay its employees and pensioners.

“The ruble-dollar rate remains the standard for Russians. They might use rubles, but they think dollars,” says Natalya Orlova, chief economist for Alfa Bank, one of Russia's leading private commercial banks.

“This talk about de-dollarization doesn't mean it will be implemented. It implies that you should switch, it creates uncertainty, makes the dollar sound toxic. But in practice, it would be very complicated, and costly, and it would have to be very, very gradual.”

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4. As China clamps down, internet users find it harder to scale ‘Great Firewall’

China has more internet users than any other country. And as its online censorship tightens, the consequences may ripple beyond its borders.

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China has the world’s largest and most sophisticated censorship system, including the “Great Firewall” blocking thousands of foreign websites. But it’s not watertight – or hasn’t been, anyway. Many web users rely on virtual private networks, or VPNs, to “jump the wall.” But over the past year, Beijing has moved to restrict the availability of VPNs amid an overarching strengthening of Communist Party control under President Xi Jinping. This week a Shanghai court gave a software developer a three-year suspended sentence for operating a website selling VPN services in China. The crackdown is an attempt to close a major loophole in what is often not an impervious firewall but more of a seepy, complex ecosystem, in which the government applies varied pressure depending on the size and nature of the leak. Yet the sheer scope of online activity – China has some 800 million internet users – makes it a daunting task. “There are a lot of ordinary people who are curious to see China from the outside,” says the owner of a dress shop in Beijing. “They want to jump the wall.”

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As China clamps down, internet users find it harder to scale ‘Great Firewall’

A chill wind whips down the walkways on the campus of Peking University, the selective academy that attracts China’s best and brightest students. Strolling past the stone steps and upturned roof of the university library, a law student vents about how China’s ruling Communist Party is tightening controls on information.

“It’s harder this year than last year” to bypass the firewall that government censors use to block thousands of blacklisted websites, says the student. (Her name, like others in this story, has been omitted for privacy.) “A lot of VPNs [virtual private networks] are prohibited now,” she says, referring to the technology many students use to fanqiang, or “jump the wall.”

Jumping the wall has grown more difficult under President Xi Jinping, amid an overarching strengthening of Party control. Over the past year, Beijing has moved to restrict the availability of VPNs, including by prosecuting Chinese businesspeople who sell VPN software. This week, a Shanghai court gave a Chinese software developer a three-year suspended sentence for operating a website selling VPN services in China.

The “Great Firewall,” China’s digital censorship technology, summons up images of an impenetrable fortress. The firewall blocks foreign news, search engines, and social media, creating a buffer against information that goes against the party line. In reality, that wall has had significant gaps, largely thanks to VPNs. Today’s nationwide crackdown represents an attempt to close one of the biggest remaining loopholes through which ordinary Chinese can gain access to the world of unfettered information.

“Internet media should spread positive information, uphold the correct political direction, and guide public opinion toward the right direction,” the state-run Xinhua news service reported in April, summarizing the instructions of Mr. Xi, who “stressed the centralized, unified leadership of the Party over cybersecurity.”

China’s dogged pursuit of online censorship challenges the belief that a digitally connected society will inevitably be a freer one – and sets an example for other nondemocratic regimes, experts say.

“China’s censorship system has become the model for many authoritarian regimes: evidence exists that others are trying to emulate it,” political scientist Margaret Roberts writes in “Censored: Distraction and Diversion inside China’s Great Firewall.” In the era of digital media, China’s manipulation of public information also raises issues relevant for democracies, Professor Roberts argues, such as the need for corporate transparency about the algorithms behind online searches.

In Beijing’s northwestern Haidian District, home to most of the city’s universities and historically a center of intellectual ferment and debate, students say they are feeling the impact of the crackdown. While all the students interviewed say they can still skirt the censorship wall, they agreed it is growing more difficult.

“The VPNs are not stable. I often have to change from many kinds of VPN to get access now,” says a history student from Peking University, taking a break from studies in a café. “It’s a very serious problem. In our country, those in power limit the information that the society can have.” 

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
A Chinese employee in a Beijing mobile phone store holds up her phone, showing her apps for two virtual private networks or VPNs, which allow citizens to 'jump over' China’s firewall. The VPNs allow her to use the Instagram app, also shown on her phone.

Eyes on 800 million

China already has the world’s largest and most sophisticated censorship apparatus, reaching far beyond banning and dictating content at traditional state-run media such as newspapers and television stations. The government employs thousands of censors to monitor, filter, and delete posts it deems unfavorable on social media, while fabricating an estimated hundreds of millions of pro-government propaganda posts each year, according to experts. Meanwhile, the firewall blocks thousands of websites including Google services, foreign news outlets, and social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Yet the sheer scope of online activity by China’s population – currently with some 800 million internet users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center – makes this a daunting task.

Indeed, experts say China’s censorship regime has operated less like an impervious wall than a seepy, complex ecosystem, with the government applying varied pressure depending on the size and nature of the leaks.

“In China, censorship is porous and penetrable,” says Roberts, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Chinese with the time, money, and motivation have still been able to obtain VPNs to jump the firewall. Only a small percentage do, and they tend to be younger, wealthier, and better educated, and to live in cities along China’s coast, Roberts says.

Taking a two-pronged approach, the government assumes most Chinese are impatient and indifferent to sensitive topics, and so uses indirect methods to nudge people away. These include throttling websites to make them load slowly, censoring keywords, burying search results, and distracting citizens with propaganda posts. In contrast, authorities generally reserve the harshest censorship and fear tactics – including detention and prison – for a relatively small group of political and social activists, such as human rights lawyers, outspoken bloggers, and journalists.

Cracks in the system

Still, the strategy has risks. Popular indifference can evaporate during a crisis, causing a censorship system based on apathy to fail when the government needs it most, research shows.

When pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong in 2014 over electoral system interference by Beijing, for instance, China’s censors worried the protests would spread to the mainland, and blocked the social networking service Instagram. That backfired immediately, inspiring millions of Chinese users to obtain VPNs, join censored websites such as Twitter and Facebook, and follow news about the Hong Kong protests.

More recently, when students from several universities in China rallied behind a group of factory workers seeking to unionize in China’s southern city of Shenzhen this summer, censors were unable to stop the word from spreading.

“It takes time for the government to delete information from Weibo, so by then many people already know about it,” says a physics student, wearing a maroon and white Peking University letter jacket. Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform, requires users to register their real names, and posts with sensitive content are blocked or deleted.

Students are not the only ones concerned about heightening restrictions on information access, according to interviews with several Beijing workers and shopkeepers.

“There are a lot of ordinary people who are curious to see China from the outside. They want to jump the wall,” says the owner of a dress shop near Beijing’s main downtown train station. Ordinary citizens are well aware of the censorship, she says.

“If you post anything sensitive on the web, you will be shut down. Your WeChat number will be blocked,” she says, referring to a popular Chinese messaging app. “It has happened to my friends.”

Foreign businesses rely extensively on VPNs for their operations, but so do some Chinese firms. Chinese social media companies sometimes ignore censorship policies that hurt their bottom lines or make them less competitive, preferring to incur fines, experts say.

“Market competition can lead media companies to push back against state directives,” Blake Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who studies Chinese politics, writes in a working paper. In a study using leaked data, Dr. Miller found that Weibo disobeyed about 1 out of 6 government directives, motivated by the company’s concern about alienating customers by censoring more strictly than its Chinese social media competitor, Tencent.

All this suggests that the government’s bid to strengthen censorship will face ongoing resistance.

For some of China’s most talented students, opposition could take the form of leaving the country.

“I don’t like the world that the government builds for us, one that decides what we see and what we believe,” says a Russian language student. After graduation, he plans to head to Moscow.

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5. Arkansas alchemy: In Hot Springs rebirth, a lesson for national parks

As some national parks face disengagement, decay, and financial strain, one has managed to revitalize itself in enterprising ways. What can others learn from Hot Springs National Park? 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Visitors walk through Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs, Ark. Many of the town's bathhouses have been converted into modern spas, restaurants, and visitors centers, spurring a revival in this small town.

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Once the domain of Native American tribes and French and Spanish settlers, Hot Springs, Ark., has been a baseball haven, a gangster getaway, and a purveyor of reputedly healing water. It’s also home to Hot Springs National Park, the famous thermal waters of which fueled the area’s growth and prosperity for a century – until it didn’t. After decades of neglect, the National Park Service has capitalized on those thermal waters in new ways, partnering with private entities to restore and reopen the park's eight bathhouses as private businesses. The effort has brought abandoned buildings back to life, eased financial pressure on the park system, and revitalized tourism. As other national parks suffer from low visitor rates and decaying infrastructure – NPS has a maintenance backlog estimated at $11.6 billion – the renaissance Hot Springs National Park is experiencing could serve as an example for other parks. Historic leasing, says Tom Cassidy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “is a very underutilized tool in the national park system, and Hot Springs is a real great example of the benefit of this program.”

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Arkansas alchemy: In Hot Springs rebirth, a lesson for national parks

The rainwater that fell on Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto here in the 16th century is even now bubbling out of the ground into the historic bathhouse that Rose Schweikert has turned into a restaurant.

It has changed a lot since it first fell as rain some 4,000 years ago, picking up some carbon dioxide here, some acids and minerals there, and filtering about 7,000 feet below the Earth’s surface before shooting back up at a temperature of about 143 degrees F.

This small town nestled in the Ouachita Mountains has also changed a lot since de Soto’s time. A domain of Native American tribes, the French, and then the US, it has been a baseball haven, a gangster getaway, and a purveyor of reputedly healing water. Babe Ruth walked these streets. So did Al Capone. And so have National Park rangers, for almost a century.

Hot Springs National Park is not one of the most iconic national parks. It’s certainly one of the smallest: just 8.5 square miles right in the middle of the city of Hot Springs, Ark. But the park, and the thermal waters beneath it, fueled the area’s growth and prosperity for a century – until it didn’t.

After decades of neglect amid a faltering local economy, the National Park Service (NPS) has capitalized on the area’s most important resource in entirely new ways, partnering with private entities to restore and reopen its eight bathhouses as private businesses. 

With other low-profile national parks suffering from low visitor rates and decaying infrastructure – the national parks system as a whole is facing a maintenance backlog estimated at $11.6 billion – the renaissance Hot Springs National Park is experiencing could serve as an example for other parks to follow.

Public-private partnerships are just one of several tools to help repair and maintain national parks – an increase in funding from Congress should be the main remedy, experts and advocates say – but the success in Hot Springs shows that leasing historic buildings to private individuals or companies will likely be an important tool in the future.

“These buildings that were abandoned have been brought back to life,” says Tom Cassidy, vice president for government relations and policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Historic leasing “is a very underutilized tool in the national park system, and Hot Springs is a real great example of the benefit of this program.” 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Keith Lewis of Yell County, Arkansas, fills water jugs from the spring on September 15, 2018, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The town's thermal waters, reputed for their health benefits, attract visitors from around the world. Some three million people visited the Hot Springs area last year.

Outsourcing history 

Hot Springs’ slow decline began in the 1950s. Hydrotherapy had been debunked, and by 1985 seven of the eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row had closed. The 1980s also brought a boom in suburban shopping developments, and as shoppers flocked there, businesses in Hot Springs entered a two-decade downturn. 

“It was the worst time in Hot Springs history,” says Cole McCaskill, vice president of Economic Development at the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce.

In the 1990s, at the urging of local officials and business leaders, the NPS began exploring ways to repurpose the now-vacant bathhouses.

The park service began by renovating the Fordyce Bathhouse and reopening it as a museum and visitors center in 1989. In the 2000s it began entering into historic lease agreements with private businesses for Bathhouse Row buildings.

The Quapaw Bathhouse was the first, restored and reopened as a family spa in 2008. Early 1900s tubs were replaced with modern ones, and the main room was converted into a pool area. A basement room, where the hot spring water bubbles out of the ground at 143 degrees F., was turned into a sauna.

“The town has grown tremendously [since 2008]. We get people from all over the world,” says Debi Buchta, the spa’s manager.

The 55-year lease the spa owners signed means the NPS no longer pays monthly utility bills for the building, according to the National Trust, and 2 percent of annual gross revenue goes into a fund for maintenance work.

Ms. Schweikert, an entrepreneur who led an effort to convert the Superior Bathhouse into a brewery and restaurant, estimates she is saving the park $100,000 to $200,000 a year in rent, utilities, and maintenance payments. For a park with a budget of about $4.5 million in 2014, the savings from leasing the bathhouses to eight private businesses are significant.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Visitors walk through the grounds near Bathhouse Row on September 15, 2018, in Hot Springs, Arkansas. After decades of neglect, Hot Springs National Park began restoring and repurposing once-abandoned bathhouses in the 1990s. The town - and its tourism - have since flourished.

‘Solving real problems’

From 2013 through 2017, as more bathhouses reopened, visitors to Hot Springs National Park increased by 18 percent to more than 1.5 million people, according to the park service. The 3 million people who visited the Hot Springs metro area last year accounted for more than 10 percent of all visitors to Arkansas, and generated almost $800 million in travel spending, according to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. 

These kinds of partnerships and renovations likely wouldn’t be possible without the federal historic tax credit, which gives lessees of historic buildings a 20 percent tax credit for qualified rehabilitation costs. Qualifying for a historic lease is difficult, however. The lease has to be for 55 years or more, and leasing a historic building requires compliance with strict standards set by the secretary of the Interior. It typically takes years to apply for and negotiate such a lease.

This may explain why, while the NPS says thousands of its structures could be eligible for the historic tax credit, only a half-dozen such leases across the United States have been signed using it.

It has been more than 50 years since the last major maintenance project in the national parks system – the “Mission 66” program in 1966 – and now approximately 47 percent of the $11.6 billion maintenance backlog in national parks is attributed to historic assets.

“One might say the [NPS] ought to pay for that,” says Mr. Cassidy. “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”  

Instead of asking Congress to appropriate roughly $6 billion for maintenance on historic buildings, the National Trust is urging the NPS to pursue historic leasing. Real estate, says Cassidy, is a cost-effective way to focus on “solving real problems and creating successful examples, like those in Hot Springs, that can be replicated elsewhere.”

And while that would mean more private involvement in national parks, which might make some nervous, the NPS “is going to have the responsibility and the power to say, ‘Well that’s a crazy idea, we don’t want to do that,’” he adds. 

Indeed, the most recent guidance from the NPS on philanthropic partnerships reiterates that naming rights, advertising, and marketing slogans are broadly prohibited. Many national parks are also so iconic they will never need private partners.

“Nobody is going to lease the Statue of Liberty, nobody is going to lease the Washington Monument,” says Cassidy. “Could there be an abuse? I suppose. I have not seen one.”

Movement in Congress

Maintenance issues across the national park system vary from rotting buildings to crumbling seawalls and eroding pipes. The problem is that annual appropriations from Congress vary as well, making it difficult for the NPS to do long-term budgeting for big maintenance projects like Mission 66.

“Parks are a popular issue [politically]. Funding is an entirely different matter,” says Marcia Argust, director of the Restore America’s Parks project at Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Taking care of national parks is the responsibility of Congress,” she adds. “But we still need to be savvy and make sure we have some reforms, some [private] partnerships in place to make sure deferred maintenance doesn’t escalate again year after year.”

Companion bills in the US House and Senate to appropriate $6.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs have been passed out of committee in recent weeks.

At the end of the day, however, the park system’s almost $12 billion maintenance backlog is roughly quadruple its annual appropriation over the past decade. Public-private partnerships like the ones in Hot Springs will almost certainly be needed to keep the system intact as it enters its second century. 

In Hot Springs, at least, the partnerships are keeping the city flourishing – helping it reinvent itself with what has always been the key ingredient in its economy.

“The thermal water is the impetus, the reason why anybody is in Hot Springs today,” says Mr. McCaskill of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. “As long as the hot water’s hot I think we’ll be OK.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

[Editor's Note: The original version of this story misstated the temperature at which the water emerges from the ground. It is 143 degrees F.]

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The Monitor's View

Better alerts to feed a hungry world

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Improvements in the science of tracking the effects of a disaster are proving useful for those battling famine, a slower-moving disaster than a hurricane or earthquake. Satellite imagery has long provided good data, but now experts are looking at the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning. At the United Nations in New York in September, one session debuted a promising effort to apply the expertise of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services to the stubborn problem, which has been made worse by conflicts. Valuable data can be culled from many places, including social media posts and even the selling price of goats (a sell-off may indicate where conditions are driving owners to sell). The information helps relief agencies and government officials decide where, when, and how to deploy aid effectively. Yet only two of sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 countries now operate with reliable data about agriculture within their borders, says an agriculture expert with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Applying cutting-edge technologies to the ancient problem of famine could mark a significant step forward in helping these and other countries to eliminate this scourge.

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Better alerts to feed a hungry world

A new type of survey called the “Waffle House Matrix” has proved to be an odd but effective way to measure the severity of natural disasters in the United States. It looks at whether these famed 24/7 restaurants in an affected area are open or closed. Open means recovery is probably under way. Closed means the situation is still extremely serious.

This example of tracking the effects of a disaster is proving useful for those battling famine, a slower-moving disaster than a hurricane or earthquake. Better data can help beat back an age-old scourge. Satellite images have long provided such information, but now experts are looking at the potential for artificial intelligence and machine learning. At the annual meeting of the United Nations in New York in September, one session debuted a promising new effort to apply the expertise of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services to the problem of famine.

Far from fading away, famine remains a challenge in places such as Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia in Africa and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 40 million more people were malnourished in 2017 than in 2015 – despite a concerted UN effort to eradicate hunger by 2030. The causes of famine are many, including drought and other severe weather. But the biggest culprit is man-made: conflicts between warring countries, or within countries, that disrupt farmers from being able to tend their livestock and fields.

The newly announced Famine Action Mechanism, whose members include the trio of tech giants, aims to provide data to local governments and aid agencies that will predict food shortages before they happen.

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning hold huge promise for forecasting and detecting early signs of food shortages, like crop failures, droughts, natural disasters, and conflicts,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, announcing the initiative.

Valuable data can be culled from many places, including cellphone calls, postings on social media – and even the selling price of goats (a sell-off may indicate insufficient water or poor pasture driving owners to sell). The information helps relief agencies and government officials decide where, when, and how to deploy aid effectively, before the situation can worsen.

Satellites already detect spikes in ground temperature in remote areas, which can indicate drought. Each day NASA satellites monitor the condition of about 230 water holes throughout the Sahel region in northern Africa, information that aid groups share with herders.

An even more robust data system could give farmers detailed weather forecasts and daily price reports on crops at local markets. More data could help predict just how much food will be produced in a region that season.

Only two of sub-Saharan Africa’s 46 countries now operate with reliable data about agriculture within their borders, says Rodger Voorhies, head of agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At least 76 countries worldwide don’t know how they’re doing on meeting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (one of which is ending hunger) to be achieved by 2030. They can’t be sure if they’re gaining or losing ground.

Countries with poor transportation and communication systems, and unstable governments, have made gathering reliable data difficult. But

efforts such as FAM, which will apply cutting-edge technologies to the ancient problem of famine, could mark a significant step forward in helping these countries eliminate this scourge.

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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.

Overcoming the Monday morning blues

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Today’s contributor shares spiritual ideas that brought a fresh sense of meaning and inspiration to her days, freeing her from a recurring dread of the coming workweek.

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Overcoming the Monday morning blues

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Recently I came across a joke online that said, “It’s Monday. I am refreshed and ready to hate my job.” This reminded me of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” which tells the story of a guy stuck repeating the same rotten scenario every time his alarm goes off in the morning. Perpetually waking to the same day, Feb. 2 (observed as Groundhog Day in the United States and Canada), the lead character goes with the miserable flow, trapped in a cycle: His job is a mess. His relationships are a mess. As a result he sinks into despair.

But my favorite part of the film is when this lead character changes his approach. It starts with a mental shift: He decides to take each moment to master something good. Among other things, he tries to be helpful to others and to live more generously. There is progress, with occasional setbacks, but he begins to see in each day new opportunities to express more grace.

I could relate to this situation. I remember when Mondays were dreaded days for me as I prepared to go to what felt like a dead-end job. I changed employers three times, but found that my experience remained miserable. I was so unhappy that my weekends were full of fear of the impending workweek. Something needed to change, and moving to another job clearly hadn’t been the answer.

Trying to think more positively was certainly a possibility, but I’ve found that isn’t enough to effect a radical change and produce stable joy in one’s experience. What had helped me in numerous ways was Christian Science, discovered by Mary Baker Eddy, which has given me a different view of what really brings progress. It teaches that God, as divine Life, is the only true source, maintainer, and motivator of creation, including each one of us as God’s spiritual offspring, and it reveals that this infinite Life is solely good.

Acknowledging Life as the divine Principle of good can open one’s eyes to see God’s blessings all around us, breaking us free from negative thought patterns. Even more, prayer that explores the true nature of creation as the spiritual manifestation, or expression, of Life, God, can uplift our expectations and inspire steady, graceful forward momentum in daily life.

So I began devoting my early mornings before work to searching the Scriptures for insights into the nature of God as Life, to understand more of what God had in store for me. I found this study empowering and strengthening as I learned that God’s will for me (and everyone) includes a truly substantial joy. For instance, after explaining the permanent, nurturing relation of God to His creation, Christ Jesus said, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11). And I began to carry a Bible verse or hymn to work in my pocket, which I could pull out during the day to remind me that God created and maintained me as joyful.

Not long after I incorporated such prayer into my morning routine, I began to wake up on Mondays eager to get up, because I was looking forward to expressing more of God’s goodness during the day, including at my job. As a result, the days felt more meaningful no matter what tasks I was doing, and the recurring dread did not return. It was a transformative experience and one I will always cherish.

Each of us can break out of a negative cycle in which days seem to replicate themselves as joyless, void of inspiration or the promise of progress. Divine Life provides us with daily opportunities to experience and express good. And seeking clearer views of this Life allows us to expect and experience a more abundant joy and progress.

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Viewfinder

Rescue and recovery

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
First responders and residents walked a main street following hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., Oct. 11. The stormed killed at least a half-dozen people.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( October 15th, 2018 )

Clayton Collins
Daily Edition Editor

Have a good weekend. On Monday we’ll kick off our series on the faces, places, and policies of global migration. Our correspondents have traveled from the United States and Europe to Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia to better understand the politics and policies taking shape amid record flows of people around the world. 

We’ll also showcase the premier episode of our new podcast, Perception Gaps. See you then. 

Monitor Daily Podcast

October 12, 2018
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