shadow
2019
February
05
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

The Queen of Never Give Up is finally saying “I’m done.”

Lindsey Vonn’s last downhill race is Sunday. On Tuesday, she took a nasty spill. “If adversity makes you stronger I think I’m the Hulk at this point…” she later tweeted.

No woman in history has more World Cup alpine skiing victories (82). Over four Winter Olympics (starting in 2002), she brought home three medals. She notched 20 World Cup titles. While alpine skiing emerges from obscurity only once every four years, Ms. Vonn became an A-list celebrity (with 1.3 million Facebook followers). She rebounded from major injuries so often that her career became defined as much by her grit and resilience as by her victories.

She leaves the sport just four wins short of the downhill record set by Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark.  “Honestly, retiring isn’t what upsets me,” wrote Vonn, announcing her exit. “Retiring without reaching my goal is what will stay with me forever. However, I can look back ... and say that I have accomplished something that no other woman in HISTORY has ever done....

“I always say, ‘Never give up!’ So to all ... my fans who have sent me messages of encouragement to keep going … I need to tell you that I’m not giving up! I’m just starting a new chapter.”

Thanks, Lindsey Vonn, for many inspiring chapters. We’ll look forward to the next.

Now to our five selected stories, including looks at the effectiveness of gender equality in government, teaching racial justice with outdated novels, and Russia’s perspective on a 1987 nuclear missile treaty.

Share this article

1. US considers a tax on wealth, even as other nations back away

Elizabeth Warren is considered a candidate of the left, yet even half of Republicans share her view that the wealthy should be taxed more. Is a tax on wealth the best way to close the income inequality gap?

David

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

In an era of rising inequality, it’s not uncommon to hear proposals for the wealthy to pay higher income taxes. But Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential aspirant and US senator from Massachusetts, recently proposed a different approach. Her plan would put an annual tax on the assets or wealth of the very rich rather than on the income produced by those assets – things like bonds or equity in a business.

Critics see a host of practical challenges. One is that the wealthy might move money offshore. That risk is a major reason many countries have moved away from wealth taxes.

“If you think it’s a war on plutocracy – you think that rich people have too much political power – then if these wealth taxes reduce the wealth of the very wealthy and reduce their political power, you’re satisfied, goal achieved,” says tax expert Joel Slemrod at the University of Michigan. “But if you’re thinking about this as a war on inequality [where] lower-income, lower-wealth people are not doing well, then you care about how much revenue you raise.”

Collapse

US considers a tax on wealth, even as other nations back away

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts proposed a wealth tax as part of her nascent presidential campaign, the idea immediately began drawing attention.

Most Americans back a wealth tax, new polls say. Economists are debating its pros and cons. There’s just one problem: It’s not clear it can fly.

There are constitutional challenges. Most of the developed world has moved away from wealth taxes because levies on wealth are harder to administer than those on income. And there’s a key question of motive: Do voters want to reduce inequality or the power of rich people over government? Or both?

“If you think it’s a war on plutocracy – you think that rich people have too much political power – then if these wealth taxes reduce the wealth of the very wealthy and reduce their political power, you’re satisfied, goal achieved,” says Joel Slemrod, director of the Office of Tax Policy Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “But if you’re thinking about this as a war on inequality [where] lower-income, lower-wealth people are not doing well, then you care about how much revenue you raise.”

Senator Warren has espoused both goals, but from a practical standpoint it’s not clear which war her “ultramillionaire tax” is fighting.

In the United States, where income inequality has soared over the past three decades, wealth has become even more concentrated. During the 1980s, the top 1 percent of households owned 25 to 30 percent of the nation’s assets, according to Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. By 2016, they owned 40 percent of the assets.  

So placing a tax on wealth and not just income holds lots of appeal to economists and politicians eager to reduce inequality. Warren’s plan would place a 2 percent annual tax on the wealth of Americans with $50 million or more in assets and a 3 percent tax on those with $1 billion or more.

Michael Dwyer/AP
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts speaks during a January organizing event at Manchester Community College in Manchester, N.H. She has proposed an annual 2 percent tax on the wealth of Americans with $50 million or more in assets.

Those rates sound low, but they are actually high, points out Alan Viard, a tax and budget policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. For example, if someone owned bonds yielding 3 percent a year, then a 2 percent tax on the value of the bonds would amount to a 67 percent tax on the income from those bonds. A 3 percent wealth tax would wipe out all the income.

That’s before accounting for the effects of inflation or other taxes.

Denmark had a 2.2 percent levy on its wealthiest households – the highest rate of all the developed nations in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – until the late 1980s, when it cut the rate to 1 percent. In 1997, it abolished the tax completely, and the wealthy, especially the ultrarich, saw their wealth subsequently expand.

So if the goal is solely to reduce the wealth and power of the wealthy, then a 2 to 3 percent wealth tax might do the trick.

But capital is key to economic growth. People put their savings into savings accounts, stocks, or other financial instruments that create a pool of money that individuals and companies can use to fund business expansion or new ventures. Many economists warn that overly onerous taxes on capital would hurt growth.

For one thing, they could cause the wealthy to find loopholes to undervalue their wealth (especially hard-to-value assets like art), shelter their assets through legal loopholes, or even illegally hide their wealth by transferring it to offshore tax havens. In 2013, Professor Zucman estimated that 8 percent of the world’s household wealth was stashed offshore.

This risk of capital flight is a major reason many OECD countries have moved away from wealth taxes. In 1995, 14 nations taxed wealth; now there are four: Norway, Spain, Switzerland, and France. This year France replaced its wealth tax with a new wealth levy that specifically exempts financial assets.

A related complaint: Wealth taxes brought in less than expected. In Switzerland, for example, researchers found that for every 0.1 percentage point rise in the wealth tax, the amount of reported wealth went down by 3.5 percent. Other studies suggest this lowball reporting is less obvious in Sweden and Denmark, potentially because financial institutions in those countries report their customers’ holdings to the tax authorities; in Switzerland, they don’t, says Marius Brülhart, an economist at Switzerland's University of Lausanne.

In the United States, “we don't have an infrastructure for determining and monitoring taxable wealth,” says Professor Slemrod of the University of Michigan. “It’s not easy.”

Then there are constitutional objections unique to the US. The Constitution bans any national “direct” tax that is not apportioned according to state populations. A wealth tax was not considered a direct tax until 1895, when an anti-populist Supreme Court used the language to strike down an income tax and effectively block a national tax on wealth. In 1913, the 16th Amendment made it legal to collect income taxes regardless of population but didn’t address wealth taxes. How today’s court might rule if such a measure were passed is not clear, constitutional scholars say.

None of this means that Warren’s wealth tax is dead on arrival. Quite the opposite. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 61 percent of Americans (including 50 percent of Republicans) support a tax on the very wealthy, with just 20 percent opposing it.

Economists behind the plan expect it will raise $2.75 trillion in a decade, enough to fund a much more robust Internal Revenue Service as well as Warren’s priorities on child care, reduced student debt, and climate policies. To avoid the problems that OECD nations faced, Warren’s plan calls for a broad wealth tax with few if any loopholes and a hefty exit tax if rich Americans decide to give up their citizenship to avoid taxes.

“You would see some people trying to hide assets abroad,” says Dr. Viard of the American Enterprise Institute. “We’ve gotten better at tracking the foreign bank accounts. But there are other ways of hiding assets overseas.”

Warren’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination have offered alternative ways to tax the wealthy. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont has proposed expanding the current estate tax, which also taxes wealth but only once: when it transfers to one’s heirs. And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York has suggested a 70 percent income tax on people earning more than $10 million.

Given the rise of inequality at the top and prospects that it will continue, "there is a strong case to be made in the US and elsewhere for increasing the progressivity of taxation again," says Mr. Brülhart of the University of Lausanne. And not just through a wealth tax, he adds. "Probably the most reasonable way of doing it is a little bit of everything."

[Editor's note: This story was corrected to make clear that a small wealth tax could eliminate all the income from a bond portfolio and that the Supreme Court struck down a national income tax in 1895. The final paragraph was added after the story's initial publication.]

shadow

2. For political stars like Beto and Stacey, ‘brands’ outshine losses

Stacey Abrams will deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union Tuesday night, while Beto O’Rourke will be interviewed live by Oprah – a sign that political influence is increasingly about maintaining a compelling narrative, in or out of public office. 

David
Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Stacey Abrams speaks during the Georgia Democratic Convention in Atlanta in August. Ms. Abrams was named to deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night – a role usually extended to sitting members of Congress or governors.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

If political campaigns were once seen as zero-sum games, these days they’re more about building a brand – in which even a loss becomes just another chapter. Tuesday night, two of the biggest Democratic stars of the 2018 midterms will be in the spotlight once more, despite the fact that both lost their respective bids for office.

Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia state representative who became the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor, will deliver the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas who smashed fundraising records and electrified Democratic voters in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz will be in Times Square for a live interview with Oprah Winfrey.

It shows how candidates who construct a compelling narrative are finding that their influence lives on, as long as there’s an audience interested in the story they have to tell. “It’s about a notion of authenticity,” says Gordon Stables, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California. “We’re engaged in the personality of the individual rather than their approach to governance.”

Collapse

For political stars like Beto and Stacey, ‘brands’ outshine losses

They’re two of the biggest stars of the 2018 midterms, making their first major public appearances since November on the exact same night. And in a sign of the political times, both have retained their star power – despite losing their respective bids for office. 

Stacey Abrams will be delivering the Democratic rebuttal to President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday – a historic role usually extended to sitting members of Congress or governors. Meanwhile, Beto O’Rourke will be in Times Square for a live interview with Oprah Winfrey, part of a celebrity-studded lineup that includes Bradley Cooper and Melissa Gates.

Ms. Abrams, a former Georgia state representative, and Mr. O’Rourke, a former US congressman from Texas, drew national attention during the 2018 midterms, electrifying Democratic voters in their respective Southern states. Abrams became the first black woman to be a major-party nominee for governor. O’Rourke broke fundraising records even as he pledged not to take money from political action committees (PACs) in his bid to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz.

Both narrowly lost their races. 

But in the months since the election, their activities have kept them in the headlines – enough so that Abrams is now being touted as a potential 2020 challenger to Sen. David Perdue (R) of Georgia, while O’Rourke is considered a top prospect in the presidential rumor mill.

If political campaigns were once seen as zero-sum games, these days they’re more about building a brand, in which even a loss becomes just another chapter. In an age of social media, candidates who construct a compelling narrative and give people someone to root for are finding that their influence – political, but also social and cultural – lives on, as long as there’s an audience interested in the story they have to tell. 

“You can send a message to the people you want to reach. You have a fundraising model that is disruptive. And if you become a star, then you have [traditional] media amplifying you,” says Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, a social welfare organization. “It’s a new ecosystem.” 

Abrams, who would have been the first black woman governor had she won, ran a progressive campaign advocating Medicare expansion and public education reform. After the votes came in, she refused to concede defeat, accusing now-Gov. Brian Kemp (R) of efforts to disenfranchise black voters in the state. (Governor Kemp, who refused to recuse himself as secretary of State during the election, has denied the charge.)

She has since doubled down on the cause, starting Fair Fight Georgia, an anti-voter-suppression organization. She promoted the group in a Super Bowl ad and has joined the board of a liberal think tank. When asked about the decision to have Abrams deliver the Democratic rebuttal, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York referred to her as “a dynamic leader who has delivered results on the bedrock of all issues: voting rights.”

“I couldn’t think of a better choice,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "She’s an amazing person with an amazing story.”

Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News/AP
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) of Texas, shown here debating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in San Antonio on Oct. 16, 2018, is often mentioned as a possible 2020 presidential candidate, despite the fact that he lost his bid for the US Senate.

Meanwhile O’Rourke – or Beto, as everyone seems to call him – is best known for raising a whopping $38 million, mostly in small-dollar donations, despite his no-PAC pledge. He exudes “everyday dude,” the kind of guy who would talk border issues with his dentist on Instagram. In January he set off on a solo weeklong road trip across the Great Plains and the Southwest, sleeping in motels, lunching at diners, and chatting with voters. He charted his progress – and his personal feelings – via beatnik-inspired blog posts on the publishing platform Medium.

“Have been stuck lately. In and out of a funk,” he wrote from Liberal, Kan., in what was probably his most-quoted post. “Maybe if I get moving, on the road, meet people, learn about what’s going on where they live, have some adventure ... I’ll think new thoughts, break out of the loops I’ve been stuck in.”

Later, from another small Kansas town: “I listened to the radio until the station would start to fade, try to find another one, or just turn it off and sing to myself, think, or zone out.”

And from New Mexico: “It was lunchtime. Pepperoni and cheese pizza. Ice cream for dessert.”

The blog has led to some eye-rolling, mockery, and a parody Twitter account. But it’s also inspired strong defenders, while elevating an argument for authenticity in leaders – and further driving the conversation around what candidates and officials, including a president, can and should be allowed to say. “O’Rourke combines aspirational politics with a bluntness that [President] Obama rarely ventured,” Francis Wilkinson wrote in an op-ed for Bloomberg. “His defiant optimism is bigger than Texas.”

Gordon Stables, director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, points out that recent campaign cycles have been redefining long-held notions of what a statesman looks or sounds like. Race and gender are a big part of that change, but so are more elusive things, like what kind of emotions candidates show on the trail, and how they speak to their supporters.

Abrams and O’Rourke, each in their own way, have helped open up those categories, Professor Stables says. By staying true to, and keeping their audiences engaged in, their personal narratives, they come across as transparent and knowable – traits that, until the modern media age, hadn’t been considered all that important in public officials.

“It’s about a notion of authenticity,” he says. “We’re engaged in the personality of the individual rather than their approach to governance.”

But this new reality can also be divisive, encouraging the public to view politics through the lens of personal narratives: good versus evil, heroes versus villains. “Democrats who found Beto O’Rourke” – whether or not they were in Texas – “were cheering because it was David and Goliath,” says Karen North, a USC communications professor who specializes in psychology and social media. 

“Politics has become polarized, contentious, and entertaining,” she says. “Each side clings to their symbolic heroes, who are fighting against the ‘dark side.’ ”

There’s also the risk of oversaturation. When the video of O’Rourke at the dentist surfaced, it prompted a lot of chatter about what is too much information. Does anyone really need to see a public figure getting their teeth cleaned?

And some pundits wondered if he was maybe a little too comfortable sharing his doubts, uncertainties, and half-baked policy plans. “It would not be a positive development were he to continue in this mode indefinitely – to run for president on a platform of being nice and listening to other people’s ideas without asserting any practical ideas of his own,” Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote for Slate.

For Abrams, the concern is whether she’ll be able to survive her new assignment with her dignity intact. The last few politicians to deliver their party’s rebuttal made headlines, and not in a good way (see Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s awkward water break from 2013, or Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy’s shiny lips last year).

Indeed, it’s possible the pendulum may swing back at some point. People are still adjusting to the idea that they can reach out to their officials on platforms that feel personal and intimate. But new tech – and its impact on daily life and society – has always been exciting, right up to the moment it becomes outdated.

“We’re in a very polarized moment, with very compelling characters in our political world,” North says. “In a less exciting, less entertaining moment, maybe people will not want to hear this much, this often, from our elected officials.”

shadow

3. In uncertain post-INF world, Russia may opt for talks over arms

Is this a path to a safer world? As the US pulls out of “the treaty that ended the cold war,” our reporter looks at what’s next for Russia. Probably a diplomatic attempt to split the US and European allies.

David

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

With President Trump’s notice of withdrawal from the 1987 treaty abolishing intermediate-range ground-based nuclear missiles, known as INF, everyone agrees that the US-Russia nuclear arms control paradigm is breaking down. The treaty essentially abolished that entire class of missiles, the most dangerous dimension of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry.

Those missiles are not apt to be rebuilt now in the INF’s absence, experts say. Still, perceptions of the Trump administration’s pullout of the INF treaty can alter political realities. Russian diplomacy will almost certainly offer Europeans a deal in which Russia refrains from stationing new midrange missiles on the continent in exchange for a ban on similar US missiles in Europe. That would drive a wedge into NATO. Experts say Russia would be delighted to do that, but no one believes it can happen in the present circumstances.

“Basically, we have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council. “Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone. We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”

Collapse

In uncertain post-INF world, Russia may opt for talks over arms

During the long decades of the old cold war, the USSR tried assiduously to create an appearance of equality with its main global rival, the United States.

Soviet leaders succeeded in only one single – but very durable – respect before their country’s superpower status folded: creating parity in world-destroying nuclear weapons. That forced US leaders to negotiate arms control deals aimed at managing the danger on an equal footing with their Soviet counterparts – a system that helped to keep the atomic peace in the three decades since the USSR ceased to exist.

With President Trump’s notice of withdrawal from the 1987 treaty abolishing intermediate-range ground-based nuclear missiles, known as INF, everyone agrees that paradigm is breaking down. Over the weekend, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is suspending the accord as well.

Though there is supposed to be a six-month pause in which the two sides might settle their mutual accusations of treaty violations, few believe that is anything more than a formality. Indeed, both sides are already talking about surging into this new era with formerly forbidden weapons systems, taking advantage of changed strategic realities and fresh diplomatic opportunities.

“We have seen this coming for a long time, ever since the US unilaterally pulled out” of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2001, says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy hand. “This special bilateral relationship we had with the US was based on artificial notions, like parity. And it seems clear to us that the Americans decided to dismantle the arms control system quite a long time ago. We realized that we would need to develop new weapons to overcome anti-missile defenses, and get used to a new reality.

“Still, pulling out of the INF treaty like this is a blow,” he says. “There is no way now to resurrect the old arms control framework. Too much has changed. We will have to find our own ways to adapt to and counter this, without matching everything the US does. Russia is really not eager to engage in a new arms race.”

‘No restraints in place whatsoever’

Only one significant arms control agreement between the US and Russia remains in place. It is the New START accord, signed almost a decade ago amid the warm hopes of the Obama-era “reset” of relations with Russia. It limited the capacities of the “strategic” nuclear arsenals of both sides, meaning the intercontinental weapons with which the US and Russia could destroy each other many times over. But that agreement expires within three years, and so far there are no significant talks going on to extend it.

“Very soon we will be in a situation the world has not known since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 convinced leaders of the US and the USSR that they needed to limit these destructive nuclear arsenals,” says Alexander Golts, an independent security expert. “Indeed, it is already clear that if we reject the INF treaty, New START won’t work anyway. If the two sides can proliferate the number of intermediate-range missiles without limitations, then what good are controls on long-range strategic ones?”

Known as “the treaty that ended the cold war,” the INF deal has been controversial from its very beginnings. Political and military hawks on both sides have never liked it. It was sealed amid a sunburst of goodwill in 1987, as President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev embraced a new era of peace and openness, which soon led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

But it also had enormous practical effect, especially for Europe. Hundreds of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing II nuclear-tipped, medium-range missiles faced each other on the European continent, threatening nuclear holocaust on a hair trigger. The treaty essentially abolished that entire class of missiles, those with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles, removing at a stroke the most dangerous and potentially unstable dimension of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry.

“If the two sides once again station this type of missile in Europe, then Berlin, Paris, and London will once again be under a six-minute warning,” says Mr. Golts. “It will be the same for Moscow and St. Petersburg. Six minutes is not enough time to make political decisions, to verify that an attack is really under way. With intercontinental missiles, you have about 30 minutes of warning time, which gives political leaders a chance to check and make decisions. But this time it will be worse than the 1980s, because then we had a whole structure of arms control like the SALT treaties and ABM, with constant consultations and verification procedures. Now there will be no restraints in place whatsoever.”

A different nuclear context

The Kremlin has been worrying out loud for some time about what it views as US flirting with notions of “winnable” nuclear war. Amid the current atmosphere of political mistrust and shrinking warning times, Russian strategic posture may change, he says.

“Now Russian doctrine is based on the principle of ‘launch on alert,’ which means that Russia retaliates only when its early warning systems confirm that American missiles are in flight. But if the warning time shrinks to six minutes, in the worst case scenario, they might go to ‘preemptive strike,’ which would be an extremely unstable situation,” Golts says.

Other Russian experts doubt the US would try to station midrange nuclear missiles in Europe again. Indeed, the main US concern is that a host of other countries, such as China, India, Iran, and Pakistan, have developed this class of missiles in recent decades without any treaty restraints, and it wants to have its hands free to counter them in theaters like the Persian Gulf and East Asia.

“The Americans want to deploy a wider range of weapons to counter new rivals like China, which didn’t figure during the cold war,” says Mr. Karaganov.

“We note that most Europeans are siding with the US in its accusations against Russia about violating the INF treaty and are putting the onus on Russia to fix it. We disagree with that,” he adds. “We think the US is driving this effort to tear up existing agreements and obligations, and they would be doing that regardless of whatever we were doing. But everyone also remembers how scary and divisive these midrange missiles were in Europe in the 1980s. It would be politically very expensive for the US to try and station such weapons in Europe once again.”

Still, the widespread perception that the Trump administration is behaving irresponsibly by precipitously pulling out of the INF treaty can alter political realities. Russian diplomacy will almost certainly offer Europeans a separate deal, in which Russia refrains from stationing new midrange missiles on the continent in exchange for a ban on similar US missiles in Europe.

That would drive a wedge into NATO. Experts say Russia would be delighted to do that, but no one believes it can happen in the present circumstances.

“Basically, we have destroyed the old framework of arms control without having anything to replace it with,” says Andrey Kortunov, director of the Foreign Ministry-linked Russian International Affairs Council. “It’s my hope that big powers will realize that they need arms control, perhaps in a multilateral rather than the old bilateral form, but something that will roll back the most destabilizing weapons and build trust. Until then, we just have to go through this dead zone. We are headed for completely uncharted waters.”

shadow

4. Autocrats’ push for women in government: a look at the motives

To prove they are intent on progress, repressive governments sometimes promote gender equality in politics. But this type of progress tends to need extra scrutiny, say some observers.

David
Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (l.) walks with newly elected President Sahle-Work Zewde as they leave the House of Peoples' Representatives in Addis Ababa in October.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Autocratic governments have a habit of absorbing powerful women into the fold so that they don’t become challengers, and to make the government look modern and enlightened. Take Rwanda: It has a larger percentage of women parliamentarians than any other country. Last year its president, Paul Kagame, named his first 50 percent female cabinet.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet is half women, too. Mr. Ahmed is Africa’s newest reformist leader, and watchers are scrutinizing his government for signs of genuine change. From Zimbabwe to Uganda to Cameroon, many dictatorial governments have pushed political gender equality, while putting aside the more difficult work of accommodating opposition parties or allowing a free and critical media.

But these moves can still be valuable. Rwanda has passed laws that strengthen punishments for domestic and sexual violence, and increased women’s ability to own and inherit land. “Even saying that there are strategic reasons for increasing gender equality doesn’t mean it’s not still a good development,” says Anne-Kathrin Kreft, an expert in gender and politics. “It often leads to women having more power in government, which can lead to more laws that help women.”

Collapse

Autocrats’ push for women in government: a look at the motives

It was late 2018, and in Ethiopia the government was throwing a rock through one glass ceiling after another.

First, in mid-October, the country’s new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced that his cabinet would be 50 percent women – including his ministers of defense, trade, and transport.

“Our women ministers will disprove the old adage that women can’t lead,” he told the country’s parliament at the time. “This is to show respect to the women for all the contribution they have made to the country.” 

A week later, that same parliament appointed a woman, Sahle-Work Zewde, to be the country’s president – a largely ceremonial position in Ethiopia – for the first time. And a week after that, Mr. Abiy announced another woman, Meaza Ashenafi, as the first female president of the country’s Supreme Court.

The moves were part of a wider set of reforms sweeping autocratic Ethiopia under Abiy, from the release of high-profile political prisoners to the reopening of diplomatic relations with neighboring Eritrea, a longtime enemy.

But the appointment of so many women to high-profile political posts raised an important question for many watching the country’s transition unfurl.

Was Ethiopia’s government becoming more gender balanced because its rulers really cared about women? Or did it, like many other one-party states, have more self-interested reasons for pursuing political gender equality?

Autocratic governments around the world, after all, often have a habit of absorbing powerful women into their fold so that they don’t become challengers, and of promoting gender balance as way to make themselves look modern and enlightened.

In many one-party states, indeed, promoting women is equal parts progressive and pragmatic.

Take nearby Rwanda. 

The country for years has had a larger percentage of women elected to its parliament – currently more than 60 percent – than any other country in the world. And last year, its president Paul Kagame also named his first 50 percent female cabinet.

“A higher number of women in decision-making roles has led to a decrease in gender discrimination and gender-based crimes,” he explained.

True. But political gender equality has also brought other, less warm and fuzzy benefits for Rwanda’s government, says Yolande Bouka, a visiting assistant professor of international affairs and African studies at George Washington University.

“Despite the fact that Rwanda is a repressive police state, it’s often cited as a model of women’s political empowerment,” she says. “Gender has been a powerful way for Kagame to frame his government as progressive.”

Of course, Dr. Bouka notes, Rwanda has a very particular history when it comes to gender. More men than women died in its 1994 genocide, and as a result women stepped in during the aftermath to fill all kinds of leadership roles they had rarely occupied before.

But across the region, from Zimbabwe to Uganda to Cameroon, many other equally dictatorial governments have also pushed an aggressive agenda of political gender equality, enforcing high gender quotas in their parliaments and appointing women to high-level government posts.

Although the specific reasons countries do this vary, there are some common denominators, says Anne-Kathrin Kreft, an expert in gender and politics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and coauthor of the recent academic journal article, “Authoritarian Institutions and Women’s Rights.” 

Most repressive governments with high levels of gender equality are states with a single, all-powerful political party, she notes. And that party is often very interested in absorbing any possible competitors – including women’s groups and powerful female activists. Women can also be a large and loyal support base for a single-party government, so it’s often helpful to promote their interests to maintain stability and keep unrest at bay.

Plus, she says, stacking your government with women is a way to say to the outside world, look at us, we are modern and forward-thinking – but without the more difficult work of opening political space to opposition parties or allowing a free and critical media.

Still, she says, these moves are not without value for the women living in countries that enact them. In Rwanda, for instance, the female-majority Parliament has passed laws that strengthen punishments for domestic and sexual violence, and increased women’s ability to own and inherit land.

“Even saying that there are strategic reasons for increasing gender equality doesn’t mean it’s not still a good development,” says Ms. Kreft. “It often leads to women having more power in government, which can lead to more laws that help women. So this isn’t just window dressing – it has real and positive implications too.”

That brings us back to Ethiopia. A year ago, before Abiy came to power, such a strong interest in promoting women in government might have looked like little more than a cynical ploy to win over allies and donors, says Awol Allo, a lecturer in law at Keele University in England, expert in Ethiopian politics, and author of a recent opinion piece in Al Jazeera on women’s rights in Ethiopia.

But given Abiy’s broader agenda of opening up Ethiopian society, his appointment of women seems fairly earnest, he says.

“With many governments, there are reasons to look at those decisions to appoint women with great suspicion, but Ethiopia’s case is different because the changes we are seeing are not just in the areas of empowering women, they’re far broader and deeper,” Dr. Allo says. “Now is there likely some consideration of how the move will be viewed internationally? Yes. But when you look at things more broadly, it’s clear to me the commitment to gender equality comes from a genuine place.”

shadow

5. To shelve a ‘Mockingbird’: Is it time for Scout and Atticus to retire?

As society evolves, should classic novels with outdated racial and cultural references be retired – or adapted? A resurgence of interest in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ brings arguments for both.

David
Courtesy of David Hou/Stratford Festival
Jonathan Goad (c.) plays Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Stratford Festival in Canada in 2018. That production, and the record-breaking one on Broadway in the US written by Aaron Sorkin, adapted the story to include larger roles for African-American characters.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

“To Kill a Mockingbird” recently topped a best-loved book list, and a stage version is breaking records on Broadway. But the story about racism in Depression-era Alabama is also being phased out of some classrooms across North America. And in both the United States and Canada, recent theater versions have been updated to give African-American characters more say.

Those changes have some observers asking if a time comes when a book should be retired despite the impression it made on generations of students and the genuine affection many still have for it.

When is all the tinkering and adapting, including publishing versions of books with words deemed offensive omitted, too much, they wonder. Carl James, a professor at York University, suggests that there is debate to be had about reading certain literary works simply because they’ve always been read. “There might be a point,” he says, “in which they have lost that status of classic after all.”

Collapse

To shelve a ‘Mockingbird’: Is it time for Scout and Atticus to retire?

Last fall it was voted America’s best-loved book. This winter it made it to Broadway, grossing more at the box office in its first full week than any other play in history.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” became a classic the moment it was published in 1960 – a tale of racial injustice set in Depression-era Alabama told through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout. It garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and its movie adaptation won three Oscars in 1963. That it has smashed theater records and risen to the top of a PBS nationwide popularity poll of American literature nearly 60 years later speaks to the lasting power of the narrative of a little girl making sense of racism and hypocrisy around her, as her father Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.

But its endurance is not just its clear-eyed depiction of a moment in time in the American South. It is the book’s evolution itself, from a groundbreaking text in its time to one today that raises complex questions about how the story is told – who tells it and, notably for some, who doesn’t. As “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets adapted for the stage, giving more voice to the black characters that were secondary or silent in the original novel, and gets re-examined in classrooms across North America, some are asking if a time comes when a book should be retired despite the impression it made on generations of students and the nostalgia many still feel about the work. That discussion gives it even more staying power.

“We all know that it’s a book that is beloved,” says Lois Adamson, the education director at Canada’s renowned Stratford Festival, which staged a new production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” last year. “But I think it’s also, and rightly so, a controversial text that educators, parents, artists, and community members are talking about – whether or not it is the right story to keep telling and about maybe what other stories or perspectives we might want to be looking at.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has faced controversy since it was published and remains one of America’s most challenged texts, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The most recent challenge came from Biloxi, Miss., in 2017, when parents complained about its problematic language, particularly the use of the “N-word.” Other challenges have arisen from its allusions to rape and assault and how the African-American characters have little agency in a story about the injustices they face.

Debate across North America

It’s part of a long struggle with how to deal with literature, written in a time of different norms and paradigms, that is problematic in the 21st century. In 2011, for example, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was released in the United States with a new edition that replaced the “N-word” with “slave,” kicking up a storm of criticism. Others have stopped teaching texts like it or “To Kill a Mockingbird” altogether.

Recent debate in Canada is indicative of new thinking surrounding the text wherever it’s being taught.

For one school board near Toronto, the answer lies in a new dictate: a memo sent to schools ahead of this school year requiring that the book be taught only if done through an “anti-oppression lens,” says Peel’s Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, Adrian Graham.

That means additional resources, including help from a literary coordinator, for teachers to question the book’s white perspective on the civil rights struggle and grapple with offensive language peppered throughout.

The decision was panned in a Toronto Star column this fall that characterized it as evidence of a “culture of fear.” “Because apparently teachers in 2018 can’t be trusted to discuss the novel sensitively, within a modern context, alive to the feelings of racialized students,” Rosie DiManno wrote.

Mr. Graham says the new approach is not about restriction or censorship but is intended to be an empowerment tool in a multicultural context. “We’re not interested philosophically in banning books,” he says.

The change came after complaints about the book, which Graham says have grown in the past five years, were addressed by a committee of an initiative called We Rise Together in the district. That initiative seeks to empower black male students specifically and is part of a larger effort to be culturally responsive to minority representation in the curriculum.

Carl James, a professor at York University in Toronto who has worked as a researcher with We Rise Together, says the board’s decision is a responsible one. “It would seem contradictory that we’re saying, ‘We're looking at the issues of black students and concerned about their social and educational well-being,’ and at the same time working with a book that might be hurtful to them,” he says.

On stage, more adapting

In some ways new stage productions have been better able to respond to such issues. Although the Broadway production by Aaron Sorkin initially faced a legal dispute for a script that veered too far from the original text, ultimately the sides settled. The re-adaptation gives more agency to some of the black characters and has received rave reviews. Lead producer Scott Rudin said in an interview with The New York Times: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics.... The world has changed since then.” 

For the production in Stratford, a character named Jesse, who appears in the novel but not the original play, was written in to bring more black presence to the stage. The festival also provided online study guides for teachers and offered hourlong interactive workshops facilitated by the play’s actors for student groups before the show. That included history of the civil rights era and the exploration around representation and who controls the narrative. “Certainly it’s a coming-of-age story for Scout, but the violence and the racism that’s in the book is horrifying,” says Ms. Adamson. “If things live nostalgically for us, then we forget that, and I think it’s important to key into how it will land with people who are experiencing it for the first time.”

Amid some of the brouhaha are questions about whether it’s the right text today. George Elliott Clarke, who was Canada’s parliamentary poet laureate, calls Lee’s debut novel “a great book.” But he questions its role in classrooms in Canada, where lessons about racial injustice are too often considered an “American” problem, when there are plenty of struggles to focus on at home. He also worries the narrative might send a message to minority students, including Asian and indigenous pupils, of passivity: “that the proper response from them toward white supremacy, towards anti-black, anti-brown, and anti-indigenous racism is to be silent sufferers, to be quiet victims,” he says.

Professor James and colleagues have debated whether there needs to be a bigger conversation on what they have called “disrupting the canon,” James says, which challenges reflexively reading certain literature simply because it’s always been read, without thinking about who is making those choices. “There might be a point in which they have lost that status of classic after all,” he says.

In Peel, out of 37 high schools, seven are teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” this academic year. Five years ago, Graham estimates that it would have been closer to 25 schools.

Once an English teacher, he says he would never presume that a book ever “runs its course.” But new realities demand a rethink all the same. “I think right across North America we are slow to change up the books that we read, but at some point To Kill a Mockingbird replaced another book,” he says. “We tend to [choose] classics often because of themes that we like, but I think we also have to honor the fact that there’s been a lot of good literature written in the last few years. There are other books out there that offer the same themes.”

shadow

The Monitor's View

Exit or grace for Virginia’s governor?

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

When Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of Virginia signed two bills that curb the state’s practice of suspending or expelling unruly students, the laws were a blow to a zero tolerance policy. They nudged some schools to experiment with “restorative justice,” which allows children a chance to show contrition. In cases of true remorse, discipline is balanced with mercy. 

Now the governor faces calls to resign after admitting he once blackened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson. He is also accused of dissembling after first admitting and then denying that he was one of two people in a racist 1984 photo. Mr. Northam’s harshest Democrat critics insist on zero tolerance toward politicians with racist behavior in their past.

Events are still unfolding. In some cases, an offending leader must be punished to send a message. But Northam’s situation should not be dismissed without a discussion about whether something like restorative justice might regularly apply to those holding public office. Perhaps when it comes time for each party to rewrite policy platforms, restorative justice can be included. Voters might be wowed. Virtue can be rewarding.

Collapse

Exit or grace for Virginia’s governor?

Just eight months ago, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of Virginia signed two bills that curb the state’s common practice of suspending or expelling unruly students in public schools. The new laws were a blow to a zero tolerance policy toward bad behavior. They also nudged some schools to experiment with “restorative justice.” That practice allows children a chance to show contrition about misdeeds and “restore” relationships with victims and the school. In cases of true remorse, discipline is balanced with mercy.

“There is power in every child,” the governor said at the signing. “We want to keep our children in school.”

Now, in what may seem like irony, the governor faces his own case of possible discipline – being forced to resign – after admitting he once blackened his face to impersonate Michael Jackson. He is also accused of dissembling after first admitting and then denying that he was one of two people in a 1984 photo that showed one in blackface and one wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit. His apologies have largely fallen flat.

Mr. Northam’s harshest critics in the Democratic Party insist on zero tolerance toward politicians with any racist behavior in their past. A similar zero tolerance also seems to apply to sexual misdeeds. Northam’s official successor – Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax – faces similar heat after fresh accusations from a woman claiming he sexually assaulted her in 2004.

The opportunity for the embattled governor to achieve redemption and stay in office may be over. Events are still unfolding. But his situation should not be easily dismissed without a lengthy public discussion about whether something like restorative justice can ever regularly apply to those holding public office. The practice is gaining ground in both schools and the criminal justice system, although so far with mixed results. Why not try it in politics?

Both parties should debate possible pathways toward granting grace to leaders who have seen the error of their ways. Sometimes a “restored” politician who has earned forgiveness can do wonders; Lyndon Johnson, a former segregationist, is hailed as a champion of civil rights. In addition, the practice might encourage more politicians to fess up about past misdeeds, knowing that any retribution might be balanced with compassion.

At the same time, the political parties need to insist on another and necessary aspect of justice: deterrence. In certain cases, an offending leader must be punished to set an example and send a message on racial wrongdoing and other social ills. In certain cases, politicians who show moral responsibility by accepting harsh treatment may be one step closer to personal redemption even if they cannot keep their job. It may allow them to heal ties and make amends with those they harmed. Justice can be both individual and collective, both punitive and redemptive.

To paraphrase the governor’s own words last year, there is power in every politician. It is a power to reflect on misbehavior that harms others and to accept good as the norm for everyone. It is the power to put things right so one can be in the right. It is the power to accept the truth so one can accept grace.

Perhaps when it comes time for each party to rewrite its policy platforms, restorative justice can be included as part of those platforms. Voters might be wowed. Virtue can be rewarding.

shadow

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.

Truth and taxes

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 4 Min. )

When today’s contributor didn’t have enough funds to pay her taxes, she found that gratitude and prayer made all the difference. Relying on what she understood of God’s unceasing supply and care for His children, money from an unexpected source presented itself, and her needs were met.

Collapse

Truth and taxes

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
Loading the player...

Tax time again! For many, the time of year when we calculate and pay our taxes can be less than jubilant. In fact, it can involve worry, fear, or even anger. Is there a better way to look at taxes?

I like to think of taxes as buying something that can be shared with others – for instance, improvements for roads or support for the fire department or local school district. Seen in this way, taxes are a giving of what we have to help our neighbors and our community. But what if we feel that taxes are not fair, that we are paying a disproportionate percentage of the whole, or that government officials are not doing their part to make smart choices with our money? Or what if we simply don’t have the money to pay what we owe?

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that the disciple Peter was approached by temple tax collectors who insinuated that Jesus’ payment of taxes, his “tribute,” was overdue (see 17:24–27). When Peter raised this with Jesus, Jesus asked him whom tax collectors usually collect from, their own friends and family or just from others? Others, Peter replied. A “not fair” moment! The implication here is that some people were excused from contributing. Jesus went on to acknowledge this societal fact and instructed Peter to pay the tax for the two of them anyway. But he also had an idea of where to get the money. He knew God would provide.

Jesus told Peter to go down to the lake and start fishing, then open the mouth of the first fish he caught, and there would be a coin sufficient to pay the tax. While I’ve read that Bible scholars differ as to whether Peter may have actually found a coin in a fish’s mouth or whether he may have used his skills as a fisherman to catch a fish and sell it for the needed cash, the point is the same: When we are in need, God provides supply.

We today can also turn to God, divine Truth and Love, for guidance and supply when it comes to paying taxes. We might not go fishing for money, but we may well get inspiration from Father-Mother God when we consult Him, Her, and then listen with trust and expectation to discern an answer to our need.

An article entitled “Angels” in "Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896" by Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, says: “God gives you His spiritual ideas, and in turn, they give you daily supplies. Never ask for to-morrow: it is enough that divine Love is an ever-present help; and if you wait, never doubting, you will have all you need every moment. What a glorious inheritance is given to us through the understanding of omnipresent Love!” (p. 307). God doesn’t give us material things but spiritual ideas that allow us to be open and receptive to His exacting, specific care and guidance.

A few years ago, when tax season was upon us, our taxes were quite high, and I dreaded thinking about how we were going to come up with the necessary funds to pay what we owed. But instead of worrying, I turned to God in prayer.

I strove to see taxes not as a burden but as a way to express gratitude for my community and my country. I looked for ways to appreciate the spiritual aspects of what tax money provided. For example, money for schools provided our town’s children with insight, global understanding, and experiences in which to apply important aspects of what they had learned. I affirmed that divine Love was really serving and caring for all the members of our community and our country and that divine Love’s resources were infinite to bless, maintain, and care for all.

Shortly after I adopted this prayer and attitude in daily practice, I got an email message from one of our sons saying that he had come across an internet site listing people who had unclaimed funds. Various banks and other establishments were looking to find these people and return their assets to them. He had noticed that my name was on the list. I quickly pursued this lead and was reunited with an amount of money that covered our taxes that year. It was almost too good to believe! But why should it be, since God is infinite good and is always supplying us with just what we need?

There has not been another instance of finding my name on such a list, but every year at tax time I make it a point to remember that it is divine Love that is caring for, providing for, and supplying each of us as we pay our taxes. The more we can see this as a contribution – one of gratitude and spiritual input – the more we will find we have what is needed, even if we don’t know all the details yet. As the Apostle Paul said, “And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (II Corinthians 9:8).

Adapted from an article published in the April 2, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

shadow

Viewfinder

A new year’s welcome

Mark Schiefelbein/AP
Performers take part in a Qing Dynasty ceremony Feb. 5 at a temple fair at Ditan Park in Beijing. China is celebrating the first day of the Lunar New Year – this time, the Year of the Pig.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
shadow

In Our Next Issue

( February 6th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow. We’re looking at Bauhaus at 100: how the simplicity and honesty of the German design school shapes our living spaces today.

Monitor Daily Podcast

February 05, 2019
Loading the player...

More issues

2019
February
05
Tuesday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 
of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.