2019
July
01
Monday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, we’ll look at leadership (U.S.-China trade and Putin at home), security (Iran’s cyber weapons), and redefining home (in Alaska and in California).

But first, two parallel and courageous challenges to authoritarian rule are playing out in the streets. 

Hong Kong demonstrators clashed with police Monday, the anniversary of the handover of the British colony to China. Partly, this is a continuation of protests against a proposed extradition law, which would permit Hong Kong citizens to be sent for trials in mainland China. They don’t trust Beijing’s rule of law. More broadly, these demonstrations signify a rejection of 22 years of gradual erosion of democratic rights.

In Sudan, the street protests Sunday were even more remarkable.

In April, Sudanese protests led to a military coup that overthrew the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. Pro-democracy protests continued. But in early June, it looked like this people-power rebellion had been brutally crushed. More than 100 demonstrators were slaughtered. The internet was shut down. The junta reasserted control. Who would dare come out to face certain death again?

The answer came Sunday: Tens of thousands of men, women, and children marched chanting “civilian rule” in Arabic. “The Sudanese want top-to-bottom change in their country and they’re willing to die to get it,” said Eyder Peralta, NPR’s East Africa correspondent. Seven people died in this protest, according to reports. 

History tells us that such grassroots movements sometimes topple leaders (the anti-government movements of the Arab Spring, for example) and sometimes they fade away (Iran’s “Green Revolution”). But the rulers of China and Sudan should note that the basic desire for freedom, for self-government, and to live without fear doesn’t fade away.

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1. Trump and Kim, Trump and Xi – what really mattered at G-20?

The G-20 summit, and the Trump-Kim handshake, were indicative of a global leadership divide over how to govern: by giving power to the people versus keeping it firmly in the hands of a few.

David
KCNA/Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as they meet at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30. Mr. Trump became the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in North Korea.

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Leaders of the globe’s biggest 20 economies met in Osaka, Japan, this weekend for their annual summit. But the G-20 meeting may be most remembered for a handshake that happened hundreds of miles away, between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – the result of an overture Mr. Trump tweeted Saturday morning.

But behind show-stopper events, what the G-20 gathering underscored time and again was the intensifying global battle between two visions of governance: a West-led order of democratic governance and free market economics, on the one hand, and the authoritarian-ruled alternative of state-directed economies, on the other. And part of the summit’s tension stems from countries adjusting to an American president who doesn’t play his country’s traditional role in the postwar order.

“What we’ve been seeing in recent years is a totalitarian axis that is taking shape, a loose collection of authoritarian-minded regimes that is led by Russia and China and which sees the weakening of U.S. power and the global order the U.S. has led as good for them,” says Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “We saw this long-term battle on display at the G-20 in a number of ways.”

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Trump and Kim, Trump and Xi – what really mattered at G-20?

A truce reached by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in their countries’ trade war may have been the headline news out of the Group of 20 summit over the weekend.

That, and Mr. Trump’s surprise overture to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that culminated in a sitting American president stepping onto North Korean soil for the first time. Mr. Trump had tweeted an invitation to Mr. Kim to meet for a handshake at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas Sunday, during his stopover with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

“It’s just a step,” an uncharacteristically cautious Mr. Trump said of the historic meeting. “It might be an important step, it might not.”

After about a minute on North Korean soil, Mr. Trump sat down for an hour with Mr. Kim. Later Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters he expects lower-level talks on the North’s nuclear weapons to get underway before the end of July.

But behind those show-stopping events, what the gathering of the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies underscored time and again, in large ways and small, was the intensifying global battle between two visions of governance: the West-led liberal world order of democratic governance and free-market economics, on one hand, and the authoritarian-ruled alternative of state-directed economies led by China and Russia on the other. Mr. Trump embarked on his Asia trip tweeting he was “off to save the free world,” though he spent much of the summit in seemingly friendly meetings with strongmen. 

“What we’ve been seeing in recent years is a totalitarian axis that is taking shape, a loose collection of authoritarian-minded regimes that is led by Russia and China and which sees the weakening of U.S. power and the global order the U.S. has led as good for them,” says Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

“We saw this long-term battle on display at the G-20 in a number of ways,” he says, citing perhaps the most high-profile example: The world’s largest two economies, China and the U.S., are expected to relaunch talks in coming weeks, and Mr. Trump has lifted some restrictions he had imposed on U.S. companies selling high-tech products to Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral meeting at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. The two leaders have agreed to restart trade talks, which collapsed in May.

“The U.S. and China reached a short-term truce in Osaka because it’s something both leaders very much wanted for their domestic situations,” Mr. Kazianis says. Mr. Xi wants a “period of calm” as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while Mr. Trump is heading into a reelection campaign.

“But the long-term challenge is that both countries see each other as enemies now,” Mr. Kazianis adds, “and I don’t see that changing for at least a generation.”

Liberalism ‘obsolete’?

Evidence of the “totalitarian axis” having the wind in its sails came in various forms in Osaka.

Russian President Vladimir Putin set the tone with an interview with the Financial Times on the eve of his arrival, in which he proclaimed that “the liberal idea” – which he defined as open borders and multiculturalism – “has become obsolete.”

What has replaced that waning Western vision are national populist movements, Mr. Putin said – adding that Mr. Trump’s recognition of this shift led to his 2016 victory. 

The Russian leader’s pronouncement that “liberals” cannot “simply dictate to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades” followed him throughout the two-day summit – from an icy encounter with British Prime Minister Theresa May to a much friendlier one-on-one with Mr. Trump. 

Indeed Mr. Trump suggested some jealousy over the Russian strongman’s relative isolation from a free press as a troupe of reporters noisily peppered him with questions. “Get rid of them,” he quipped to Mr. Putin. “Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”

Asked by a reporter about Russian interference in U.S. voting, Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Putin, smiled and wagged his finger, and said, “Don’t meddle in the election, president.”

Some analysts noted the change in Mr. Putin’s standing from the last G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, where Mr. Trump called off their meeting over Russia’s detention of Ukrainian sailors in the Kerch Strait.

“Well, those 23 Ukrainian sailors are still in jail,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She notes that Mr. Trump tends to approach international gatherings like the G-20 as transactional opportunities – he lauded the trade-war truce with China as an accord that would result in major sales for U.S. farmers, for example – rather than as venues for advancing American leadership and values.

But China’s Mr. Xi also had a turn assailing the West’s leadership, saying rising protectionism and defensiveness in the world’s developed countries threaten to reverse rising prosperity – though he did not name Mr. Trump’s frequent recourse to tariffs as economic policy.

Back in the fold

Even the G-20 leaders’ “family photo” displayed in full color an authoritarian wing of world leadership on the rise. 

Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was relegated to a far wing of the traditional photo, symbolizing his pariah status in the wake of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

This year, the crown prince stood front and center, between the summit’s host, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo [Editor’s note: name rendered in traditional Japanese style], and Mr. Trump.

Traditional protocol calls for that placement, since Saudi Arabia hosts next year’s G-20 summit in Riyadh. But Mr. Trump went a step further, hosting the crown prince at a breakfast Saturday and showering him with accolades for his “spectacular job” of ushering the Saudi kingdom through a “revolution” of political and economic reform.

Part of the tension between two competing visions at the summit stems from countries adjusting to an American president who doesn’t play the traditional role for such gatherings of leaders of the post-war order, based on democratic principles including human rights, and free markets. 

“The challenge for U.S. allies and more like-minded countries is that Donald Trump undermines this [liberal] order by constantly crossing an enemy line between the democracies and totalitarian states,” says Mr. Kazianis. “He doesn’t want to be a dictator, but he says and does things that suggest he doesn’t understand what it means to be the American president on the world stage.”

‘Democracy is you’

Some leaders from the Western wing cautioned against blaming particular leaders to explain today’s upheaval and backlash against globalization in established democracies.

Asked at a press conference to respond to Mr. Putin’s pronouncement of the liberal order’s demise, French President Emmanuel Macron was matter of fact. “If one looks at the world we live in, one can’t avoid seeing that there is a crisis in our democracies” and in capitalism, he said.

Yet while the “illiberal” governing options might give the impression of being more efficient, Mr. Macron said, the stability of those regimes “rarely lasts.”  

Having faced his own populist challenge from the yellow vest movement, the French president said, “We have to reform, but at the same time we must never lose what has been at the foundation of our modern governance.” The strength of the democratic system is that it puts the individual “at the top,” Mr. Macron added, and “our challenge as leaders is convincing the population that in the end that democracy is you.”

That lofty analysis was a reminder of why some Osaka participants said they viewed the clashing views on display at the summit as a strength of the G-20 approach.

“What makes G-20 so important and what this summit has demonstrated in many ways is that this is one of the few forums we have in the world that bring China and Russia into the discussion of ideas with what we traditionally call the West,” says one Japanese diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss the summit more freely. “And then there are the countries that don’t necessarily identify with either of the sides, but they have a say, too.”

Calling the number 20 “important” – not too unwieldy for genuine discussion, like the United Nations can be, not too much a like-minded group, like the Group of 7 – the diplomat said the summit proved its worth. His evidence? That leaders found some compromise on controversial topics like climate change and reform of the World Trade Organization, while forging new ground on women’s empowerment, on an “Osaka framework” for a global free flow of data, and on reducing marine plastics.

“So I see all this debate as an opportunity,” the diplomat says. “Yes, there are clashes of ideas, but we also see signs of a coming together on some of the central issues facing the world.”

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2. US-Iran clash enters cyber realm, testing a Trump strategy

In the conflict with Iran, we look at why the Pentagon may set new precedents in cyberwarfare attacks, as well as restraint.

David

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The brewing conflict between Iran and the United States has potentially far-reaching implications, cybersecurity experts say. It marks the first time the United States has teetered on the brink of military conflict with another nation that has significant cyber capabilities.

Already, the conflict has become a test case for the U.S. military’s employment of cyber tools in lieu of conventional weapons. For example, the U.S. military’s reported cyberattack in response to Iranian military actions in the Strait of Hormuz “may be unique for the U.S. in terms of a tit for tat in exchange for a physical event,” says Christopher Painter, a top cyber official in the Obama administration.

It also signals a more proactive approach to the use of cyberattacks by the U.S. military, which reflected a frustration that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough.

Cyberattacks offer a clear advantage in avoiding the loss of life, Mr. Painter says. A more assertive and intrusive U.S. military approach to going after cyber threats overseas, however, could lead other countries to respond in kind, causing unwanted escalation. While the U.S. is considered the world’s most capable cyber power, its advanced economy makes it one of the most vulnerable.

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US-Iran clash enters cyber realm, testing a Trump strategy

Iran is stepping up cyberattacks targeting the United States amid heightened tension between the two countries, leading U.S. officials to warn businesses and government agencies to shore up their defenses.

The top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, Christopher C. Krebs, said Iranian “regime actors and proxies” are increasingly targeting U.S. government agencies and industries with destructive “wiper” attacks that can rapidly eliminate entire networks.

The threat of more widespread and damaging Iranian cyberattacks on the U.S. homeland may be amplified following a strike by U.S. Cyber Command against an Iranian intelligence group tied to the military late last month, according to experts on Iran and cybersecurity.

“We opened that up as an avenue, and I would be surprised if they didn’t respond,” says Michael Connell, an Iran analyst at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “I would certainly expect them to conduct attacks on low-hanging fruit economic targets, and also government targets as well,” he says.

The brewing conflict in the cyber realm has potentially far-reaching implications, cybersecurity experts say.

It marks the first time the United States has teetered on the brink of military conflict with another nation that has significant cyber capabilities. “We are seeing two cyber capable powers actually trading attacks,” says Sergio Caltagirone, vice president of Threat Intelligence at the Maryland-based cybersecurity firm Dragos. “There is another line that has been crossed here that has not been crossed before,” he says.

Already, the conflict has become a test case for the U.S. military’s employment of cyber tools in lieu of conventional weapons. For example, the U.S. military’s reported cyberattack in response to Iranian military actions in the Strait of Hormuz “may be unique for the U.S. in terms of a tit for tat in exchange for a physical event,” says Christopher Painter, a top cyber official in the Obama administration. Cyberattacks offer a clear advantage in avoiding the loss of life, Mr. Painter says.

The conflict also signals a more proactive approach to the use of cyberattacks by the U.S. military. A 10-month-old Trump administration order eased restrictions on the U.S. Cyber Command’s employment of cyber weapons. The new policy aims to speed and streamline responses to national-security cyberthreats by lifting requirements for extensive inter-agency consultation, which experts say had pros and cons.

Cyber Command runs the Pentagon’s online military operations, both offensive and defensive. Its commander, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, is advancing a U.S. strategy to “defend forward” by penetrating adversary networks – whether in Russia, Iran, or elsewhere – to show American resolve, experts say.

The policy change reflected a frustration that the U.S. wasn’t doing enough.

“We need to be more aggressive,” says Mr. Painter, a Perry Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “If we don’t take action against the bad actors, like Russia for instance, it just emboldens them,” he says. “But we also have to think through the larger implications.”

One major ramification is that how the U.S. decides to use cyberattacks will set a precedent for other countries in the “gray zone” field of cyberwarfare, where international law often remains unclear. The “gray zone” between diplomacy and conventional war includes other covert and clandestine tactics such as sabotage, disinformation, and fomenting political unrest.

A more assertive and intrusive U.S. military approach to going after cyberthreats overseas – wherever malicious code exists – could lead other countries to respond in kind, causing unwanted escalation. While the U.S. is considered the world’s most capable cyber power, it is also one of the most vulnerable because of its advanced digital economy.

“Companies in the U.S. would not be very happy about other countries doing things willy-nilly here,” says Mr. Painter.

Iran’s program

Iran is considered a tier-two cyber power, lacking the capabilities of the United States, Russia, or China, but on a par with or ahead of North Korea, experts say.

Iran has long developed its cyber capabilities as part of an asymmetric warfare strategy that involves targeting the weaknesses of a stronger opponent instead of trying to match its conventional military force.

“They have done a good job finding the weak points in entity security” and exploiting them, says Ben Read, senior manager for Cyber Espionage Analysis at FireEye, a cybersecurity company based in Milpitas, California.

Over the past decade, Iran has successfully used cyberattacks to hit targets from the United States to Europe to the Gulf Arab states and Israel. Major attacks have included widespread denial of service attacks on the U.S. financial sector and a massive attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas industry in 2012 and 2013.

Cybersecurity experts say Iran is constantly attempting intrusions, but the motive behind them – whether for intelligence collection or for destructive operations – is often hard to discern until the damage begins. Iran’s cyber espionage is often aimed at stealing information useful for the regime, such as financial data from banks that carry out U.S. sanctions. Iran’s destructive operations can take down communications, destroy systems and hardware, or carry out ransomware attacks.

Iranian cyber agents are particularly creative in using social networks, creating fake profiles and websites – known as “watering hole” attacks – as well as fabricating convincing emails to lure victims into providing sensitive information.

In terms of timing, Iran’s pattern is to conduct such attacks “during periods of heightened tension against specific countries,” Mr. Connell says.

Indeed, in mid-June, Iran launched a broad attack on U.S. government and private entities, including the U.S. financial network, says Mr. Read. The scale of the attack was not unusual, but it was different in that it was focused specifically on the United States.

“Right now, we have confirmed that there are groups associated with Iranian state interests that are targeting several elements of the U.S. government” and industries, says Mr. Caltagirone, of Dragos. “It is absolutely energy related, but more importantly it's affecting oil and gas entities” across the United States, he says.

Iran’s motives for the latest attempted intrusions were not immediately clear. It may have been gathering intelligence on U.S. plans for Iran, including sanctions and ways to evade them. “They have typically gone after stuff that would help the Iranian government make decisions,” says Mr. Read. “Sanctions are implemented by the U.S. financial sector, so knowing how that’s going to be implemented could help them evade the sanctions.”

Incentive for restraint

The vulnerability of U.S. digital systems makes cyberwarfare a two-edged sword for the United States.

“Strategically, the U.S. has much more to lose than almost any other country in the world when it comes to the escalation of cyber weapons and their ability to harm national economies because of our reliance on the digital economy,” says Mr. Caltagirone.

While most large U.S. companies have robust cybersecurity defenses, thousands of smaller firms do not. For example, if Iran gained control of an industrial system and launched a wiper attack, it could shut down companies, oil refineries, and possibly electric utilities – at least temporarily, he says.

The U.S. has an incentive, therefore, to show restraint to prevent cyberspace from becoming overly militarized, experts say. It needs to weigh carefully its operations against Iran and other countries with an eye to minimizing harmful retaliation. One way to do this is by narrowly focusing attacks on military targets for military objectives, while preventing harm or disruption to civilian infrastructure and lives.

“The U.S. is in a very precarious situation where it needs to project some amount of power, to show other countries that you can’t just walk in and do what you want, but also respond in a very restrained manner,” says Mr. Caltagirone.

“What the U.S. does now is going to set the tone for the next five years.”

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3. Putin flexes as ‘good czar,’ but can he remake Russia?

Here’s another leadership challenge, in another country. Our reporter looks at whether Vladimir Putin’s approach to problem-solving is a true shift toward progress or more of the same.

David

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Judging solely from Vladimir Putin’s annual televised town hall meeting, one might think that the Russian president’s method of governance is all about problem-solving in response to direct complaints from the public. Although that is sometimes the case, it obscures a deeper Kremlin effort to overhaul Russian society. And that effort is itself the subject of debate.

The sweeping program launched by Mr. Putin in 2018 includes 12 ambitious national projects, funded by almost $400 billion in Kremlin cash. The projects are aimed at resolving age-old problems in Russia, such as poverty, inadequate health and education, demographic decline, a deficit of vital infrastructure, a myriad of obstacles facing small business, and digitizing the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy to make government more user-friendly.

The key division is between those who argue, on one side, that top-down state-directed development, dramatized by Mr. Putin’s performance at his town hall show, is a reversion to failed Soviet-era methods. On the other side are those who say that government-funded stimulus is needed to “prime the pump” in Russia’s underdeveloped market economy, and that whatever improvements it delivers will be better than nothing.

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Putin flexes as ‘good czar,’ but can he remake Russia?

For many of Vladimir Putin’s critics, the Russian president’s method of governance is just a modern version of the “good czar, bad boyars” concept, a method of bamboozling the population almost as old as Russia itself. In it, the well-intentioned leader talks directly to the people over the heads of his presumably corrupt or inept officials.

Mr. Putin’s annual televised virtual town hall meeting, the most recent of which aired on June 20, appears to underscore the argument.

Sitting at what looks like a central control panel, he fields a staggering variety of questions, grievances, and criticisms that have been digitally piped into the Kremlin theater. He responds with a magisterial grip on the situation, rattling off statistics, explaining policies, criticizing lax officials, sometimes injecting a note of humor, and, quite often, actually solving problems right there on the air.

Although there is some truth in what the critics assert, their characterization is not entirely fair. In fact, behind the digital smoke and mirrors of this year’s town hall TV show lies a sweeping strategy for national renewal enacted by Mr. Putin when he began his fourth term last year. The real issue that is roiling Russia’s expert community concerns the strategy itself, rather than Mr. Putin’s theatrical presentation of it.

“This is a very, very complex subject to discuss. There is no single plan for everything,” says Natalia Zubarevich, an expert in social demography at Moscow State University. “There are many different projects in separate spheres. Some are working to some extent, some are not working, all in different ways.”

Pushing on an open door

The tension between Mr. Putin’s apparent on-demand problem-solving and the underlying grand scale projects can be highlighted in a particular moment of the June 20 program. This year’s town hall focused on the deep social and economic problems that have caused his personal popularity to plummet and triggered growing public protests against everything from proliferating waste dumps to unrestrained construction of churches.

In one example, Mr. Putin confronted a group of irate villagers from Kaskara, a small community in the distant Siberian region of Tyumen, who complained they had no accessible drinking water after 20 years of promises from local officials to fix the problem. Mr. Putin heard them out, then summoned the digital presence of regional governor Alexander Moor (one of many such officials ordered to be on standby for Mr. Putin’s show), who explained that the infrastructure was already in place, but that local residents “need to apply” to be connected to the system.

“Consider that I have just applied on their behalf,” said Mr. Putin. “Do it as quickly as possible.”

But local officials in Tyumen – who appear to have been blindsided by the presidential antics – claim that Mr. Putin was pushing on an open door. Ivan Kamilskikh, spokesman for the regional water company, Tyumen Vodokanal, says that they have been working within the overall national program and had matters in hand before the president intervened.

“Here in Tyumen we have our own program, ‘Clean Water,’ and we are working on it,” he said. “But you can’t just make it happen overnight by waving a magic wand. There’s a lot of technical work that needs to be done.”

The Tyumen project is but one facet of the sweeping program launched by Mr. Putin in 2018. The program includes 12 ambitious national projects that are funded by almost $400 billion in Kremlin cash, and should be supplemented with resources from regional authorities and private investors. The projects are aimed at resolving age-old problems in Russia, such as poverty, inadequate health and education, demographic decline, a deficit of vital infrastructure, a myriad of obstacles facing small business, and digitizing the country’s labyrinthine bureaucracy to make government more user-friendly.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
A woman protests the raise in pension ages during a rally in front of the Russian State Duma in Moscow in August 2018. Pension control is one of Mr. Putin's national projects, though the accompanying raise in ages of eligibility is highly unpopular among the Russian public.

But few in Russia’s expert community believe that it will lead to a takeoff that will make Russia the world’s fifth-largest economy within five years, as the Kremlin claims. Nor do they expect that it can reverse long-term demographic decline in which Russian women are having too few babies to renew the population, or that it can eliminate the poverty that persists in dying Soviet-era single-industry cities and languishing rural zones.

Free market or Soviet redux?

The key division is between those who argue, on one side, that top-down state-directed development, dramatized by Mr. Putin’s performance, is a reversion to failed Soviet-era methods. On the other side are those who say that government-funded stimulus is needed to “prime the pump” in Russia’s underdeveloped market economy, and that whatever improvements it delivers will be better than nothing.

“Putin has adopted this program to give Russians an illusion of progress,” says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist and member of the liberal Committee of Civil Initiatives. It was founded by Putin protégé Alexei Kudrin to champion what is today the minority viewpoint that Russia needs to develop through free market economic approaches, stimulation of entrepreneurship, and pursuit of a foreign policy that emphasizes partnerships with advanced Western countries.

“This old Soviet style of state management is the road backwards. It is incompatible with modern innovation and economic dynamism. Maybe older people expect it and feel reassured by the spectacle of the president solving their problems on TV, but young people do not respond positively to it. The youth say they want to live as people do in Europe, at peace with the world and without all this corruption and politicization,” Mr. Gontmakher says.

Opinion polls show that nostalgia for the former Soviet Union is near all-time highs. A survey released last week by the independent Levada Center found that nearly 60 percent of Russians thought the defining feature of the USSR was that “the state took care of ordinary people.” Amid stagnating incomes and slow growth in economic opportunities, that perception has spawned some strange forms of protest, including at least one group that argues the Soviet Union still legally exists and its laws should be obeyed.

Eduard Korniyenko/Reuters
Pupils of a local nursery school are accompanied as they walk past a monument to Vladimir Lenin in Vorgashor settlement outside the city of Vorkuta, Russia, in September 2018. Stabilizing population growth, which has been affected by a drop in domestic birthrates, is another of Vladimir Putin’s national projects.

Some experts argue that it’s too soon to judge the impact of the multi-pronged six-year program, and even if it works, it may not have the Kremlin’s desired effect of boosting Mr. Putin’s popularity or warding off public protests.

“Some of these projects may well have positive impacts; we need to wait and see. We should assess them separately, and each in its own right,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert with the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “In the past, efforts like this have delivered some good results. I doubt we will see a complete overhaul, but real improvements in the lives of real people are quite possible.

“And why shouldn’t our government spend some of the money it’s accumulated on goods and services for the population? In this sense, the Kremlin is responding in a healthy way to pressure from below, to provide things people want. This is not like the USSR, which was a totally centrally planned economy,” he says. “Building infrastructure, improving social benefits, investing in high-tech research and such can change the social landscape, even just a little, and enable self-sustaining development.

“It’s just about using the power of the state to effect some positive incremental changes. Nobody should expect a revolution.”

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A deeper look

4. Why this Alaska village may have to pack up and move

In the first of two stories about home, the people of Quinhagak face hard questions about identity, livelihood, and tribal culture as climate change pushes their community to the brink. This story is part of an occasional Monitor series on “Climate Realities.”

David

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The residents of a tiny village on Alaska’s western coast may soon have to decide whether to become climate refugees.

As the polar regions warm twice as fast as temperate latitudes, Quinhagak, Alaska, population 729, is facing an existential crisis that is roiling Native communities up and down the coastline. For communities based around fishing and hunting, the effects of warmer winters are inescapable, from the early breakup of sea ice to the changing migratory patterns of caribou and other mammals.

The thawing permafrost buckles roads, buildings, and houses. Melting ice makes it harder to reach seals and other marine mammals that hunters rely on, and it imperils travel along waterways that were once reliably frozen. And the rising waters erode coastlines and riverbanks.

“[Warming] touches everything, from when you go to sleep at night to when you wake up,” says Vivian Korthuis, the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a regional body for 56 tribes. “Quinhagak is at the tip of the iceberg.” 

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Why this Alaska village may have to pack up and move

Less than a mile out, Matthew Friendly cuts the motor on his 18-foot boat and pokes an oar into the cold murky waters of the Bering Sea. At low tide this is all mud. Now it’s a bay of plenty, and Mr. Friendly, an Alaskan tribal elder, is looking for his share. 

The fisherman reels out his buoy-tethered nets until they trace a scimitar on the glistening sea. Then he waits for a splash that might, just might, be the first king salmon of the season. Other boats are also waiting in the bay. “Everyone is trying their luck today,” he says. 

From here, Mr. Friendly’s village of Quinhagak (population 729) is a gap-toothed band of colored houses set back from the shore. Three wind turbines spin overhead. No other settlements are visible, only the snowy peaks of the Ahklun mountain range to the south and the Kanektok River estuary where the salmon – also known as chinook – go to spawn. The sun is high overhead. It won’t set until 11 p.m. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Matthew Friendly pulls in his nets while fishing on the coast of Quinhagak. The Yup’ik survive by living on the land and sea. Would relocating undermine their way of life?

Mr. Friendly pulls on his yellow waders and reels in his nets, but the catch is disappointing: several rough-edged flounder and a solitary smelt. He tosses them back into the sea. “There’s not much yet, but by June it will be heavy,” he says, piling up his nets. 

Come summer, more fishermen will ply these rich waters on Alaska’s west coast. From the air, this lowland delta, covering an area the size of Nebraska, is a tawny-and-cobalt expanse of tundra and tributaries and lakes, its looping rivers etching a dazzling curlicue. 

But the waterways that giveth also taketh. Climate change is causing Quinhagak to lose its land to erosion, to rising seas and restless rivers, and to the thawing of the frozen land on which it sits. Buildings are sinking and cracking. Bogs are spreading. Each year brings less snowfall and more uncertainty. 

Alaska’s harsh climate has always favored those who can live with its extremes, but rapid change – polar regions are warming twice as fast as temperate latitudes – is causing an existential crisis that is roiling Native communities up and down the coastline. 

Global warming has birthed a new category of refugee, one displaced not by war or famine but by climatic variations that make it impossible to stay in place. Quinhagak is not there yet. But its plight is already raising profound political, legal, and moral questions about who gets saved from a slow climatic death and at what cost to society and to the culture of a community. 

“Quinhagak is at the tip of the iceberg,” says Vivian Korthuis, the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a regional body for 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. 

 

For these subsistence communities, based around fishing and hunting, the effects of warmer winters on their way of life are inescapable, from the early breakup of sea ice to the changing migratory patterns of caribou and other mammals. “It touches everything, from when you go to sleep at night to when you wake up,” says Ms. Korthuis. 

What happens out in rural Alaska, far from the smokestack industries and teeming cities that spew carbon into the atmosphere, may seem remote from the politics of climate change. It isn’t. More than 600 million people live within 30 feet of sea level, including residents in U.S. cities like Boston and Miami. They may one day face the same fate as the people of Quinhagak.

So the villages here are canaries in the collective coal mine – carriers of bleak tidings from a warmer future.

The Russians were the first to arrive on Alaska’s western rim in the 1700s, bringing cartographers and missionaries – and the smallpox that would decimate indigenous populations, including the Yup’ik Eskimos living in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. 

After the U.S. purchase of Alaska, Quinhagak became a barge stop on trading routes along the Kuskokwim, and a Moravian church mission opened in 1893. Over the next few decades, a post office and school followed.  

Ann Hermes/Staff
Bicycles and four-wheelers ply the gravel streets of Quinhagak, a town of 729 people on Alaska’s western edge.

The region saw fewer settlers than other parts of Alaska that experienced a frontier rush for gold and other resources. People in villages like Quinhagak continued to thrive on hunting and foraging, moving between summer and winter camps, while being slowly drawn into an economy underwritten by federal government expansion. 

Eventually Yup’ik communities would settle permanently by the airstrips, schools, and ports that were springing up. For Quinhagak that spot was a bend in the Kanektok River, a peninsula known as the Point. 

When the river changed course in the 1970s and engulfed the Point, the residents of Quinhagak made their first managed retreat. Nobody was too surprised; the town’s Yup’ik name means “new river channel.” The community had plenty of room to build inland on the tundra that stretched to the horizon. Nobody could take their land, which was owned either by tribal members or the village corporation. 

Nobody, that is, except a rising thermometer.

“Let me get my metal stick,” says George Johnson, opening a red box outside the modest wood-framed building that doubles as city hall and the post office. Like most buildings here it has a metal roof and sits on stilts above the ground.   

Mr. Johnson has worked for the city for five decades and serves as its director of public works. Armed with a giant tent peg, he walks over to a boggy patch of ground between two houses. His stick sinks deep into the soil. He says that the rule of thumb used to be that you hit frozen tundra 18 inches down. Now it goes 3- to 5-feet down into sodden soil before hitting anything solid. “It’s only May and there’s water everywhere,” he says. 

It’s the same story across Alaska and around the Arctic. Permafrost, the continuously frozen layer of earth that in some places has stayed frozen for millennia, is thawing as the planet warms. As it melts, the ground slumps and becomes unstable, buckling roads, buildings, and houses. It also forms bowls that fill with rain and snowmelt, creating new wetlands that expel trapped methane. Arctic permafrost holds up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, much more than is now in the atmosphere, which is why climate scientists worry about it thawing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, estimates that by 2100 as much as 81% of the world’s near-surface permafrost could be lost.

A warming Arctic also means less sea ice, which shields coastal villages from storm surges and tides that can push up to 30 miles inland. The ice cover in the Bering Sea in February this year was the lowest recorded since whalers began keeping records in 1850. 

For hunters the shrinking ice makes it harder to reach seals and other marine mammals that they rely on, part of a culture of subsistence in which nature’s offerings mark the seasons. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Jacki Cleveland, Quinhagak’s director of natural resources, stands near the site of her childhood home, which sits in the path of a rising river.

It also imperils travel along frozen waterways that are rural Alaska’s winter roads. Several people fell through the ice and died this year in snowmobile accidents, including one from Quinhagak. 

“You don’t know if it’s really thick enough to cross,” says Jonathan Alexie, a father of three and, like almost everyone here, an avid hunter. “You don’t know how dangerous it is.”

The rising sea and its river estuary are gnawing away at the village at a combined rate of around 300 feet a year, according to the tribal administration. That rate of erosion is uneven and uncertain, and river flooding can be diverted or defended. But it’s also true that a major storm could redraw the local topography overnight and force a mass evacuation. 

“We’re an island surrounded by lakes, rivers, and oceans. That’s what it feels like, and the island keeps shrinking,” says Jacki Cleveland, the city’s director of natural resources. 

Her own house is close to an eroding riverbank. If and when its banks collapse, the river is likely to spare her but flood the house where her aunt lives and cut off road access.

“I never thought in my lifetime we would move,” says Ms. Cleveland, who was born in 1979. “I thought that would only become a reality for future generations.”

It’s after 5 p.m. when Ferdinand Cleveland Jr. steers his white Ford pickup onto the beach. A steady wind rakes the exposed slate-gray sand and its crumbling tundra cliffs.

The gravel road to the beach passes a village cemetery and newer houses before swerving south to the wind turbines, a landfill, and a sewage lagoon. Keeping that lagoon intact is one of the many tasks that weighs on Mr. Cleveland, the tribal administrator (and a cousin of Ms. Cleveland). 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Joshua Cleveland, a retired tribal leader, and his wife, Emily, sit inside their home in Quinhagak.

Today he’s at the beach to check coastal monitoring equipment, including a time-lapse camera that records storm surges. Its memory card is supposed to be swapped out every three months but Mr. Cleveland, who wears mirrored sunglasses, a baseball cap, and T-shirt under a black windbreaker, hasn’t been out here since January. 

As he gets closer, he spies a metal pole but no camera. “I think someone took it,” he says, his voice calm. “I’ll have to put up a new one.”   

Near the empty pole is a row of black-and-white wooden stakes, 20 feet apart, that run perpendicular to the beach. The village installed them in 2017; one has already been lost to the waves. 

For Quinhagak to survive the land erosion requires outside help, primarily federal dollars to maintain or rebuild public infrastructure, like the sewage system, as well as defray the cost of new housing and other services. But the town needs to prove its hardship; hence the monitoring gear. “We need the data to apply for grants,” says Mr. Cleveland. 

Quinhagak is one of eight Yup’ik villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta that is working with the Alaska Institute for Justice, a nonprofit in Anchorage, to track erosion and other climate-related effects and tap state and federal agencies for compensation. (Seven other Native villages farther north are also participating.) The institute has also installed a permafrost monitor in Quinhagak to record the ground temperature. 

“It’s about what’s happening now, and based on what’s happening now, what do you think will happen in the future,” says Robin Bronen, the executive director and a research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

That future is arriving faster than expected. “It’s really painful to see the changes happening. ... We’re in a phase of unprecedented climate crisis,” she says. 

Under federal law, slow-moving disasters like coastal erosion or the inability to live off the land aren’t eligible for relief funds the way they are for earthquakes or tornadoes. So when tundra turns to a pond, don’t expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency to show up. Last year, however, Alaska added a new category to its hazard mitigation planning: usteq, a Yup’ik word that means catastrophic permafrost collapse.

While coining new terms for disasters may help, Mr. Cleveland simply wants to know what he should do now. A tribal health agency recently identified five at-risk buildings, including the village’s clinic and preschool center. Then there’s the lagoon near the sea; a team from the Army Corps of Engineers is coming to inspect and evaluate the risk. 

Partial retreat is one thing. But will the entire population need to relocate? 

That’s what’s happening farther up the coast to the waterlogged Yup’ik village of Newtok. The first families are due to move by October to a new village 11 miles away. Riverbank erosion and permafrost collapse led Newtok to agree in 1994 to abandon its village; in 2003 it traded land with the federal government for the new, drier site. But the community of 350 struggled for years to raise enough money to make its move. 

“I’m not sure we’ll have 20 years to relocate with the state of erosion here,” says Mr. Cleveland. 

But permafrost loss is not just about the future. In Quinhagak it is also a window on the past.

Growing up in Quinhagak, Warren Jones walked the beach with his grandmother collecting driftwood. When they found arrowheads and wooden dolls, she explained these were the work of his ancestors. He saw them as proof that the stories the elders told of an ancient Yup’ik settlement undone by warfare were true. 

Ann Hermes/Staff
Children gather ‘beach greens’ as part of a subsistence lifestyle.

“Growing up we heard about the war back then. All the grandparents told us: Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” says Mr. Jones. 

Many years later the Yup’ik elders cautioned Mr. Jones, now the manager of  Qanirtuuq Inc., the village corporation, not to exhume the past. They said the objects belonged to their ancestors. But he persisted. He sent photos of the artifacts to archaeology departments across the U.S. None showed any interest in a remote dig in Alaska.

Then Rick Knecht, an American working at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, heard about what he was doing. In 2009, he began to excavate a site that is now known as Nunalleq. What he found was astonishing: thousands of ceremonial and everyday artifacts that had lain frozen in the ground for more then three centuries. 

“The excavation gave us the first look” at the Yup’ik culture that predated European contact, he says. It was a culture “more sophisticated and stratified than we expected.”

It also confirmed the oral records of warfare in the 1600s and a deadly attack on Nunalleq. The war came during five centuries of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age, when food scarcity likely led to intravillage conflict in Alaska, just as global warming threatens to do today. 

More than 60,000 objects have been excavated from Nunalleq so far. Inside a blue-roofed building behind Qanirtuuq’s office, Mr. Jones pulls open wide drawers of exquisite objects yielded up by the tundra, from wooden masks and tattoo needles to bone harpoon bits and fishing weights. When the masks were lifted from the soil they had human hair attached; woven baskets had green blades of grass. “The hair was real,” he says, his voice rising. “I was there!” 

The Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center opened last year. It holds the world’s largest collection of prehistoric North American Native artifacts, a source of cultural identity and a tangible connection to the past. 

Mr. Jones takes pride in the schoolchildren who come to gawk at the artifacts, since it’s a powerful way to bind them to their roots. His eldest son, Stephan, worked on the project and later became the center manager. In early May, however, he unexpectedly died while in Anchorage. 

The work that Stephan supported continues. Mr. Knecht is bringing another team of archaeologists and volunteers in July. He’s sure there’s more to find, both at Nunalleq and other sites, but he’s racing against Arctic warming: Exposed objects heaved up from melting tundra rot quickly in the damp surroundings. “It’s like finding a museum that’s on fire,” he says.  

The dire threat posed by climate change to this region is not breaking news. In 2009 the Army Corps of Engineers identified 31 Native communities at greatest risk from rising waters and eroding land. (Quinhagak was not listed.) That study hasn’t been updated, but a tally of villages at risk today would likely be much longer, in part because of rapid thawing, says Dave Williams, a project manager in Anchorage for the Corps. “We have many, many more communities saying, ‘We’re losing permafrost and our buildings are sinking,’” he says. 

Some villages can retreat to higher ground without having to relocate entirely, he says. Sea walls and other defenses can buy time for retreats. Other communities face no good options because “everything they’ve got is pretty much wetlands.”

Either way, it’s an expensive proposition. Newtok, the first to move, is expected to cost more than $100 million. There are no roads on the tundra; materials move by barge and only in season. “The costs are high and nothing comes free,” says Mr. Williams, an engineer in Alaska for 40 years. 

When Mr. Cleveland talks to villagers in Quinhagak about displacement he chooses his words carefully. “I don’t talk about relocating. I talk about rebuilding,” he says. 

The tribe has identified a potential site inland on drier ground, a contingency plan that has yet to coalesce. For now, Mr. Cleveland is trying to maintain infrastructure and replace unfit housing, but there are limits on what a tribal entity with an annual budget of $500,000 can do in the absence of federal policy to address slow-moving climate disasters. “Our world is changing. We still don’t completely see the future,” he says. 

Nor do the climate scientists who model possible planetary futures. If global emissions slow dramatically, the pace of sea level rise would slow, too. But even a dramatic slowdown would not be enough to spare low-lying areas like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from the accumulated effects of sur­ging tides and sinking permafrost. 

What happens then? The moral and legal questions of who gets saved and who pays for it are just starting to be asked. As chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, Fran Ulmer advises the president and Congress on national and international research priorities in the region. She knows well the acute distress of Alaska Native villages – and of their economic bind. Still, she finds it hard to imagine a federal mandate to rebuild every climate-affected village, whatever the cost. “Who is going to pay for it?” she asks.    

Moving people to towns and cities would be more cost effective than spending $100 million on a new village. It would also be controversial in the context of tribal sovereignty. Another option might be to consolidate tribes in existing settlements that are still within reach of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. 

Two years ago, Ms. Ulmer spoke to tribal leaders working with the Alaska Institute for Justice on climate monitoring. When the conversation turned to future strategies, she was struck by the resistance to the idea of consolidation. “It’s very culturally fraught with the issue of, do you respect our culture and our right to practice our culture in the place where our culture is still relevant,” she says.

To the Yup’ik, steeped in self-reliance and adaptation, abandoning their lands to erosion is unthinkable. Ms. Korthuis, the regional leader, puts it simply. “The tribes will never leave,” she says. “When the environment changes the tribes will still be here.” 

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

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5. Car but no home? Safe parking lots spread across West Coast.

For some in California, home is where your car is parked. Our reporter looks at the pros and cons of havens for the homeless with vehicles.

David
Rich Harper/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Homeless veteran Keith Roads holds Boo-Boo at Safe Parking LA, June 18. "They have food. The security is good. They watch at night, and I don’t have to worry," says Mr. Roads.

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Removing the console between the front seats of his pickup, Joe Hildago turns his truck into a bed for the night. It’s not exactly comfortable, but the former Marine is sleeping at a parking lot where police won’t tell him to move, and he won’t have to fear a break-in. He has access to portable toilets, wash stations, food, and caseworkers. “It’s a godsend for people that have vehicles,” says Mr. Hildago.

Safe Parking LA, the nonprofit that runs this operation, is an example of an effort to assist a specific group of individuals before they fall further to life on the street. Many of them may be working and are homeless for the first time. Such designated parking lots now dot cities from San Diego to Seattle, with some officials trying to figure out how to scale up their programs.

The key to the success of these programs is the individual case management and social work, clarity of the rules on the lots, and confidence in safety, says economist Gary Painter. “We have to think of the whole ecosystem of services, and protect people vulnerably housed in whatever situation they might be.”

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Car but no home? Safe parking lots spread across West Coast.

Dusk is approaching as a Ford van pulls up to the gate of a parking lot here on the sprawling health care campus of Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles. 

The driver rolls down his window. “I just want to say thank you,” he says to the woman standing at the gate, his voice full of heartfelt gratitude. She asks about his day, as his black-and-white cat hops from the passenger seat to the open window, searching for a pat.

It’s been a tough one for this actor and veteran, who is living in his van and looking for housing. He has the help of the Department of Veterans Affairs, but has not yet been able to find an apartment. Still, at least he has a safe place to park at night, thanks to the woman at the gate, Pat Cohen, and her husband, Ira, who helped found the nonprofit Safe Parking LA.

In Los Angeles County, a staggering 16,500 people live in their vehicles. But at this lot and six others run by the nonprofit, police won’t tell them to move along when they bed down. They won’t have to fear someone breaking into their car. They have access to portable toilets, wash stations, food, and caseworkers.

Rich Harper/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Operated by the nonprofit Safe Parking LA, this lot at the west L.A. campus of Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles enables homeless vets to sleep safely in their cars.

“It’s a godsend for people that have vehicles,” says Joe Hidalgo, standing in front of his Chevy Silverado pickup truck. The former Marine from Bakersfield, California, removes the center console between the front seats to sleep – not exactly comfortable on his back. But he hopes to qualify for a VA housing voucher. Half of the people who use the lot, which is just for veterans, find permanent housing.

Safe Parking LA is an example of a relatively new effort on the West Coast to assist a specific group of individuals before they fall further to life on the street. Many of them may be working or have some source of income and are homeless for the first time. Designated parking lots, supported entirely by charity or with public funds, now dot cities from San Diego to Seattle, with some officials trying to figure out how to scale up their programs.

As California struggles with the highest homelessness in the nation, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would mandate safe parking programs for cities and counties with populations over 330,000. Another measure would require the state’s community colleges to keep their lots open for students at night. Nearly 20% of students at California’s community colleges experienced homelessness in the past year.

“We’re in a crisis situation, and we have to think of the whole ecosystem of services, and protect people vulnerably housed in whatever situation they might be,” says Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“It’s almost like our eyes have been closed to the fact that so many people are living right in their car, the last step before the streets. We’ve done nothing about this population, other than to tell them, ‘You can’t park on this or that street,’” he says.

Rich Harper/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Nikki Baker, an official of VA Greater Los Angeles, speaks with homeless veteran Joe Hidalgo, June 18.

Safe parking programs are generally located on the West Coast where weather allows for year-round living in vehicles. Parking areas vary in size, from lots that can take 15 vehicles to ones like that at the VA campus, which can accommodate 50. The programs usually require a valid driver’s license, registration, and insurance, and they screen for sex offenders and violent felons. Most operate only at night, with access to caseworkers. The success rate in finding permanent housing varies widely, from 5% in Santa Barbara to 65% in San Diego, according to a December report on safe parking by the Homelessness Policy Research Institute.

But this idea has its detractors. Some question it on ethical grounds, saying it normalizes vehicular living, explains Professor Painter. Others fear drugs, crime, and waste, and don’t want the lots in their areas. That’s one reason why some lots employ security guards.

Teresa Smith, who directs the nonprofit Dreams for Change in San Diego, says these fears are groundless. She describes her parking lot clients as a “very different population” from people living on the street. “You don’t see the same issues of drugs and mental health. We’re trying to dispel some of those myths.”

The group runs two parking lots that service 70 families and individuals. They aim to keep people in or near the communities where they had housing, and to preserve their one asset – their vehicles – so they can continue to look for housing, jobs, and get their children to school, or continue working. More than two-thirds of the people who use the lots have some kind of income, she says.

The key to the success of these programs is the individual case management and social work, clarity of the rules on the lots, and confidence in safety, says Professor Painter. But the number of lots does not come close to meeting the demand for people already living in their vehicles. To scale up would require a tremendous investment in resources, he and others say.

Heidi Marston, chief program officer for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, says that when safe parking was first conceptualized, it was thought of as almost “cost neutral,” leveraging resources from other sources, like churches. The concept assumed that parking lots would be “sort of self-monitoring.”

But the authority, which began a safe parking pilot program in 2017 and now funds 12 lots in the county with 130 spaces, has discovered these lots come with a price tag – an average $35 per space per night. As it seeks to at least double its program with the help of nonprofits, security is a big expense. Then there’s the complexity of supplying social workers outside normal business hours.

In San Diego, Dr. Smith says Dreams for Change runs at a third of the cost of the program run by the city, which just opened a third lot.

“We believe in lean, mean, and efficient,” she says, explaining that they have found no need for security because their clients are “respectful” of each other. Instead, she spends that money on a staff of full-time social workers augmented by interns studying social work. Using a church parking lot with bathrooms also saves on portable toilets.

Whether it’s safe parking in San Diego or in LA County, however, the ultimate challenge is a shortage of affordable housing. In greater LA, more than 21,000 people found permanent housing last year. But the number of homeless people increased by 12%. Dr. Smith says that while it used to take three months to find housing for her clients, now it takes six months. While Dreams for Change may have had a success rate of 65%, now it’s 30% to 35%.

Anthony Flowers and his family of four found their answer far from LA – in Chicago. From September to November of last year, they overnighted at the VA lot in their two cars. His wife, April, made a bed for the family in their Chevy Equinox SUV. She and her two young daughters washed up with bottles of water and a cup in the wheelchair accessible portable toilet. Her husband, a Navy vet on disability, had income – but not enough for LA-style rent.

“Living in your car is hard. It really plays with your mind. We have money, but we can’t afford rent,” recalls April in a phone interview. Through the VA, the family eventually got vouchers for an apartment, and were able to save up to buy an abandoned house in Chicago. The grand total for that purchase: $2,000. The family is now working on fixing it up.

“As my husband said, ‘If we can live in safe parking, we can live in a house without hot water, a stove, and stuff like that.’”

She thinks abandoned houses could be an answer for other people living in their vehicles. “Look it up. Chicago. They have a lot of abandoned houses and are trying to fix them up. Dirt cheap.”

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Democracies try to boost public service

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The idea of promoting public service has lately been revived in at least four Western democracies facing political divisions and a rise in social distrust. Last month, for example, the French government launched a program of national service with the first group of 2,000 teenagers being trained for community work. This year, Canada ramped up its new “service corps” for young people. In Britain’s contest to choose a new prime minister, one candidate introduced the idea of compulsory service for every 16-year-old.

In the United States, meanwhile, two Democratic presidential hopefuls have proposed a service program for all young adults – beyond existing ones like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

For 15 years, volunteering has declined in the U.S., one reason Congress set up an 11-member panel in 2017 called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. While the panel will make its recommendations next year, it has already found “an overwhelming desire” among Americans to serve others.

Giving to others through volunteering serves many purposes, especially if it is truly voluntary rather than compulsory. It can build trust across the diverse people of a nation or increase unity around shared values. Most of all, it reflects a commitment to unconditional affection toward others.

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Democracies try to boost public service

What a dive! On June 15 a group of 633 scuba divers in Florida cleaned up more than 1,500 pounds of waste off Deerfield Beach. It was the largest underwater cleanup on record. It was also perhaps the largest single act of volunteering under the seas.

That last point is worth noting as the idea of promoting public service has lately been revived in at least four Western democracies facing political divisions and a rise in social distrust.

Last month, for example, the French government launched a program of national service with the first group of 2,000 teenagers being trained for community work. This year, Canada ramped up its new “service corps” for young people. In Britain’s contest to choose a new prime minister, one candidate introduced the idea of compulsory service for every 16-year-old.

In the United States, meanwhile, two Democratic presidential hopefuls have proposed a service program for all young adults – beyond existing ones like Peace Corps and AmeriCorps.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, mentioned the idea in April while former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland was more concrete in laying out a program for a “National Service and Climate Corps.” In addition, a group of Democrats in Congress proposed a bill last month that would offer student loan relief in exchange for public service.

For 15 years, volunteering has declined in the U.S., one reason Congress set up an 11-member panel in 2017 called the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. While the panel will make its recommendations next year, it has already found “an overwhelming desire” among Americans to serve others.

One of the commission’s possible goals is to create a universal expectation of service among a majority of Americans. Or as another presidential candidate, Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, put it in a speech, national service should become so common that employers will ask young people applying for a job, “Where did you do your year of service?”

Giving to others through volunteering serves many purposes, especially if it is truly voluntary rather than compulsory. It can build trust across the diverse people of a nation or increase unity around shared values. Most of all, it reflects a commitment to unconditional affection toward others. That’s true even when picking up trash on the bottom of the ocean.

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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.

Reaching agreement – without antipathy

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A former lawyer who has seen many key government decisions being discussed and, at times, disputed explores the idea that we are all capable of facing down willfulness and animosity, which hamper progress, by listening for God’s guidance.

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Reaching agreement – without antipathy

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The meeting hadn’t gone as planned. The expectation had been that a long-awaited decision would finally be made. It was not. And the atmosphere of the meeting had become increasingly uncomfortable.

When I woke up the following morning, I found myself thinking, “That was a difficult meeting.” Then part of a verse from a poem I love came to thought, and I saw things in a much more uplifting way. It’s by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, and it says, “Wait, and love more for every hate, and fear/ No ill ...” (“Poems,” p. 4).

I thought, “That’s just fine. If a further period of time is needed to work out a solution, I can use that additional time to ‘love more.’”

As I lay in bed I also thought about what the “ills” might be in the context of the meeting. I realized that these might include fear, doubt, uncertainty as to what the right next steps might be, unhappiness, frustration, and so on. Then, and just as clearly as I had seen that I could “love more,” I saw that one doesn’t need to fear these ills, because God’s love is more powerful. In the light of the allness and everywhereness of God, who is good, fear and doubt have no legitimate power.

With this I began my day uplifted and joyful.

When major decisions are required, they can evoke strong feelings – antipathy and, at times, even hatred. However, Christian Science has helped me understand that in any given situation we do have the ability to face down a personal, willful sense of what needs to be done, because there is a divine intelligence governing us all.

This was brought out powerfully for me last year. I was at home doing some routine housework and reflecting on a particularly happy time in my life, when, with no effort on my part and like a warm summer breeze wafting across a beach or into a room, my thinking was transformed. It’s not at all easy to put into words, but I felt that I was being guided and led by an infinite divine intelligence that pervades all space. From my study and practice of Christian Science I knew that this tangibly present intelligence was the divine Mind, a synonym for God.

The thoughts that came to me were calm, loving, and gentle. I felt a wonderful sense of being “myself” – my true spiritual self – and was deeply at peace. This assurance of my spiritual identity as a child of God was accompanied by a sense of real dominion and a deep, deep tenderness.

This gentle, intelligent outlook remained with me all day, even when I was spoken to harshly later in the day: I just couldn’t react in kind.

The follow-up to the uncomfortable and inconclusive meeting was markedly different, with a great degree of respect, even caring, being shown by all participants. It was a significant shift.

There’s a well-known song included in the “Christian Science Hymnal: Hymns 430-603” that speaks to this peace and guidance. The first verse says:

Let there be peace on earth,
   and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth,
   the peace that was meant to be.
With God our creator, we are family.
Let us walk with each other
   in perfect harmony.
(Jill Jackson, alt., No. 521)

Even at times when we may least be expecting it, God’s gentle but clear guidance is always with us to tenderly lead us forward in ways we can feel, understand, and tangibly experience.

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Viewfinder

Teen, idol

Toby Melville/Reuters
In a stunning upset, 15-year-old Cori Guaff beat Venus Williams in the first round on Wimbledon’s opening day. Guaff is the youngest player to qualify for the main draw in the professional era. Williams has won the Wimbledon singles title five times, including twice before Guaff was born. "I told her thank you for everything. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her," Guaff told reporters after the match.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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