2019
July
25
Thursday

Welcome to your Daily. Today we explore the role of fear in economics, perceptions of socialism, the prospect of new freedom for Saudi women, the enduring burden of student debt, and the value of community.

But first: Sometimes, good news comes with wings.

This week, the U.S. National Park Service announced that the 1,000th California condor chick has been hatched in the wild. North America’s largest bird was once its most endangered – with as few as 22 remaining in the wild. In 1987, a breeding program was launched to save the condors, which have a wingspan of 9 ½ feet and can live as long as 70 years.

That is just the latest in positive news for several endangered and threatened species, with scientists reporting evidence that antipollution and other measures appear to be paying off. Giant loggerhead turtles are nesting in record numbers along the Southeast coast, with new highs reported in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Whale sightings in New York are up from 5 in 2011 to 272 so far this year, and Pennsylvania now has so many bald eagles, wildlife officials say they can’t keep count and need the public’s help.

The baby bird likely hatched in May, and field researchers went to great lengths to verify its existence – rappelling off a nearby cliff to snap a shot of the nest in a cave. (A 1,001st chick also was hatched the same month in captivity near the north rim of the Grand Canyon.)

“When we confirmed it … it was just this feeling of overwhelming joy,” Janice Stroud-Settles, a wildlife biologist at Zion National Park in Utah, told The Guardian.

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1. Trump has nothing to fear but fear itself. And that’s the problem.

Fear can be a powerful driver of behavior, especially when it comes to the economy. Can a new budget deal, a rate cut, and no escalation in the China trade war keep a downturn at bay?

Yvonne

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This week, President Donald Trump compromised on his vow to cut federal spending, agreeing to a sweeping two-year budget deal that prevents automatic spending cuts, raises the debt limit, and pushes off the possibility of a government default until after the election. The U.S. House passed the bill today, despite fierce opposition from fiscal conservatives who pointed out the bill would add substantially to the national debt.

The budget deal is an attempt to eliminate some of the uncertainties contributing to fears of an imminent recession. The economy has been the president’s strong point throughout his term, and the White House is intent on keeping it that way through the 2020 election.

Nevertheless, fears of recession are growing, especially in the business community. The big question is whether that uncertainty will spread to consumers, who continue to buoy the economy with robust spending. 

The remaining big uncertainty – at least in terms of the administration’s economic policy – is trade, especially the trade war with China. And here, trade experts say, the answers are not so easy.

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Trump has nothing to fear but fear itself. And that’s the problem.

Imagine you’re president, facing reelection in a little over a year. Your approval numbers have never topped 50% and the opposition is all fired up. You have one, well, trump card.

The economy.

It’s not just that it’s now the longest expansion in U.S. history or that unemployment is at 50-year lows. The economy has also done measurably better under President Donald Trump than it did under his predecessor, Barack Obama. And a majority of voters are giving him credit for that.

But if Mr. Trump hopes to keep the expansion going – at least through Election Day – he is going to have to address the uncertainty and recession fears that seem to be growing. Fighting uncertainty will be especially hard for Mr. Trump, since a good chunk of it stems from his own policies. 

“We’ve definitely seen greater uncertainty building in the economy,” says Joe Song, senior U.S. economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “Uncertainty is just bad for business. People get defensive when they don’t know what to expect down the road. So that’s going to weigh on growth the second half of this year.”

Tomorrow, the government will release its first estimate of the past quarter, which economists expect will be a little over 2%. That’s not terrible, but it’s more Obama-level growth than the average 2.9% that Mr. Trump has enjoyed so far in his presidency.  

And economists expect growth to slow further in the coming months, which puts the administration in a dilemma. Should it continue pushing its signature economic goals with high-risk tactics that could temporarily slow growth further or even tip the economy into recession? Or should it compromise in hopes of keeping the economy stable?

This week, Mr. Trump compromised on his vow to cut federal spending, agreeing to a sweeping two-year budget deal that prevents automatic spending cuts, raises the debt limit, and pushes off the possibility of a government default until after the election. The U.S. House passed the bill today, despite fierce opposition from fiscal conservatives who pointed out the bill would add substantially to the national debt.

“House Republicans should support the TWO YEAR BUDGET AGREEMENT which greatly helps our Military and our Vets. I am totally with you!” the president tweeted Thursday morning.

By eliminating the possibility of a government default in September, Mr. Trump is removing one big uncertainty for the stock market and the business community. Next week, the Federal Reserve is expected to remove another source of uncertainty. Fed watchers anticipate it will cut interest rates in a preemptive strike against an economic slowdown. Six months ago, economists worried that the Fed would raise rates, which tends to slow growth. 

The economy is clearly the president’s strong point. This week’s Reuters/Ipsos poll is typical. A majority of Americans disapprove of him: 56% to 41%. At the same time, a slight majority (53%) approve of his handling of the economy and employment and jobs. Those were the only issues in which Mr. Trump enjoyed a majority.

Nevertheless, fears of recession are growing, especially in the business community. Just under half of U.S. chief financial officers believe a recession will begin within a year, according to the latest Duke University global survey of CFOs. Morgan Stanley sees a 1 in 5 chance of recession. The New York Federal Reserve Bank puts it at 1 in 3, based on a model focused on those rare periods when long-term interest rates are lower than short-term rates. 

That “yield curve inversion” has now been in place for three months, a condition that since the 1960s has reliably foretold the coming of a recession within the next 18 months. The last time the bank’s model flashed so ominously was 2007, months before the beginning of the Great Recession. 

The big question is whether that uncertainty will spread to consumers, who continue to buoy the economy with robust spending. 

“We won’t see that until we start to see a real slowdown in hiring,” says Mary Lovely, an economist and trade expert at Syracuse University in New York.

Hiring did slow in May, but it rebounded smartly in June, according to federal data.

The remaining big uncertainty – at least in terms of the administration’s economic policy – is trade, especially the trade war with China. And here, the answers are not so easy, trade experts say. 

“Trump’s choice in the end is going to be a weak agreement [with China] or continue the war,” says William Reinsch, a senior adviser and trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “And those are both politically complicated for him. If he makes a weak agreement, the Democrats will say ‘weak agreement, poor negotiator, soft on China.’ ... If he continues the war, they’ll say: ‘a failed policy, enormous collateral damage that’s produced nothing.’”

Although Mr. Trump has more economic leverage over China than vice versa, it’s China’s political leverage over Trump that may ultimately lead to a continuation of a low-level trade war rather than an escalation in tariffs, which the president has repeatedly threatened. 

“This is part of their dilemma,” says Mr. Reinsch. An escalation in the trade war would mean applying tariffs to consumer items, such as smartphones and laptop computers, and trigger more retaliation from the Chinese. That could cause not only a recession, but also a big escalation in consumer electronics prices in the United States. 

“If the price of your phone goes up $250, you may pay attention,” he adds. 

One interim step that could be made, trade experts suggest, is that U.S. tech companies could be allowed to resume sales to Chinese telecom giant Huawei in exchange for China resuming purchases of U.S. farm goods. That would placate Chinese fears of being shut out from U.S. technology and lessen the financial losses of U.S. farmers, a big Trump constituency.

Exemptions allowing U.S. companies to sell to Huawei should be decided in a few weeks, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Bloomberg earlier this week. 

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. to reflect the passage of the budget deal by the House of Representatives.

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A deeper look

2. In this Pennsylvania swing county, ‘socialism’ is a hot topic

People had strong opinions about socialism when our reporter went to Pennsylvania to ask them what they thought. But the more they talked, the more common ground he found.

Yvonne
Charles Krupa/AP
Jon Torsch wears a T-shirt promoting democratic socialism during a gathering of the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America at City Hall in Portland, Maine, July 16, 2018. On the ground in dozens of states, there is new evidence that democratic socialism is taking hold as a force in Democratic politics.

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The term “socialism” can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people – from a social safety net or universal access to health care to the chaos in present-day Venezuela.

Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have turned warnings about socialism into a persistent refrain this summer. By calling Democrats “communists,” they’re counting on being able to tap into the deep suspicion of socialism harbored by many Americans.

Americans have actually been warming more to the concept, with 4 out of 10 now embracing some form of socialism, according a Gallup poll in May. Not surprisingly, the shift has been deeply partisan.

Yet moving beyond the label reveals a surprising amount of common ground. For example, many supporters of President Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders agree that unrestrained global capitalism, dominated by large corporations, has hurt American workers.

“Older concerns about socialism that have long held sway still hold today,” says Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. But “as you start to scratch a little bit deeper ... you can actually see considerable willingness on the part of folks to want an expansion of certain functions in government.” 

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In this Pennsylvania swing county, ‘socialism’ is a hot topic

Sitting over breakfast at the Nazareth Diner, a 24-hour haunt just down the street from the old white silos of the landmark Nazareth concrete plant, Charles Yellak and his old friend Dave Arbey are talking about socialism – and the Democrats who support it.

“It’s a bad idea,” says Mr. Yellak, a Vietnam veteran and retired utility worker who spent decades with PPL Electric, the local power company. “It’s not right for America.”

“To a person in their 20s, I’m sure it sounds great,” adds Mr. Arbey, a former electrical supervisor at a Bell & Howell plant producing mailing and labeling machines. “But you go out and work for a living, and you’ll find out socialism’s not so great, giving all your money away to somebody that’s going to stay home.”

Just 15 minutes away, at the Terra Cafe, which features the edgy work of local artists in downtown Easton, Elizabeth Pecota calls herself “a firm believer.”

“You’re looking at a pretty full-blown socialist,” the retired middle school history teacher says. “There just needs to be a more equal distribution among the people.”

“It’s the top 1 or 2% of big businesses that’s getting all the wealth,” agrees her friend Gypsy Lysgaard, sipping a café latte. “The middle class isn’t really middle class anymore.”

Ms. Pecota acknowledges that, as recently as 10 years ago, socialism “was absolutely a dirty word, and never really taken seriously as an option.” Yet today the term, and how each party defines it, is becoming a central question of the 2020 election. And as the two conversations show, it can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people – from a social safety net or universal access to health care to the chaos in present-day Venezuela.

Both President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have turned warnings about socialism into a persistent refrain this summer. By calling progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez communists, political observers say, they’re counting on being able to tap into the deep suspicion of socialism harbored by many Americans like those in the diner.

As a whole, though, Americans have been warming more to the concept, with 4 out of 10 now embracing some form of socialism, according a Gallup poll in May.

Not surprisingly, the shift has been deeply partisan. Since 2010, a majority of Democrats have begun to view socialism in a positive light, including 57% in a 2018 Gallup poll, and 65% in a Pew Research survey in June, which included Democratic-leaning independents. At the same time, fewer Democrats now say they have a positive view of capitalism, according to Gallup, a minority of 47%, down from 56% of those polled in 2016.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A supporter of President Donald Trump waves to passing drivers during a roadside sign-waving rally in Clearwater, Florida, May 15, 2019.

By contrast, an overwhelming majority of Republicans, some 84%, express negative views about socialism, according to Pew and other surveys, while nearly 8 in 10 express positive views about capitalism.

A microcosm of the U.S.

It’s a divide that matters a lot here in Northampton County, known locally as “NorCo,” and encompassing much of the Lehigh Valley, once one of the mightiest industrial regions in the world. Nestled halfway between the metropolitan regions of Philadelphia and New York City, NorCo is a kind of microcosm of the nation, with artsy urban areas, boom suburbs, and conservative rural swaths. The town of Easton, the county seat, nearly mirrors the country’s demographics as a whole. 

It was one of three “pivot counties” in Pennsylvania that voted twice for Barack Obama and then switched in 2016 to Mr. Trump, who won Pennsylvania by less than 1%. Many political observers consider it one of the most important bellwether regions in the country – and a place where impressions of the Democratic Party’s growing ranks of democratic socialists might play a key role in 2020.

“Trying to cast a lot of progressive policies as socialist or even communist, I think, is still a significant strategic approach on the part of Republicans right now, because in places like this, there’s still reticence and concern about government overreach and the government becoming too intrusive,” says Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown and director of its Institute of Public Opinion. “Those older concerns about socialism that have long held sway still hold today in a place like this.” 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at George Washington University in Washington, June 12, 2019, on democratic socialism, the economic philosophy that has guided his political career.

Yet as a resident of Nazareth himself and a longtime observer of Pennsylvania politics, Professor Borick says that despite the deep divides on the surface, views of socialism here are in fact “a little bit more nuanced, depending on how you broadly define the policies you’re talking about.” 

“As you start to scratch a little bit deeper ... you can actually see considerable willingness on the part of folks to want an expansion of certain functions in government,” he continues. 

Common ground

Mr. Arbey brings up the Democratic debates back in June, and many of the men at the diner express incredulity at the “way out there” socialist idea of Democratic candidate Andrew Yang, the businessman and entrepreneur who’s proposed a “universal basic income” of $1,000 a month for every American age 18 or older. Of course, it’s an idea that has also been proposed by conservative libertarians such as sociologist Charles Murray and even one of the foundational economic thinkers on the right, Friedrich Hayek. 

Yet a lot of the men admit that there’s something “socialistic” about programs such as Medicare, which they support. “I’m not against people buying in,” says Mr. Yellak. “I mean, you need insurance, and people that don’t have insurance, that’s going to sound really good to them.”

“Even your Social Security is a socialist kind of plan,” he adds. “Yeah, I don’t think you’re ever going to have a total government without some kind of social program – and I’m not against helping people that need it.”

Ms. Lysgaard, on the other hand, stresses that there is an important place for competition in the economy. “Seeing what has been happening, global capitalism disturbs me,” says Ms. Lysgaard, a Unitarian Universalist who practices Buddhism. “But competition is good; competition between people in the workplace, between businesses and products to an extent – and having a good work ethic, it’s so important.”

Her friend Ms. Pecota agrees: “But there needs to be [less] focus on big business and corporations and more on smaller companies and local businesses.”

Indeed, this is one area where the views of many supporters of Mr. Trump and those of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders often overlap. Unrestrained global capitalism, dominated by large corporations, has hurt American workers, both sides agree. And the government needs to intervene to promote local economies and businesses, and protect the American worker. 

Pollsters note that while many Americans express skepticism toward the general idea of socialism, their opinions about related policies are more complex. 

“We may be in a period of flux with how these economic systems are viewed,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch, New Jersey, in a statement about its survey in May. “Socialism still carries a stigma, but many Americans feel they are being left behind by the current capitalist system. Policies that have traditionally been seen as socialist may be getting more popular even if the term itself is not.” 

Democrats on a roll?

Since 2016, Democrats have been thrashing the GOP in local and statewide races here. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey both carried Northampton County by double-digit margins last year, and Susan Wild, a Democrat, won an open House seat covering the county, easily beating a moderate Republican.

But most of the men at Nazareth Diner say they’ll likely vote for Mr. Trump next November. And despite Democratic successes in the 2018 midterms, both parties are eyeing suburban moderates and independents who are wary about the Democrats’ drift toward socialism. Nearly 75% of these voters said they would be very uncomfortable with a candidate embracing the label socialist, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll this year. 

Dennis Ciszeski, a left-leaning independent from Westampton, New Jersey, just across the Philadelphia border, says he thinks perspectives of socialism are changing, even among members of his generation. 

“We grew up in the ’80s,” says Mr. Ciszeski, a writer for an advertising firm. “When ‘socialism’ was being bandied about as un-American, along with the Red Scare and all that kind of stuff – those old perceptions from the ’50s.” 

He’s passing through Easton on the way home from vacation with his wife, Kristin Ciszeski, a project manager for a medical education company, and their 3-year-old son, Riley. “But it’s already in the American system,” Ms. Ciszeski says. “People don’t think about how many things, how many programs we already have that really are based around the concept of socialism.”  

But they also talk about the great convenience of businesses like Amazon and the wide-ranging virtues of competition and market-driven capitalism. 

“When we had our son, we were able to have a subscription service for when we needed diapers,” Mr. Ciszeski says. “They could be ordered and delivered to us – and there are jobs involved with that system.”

Both see a different definition of socialism emerging. Gallup findings bear this out: Nearly 1 in 4 Americans now associates the concept with social equality, with only 17% associating it with the classic definition of government control over the means of production.

“They’re rebranding right now, and a lot of people are saying that they’re ‘democratic socialists,’” says Mr. Ciszeski. “They don’t mean that they’re for a system that is totally controlled by the government, which then controls production, and then disperses everything to everybody else.”

He sees a way where both economic models “can coexist with each other,” he says. “You can have both – and then have a discourse on the ideas and the particular policies, and what to expand and what to hold the line without hating each other.”

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3. Saudi women eye new freedoms

What would freedom look like for women in Saudi Arabia? The conservative kingdom has not followed the same path as the West, but a variety of factors has been leading it to make changes.

Yvonne
Nariman El-Mofty/AP/File
Hessah al-Ajaji drives her car down busy Tahlia Street after midnight for the first time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 24, 2018.

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Fatema, a Saudi communications worker, says her country’s restrictions on women have hindered her career development. “For years, Saudi women have been at a permanent disadvantage by being tied down in a global economy,” she says.

Under the kingdom’s so-called male guardianship system, Saudi women have needed the approval of a male relative or spouse to obtain a passport, travel outside Saudi Arabia, or study abroad. But now, Saudi official sources say that lifting those restrictions is “imminent.” Such a move would follow the one last year that granted women the right to drive.

“If we can travel freely for work or study, we immediately become more employable to international organizations and companies,” says Fatema, who did not want to give her full name so as not to publicly criticize the current system.

In order to head off resistance among conservative segments of society, officials have been careful to package the reforms as part of an economic agenda key to Saudis’ prosperity.

“The argument is always one of economic necessity, but even those top-down efforts ... still have to go through society,” says Firas Maksad, executive director of the Arabia Foundation.

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Saudi women eye new freedoms

Currently, Saudi women still require the approval of a male relative or spouse to obtain a passport, travel outside Saudi Arabia, or even study abroad. It’s a patriarchal system controlling women’s lives that has left the kingdom out of step with the rest of the world for decades.

But the country is set to end those travel restrictions. Saudi newspaper Okaz recently announced that the government has formed a committee to review “ending guardianship of a minor at the age of 18,” discontinuing a system that has treated adult women functionally and legally as minors for their entire lives.

For some citizens, this is an unwelcome step that would dismantle the core part of the so-called male guardianship system, under which Saudi women also needed the permission of a male relative or spouse to work or to access basic services in years past. But for others, this is a key development that can open up opportunities for women.

“If we can travel freely for work or study, we immediately become more employable to international organizations and companies,” says Fatema, a Saudi communications worker who did not want to give her full name so as not to publicly criticize the current system, which she says has hindered her career development. “For years, Saudi women have been at a permanent disadvantage by being tied down in a global economy.”

But the import of the change goes far beyond economics, observers say.

“Women who face domestic abuse and violence are particularly at risk because they are prohibited from fleeing without approval,” says Adam Coogle, a Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Removing the travel restrictions would deal a significant blow to the male guardianship system and give women greater control over their lives.”

This wouldn’t be the first time in recent years the country has changed its policies regarding women. In 2017, King Salman bin Abdulaziz issued an edict ending the legal requirement of a male guardian’s approval for women to access government services, be employed, travel within Saudi Arabia, or be admitted to a hospital. Adherence to the edict, however, has been spotty.

In another benchmark, in June 2018 Saudi women were granted the right to drive, allowing their free movement within their own country.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press/AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun (center) stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland (right) as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12, 2019. The Saudi teen fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would accept her as a refugee.

Now, Saudi official sources have confirmed that the move to end the male guardianship of women over age 18 is “imminent,” and they say authorities are fine-tuning regulations to “put Saudi Arabia on track to become a modern economy and a society where all its citizens can achieve their aspirations.”

In the opaque kingdom, where public opinion polling is scarce and dissent is muffled, authorities often use such media leaks to gauge the reaction of citizens on social media and to tailor the packaging and implementation of their decisions. But with the country unwilling to force conservative families and even companies to abide by the recently loosened restrictions, questions remain about whether a new change will lead to social acceptance of Saudi women’s growing mobility and rights.

For their part, Saudi women, many of whom have taken to Twitter and Facebook to praise the move, are calling the proposed end of travel restrictions the “completion” of a march to women’s empowerment in the ultraconservative kingdom.

“Women driving is the greatest example, and before that [access to] work and women’s empowerment,” Souad al-Shammary, a Jeddah-based women’s rights activist and commentator, wrote in a tweet on the impending decision. “We will remember these days. ... The wheels of time will not turn back.”

Why now?

The move comes as powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, beleaguered abroad due to the kingdom’s human rights abuses, seeks to counter the bad PR that has resulted from high-profile cases in which Saudi women have fled their families while abroad and applied for asylum.

Insiders say that the carefully orchestrated move aims to rehab an image stained by the Yemen war and the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi Consulate. The move also aims to show, as one insider says, that “women’s rights are a shared value between Saudi and the U.S.” and “we are not so different as the media says.”

But this comes at a time when Americans’ support of Saudi Arabia is at its lowest levels in decades, despite the current White House’s enthusiasm for Saudi rulers.

About two-thirds of Americans, 67%, have a mostly unfavorable or very unfavorable view of Saudi Arabia, according to a February Gallup poll; a poll released this month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed that 50% of Americans believe the U.S.-Saudi relationship does more to weaken U.S. national security than to strengthen it.

“The social liberalization and transformation that is underway should have generally scored points for the government in the West and won it favor, but that clearly hasn’t happened,” says Firas Maksad, executive director of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank familiar with the decision-making process in Riyadh.

The move can also be seen as a gesture to the crown prince’s base: young Saudis. He has carefully courted those under the age of 30 – who make up 60% of the population – by promising social and economic reforms, attracting tech companies, and bringing Western entertainment to the kingdom.

Ending male guardianship over women plays well with much of this segment, Saudi observers say.

An economic agenda

To be sure, the move has economic implications.

In order to head off resistance among conservative segments of society that claim the West is trying to impose social change on the socially conservative Muslim kingdom, officials in Riyadh have been careful to package the wide-ranging social reforms as part of an economic agenda key to Saudis’ prosperity.

They link the reforms to the crown prince’s Vision 2030, a road map that looks to increase the percentage of women in the workforce to 30% and to grow the country’s private sector.

Currently, women make up 16.7% of the Saudi workforce, according to the World Bank, one of the lowest rates in the world. Saudi Arabia ranked 145th out of 149 nations in women’s economic participation and opportunity in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Gender Gap Index.

But with unemployment hovering around 12.5% and a rising number of Saudis entering the workforce at a time when the government is limiting hiring to address a $35 billion deficit, Riyadh is bracing households for both spouses to become breadwinners.

Still, it is believed that more women’s economic activity is key to weaning the kingdom off its oil-dependent economy – and the travel restrictions have been putting Saudi women at a disadvantage in the global economy.

“The argument is always one of economic necessity, but even those top-down efforts, which have been very clear and systematic coming from the king and encouraged by the crown prince, still have to go through society,” says Mr. Maksad of the Arabia Foundation.

Reception in the kingdom

The real response in Saudi society to such a dramatic change has been difficult to gauge.

Clerics known for independent streaks and strong followings within Saudi Arabia and on social media, such as Salman al-Odeh, have been imprisoned over the past two years and threatened with execution.

Other clerics either have been tight-lipped or have become cheerleaders for the crown prince’s policies, often contradicting their previous edicts and stances to appear on board with the regime’s new vision.

On social media the reaction has been mixed, with many Saudis insisting that the guardianship system “protects our societies,” “protects our sisters and daughters,” and is “wisdom from God.”

Yet many young Saudis, particularly women, have rejoiced over the potential reform as a “day to remember” and say that it, along with the discontinued driving ban, is the cornerstone to “women’s empowerment.”

Concerns and caveats

But even as the country moves toward upending a system that rights watch groups call “institutionalized discrimination,” skepticism remains about whether a change in the legal books will actually trickle down to life at home.

Despite revisions in 2017 to several laws that had required male guardianship approval for services and employment, violators have not been prosecuted. Hotels, hospitals, employers, and even government agencies still request male guardianship approval – often, they say, out of concern of a backlash from conservative families and communities.

“Despite all the Saudi PR campaigns and rhetoric around women’s rights reforms, the basics of the Saudi male guardianship system remain in place,” says Mr. Coogle at Human Rights Watch.

He adds, “The Saudi government actively enforces restrictions on Saudi women’s travel abroad and does not prevent discrimination by private sector firms such as employers or heath care providers.”

Critics warn that only wealthy and liberal Saudis may be able to take advantage of a new system, while more conservative families would find ways to prevent their female members from obtaining a passport or traveling abroad.

Although all agree that amending travel restrictions would deal a “significant blow” to the male guardianship system, with the government jailing women’s rights activists, questions remain about how far the regime will actually go.

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4. The new college senior: Retirees still paying student loans

How far into people’s lives should student debt reach? As the amount owed by older Americans climbs, questions are rising about lingering effects on individual pocketbooks and the overall economy.

Yvonne

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Gina Armer had successfully funded two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree, so when she decided to start an evening doctoral program, she felt confident. 

“I was thinking a PhD is my key to the world … [and that] when I graduated, paying back my student loans would be a piece of cake. I was five years into that degree before I discovered that not all PhDs are equal,” she says. 

Among debates heating up around college costs, the stories of older Americans – those trying to jump-start careers, or pay for their kids’ degrees – don’t usually take center stage. But they raise important questions about what it means for so much student debt to last longer into the arc of people’s experience. How is it affecting the economy and the number of years people feel impelled to work? What kinds of road maps and guardrails might be needed to help them get to a reasonable exit point?

“I beat myself up a lot, thinking, why did I take out those loans?” says Dr. Armer. “But it seemed like a logical thing at the time.” 

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The new college senior: Retirees still paying student loans

After turning 65 last Christmas, C. Lynn Hawkins started collecting Social Security. She uses about half her monthly check to rent a small Chicago apartment for seniors.

She’s gotten used to calls from loan servicers for an educational debt she hasn’t been able to pay, but lately, letters from the government have come too, telling her that tax refunds and part of her Social Security check will be withheld.

“I was trying to better myself,” Mrs. Hawkins says about her decision in 2012 to enroll in a certified medical assistant program at a for-profit school advertised locally and on TV.

The school promised students it would lead them to a job. But when she graduated in 2014, “it did not happen,” she says. 

Instead, she was shocked to find out that within the paperwork, she had inadvertently agreed to a $30,000 loan. She found a job in public transportation on her own, but it didn’t pay enough to enable her to make sufficient payments.

“I’m not trying to get out of the student loan situation, but they need to make it affordable. … I’m 65,” she says with an exasperated sigh. “This is insane to me.”

Americans over 50 now carry the fastest-growing balance of student loan debt. They number 8.4 million and account for about 20%, or $290 billion, of total student debt – a fivefold increase since 2004, the AARP Public Policy Institute reports

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax
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Jacob Turcotte and Hannah Harn/Staff

Call them the other seniors. Not the 20-somethings tossing their graduation caps into the air, but people who in theory should be laser focused on saving for retirement. Instead they have been trying to jump-start careers during a recession, or taking out gobs of money for their kids’ degrees, or still trying to pay off that loan from the 1980s that got out of control because plans went sideways.

Among debates heating up around college costs, the stories of older Americans don’t usually take center stage. But they raise important questions about what it means for so much student debt to last longer into the arc of people’s experience.

How is it affecting the economy and the number of years people feel impelled to work? How have family dynamics adjusted? As more people enter the wide ramps of access to college and financial aid, what kinds of road maps and guardrails might be needed to help them get to a reasonable exit point?

“Our society has perpetuated this idea, and there’s truth to it, that getting education is the key to social and economic mobility … [but] the stakes are higher than they are for almost any other type of debt,” says Persis Yu, director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. Unlike those other debts, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.

“There is a point at which I think a society should just be more compassionate,” Ms. Yu says. “That’s somewhat the purpose of having Social Security, to ensure this safety in retirement, and student loan debt is threatening that for a lot of folks.”

Many people earn sufficient incomes to pay back loans without hardship. But default rates are higher as borrowers get older, with about 37% of those over 65 defaulting, and 5% of them – like Mrs. Hawkins – subject to the federal government taking “offsets” from Social Security or other sources, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2016.

The U.S. Department of Education has since told the school that Mrs. Hawkins attended that it cannot participate in the federal student aid system, partly because of misstatements it made about job placement rates. About 45% of borrowers who default attended for-profit colleges. Some borrowers are suing the department for its backlog of loan fraud claims. But the problem has been cyclical for decades. And that’s just one factor contributing to older Americans defaulting.

Second-guessing decisions

The first time Gina Armer earned a bachelor’s degree – in 1978 – she paid back her $10,000 loan in 10 years.

When she worked for Boeing, the company paid for her master’s degree. And after a voluntary layoff in the 1990s, she earned another bachelor’s to teach business to high schoolers. Soon after, she moved from Washington state to Idaho, where she taught at a community college and started an evening doctoral program in 2002. 

At the time, she says, “I was thinking a PhD is my key to the world … [and that] when I graduated, paying back my student loans would be a piece of cake. I was five years into that degree before I discovered that not all PhDs are equal.”

It turned out that hers wasn’t the right kind for getting a university job that would pay her the $100,000 a year she had anticipated.

The recession struck before she finished in 2009. She delayed her payments for three years through forbearance, which caused her balance to grow to about $106,000. Her job paid $52,000 when she moved back to Washington. 

Dr. Armer’s $400 monthly payments would have lasted until she was 85. But last year she was able to qualify for a loan-forgiveness plan because she teaches at a nonprofit university.  

Now she’s expected to make $500 payments per month for 10 years and have the rest forgiven.

Such options don’t usually come up in conversations with colleagues, she says. “I think there’s a lot of shame, embarrassment about student loan debt for people that are as old as I am.” 

Dr. Armer’s only dependent is her dog, but she’d love to be able to pay for a house or even just a car to replace her 2003 Jeep Liberty. She knows retirement is years away.

“It’s just such a trap,” she says. “I beat myself up a lot, thinking, why did I take out those loans? But it seemed like a logical thing at the time.” 

Complicated rules 

Part of the problem is a “confusing system,” the Institute for College Access & Success says in a recent report.

“Struggling borrowers often find themselves granted consecutive forbearances by their servicer,” even if they would do better in other plans, such as income-driven repayment that caps payments at a portion of salary each month, it notes. It recommends simplifying the array of such choices and helping servicers and borrowers understand them better.

Income-driven repayment is not available to people in default, however.

Senior citizens in default can have Social Security garnished – all but $750 of it each month. Despite the rise in the cost of living, that protected amount hasn’t been increased since 1996, Ms. Yu says.

These offsets pose a disproportionate hardship to people of color: 32% of whites, 52% of Latinos, and 45% of African Americans rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. 

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced a bill with some fellow Democrats in May that would prohibit Social Security garnishment.

One area of progress, Ms. Yu says: The Education Department has streamlined what had been an onerous process for people who qualify for disability discharges of their loans.

Parent-child dynamic

The idea of canceling student loan debt, proposed by some Democratic presidential candidates, wasn’t the go-to solution among older Americans in focus groups with Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab researcher Julie Miller last year.

A few had the attitude of “What do I care. ... What are you, the government, going to take from me when I die with student loans?” she says of the study, which was sponsored by TIAA. Others told her they would feel proud when they’d finally paid off their debt, but they weren’t sure it was worth it.

For one segment of this age group, the student debt comes from financing education for their children or other relatives.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to federal Direct PLUS Loans for parents: They can borrow up to the full cost of the student’s attendance, without stringent assessment of their ability to pay the loans back. 

“Often the choice of college becomes an emotional decision, but sometimes that comes at the expense of [parents’] own long-term financial security,” says Lori Trawinski, director of banking and finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Another common way older adults help out is by co-signing a loan. One out of four people who co-signed ended up having to make payments because the borrower failed to do so, the AARP institute’s survey found.

Co-signers can request to be removed from most loans after a few years if the borrower has been making payments. But 71% of co-signers surveyed weren’t aware of this option.

Paying loans for their adult children had “changed the parent-child dynamic” for some parents, especially if the young adult was living at home after college without a job, says Ms. Miller, the researcher. They wondered if it had been wise to sacrifice their own retirement security.

The goal of highlighting these struggles is not to discourage people from taking on reasonable debt to obtain worthwhile education, but the effects of the student debt among baby boomers and millennials “can really ripple across generations,” Ms. Miller says. “We probably have not even seen the beginnings of the real ramifications just yet.”

Thanks to the dozens of readers who responded to our reader callout for stories about student debt. We included some of their responses in this piece. This is one of several audience-generated articles.

SOURCE: Federal Reserve Bank of New York Consumer Credit Panel/Equifax
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Jacob Turcotte and Hannah Harn/Staff
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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Behind Germany’s village store revival

When local shops close, it’s not just a loss of convenience but also a loss of community. Some Germans are trying to reverse that by bringing back “dorfläden,” or village stores.

Yvonne
Isabelle de Pommereau
When retailers closed their doors one after the other in Farchant, Germany, Peter Böhmer took matters into his own hands and rallied villagers around resuscitating the local dorfladen.

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Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of dorfläden, or village stores, have vanished from Germany’s rural areas, driven out by discount retailers. But people like Peter Böhmer are reversing that trend. A few years ago, he reopened the dorfladen in his village of Farchant, and it has been going gangbusters ever since.

Today his bustling shop is a sturdy community anchor with 14 employees, serving an average of 300 customers daily. Their “going local” vision earned it the title of “Village Store of the Year” this past winter at the International Green Week food industry trade fair.

“Instead of selling bonds, you’re selling groceries and humanity to your fellow residents,” says Gunther Lühning, president of the nonprofit German Association of Village Stores. With sustainability having risen to the top of national agendas, Mr. Böhmer is playing his part, cutting transportation and pollution costs, boosting the local economy, and strengthening his community.

“Whoever thinks ahead buys locally”: The sign inside the dorfladen captures Mr. Böhmer’s philosophy. “There is incredible energy,” he says. “People are coming up with new ideas every day.”

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Behind Germany’s village store revival

It’s noon on Saturday in this remote village of 3,800 nestled in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. Life inside the dorfladen,
or village store, is in full swing.

Villagers gather to chat over a cup of coffee, grab their daily yogurt, or purchase local wurst. Peter Böhmer, the banker-turned-founder-and-manager of the five-year-old dorfladen, navigates between shelves of various staples and stacks of cheese before swinging over to a group of women seated by the window. He balances a tray of macchiatos served in porcelain cups.

Outside, a rainstorm is brewing. Inside the store – a 1,400-square-foot food co-op of sorts – life is good, like it used to be when Mr. Böhmer was growing up. At that time, Farchant still had at least two bakeries, two butchers, and four general stores. He could pop over anytime to get his gallon of milk.

But things changed in Germany. Discounters began pushing out dorfläden with their rock-bottom pricing and large selection. As people’s shopping habits turned digital, brick-and-mortar shops were left struggling, and village centers drained of their life. As retailers closed their doors one after the other in Farchant, Mr. Böhmer said he felt like a part of his soul also disintegrated.

A key moment came seven years ago when the village’s last grocer moved to a neighboring industrial park. Mr. Böhmer had known the family since childhood. The shift coincided with a time of turmoil for him, and it unleashed new energy.

Disillusioned with the financial world, Mr. Böhmer had quit his job at the local savings bank to become a jack-of-all-trades at an Alpine hikers’ hut nearby. Doing anything from milking cows to serving meals to hikers on a 5,250-foot mountain summit, he felt in harmony with his surroundings.

“I reconnected with life,” he says. “I had time to reflect upon my life.”

The idea of resuscitating a local store in his village crystallized during that time. More than just retailing, Mr. Böhmer envisioned rallying villagers around a shared effort to harness local talent and resources, and make Farchant a healthy community for the long haul.

It was a difficult journey. Fifteen discounters had settled within a 3-mile radius. How could a tiny general store survive? Ultimately, though, a market study showed not only that villagers wanted a grocery shop back, but also that they were eager to help make it happen. The village came together. Some 300 residents each bought a piece of the dorfladen for roughly €200 ($225), raising the €70,000 ($78,600) necessary for it to come alive. The Farchant dorfladen opened on Aug. 13, 2013.

Improved quality of life

Today Mr. Böhmer’s bustling dorfladen is a sturdy community anchor with 14 employees, serving an average of 300 customers daily. Their “going local” vision earned it the title of “Village Store of the Year” this past winter at the International Green Week in Berlin, the world’s largest food industry trade fair.

“Instead of selling bonds, you’re selling groceries and humanity to your fellow residents,” says Gunther Lühning, president of the German Association of Village Stores, a nonprofit group promoting the spread of community stores in the country. With sustainability having risen to the top of national agendas, Mr. Böhmer is playing his part, cutting transportation and pollution costs, boosting the local economy, and strengthening his community.

Although the dorfladen’s income has doubled, profits get reinvested in the store. “With their money, shareholders want to make sure the store survives,” says Mr. Böhmer.

While tens of thousands of village retailers have vanished from Germany’s rural areas since the 1970s, new ones are popping up every month. They come in a variety of forms – some offering postal services, others medical services – testifying to an increasing willingness on the part of ordinary people to take the initiative to improve their communities.

This pushback against big-box stores and the way of life they define taps into a surge of environmental awareness that has been sweeping Western Europe. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Farchant. Here, Mr. Böhmer’s dorfladen “is only the start, a tool to implement his vision for a future where people collaborate, driven by solidarity and concern for local products,” says Christina Hertel of the Technical University of Munich. Mr. Böhmer, she says, has turned villagers into “agents of change to build a community that tackles its own problems, instead of waiting for others to take care of them.”

Of the 300 village stores established in Germany since the 2000s, roughly 100 were launched within the last five years, in part thanks to visionaries like Mr. Böhmer, says Dr. Hertel. She says there is a “shift in values” among young Germans “who want to see their kids grow up in a well-functioning village.”

That appears to be true among young people in Farchant. “They, too, are beginning to understand that this ‘ever greater, bigger, faster’ way of life has reached its limits,” says Gabriele Möckl, a village retiree. “They’re coming back to the way things used to be and going local – buying local eggs, milk, cheese, and meat. A stake is securing the future of the next generation.”

“New ideas every day”

“Whoever thinks ahead buys locally”: The sign inside the dorfladen captures Mr. Böhmer’s philosophy. “There is incredible energy,” he says. “People are coming up with new ideas every day.”

Take the villager who raises her own cattle on a small patch of grass. Mr. Böhmer persuaded her to offer her beef to her fellow residents, making her one of four local farmers he relies on for milk products and meat. He says he chooses his suppliers carefully from within a 60-mile radius.

The beef he offers is quality meat, coming from cattle fed on local grass, not grain or hay. “I see every animal that gets slaughtered,” Mr. Böhmer says. Recently three local calves were butchered, yielding 860 pounds of meat. It was processed into small packages of 10 to 20 pounds each. An ad in the local paper let people know about it, and they could sign up for a cut of their choice. “We use the whole animal, not just fillets.”

At the meat counter, Sabine Strobl is giving customers tips on how to prepare and store lamb. As a certified butcher, she is part of an old German trade in high demand these days. She could work anywhere, maybe for more money, but Farchant is where she was born. “Here you deal with people,” says Ms. Strobl. “Unconsciously, you’re doing social work.”

“I work here for the cause, to keep the village alive.”

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The Monitor's View

Mueller’s best advice to Americans

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At one moment during his testimony on Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller seemed to dissolve all partisanship among House members when he spoke about one topic: interference by Russian agents in American democracy. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said.

He was not speaking only to Congress. After issuing his report about Russian meddling and alleged collusion by the Trump campaign, he said the multiple efforts by Moscow to interfere in the 2016 election deserve “the attention of every American.”

Government, in other words, cannot solve the problem alone. Citizens are on the front lines of today’s misinformation warfare and ballot manipulation. They must discern false stories on social media, for example, as well as ensure that election systems cannot be hacked. Beyond being defensive, however, they should build up trust in democracy.

In Lithuania, thousands of volunteers help track online information for false reports that might incite political strife. In nearby Estonia, a “cyber defense league” was created after a massive Russian cyberattack in 2007.

Such efforts rely on citizens taking responsibility for the integrity of their voting process and the truthfulness in media and political campaigns.

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Mueller’s best advice to Americans

At one moment during his six hours of testimony on Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller seemed to dissolve all partisanship among House members when he spoke strongly about one topic: interference by Russian agents in American democracy.

“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said. And, Mr. Mueller added, “many” countries other than Russia are trying to hack elections and orchestrate strife among Americans with false information.

He was not speaking only to Congress. After issuing his report in May about Russian meddling and alleged collusion by the Trump campaign, he said the multiple efforts by Moscow to interfere in the 2016 election deserve “the attention of every American.”

Government, in other words, cannot solve the problem alone. Citizens are on the front lines of today’s misinformation warfare and ballot manipulation. They must discern false stories on social media, for example, as well as ensure that local election systems cannot be hacked. Beyond being defensive, however, they should build up trust in democracy and maintain a measure of unity despite political differences.

Initiatives to counter foreign interference must “focus on empowering individuals to be active and informed citizens through generational investments in democratic discourse, civic engagement, and truth,” says the Kennan Institute’s Nina Jankowicz, who is working on a book about Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

She says people must develop digital literacy to navigate the modern information environment. They can invest in reliable sources of news. The United States, she says, can learn from countries that are already countering Russian meddling, such as Lithuania, Estonia, and Sweden. They are building “robust democratic systems” that create civic resiliency in citizens.

In Lithuania, thousands of volunteers help track online information for false reports that might incite political strife. Calling themselves “elves,” they coordinate with government in what is called a whole-of-society approach. In nearby Estonia, a “cyber defense league” was created after a massive Russian cyberattack in 2007. It has enlisted an online army of volunteers to scan media and alert people to misinformation.

Such efforts rely on citizens taking responsibility for the integrity of their voting process and the truthfulness in media and political campaigns. Democratic values, as much as cyber defenses, are the best deterrent to those trying to tear apart democracies.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

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

A performance review? Don’t sweat it!

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Caught off guard by a poor review at work, one employee took an approach he’d found helpful during other challenges: He prayed. Here’s some of the inspiration that helped him move forward in a productive way and tangibly improve his performance on the job.

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A performance review? Don’t sweat it!

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I felt blindsided. Two years into my new job, I thought I was doing well, but my annual performance review said otherwise. What hurt all the more was that I loved the organization I was working for, and the poor review made me feel I was letting everyone down.

After the initial shock, I contemplated my options and considered disputing the review or justifying my position. But I realized there was some merit to my boss’s evaluation, and I ultimately had to resolve this a different way.

As a lifelong Christian Scientist, I have seen many healings through prayer, including those of personal relationships. And at the root of this issue was my relationship with my boss. I enjoyed working with her, but at the same time I was tempted to be angry with her about the review. Recognizing that her motive was to help make me a better employee was a good first step. But it didn’t heal the sense of injustice I felt.

So it was natural for me to take a prayerful approach to this situation. I decided to use my morning commute time on the subway and on foot to read and ponder the weekly Bible Lessons found in the Christian Science Quarterly. Every Lesson is comprised of selections from the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy. I’ve always found them to be so timely and to provide valuable inspiration.

On my walks I reflected on the spiritual ideas in the Lessons and on the nature of God and my relation to Him. These Lessons reinforce that God made everything good, including man made in His spiritual likeness. This means God did not make poor or ineffective workers. Christian Science also explains that God is divine Mind. As Mind’s reflection, or idea, we each include the intelligence that enables us to do our work well. Qualities that are desirable in an employee, such as patience, diligence, order, efficiency, and thoroughness, are inherent in all God’s children, and we can appreciate them in one another.

I also asked God what I needed to know to be a better worker. Science and Health says, “Desire is prayer; and no loss can occur from trusting God with our desires, that they may be moulded and exalted before they take form in words and in deeds” (p. 1). To me, this meant that since my desire was to be good at my work, I could trust God to help me know and do whatever would make me a more effective employee.

I thought of Solomon, a king in the Bible, who asked God, “Give me now wisdom and knowledge” (II Chronicles 1:10). Solomon was young when he became king of Israel, and he was unsure of his ability to lead such a great nation. However, he relied on God’s wisdom to lead him, and I realized I could do the same. Solomon was rewarded with wisdom because he did not ask for material things such as riches or success in battle. Likewise, I did not want to be a good employee simply to get promoted and make more money. I genuinely wanted to do well for my organization; I knew this was a pure motive, which would be rewarded with the wisdom to do my job well.

This openness to listening for God’s guidance helped me to improve at my job, and I was encouraged by colleagues along the way. While I did not instantly become an expert in my field, I did start enjoying my job more and felt more confident. Before, I had shied away from questions from co-workers about my work because I was unsure of myself; but I no longer did this, because I found that I knew the answers. With the next two performance reviews, I received excellent reports and was promoted.

Fundamentally, our real job is to express God’s qualities, such as intelligence, wisdom, accuracy, and creativity. And as the individual expression of God, the outcome of His wisdom, each of us has the ability to do this more and more each day.

Adapted from an article published in the July 15, 2019, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.

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Viewfinder

But is he offside?

Jeff Swinger/USA Today
A cat disrupts play in the second half between Tigres UANL and the Real Salt Lake during their Leagues Cup game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City July 24, 2019. The Tigres won 1-0.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 26th, 2019 )

Thanks for spending time with us. Come back tomorrow when we kick off our special summer series on the ocean. We’ll be exploring the strange life in places sunlight never reaches, the eerie beauty of the ocean soundscape, and the possibilities opened up by environmental DNA.

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 25, 2019
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