Monitor Daily Podcast

August 16, 2019
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Why everybody should visit Israel

In today’s Daily, we look at the slowing global economy, a lawmaker in the limelight, the need for more study in a high-profile debate, progress that's come drop by drop, and an unforgettable documentary.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib isn’t going to the West Bank to see her grandmother after all. The House Democrat and fellow Rep. Ilhan Omar had planned to visit the Israeli-occupied territory, and Israel seemed amenable – despite the women’s support of the anti-Israel boycott movement. Then President Donald Trump took to Twitter, and within hours, Israel had barred the visit. 

Ultimately, Israel relented, but Ms. Tlaib – profiled in her district in Michigan in today’s Monitor Daily – rejected the new conditions.

It’s not every day that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, top Republicans, and AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group, agree. But they did here. AIPAC tweeted that despite the women’s politics, “we also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” 

That message could easily be broadened. Anybody with a chance to visit Israel would learn so much about its rich history and culture, and its welcoming people, as I was able to do in 1984 – from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the West Bank and Lebanese border. We rented a car and drove the entire country, an experience that shows just how small and vulnerable Israel is. In other words, we saw the place and talked to people for ourselves. We didn’t rely on others’ impressions.

Perhaps someday Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar will have another opportunity.

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Low interest rates are often a cure. Now they’re also a symptom.

Warning signs of recession often spur quick-fix policy solutions to jump-start the economy. But perhaps a look at the endemic circumstances that have brought the world to this point is in order.


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Recession alarm bells are ringing around the world. From Europe to Asia and Latin America, signs of economic weakness have emerged or worsened recently.

For decades, an inverted yield curve, when shorter-term bonds yield a higher interest rate than long-term ones, has been seen as a likely recession indicator. Perhaps, in this era of ultra-low interest rates, an inversion in the United States this week isn’t the danger signal that it used to be.

Still, it’s a fragile time, with some large economies such as Germany and Britain possibly in a recession or near it. One safety valve would be for the U.S. and China to resolve their trade war. Another, beyond mere central bank stimulus efforts, could be infrastructure investment that helps for the long run as well as right now.

“I think there are huge distortions in the distribution of income that explain the low interest rates and weak [consumer] demand” globally, says economist Michael Pettis in Beijing. One distortion is high income-inequality worldwide, he says. The second is some nations’ focus on exports, which also leaves consumers with less money to spend.


1. Low interest rates are often a cure. Now they’re also a symptom.

Recession indicators are blinking worldwide, with financial markets rattled this week by bad news from all corners: Germany, China, Argentina, and even the United States, where bond interest rates “inverted” in what many see as a signal of economic trouble ahead.

But the worry runs deeper than that uncertainty. 

For decades, an inverted yield curve, when shorter-term bonds yield a higher interest rate than long-term ones, has been seen as a likely recession indicator. What’s different this time is that interest rates on all U.S. Treasury debts are so low that there’s little room for the Federal Reserve to deploy interest rate cuts to stave off a recession.

“Monetary policy I think is impotent” in the current environment, says Gary Shilling, who heads an economic forecasting firm in Springfield, New Jersey.

Ultra-low interest rates have become a feature of the world economy since the Great Recession. It’s a conundrum that few view as benign, and the coming year could test whether the global economy can weather hard times amid financial conditions for which there is little precedent.

In much of Europe, for example, interest rates on public debt have actually been negative for several years – forcing savers to pay a fee to lend (or store) their money. Recession or not, policymakers seem engaged in a kind of perpetual war to keep economic growth afloat.

“Some of the recession fears are a little bit overblown in my view, but that’s not to say that we’re complacent about the risks,” says Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Perhaps the overlooked risk – and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the United States – is that the ability of government to have a robust response either through fiscal spending or a central bank ... is limited.”

Susan Walsh/AP/File
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting on the sidelines of the June 2019 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. China and the United States have been locked in a trade war that is battering exporters on either side of the Pacific and threatening to tip the global economy into recession.

And that challenge leads back to the conundrum: Why have interest rates become so unusually and persistently low in major economies worldwide, rain or shine? Economists aren’t sure, but some say restoring more normalcy in global finance may hinge on addressing deeper structural challenges, from high debt levels and imbalanced trade to wide inequality of incomes.

The hopeful view is that recession can be averted, or be mitigated where it crops up. Perhaps, in this era of ultra-low interest rates, the inverted yield curve isn’t quite the danger signal that it used to be, Mr. Quinlan and others suggest.

Red flag or “silly talk”?

Recessions often happen partly because central banks tighten monetary policy too much, boosting short-term interest rates. Meanwhile long-term rates decline as real-world investors see warning clouds and buy bonds. The result is an inversion of bond rates for a time, before central banks start slashing their short-term lending rates to offset a downturn.

On Wednesday, the U.S. bond market inverted with the 2-year Treasury note yielding more than the 10-year Treasury note. Economists are closely watching how long that situation will last. The past three times the bond market endured a sustained inversion, recession followed within about a year.

Yet global economic data lately haven’t been entirely bad, especially in the linchpin U.S. economy. And the Federal Reserve has recently reversed its monetary stance, cutting its short-term lending rate in July for the first time since the Great Recession. More rate cuts are expected to follow.

“The bond market is distorted by what’s happening outside of the U.S.,” Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic adviser at the insurance firm Allianz, said in a CNBC interview this week. He dismissed concerns about a U.S. recession as “silly talk.”

But it’s a fragile time at best. Nations worldwide are worried about the fallout from unresolved trade tensions between the U.S. and China. And a number of nations already appear to be possibly in a recession or near it. 

  • In Europe, the export-oriented German economy shrank 0.1% in this year’s second quarter. Growth was almost nonexistent in debt-troubled Italy. Russia is tottering. And the British economy contracted by 0.2% amid worries about its looming breakup with the European Union.
  • In Latin America, Mexico and Brazil are struggling. Argentina is in a full-scale crisis as a projected populist swing in coming elections raises the prospect of a default on debts.
  • In Asia, China may turn to stimulus policies to sustain growth, although its economy isn’t yet near a formal recession. The economy of trade-reliant Singapore contracted in the second quarter. South Korea has cooled dramatically.

Can the slide be reversed?

One key to turning all this around, many say, is for the U.S. and China to find a positive resolution to their trade differences. President Donald Trump this week announced a postponement of a planned expansion of tariffs against Chinese imports, so that toys, clothing, and cellphones would remain unaffected through this holiday season. But the uncertainty remains whether the two sides will reset trade relations, or increasingly decouple. 

Ralph Orlowski/Reuters/File
Employees of German car manufacturer Porsche work on a Porsche 911 at the Porsche factory in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Germany, Feb. 19, 2019. The export-oriented German economy shrank 0.1 percent in this year’s second quarter.

The other obvious steps would include central banks easing monetary conditions, or governments using fiscal policy, such as new spending or tax cuts to spur more consumer and business activity.

The bandwidth in many nations is limited. The U.S. has already enacted a big tax cut under President Trump, for example. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room to act. 

Mr. El-Erian and others say this moment – with low government borrowing costs and the economy needing a boost – could be a perfect time for infrastructure spending, which can help in both the short and long term.

That idea connects back to the larger conundrum. 

Ultimately, the lesson may be that getting out of the cycle of abnormally low or even negative interest rates is about more than just stimulus. It’s about how to create lasting healthy progress for the world economy rather than a bandages-and-duct-tape kind of growth.

“If the US borrows money to invest in infrastructure, education, etc., or to redistribute wealth in ways that increase economic efficiency, and if that causes the total value of goods and services to rise by that amount, then there is indeed no limit to the ability of the U.S. to borrow,” says economist Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Peking University, in an email interview. 

But if a nation is perpetually adding to its debts without boosting its gross domestic product (its ability to finance those debts), then there are limits to borrowing, he argues. That’s the case even if the central bank is willing to keep printing money, since the value of that money will decline unless it’s backed by the nation’s real productive capacity.

A broader challenge

As Professor Pettis sees it, the world of low rates has been enabled by more than just rising public debts and unconventional central bank policies.

“I think there are huge distortions in the distribution of income that explain the low interest rates and weak [consumer] demand,” he says. “The first is high levels of income inequality in all the major economies. The second is what are effectively ‘mercantilist’ policies in ... countries like Germany, Japan, China, etc., in which hidden transfers from the household sectors [are subsidizing exports, and] leaving the household share of GDP relatively low.”

Inequality and trade imbalances have gained attention as global economic concerns in recent years. Professor Pettis thinks those two are linked in the way they’re affecting global economics. He argues the two distortions have a parallel effect: They both transfer income from ordinary households – people who spend most of their earnings – to lower-consuming sectors (the rich, businesses, or local governments).

Financially healthier households, by contrast, could actually fuel solid growth, as rising consumption gives the impetus and confidence for more investment by businesses. 

Some other analysts see similar concerns. 

“If you look around the world, we have basically the same structural problems. We’re extremely over indebted. The debt is delivering diminishing returns,” says Lacy Hunt, an economist at Hoisington Investment Management in Austin, Texas. “Manufacturing sectors around the world I think are already in recession.” 

No one is discussing how to reduce debt levels as a share of advanced economies, he adds. And with a negative interest rate, “the economy may respond transitorily,” but Mr. Hunt argues a decline in savings “quickly controls the situation” for the worse.

Mr. Shilling, in New Jersey, worries that a recession may already be underway even in the U.S., given the way official data can be shaky during turning points in the economy. While most economists disagree, forecasts for growth have been declining globally in recent months, and many forecasters see a strong likelihood of recession in either 2020 or 2021. 

Longer term, Mr. Shilling is hopeful that the low-rate, low-growth conundrum will end. Perhaps more people staying in the workforce past their traditional retirement age will help the economy grow.

“I’m not as convinced as many,” he says, “that we’re in a slow growth environment forever.”

Rashida Tlaib, Israel, and what her district wants

Members of Congress can be both national and local politicians. Those roles don't always coincide. 


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Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib is fast becoming a famous name in national politics. She’s one of the four members of the self-named “squad,” the group of young and progressive Democratic women that also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. One of the first Muslim Americans elected to Congress, she’s become an outspoken advocate for Palestinian causes. This week Israel, pushed by President Donald Trump, barred her from visiting the country. She declined a subsequent offer to visit her grandmother in the West Bank due to conditions Israel would have imposed on the trip.

But will national attention help her win reelection back home? That remains an open question. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is solidly Democratic – and also majority African American. Representative Tlaib squeaked into office in 2018 in part because four black candidates split the African American vote in the primary.

Brenda Jones, president of the Detroit City Council, looms as a possible opponent. Ms. Tlaib barely beat Ms. Jones last time around. But there are indications she’s solidifying her position. One recent poll put Ms. Tlaib’s district favorability rating at almost 70%.

“She’s really got to get out here and sell herself and meet the people,” says Kevin Quinn, a diesel mechanic and constituent of Representative Tlaib.


2. Rashida Tlaib, Israel, and what her district wants

To J. Thomas, soul food means eating what you want, when you want it. His restaurant in northwest Detroit, J’s Cafe Soul Food, specializes in soul food breakfast, which means catfish or pork chop entrees with eggs, grits, and toast. 

Mr. Thomas hasn’t changed his menu during the 36 years he’s been in business, which he sees as proof of his success. The same thing could be said for politics, adds Mr. Thomas: Politicians need to know their jobs and do them well.

“Why would I start trying to offer Chinese food?” says Mr. Thomas, throwing his hands up in the air with a laugh. “Stay in your lane.”

One local politician in particular should perhaps stay in her lane and focus on the basics, according to J’s Cafe diners. That’s Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who was elected in 2018 to represent a slice of greater Detroit, including the stretch of Grand River Avenue on which J’s sits.

Beginning with her inauguration night, Representative Tlaib has had far more national attention than is typical for a freshman member of Congress. Her membership in the self-named  “squad,” a group of four first-term, progressive, minority congresswomen, has made Ms. Tlaib a target of President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, and a beacon of hope for some of his opponents.

Her latest burst of widespread media coverage came on Thursday, when Israel, at President Trump’s urging, barred Ms. Tlaib and fellow squad member Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from visiting the country. Both women have been outspoken in support of the Palestinians and the boycott-Israel movement.

Ms. Tlaib later spurned an Israeli offer to allow her to visit her grandmother in the West Bank if she agreed in writing to not promote the Israeli boycott during her trip.

Her outspokenness has made her a hero in the pro-Palestinian movement. But at home in Detroit, almost halfway through the congresswoman’s first term, the response to Ms. Tlaib’s fame is more nuanced than the national reaction.

Many constituents are proud of the work she is doing in Washington. Others don’t know who Ms. Tlaib is. Some, including diners at J’s Cafe, think her priorities are off. They say Rep. Rashida Tlaib is trying to expand the menu without mastering the basics. She’s trying to cook kung pao chicken, say the men at J’s, but she doesn’t know how to cook grits. 

“I wish she was talking about the district she was elected to represent,” says Booker Fullilove, a retired police officer who comes to J’s every morning for an ice tea. “Poverty, crime, bringing money to Detroit: If you represent the 13th district, that’s what you should be thinking about.” 

Symbolism and service

As one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the U.S. Congress, Ms. Tlaib has been balancing between symbolism and service since before her general election, as the Monitor reported last November.

She has long been outspoken about her heritage (a grandmother lives in the West Bank) and political victory has not changed her. At her campaign events Arabic songs thump alongside hip-hop. She has a shirt that says “Unapologetically Muslim.”

Paul Sancya/AP
As a freshman congresswoman, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, shown here in Wixom, Michigan, on Aug. 15, 2019, is still learning to manage the dual pull of her duties in Washington and the needs of her constituents.

Her support of the boycott-Israel movement, designed to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, among other things, has infuriated the Israeli government and its U.S. supporters. On Thursday, after Israel blocked Ms. Tlaib from visiting, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman said in a statement that the boycott effort is “economic warfare” and Israel has “every right to protect its borders” against boycott proponents.

Yet during her short tenure in Congress, Ms. Tlaib has also introduced a bill that is the closest Congress has seen to a universal basic income. Earlier this week she penned an Op-Ed on how to reverse declining black homeownership

“She does a lot. She’s helping the homeless, the parks,” says Eric Crump, an aide at Detroit’s Western International High School, as he waits to get his hair cut at Kut-Em Up Hair and Nails Salon on Detroit’s Greenfield Road.

If Ms. Tlaib is visible at the national level that is both good and inevitable, Mr. Crump says.

“Right now everyone is talking about national stuff and Trump, so she doesn’t have a choice,” says Mr. Crump. “She’s a nice lady. She’s for the people.” 

Comparatively vulnerable

Ms. Tlaib’s initial 2018 electoral victory in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District was not exactly a resounding win.

The seat is reliably Democratic, meaning the Democratic primary is usually far more competitive than the general election. On August 7, 2018, then-candidate Ms. Tlaib won the primary with only 31% of the vote. 

Some pundits partially attribute Ms. Tlaib’s narrow win to the crowded race: There were five other candidates, four of them black. And in a district that is more than 53 percent black, the large field of black candidates likely split a block of African American voters. Brenda Jones, City Council president for Detroit, came in second, losing to Ms. Tlaib by only 900 votes.

Comparatively, the other squad members, Rep. Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York, and Rep. Ilhan Omar from Minnesota, won their Democratic primaries by larger margins.

And while all four members of the squad are unpopular nationally, most of them, particularly Representative Ocasio-Cortez, are incredibly popular in their districts.

Of the four, Ms. Tlaib is considered the most vulnerable. Political rumors are swirling that Ms. Jones will challenge Representative Tlaib for the seat again next year.

There are reasons to believe such a race could be competitive. In a separate special election to fill the remaining six weeks of former Rep. John Conyers term following his 2017 resignation from the 13th District seat, held concurrently with the multicandidate Democratic primary, Ms. Jones and Ms. Tlaib faced off in a direct one-on-one match-up. Ms. Jones won that contest by some 1,650 votes.

Solidifying her position?

But there are also indications Ms. Tlaib is solidifying her local position. A Targyt Insight/MIRS News poll in late July put her favorability rating with 13th District Democrats at almost 70%. In a theoretical match-up between Ms. Jones and Ms. Tlaib, the poll had the congresswoman ahead by more than 35 percentage points

Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, says that Ms. Tlaib has done a good job of showing up in the district.

Her term was a little “rocky and chaotic,” in the beginning, says Mr. Williams, and she said some things she shouldn’t have said. But he believes she’s starting to find her political legs. 

“I think she cares about the district,” says Mr. Williams. “But once this stuff with Trump passes, I want her to focus more on small African American businesses, healthcare, education. The things that people in her district need.” 

Leaving J’s Cafe on his way to work, Kevin Quinn, a diesel mechanic, overhears Mr. Thomas and Mr. Fullilove and chimes in. He says he has questions for Ms. Tlaib, and problems that need to be fixed. He sees a lot of families foreclosing on their homes and getting kicked out, only for the houses to be occupied by squatters and then demolished. If Ms. Tlaib came to J’s Cafe, or anywhere nearby, he’d talk to her about that.

“I like how Trump doesn’t like her, but she doesn’t have any town hall meetings or anything,” says Mr. Quinn. “Even the governor does that.” 

But, he adds, it’s not too late for Ms. Tlaib to win his vote in 2020.

“She can turn it around,” says Mr. Quinn. “Being against Trump, she’s got a chance. But she’s really got to get out here and sell herself and meet the people. She’s got to do both.” 


The Explainer

So many guns, so little data: An economist on US gun violence

There’s a consensus that mass shootings in the U.S. must stop. The question is how. First, says one researcher, start with better data on gun violence.

Al Drago/Reuters
Signs displaying people killed from gun violence are held up during a news conference to schedule a Senate vote on the Background Checks Expansion Act, on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 20, 2019.

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In 1996, the National Rifle Association convinced Congress to cut funding from a government agency. Up until then, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had dedicated millions of dollars to researching gun violence. 

The budget cuts put a “chilling effect” on firearms research, as well as on the science of gun policy, says Rand Corp. economist Rosanna Smart. “It seems kind of crazy that we don’t even know how many guns there are in America,” she says. 

Our reporter asked Dr. Smart what’s at stake for society given weak data on gun policy.

“I think we lose the ability to have conversations around gun policy that are grounded in science and that are grounded in fact,” she says. 

Rand found general agreement among experts that gun policy should reduce deaths – even if they disagreed on how to get there. In the economist’s view, “Providing evidence could potentially change minds.”


3. So many guns, so little data: An economist on US gun violence

From President Donald Trump to presidential candidates, the air is thick with policy proposals to prevent the next mass shooting. Senate leaders promise to take up gun legislation when the Senate reconvenes in September. The House has already passed a universal background check bill that closes the “gun-show loophole.”

But there is a “shocking absence” of evidence to inform gun policy in the United States, and no conclusive evidence on what policies might effectively stop mass public shootings like those in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, according to Rosanna Smart, an economist with the Rand Corp. 

Last year, Rand published “The Science of Gun Policy,” a distillation of research on the effects of gun policies. The Monitor recently spoke with Dr. Smart, who is updating the report, to find out what is known about the effect of policies like “red flag” laws and what society might gain from more reliable data. The following is based on that conversation.

What is known about how to stop mass shootings?

All the evidence about gun policy and mass shootings is “inconclusive.” One reason is that the relative rarity of these instances makes them hard to study in a scientifically meaningful way. 

Also, researchers don’t have a common definition of a mass shooting, which makes it difficult to determine what would stop them. Not even the U.S. government defines the term, though the FBI says a “mass murderer” is someone who kills at least four people, not including himself or herself. [Editor’s note: The Monitor uses that definition.]

Depending on the various definitions, there were either seven, 65, 332, or 371 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2015, according to the Rand study.

Well, then, what is known about effective gun policies?

Of the many thousands of studies that Rand looked at, only 63 met its rigorous research criteria. Of those, it can be concluded that “safe storage” laws actually do reduce fatal firearm injuries to children and youths.

When it comes to background checks, “moderate” evidence suggests they reduce firearm suicides and firearm homicides, and “limited” evidence that they can lower overall suicide and violent crime rates, according to the Rand report. “Moderate” evidence also shows that laws banning guns from individuals with a history of involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility do reduce violent crime. “Limited” evidence, meanwhile, points to reduced firearm suicides among youth when the minimum age for purchasing firearms is raised to 21.

Versions of all three of these policies are being talked about in the context of mass shootings, including “red flag” laws that allow the removal of weapons from people who may present a harm to themselves or others. But there is no conclusive evidence that these policy offshoots would be effective in stopping mass shootings.

On the side of gun advocates, “stand your ground” laws of self-defense may increase homicide rates, according to “moderate” evidence that Rand found. Quite a bit of research has been done on concealed carry laws, but it’s contradictory, says Dr. Smart. More research needs to be done on the effects of policies on the gun industry, hunting and sporting use of guns, and defensive use of firearms, the Rand report recommends.

What’s at stake for society given weak data on gun policy?

“I think we lose the ability to have conversations around gun policy that are grounded in science and that are grounded in fact,” says Dr. Smart. Lack of data makes it easier – or almost a necessity – to make claims about policy with no evidence to back them up. “It’s based largely on opinions or emotions.”

Conversely, sound data holds the promise of finding common ground in the divisive gun debate – though climate science denial shows how difficult that could be. Yet Dr. Smart is hopeful. In a survey of experts on both sides of the gun issue, Rand found general agreement that the primary objective of gun policy should be reducing homicides, suicides, and mass shootings. The two sides shared the same goal, even if they disagreed on how to get there.

“Providing evidence could potentially change minds,” says Dr. Smart. 

What are common misperceptions about mass shootings?

It comes back to the definition. Most people, when they hear of a mass shooting, probably think of public incidents in which people are shot at indiscriminately. But applying the commonly used definition of four fatalities casts a much wider net – including criminal activity, such as gang and robbery violence. 

“It’s easy to get kind of sucked into fear” about mass shootings, says Dr. Smart, but public shootings are “a small share of mass shootings, and a much smaller share of overall gun violence.”

The economist points to another misperception: the relationship between mental illness and mass shootings. “It gets brought up quite a bit and I don’t think the evidence is there to back it up.” Arguably, it could be said that a mass shooter is undergoing duress or has a behavioral problem, she says. But in terms of diagnosable mental illness, “that’s not from evidence.” 

How can gun policy research be strengthened?

One of the most effective ways would be for Congress to lift restrictions that limit federal research funding and access to data. In 1996, the National Rifle Association convinced Congress to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before that, the CDC conducted millions of dollars in research on firearm violence. But when the federal agency found that having a gun at home increased the risk of homicide among household members, the CDC was seen as putting its thumb on the scale of gun control.

The ensuing budget cuts and conditions put a “chilling effect” on CDC firearms research, says Dr. Smart – and on the science of gun policy. “It seems kind of crazy that we don’t even know how many guns there are in America,” because the CDC no longer asks that question.

Universities and foundations have tried to take up the slack in funding and research at the CDC and other national entities, “but in terms of large-scale data collection, that’s something you need a lot of weight behind.”


Points of Progress

What's going right

Watershed moment: How Chesapeake Bay turned its H2O around

Sometimes progress comes drip by drip. That’s true in the Chesapeake Bay, where decades of dedication to reducing pollution have helped turn the tide.


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For the 18 million people living in the Chesapeake Bay region, clean water is key. But since the 1970s, waste runoff and pollution have contaminated its water, threatening ecosystems and economies.  

The watershed’s water quality is now slowly improving, a new report finds. Last year 42% of the bay met its water quality standards –the highest since monitoring began 30 years ago. The gains are vital for healthy aquatic life. Underwater grasses are proliferating. And the bay’s famed blue crabs have doubled over the past year. 

The source of success? Besides decades of ongoing cleanup efforts, experts point to a daily pollution limit set in 2010. The regulation charges states within the watershed to reduce what they dump. 

Challenges to restoration remain, including climate change. The sheer size of the watershed means progress will be slow, says Rachel Felver of the Chesapeake Bay Program. 

“It’s a commitment we all have,” she says.  “We want to know that we can still pull crabs out of the water and eat them.”


4. Watershed moment: How Chesapeake Bay turned its H2O around

It’s a warm summer day by the waterfront in Annapolis, and it couldn’t be busier on the Chesapeake Bay. Countless boats dot the horizon of the 200-mile-long estuary, which spans six states. 

But the bright scene conceals a difficult history. Since the 1970s, waste runoff and pollution have contaminated the water, threatening ecosystems and economies. 

“The bay is home to 18 million people; it’s an economic powerhouse,” says Rachel Felver, a communications director for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Fishing, tourism, and agriculture are among the bay’s key industries, all of which rely on clean water. The commercial seafood industry in Maryland and Virginia alone brings $3.4 billion in sales each year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And the bay is a summer destination for thousands of families. “This is where they have come for years,” Ms. Felver says.

This year, thanks to decades of ongoing cleanup efforts, there is good news for those who depend upon the bay for work or pleasure. The Chesapeake Bay Program – which helps organize a regional partnership among government bodies, nonprofits, and academic institutions working to protect and restore the bay’s watershed – recently released a report indicating improvements in water quality in the 64,000-square-mile system. 

“Last year’s data for our water quality standards was the highest that we have ever seen since monitoring started over 30 years ago,” says Ms. Felver. “An estimated 42% of the whole bay has met its water quality standards.” 

That 42% milestone is a 2 percentage point increase over the previous year’s report. The gains are key to supporting healthy aquatic habitats, says Ms. Felver, and one outcome has been an increase in underwater grasses to more than 100,000 acres for the first time in monitoring history.

“Bay grasses are very easily impacted by the weather and by pollution, [and] they are a really good indicator of bay health,” she says. 

Additionally, populations of the bay’s famed blue crab have doubled over the past year, to 600 million animals. That’s the highest count in seven years.

William Ball, director of the Chesapeake Research Consortium, sees reason for hope. 

“It is amazing that it is doing as well as it is,” says Dr. Ball. “It’s a testament to how well the restoration process is going.” 

Both Dr. Ball and Ms. Felver attribute much of the progress to the establishment in 2010 of a total maximum daily load pollution limit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The TMDL identifies how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment pollution the bay can handle and still support aquatic life, and requires the states in the watershed, as well as the District of Columbia, to take action to reduce levels below that maximum load. “That was a big factor in contributing to the overall health of the bay,” says Ms. Felver. 

An emerging challenge for restoration efforts is climate change, particularly with increased rainfall totals and severe storm systems. A State of the Bay report from the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that heavy storms flushed unusually high amounts of pollutants into the estuary in 2018, undoing some progress.

“The weather just makes such a huge difference,” says Dr. Ball. “It is going to be a little bit harder to get the job done.” 

Still, he believes that the findings in the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Barometer report indicate an overall trend of improvement. “It speaks to the fact that the bay is becoming more resilient,” he says. “[That’s] a very important thing to build up.” 

There is still much work to be done. Ms. Felver notes that the sheer size of the watershed and the number of governments, businesses, and landowners in the system will make progress slow to realize.

There will be a continued focus on tackling agricultural runoff, addressing toxic contaminants, and promoting best management practices for the bay – many of which are part of a plan that will culminate in 2025.

Ms. Felver emphasizes the shared goal of preserving the bay for generations to come. 

“It’s a commitment we all have,” says Ms. Felver. “We want clean water. We want to know that we can still pull crabs out of the water and eat them.”

On Film

‘One Child Nation’ lays bare China’s population choices

Nanfu Wang, co-director of “One Child Nation,” “began this film as a way to rediscover her own past,” Monitor film critic Peter Rainer writes. In his five-star review, he called it an “extraordinary documentary” examining the repercussions of China’s stringent family planning policy. “It does far more than that. It will help ensure that the full tragedy of those years is not forgotten.”

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Nanfu Wang, co-director of the documentary “One Child Nation” and mother to a young son, draws attention to a propaganda billboard. China’s one-child policy was altered in 2015 in favor of a two-child approach.

5. ‘One Child Nation’ lays bare China’s population choices

Nanfu Wang, co-director with Jialing Zhang of the extraordinary documentary “One Child Nation,” was born in 1985 in rural eastern China before immigrating in her mid-20s to the United States. Her years in China coincided with the government-mandated one-child-per-family policy, instituted in 1979. Officially intended to ward off famine in a country of more than a billion people, the policy was not changed until 2015, by which time several million babies, mostly girls, were aborted, abandoned, placed in orphanages, sold off to Westerners, or left to die.

Wang returned to her village to document the repercussions of the policy because she wanted to understand its effect on both her family and the wider Chinese society. A first-time mother, she wanted to more fully comprehend herself.

The stories she documents, although most are recounted by the interviewees with an eerie matter-of-factness, are harrowing. An aunt tells how she turned over her baby girl to traffickers. Her uncle recounts abandoning his baby girl in an open-air market where, mosquito-bitten, she eventually died. Wang was one of the relatively lucky ones. She was her parents’ first child, and because boys are prized in China, some families, mostly in rural areas, were allowed a second shot at having a male baby. Often bribes were involved. Her guilt-ridden brother, five years younger, apologizes to her for having had career opportunities denied her.

The continual refrain Wang hears from her interviewees is “I had no choice.” Women who violated the policy were often forcibly sterilized, their homes bulldozed. Even within her own family, Wang is surprised by the note of resignation. Her aunt says, “I harbor no hate. It is my fate.” A family planning official, Jiang Shuqin, proudly shows off her certificate of commendation.

The most powerful camera subject, because she seems to embody both the brutal efficacy of the one-child policy and its tragic consequences, is the 84-year-old midwife, Huaru Yuan, who delivered Wang and was in charge of some 60,000 sterilizations and abortions. Yuan supported the policy, as did Wang’s family, but she says she lives to “atone for my sins.” “I was the executioner,” she says. Her home is decorated with hundreds of flags featuring photos of grateful families, post-policy, whose babies she helped to conceive. Wang wants us to know that Yuan, and many others like her, was also a victim.

Equally compelling are Wang’s interviews with Duan Yueneng, a trafficker, who details how babies were often discarded in trash bins, or by the roadside. He would sweep the area to recover those still alive. (The government quietly sanctioned these sweeps, often taking kickbacks.) He would then bring them to orphanages where they were sold for adoption to Western families, who because of forged documents, knew nothing of the babies’ true backgrounds.

A Utah couple, Brian and Long Lan Stuy, who have three adoptive Chinese girls, are prominently featured in the film’s second half. Their extensive database aims at matching Chinese adoptees with their birth families. But they are nonplussed by how few of the adoptees want to reconnect with their Chinese parents.

The cruel irony is that, because of the generational effect of the one-child policy, China is now a society in which the workforce cannot sustain a booming economy and there are not enough caregivers for the elderly. Whereas the film starts out showing us old propaganda billboards and clips exclaiming the glories of the policy – “Fewer children makes for a happier life!” is a typical chant – the same propaganda machine is now extolling two children as the mandated ideal.

Wang began this film as a way to rediscover her own past. It does far more than that. It will help ensure that the full tragedy of those years is not forgotten. Anyone who sees this film is not likely to forget.

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Saving the academic integrity of student-athletes

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The label “student-athlete” seems in danger of losing its original purpose as college sports have become multibillion-dollar businesses. Together the top 25 college teams generate $2.5 billion in revenue each year. And while top coaches make millions, athletes at best have a scholarship and a degree to show for their efforts.

Scholarships can be seen as a form of payment, of course. But they can be a sham: Many players fail to earn degrees, in part because their days may be filled with athletic training.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been studying the finances of college athletics, holds out hope that critics will influence the NCAA to clean up its house. The courts also could step in and determine that the NCAA is a monopoly in need of regulation. That might open the way for Congress to act – a last resort.

Among Senator Murphy’s ideas: Insist colleges restore a real balance between the time athletes spend on sports and academics. Better track athletes’ academic progress toward degrees. And study what happens to them after they leave.


Saving the academic integrity of student-athletes

That tiny hyphen that holds the label “student-athlete” together seems in danger of losing its original purpose. Coined in the 1950s, the term was meant to encapsulate the dual identities of students who play on college-sponsored athletic teams while also carrying a full academic load. In the decades since, college sports, especially football and basketball, have become multibillion-dollar businesses that also help brand a school. On many campuses the label has become little more than a charade for what is essentially an athlete.

The “gross commercial climate” of intercollegiate athletics has radically changed college sports, observed Walter Byers, who came up with the term student-athlete while serving as the NCAA’s executive director from 1951-1988. Today’s campuses have a “neo-plantation mentality” in which the “rewards belong to the overseers and the supervisors.”

Together the top 25 college teams generate $2.5 billion in revenue each year, with $1.4 billion in pure profit, says Nathan Kalman-Lamb, author of “Game Misconduct: Injury, Fandom, and the Business of Sport.”

But while top college coaches make millions of dollars in salaries, for example, athletes at best have a scholarship and ultimately a degree to show for their efforts. At the Power Five schools, the conferences with the top sports programs, the 4,400 coaches are paid more, in total, than the value of the scholarships given to their 45,000 athletes, says Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who has been studying the finances of college athletics. In addition, companies from shoemakers to online gambling sites benefit from sports played by unpaid athletes.

Scholarships can be seen as a form of payment, of course. But they can be a sham: Many players fail to earn degrees, in part because their days may be filled with athletic training and practice, leaving little time for academics.

Minority athletes have suffered the most. Black male athletes at the 65 colleges that make up the Power Five have a graduation rate 5% below other black male undergraduates and 21% below other students in general, reports the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.

Jay M. Smith, a history professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of “Cheated: The UNC Scandal, the Education of Athletes, and the Future of Big-Time College Sports,” calls collegiate athletics today a “fraud” and “shameful.” He proposes that it be “disassembled and rebuilt from scratch.”

Senator Murphy holds out hope that the voices of such critics will influence the NCAA to clean up its own house. The courts also could step in and determine that the NCAA is a monopoly in need of regulation. That might open the way for Congress to act – a last resort.

Other proposals try to avoid an unvarnished pay-for-play system that would remove any vestiges of amateurism. University of Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall argues that money could be put in a trust fund for players that they could receive only after graduation. He and others support the idea that players should be able to profit from personal endorsements, the value of their names and likenesses.

Among Senator Murphy’s other ideas: Insist colleges restore a real balance between the time athletes spend on sports and academics. Track more honestly and openly athletes’ academic progress toward degrees and study what happens to them after they leave.

College sports entertain millions of Americans. But that shouldn’t be at the cost of proper treatment of the athletes putting on the show.


A Christian Science Perspective

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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.

Resentment healed

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When a woman felt resentful toward someone she felt had wronged her, striving to follow Jesus’ command “Love your enemies” led her to see that person in a new light, brought healing to their relationship, and freed her from the burden of holding grudges.


1. Resentment healed

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Christ Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew in the Bible has always touched my heart. But although I loved reading it, I found it difficult to live up to some of its teachings. In 2007 I had a specific opportunity to put some of the ideas from it into practice, and this relieved me of the burden of holding grudges.

At the time, I felt hurt by the attitude of one of my close relatives. I felt very bad because I had done so much for her at a time of need. That feeling lingered on, and ultimately I never felt like talking to her whenever she telephoned our home. I felt justified labeling her as an ungrateful person. Although I was hiding my feelings, my unwillingness to talk to her was becoming visible to other family members, and one of them even pointed it out.

I decided to approach the problem by putting into practice what I had learned about love after I became a student of Christian Science. I was determined to heal my resentment completely.

I had made a practice of reading the Sermon on the Mount daily, so I opened to my favorite verse from it, which had helped me many times with relationship problems with friends and coworkers: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44, 45).

That’s what I felt – that my relative had used me. But here I was told to pray for her. I realized that she is also a child of God, the divine Father of all of us. Again, though, self-justification started overpowering my thoughts and saying “How can she be a child of my Father, as I am always so grateful, and she is so jealous and competitive?” I still struggled mentally to forgive her.

I decided to note down what I considered to be her Godlike qualities on a piece of paper – to appreciate the ways she expressed love, selflessness, intelligence, and so on. Such qualities actually constitute the true nature of each of us, which is spiritual, the expression of God’s goodness. I was happy that I could write down many.

One day I got a wonderful thought: It came to me that in doing this I had been expressing gratitude, which is another quality derived from God. Therefore, all are inherently able to reflect it naturally and effortlessly.

I continued to pray diligently to be completely delivered from judging and condemning this person. After a month of praying with these ideas, I felt so light, as if a burden had been lifted.

One evening I had a strong inspiration to pick up the phone and talk to my relative, just to chitchat, and I obeyed. It seemed as if she had been waiting for my call; she said she had hesitated to disturb me with calls in the past, thinking I must be busy with my office and church work. Both of us were happy and decided to meet in the near future, which we did, and we have met joyfully many times since then.

I am so grateful for the efficacy of the ideas found in the Sermon on the Mount and that I could forgive not only my relative, but also all others I’d held grudges toward. The resentment was healed so fully that I even forgot about what they had said or done that I had taken offense to. I still feel light and completely relieved of this burden.

Each of us can strive to let love rather than resentment lead us forward, even when we feel someone has wronged us. This lifts grudges and fosters healing and peace.

Adapted from a testimony published in the Dec. 17, 2018, issue of the Christian Science Sentinel.



Asia’s spice rack

Ann Hermes/Staff
A dog rests in the heat beside a sack of dried chili peppers in Khari Baoli. It’s more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the air around Asia’s largest spice market is so filled with spice dust that workers hauling the heavy sacks cough and sneeze as they push through crowded alleyways. The bustling bazaar is packed and restless, with dogs underfoot and monkeys overhead. Shouting can be heard as wholesale and bulk buyers haggle over everything from chilies and cardamom to nuts and dried fruits.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. We’ll be back Monday with a beautiful video about a Pakistani American artist who is working to revive the Islamic tradition of decorated nikahnamas, or stylized marriage contracts. Nushmia Khan opened her store this year, and has created illuminated contracts for couples around the world.

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