2020
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Monitor Daily Podcast

February 19, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

Why California’s apology to Japanese Americans matters

Today is a Day of Remembrance for Japanese Americans. On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to move Japanese immigrants to internment camps, and the date marks a time to consider the lessons of that legacy.

This week, California will formally apologize for its role. This follows the federal government’s own apology in 1988, along with $20,000 in reparations to everyone who had been interned.

But the importance of that apology – and California’s – goes back to the spirit of the first Remembrance Day in 1978. For decades, the Japanese community had rarely spoken of their internment, ashamed and afraid. But on that first Remembrance Day in Seattle, “parents opened up to their kids and told them about what happened to them during the war, many of them for the first time,” according to Densho, a blog about the internments.

That is why the apologies matter, Japanese Americans say. Speaking out cannot change the past, but it can shape the future.

“There is a saying in Japanese culture, ‘kodomo no tame ni,’ which means, ‘for the sake of the children,’” John Tateishi, one of the original activists, told WFDD. “It’s the legacy we’re handing down to them and to the nation to say that, ‘You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it – and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.’”

Can ‘low-bar’ US-Taliban deal clear Afghanistan’s high hurdles?

The new potential for an Afghan peace deal needs to be looked at honestly. There is such distrust and lack of unity, that any next steps will need to be small steps to build confidence.

Mark
Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, leaves the Afghan Independent Election Commission after a ceremony to receive the official certificate of his winning a 2nd term as president, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

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Negotiators from the United States and the Taliban have agreed to a soon-to-begin weeklong reduction in violence in Afghanistan. That is meant to pave the way for an agreement on a phased withdrawal of American forces in exchange for Taliban efforts to prevent attacks abroad.

The Taliban and the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani would then begin a dialogue about future power-sharing. President Ghani has signaled his readiness, despite past carping that his government has been left out of the U.S.-Taliban talks.

Indeed, the entire process is fraught with obstacles, and the high toll from ongoing violence fuels suspicions among Afghans and an impatience for peace.

“As someone from the war generation of this country, it would be very hard to suddenly become very excited or overly optimistic about an agreement over the reduction in violence ... for one week,” says Orzala Nemat, director of a Kabul think tank, relative to the full peace Afghans yearn for. “How can we make sure there is inclusive participation of men and women, of victims of violence throughout these years? How can we make sure that nobody is overlooked in this process of making an agreement?”

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1. Can ‘low-bar’ US-Taliban deal clear Afghanistan’s high hurdles?

An imminent weeklong reduction in violence agreed to by the United States and the Taliban is renewing cautious hopes for a broader deal to end America’s longest war and bring peace in Afghanistan.

Senior U.S. officials say the limited measure to show a Taliban commitment to peace would quickly be followed by the signing of an agreement for a phased withdrawal of American forces over 18 months, in exchange for Taliban efforts to prevent attacks abroad.

The Taliban and Afghan government led by President Ashraf Ghani – who this week was officially declared the winner in last September’s presidential vote – would then begin an intra-Afghan dialogue about future power-sharing, perhaps as early as March.

President Donald Trump approved the deal on Feb. 10, contingent on the seven-day easing of hostilities, the same day he witnessed the return of the remains of two U.S. Army officers killed in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base.

President Ghani has signaled his readiness, despite past carping that his government has been left out of the U.S.-Taliban talks. The Taliban, too, have indicated their readiness to conclude a deal – fast-tracking their own path to political legitimacy – though their expectation of an immediate release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners will be a tough sell in Kabul.

Indeed, the entire process is fraught with obstacles to ending an 18-year war that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans and taken the lives of some 3,500 U.S. and coalition troops.

Afghans have been on the cusp of “peace” before, most recently last September, when, in response to a Taliban suicide car bomb that killed an American and a NATO soldier in Kabul, Mr. Trump abruptly shut down 10 months of negotiations and called off plans to host Taliban leaders for a signing ceremony.

Analysts say a constellation of factors could again undermine any deal, and even thwart a modest easing of violence, making progress as fragile as ever. The key actors themselves, they say, appear uncertain about the significance of a late-winter lull of seven days, or what follows.

The Afghan government, for example, still excluded from the peace talks, is derided as a U.S. “puppet” by the ultra-conservative Taliban, which refuses to recognize Afghan officials.

There are also few signs that intra-Afghan talks meant as a next step can find common ground or a path to power-sharing, amid widely divergent visions of what a future Afghanistan should look like. The Afghanistan that the Taliban ruled with an iron fist and few women’s rights in the late 1990s has been transformed by two decades of U.S. and global donor cash and attention.

Trust deficit

And owing to Taliban objections, the term “cease-fire” is not yet being used, though it should be part of any final deal on a U.S. withdrawal. U.S. officials suggest an initial drawdown from 12,000 to 8,600 troops within weeks or months.

“It’s such a low bar, I’m not sure that even if they have a successful seven days [of reduced violence], how much more confidence it will build,” says a Western official based in Kabul.

“I know the Taliban are very skeptical about Trump changing his mind again, adding conditions,” says the official. “The trust deficit on the Taliban side might be higher now ... because they are like, ‘We don’t want to get played, this has been going on too long.’ And the Taliban knows the longer they are strung along, the less likely they are to keep all their commanders in line.”

In the months since talks collapsed in September, the frequency of attacks by the jihadist Taliban rose, then was constrained by a harsh winter, though U.S. aircraft have kept up unprecedented levels of bombardment.

Also part of the picture are two election timelines: President Trump promised to end America’s long-running wars, and his reelection bid looms. And in Kabul Tuesday, President Ghani was declared the winner of Afghanistan’s Sept. 28 election, reelected with 50.64% of the vote.

Saiyna Bashir/Reuters
(L-R) Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Afghan Vice President Sarwar Danish attend a conference on the future of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Feb. 17, 2020. Mr. Guterres voiced support for the U.S.-Taliban diplomatic efforts, saying, “We do not have the right to miss this opportunity.”

That result may make peacemaking easier, but it was immediately challenged. Mr. Ghani’s nearest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, officially won 39.52% of the vote but declared himself victor over “fraudsters” and announced the creation of a parallel government. The United States brokered a similar dispute between the two men following the 2014 election, leading to a joint government that proved ineffective.

Impatient for peace

The U.S. ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, but in the past decade, especially, the Taliban have advanced against U.S. and Afghan security forces and now control or have influence over half the country.

United Nations figures show civilian casualties are at a record high, with 2,563 people killed in the first nine months of 2019 alone, and millions more now in need of humanitarian assistance.

The tragic toll fuels suspicions among many Afghans, and an impatience for real peace.

“It’s becoming very worrying because now even our government has surrendered to this very vague term of ‘reduction of violence,’” says Orzala Nemat, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think tank in Kabul.

“Does it mean killing less people rather than more? How about stopping the killing at once? That’s the desire of the average Afghan who you can talk to on the streets,” says Ms. Nemat.

“As someone from the war generation of this country, it would be very hard to suddenly become very excited or overly optimistic about an agreement over the reduction in violence ... for one week,” she says, relative to the full peace Afghans yearn for. “And what happens in a week’s time is also important. How can we make sure there is inclusive participation of men and women, of victims of violence throughout these years? How can we make sure that nobody is overlooked in this process of making an agreement?”

Despite those questions, the U.N. this week gave its support to the effort led by the U.S. Afghan peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

“We do not have the right to miss this opportunity,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Monday in Pakistan. “No Afghan will forgive us if this opportunity is missed.”

Preventing violence

Yet doubts about the prevention of violence extend beyond the Taliban who, analysts say, showed their ability to control most of their front-line forces during a three-day cease-fire in 2018.

Afghanistan’s small Islamic State franchise has proven itself adept at high profile attacks and could seek to embarrass the Taliban. And the multitude of Afghan security forces, from the army to the police and local militias, may not fully embrace a cease-fire they are not a party to.

“The Taliban can restrain themselves, and the Americans can restrain themselves for sure,” says the Kabul-based Western official. “But all these [Afghan government] forces, I’m not sure they can resist attacking if they see Talibs moving around.”

Top U.S. officials briefed President Ghani in Munich last week on their plans, though he may have his own reasons to play along.

Afghan officials “know if the government is the one that breaches the reduction in violence, then they are in a worse position for intra-Afghan dialogue,” says the Western official. “They are fully aware that Khalilzad just wants to get [the U.S.] out, so Ghani is afraid that if the [Taliban] deal with the U.S. survives, [and] you have a highly antagonized Taliban to deal with in the intra-Afghan dialogue, that is not a good position.”

Still, the U.S. decision to bow to Taliban demands to leave Kabul officials out of the talks has “undermined the Afghan state from the very early days of the process,” Ms. Nemat says. And all the while, the civilian toll keeps rising.

“Let’s not mistake a reduction in violence for the peace that we desire,” says Ms. Nemat. “Any day that we are losing, we are losing a number of men and women in Afghanistan and destroying a number of families and households.”

What Trump pardons show about his idea of presidency

Offering pardons is perhaps the closest thing the president has to absolute power, and in using this power Tuesday, President Trump gave glimpses of how he sees himself.

Mark

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In providing legal relief to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and 10 other persons convicted of federal crimes, President Donald Trump on Tuesday lit off a national conversation on the nature of his use of the powerful pardon tool – and what it might reveal about his conception of the presidency itself.

The president defended his actions as a dispensation of justice for those who had been unfairly convicted or already served adequate time for their sins. He presented himself as legally positioned to shape the U.S. legal system as he sees fit.

“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”

Those more critical of the pardons framed his decisions as impulsive, isolated from the long-standing Justice Department procedure for considering pardons, and aimed largely at white-collar criminals whose relatives or representatives were able to lobby for relief on Fox News. The moves, they add, could lay the groundwork for pardons that would benefit himself.

President Trump has already complained about the “unfairness” being visited on his political associate Roger Stone, who will be sentenced Thursday for felonies including obstructing the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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2. What Trump pardons show about his idea of presidency

In 2010, Donald Trump fired Rod Blagojevich from “Celebrity Apprentice” because the former Illinois governor didn’t learn enough Harry Potter trivia for a marketing assignment. In 2020, President Trump commuted Mr. Blagojevich’s prison sentence for public corruption with perhaps the closest thing he has to a Potter-esque magic wand: his Constitution-based power to “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”

In providing legal relief to Mr. Blagojevich and 10 other persons convicted of federal crimes, President Trump on Tuesday lit off a national conversation on the nature of his use of the powerful pardon tool – and what it might reveal about his conception of the presidency itself.

President Trump defended his actions as a dispensation of justice for those who had been unfairly convicted or already served adequate time for their sins. He presented himself as legally positioned to shape the U.S. legal system as he sees fit.

“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”

Those more critical of the pardons framed his decisions as impulsive, isolated from the long-standing Justice Department procedure for considering pardons, and aimed largely at white-collar criminals whose relatives or representatives were able to lobby for relief on Fox News.

Anyone looking for a pattern or a plan in the pardons is looking in the wrong place, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in a Bloomberg News column.

“He wants what he wants, and he treats the presidency as something he won that allows him to do stuff he wants,” Mr. Bernstein writes. “Pardons are great for that, because they’re the closest thing to an absolute power the president has.”

Relatively few pardons

Besides the commutation for Mr. Blagojevich, who was sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in prison for, among other things, trying to auction off Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat after he was elected president, President Trump pardoned Edward DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers who pleaded guilty to concealing an extortion plot in 1998; Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was sentenced to four years in prison after conviction on eight felonies including tax fraud; and Michael Milken, the former “junk bond king” who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, among others.

President Trump pointed to the length of Mr. Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence as an indication that leniency was deserved.

“That was a ... ridiculous sentence, in my opinion,” the president told reporters.

President Trump has previously granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, his supporters point out. And the president has used his power in this area sparingly so far, pardoning just 25 people while commuting the sentences of six more.

“Please, by all means educate me on abuse of power,” wrote Donald Trump Jr. in a tweet comparing his father’s pardon numbers with higher ones of past presidents.

The dangers critics see

Critics replied that one way the president was abusing the pardon power was to use it as a means of laying the groundwork for pardons that would benefit himself.

President Trump has already complained about the “unfairness” being visited on his political associate Roger Stone, for instance. Mr. Stone will be sentenced Thursday after his conviction on seven felonies, including lying to Congress and obstructing the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

And the president implicitly compared himself to Mr. Blagojevich, noting that the former Illinois governor was caught on a phone call trying to sell Mr. Obama’s vacant seat, reflective of the now-famous phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“I would think that there have been many politicians – I’m not one of them, by the way – that have said a lot worse over the telephone,” President Trump told reporters.

Bypassing presidential norms?

In general, President Trump’s use of his pardon powers also at times appears to reflect aspects of his approach to the presidency that Democrats and other critics have charged break American political norms.

For one thing, it ignores the advice of the bureaucracy – or the “deep state,” as Trump supporters might call it. There is no indication that for Tuesday’s actions the president consulted the Department of Justice’s pardon office, which normally carefully sorts and vets applications for relief to ensure the president gets accurate information to inform decisions.

Instead, the president said he acted on “recommendations” in making his decisions, referring apparently to the loose network of friends, former officials, and Mar-a-Lago members who grab his arm at a dinner or catch him on the phone at odd hours.

Those who weighed in on Mr. Kerik’s pardon, for instance, included Rudy Giuliani, broadcaster Geraldo Rivera, and former Navy SEAL and accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher, whose demotion President Trump overturned last year. Celebrity Kim Kardashian urged relief for Ms. Johnson. Former San Francisco 49er players argued for Mr. DeBartolo. 

Second, what the president sees on Fox News heavily influences his decisions. Mr. Kerik has been a regular commentator on Fox, for instance. Patti Blagojevich, Mr. Blagojevich’s wife, has appeared on Fox directly calling for sentence relief for her husband. Allies of Mr. Stone have pleaded with President Trump through the Fox screen for a Stone pardon.

Critics say that in total the way President Trump goes about pardons positions him, not as the head of a government working toward decisions, but as a quasi-king who alone makes the call.

He is dispensing largesse, seemingly at random, by his own whims, rather than pursuant to any legal system, writes legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker.

“That’s the real lesson – a story of creeping authoritarianism – of [Tuesday’s] commutations and pardons by President Trump,” Mr. Toobin writes.

Can long-austere Russia spend its way to a more dynamic economy?

With Russia facing economic headwinds ahead of next year's election, President Vladimir Putin is trying something new. That means a surprising turn to the capitalist playbook.

Mark

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In the face of low oil prices and punitive Western sanctions, Russia has spent the last six years hunkered down economically behind a strict policy of austerity. But the Kremlin has announced it is going to start spending – to put more money into the hands of consumers and jump-start the economy.

Though some may call this a reversion to Soviet-style methods, it’s actually similar to the New Deal in the U.S. Along with a massive infrastructure-building program that got underway last year, the new state spending plan amounts to nearly half a trillion dollars' worth of economic stimulus.

Critics argue that these new spending plans are really just a ploy to boost popular living standards ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. President Vladimir Putin will need a reliable legislative majority to pass the sweeping constitutional amendments he has set forth, critics say, so he is pressing forward with policies that may bring on at least temporary economic growth.

“Investing in people is always a good idea,” says Alexei Vedev of the Gaidar Institute in Moscow. “But it really matters how it is done. We have yet to see a real strategy.”

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3. Can long-austere Russia spend its way to a more dynamic economy?

For the past six years, Russia has used a strict policy of austerity to shield its economy from the double-whammy of low oil prices and punitive Western sanctions. But that’s about to change, as the Kremlin adopts a tried-and-true capitalist formula.

Russia has announced that it is increasing state spending by up to 10% this year, and more in coming years, to tackle social problems like poverty and low birth rates. It also hopes that putting more money into the hands of consumers will jump-start Russia’s stagnating economy.

Though some may call this a reversion to Soviet-style methods, it’s actually similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the U.S. Along with a massive infrastructure-building program that got underway last year, the new plan amounts to nearly half a trillion dollars’ worth of economic stimulus that President Vladimir Putin hopes will propel Russia into the front ranks of global economic powers by the time he leaves office in 2024.

Critics argue that these new spending plans, announced by Mr. Putin in his annual state-of-the-nation address last month, are really just a cynical ploy to boost popular living standards in advance of parliamentary elections due next year, which the pro-Kremlin United Russia party looks unlikely to win.

Mr. Putin will need a reliable legislative majority to pass the sweeping constitutional amendments he set forth in the same speech, which include what critics say are the means to prolong his reign. Therefore, the critics say, he has ditched the austerity policies of the past, appointed a whole new government, and is pressing forward with expansionary policies that may bring on at least a temporary burst of economic growth.

Others worry about the impact of new spending in a largely state-led economy in which government resists introducing structural reforms, such as privatization and strengthened property rights, and in which incomes have already greatly outstripped productivity growth. More money, especially in the hands of poorer Russians, is an undeniably good thing, say experts, but positive effects won’t last unless the economy starts producing more and better jobs for people.

“This can certainly work, at least to a certain extent,” says Ruben Enikolopov, rector of the New Economic School in Moscow. “Russian economic growth can rise from last year’s 1.3% to 2% or so, although it’s not really going to go much higher without major structural changes. It’s not particularly radical. It’s based on market forces” using old-fashioned Keynesian methods that are often described in the West as “priming the economic pump,” he says.

“Investing in people is always a good idea”

In the West, stimulus measures like this tend to be controversial because they usually involve some form of deficit-financing, either by borrowing money or raising taxes to pay for the new programs. Russia is in the enviable position of not having to worry about any of that, because its government is sitting on a mountain of cash accumulated during the past six years as the state prioritized saving money to ward-off external shocks from sanctions and falling oil prices.

As a result, Russia’s foreign currency reserves are near an all-time high of around $550 billion, and its national “rainy day” contingency fund is brimming over with $125 billion. Meanwhile, Russia’s national debt stands at around 15% of gross domestic product – a tiny fraction of the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio, which was 105% last December.

Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/Reuters
Newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin chairs a meeting with members of the government in Moscow on Feb. 13, 2020.

“I never really understood why the previous government insisted on saving the budgetary surpluses they accumulated,” says Alexei Vedev, an expert with the Gaidar Institute in Moscow and former deputy minister of economic development. “The previous Cabinet was very good at saving, but really poor at investing.”

The new government appointed by Mr. Putin, headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, is composed of accomplished technocrats. Mr. Putin clearly hopes they will find efficient ways of pumping money into economically distressed sectors of the population to raise living standards and improve the government’s falling public approval ratings.

“Investing in people is always a good idea,” says Mr. Vedev. “But it really matters how it is done. We have yet to see a real strategy. And in the absence of structural reforms, the impact will be limited.”

Although Mr. Putin’s personal approval rating remains high, at 68%, the new government of Mr. Mishustin has not enjoyed even the briefest of honeymoons, clocking in at only 48% public approval in its first month against 37% disapproval, according to the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent polling agency. Years of austerity, including deeply unpopular pension reforms, have taken a deep toll on public trust, experts say.

But there is no doubt that the idea of more social spending is popular. “Everything like this will enjoy massive public support,” says Denis Volkov, a researcher at the Levada Center. “Putin’s words about fighting poverty, providing more financial support for mothers and children, hit the nail on the head for most people. They’ve been waiting to hear this for a long time.”

Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov, a former Kremlin official who has been put in charge of the new program, announced that an extra $5 billion will be spent this year, primarily to help families. This is a reaction to dire demographic projections, which show that there will be at least 7 million fewer mothers in Russia over the next decade as a result of the population slump that took place in the 1990s.

The poverty index has risen in recent years, with nearly 21 million Russians now living below the official subsistence level. It’s hoped that more cash in the hands of Russian families will stimulate the birth rate, and lead to more domestic consumer spending to buoy Russian manufacturing.

AP
People celebrate the arrival of the train from Russia in Sevastopol, Crimea, after it crossed a bridge linking Russia and the Crimean peninsula on Dec. 25, 2019. The bridge is one of the few major infrastructure projects from Mr. Putin's current presidential term to have been successfully completed.

“About half of Russians live on salaries of less than $500 per month. That means they can only afford the most basic staples,” says Mikhail Chernysh, an expert at the official Institute of Sociology in Moscow. “Obviously better nutrition and living conditions is a good thing. But what young people want are better opportunities, and these are not forthcoming. That is why so many of them want to emigrate. So it’s all very well to invest in ‘human capital’, but that needs to go hand-in-hand with real economic growth. And that is what is still missing.”

The limits of big projects

One cautionary tale involves the vast $410 billion infrastructure program launched by Mr. Putin as he entered his last term of office. While it has certainly scored some high-profile successes, such as the $4 billion road-and-rail bridge – Europe’s longest – that now links the annexed Crimean Peninsula with the Russian mainland, many of the ambitious projects set forth by Mr. Putin are reportedly languishing.

The problem is not a lack of money – Russia’s government has plenty of that – but a deficit of state expertise, too few companies with the experience of carrying out such projects, and a pervasive fear of corruption, analysts say.

“These infrastructure projects are enormous,” says Mr. Vedev. “They look great on paper, but implementing them is something else entirely. Some figures have shown that up to half of money in these projects gets stolen. So, the officials in charge are extremely cautious about disbursing funds. After all, they could go to jail.”

The new welfare spending does not present the same problem, but the scheme remains badly worked out, says Yevgeny Gontmakher, an economic sociologist. He says expenditures need to be effectively targeted, otherwise funds intended for poor families with children will go equally to wealthier families who don’t need it.

“In the final analysis, what we need most urgently are reforms, to improve the investment climate, property rights, and reduce state economic control,” he says. “That is the only way to stimulate creation of better jobs, higher productivity, and more livable incomes.”

A dimming Betelgeuse has stargazers bursting. Three questions.

Something strange is going on with one of the most familiar objects in the night sky. Now, scientists are trying to figure out what is happening in the Orion constellation.

Mark

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Betelgeuse, the left shoulder of the constellation of Orion, is one of the brightest stars in the sky. At least it had been. But over the past several weeks, it has grown much dimmer than it usually is – and astronomers aren’t sure why. It has even spurred speculation that the red supergiant might be about to go supernova.

Betelgeuse is a “variable star,” so it naturally goes through cycles of brightness. Although this round of dimming has been outside previously measured norms, it could still be within the realm of Betelgeuse’s natural dips, some astronomers say. The current dimming could also simply be a cloud of dust belched out by the aging supergiant and now blocking our view.

Supernovas are practically impossible to predict, and astronomers are doubtful that the end is nigh. If Betelgeuse did explode, it would be spectacular, if harmless to us. The star is some 650 light-years from Earth, but astronomers think it could be as bright as a full moon, and its glow could linger in the sky for months.

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4. A dimming Betelgeuse has stargazers bursting. Three questions.

For the most part, the stars that populate the night sky today are the same pinpricks of light that our great-grandparents and their great-grandparents before them gazed upon. Constellations of the brightest stars, like Orion the hunter, have connected humanity to the cosmos for generations. These familiar night sights have drawn our eyes up, enticing us to ponder what else might be out there in the vast universe.

But something strange is going on with one of the most familiar objects in the sky. Betelgeuse (generally pronounced “beetle juice,” though there are several acceptable variations) typically ranks at least 11th or so among the brightest stars in the sky. It also marks the “shoulder” of the prominent constellation Orion. Over recent weeks, astronomers have noticed that Betelgeuse appears a lot fainter than usual – about a third of its normal brightness. And some have suggested that change might be a sign that the end is near for this familiar star.

What is Betelgeuse?

With a distinctive reddish hue and brightness, Betelgeuse is easy to spot with the naked eye. It is, in fact, a red supergiant. That means that although it is a cooler star, it’s among the largest stars in the universe by volume. If it were in the place of the sun in our solar system, it would fill the space beyond the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and maybe even Jupiter.

Alan Dyer/AP, photo illustration by Jake Turcotte/Staff
The constellation Orion, with Betelgeuse as its left shoulder, sits above a hill on a spring evening at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, with urban sky glow from distant Calgary.

A red supergiant is a more massive star toward the unstable end of its evolution. When it was a massive main sequence star, it fused all the hydrogen in its core into helium, and is now working its way through that helium, fusing it into heavier elements until eventually solid iron builds up in the core. Then, the star will suddenly collapse in on itself and expand quickly in a supernova explosion, leaving behind either a black hole or a dense neutron star.

Is Betelgeuse about to go supernova?

Some star-watching enthusiasts have suggested that perhaps the dimming in Betelgeuse’s light may be the lead up to an explosive death for the star. But supernovas are practically impossible to predict, and astronomers are doubtful that the end is nigh.

Betelgeuse is what is known as a “variable star,” and naturally goes through cycles of brightness. Although this round of dimming has been outside previously measured norms, it could still be within the realm of Betelgeuse’s natural dips, some astronomers say.

Additionally, aging stars also tend to belch out gas and dust, so perhaps a cloud of dust is simply blocking our view of much of the star’s light. Or maybe, others have suggested, parts of the surface of the star are going through some sort of cooling process.

Still, eventually Betelgeuse will explode. It could be tomorrow. Or it could be in another 100,000 years.

Would a Betelgeuse supernova be a risk to us?

No. Although the star is only some 650 light-years from Earth, it’s still far enough that the radiation from its explosion won’t affect us. But it will dazzle anyone who is around to view it. Astronomers think it could be as bright as a full moon – perhaps visible in our sky even during the day – and its glow could linger in the sky for months or even a year.

Supernovas may occur all over the universe, but it’s rare that such stellar explosions occur close enough for us to witness them. The last time a supernova was visible to the naked eye on Earth was in 1604.

As such, astronomers haven’t had a chance to study the lead-up to the explosion of a red supergiant star. So they’re keeping a close eye on Betelgeuse.

Whenever it blows, the star will have already provided astronomers with a much deeper understanding of the final days of massive stars. It will also serve as a reminder to stargazers that the universe is a dynamic, ever-changing place.

Difference-maker

Drivers of change

A T-shirt shop grows in Brooklyn – and brings hope to young lives

The value of a nonprofit isn’t always in how it “scales up,” but in how it reaches down into its community. This group helps young participants gain skills, then pass on the baton of opportunity.

Mark
Ann Hermes/Staff
Isaiah Jordan (left) learns silk-screen printing from Peter McGouran, production manager in Reconnect Brooklyn's shop.

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Jim O’Shea came to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as a priest. And as he looked at the community’s needs, he longed to have an impact that went beyond words.

Many of the young men he saw around him on the streets of “Bed-Stuy” were disconnected – neither working nor in school. Often they fell into gang activity.

He launched a project called Reconnect Brooklyn. Serving one small group of these men at a time, the program offers a way up that starts with job skills, responsibility, and the paychecks that follow.  

The jobs are in T-shirt printing, with local nonprofits as the main customers. It’s a chance to gain both general and specific work skills. The biggest goal is to help the men feel they are needed. The modest scale of Reconnect reflects its vision – seeing social mobility as a neighborhood-level undertaking.

“I heard about it through friends. A lot of my friends came here, got on their feet, and got a job,” says CJ McCoy, one of the participants. “It opened doors for them. I’ve seen it.”  

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5. A T-shirt shop grows in Brooklyn – and brings hope to young lives

Jim O’Shea came to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood as a priest. And as he looked at the community’s needs, he longed to have an impact that went beyond words.

Many of the young men he saw around him on the streets of “Bed-Stuy” were disconnected ​– neither working nor in school. Often they fell into gang activity.

“If you preach something but give no alternative, that’s just setting up for failure,” Father O’Shea says. 

The alternative he came up with is a project called Reconnect Brooklyn. For young people whose future is at risk, it offers a way up that starts with job skills, responsibility, and the paychecks that follow.  

Since 2011, Reconnect has been changing lives and building a healthier local community. It has employed more than 200 young men ​– often in the first jobs they’ve ever had. Currently, the jobs are in T-shirt printing, with local nonprofits as the main customers. For each small cohort that comes in, it’s a chance to gain specific skills as well as a sense of their own value. 

“In the neighborhood there was no real economy. They were small and family-owned businesses that were not looking to hire a guy on the corner,” says Father O’Shea. “That means kids were turning to an economy they can control, and that was drugs. That was the entry-level work. That’s where people were welcome and were taught the rules. It was setting them up for failure.”  

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Rev. Jim O’Shea developed Reconnect Brooklyn to bring jobs and work skills to people who otherwise might land in gangs or in prison.

“This was a start”

At Reconnect the biggest goal is to help these young men feel like they are needed. 

CJ McCoy says Father O’Shea’s program has changed his life in a very short time. “I needed to start somewhere, and this was a start,” says Mr. McCoy. 

Just a few weeks into their time here, the participants say it has already had a significant effect on their lives. “The energy is good and everyone is working together to get things done,” says Justin Monomatos, another member of the cohort.

At a basic level, it’s simply a place to learn. “Now is the time for them to make mistakes on the job, so they can learn from them so that does not happen when they are employed by people who might not have their best interest at heart,” says Father O’Shea. “The collaborative but forgiving environment is conducive to learning.”

The entire program lasts three months, and when it’s finished the cohort walks away with skills they can take back to school or to an employer, from habits of teamwork to customer service.

Reconnect helps with job placement as well. “Printing shirts is a whole other skill I can add on. It’s interesting,” says Musa Pough, a member of the cohort. 

Part of their recruitment process comes from the young men who go through the program. It’s a word-of-mouth situation. “These guys are doing their own vetting. I think it’s very powerful and helps build trust,” says Father O’Shea. It’s a sentiment members of the cohort echo. 

Upward mobility

“I heard about it through friends. A lot of my friends came here, got on their feet, and got a job,” says Mr. McCoy. “It opened doors for them. I’ve seen it.”  

The program is modest in scale, and that’s partly the point. Like some other modest-scale nonprofits, Reconnect is trying to reinvent social mobility as a neighborhood-level undertaking. The program is by and for the community, and each participant is a player. “The only ‘screening’ would be a series of interviews ensuring that expectations are on the table – we say two essentials are a willingness to work at our social enterprise and a willingness to work on yourself and community,” Father O’Shea says. “Candidates cannot be in school or working elsewhere. We prioritize those who have the least current options.”  

More than 80% of the young men who have been through the program are gainfully employed, he adds, describing one recent graduate who restored ties with his family and took a job at a CVS Pharmacy. Others have landed jobs in construction or retail. And some find work that directly applies their printmaking skills.

Father O’Shea works alongside Peter McGouran, the production manager, who used to run a commercial printing business of his own. He teaches the young men how to design graphics and then use dyes and screen printers to put them on shirts. 

“I teach the guys that every project that we do is their own. We are very much of the team mindset,” says Mr. McGouran. 

Customers include Southside United, an affordable housing advocacy group. 

“The impact Reconnect has had on the community at large is massive,” says Juan Ramos, director of Southside United. “People leave with skills and a support system that [they] did not have otherwise.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Some of the silk-screen prints produced in the group’s shop are on display.

Challenges along the path

As a business, Reconnect has faced its share of struggles. Its studio is a block away from a Citi Bike station ​– one of New York’s clearest indications of blossoming gentrification. Reconnect used to also operate a coffee shop in the neighborhood, called Reconnect Café, where the young men got a chance to work as well. But it was forced to close due to challenges with the landlord.

“On multiple occasions the ceiling would leak onto our countertops,” says Father O’Shea. When the landlord only patched up the ceiling, and plumbers said an actual fix would cost upwards of $20,000, he decided “it wasn’t worth the fight” to keep the cafe open. 

Although gentrification is changing the neighborhood, Reconnect’s mission here isn’t fading. In fact, quite the opposite. It is in talks to move to an expanded space, and the cafe may come back. 

In coming months Father O’Shea will depart for a full-time role at a Roman Catholic church in Manhattan. The Reconnect board is in the process of finding a replacement. It’s no easy task. But the group is committed to keep kindling promise in young lives.

And Father O’Shea’s legacy will remain. “Reconnect has already made a huge impact in my life,” Mr. Pough says. “And Father Jim is a big part of that.”

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Sharing the Nile beats war over it

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With the help of international diplomacy, Egypt and Ethiopia are nearing an agreement to end a dispute over the use of the Nile River. Rather than stumbling into a war over water, the two African nations appear ready for a peaceful settlement. In an era of climate change, nations need such models for managing shared interests over natural resources, especially water.

Their dispute over Nile waters began in 2011 when Ethiopia started constructing a mega-dam on the Blue Nile to provide badly needed electricity, threatening Egypt’s main source of fresh water. The two differed sharply over the duration and rate at which Ethiopia would draw water out of the Nile. With Ethiopia ready to start filling the dam’s reservoir later this year, both sides finally decided to allow third-party mediation last November. Now, with the aid of outside interlocutors, Ethiopia and Egypt have built up some trust and listened carefully to each other’s concerns. Not only might they avoid war, they could set a precedent for preventing other potential water wars in a climate-challenged world.

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Sharing the Nile beats war over it

Hot wars often get more attention than efforts to cool the passions that ignite them. This is not the case, however, in a dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. Under the glare of media and with the help of international diplomacy, the two countries are nearing an agreement over the use of the Nile River. Rather than stumbling into a war over water, the two African nations appear ready for a peaceful settlement.

One reason for all the attention: In an era of climate change, nations need models for managing shared interests and responsibilities over natural resources, especially water.

The dispute over Nile waters began in 2011 when Ethiopia started constructing a mega-dam on the Blue Nile to provide badly needed electricity, threatening Egypt’s main source of fresh water. The two differed sharply over the duration and rate at which Ethiopia would draw water out of the Nile and what it would do in times of drought. Some officials in Egypt threatened military action. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed responded, “If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”

With Ethiopia ready to start filling the dam’s reservoir later this year, both sides finally decided to allow third-party mediation last November. They turned to the United States and the World Bank. After several negotiations, they have narrowed their differences and have acknowledged many of each other’s core interests. Egypt is paying more attention to its inefficient use of water while Ethiopia is more willing to mitigate the downstream effects of the dam. The U.S. hopes the two sides will sign an agreement in coming weeks or months.

Such a pact could have an added benefit. It might encourage cooperation among the other African nations that border the Nile and its tributaries to work more closely in managing the critical water basin.

With the aid of outside interlocutors, Ethiopia and Egypt have built up some trust and listened carefully to each other’s concerns. Not only might they avoid war, but they could be setting a precedent for preventing other potential water wars in a climate-challenged world.

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.

Remaining poised, steady, and upright

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When a woman injured her ankle while working at a summer camp, she took a stand for her true nature as the offspring of divine Spirit – and healing followed.

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1. Remaining poised, steady, and upright

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Last year, on my first day serving at a summer camp for children, I was coming back from a hike with a group of counselors when I injured my ankle and fell, somersaulting down the dirt road.

I knew I had a choice to make. I could feel sorry for myself and worry what others would think. Or, I could take a stand for what I’d learned in Christian Science about everyone’s real nature as a reflection of God.

I’ve always loved the idea that because God is Spirit (see John 4:24), and we are God’s offspring, our true identity must be spiritual. Therefore this identity is not a material body made up of parts that are subject to stress, strain, and breakdown, but rather the embodiment of eternal spiritual qualities that make up the wholeness of our being. This is explained in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, which states, “Divine Science, rising above physical theories, excludes matter, resolves things into thoughts, and replaces the objects of material sense with spiritual ideas” (p. 123).

This helped me to stop thinking of my body as a collection of material “things” that might or might not be working, and to begin thinking of the spiritual qualities I always embody as my true substance. For example, I saw that feet express a sense of foundation. God’s man, which includes each of us, is rooted and grounded in divine Principle. With this spiritual reality as our foundation, we are planted firmly on solid ground that empowers us to stand upright and whole.

Following this line of thinking, I thought of ankles as expressing flexibility and adaptability. When we are walking or running and come to a rock or a divot, our ankle flexes and allows us to stay upright. Metaphorically, when we encounter rocky or uneven terrain in life, we can trust the power and presence of God to help us deal with the changes and yet remain poised and steady on our course. Our divinely maintained integrity and wholeness can’t be disrupted. This means we have the ability to make the needed adjustments in perspective or approach to handle whatever comes our way.

Praying with these ideas helped me realize that I could have complete confidence in God’s care. I could not be hurt while doing good, because God created me and all of us as His, Her, perfect spiritual idea. That spiritual perfection never includes anything outside of goodness. And I felt without a doubt or fear that I could do all I needed to without penalty or pain.

This proved to be true. I was able to walk back to my cabin, which was up a significant hill and about a quarter-mile away. I also fulfilled all my duties that week, and when the opportunity came up a couple of weeks later to play soccer with a group of kids, I was fully able to participate.

When we lift the way we think about ourselves to a spiritual basis rather than a limiting, material one, then we more readily recognize the divine laws operating in our lives. And we find that better health and healing of the body naturally follow.

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A symphony of light

Alexander Kuznetsov/Reuters
An aurora is seen in the sky in Kilpisjarvi, Finland, Feb. 18, 2020.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Tomorrow, we’ll offer a portrait of a scientist with a fascinating lens on the world. She's studying cave slime to help us understand what life might look like elsewhere in our solar system.

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