2020
March
09
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Monitor Daily Podcast

March 09, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

The future of forecasting is female. Why that aids preparedness.

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Welcome to your week. Today’s stories: how globalization may evolve, the thought shift underlying one U.S. primary, why charter schools seem high and dry, the kindness of (actual) rats, and six helpings of progress. First, a look at where rising diversity could change how we assess emerging global trends.

If the future is female – or at least less male – then what about the future of ... futurists? 

The title has more often been linked to names like Issac Asimov, Alvin Toffler, and George Gilder than to ones like Faith Popcorn. But a report in Forbes cites a powerhouse roster of women futurists and notes that a third of the field’s professional association members now are women. 

Why might that matter as the world confronts new challenges, from coronavirus to oil shocks? 

Preparedness – the work of good futurists – comes from analyzing emerging changes. That requires data, but also an openness to unknowns. As Shane Parrish wrote in his Farnham Street blog, “[Generally], the people who know the most about something talk in terms that involve uncertainty. ... People that know the least tend to talk in absolutes.”

Those camps don’t break reliably along gender lines. But futurist thinking has skewed male and white. I reached out to Amy Webb, a quantitative futurist I’ve met. She sits atop that Forbes list. 

“Our field ... has been around for the past century, but until recently [it] was dominated by men,” she replied, “and that meant a limited field of view.” In teaching an MBA course at New York University’s Stern School, Amy likes to mentor young women and people of color in the science of strategic foresight.

Her work adds perspectives. With the extra nuance comes, ultimately, a more accurate take on what's coming. “[T]he most reliable future forecasts,” Amy notes, “are those that account for deep uncertainty, and include a diverse set of insights.”

Why COVID-19 is likely to change globalization, not reverse it

As the global economy sways on bad news, few expect nations’ interconnectedness to end. “Deglobalization” isn’t quite the word. But our writers found some signs of a coming evolution.

China Daily/Reuters
A textile worker is seen on a fabric production line at a factory in Qingdao, China, Feb. 14, 2020. From the U.S. to Africa, industries that rely on Chinese textiles are worried about how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting supplies.

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In Italy, the economic toll of the coronavirus is visible in the sheer emptiness. It’s audible in the eerie quiet. 

“It’s dead. There are no tourists,” says Gianni, owner of a small pizzeria in Rome. “I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to pay the rent.”

Due to a spike in cases, Italy is among the world’s hardest hit. On Monday night, the government banned public gatherings and asked people to stay home except for work or emergencies. Yet parallel challenges are emerging around the world: unfilled airplanes, half-vacant malls, and canceled public events and business conferences.

As stock markets totter, the emergency seems to be testing whether a wedded global economy will hold together. It comes as the idea of “globalization” has come under assault in the realms of public opinion, public policy, and even economics.

“This [epidemic] may end up as a great ‘teaching moment’ where we see that multilateral cooperation is essential,” says Richard Baldwin, an international economist in Geneva. “Or it may be seized upon by nationalists as an excuse to further restrict trade and immigration.”

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1. Why COVID-19 is likely to change globalization, not reverse it

The Spanish moss-draped oaks and brick-laid city squares of the American South’s low country are undoubtedly romantic. After all, some 8,000 weddings – lace-wrapped opening chapters of new lives – take place throughout the region every year.

But for many Americans looking to get hitched this year, it is starting to feel like someone dropped the wedding cake.

Heavily dependent on Chinese dressmakers who toil in well-lit factory floors from Wuhan and beyond, the $78 billion U.S. wedding industry is facing turmoil unlike any it’s ever seen. Waiting times for dresses have gone from six months to who knows when. Chinese suppliers have sent out apologetic but blunt notices that back orders could last for months.

The COVID-19 crisis comes at the absolute worst time: Late winter is when shopkeepers like Mia Mayer make nearly their entire year’s profit as nervous young women and their families waltz in and out of the changing booths.

“This is our world now,” says Ms. Mayer, who has sold over 1,000 dresses at her lacy boutique, That Dress, in Rincon, Georgia, since opening in 2012. “Wedding dresses, the decorations, the linen – all that stuff comes from China. The truth is, I never thought about this risk. You think about a decline in business, but that’s something that you can do something about. Now, there is no fix. There is no Plan B.”

The upheaval in the realm of weddings is just one example of a severe shock – a possibly transformative jolt – that is now rippling through an interconnected world economy.

And marriage ceremonies may be an apropos image to keep in mind.  As stock markets totter – exchanges plunged around the world Monday, and NYSE trading was temporarily halted – the coronavirus emergency seems to be testing whether a “wedded” global economy will hold together or fall apart.

Globalization under fire

The test comes as the very idea of “globalization” – long vaunted as a path to shared prosperity for richer and poorer nations alike – has already come under assault in the realms of public opinion, public policy, and even economics. 

Some nationalists in Europe and the U.S., already predisposed against unfettered trade, are now pointing to the virus as an added reason to seal the borders and bring factories back home.

The vast majority of business experts say the real lesson of the new coronavirus outbreak is, if anything, the very opposite. They don’t foresee any wholesale retreat from today’s web of far-flung commercial ties among nations, or benefits in doing so. Still, they expect the virus outbreak will alter the patterns of trade, perhaps in ways that have a local as well as a global character. 

“Any reasonable board member would expect a CEO to be responding with greater supply redundancy and be prepared to pay for it,” says Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “To the extent that this crisis appears to be heading toward a global phenomenon, it is a nudge toward a different, more diversified globalization rather than less globalization.”

China Daily/Reuters
Workers wearing face masks rope a container ship at a port in Qingdao, China, Feb. 11, 2020. Many Chinese factories halted production in February due to efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Global ripple effects are expected in industries from auto parts to pharmaceuticals, as the Chinese factories work to restart.

Indeed, supply-chain specialist Rolf Zimmer in Germany says his clients are looking to make their supply networks more resilient, not more insular. 

“This [epidemic] may end up as a great ‘teaching moment’ where we see that multilateral cooperation is essential,” says Richard Baldwin, an international economist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

“Or it may be seized upon by nationalists as an excuse to further restrict trade and immigration,” which would hurt nations that go that route, he writes via email. 

Decline in poverty

Economists generally say that, while it’s true that trading relations come with risks, the benefits of economic connections tend to far outweigh the costs.

Decades of rising container-ship commerce and falling trade barriers, after all, have done much to drive a historic decline in poverty rates, most notably in Asia but spanning the world. In the process, median incomes in advanced nations like the U.S. have gone up, not down.

Yet the change has been uneven. Coupled with the trend of rising automation, globalization has created pockets of desperation when factories close. And, particularly in the new millennium with China’s full-tilt entry into global markets, the sheer pace of these changes has sown political upheaval. Donald Trump’s successful anti-establishment presidential run in 2016 and the British public’s vote to leave the European Union are, in part, signs of the social strain. 

The coronavirus emergency is globalization’s latest test. Some world leaders say it’s vital for nations to meet the crisis by collaborating across boundaries on both health and economic matters. 

“There is a common enemy, [and] we need to fight in unison,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said in a recent public appearance.

For many workers and corporations, the economic side of that fight isn’t about lofty ideals. It’s about coping, here and now, with dents in both supply and demand

In Italy, the economic toll of the coronavirus is visible in the sheer emptiness. It’s audible in the eerie quiet. 

“It’s dead. There are no tourists,” says Gianni, owner of a small pizzeria in the center of Rome.

He has reduced the amount of pizza he makes each day, but he still can’t sell it all. “I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to pay the rent,” he says.

Due to a spike in cases, Italy is among the world’s hardest hit. On Monday night, the government took the extraordinary step of banning public gatherings throughout the country and asking people to stay home except for work or emergencies.

Yet parallel challenges are emerging around the world: unfilled airplanes, half-vacant malls, and canceled public events or business conferences.

Who supplies the suppliers?

Even far from the world’s biggest ports, in the tiny landlocked nation of Lesotho in southern Africa, the ripples are significant. In an industrial district of the low-slung capital, Maseru, some 40,000 people work in garment factories, churning out sweatshirts and skinny jeans for American brands like Levis, Walmart, and Costco. The industry is the nation’s largest private employer.

“Orders are already beginning to slow down,” says Bahlakoana Shaw Lebakae, founder of the United Textile Employees, a workers’ union.

Why? The textiles used by factories in Lesotho come from China. The logjams there mean that U.S. buyers are suddenly cautious purchasers.

“The textile industry here is already hanging by a thread,” Mr. Lebakae says, because it is reliant on a precarious American trade deal called the African Growth and Opportunities Act, which allows duty-free sales in U.S. markets.

Business leaders and officials worldwide are scrambling for solutions. But a videoconference isn’t always an adequate substitute for a business trip, which are harder to arrange these days. Finding alternative suppliers, whether of wedding dresses or microchips, isn’t easy. 

Consider the closure of one parts factory in Codogno, Italy, an area affected by the outbreak. The shutdown is temporary, but it means that auto assembly plants across Europe, from Jaguar Land Rover and BMW to Renault and Peugeot, could be left short of crucial components.

“This coronavirus is a wake-up call. It’s, ‘Wow. We are much more vulnerable than we thought,’” says Mr. Zimmer in Germany, chief solutions officer at Riskmethods, which provides software to help companies manage supply chain risks. 

Andrew Medichini/AP
A sea gull commands a view of the Colosseum amid plummeting tourism in Rome, March 7, 2020. Italy is a focal point of the coronavirus emergency in Europe, and the nation's economy is at risk of falling back into recession. By curbing travel and fueling uncertainty, the epidemic is affecting global consumer spending, not just producer supply chains.

It’s not that manufacturers haven’t thought about the need for resilience before. Many got a similar wake-up call in 2011 from an earthquake in Japan and floods in a Thai center of hard-drive production. But risks to supply networks may lie beneath the surface. 

Even if a manufacturer has multiple suppliers, Mr. Zimmer cautions, what happens when those suppliers all rely on a single source for a key material?

Supply-chain experts say the worst of the China-related disruptions isn’t being felt in Western factories yet, due to the lag time of shipments arriving. The flow of global goods from pharmaceuticals to electronics hinges on two unknowns: How long will it take for Chinese factories to get back up to speed, and how many other producers around the world will face interruptions due to the virus?

“We’ve told companies to keep a lot of cash, and to make sure that you have a lot of stock of goods that are at high risk of stopping up,” says Christopher Parmo, chief operating officer of Verdane, a Europe-wide private equity firm that owns about 100 tech companies.

Deglobalization forces

Yet the outbreak could be more than just an alarm-bell to diversify supplier networks. It might contribute to a broader reshaping of the global economy.

On the one hand, it promises to accelerate “telemigration,” or the globalization of desk jobs that are becoming increasingly digital, argues Professor Baldwin, author of a 2018 book on the future of work. Already, the outbreak has prompted companies such as Twitter and JPMorgan Chase to ask thousands of employees to work from home. It’s not a long leap from such steps into a next phase of globalization, in the service sector.

Domestic telecommuting “is the thin edge of the wedge for international telecommuting,” he says.

On the other hand, if companies rethink their global footprints, several forces may nudge them to focus closer to home rather than further afield. The years since the 2008 financial crisis have already been marked by what some observers call deglobalization – a slowdown in the growth of trade and a rebound in protectionist measures such as tariffs worldwide.

“The virus adds to other reasons why firms are already rethinking their logistics,” writes Vicky Redwood of the forecasting firm Capital Economics, in a late-February report.

Beyond protectionist policies, those reasons include:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced when freight-transport distances are shortened.
  • National security may be enhanced by moving important production homeward.
  • It’s easier to customize products and respond to shifting consumer preferences when factories are close to the shoppers they serve. 
  • Rising automation is making labor costs a smaller factor in deciding whether to locate plants in high- or low-wage nations. 

“Machines just repeat what they’re supposed to do, precisely,” says Harald Malmgren, a longtime presidential adviser and consultant to corporations on trade-related issues. “They work night and day. They don’t go on strike.”

Yet even if a trend toward more localized production accelerates, as Dr. Malmgren expects, it won’t happen overnight. And it doesn’t imply an incoming tide of jobs to nations like the U.S., if service-sector jobs simultaneously become more globally “traded” and automated.

The virtues of trade

And whether the overall arc of globalization bends upward or downward, the major economic takeaway may be for nations to avoid having “all eggs in one basket.”

“China isn’t the problem. Lack of diversification is the problem,” says Belinda Archibong, an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College in New York. In Africa, “lack of regional, intra-Africa trade is the problem.”  

That’s a long-standing discussion within the continent. “Maybe this crisis is going to force us to trade more amongst ourselves,” says Blandina Kilama, an economist and senior researcher at Research on Poverty Alleviation, a Tanzanian think tank.

In the U.S., John Melin is an eyewitness to the virtues of trade. Brown & Haley, the candy company where he is president and chief operating officer, has seen a rising share of its Almond Roca sales coming from overseas. 

China is a big source of that demand, which helps keep the firm’s 175 employees near Tacoma, Washington, employed. Mr. Melin and his team are working hard to keep the sales flowing and to pin down some alternative suppliers for packaging. 

“Part of the health of our country​ and our​ ​high standard of living comes from the fact that people fly on ​B​oeing​ ​airplanes around the world​,​ and people buy i​P​hones around the world​,​ and people a​dm​ire the values and institutions of the ​United ​States,” he says. That integration with the world “brings more good than bad.”

In Germany, Yorck Otto similarly sees globalization as here to stay, and probably for the better. 

“No, this wheel cannot be turned back,” says Dr. Otto, president of a business association representing small and medium-sized companies.

“The global supply chain will continue to get better and better every day. This globalization will be refined, and hopefully it will be also covered under new humanitarian laws and regulations so that the world can be a little bit better through globalization,” he says. “I’m not a great fan of kids sitting in Bolivia digging into soil to get materials to make batteries, for example.” 

For now, back at the bridal shop, Ms. Mayer doesn’t know of too many alternative materials for the dresses she needs.

The supply predicament will likely push business toward do-it-yourself weddings, used wedding dresses on eBay, and a reevaluation of price points to consider American dressmakers, if they can keep up with demand.

“I’m sure [COVID-19] will get figured out in time,” says Ms. Mayer. “But in our world, time can make or break you. It’s scary. It’s your livelihood.”

This piece was reported by Patrik Jonsson in Savannah, Georgia; Nick Squires in Rome; Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg; and Lenora Chu in Berlin. It was written by Mr. Trumbull.

As path to nomination narrows, Sanders hopes for Michigan surprise

This next one isn’t a horse-race story. It’s a look at how much thought has shifted in a key state – and how different voters’ motivations are – since Bernie Sanders beat his then-rival there in 2016.

Two ways to read the story

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If South Carolina once looked like Joe Biden’s last stand, Michigan is now looking like Bernie Sanders’.

After underperforming on Super Tuesday, Senator Sanders badly needs a win here – the state with the biggest cache of delegates on March 10 – or he may wind up too far behind the former vice president to have a realistic hope of catching up.

In 2016, Senator Sanders edged Hillary Clinton in Michigan in a stunning upset. Then, it was noncollege-educated white voters in the central and northern parts of the state who helped put him over the top. But Super Tuesday revealed surprising Biden strength in this demographic, with Mr. Biden carrying noncollege whites in Minnesota over Senator Sanders, 44% to 32%. 

And the Vermont senator is finding himself on the wrong side of a tectonic shift in the Democratic race, as the party’s voters appear to be coalescing around what they see as Job 1: beating President Donald Trump.

“This is an election cycle to be pragmatic for us Democrats,” says Deborah Laraway, at her Pizza Plus Restaurant in the western Michigan village of Pullman. “I’ve said all along that when the primary came, I’d vote for the front-runner.”

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2. As path to nomination narrows, Sanders hopes for Michigan surprise

Sen. Bernie Sanders needs to win Michigan’s Democratic primary, badly. The self-proclaimed political revolutionary underperformed on Super Tuesday, and a defeat in Michigan – the first Rust Belt state to cast nomination ballots, and the state with the biggest delegate haul among those voting March 10 – could put him too far behind former Vice President Joe Biden to have a realistic hope of catching up.

Senator Sanders edged Hillary Clinton here in a stunning upset in 2016. Recently, he’s scrapped rallies in Missouri and Mississippi to focus on Michigan, where he’s denounced Mr. Biden’s past support for “disastrous” trade pacts, and charged that a Super PAC associated with the former vice president is raking in money “from every special interest out there.”

But the Vermont senator is finding himself on the wrong side of a tectonic shift in the Democratic race. The party’s voters, across demographic groups, appear to be coalescing around what they see as Job 1: building a coalition to defeat President Donald Trump in November.

“This is an election cycle to be pragmatic for us Democrats,” says Deborah Laraway, who has been cooking and serving meals at her Pizza Plus restaurant in the western Michigan village of Pullman for 35 years. 

Lee A. Dean
Deborah Laraway stands in the restaurant she has owned and operated for 35 years in Pullman, Michigan. She favors pragmatism over ideology in the 2020 election to find the candidate with the best chance to oust President Donald Trump.

Michigan is a decent microcosm of the national electorate. In that sense it will be a test of national political trends, and perhaps will clarify what is now essentially a two-man Democratic race.

It does have more African American voters than the national norm, at around 25%, according to FiveThirtyEight figures based on the 2016 electorate. It also has fewer Latino voters, at around 3%. These deviations could weigh against Mr. Sanders, as African American voters generally have been a strong constituency for Mr. Biden, while Latinos have leaned pro-Bernie.

Noncollege-educated whites make up about 42% of the Michigan electorate – a slightly higher rate than that of other big northern states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. And it was noncollege whites in the central and northern parts of the state who helped Mr. Sanders surprise Mrs. Clinton four years ago.

But Super Tuesday revealed surprising Biden strength in this demographic. In Minnesota, Mr. Biden carried noncollege whites over Mr. Sanders, 44% to 32%, even though the former vice president didn’t campaign in the state.

A recent Detroit News/WDIV poll found Mr. Biden leading Mr. Sanders in Michigan, 29% to 22.5%. In general, the state has followed the contours of national polling, with Mr. Biden a weak early favorite who declined following early defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, then came back strong after a big win in South Carolina, says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University and author of “Red State Blues: How the Conservative Revolution Stalled in the States.”

Michigan Democrats have a particular reason to rally around the current front-runner, says Dr. Grossmann – President Trump’s whisper-close victory there in 2016 was key to his election.

Take Karen Block. She lives in Cooper Township, just north of Kalamazoo. She works at a laboratory testing facility and her husband is a deputy at Kalamazoo County jail. She has two college-age children burdened with student loans who support Mr. Sanders.

Ms. Block likes some of Mr. Sanders’ proposals, including raising the tax rates for the top 10% to 20% of Americans and strengthening environmental regulations.

“But I still think Biden’s going to be the one,” she says. “He’s going to appeal more to the moderates and to the people who are not going to vote for Trump or who do not want to.”

For Rick Seams, who lives near the southwest Michigan village of Bloomingdale, the primary serves as an opportunity to strike the first blow against President Trump and the conservative movement.

Mr. Seams worked in the paper industry for 28 years in union shops before taking his current job at a nonunion pharmaceutical manufacturing facility. He has been a consistent Democratic voter, he says.

He remembers thinking in 2016 that Mr. Sanders was “a little too far left.” If the Vermont lawmaker were to gain the 2020 nomination, Mr. Seams would support him against President Trump. But that same doubt he had about Mr. Sanders in 2016 persists four years later.

“If it comes down to Bernie or Biden, I would have to lean toward Biden,” he says.

African American voters were essential in rescuing Mr. Biden’s campaign in South Carolina and are expected to be a strong source of support in Michigan. In February, before Mr. Biden’s resurgence began, the Michigan Black Democratic Caucus endorsed him. Other African American party leaders are offering similar support, including Joel Rutherford, chairman of the Macomb County Black Democratic Caucus.

Mr. Rutherford is a retiree from the U.S. Air Force and the Department of Defense. The performance of the economy under President Trump is a central issue to him.

“There’s this myth that low unemployment or a high stock market means everything is great economically. That’s just not the case for many people and especially for people of color,” he says.

Wary of radical change and worried about the harsh political climate of recent years, Mr. Rutherford says he plans to vote for Mr. Biden on Tuesday.

“There’s a big push now for people to get some sort of normalcy in politics. Joe Biden has a very good chance to do that,” says Mr. Rutherford.

Marshall Kilgore expresses similar feelings. An African American student at Western Michigan University and a native of Comstock Park, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Mr. Kilgore was an organizer for the Clinton campaign in 2016 despite being too young to vote. He plans to cast his primary ballot for Mr. Biden.

“When you say words like ‘revolution’ [as Mr. Sanders often does], you scare people. You can’t use the tactics that were used in the 1960s in 2020,” Mr. Kilgore says.

Back at Pizza Plus, Deborah Laraway says she hasn’t actually decided who she’s going to vote for. But she’s clear on one thing: She won’t be voting for President Trump in November.

“I’ve said all along that when the primary came, I’d vote for the front-runner and then vote for whoever got the nod in November, even if it were Genghis Khan,” Ms. Laraway says.

Why both left and right are knocking charter schools

Should school choice focus on opportunities for disadvantaged students, access to private and religious schools – or both? We look at how a movement is getting caught in a clash of civic values.

Two ways to read the story

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While charter schools have been a centerpiece of education reform in the United States for nearly 30 years, their supporters have suddenly found themselves buffeted by forces from both the left and right.

Many in the public charter school movement were stunned last month to see the Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal, which eliminated the 26-year-old federal Charter Schools Program that helped jump-start such schools. While not opposing charters per se, the administration has outlined scaled-back block grants that allow states to use federal education dollars as they see fit. A portion of the block grants would go toward the proposed Education Freedom Scholarships program, designed to give families access to private and religious schools.

At the same time, charter schools have come under attack from some Democrats. The resurgent liberal wing of the Democratic Party has become skeptical of the competitive and market-driven models behind the charter school movement. And lawmakers in states including New York and Michigan, as well as a number of cities, have begun to scale back commitments to innovative charter ideas.

As Matthew Ladner of the Arizona Charter Schools Association puts it, “The fact of the matter is that charter schools are under assault.”

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3. Why both left and right are knocking charter schools

Throughout his career as an expert in education policy and public charter schools, Matthew Ladner has championed the core idea that families should have a wider range of choices as they seek to find the best schools for their children.

But the Arizona-based reformer admits he’s probably in the minority of charter school advocates who also champion another side of school choice policy, the effort to expand state-funded vouchers and tax credits for families who want to send their children to private and religious schools.

Many of Mr. Ladner’s peers are wary of the politically charged voucher movement, long a priority of religious conservatives, and argue they should keep their distance, focusing more on expanding choice within public education. As he sees it, though, “charters have 99 problems, but private choice is not one of them.”

“The fact of the matter is that charter schools are under assault,” says Mr. Ladner, director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “We are starting to have too few friends, not too many. In a big-tent movement there’s always going to be tensions, and there’s going to be spats, but at the end of the day, the private-choice people are not an enemy at all.”

Not too long ago, policy experts often called charter schools the last remaining bipartisan issue, noting how Democrats and Republicans, including the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and especially Barack Obama, made expanding charter schools a significant part of their education policies.

Yet while charter schools have been a centerpiece of education reform in the United States for nearly 30 years, their supporters have found themselves buffeted by forces from both the left and right, observers say.

The Trump administration’s proposal

Last month, many in the public charter school movement were stunned to see the Trump administration’s most recent budget proposal, which eliminated the 26-year-old federal Charter Schools Program that helped jump-start such schools. While not opposing charters per se, the administration – including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a longtime school choice advocate – has proposed scaled-back block grants that allow states to use their federal education dollars as they see fit.

“The Trump administration has consistently said that school choice is a priority, but this budget doesn’t demonstrate that,” says Harry Lee, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “Instead, there’s this move to these Education Freedom Scholarships, giving tax credits which would essentially help families access private and religious schools.”

Few expect Congress to pass this budget proposal, but it represents a dramatic shift in the administration’s priorities, observers say. Instead of charters, a portion of its proposed $19.4 billion in block grants is specifically allocated to this $5 billion scholarship program.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos smiles as she is applauded by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey during a roundtable discussion on school choice Dec. 5, 2019, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ms. DeVos is a longtime school choice advocate.

The Trump administration says the elimination of the Charter Schools Program does not mean it opposes such schools, only that it prefers to let the states decide how they spend their federal funds.

“There is a mountain of evidence that charter schools help students succeed and very high parental demand for spots in charter schools,” says Angela Morabito, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, in an email. “We believe states know this, and we fully expect that innovative states would continue sending federal dollars to public charter schools. States may even choose to send more federal dollars to them.”

The shift in Republican priorities comes at a time when charter schools have come under attack from liberal Democrats who have also sought to curtail, if not eliminate, the long-standing federal program supporting charter schools.

The resurgent liberal wing of the Democratic Party has become skeptical of the competitive and market-driven models behind the charter school movement. Lawmakers in states such as California, New York, and Michigan, as well as a number of cities that have been leaders in crafting a range of innovative charter schools, have begun to scale back their commitments to such ideas.

“Charters have evolved from their original concept as small incubators of innovation,” says Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, in an email. “We now find that too frequently charters are operated expressly for profit, or are nominally non-profit but managed or operated by for-profit entities.”

In many ways, charter schools have become ensnared in a growing clash of civic values, observers say, as many on the left start to emphasize egalitarian and secular ideals to combat the inequities in American education. Many on the right, on the other hand, have emphasized a choice-based pluralism that has begun to focus more on religious liberty and support for families choosing private options in education.

“I just think that the more choices parents have the better, whether they’re in the form of private choice or public choice or both,” says Erica Smith, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has been at the center of a legal battle to expand vouchers and tax credits for private schools. “We just think competition makes this all better.”

Over two dozen states offer some form of voucher or tax-credit programs for private school choice, and most are directed to low-income and minority communities. But some states forbid these from being used for religious schools, and at least 37 states have so-called Blaine amendments on their books, which prevent any kind of government funding for religious purposes.

Supreme Court case

But that could change this year. Ms. Smith is co-counsel in a Montana case before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the legal barriers that thwart the kinds of tax credit programs that can support private and religious schools – programs similar to the Education Freedom Scholarships being proposed by the Trump administration.

Both supporters and critics agree that this case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, could create a “virtual earthquake” in the nation’s public education landscape.

“What’s at stake in Espinoza is, if we win this case, tens of thousands of children, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will finally have access to educational choice programs,” Ms. Smith says.

The debate over vouchers and tax credits has become an epic constitutional battle over the meaning of the First Amendment’s establishment clause and the separation of church and state, many experts say. But liberal educators also see the broader effects of the school choice movement as a threat to the ideals of equal opportunity and universal public education.

“Simply put, vouchers do not ensure that all of our students have access to the opportunities and resources they need and deserve,” says Ms. Eskelsen García. “These voucher [and tax credit] proposals divert already scarce funding away from neighborhood public schools – where 90 percent of children go – and give it away to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers.”

There are some 7,000 charter schools across the 43 states with programs, as well as the District of Columbia, and they serve about 3.2 million students – about 6% of K-12 public schools, researchers say. About 5.8 million K-12 students attend private schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

When it comes to successful outcomes, researchers see a lot of variability, especially on the charter side of the school choice movement.

“We know there’s a lot of variation,” says Mark Berends, director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at the University of Notre Dame, who is conducting a school-choice research project in Indiana. “We know there’s some charter schools that are doing really excellent things in terms of developing students, and then there’s some charter schools that probably should be shut down.”

Families supporting charters

Mr. Lee, who heads the charter school association in New Jersey, points out that communities of color are often far more supportive of school choice than white liberals, who have become warier of the charter school movement. 

“Poll after poll demonstrates that African American families, Latino families support additional public charter school options, while wealthy white families don’t,” he says.

Indeed, about half of black people and Latinos express support for charter schools, according to Education Next, a Harvard University-based journal. Support from white Democrats, however, fell from 43% to 27% between 2016 and 2018.

“It’s interesting because no one ever complains about the old-fashioned kinds of school choice,” says Mr. Ladner of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “We always have had and always will have school choice for the wealthy.”

“So the real question is not, ‘Will we have school choice?’ but rather, ‘Who will get to exercise choice?’” he says. “What mechanisms like charter schools and private choice programs do is to allow a much broader segment of society to exercise that choice.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from Ms. Morabito of the U.S. Department of Education.

Science says rats can be kind. Here’s why that matters.

Three food pellets evidently won’t bribe a rat. At least, not enough to influence the creature to harm a fellow rat. One of our science writers explores what motivates compassion in the realm of vermin.

Berufstierrettung Rhein Neckar/Reuters
Rats tend to get a bad rap, particularly when they are scurrying around human neighborhoods, like this one seen in Bensheim-Auerbach, Germany Feb. 24, 2019. But a new study suggests that these humble rodents share some prosocial traits with humans.

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Most humans have an innate aversion to harming one another, even a total stranger. But where does that reluctance come from? After all, shouldn’t the pitiless, dog-eat-dog forces of natural selection have hard-wired us to have the opposite tendency?

Maybe not, say scientists. A recent study on harm aversion among rats suggests that a basic unwillingness to hurt a member of one’s own species emerged among mammals more than 80 million years ago.

In a study published last week, experimenters found that some rats had a tendency to avoid pushing a lever that delivered a sucrose pellet if doing so caused a rat in a neighboring cage to receive an electric shock. These findings suggest that evolution has endowed mammals with a basic reluctance to cause harm to a member of one’s own species.

“Evolutionary biology might, at first sight, suggest that animals are selfish in the struggle for survival,” says neuroscientist Christian Keysers, a senior author of the study. But, he says, that is not always the case.

“Next time you call someone a rat, to suggest a low moral quality,” he says, “think again!”

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4. Science says rats can be kind. Here’s why that matters.

At the end of the Second World War, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall spoke with thousands of infantry soldiers and uncovered a surprising facet of human nature: fewer than 1 in 5 soldiers had actually fired their guns in combat, even though 4 in 5 had the chance to do so. Many troops, he found, had aimed high or off to the side to avoid hitting the enemy. 

“The average and normal healthy individual,” wrote General Marshall in 1947, “has such an inner and unrealized resistance toward killing another man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

Today, psychologists use the term “harm aversion” to describe our seemingly innate and widespread unwillingness to make another human, even a total stranger, suffer. But where does this reluctance come from? Is it something we learn as children? Or does it run deeper? 

A study published March 5 in the journal Current Biology suggests that it has roots in the very thing we often use to justify our selfishness: evolution.

Researchers at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the University of Amsterdam found that some rats display an unwillingness to harm their fellow rats, even when it benefits them to do so. This unwillingness, the researchers found, correlates to a similar biological mechanism in humans, suggesting that this innate pacifism emerged among mammals more than a million centuries ago.

“Next time you call someone a rat, to suggest a low moral quality, think again!” writes neuroscientist Christian Keysers, a senior author of the study, in an email to the Monitor. 

Getting out of the rat race

The research of Dr. Keysers and his colleagues helps explain the evolutionary origins of “prosociality,” behavior that benefits conspecifics, that is, other members of one’s own species, without an obvious evolutionary benefit to oneself. 

“Evolutionary biology might, at first sight, suggest that animals are selfish in the struggle for survival,” writes Dr. Keysers. “After all, conspecifics are the worst competitors, as they use the exact same resources we use.”

To test the rats’ moral fiber, Dr. Keysers and his colleagues put 24 rats of both sexes through a series of experiments. First, they trained the rats to press two levers, each of which delivered a sucrose pellet, until they had developed a preference for one lever. Then, the experimenters wired the preferred lever so that, when a rat pressed it, a rat in a neighboring cage would receive an electric shock.  

Nine of the 24 rats immediately stopped pressing the preferred lever upon witnessing their neighbor get shocked, regardless of whether it was a rat they shared their home cage with or a complete stranger. 

“In a way, the individual variability was really stronger than we expected,” writes Dr. Keysers. Perhaps rats are as distinct from each other as humans are, he adds.

Creatures of habit 

Next, the experimenters rigged the shocking lever to deliver two pellets. The rats that had stopped pushing their preferred lever still tended to steer clear of it, pushing the one-pellet lever instead, sacrificing one pellet to avoid harming their neighbors. But, as with humans, every rat has a price: When the shocking lever delivered three pellets, the rats would switch back.

“What the rats are telling us is, ‘I’m willing to spend one food pellet on this individual’s distress, but not two pellets,’” says University of Chicago neurobiologist Peggy Mason, who was not involved in the study.

The experimenters also “overtrained” some of the rats to keep pushing their preferred lever. They found that overtrained rats would seldom switch from their levers to avoid shocking their neighbor. 

This is similar to the conclusion that the U.S. military reached after General Marshall’s report that just 20% of troops had fired on the enemy: By deliberately desensitizing trainees to killing, for instance by using humanoid targets, the Pentagon increased the shoot-to-kill rate among U.S. troops to 55% in the Korean War, and 95% in Vietnam. 

“A cute trick”

The research into rats’ brains serves as evidence that humans and rats share the same basic emotions, he says. This “makes it unlikely that harm aversion evolved independently in the two species,” writes Dr. Keysers. “Instead, it suggests that it evolved before humans and rats separated 100 million years ago.”

This means not only that we should expect harm aversion to be widespread among mammals, but also that the emotions associated with being unwilling to cause suffering – empathy, remorse – are actually the same thing in humans and nonhumans.

“Not so long ago, it would have been taboo to even say we are researching emotions in animals,” writes Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, a neurobiologist at Tel-Aviv University, in an email to the Monitor. But recently, “people have started understanding that taking emotions ‘off the table’ scientifically speaking is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Biologists say that emotions evolved because they motivate us to perform behaviors that are beneficial to our reproductive success. Prosocial emotions like empathy motivate us to benefit others in our group.

“The evolutionary advantages of having a cohesive group are so high that mammals have evolved a way to yoke one individual’s distress to another,” says Dr. Mason. “It’s a cute trick.”

In the case of the rats, we don’t know whether the ones who switched levers did so out of a sense of higher moral purpose, or whether their switching was simply an effort to relieve their own personal discomfort at witnessing another’s suffering. (Think of the way a screaming baby might make you squirm in your airline seat.)

“It might be that rats avoid harm to others because they care about the wellbeing of others,” writes Dr. Keysers, “or because they dislike the feeling triggered by hearing the other animal squeak.”

But, he adds, “What many people get wrong, is that they entertain the more conservative interpretation when it comes to animals, but the more altruistic interpretation when humans help other humans.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

From Alaska to Nepal, edging toward equity

This feels like another week for which to get fortified. So, herewith, another roundup of global good – with news about wages, whales, wind, and more.

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5. From Alaska to Nepal, edging toward equity

1. United States

Joining Maryland and New Hampshire, Alaska became the third state to prevent employers from paying a subminimum wage to workers with disabilities. Before the change, employers could apply for a waiver to pay workers below the state’s minimum wage – a step very few companies actually took. “Historically, minimum wage exemptions were considered necessary to help people with disabilities gain employment,” says a statement released by the state’s labor department. “Experience over the past two decades has shown that workers with disabilities can succeed in jobs earning minimum wage or more.” (Anchorage Daily News)

Rashah McChesney/ Peninsula Clarion/AP/File
Sarah Mohorich, an intern working through a program that provides job training for people with disabilities, stocks a salad bar in Soldotna, Alaska.

2. Britain

State schools and colleges in England will offer students free sanitary products through a program funded by the country’s Education Department. Designed to fight “period poverty,” which can lead girls from low-income families to miss school, the program will make the products available to an estimated 1.7 million students. It also aims to reduce stigmas associated with menstruation and raise awareness about the issue. England follows Scotland’s similar legislation from 2018. At the time of publication, Scotland’s legislature had also preliminarily passed a bill to provide free sanitary products in designated public places – becoming the first nation in the world to pass such legislation. (The Guardian, Reuters)

3. South Georgia

Researchers spotted an “unprecedented” 55 blue whales during a survey around the coastal waters of South Georgia, an island in the South Atlantic Ocean. After only two of the critically endangered species were seen during a similar survey in 2018, the findings suggest the area remains a valuable summer feeding ground for blue whales, the researchers say. Blue whales were nearly hunted into extinction during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when, according to some estimates, their numbers dropped by almost 97%. Since then, stricter whaling regulations have led to a slow population recovery. (The Independent)

4. Senegal

Senegal opened West Africa’s first major wind farm in the rural area of Taiba N’Diaye, meaning 30% of the country’s electricity will come from renewable sources. One-third of the farm’s 46 turbines are now operating, with the rest poised to come online by June. At full capacity, the farm will generate a sixth of Senegal’s total energy, provide enough power for 2 million people, and save more than 300,000 metric tons of carbon emissions a year. A representative from the state power company says the next goal is to expand access to electricity, which currently reaches just 60% of the population. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

5. India

Faced with mounting agricultural costs posed by climate change, more than 1,000 farmers in India’s state of Odisha have begun resowing indigenous seeds, which advocates say bring ecological and social benefits. Compared with the high-yielding variety of seeds distributed by the government, the traditional seeds are more resistant to shifts in climate and less likely to cause environmental degradation, studies show. Farmers in the 18 villages that began planting the seeds last year in partnership with the nonprofit Nirman have reported higher yields, restored ecosystems, and a renewed sense of community centered on long-held farming traditions. (Mongabay)

6. Nepal

Nepal will for the first time count LGBTQ people in its next census, scheduled for July 2021. The change, which adds a category of “others” to the existing options of male and female, will likely help the country’s LGBTQ people gain better access to health care, education, and welfare services. Still, activists criticized the government’s conflation of sexual orientation and gender identity. Despite continued discrimination against more than 900,000 LGBTQ people within the country, Nepal has grown increasingly progressive on issues relating to gender and sexuality – following a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that required equal rights for LGBTQ citizens. (Thomson Reuters Foundation)

Niranjan Shrestha/AP/File
Participants march in a gay pride parade in Kathmandu, Nepal.
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A corporate role in ending an epidemic

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A society’s response to an epidemic, writes historian Frank Snowden in a new book on the topic, is a lens on the moral priorities of its leaders. A current example of priorities in the United States is the number of companies promising to keep paying employees – even temporary wage-earners – despite the shock and disruption of the coronavirus outbreak.

One practical reason to retain workers during the crisis is that, up to now, the task of finding new workers has been difficult. Yet another reason may be a trend among companies, made strong since the 2008 financial crisis, to better consider how they treat workers, customers, suppliers, local communities, and the natural environment.

The promises of no layoffs during this crisis have become a signifier of ethical progress. Epidemics are not extinguished only by new medicines, quarantines, and improved health practices. Societies also need to have their moral priorities in place. Healing the economy with fear-reducing actions is as important as healing the sick.

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A corporate role in ending an epidemic

A society’s response to an epidemic, writes historian Frank Snowden in a new book on the topic, is a lens on the moral priorities of its leaders. Did they create a resilient community during more settled times? Have they built up trust in institutions? Epidemics reveal “the moral relationships that we have toward each other,” the Yale scholar told The New Yorker.

A current example of moral priorities in the United States is the number of companies promising to keep paying employees – even temporary wage-earners – despite the shock and disruption of the coronavirus outbreak. Congress could decide soon to mandate paid leave during the health crisis. Yet many corporate leaders are a step ahead in announcing no layoffs or furloughs, creating a sort of cordon sanitaire that protects jobs and eases fears.

At Microsoft, 4,500 hourly employees “will continue to receive their regular wages even if their work hours are reduced,” says company President Brad Smith. Similar commitments have been made by Google and other big firms. “I encourage all of our peers to consider this as well,” tweeted Chuck Robbins, chief executive of Cisco.

One practical reason to retain workers during the crisis is that, up to now, the task of finding new workers has been difficult. The U.S. economy is in its 11th year of expansion. The jobless rate is a low 3.5%. Many companies are enjoying record profits. They can afford a temporary loss.

Yet another reason may be a trend among companies, made strong since the 2008 financial crisis, to better consider how they treat workers, customers, suppliers, local communities, and the natural environment. Such “social responsibility” toward stakeholders is often genuine. It can also prevent a high cost to a corporation’s reputation.

The promises of no layoffs during this crisis have become a signifier of ethical progress. Other signs are showing up. Citigroup is offering leniency to many debtors. Some health insurers are absorbing the cost of copays for customers. For many firms, belt-tightening will come in ways other than hits on the most vulnerable.

Worldwide, business has become the most trusted institution, taking the lead role in global governance, according to the latest Edelman survey. Based on 40 years of surveys for its “trust meter,” the communication firm finds the “trust capital” for businesses depends on three ethical drivers: integrity, dependability, and purpose.

“Business has leapt into the void left by populist and partisan government,” states the 2020 report. “It can no longer be business as usual, with an exclusive focus on shareholder returns.” The survey finds 73% of employees want the opportunity to change society. Nearly two-thirds of consumers make buying choices based on core beliefs.

Epidemics are not extinguished only by new medicines, quarantines, and improved health practices. Societies also need to have their moral priorities in place. Healing the economy with fear-reducing actions is as important as healing the sick.

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.

Not afraid but not naive

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Many are voicing their fears and worries about the coronavirus. But Christ, ever “voicing good,” is the divine influence that calms our fears, reveals our safety in God, and brings healing to our lives.

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1. Not afraid but not naive

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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I’ve been hearing the same voices many others in society have been listening to – media, government officials, friends. And the focus is pretty constantly the same: coronavirus. A lot of people have learned a new word, and too many of them are afraid of it.

But recently a little phrase has been surfacing in my thought. It’s this: Christ is voicing good, right within consciousness. What an incredible contrast to all the bad stuff I was taking in. It’s clear to me that the source of that more hopeful thought is Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” where she writes, “Christ is the true idea voicing good, the divine message from God to men speaking to the human consciousness” (p. 332).

Now these words weren’t telling me to ignore the difficult things going on in society. But they were assuring me that there was something more going on than all the discussion about contagion. The Christ is the Godlike nature of Jesus that he lived so fully and successfully in his human life. Jesus promised that this Christ always has existed and always will. It speaks to us of God’s goodness and all-power, and of man’s immortal, indestructible nature. And Jesus’ life proved that this “good” voiced by the Christ has a healing and calming influence in our lives. He gave evidence of this again and again as he came in contact with others.

Over a lifetime I’ve seen a wonderful consistency in what Jesus taught. I’ve seen evidence that the Christ can bring a spiritual poise that literally changes our experiences. Changes them in a way that may be unexplainable to the material senses, but is quite understandable to our more spiritual sense.

On a number of occasions, I’ve seen times when everyone expected contagion to take a particular course, and it didn’t work out that way at all. And I’ve experienced times when a kind of mental contagion was stopped in its tracks. Once when a doctor had set some bones after an accident, he explained a number of drugs I needed to take in order to protect myself from potential harm. He described one drug intended to deal with a condition that he said could be fatal. While I certainly wasn’t naive about his warning, my preference was to protect myself with what I had learned about the healing Christ over the years. But his warning remained a little like a contagion from his thought to my thought.

Not too many days later the very condition he had told me about developed. I did something I wasn’t accustomed to doing, and which wasn’t helpful. I looked up the condition in a medical publication. Sure enough, the word “fatal” was prominent in the description. At first, fear tried to take over. But I began to discern the Christ I had come to trust “voicing good,” and soon I felt a spiritual peace and confidence. And within a few days the condition disappeared as I prayed specifically about it.

This voicing of good is a promise to every individual on this planet. In fact, Science and Health also affirms that the Christ is “a divine influence ever present in human consciousness” (p. xi). No one is without access to this healing influence. As we open our hearts to its messages, we recognize that it’s the true and only influence, bringing a calm that changes the course of human discord.

You don’t need to know a lot about the Christ to open your thought to its divine presence and discern the good it is voicing. In fact, when surrounding voices are making their views too prominent in your consciousness, take a moment and acknowledge that Christ is voicing good, and listen for its message right within your mind, assuring you of your safety in God.

Viewfinder

The lady sees red

Mahe Elipe/Reuters
A woman lies in the street during a protest to mark International Women’s Day at Zócalo square in Mexico City, March 8, 2020. Tomorrow, we'll have a story from Whitney Eulich in Mexico City about the country’s "no women" strike Monday over violence against women.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Clayton Collins
Director, editorial innovation

Come back tomorrow. Howard LaFranchi sits down with George Shultz, elder statesman of U.S. foreign policy, and talks about America’s place in the world, the need to curb nuclear weapons, and Mr. Shultz’s White House dance with Ginger Rogers.

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