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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 10, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

A bridge with panoramic views – and close-ups, too

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

Last week, a few of us enjoyed a good laugh on Slack, an instant-messaging app we use at the Monitor. One of the options for the day’s Viewfinder photo showed people traversing the nearly 1,700-foot Arouca pedestrian bridge, suspended 574 feet above a canyon in Portugal. That’s roof level for some buildings with 50+ floors!

The first Slack response was “I am never walking on that bridge,” followed seconds later by “Me neither.” Someone else added a “rolling on the floor laughing” emoji. Then we got back to work.

But the truth is, The Christian Science Monitor builds skyscraper-high bridges all the time – with words and images, not steel. Bridges to an island weighing the trade-off between tourism and tradition. To the heart of an idea, like respect or fairness. Or to a new solution in education or the environment.

Just last week, the Monitor took readers to all of those places and more, offering an aerial view with enough history and context to orient them in Jerusalem, Tybee Island, a deli in Italy, and a garden in Washington, D.C.

But here’s where the analogy breaks down. On the Arouca bridge, there are only bird’s-eye views. On the Monitor’s bridges, you get close-ups too – proofs of humanity, seen in hope, courage, patience, and persistence.

Best of all, there’s no fretting about walking at skyscraper heights – it’s a journey of head and heart, not feet.

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Thinking inside the box: CARE packages notch 75 years of US soft power

The original CARE packages sent to a devastated Europe 75 years ago conveyed an important message: Americans cared. Even today, this soft-power icon factors in U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds.

Trudy
CARE
Amid the rubble of war-battered Berlin, CARE packages sent by Americans provided German families with more than food. Says German Chancellor Angela Merkel, marking the packages' 75th anniversary: “Those CARE packages not only alleviated hunger in postwar Europe, they also provided hope.”

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Today, the “care package” is a household term, describing perhaps a box of Mom’s cookies. But 75 years ago, the original CARE packages, boxes of basic foodstuffs and other essentials, arrived in France, sent by Americans to a devastated and demoralized Europe. The packages carried mostly food, but for many Europeans they brought forms of sustenance the war had severely depleted: optimism, and a renewed faith in humanity.

“We were very hungry, the country was destroyed, so the 30 or so packages we received in my very large family were what kept us going,” says Peter Molt, a German historian who was a teenager in Stuttgart when packages marked “USA” arrived.

In many ways, the CARE package was one of the first examples of hearts-and-minds soft power, in that it married a basic humanitarian impulse to help others with America’s aim for a prosperous and free Europe.

The packages, Mr. Molt recalls, were part of a larger vision for Germany’s future that would be peaceful and imbued with a deep sense of solidarity with people in need. “We were happy to be in the zone assigned to the Americans,” he says. “For us it was a new start with a new future for democracy.”

Thinking inside the box: CARE packages notch 75 years of US soft power

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On May 11, 1946, a ship carrying 15,000 boxes of surplus U.S. military food rations left over after World War II steamed into the port of Le Havre, on the French periphery of a hungry, devastated, and demoralized Europe.

Organized by a new consortium of 22 humanitarian aid groups named the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe, and largely purchased from the government with donations from average Americans, the boxes of basic foodstuffs and other essentials would soon carry a name that today connotes concern and support for others, especially loved ones.

Those boxes that arrived in France 75 years ago Tuesday were the original CARE packages.

By the 1960s, more than 100 million CARE packages would be delivered across Europe – 10 million in Germany alone, America’s World War II enemy.

And while an inventory list would confirm that each CARE package carried mostly food – canned meats and vegetables, oats, sugar, oil, even chocolate – for many Europeans, they brought forms of sustenance the war had severely depleted: optimism, a renewed faith in humanity, even (in the case of that chocolate) delight.

“We were very hungry, the country was destroyed, so the 30 or so packages we received in my very large family were what kept us going,” says Peter Molt, a German historian who was a teenager in Stuttgart when the first packages marked “USA” arrived at his home.

“For the adults it was food, and very welcome of course, but for the children it was a marvelous thing,” he adds. “There was chocolate, even ice cream powder – it was a real festival.”

In many ways, the CARE package was one of the first examples of hearts-and-minds diplomacy, in that it married a basic humanitarian impulse and desire to help others in distress with America’s postwar vision and strategic goal of rebuilding a prosperous and free Europe.

Postwar Europe was also in the sights of a hegemonic Soviet Union promoting a very different political and economic system from America’s. The CARE packages were a small but key part of the effort to keep Europeans looking westward.

“Those CARE packages not only alleviated hunger in postwar Europe, they also provided hope – hope of better and more peaceful times after those terrible years,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement marking the 75th anniversary.

Indeed, for some Germans in particular, the packages were a small miracle. Here from the war’s victorious people, who might have been expected to send punishment and even death, instead came nourishment.

But, Mr. Molt recalls, the CARE packages were also part of a larger vision for Germany’s future that would be democratic, peaceful, and imbued with a deep sense of solidarity with less fortunate people in need.

“We were happy to be in the zone assigned to the Americans” in southern Germany “and not the part occupied by the Soviets,” he says. “For us it was a new start with a new future for democracy.”

Hamza Al-Qadimi/CARE
In response to devastating floods in Yemen in 2020, CARE distributed cash and housing supplies.

Of course, the U.S. government could have simply distributed around Europe the 3 million surplus food rations that had been intended for a planned invasion of mainland Japan that never occurred. But what set CARE packages apart – and made them such integral parts of a new hearts-and-minds diplomacy – is that they were sent by average Americans to people they didn’t know but still empathized with.

“It’s not an accident that you have the complement of the CARE package and the Marshall Plan, ordinary citizens doing their part individually, but also governmental leaders saying this is what we need to do at a more visionary strategic level,” says Michelle Nunn, CEO of CARE USA.

On one level, “you had [former Secretary of State] George Marshall and a bipartisan set of leaders in Congress who frankly did sway public opinion and create the mantle of the Marshall Plan,” she says.

Indeed, President Harry Truman would be one of the first Americans to send CARE packages, she notes, in a televised ceremony at the White House in which he encouraged other American citizens to do the same. Sixteen years later, President John F. Kennedy would declare, “Every CARE package is a contribution to the world peace our nation seeks. It expresses America’s concern and friendship in a language all peoples understand.”

But for Ms. Nunn, the key to that innovative “complement” was the “wellspring of ordinary American citizens ... who saw the news of people facing starvation in postwar Europe and said, ‘We won’t stand on the sidelines.’”

It took those two pieces, Ms. Nunn adds, “to create a kind of constellation of American leadership post-World War II that has served us so well.”

Today, the “care package” is a household term, describing perhaps a box of Mom’s cookies sent to a child at a distant college, or a ready-made package purchased on the internet and meant to say “thinking of you.”

And while the real “CARE package” is going strong, it no longer contains canned meats or staples like sugar and flour – in fact, “it no longer comes in cardboard boxes,” notes Ms. Nunn.

These days a CARE package is more likely to come in the form of a hospital in a box, such as the 100-bed temporary hospitals being stood up in India amid the country’s pandemic crisis; birthing kits for expectant mothers in conflict zones of West Africa; or an accelerated graduation program for girls who have missed significant stretches of elementary education but still aspire to secondary school.

Laura Noel/CARE
CARE contractor Gabby Dirden helps volunteers and staff from Bethel's Heavenly Hands, a CARE partner, distribute food to hundreds of people in Houston, Feb. 24, 2021, after snowstorms that disrupted power and water service.

And then there is the cash voucher, which allows a family facing hunger to feed itself while also experiencing the dignity of determining for itself the foods that best suit it.

Yet for many of the people on the receiving end of today’s CARE package, the sense of humanity and global solidarity it represents is no less touching or inspiring.

As in the case of Khaled, a displaced Syrian who lives with his family of seven in a tent camp along the Syria-Turkey border and who was interviewed with the assistance of a nongovernmental organization partnering with CARE.

Khaled, who did not want his family name used for security reasons, worries daily about feeding and protecting his family. But perhaps his biggest concern has been his elderly mother, who has great trouble moving around.

Which is why Khaled was so relieved when a new water stand and bathroom were constructed much nearer his family tent.

But his relief turned to amazement, he says, when he was told the new facilities were built with donations from ordinary Americans. Wanting to know more, he looked up CARE the next time he had internet access, and learned that the help that was making life a little easier for his mother was from “a very old organization that has provided aid in many parts of the world.”

And then there is Mousa, a Syrian father of seven whose family was displaced from Raqqa by the Islamic State to a series of villages and encampments in a better but still-insecure area of northern Aleppo.

Mousa, who was contacted similarly, says he felt helpless as he watched his family weaken from lack of food and nutrition. But all that changed when he started receiving a $50 monthly cash-for-food stipend from CARE. “The day I receive the $50, I feel like I own the world,” he says.

Yet something else has changed for Mousa as he has come to understand where the money feeding his family comes from.

“Before the war in Syria began, our view of America was negative and we thought that it was the main cause of wars in the world,” he says. But learning about the American organization helping his family “showed me the opposite.”

Saying he wished to send a message to Americans to assure them their generosity is making a difference, Mousa says, “This is a beautiful thing” that there are people “who provide aid to those affected by wars and disasters without knowing these people.”

As she contemplates those first CARE packages that arrived in Le Havre 75 years ago, CARE USA’s Ms. Nunn says she thinks about how things could have been different – how a victorious America could have turned inward and focused on its own well-being and not worried about a devastated and hungry Europe.

“I think at moments we have been turning inward over the last couple of years, and ... it might be tempting to do so again as we turn the corner” on the pandemic, she says.

“But for so many reasons, I think it’s even more important that we recognize our interdependence” and the dimension of that revealed by the pandemic.

In that context, she adds, the CARE package today symbolizes humanity, solidarity, and “recognition that truly our safety is dependent upon the safety of others as well.”

The Respect Project

Bridging the conflicts that divide us

‘Blind date’ for political rivals? TV show is breaking down barriers.

The second article in our Respect Project focuses on a Canadian TV show that offers political rivals an opportunity to share perspectives and experiences respectfully. Viewers love it.

Trudy
Courtesy of Political Blind Date
Toronto City Councilors Gary Crawford and Shelley Carroll, who hold very different political views, chat in a Toronto coffee shop during an episode of the TV show "Political Blind Date."

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It’s called “Political Blind Date.” And far from being a hokey reality show for the political set, the popular Canadian series aims to break down walls around contentious issues from gun rights to climate change.

Take the moment Toronto City Councilor Gary Crawford confided to colleague Shelley Carroll that his daughter has a disability. Ms. Carroll, who raised a daughter diagnosed with autism, replied instinctively, “Oh, Gary” – an empathy so obvious in just two words.

It’s not that the two didn’t know one another. They’d worked together in City Hall for years. But more often than not, they were battling over city finances. This meeting, at a coffee shop, was a way to set the stage for engaging one another with the time and respect that complex problems require.

With filming of a fifth season underway, about 50 politicians have participated, spending two days together with each other’s constituents. The show has been optioned to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and South Africa, and is being shopped in the United States. “It’s a moment,” says director Mark Johnston, “where people are trying to heal and listen to each other.”

In the Monitor’s Respect Project, we examine how respect is operating in politics, in race, in gender, in religion, and in education.

‘Blind date’ for political rivals? TV show is breaking down barriers.

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When Gary Crawford confided to Shelley Carroll on TV that he has a daughter with a disability, the mother who raised a daughter diagnosed with autism replied instinctively, “Oh, Gary” – conveying an empathy so obvious in just two words.

It’s not that the Toronto city councilors didn’t know one another. They’d worked together in City Hall for the better part of a decade. But more often than not, they were dug in on either side of the chamber, battling over city finances.

So this meeting, at a cozy Toronto coffee shop, was an intentional step away from those fiery legislative sessions, a way to help two rival politicians find common ground in sustaining North America’s fastest-growing city – even if Ms. Shelley envisions new revenue tools while Mr. Crawford dubs himself a “keep taxes low kinda guy.”

Welcome to “Political Blind Date.” The popular Canadian television show might sound like a hokey reality show for the political set. But for its creators, the aim is to undo some of the stubborn binaries that have built up around contentious issues from gun rights to taxation to immigration to climate change.

Getting beyond the media scrum, the yelling during parliamentary question periods, the sound bites on nightly news, and the callous swipes over social media, producers set the stage for participants to engage one another with the time and respect that complex problems require.

“Respect is at the heart of it. Not only are politicians, in the way they are using political rhetoric, not respecting each other; they’re disrespecting their citizenry,” says Mark Johnston, showrunner of “Political Blind Date.” “And at the same time, there’s been a disrespect and dehumanization of politicians.”

The television show was directly inspired by a column in the British newspaper The Guardian in 2015, where politicians would debate issues cleaving British society ahead of the Brexit referendum.

Canadian producers saw the opportunity for a TV show on their side of the Atlantic, where polarization has also crept into politics, unsettling a sense of politeness and compromise that is so central to the national identity. 

With the filming of a fifth season underway, about 50 politicians have already participated, spending two days together with each other’s constituents and wrestling with legalization of marijuana, Indigenous rights, and climate change. It’s not easy: In one episode, a politician who supports gun rights visited a Toronto mother whose children were hit by bullets at a playground.  

Courtesy of Political Blind Date
Toronto City Councilors Shelley Carroll (in red pants) and Gary Crawford talk with Melissa Appleton of the Participatory Budgeting Project in New York during the filming of a "Political Blind Date" episode.

The goal is not to get the two politicians to reverse their positions, something that rarely happens. It’s to slow down and study policies in all their complexity, and to hear the human concerns and perspectives that lie behind their support.

John Ferri, an executive of TVO, the television network that airs the show, says they are trying to forge more respectful debate. “Contemporary politics is defined by the fact that campaigning never ends. Basically, politicians are in spin and win mode all the time,” he says. “And that coarsens the public conversation, because everyone is always on the attack, so divisions are exaggerated. There’s less and less room for compromise, which is the essence of who we are. It feels like the current hypertoxic, hyperpartisan reality of politics is un-Canadian to me.”

City finances

During the episode on Toronto city finances, which aired in January 2020, Mr. Crawford hands Ms. Carroll a button to put on. Hers is a big yellow disk with an arrow pointing upward, reading “High Property Taxes.” His reads the opposite, the arrow pointing downward next to “Low Property Taxes.” 

But after the show, he realizes the buttons don’t make as much sense as he originally thought. They both want their constituents to be able to stay in their homes and rely on services their taxes pay for. The question is how. “I realized we have been sitting at two separate chairs of a table; we are definitely sitting apart. But the reality is, there’s a lot of food that we’re sharing between us,” he says. 

He says he’s still a “low tax kinda guy.” But the experience opened him up to a conversation he would not have been willing to have before the episode. And both say they talk more than they ever did before. “We’re often understaffed, under-resourced, and really stretched for time,” says Ms. Carroll. “We don’t get to know enough about each other’s personal lives. So you don’t know where each other are coming from.” 

“You can have different politics, but it always helps if you can humanize and say, ‘OK, I get your point of view and it’s different from mine, but I know where you’re coming from, so let’s work on it,’” she says. “Gary Crawford and myself share in common that we both have special needs children who are now in adulthood. ... And we’ve had that in common all along.”

Trickle-down behavior

Anna-Kay Russell, co-founder and director of funding partnerships for the Canadian Black Policy Network, says this kind of connection between two rivals has a trickle-down effect. “The ‘us versus them’ mentality not only seeps into the behavior of our politicians, but down into the mindsets of the voters, and it detracts from the fact that we’re a nation that needs to and should be operating as one, collectively,” she says. 

Sometimes being too “polite,” one of Canada’s most enduring traits, constrains the country from driving change, she says – and beyond that, points to a double standard around politeness. “There’s a lot of room to be uncivil if you have power, whereas [for] people of color, recent migrants, women, I think civility is often used against us to keep us quiet.”

Janet Fanaki, who runs a podcast called “Resilient People” in Toronto, says she has learned more from watching the show than she does listening to any political debate or rhetoric. “I’m not the kind of person who really wants to learn while people are screaming at one another,” she says. “So I like the premise of ‘Political Blind Date,’ where a topic will come up that they’re not in agreement with but they can talk in a calmer kind of way. And you just wish sometimes that was more the way things were discussed.”

The show has averaged about 195,000 viewers per episode, a solid number for a small network like TVO, says Mr. Ferri, and it has been optioned to the United Kingdom, France, Israel, and South Africa. The show’s creators are also shopping it to the United States, given all the divisions that have grown amid the pandemic. “It’s a moment for this show,” says Mr. Johnston. “It’s a moment where people are trying to heal and listen to each other.”

He sees potential even in the explosive political environment of the U.S. “It’s easy to sit behind a Twitter account or stand up in a legislature,” he says. “But if you agree to go on a journey with another human being, I just think in general people are going to listen to each other.”

The French military is becoming more diverse. It’s also leaning further right.

Far-right sentiment has crept into the French military, and while some officials are downplaying its significance, it’s prompting reflection about the army’s approach to diversity.

Trudy

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Today’s French army strives to be modern, ethnically diverse, and driven.

But that image is being tested after more than 1,000 former service members – and 18 on active duty – signed an open letter published in an extreme right-wing magazine last month, warning of a coup and civil war if the French government failed to take action to uphold the country’s “civilizational values” against “suburban hordes.”

As French society becomes more diverse and the Islamist terrorist threat continues, such talk is evidence of existing pockets of protectionism within the army – those hoping for a return to French conservative values and a nostalgia for “la vieille France.”

It has highlighted an underlying tension within both the military and broader French society. It has also prompted a moment of reflection for the French army, as it looks to improve diversity and understanding within its ranks.

“A small percentage of the military is used to a bourgeois army. They’re nostalgic for traditional France, but it’s totally impossible to go back,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst at the Paris-based Iris think tank. “The military is now an army of professionals, with more people from a [minority] background joining and giving their lives for our country.”

The French military is becoming more diverse. It’s also leaning further right.

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Benoit Tessier/Reuters/File
French soldiers take part in a live mobility demonstration to present France's military capabilities in Versailles, near Paris, Oct. 8, 2020.

Nassim grew up in a social housing block in one of Paris’ disenfranchised suburbs, studying economics after high school. But when he set off on the job search, doors closed all around him. One recruiter said that with his Arabic name, he’d have problems finding a job and “integrating” into a company.

So when a friend suggested that he join the army, he decided to give it a go.

“I thought I would try the army for a few years, get some experience to add to my résumé and move on,” says Nassim.

That was 16 years ago. Now, Nassim, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because soldiers are not allowed to speak to the press without authorization, is a noncommissioned officer in southwest France. As a second-generation Frenchman of Algerian descent who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps to a rigorous, mid-level military position, Nassim exemplifies what today’s French army strives to be: modern, ethnically diverse, and driven.

But that image is being tested after more than 1,000 former service members – and 18 on active duty – signed an open letter published in an extreme right-wing magazine last month, warning of a military intervention and ensuing civil war if the French government failed to take action to uphold the country’s “civilizational values” against “suburban hordes” – a reference to the banlieues, or suburbs, which are home to large immigrant populations. The same magazine published a second, anonymous letter Sunday, allegedly written by soldiers and signed by over 160,000 members of the French public, that again alerted to the threat of civil war and said the French government had granted concessions to Islamism.

The letters follow on the heels of recent investigations by online journal Mediapart that revealed pockets of neo-Nazi sympathizers within the French armed forces.

The government has downplayed such sentiment as marginal, but has condemned it and promised to punish it where necessary. Nonetheless, as French society becomes more diverse and the Islamist terrorist threat persists, such talk is evidence of a nostalgia for “la vieille France” within the army, and hopes of a return to conservative French values.

It has highlighted an underlying tension within both the military and broader French society – a striving for balance between modernity and traditionalism. It has also prompted a moment of reflection for the French army, as it looks to improve diversity and understanding within its ranks.

“A small percentage of the military is used to a bourgeois army. They’re nostalgic for traditional France, but it’s totally impossible to go back,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a political analyst at the Paris-based Iris think tank. “The military is now an army of professionals, with more people from a banlieue background joining and giving their lives for our country.”

Traditionalism in the military

The first controversial letter was published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of a failed putsch against then-President Charles de Gaulle by French generals who sought to prevent Algeria’s independence from France. Some observers say the letter hints at a longing for France’s old guard and a time when the military held influence over its colonies. But that era also marked the beginning of mass immigration from North Africa to France.

Since the 1960s, the government has struggled in its integration efforts, even if North Africans and Muslims are now part of the fabric of French society. The issue of immigration has become politically fraught, with the far-right National Front party using it to its benefit since the 1980s. The FN has often conflated Islamic fundamentalists who carry out crimes with the country’s five million-strong Muslim population. The party has also accused French Muslims broadly of lacking respect for laïcité, France’s version of secularism.

“When [FN party founder] Jean-Marie Le Pen discovered that he could mobilize people by speaking about immigration, it changed dimension and became very important,” says Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist who studies terrorism and social change. “The issue now is how to deal with Islam and Muslims – not just Islamists – in a country such as France. This is the real debate.”

Recent terrorist attacks have nudged public discourse further towards traditional, conservative values. Last month, a police officer was killed in the town of Rambouillet in a terrorist attack, and the murder of a junior high teacher in a Paris suburb by an Islamist terrorist last October set off a series of public debates and government propositions to tighten security and stamp out separatism. Emmanuel Macron is increasingly positioning himself as a law-and-order president.

Polls suggest that around 40% of the French military votes for the FN, now renamed the National Rally (RN) party, significantly more than the general population. A Harris Interactive poll taken shortly after the first letter was published showed that more than half of French people supported its political sentiments – including RN leader Marine Le Pen.

So while its signatories represent a minority of the some 270,000 service members here, it speaks to a growing concern that the government isn’t doing enough to preserve traditional French values of equality, liberty, fraternity, and laïcité.

“People are exasperated by the disorder, those who are putting their religious beliefs above the values of this country,” says Pierre, a lieutenant general in Paris who also asked to be identified by a pseudonym. Though Pierre didn’t sign the April letter, he agrees with parts of it. “The army is a mirror of French society, in all of its diversity. But this letter is a thermometer; a reading of what needs to change.”

“I’m trying to change people’s mentality”

French Defense Minister Florence Parly has assured the public that an “immense majority” of French troops remain loyal and neutral. Meanwhile, the army continues to push initiatives that promote equal opportunity and social diversity, in hopes also of combating high turnover rates since the draft was phased out in 1996.

Its Volunteer Military Service (aimed at youth in France) and Adapted Military Service (targeting youth in French overseas territories) provide skills and jobs training within a disciplined military framework, to battle delinquency and provide a potential entry point into the army. Once inside the institution, the army prides itself on its meritocratic system and role as the great equalizer.

“Some people call it a social elevator; we prefer the expression ‘social ladder’,” says Pierre, the lieutenant general. “You need to work hard to get ahead.”

And though gathering race-based statistics is illegal in France and diversity training remains a foreign concept here, the army hasn’t closed its eyes to intolerance. Since January 2020, it has provided “diversity-equality” representatives to troops, who act as mediators in incidents of harassment or discrimination. Military chaplains of multiple faiths hold office hours on-site and can be a resource for those experiencing prejudice. In 2013, the army was awarded a special prize for its efforts by the pro-diversity nonprofit Toléde Association.

That doesn’t mean all is rosy. Hierarchical barriers, inextricably linked to France’s colonial history, can impede members of ethnic minorities from moving up the ranks. The army’s anti-terror operations, putting ethnically diverse young foot soldiers on neighborhood patrols, may be the military’s fresh public face. But the highest ranked officers remain primarily white, Catholic, and upper class.

Promotion beyond the rank of noncommissioned officer involves going in front of a jury of high-ranking officers, which can put members of ethnic minorities at a natural disadvantage. Daily life on base and on mission, from mess halls to sleeping arrangements, is extremely hierarchical.

That is particularly problematic, Nassim says, when incidents of discrimination occur – such as on his first day, when a superior told him, “I don’t like Arabs, I don’t like Black people.”

But thanks to the army’s close living quarters and sense of solidarity, Nassim now counts this man as a friend. “In the military, you work alongside people who grew up in the city and in the middle of the countryside, from all social classes,” says Nassim. “I’m trying to change people’s mentality bit by bit, to stop these stereotypes. You have to plant seeds everywhere.”

Editor's note: The story was updated to include the publication of the second letter on Sunday.

The Explainer

Big Tech won big in the pandemic. Now some nations say, pay up.

Big Tech firms were already under fire for not paying taxes where they earn their revenue. With record profits in the pandemic, they may face a growing push to redefine tax fairness in the digital age.

Trudy

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Big Tech firms like Facebook and Google are among the richest companies in the world – all the more so after a pandemic has tipped consumers further away from brick-and-mortar commerce. Yet these same companies often pay little or nothing in taxes in places they rely on for much of their profits.

So, as governments around the globe look for ways to pay for their growing costs, some are tapping a new brand of revenue: digital services taxes. These levies are aimed squarely at core activities of Big Tech firms.

Spain, France, and the U.S. state of Maryland are among the places trying it. But finance experts say more effective solutions may be found through international bridge-building. 

The United States recently joined in a 139-nation effort designed to make digital services taxes redundant. The goal is a system that reallocates corporate taxing rights among nations, while also agreeing on a global minimum corporate tax rate.

Georgetown University law professor Lilian Faulhaber is hopeful the approach can meet demands for reform. She says, “You can’t really fix something on your own as a country, in our really interconnected world.”

Big Tech won big in the pandemic. Now some nations say, pay up.

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Brian Witte/AP
Members of the Maryland House of Delegates sit socially distanced (while others participate via video) on the last day of the state's 90-day legislative session on April 12, 2021, in Annapolis. In February, the state passed a digital advertising tax directed at Big Tech companies, the first of its kind in the United States.

On Feb. 12, Maryland passed a digital advertising tax directed specifically at Big Tech companies, the first of its kind in the United States. This tax struck a particularly sensitive chord, in a year that saw technology companies reap record profits while much of the globe suffered profound loss. 

“At a time when Maryland’s budget is being impacted in unforeseen and astronomical ways due to COVID-19, Maryland families and businesses can foot the bill, or big tech can start paying their fair share,” wrote the primary champion of the new tax, Democratic Sen. Bill Ferguson, on his Facebook page. 

In the past year, corporations such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have come to be seen as “winners” of a pandemic that has moved much of life online – and strained government budgets. That comes atop long-standing complaints that these highly successful companies don’t pay their fair share of corporate taxes. Hence a growing question: Should profitable tech companies be contributing more to the public good?

Maryland’s new tax adds to dozens of legislatures around the world that have enacted or proposed similar initiatives – and the list is growing. “Digital services taxes” are popular; they bring in much-needed revenue and seem to hold tech giants accountable. But finance experts argue that go-it-alone taxes by states or nations are an imperfect and perhaps even harmful approach. International cooperation may offer a more lasting, and effective, solution.  

What is digital taxation, and why does it matter? 

Taxes on internet commerce come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common is the digital services tax, which is a tax on gross revenue earned from select activities. The taxes normally run between 1% and 10% and target companies making above a certain revenue threshold – that is, Big Tech. That explains why in Spain, the tax is called la tasa Google. In France, its version goes by le taxe GAFA, denoting Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. 

Proponents argue the taxes let countries claim their fair share of revenue on activity that takes place within a country’s borders. Traditionally, multinational firms pay taxes where a business is located, not where customers live. But digital companies earn revenue all around the world. Someone in France, for example, can create original content and post it to Facebook or write a review on Amazon, contributing to a company’s revenue. From France’s perspective, that revenue should be fair game for taxing. 

For the general public, the tax benefits are tangible. Maryland, for example, has committed the $250 million it will raise to public schools. 

But critics see several economic downsides: overlapping taxes for multinational corporations, plus price bumps for consumers and small businesses – customers of Big Tech that may ultimately see the tax costs passed along to them. “This is a rather distortionary tax,” says economist Thomas Tørsløv from the Danish think tank Kraka. “It’s not a particularly good way of raising revenue.” 

The taxes also fuel international antagonism. Last year, the U.S. deemed digital services taxes discriminatory against American companies and threatened retaliation against countries enacting them. 

Does the challenge call for a multilateral solution? 

International dialogue and coordination are exactly what’s needed, say some finance experts. They say current tax systems remain rooted in a brick-and-mortar view of the global economy and don’t do a good job of capturing where income is made in the digital age. 

“The business models of large multinationals are just so different from what the tax system was designed to address,” says Lilian Faulhaber, a law professor at Georgetown University. 

Corporations take advantage of the inconsistencies by finding creative ways to shift profits overseas and reduce their tax bill at home, says Dr. Tørsløv. That’s part of the reason that digital services taxes, which he sees as primarily a political signal to frustrated voters, are popular. They seem to address the concern that companies are not paying their fair share. “This digital service tax is a very concrete way of saying, ‘I actually taxed Google, I actually taxed Facebook,’” he says. 

But Dr. Tørsløv says that international cooperation, not narrow digital taxes, “is probably the only way to solve the fundamental problem” of corporate tax avoidance. 

What’s the way forward?

Professor Faulhaber and other experts warn that without substantial reform to the international system, digital services taxes could even lead to a trade war. 

It may seem like each new digital tax worldwide is proof of growing fragmentation and antagonism – each country looking out for itself to collect the revenue it wants. But the digital tax trend is also evidence of shared concerns that require shared solutions. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is working with 139 countries on a two-part plan that would make digital services taxes redundant. 

“Pillar One” would reallocate taxing rights by making tax laws less dependent on physical presence – an important issue to tackle given the digital nature of the economy. “Pillar Two” consists of a global minimum corporate income tax to make tax avoidance more difficult for large companies. 

Some countries only want the former, and others only want the latter, but the OECD has been clear that the final agreement will include both parts – a promising strategy, says Professor Faulhaber. 

On April 5, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen declared her support for a global minimum corporate tax rate. While her predecessor pulled the U.S. out of talks last summer, her commitment to international negotiations has sparked optimism that the OECD could reach an agreement by this July. 

“You can’t really fix something on your own as a country, in our really interconnected world,” says Professor Faulhaber. She is hopeful that a coordinated international approach can meet a universal demand for reform. “We’re not going to go back to the status quo.”

Difference-maker

‘Bicycles kind of saved my life.’ Najari Smith spins a community forward.

For Najari Smith, people and communities are a lot like bikes: No matter what they’ve been through, they’re never broken beyond repair.

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Ann Hermes/Staff
Najari Smith, who founded the bike shop co-op and nonprofit Rich City Rides, stands in front of a mural depicting him on April 9, 2021, in Richmond, California. The town is across the bay from San Francisco and several miles north of Berkeley, California.

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The Richmond, California, neighborhood where Najari Smith established his bike shop is not wealthy by any traditional measure. But Mr. Smith has nothing but enthusiasm for the community’s potential. He understands challenges like generational poverty and sparse opportunity, and his advocacy is for those most vulnerable. “Growing up, I always wanted everybody to have enough,” he says. 

That’s why he chose to make Rich City Rides a cooperative. “We share the stress, we share the profits, we share the challenges, and we share the victories, all evenly,” says Mr. Smith, who also wants to help incubate other cooperative businesses in the area. To encourage more residents to cycle, Rich City Rides is also a nonprofit that hosts community rides and runs a program for young people that teaches bike mechanics and enables them to earn their own bikes.

Mr. Smith “leads with love,” says Jovanka Beckles, a mental health specialist and former City Council member. Rich City Rides’ success has inspired other small businesses to open, helping put the neighborhood on a long-awaited upswing. They “refuse to give up on the fact that we have a beautiful city,” she says.

‘Bicycles kind of saved my life.’ Najari Smith spins a community forward.

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Najari Smith was down in the dumps the night he first heard the bicycles below his window. He was new to California, lonely, and felt he lacked purpose. On the street below, a costumed parade of cyclists rolled by blasting music. By the time Mr. Smith rushed downstairs to join the party, they were gone.

Mr. Smith’s journey, though, was just beginning. After that night in 2010, he began riding his bike everywhere and joined every community biking event around. Slowly, his spirits lifted. “Shoot, bicycles kind of saved my life,” he says. He became part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of Richmond, California, which improves bicycle infrastructure in the city. During a routine committee meeting, he got his big idea.

“I thought to myself, ‘We’re building this infrastructure, but, you know, who are we building it for? Who’s going to use it?’” he recalls. How would he get his community – the Black community – excited about using the bike lanes he was advocating for? And how would he break down the stereotype that Black people don’t bike? He started small – fixing up bikes at the park with local mechanics and giving them out to anyone who wanted one.

Today, Mr. Smith runs Rich City Rides: a worker-owned cooperative bike shop as well as a bicycle advocacy nonprofit. These two spokes of the organization are distinct, but both serve Mr. Smith’s vision of using bicycles to “bring people together for healthy civic change” in Richmond. Just like the bikes he fixes at the shop, Mr. Smith believes that no one, no matter what they’ve been through, is ever broken beyond repair.

“He’s the type of leader that seeks out the strength that an individual may have, rather than identifying their weaknesses. ... He’ll sit down with folks and try to figure out how to get them involved, no matter what,” says Robin D. López, who volunteers as a photographer for Rich City Rides and thinks of Richmond as “a community of untapped potential.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
With pandemic precautions, an “Un-Gathering Ride” takes place in Richmond, California, on April 9, 2021. Rich City Rides encourages an easy “party pace” for cyclists of all abilities.

Roshni McGee, the program manager at Rich City Rides and co-founder of the bike shop, agrees. “He always tries to, you know, put a little bit of extra pressure on people and make them really be that diamond in the rough,” he says.

Rich City Rides is situated on a busy corner of Macdonald Avenue in a neighborhood that locals call the Iron Triangle, notorious for high crime rates and gun violence. Even though they live just across the bay from tony gentrified neighborhoods of San Francisco, many residents struggle to make ends meet – stuck in a cycle of poverty that reaches back to the closure of shipyards at the end of World War II.

Local leaders say Mr. Smith and Rich City Rides are just what the city of Richmond needs.

“He leads with love. ... He shows that this is what we can do as Black people. We can revitalize our downtown, and we don’t have to be afraid of each other,” says Jovanka Beckles, a mental health specialist who served on Richmond’s City Council from 2010 to 2018. She says Rich City Rides’ success has inspired other small businesses to open too, helping put the neighborhood on a long-awaited upswing. They “refuse to give up on the fact that we have a beautiful city ... in spite of the violence,” she says.

Young decision-makers

At first glance, Rich City Rides looks like a typical bike cooperative: Tires hang from the ceiling, gear lines the walls, and a steady flow of customers wheels in bikes for mending. But through the doors at the back, and up a narrow staircase, lies the hodgepodge headquarters of Rich City Rides, the nonprofit. Here, the team plans social and wellness rides, youth programs, and community outreach. Since the nonprofit began in 2012, it has given away more than 1,000 bikes, led hundreds of social bike rides with thousands of participants, and conducted countless youth bicycle workshops. And during the pandemic, Rich City Rides has been distributing grab-and-go meals to families in need – an idea suggested by one of the high schoolers who works at the shop.

In fact, Mr. Smith says other members of the team, and especially young people, make most of the important decisions. “I’m just a connector,” he says.

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor
High school junior Cameren Howard-Simons is repairing a bike at Rich City Rides in Richmond, California, March 27, 2021. “They showed me that I’m just able to be who I am, without anybody judging me," says Cam about the members of the Rich City Rides community.

Cameren Howard-Simons is one of those young people who has found purpose through the organization. When he first met the crew at Rich City Rides, he was in middle school, and his mother didn’t want him hanging out in the area because of its reputation.

Now Cam, a junior in high school, spends most of his free time working at the shop. “It’s hard to keep me away from people like this,” he says with a wide smile, as he tries to get a derailleur to behave on the pink bike that’s hanging from his repair stand. Rich City Rides has kept him out of trouble, he says, adding that it’s one of the few places where kids can be completely themselves, without judgment.

“You’re wheelieing next to somebody, and they’re clapping, they’re recording you [on their phones], and they’re showing you love – showing you that they actually care about what you do,” he says.

Of course, there are challenges. Just two days before Mr. Smith spoke to the Monitor, the Rich City Rides’ storage unit was broken into, and most of the bikes, tools, and equipment used for workshops were stolen. And at times, the workers have had to pay the shop’s rent out of their own pockets to stay afloat.

But members of Rich City Rides stick with it because they know the organization is contributing something good.

“It’s given me a renewed sense of responsibility,” says program manager Mr. McGee. He never thought he could serve as a mentor to young people like Cam. “I want somewhere for someone like me to feel like it’s home,” he says. “I really want people to notice their power.”

Mr. McGee is especially fond of Rich City Rides’ after-school workshops. For the Earn-a-Bike program, a dozen local kids sign up to learn the mechanics of fixing bikes. “I let them build bikes, and I help them along the way,” he says. They’re thrilled when they learn they get to take a bike home. “They’re outside riding it like it’s no tomorrow, no matter how ugly – it’s their bike.”

Mr. Smith knows firsthand the kinds of problems Richmond residents are dealing with, like generational poverty and sparse opportunity. He grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. As an adult, he faced homelessness for months at a time. His advocacy now is always for those most vulnerable, he says. “Growing up, I always wanted everybody to have enough.”   

A seed for other co-ops

That’s why he chose to make Rich City Rides a cooperative – to uplift and empower members of the bike shop. “We share the stress, we share the profits, we share the challenges, and we share the victories, all evenly,” says Mr. Smith, who wants to help incubate other cooperative businesses in the area. And, as always, he hopes to bring even more Richmond residents into the biking fold.

The notion that Richmond is not poor – but rich – guides Rich City Rides. “We’re a community that’s really rich in creativity and capacity and ingenuity,” says Mr. Smith. “[We have] the ability to take what we have, these raw materials, and create something really beautiful from it.”

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Falling space debris, rising hopes to end it

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For 10 days starting in late April, the world was warned that a large Chinese rocket in space would enter the atmosphere and scatter debris at an unknown point. On May 8, the 23-ton rocket finally did plunge to Earth in the Indian Ocean. While the reentry was harmless, the heightened anxiety put a fresh spotlight on whether all spacefaring nations – not just China – are any closer to setting a global norm for disposing of millions of pieces of space junk.

The quick answer is yes. According to a new Rand report, much of the world now has a growing recognition that the rapid pace in space launches requires progress toward “responsible space behavior.” One reason is that more nations are quick to criticize each other for a close miss, even if they have a history of causing space debris. Another reason is that more nations are trying to write “rules of the road” for space.

More progress is possible if the major powers are transparent about what objects they have in space. After the near miss of China’s rocket, the world may finally be ready for a global solution to all the litter aloft.

Falling space debris, rising hopes to end it

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The Long March-5B Y2 rocket takes off April 29 from Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province.

For 10 days starting in late April, the world was warned that a large Chinese rocket in space would enter the atmosphere and scatter debris at an unknown point. On May 8, the 23-ton rocket finally did plunge to Earth in the Indian Ocean. While the reentry was harmless, the heightened anxiety put a fresh spotlight on whether all spacefaring nations – not just China – are any closer to setting a global norm for disposing of millions of pieces of space junk.

The quick answer is yes. According to a new Rand report, much of the world now has a growing recognition that the rapid pace in space launches requires progress toward “responsible space behavior.” One reason is that more nations are quick to criticize each other for a close miss, even if they have a history of causing space debris. NASA, for example, criticized China after the rocket reentry for “failing to meet responsible standards,” even though the U.S. agency has needlessly left objects in orbit in the past.

Another reason is that more nations are trying to write “rules of the road” for space. Previous treaties on space have proved inadequate for a new age of space that includes so many players. The number of satellites in Earth’s orbit is expected to increase tenfold over the coming decade, many of them launched by commercial operators. More than 60 nations are active in space, up from 20 three decades ago.

The latest move on space debris was a resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December. It calls on U.N. member states to share information about their space policies and offer ideas for setting norms. Both the European Union and the United States are also working with spacefaring nations to set up codes of behavior.

More progress is possible if the major powers are transparent about what objects they have in space. “The powers that demonstrate tangible transparency first are more likely to emerge as leaders in the longer-term effort to develop norms for responsible behavior,” the Rand report states. This will require a shift in thinking that puts safety for humanity ahead of security for any country relying on space for its defense.

“The geopolitical competition in space is accelerating and the more the public knows about it, the better,” the report concludes. After the near miss of China’s rocket, the world may finally be ready for a global solution to all the litter aloft.

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.

Finding family everywhere

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Whatever our family situation may be, God’s mothering and fathering love is here for us to feel and express toward others without measure.

Finding family everywhere

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

We walked into the lobby of our hotel to have breakfast, and there were lots of young children and adults in colorful traditional African attire.

While we were standing in the buffet line, my husband and I began chatting with several of the women and learned they were a choir visiting from Uganda. They were performing in various locations in the United States. All the children had been orphaned, and the choir’s sponsor organization had provided them a home, education, and opportunities like this to sing and perform. Evidently the group stayed with host families during their travels. So there were a variety of ways these children were experiencing family, both in their home country and abroad.

Most of the tables filled up fast. One girl looking around for somewhere to sit noticed the empty chairs at the table where my husband and I were eating. Without hesitating she came right over to sit with us. We smiled at each other, and even though we spoke different languages, to me it felt like family sitting at the table together.

This feeling of family, right there in that busy hotel, made me think of the most expansive view of family the world has been given: a family revealed by the teachings and healings of Christ Jesus. He showed the nature of God to be universal divine Love, with every single individual fully loved by God and wholly included as members of God’s family.

Jesus conveyed this so succinctly through the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father.” This communicates that we’re all children of one God, or causative Principle, our loving divine Parent. It emphasizes the fathering love of God – strong, protecting, and always providing. But there are many ways the Bible conveys God’s mothering, nurturing, and tender care as well. For instance, Jesus once likened the love and care God expressed through him to a mother hen gathering “her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34).

And this is what Christian Science brings into focus so beautifully. It teaches that the mothering and fathering nature of God harmoniously expresses the fullness of God’s love, and that as children of God, we’re made to fully express that love because we’re created in God’s likeness.

Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science movement, wrote, “Spirit duly feeds and clothes every object, as it appears in the line of spiritual creation, thus tenderly expressing the fatherhood and motherhood of God” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 507). 

This hints at there really being no limit to the number of ways in which the fathering and mothering care of God, divine Love, can be made evident in our lives each day as we open our hearts to it. And even more, we are all actually inseparable from our divine Parent. We’re the cherished and loved spiritual expressions of God’s own being.

Jesus understood and demonstrated this so fully that he even healed those who were acting as enemies toward him. From him we learn that the “enemy” isn’t actually other people; it’s whatever doesn’t express God – whatever isn’t loving and good. Jesus revealed the Christ, or unity of divine Love with its true, spiritual expression, as embracing one and all, healing grief, inharmony, and discord.

As we welcome and express this Christly love, honoring everyone’s unbreakable relation to God, good, then we find opportunities to cherish our spiritual family everywhere.

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The art of conservation

Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Letizia Marcattili works on the conservation of a painting by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin on May 10, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Trudy Palmer
Deputy Daily Editor

Thanks for starting your week with us. Come back tomorrow when we’ll look at what Germany’s child benefit – the world’s largest – does and doesn’t accomplish, and what the U.S. might learn from it.

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