2021
May
11
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Monitor Daily Podcast

May 11, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

When learning starts early

President Joe Biden’s bid to establish universal pre-K schooling in the United States has reinvigorated a chronic debate: Does early childhood education make a significant difference?

According to a new study released Monday, the answer is yes – and that the benefits are universal across race, gender, and income.

Three economists – from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, and the University of California, Berkeley – studied 4,000 preschool applicants to the Boston Public Schools, which uses a lottery-based assignment system. Their study was the first to use a randomized design to assess the long-term impact of a large-scale program.

The researchers compared those who won a seat with those who didn’t – and found the long-term impact “significant.” Attendees were 6 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, 8.5 percentage points more likely to take the SAT, and 8.3 percentage points more likely to attend college on time. Suspensions and juvenile incarceration declined slightly. Boys benefited more than girls; race and income had no effect.

The Boston program had little impact on K-12 standardized test scores – a regular point of contention around programs like Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income children. But learning, the economists say, springs from the interaction of an array of factors. Test results matter, they agree, but must be measured in conjunction with the many other elements of early schooling, including social and emotional skills. When they are, it points to gains for everyone.

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From lumber to labor, are we now in a ‘shortage economy’?

It’s true: We’re in a “shortage economy.” But as one analyst puts it, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if you have a pair of binoculars.”

Amelia
Mary Altaffer/AP
A Help Wanted sign hangs in the window of a restaurant in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan in New York, on May 4, 2021. Some restaurants in New York City are seeking to hire employees now that they can increase their indoor dining to 75% of capacity, as of May 7.

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The U.S. economy may be reviving faster than many businesses can keep up with. Suddenly consumers are facing scarcities for everything from lumber to copper, computer chips to rental cars. Job applicants are scarce, too, in some rebounding sectors like restaurants. 

Americans can expect more such shortages and price increases, economists say, as eager-to-spend consumers contemplate a post-pandemic economy and as record government stimulus boosts demand. The silver lining is that, while challenging for now, most of these shortages are expected to be temporary.

On the labor front, for example, total U.S. employment is still about 10 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels. So some economists say the likely scenario is one in which both demand and supply rebound in tandem over time.

Could inflation spin out of control? That would hinge on a policy mistake by the Federal Reserve. Frederic Mishkin, a former Fed governor now at Columbia University, says that “the level of mistakes made in the 1970s are extremely unlikely,” but the Fed needs to be extra vigilant.

From lumber to labor, are we now in a ‘shortage economy’?

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Sitting in a chair in a lower-level conference room in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Hamilton “Tony” Shepley tries to describe the controlled chaos taking place upstairs in his building supply company, Shepley Wood Products.

“What comes after manic?” he asks. Business is booming, but lumber prices have tripled in a little over a year. Asphalt and wood shingles are in such short supply they’re being rationed. He worries that replacement window companies are about to jack up prices.

“In 43 years, we had shortages, sure,” Mr. Shepley says. “But never like this.”

Welcome to the shortage economy. After four decades where optimized and increasingly global supply chains made goods available at rock-bottom prices – where even scarce energy suddenly became cheap and abundant because of new drilling technologies – America has suddenly run smack into scarcities for everything from lumber to copper, computer chips to rental cars, truckers to restaurant workers, ammunition for guns to chlorine tablets for swimming pools.

Americans can expect more such shortages and price increases, economists say, as eager-to-spend consumers contemplate a post-pandemic economy and as record government stimulus boosts demand. The silver lining in this is that most of these shortages are expected to be temporary.

“It’s going to seem a whole a lot worse than it might about a year from now,” says Gary Schlossberg, global strategist for Wells Fargo Investment Institute. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, if you have a pair of binoculars. I do think things will return to something approaching the kind of environment that we’ve seen over the last 10, 15 years.”

Looming over this burst of scarcity is the fear that the United States will return to the high inflation of the 1970s – a fear that many economists tend to discount.

“There is an issue that you have deja vu all over again, which could happen because of the policy mistakes of the type that were made in the 1970s,” says Frederic Mishkin, professor of banking at Columbia University and a former member of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors. But this time, he says, “the level of mistakes made in the 1970s are extremely unlikely.”  

Tony Dejak/AP
Workers build a new-construction home Jan. 8, 2021, in Pepper Pike, Ohio. As homebuilders take high lumber costs into account in their pricing, new homes are becoming less affordable for consumers.

Consumer costs

The current shortages have hit homeowners. Paul Collins, of upscale Wellesley, Massachusetts, was shocked to find a garage door company include in its bid last month a 3:30 p.m. deadline. If he didn’t respond by that time, the price would be 7% higher.

The shortages have also hit consumers when they hit the road or go shopping. Rebounding demand has caused gasoline prices to nearly double since April 2020. Copper prices have hit all-time highs. Steel prices are up 75%, prompting appliance-makers and mattress manufacturers to hike prices. Procter & Gamble has announced price rises coming in September for baby care and feminine care products.

Pre-pandemic, it cost 33 cents to fire a round from an AR-15 rifle at the shooting range. “Now, it costs $1 every time I squeeze the trigger,” says Mark Oliva, spokesman for the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Most of the shortages are expected to be temporary because they’re pandemic-driven. Industry after industry, expecting the downturn of a year ago to last much longer, was surprised when consumers started spending again as early as last summer. Factories started having trouble keeping up with demand, especially when coronavirus cases on the factory floor caused temporary shutdowns of production lines. Now, with the average U.S. consumer flush with cash and eager to spend after pandemic lockdowns, supply is falling seriously short of booming demand in key areas.

John Minchillo/AP
An employee manually assembles a circuit-board element before a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of a Nanotronics manufacturing center at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the Brooklyn borough of New York on April 28, 2021. Growth in U.S. manufacturing slowed slightly in April, reflecting in part supply-chain troubles, after hitting a 37-year high in March.

The supply of certain computer chips is so constrained right now that car companies have had to reduce their own production – or not install certain features, such as navigation systems, which used to come standard in models. These shortages ripple out to create new shortages.

Unable to buy new vehicles, rental car companies are now short of cars and charging sometimes double the price of a year ago. The chip shortage is now spreading to other industries, such as washing machines and smartphones. In March, a Samsung executive warned that the company might have to skip the rollout of a new Galaxy Note smartphone.

Even when the pandemic didn’t cause the shortage, high demand is creating bottlenecks. Ammunition-makers were cutting back after Hillary Clinton unexpectedly lost the 2016 presidential election. (The election of Democratic presidents typically boosts gun sales.) When many Americans bought a gun in 2020 – a surge that accompanied the pandemic and civil rights protests after the murder of George Floyd – ammunition manufacturers were caught flat-footed, says Mr. Oliva.

Ditto for the container ship industry, which was downsizing before the pandemic and now has a serious capacity shortage as exports boom.

Where’s the workforce?

Another bottleneck is a decades-old shortage of truck drivers. The problem is magnified when goods are in such big demand. But the problem isn’t really the supply of potential drivers, but the extremely poor pay for long-haul work, says Michael Belzer, a former truck driver and now professor of economics at Wayne State University. Adjusting for inflation, “we’re probably at about 50% on average today of the overall annual compensation of where we were back then [in the 1970s]. So it shouldn’t be a big shock that we have a hard time getting drivers.”

Typically, the market would force wages up. But deregulation in the 1970s and the decline of unions have meant that drivers who work as independent contractors haven’t had the market power to push for higher pay at the trucking companies that rely on them. Instead, the industry sees extremely high turnover.

A shortage of service workers is forcing some large retail and restaurant chains to raise wages to attract them back. Many workers are hesitant to go back, either because of fear of exposure to the coronavirus or continued school closures, which make it difficult for parents without childcare to reenter the workplace.

More controversially, many employers complain that supplemental federal benefits (currently an extra $300 per week) are encouraging would-be workers to stay home, because they can make more from unemployment than they would from a low-paying job. While that’s true for many of the unemployed, and job gains last month were shockingly small compared with expectations, economists disagree about how big a role unemployment benefits play.

In fact, some economists say that, with total U.S. employment still about 10 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels, the likely scenario is one in which both demand and supply revive in tandem over time.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration on Monday said the Labor Department would assist states to reimpose work-search requirements on the unemployed collecting benefits.

Would a continued labor shortage spark ’70s-style inflation? Deregulation and the decline of unions are two reasons many economists are skeptical. And big price hikes in certain categories don’t spark general inflation, anyway, says Professor Mishkin, the former Fed governor. Instead, high prices spur more production and bring supply and demand back into equilibrium. The real problem is policy.

In the 1970s, high Vietnam-era federal spending and the failure of the Fed to react by hiking interest rates led to the stagflation of that era. Professor Mishkin worries that now, just at a time when consumer demand is picking up, the Biden administration has pushed through more federal stimulus, which will create even more demand. That means the Fed will have to remain extra vigilant. If consumer prices start rising at an annual rate above 4%, it will have to raise interest rates.

If inflation doesn’t exceed that level, it won’t be a return to the 1970s, he adds, but it could mark a “mini deja vu.”

Iran attacked: Is Revolutionary Guard looking the wrong way?

In Iran, the vanguard security force seems more focused on internal dissent than on external threats. At a time when the country has experienced repeated attacks on its nuclear program, the disconnect is striking.

Amelia

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At a moment when Israeli agents and their allied operatives appear to regularly penetrate Iran and freely target its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp. (IRGC) appears fixated instead on domestic activists and dual citizens it accuses of espionage.

That disconnect is raising questions – even among staunch Iran loyalists – about how an authoritarian regime obsessed with “infiltrators” has become so vulnerable to external threats. One root issue appears to be the cost of an ideological military force that sees itself as much more: The often hubristic self-image of the IRGC, created to “protect” the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has outstripped its capabilities.

Analysts say the Guard is overburdened, having assumed more and more functions of the state, thereby diluting its focus.

“Incapable of preventing Mossad operations in Iran, the IRGC creates the illusion of intelligence superiority by hitting soft targets such as Iranian dual nationals,” says Ali Alfoneh, an analyst and author of two books on the IRGC’s rise.

“They are distracted, and also I think myopic. They are looking for an easy win,” says Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert. “They go after small-potato dissidents, or just invent them to begin with, because it’s something they can show the regime [and] everybody else.”

Iran attacked: Is Revolutionary Guard looking the wrong way?

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Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian Gen. Hossein Salami, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, attends a ceremony on the first anniversary of the death of the Qods Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 1, 2021.

A veteran of 5,000 hours behind bars, accumulated during repeated bouts in prison and months in solitary confinement, Iranian Mohammad Reza Jalaeipour is very familiar with the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – and with its obsessions.

So when the political activist was summoned for questioning in March – just days after being warned by the IRGC to stop helping reformists find a consensus candidate for June 18 presidential elections, or face jail – he expected arrest. He quickly posted a video on social media.

Describing himself as an “unimportant and low-impact citizen, whose activities are not even worth mentioning,” Mr. Jalaeipour said, addressing his interrogator: “I’m surprised at your tyranny; at least do it in an effective way!”

He added, “You put me in solitary confinement many times, and you realized every time that it does not work.”

At a moment when Israeli agents and its allied operatives appear to regularly penetrate Iran and freely target its nuclear program, the episode highlights the fixation of the IRGC’s intelligence branch instead on domestic activists and dual citizens it accuses of espionage, providing a window into its threat priorities.

The latest alleged Israeli attack, an explosion at the Natanz uranium enrichment plant April 11 that destroyed thousands of centrifuges – the second devastating strike on Natanz in less than a year – comes after Iran’s well-protected top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated in broad daylight last December.

The disconnect between the attacks and the IRGC’s focus is raising questions – even among staunch loyalists of the Islamic Republic – about how an authoritarian regime obsessed with “infiltrators” has become so vulnerable to external threats.

For Iran, one root issue appears to be the cost of an ideological military force that sees itself as much more. The often hubristic self-image of the IRGC, created to “protect” the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has outstripped its capabilities.

“Looking for an easy win”

Analysts say the IRGC is overburdened, having assumed more and more functions of the state. As the IRGC fails repeatedly to prevent sabotage widely attributed to the Mossad, they say, it seeks to compensate by hitting domestic targets.

“The IRGC at times loses sight of its main mission, due to its ever-expanding portfolios,” says Ali Alfoneh, an analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Incapable of preventing Mossad operations in Iran, the IRGC creates the illusion of intelligence superiority by hitting soft targets such as Iranian dual nationals,” says Mr. Alfoneh, the author of two books on the IRGC’s rise.

“They are distracted, and also I think myopic. They are looking for an easy win,” says Afshon Ostovar, an Iran expert at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “They go after small-potato dissidents, or just invent them to begin with, because it’s something they can show the regime [and] everybody else.

“But what they have not developed is a real unity of effort, and a real articulation of what the danger is,” says Dr. Ostovar, author of “Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.”

Other inherent security vulnerabilities, say experts, are created by widespread economic discontent and inefficiencies in overlapping and redundant state institutions.

Iran’s economic hardship and corruption, says Mr. Alfoneh, “eases recruitment of the citizenry by foreign powers.”

Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters/File
Protesters burn the U.S. and Israeli flags during a demonstration against the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran's top nuclear scientist, in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 28, 2020.

It’s “not just them looking in the wrong places [for threats], but … really discounting how much discontent there is within Iran … within the ranks of the government, the armed forces, the civil servants,” says Dr. Ostovar. “This isn’t all political discontent, but it leaves people more susceptible to inducements that foreign intelligence services can offer them.”

Even Mossad derived a benefit from Iran’s many intelligence distractions, according to the London-based Jewish Chronicle. In a detailed account of the Fakhrizadeh killing published in February, citing intelligence sources, it said a team of more than 20 spies – both Israeli and local Iranian agents – spent eight months getting close to their target and smuggling parts of a remote-controlled gun.

“The audacious operation … succeeded partly because Iranian security services were too busy watching suspected political dissenters,” the Chronicle reported.

Survival tactics

Those dots have been connected in Tehran, too, raising questions like never before about IRGC priorities.

“Another fire at the Natanz nuclear facility… isn’t it a sign of how serious the issue of infiltration is?” asked former commander of the IRGC, Mohsen Rezaei, in a tweet. “The country’s security apparatus is in need of cleansing.”

Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went further, asking about Iran’s $1.2 billion-per-year security apparatus: “How is it that, instead of fighting off the enemy, you are standing against the people? How is it that the people have turned into the threat?”

The political rationale might be simple.

“The regime leadership is aware of the substandard performance of its institutions in the intelligence wars against foreign powers,” says Mr. Alfoneh. “But I also suspect they are content as long as those same institutions display full competence suppressing the domestic opposition, which has hitherto secured the regime’s survival.”

The IRGC’s broadening remit includes a major role in the sanctions-strapped economy; supporting regional proxy forces from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Yemen; building an expanding ballistic missile and drone program; and fighting a shadow war against the United States and Israel.

Yet it has also found time for lethal crackdowns on protests that left hundreds of Iranian citizens dead; made spectacles of arresting dual nationals and successfully luring dissidents within kidnapping range; and stepped into Iran’s vicious political fray.

Political drama

The IRGC even produced an expensive TV series called “Gando,” a spy thriller that portrays it as invincible, while insinuating that the centrist President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are sellouts to archenemies America and Israel.

Mr. Zarif dismissed “Gando” as a “lie,” but sparked controversy in an interview leaked in late April when he said Iranian diplomacy was “sacrificed” to IRGC military interests. In the interview, for a government oral history project, he said the Guard’s much-revered Qods Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in an American drone strike in January 2020, sought to scupper the 2015 nuclear deal.

Days after the leak, IRGC intelligence agents reportedly raided the offices of President Rouhani and of Mr. Zarif, and carried away documents.

The political firestorm is the latest example of how Iran’s “deep state of security and intelligence forces,” which report to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continue to “have power without accountability” and dominate the “weak state,” writes Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“While the Guards’ use of fear and coercion might be able to indefinitely sustain the Islamic Republic’s internal contradictions, this should not be mistaken for popular legitimacy,” Mr. Sadjadpour wrote in The Atlantic in March. During four decades, the Islamic Republic “proved adept at surviving but, like many revolutionary regimes, incapable of reforming.”

And that creates a systemwide lack of unity that can lead to vulnerability.

“The regime itself is a compromise, between the ruling institutions and the supreme leader who sits on top of it,” says Dr. Ostovar. Mr. Khamenei “has not found a way to become a dictator and just impose a king-like efficiency to the system, and there’s also an indigenous looseness to the system that … allows these cracks and these fissures that can be exploited by Israel and whomever else.”

IRGC efforts are complicated, too, by the scale of “taking on the world, or at least a significant part of it, as an enemy,” says Dr. Ostovar. “It’s difficult for them to keep up. It’s got to be exhausting, because their foot is on the pedal all the time.”

US debates child credit payments. Germany loves them.

Child payments are a cornerstone of Germany’s social support system, and garner little political opposition despite being costly. Here’s why Germans value the decades-old benefit. 

Amelia
Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa/AP
A family strolls on Easter Sunday under overcast skies in Dangast, Germany, April 4, 2021.

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President Joe Biden’s one-year expansion of tax credit to American families to around $250-300 a month per child has shone an analytical light on Germany, Australia, Canada, and about 100 other countries that provide some kind of universal child benefit.

Germans have long enjoyed the world’s largest child benefit, called Kindergeld or “children money.” Both left and right approved of it when it was rolled out decades ago, and today the policy is too beloved to touch.

What Kindergeld does well is to improve housing conditions and expenditures on food. Such benefits promote “children’s and wider social outcomes,” according to UNICEF, and have a more significant impact on lower-income families. Experts have found that it does keep older kids in sports, social, and personal activities, for example.

Yet Kindergeld is a huge government expense that doesn’t necessarily boost other family policy-related goals. For example, it hasn’t helped measurably increase the birth rate and has been found to supplant paid work.

“If you measure it against the four objectives that family policy has in Germany, unconditional child benefits are not as effective as, say, investments in public childcare,” says economist Helmut Rainer. “But they’re incredibly popular.”

US debates child credit payments. Germany loves them.

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Eileen Salzmann is raising four children while working full-time, practically a superhuman feat.

But she says she appreciates that the German government deposits nearly 1,000 euros ($1,200) into her bank account each month. Kindergeld – literally “children money” – steps up with each additional child, and has been for six decades a cornerstone of the German family social support system.

In theory, the monthly cash was meant to level the playing field for parents by exempting basic child-rearing expenses from the tax collector. In practice, it’s allowed Ms. Salzmann freedom and flexibility. Buoyed by Kindergeld, along with another payment that supports parenting’s early years, she could take time to be with her children before heading back to work as an economist and civil servant in Dresden.

“There is a financial burden of raising children, and Kindergeld feels like appreciation from the state for doing this,” says Ms. Salzmann. “And, it’s – not only in fact, but also psychologically – important that you get more money for the third and fourth child.”

President Joe Biden’s one-year expansion of tax credit to American families to around $250-300 a month per kid has shone an analytical light on Germany, Australia, Canada, and about 100 other countries that provide some kind of universal child benefit. Germans have long enjoyed the world’s largest child benefit, covering more than 15 million kids, and their country’s policy journey is instructive: It never garnered conservative opposition the way it has in the United States. Both left and right approved of it when it was rolled out decades ago, and today the policy is too beloved to touch.

“If you measure it against the four objectives that family policy has in Germany, unconditional child benefits are not as effective as, say, investments in public childcare,” says Helmut Rainer, an economist specializing in family affairs at the ifo Institute in Munich and the University of Munich. “But they’re incredibly popular, and they increase in popularity during the run-up to elections.”

Good for families, with caveats

In Germany, Kindergeld is paid unconditionally. That means families receive the payments whether they’re barely surviving or, conversely, earning hundreds of thousands of euros a year (though it’s technically an advance payment against a tax credit for high earners). The cash arrives in a family’s bank accounts through a child’s 18th birthday, with extensions up to age 25 for students and 27 for those with disabilities.

Such benefits help keep children above subsistence level, researchers say, with most OECD countries that offer them showing lower-than-average child poverty rates. In fact, in Germany, child benefits account for half the impact of cash transfers on child poverty reduction, according to a 2020 UNICEF report.

Indeed, what Kindergeld does well is to improve housing conditions and expenditures on food. Such benefits promote “children’s and wider social outcomes,” according to UNICEF, and has a more significant impact on lower-income families.

While American critics of unconditional payments argue they could be abused, experts did not find the money boosts parents’ spending on drinking and smoking, according to a 2012 study. The study did find that for older kids, the money helps keep them in sports, social, and personal activities.

Yet Kindergeld is a huge government expense that doesn’t necessarily boost other family-policy-related goals, says Dr. Rainer, the economist. For example, Kindergeld hasn’t helped measurably increase the birth rate – important for a country suffering a labor shortage as well as a shrinking tax base – and the money has also been found to supplant paid work. In other words, buoyed by the monthly payments, women may be more likely to stay with the kids than work outside the home for a period of time.

“The main reason is that Kindergeld is an unconditional cash payment from the state,” says Dr. Rainer, who co-wrote a study about Kindergeld’s effects. “There’s always a risk that it gives a disincentive to work.”

Some children do benefit from mothers staying home, but the effects often depend on socioeconomic status. In other words, buoyed by the monthly payments, women may be more likely to stay with the kids than work outside the home for a period of time – which does have benefits for many children.

Little true political opposition

Over the decades, Kindergeld has gathered little true political opposition. Conservatives have appreciated the choice families are allowed in how to spend the money. Liberal policymakers might have preferred more infrastructure spending, such as investments in child care centers or kindergartens. But overall, Kindergeld is universally supported.

“This is because of the demographic situation in Germany. We are an aging population,” says Barbara Henman-Sturm, a lecturer at the Federal University of Applied Administrative Sciences. “We have an aging society, and a social system based on a state social security scheme. Everyone knows this system doesn’t work without children [growing up to work and pay into the system]. So there is just no discussion.”

Kindergeld was first passed into law in the mid-1950s, but initially it was only paid out beginning with the third child of working parents, part of an attempt to boost living conditions during the post-war period. Over the years, the policy expanded to include earlier siblings, and also increased in amount. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled parents had the right not to be “penalized” for raising children, and child benefits were written into the German constitution. Thus, Kindergeld became institutionalized.

Other policies such as Elterngeld, paid to parents during the first years after a child’s birth, as well as social welfare for lower-income families, complete a system of support available to families in Germany. During the pandemic, families also received 300 euros as a one-time payment.

All of Ms. Salzmann’s four children still receive Kindergeld. The oldest is 24 and is still a student, while the youngest, age 18, is in high school. The university students also receive money under the German Federal Training Assistance Act, or BAföG, which provides student funding of roughly a few hundred euros a month. “They have to pay half back, but only after they finish studying,” says Ms. Salzmann.

After the children began leaving for college, they asked Ms. Salzmann if they could tap Kindergeld for their own living expenses. That’s when, faced with Kindergeld’s looming absence, Ms. Salzmann realized how much she’d come to count on the monthly payments to help with extracurriculars, sports club fees, Christmas presents, and all the other things children require.

Kindergeld may not have been enough to incentivize her to have more children, she says, but it certainly supplemented the cost. She might also have had to go back to work earlier without it.

“And [my absence at home] would have come at the expense of our children,” says Ms. Salzmann, who is now the primary breadwinner of the family. “Creating a stable base for our children and the future taxpayers of our country is important.”

Points of Progress

What's going right

Useful waste: New bioplastics from wood, and banana plant rugs

Creativity to benefit the environment reigns in this week’s progress roundup. Check out promising innovations from Peru to Uganda.

Amelia

Useful waste: New bioplastics from wood, and banana plant rugs

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In this week’s global progress briefs, meet the new ghost busters – the people who are making it their business to trap greenhouse gases from our old fridges and air conditioners.  

1. United States

Researchers from the University of Maryland and Yale have made a breakthrough in the search for sustainable plastic alternatives, developing a wood-based bioplastic that disintegrates in a few months. For comparison, conventional plastic can take centuries to break down. The new bioplastic is created by using a biodegradable solvent to deconstruct wood powder found at lumber mills into a slurry, which can then be shaped into common plastic products, such as shopping bags and other packaging.

Other experimental bioplastics have often lacked the strength to compete with petroleum-based plastics, but the scientists say their product showed high mechanical strength during tests, the capacity to hold liquid, and resistance to ultraviolet light. At the end of a product’s life, the bioplastic will quickly decompose in soil, or can be re-slurried and used again.
New Atlas, Nature Sustainability

2. Peru

The Peruvian government has taken steps to establish a rainforest reserve for uncontacted Indigenous peoples, a milestone for protecting Amazon tribes living in isolation. After nearly two decades of discussion, the 2.7 million-acre Yavarí Tapiche reserve in Loreto has officially been deemed the first reserve under the country’s PIACI law, which governs territories for isolated tribes and initial contact. The Yavarí Tapiche reserve is home to several groups, such as the Matsés and Remo peoples, and sits on the Brazil-Peru border. Next, the Ministry of Culture must approve a formal protection plan to keep away threats like drug traffickers and illegal loggers.

“The creation of Yavarí Tapiche ... is a great step, a great advance,” says Angela Arriola, an Indigenous peoples policy specialist, “but management measures need to be implemented, only categorization is not a guarantee of protection.”
Mongabay

3. Ireland

Rachael Blackmore became the first female jockey to win the Grand National horse race, one of the sport’s most prestigious events. The Irish rider and thoroughbred Minella Times completed the 173rd edition of the grueling steeplechase at Liverpool’s Aintree Racecourse in April. Ms. Blackmore was the 20th female jockey to compete in the race, which has allowed women to participate since 1975.

Tim Goode/Reuters
Rachael Blackmore is the first female jockey to win the Grand National horse race, a grueling steeplechase competition.

“This is the most-watched race in the world. There are people who are going to hear about this in all different parts of the world, and it’s just brilliant for horseracing and I’m delighted for Rachael,” said Katie Walsh, who set the previous record for female jockeys in the Grand National when she finished third in the 2012 race. “She’s an inspiration to male and female jockeys. The result couldn’t have been any better.”
Al Jazeera

4. Uganda

A startup in Uganda is making consumer products from edible banana plant material that would otherwise go to waste. Uganda is sub-Saharan Africa’s top producer of bananas and plantains, with an estimated 75% of all farmers growing some form of banana. They typically leave the stalks to rot after harvesting fruit. That’s where TexFad saw an opportunity. The company, which launched in 2013 and employs 23 people, runs the stalks through a machine to create long fibers, hangs the leathery strands to dry, and uses the material to create products such as carpets.

Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters
Managing director Kimani Muturi shows off a TexFad hair extension made from banana trunk fibers near Kampala, Uganda, April 3, 2021. When finished, consumers can compost the product. The company also makes rugs and other handwoven textiles.

Last year, the company made $41,000 in sales, and the managing director expects TexFad to double production in 2021 to 2,400 carpets, some of which will be exported to customers in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States for the first time. The company also creates hair extensions (used ones can be composted) and is working on a process to soften the fibers for use in clothing.
Interesting Engineering, Reuters

5. India

A group of law school students, advised by a board of legal scholars, is helping the public understand complex laws and court decisions in India. Aswini Ramesh founded Law Rewired last summer to help demystify India’s legal system and empower people to understand their rights. “Through my work as an activist, I’d often travel to workshops and other social initiatives ... and be flooded with queries about day-to-day legal issues,” she says. Today, the project involves about 22 students from 10 law schools.

On the coalition’s website, users can find a glossary of common legal terms, summaries of important court decisions, and “decoded” laws on topics ranging from environmental protections to intellectual property. The coalition is adding a criminal law section soon. The group also answers 10 to 25 reader questions every month, such as whether workplace harassment rules can be applied to virtual workplaces. Law Rewired is also collaborating with the Child Awareness Project to produce helpful social media posts about laws relating to women, children, health, and education.
The Philadelphia Citizen, Law Rewired

World

A global network is helping reroute dangerous refrigerants before they leak into the atmosphere. Freezers and refrigerators have housed some of the most potent greenhouse gases, including the compound known as R12, a chlorofluorocarbon with roughly 10,000 times the destructive potential of CO2. The refrigerants pumped into modern units are better, but still pose global warming potential. When disposed of improperly – either knowingly or unknowingly – these gases are released into the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

Issei Kato/Reuters/File
Broken refrigerators sit at a temporary waste site in Japan, July 13, 2018.

Tradewater, a company that collects and destroys greenhouse gases and sells the carbon offset credits, is coordinating with governments and businesses around the world to dispose of the gases safely. Its teams are sometimes called “chill hunters” or “ghostbusters” for the way they track and trap the gases, transferring them from discarded refrigerator cylinders into a large container. Tradewater then incinerates the recovered gases. The group reports that 4 million to 5 million metric tons have been kept out of the atmosphere so far. Ángel Toledo has run a waste disposal plant on the edge of Guatemala City for 16 years, but only dealt with refrigerant gases since 2018. “It’s like a dream, helping the environment ... [by preventing these] gases from reaching the atmosphere.”
BBC

Essay

The many meanings of my jade bangle

The meaning we see in a family memento – especially one handed down by a grandmother – can shift over time, giving us insight into what we value and who we’re becoming. 

Amelia

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Sometimes I forget it’s there: a solid, seamless piece of pale green stone, smooth and cold. My grandmother squeezed this jade bangle onto my wrist – at my request – when I was 11.  

When I left home for university, the bangle began to feel inconvenient. It clashed with my outfits and drew curious looks and the awkward question of where I was from. I’m Malaysian, but I didn’t grow up there. I’m from Brunei, but I’m not Bruneian. I’m Chinese, but not from China. 

I pondered ways to remove the bracelet – even as I pondered my identity. 

When my grandparents died, the bangle became a memento of lost opportunity, of all the questions I hadn’t asked them.

Now my jade bangle has seen me through graduations, my first job, romance, my wedding, and now a pandemic and a long-distance marriage. I still can’t take off the bracelet. But I no longer want to. Today when I look at it, I remember my grandparents and the languid, humid holidays of my childhood spent at their house. Now the jade bangle recalls the traditions that help define me – traditions that remind me where I come from.

The many meanings of my jade bangle

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AP/File
A woman peruses jade bracelets at a jewelry fair in Beijing. In China, jade is a traditional mother-to-daughter gift.

Sometimes I forget it’s there, its weight one with my hand now: a solid, seamless piece of pale green stone, smooth and cold. I have worn this jade bangle on my wrist for 20 years.

I can’t take it off.

I was 11 when I got it. Jade bracelets are usually worn by older Chinese women who may or may not believe they provide positive energy and protection from evil spirits. Highly prized in Chinese culture, jade jewelry is commonly given by mothers to daughters. My grandmother had a jade bracelet. My mother has one, given to her by my grandmother on my mother’s wedding day.

I remember the day it went on my wrist. We stood over the sink, my grandmother and I. She held my left forearm firmly under the cool running tap at the sink. I began to have second thoughts. 

But my grandmother, whom we called Mama in Cantonese, was determined. Her lined square face showed no sign of worry as she tried to push the bangle past the knuckles of my scrunched-up hand. “It will fit,” she said.

We tried using a plastic bag, to reduce the friction of stone on skin. No good. The water didn’t help, either. Inspired, Mama squeezed a dollop of dish detergent onto my wet, plastic-covered hand.

I turned to my mother and aunts, who sat at the kitchen table observing my ordeal with amusement. “I don’t want this anymore,” I said. But right then, Mama let out a triumphant cry. The bangle had slipped past my knuckles and onto my wrist. 

I did want it. I’d asked for it, in fact. A sense of finality began to sink in as I rubbed my sore hand. It had taken a good 15 minutes to squeeze my hand into the bracelet. I immediately tried taking it off.

“It is better that it is small,” Mama declared. “Now it won’t come off.”

I grew up in Brunei, away from my paternal grandparents and extended family, who lived in Ipoh, a city about 2 1/2 hours north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My father is from Ipoh. We would visit on school holidays or for Chinese New Year, but as I grew older, I felt increasingly distant from my dad’s family. For one, we did not speak the same language. My grandparents spoke Cantonese, and I could understand it only somewhat. 

My siblings and I were educated in English-speaking schools, and it became our primary language, though we spoke a hodgepodge of Mandarin, Fuzhounese, and English with our non-English speaking parents at home. We grew up on a diet of Western media and literature, though my mom made sure we celebrated every festival on the Chinese calendar. 

Perhaps it was this sense of disconnection that made me desire – even as a young girl – something, anything, to make me feel more Chinese.

When I left home to attend university in Australia, visits to Malaysia grew less frequent. I immersed myself in my liberal arts studies. I knew more of Shakespeare than of classical Chinese literature. 

The jade bracelet began to feel like an inconvenience. It clashed with my outfits and drew curious looks and questions. Something that was odd for a girl to wear was even odder on a young woman.

The question I disliked most was where I was from: Yes, I’m Malaysian, but I didn’t grow up there. I’m from Brunei, but I’m not Bruneian. I’m Chinese, but not from China. I pondered ways to remove the bracelet – even as I pondered my identity and place in the world. 

When my grandparents passed away, I felt regret: I’d never asked them what life was like under the Japanese occupation, or about their childhoods. Why had they left China? Now I’d never know. My jade bangle was a memento of lost opportunity, of a heritage I had not truly embraced.

After graduation, I moved to Malaysia to work – and partly to find what it meant to be Malaysian. I’ve worn the bangle for 20 years now. It has seen me through high school and college, romance and heartbreak, my first job, my wedding – and now a pandemic and a long-distance marriage. I still can’t speak Cantonese well, nor can I take off the jade bracelet. But I no longer want to. 

Today when I look at it, I remember my grandparents. I recall the languid, humid holidays of my childhood spent at their house, a house that always smelled of incense. 

Now the jade bangle recalls the traditions that help define me – traditions that remind me where I come from. 

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The Monitor's View

Iraq as Mideast peacemaker

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A year after becoming Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has begun to apply lessons from his country’s history of wars and divisions to the rest of the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has become a pivotal mediator in breakthrough talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As someone who once led a foundation dedicated to conflict resolution, Mr. Kadhimi wants to end the competition between the region’s two giants – a zero-sum competition often played out violently in Iraq’s internal conflicts.

The initial talks began in Baghdad a month ago, focused mainly on stopping a proxy war in Yemen. Progress on that front could lead to a wider detente. Any further dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia still needs a trusted go-between. That is where Mr. Kadhimi’s experience in trying to reconcile Iraq’s own differences could pay off in bringing peace to the neighborhood.

“Iraq is capable of playing the role of mediator in the region rather than being a source of instability,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih in a recent talk. “The Middle East has been condemned to a cycle of conflict and instability over the last few decades. ... It’s time to move beyond.”

Iraq as Mideast peacemaker

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Reuters
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi waits outside his office in Baghdad.

A year after becoming Iraq’s prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has begun to apply lessons from his country’s history of wars and divisions to the rest of the Middle East. In recent weeks, he has become a pivotal mediator in breakthrough talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As someone who once led a foundation dedicated to conflict resolution, Mr. Kadhimi wants to end the competition between the region’s two giants – a zero-sum competition often played out violently in Iraq’s internal conflicts.

The initial talks began in Baghdad a month ago, focused mainly on stopping a proxy war in Yemen. Progress on that front could lead to a wider detente. Any further dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which broke off ties five years ago, still needs a trusted go-between. That is where Mr. Kadhimi’s experience in trying to reconcile Iraq’s own differences could pay off in bringing peace to the neighborhood.

His selection as prime minister a year ago was a result of elected leaders in Baghdad responding to street protests aimed at ending the factional fighting that has hurt Iraq’s fragile democracy. Mr. Kadhimi’s background includes setting up the Iraq Memory Foundation, which chronicles the suffering of Iraqis under dictator Saddam Hussein. He also led the Humanitarian Dialogue Foundation, which worked to reconcile differences between Iraq’s majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

As prime minister, his mediating skills have yet to solve Iraq’s deep divisions. Just holding fair elections later this year is proving to be big task.

 Mr. Kadhimi does not have a political party of his own. But he and other leaders now realize Iraq must first end the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia that spills over in Iraq. Their timing is right. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are under domestic and international pressure to cool their antagonism and focus on their economies.

“Iraq is capable of playing the role of mediator in the region rather than being a source of instability,” said Iraqi President Barham Salih in a recent talk. “The Middle East has been condemned to a cycle of conflict and instability over the last few decades. ... It’s time to move beyond.”

But first, a bridge of trust between Iran and Saudi Arabia must be built. The first stone has been put in place, thanks to an Iraqi leader who has learned from the suffering of his own people.

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.

Opening our eyes to God’s light

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The darkness of evil can sometimes feel overwhelming. But when we open our hearts to the healing light of God, good, it illuminates our path.

Opening our eyes to God’s light

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I have my grandchildren over at my home, and it’s mealtime. We sit down to eat, then a sudden power outage plunges us into darkness. A cry sounds out in unison: “Ooh!” I calm this slight panic and hurry to find a candle and light it. I explain that we can still go on with our meal and that certainly power will be restored very quickly.

That is exactly what happens – and when it does, just as if a conductor had signaled for it, I hear all the children exclaim “Aah!” It contains joy and cheerfulness, and everything goes on as usual.

Those two little words have meaning here. “Ooh” indicated a problem, disappointment, darkness. “Ahh” represented a solution, joy, light.

That experience got me thinking. Which of these phrases, or ways of thinking, do we use most often?

When plunged into darkness, suddenly or not, we seek light. Nobody thinks of fighting the darkness with who knows what other strategy. Instead, we remain focused on the known solution: light.

We see this when reading the Bible, for instance. From the beginning, it teaches, “God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Light is indispensable to life, an essential and vital necessity in all things. In the Gospel of John we read that in the Word, God, was “life; and the life was the light of men” (1:4). Without light there is no life. And wherever there is light, there is life.

We also read, “God is light” (I John 1:5). At first we may find ourselves in the uncomfortable darkness of ignorance concerning God and our divine origin. But as we come to understand God as All, everywhere, infinite Spirit, always present, we realize that nothing can ever erase divine light. It always accompanies us, illumining every moment of our lives. In fact, this light reveals our very nature as the reflection, or expression, of God.

When I first learned some of these Bible-based ideas, I glimpsed this light, and it dazzled my consciousness. Even today, when I dive into the Bible, I find a hope that opens my eyes to God’s light, and my heart says “Ahh!”

Yes, it sometimes seems the darkness of evil – including disease – wants to cover us, our society, the world. It can feel like a fight on all these levels. But there’s a more helpful approach than focusing on the darkness: searching for light.

One morning when I woke up, I felt strange pains, troubling sensations that made me lose my balance. “Ooh! What’s going on? Didn’t I sleep well? What did I do yesterday that would cause this?” These questions jumped out at me unwittingly as soon as my foot touched the floor.

But thanks to a heartfelt desire to keep my thoughts at one with God, good, and thanks to my daily study of the Bible and the Christian Science textbook, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, the thought that came next was spiritual in nature. I remembered this passage from Science and Health: “If the eyes see no sun for a week, we still believe that there is solar light and heat. Science (in this instance named natural) raises the human thought above the cruder theories of the human mind, and casts out a fear” (p. 189).

Ahh! This was the light of Truth that illuminated my thinking. My thought was elevated to the realization that despite the circumstances and the unpleasant sensations, the spiritual reality was that God, good, was there, always present, and that I was His perfect and beloved child. Then, without hesitating, keeping the light of divine Truth at the forefront of my thinking, I was able to walk and began my day as usual.

I was happy to note a few hours later that all was completely well. The troubles and fears had been dispelled by the understanding that I could not – not even for a moment – be deprived of the gentle presence of divine Love nor of the luminous power of divine Life, God, ever-present good.

We can all be alert to the metaphorical interjections we’re using. If the perspective of the fearful, defeatist, limited material senses makes you say “Ooh!” about a situation, we can quickly appeal to spiritual sense. This lifts our thinking beyond the physical appearances to the spiritual fact that God, Life, good, is nevertheless here, always present. As the light of divine Truth becomes clearer to us, as we allow it to enlighten us rather than clinging to the darkness, we discern and experience more of the divine reality – we are able to say “Ahh!”

The Bible encourages us, “Now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). How good it is to know our true, spiritual, light-filled heritage!

Originally published with a different title on the website of The Herald of Christian Science, French Edition, Jan. 4, 2021.

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In memoriam

Roman Kruchinin/AP
A girl lays flowers near a school after a shooting in Kazan, Russia, May 11, 2021. Seven children, a teacher, and a school worker were killed and 21 people injured when a gunman attacked the school. Wednesday has been declared a day of mourning for the victims.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s Daily. Keep an eye out this week for stories on how U.S. politics has become infused with an almost religious fervor, and the consequences of Russia’s wartime sensibility in its domestic rhetoric and policy. 

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