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The Economist International News
May 18, 2018

Followers of Jesus fail to agree about his homeland




HUNDREDS of millions of followers of Jesus Christ are about to celebrate the annual feast of Pentecost, which celebrates an event in Jerusalem roughly 2,000 years ago, when it is believed that cultural and ethnic barriers were miraculously overcome. The festival, which falls on May 20th in this year's western Christian calendar and a week later in the Orthodox one, commemorates what many regard as the establishment of the Christian church. A new kind of divine inspiration, including the ability to communicate with speakers of any language, is said to have come over the disciples who had gathered in the holy city for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which falls seven weeks after Passover.

So there is sad irony in the fact that people who cherish that sacred story seem more divided than ever, with some rejoicing in Jerusalem's rising earthly status and others expressing the very  opposite view.



The divisions are especially pronounced among Christians who live in, or feel strongly attached to, the land they call sacred....Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 17, 2018

How global university rankings are changing higher education


EARLIER this month Peking University played host to perhaps the grandest global gathering ever of the higher-education business. Senior figures from the world's most famous universities—Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge among them—enjoyed or endured a two-hour opening ceremony followed by a packed programme of mandatory cultural events interspersed with speeches lauding "Xi Jinping thought". The party was thrown to celebrate Peking University's 120th birthday—and, less explicitly, China's success in a race that started 20 years ago.

In May 1998 Jiang Zemin, China's president at the time, announced Project 985, named for the year and the month. Its purpose was to create world-class universities. Nian Cai Liu, a professor of polymeric materials science and engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, got swept up in this initiative. "I asked myself many questions, including: what is the definition of and criteria for a world-class university? What are the positions...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 16, 2018

The elusive phenomenon of churches without God


ONE recent Sunday, about 40 people turned up at their regular gathering place, a community centre in Seattle, and soon found themselves pondering an ethical dilemma: would it ever be right to punch a Nazi? The dicussion was led by a husband-and-wife team, who pointed out that hurting people was usually a bad idea, but that it might sometimes be the only way to protect the innocent. "In a world as imperfect as this one, sometimes the choice is between a number of terrible ideas," suggested the husband, Mickey Phoenix.

Other recent topics for debate at the Seattle Atheist Church have included the difference  between compassion and empathy, and whether or not reparations should be paid to the descendants of American slaves, as argued by the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent story for Atlantic magazine. Once they have exhausted their discussion, participants can get to know each other over juice and snacks.



Like many similar clubs across the Western...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 11, 2018

Bavaria is the latest place where the church and Christian politicians are at odds


AS ERASMUS has already noted, there are places all over Europe where right-of-centre politicians are sounding a clarion call of Christian nativism while progressive Christian clerics are pulling in the other direction, urging tolerance and respect for diversity. The latest locus of this surreal standoff is the German region of Bavaria, which has for centuries been a bastion of Teutonic Catholicism.

Markus Söder, the newish Bavarian premier, has decreed that from June 1st a crucifix must be displayed in all offices of the regional government. He described the decision as a "commitment to Bavarian identity and culture" which was not explicitly doctrinal. Given that in this context the "cross is not a sign of religion" its display did not amount to a "violation of the principle of neutrality" by state authorities. As might have been expected, the decision was immediately welcomed by politicians who stand to the right of Mr...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 10, 2018

America's booming blood-plasma industry


TODAY Derek From is a successful lawyer in Canada. Twelve years ago, he was roughing it in Arizona, trying to break into the recording industry. So he started selling his blood plasma. Twice a week, he sat for an hour in a Grifols Biomat centre, as an apheresis machine whirled, siphoning the plasma out of his blood. For this, he took home $45. "As a poor person" at the time, he found that "a huge economic benefit".

It was also part of a thriving industry. Blood products made up a remarkable 1.6% of American exports in 2016. Since 2005 blood-plasma collections have nearly quadrupled. To critics, this is evidence of a rapacious industry coercing the poor to auction bits of themselves to make ends meet. In fact, plasma, 90% of which is water, is quickly replenished. Giving it has no obvious negative health effects—though the long-term consequences of repeated siphoning have not been fully studied. Strict testing (and later heat-treating) of the extracted plasma ensures that those with communicable...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 10, 2018

Bans on paying for human blood distort a vital global market


A WILLING buyer in a market with plenty of willing sellers, Barzin Bahardoust is finding life surprisingly hard. For years he has been trying to pay Canadians for their blood plasma—the viscous straw-coloured liquid in blood that has remarkable therapeutic powers. When his firm, Canadian Plasma Resources (CPR), tried to open clinics in Ontario in 2014, a campaign by local activists led to a ban by the provincial government on paid plasma collection. Undeterred, he tried another province, Alberta—which also banned the practice last year. Then, on April 26th, when CPR announced a planned centre in British Columbia, its government said it too was considering similar legislation. CPR has managed to open two centres, in far-flung Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. Even these have faced opposition.

The global demand for plasma is growing, and cannot be met through altruistic donations alone. Global plasma exports were worth $126bn in 2016—more than exports of aeroplanes. But paid plasma raises ethical,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 04, 2018

In religion and economics, cause and effect are very hard to prove


RELIGIOUS determinism, or the idea that particular forms of belief and worship lead to particular forms of political and economic behaviour, is always a fascinating field for dabbling. Indeed one might even say that such determinism is itself a form of religion, if that is defined as a system of thought which offers compelling answers to questions that might otherwise be shadowy and elusive. Recently there has been a little wave of discussion about religious determinism in the e-commentariat.

It began with a working paper for the World Bank by two economists with Bulgarian roots: the country's former finance minister, Simeon Djankov, and Elena Nikolova of University College London. They crunched some of the results of two transnational investigations into social attitudes: the World Values Survey and a probe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Their conclusion was that something about Eastern Orthodox Christianity had made its...Continue reading

The Economist International News
May 03, 2018

Many countries suffer from shrinking working-age populations


MANY developed countries have anti-immigration political parties, which terrify the incumbents and sometimes break into government. Lithuania is unusual in having an anti-emigration party. The small Baltic country, with a population of 2.8m (and falling), voted heavily in 2016 for the Lithuanian Farmer and Greens' Union, which pledged to do something to stem the outward tide. As with some promises made elsewhere to cut immigration, not much has happened as a result.

"Lithuanians are gypsies, like the Dutch," says Andrius Francas of the Alliance for Recruitment, a jobs agency in Vilnius, the capital. Workers began to drift away almost as soon as Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The exodus picked up in the new century, when Lithuanians became eligible to work normally in the EU. For many, Britain is the promised land. In the Pegasas bookshop just north of the Neris river in Vilnius, four shelves are devoted to English-language tuition. No other language—not even...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 29, 2018

The pope's role in the plight of Alfie Evans was regrettable


IT CANNOT happen very often that, in an agonising saga that concerns a desperately sick little child, the Catholic bishops of the boy's home city and country line up on one side of an argument, with the pope, apparently, on the other, along with two other European governments.

Nor does it often occur that a British judge, adjudicating on such a delicate and painful case, becomes so exasperated with the self-appointed advocates of the child that he calls one of them "fanatical and deluded."   

Yet these were among the many bizarre and distressing features of the story of Alfie Evans, a little boy of 23 months who died early on April 28th in a hospital in his native Liverpool.

Alfie was suffering from an undiagnosed brain disorder and was described by his doctors as being in a semi-vegetative state. The medical team at the Alder Hey hospital were of the firm opinion that keeping him alive on a ventilator was not "in his best interest" and that further treatment would be pointless and possibly cruel. His life-support...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 26, 2018

When death is not the end


SHALOM OUANOUNOU was declared dead in September. The 25-year-old Canadian had suffered an asthma attack so severe that he was taken to hospital in Ontario where he was put on a ventilator. After carrying out tests, doctors found that his brain lacked functions such as consciousness and respiratory reflexes. They issued a death certificate and prepared to disconnect the medical equipment.

But Mr Ouanounou's family said that he and they, as Orthodox Jews, believe that life ends only when breath and heartbeat cease. They won a court injunction to keep him on artificial ventilation; his heart stopped of its own accord in March, five months later. "It just doesn't make any sense to us to say he wasn't alive throughout that period," says Max Ouanounou, his father.



Mr Ouanounou would have been declared dead in the same way in almost all rich countries. They tend to treat irreversible loss of all of the brain's function as constituting death. American states typically demand evidence...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 26, 2018

A court ruling makes it harder for faith-based employers to discriminate
 

IT IS a problem that arises in every liberal democracy that upholds liberty of belief (and hence, the freedom of religious bodies to manage their own affairs) while also aiming to defend citizens, including job-seekers, from unfair discrimination. As part of their entitlement to run their own show, faith groups often claim some exemption from equality laws when they are recruiting people.

To take an extreme case, it would run counter to common sense if a church were judicially obliged to appoint a militant atheist as a priest, even if that candidate was well qualified on paper. But how generous should those exceptions be? 



In recent years some decisions by the American Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have been pretty kind, as many people would see things, to religious employers. In 2012 a teacher laid off from a school linked to a Lutheran church in Michigan lost her unfair dismissal case on the grounds that she was technically a minister and her bosses were therefore exempt from equality laws....Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 21, 2018

The West's bombing of Syria meets some approval from Muslims


ON THE streets of west European cities, secular leftists, politically active Muslims and radically minded Christians (a rarefied constituency, but they do exist) have often found themselves marching and chanting together. It happened in the run-up to the Anglo-American attack on Saddam Hussein in 2003, when the core organisers of some of the largest street demonstrations seen in Britain included the Socialist Workers Party and the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), both small groups with a gift for mobilising huge crowds. Similar alliances came into play in protests over Israeli military action in Lebanon and Gaza, and over the perceived willingness of Western governments to condone or encourage Israel. 

But reactions to the ongoing misery in Syria, and to Western intervention in that country, have been entirely different. Secular leftists in the West, who in general oppose any use of force by their governments, were instinctively horrified by the assault on Syria unleashed on April 14th by America, Britain and France. Many Christian...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 19, 2018

Refugees need not be a burden, if they are allowed to work


TWO years ago, a group of elders in this village in north-western Uganda agreed to lend their land to refugees from South Sudan. About 120,000 are now in the surrounding area. Here they live in tarpaulin shelters and mud-brick huts on a patch of scrub where cows once grazed. Kemis Butele, a gravel-voiced Ugandan elder, explains that hosting refugees is a way for a remote place, long neglected by the central government, to get noticed. He hopes for new schools, clinics and a decent road—and "that our children can get jobs".

There are more than 20m refugees in the world today, more than at any time since the end of the second world war. Nearly 90% reside in poor countries. In many, to preserve jobs for natives, governments bar refugees from working in the formal economy. Uganda has shown how a different approach can reap dividends. The government gives refugees land plots and lets them work. In some places, the refugees boost local businesses and act as a magnet for foreign aid. Mr Butele and many...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 19, 2018

European countries should make it easier for refugees to work
German lessons

MOUHANAD SALHA would like nothing better than to work. But since arriving in the Netherlands in late 2014, he has managed to do so for just one week. Like more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Europe, he is unemployed.

He was studying information technology when he fled Syria in 2012, and worked as an apprentice electrician in Lebanon, where "you can just go in and fix everything." Not so in the Netherlands. Becoming an electrician requires elaborate certification, and jobs usually need proficiency in Dutch. Such rules, intended to shield native workers, deter asylum-seekers from looking for jobs. Refugees who do find work lose their government-paid benefits.



Asylum-seekers in the Netherlands are housed in government-run centres and not allowed to work until six months after they arrive. If they then find a job, the government withholds 75% of their wages to cover room and board. (Unsurprisingly, few do.) Once granted refugee status, as Mr...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 13, 2018

An Asian religion gains popularity in the New World


Chris Nyambura was raised Catholic but over the past six months he has started calling himself Buddhist. Aged 23, he is a graduate student in chemical engineering. Like many of his generation, especially on the American West Coast, he appreciates the emphasis on mental development and self-help   in the spiritual practice he has chosen.

He belongs to a group of people who turn up every Sunday evening for guided meditation sessions in a small, brightly lit studio in downtown Seattle. This is one of 38 centres across the United States (and 679 around the world) affiliated to the Diamond Way movement, which has popularised a modern form of Tibetan Buddhist practice, that emphasises the practical over the arcane. Their teacher coaches them in techniques like visualisation and chanting as well as explaining some basics of the religion to any newcomers.



Mr Nyambura eagerly lists the ways in which, he feels, this practice benefits him. First, training the mental faculties. "A lot of people take refuge in relationships, food,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 12, 2018

Why undertakers are worried


EVERY minute more than 100 people die. Most of these deaths bring not just grief to some, but also profit to others. America's 2.7m-odd deaths a year underpin an industry worth $16bn in 2017, encompassing over 19,000 funeral homes and over 120,000 employees. In France the sector is worth an estimated €2.5bn ($3.1bn). The German market was worth €1.5bn in 2014 and employed nearly 27,000 people, a sixth of them undertakers. In Britain the industry, estimated to be worth around £2bn ($2.8bn), employs over 20,000 people, a fifth of them undertakers.

In the coming decades, as baby-boomers hit old age, the annual death rate will climb from 8.3 per 1,000 people today to 10.2 by 2050 in America, from 10.6 to 13.7 in Italy and from 9.1 to 12.8 in Spain. Spotting the steady rise in clientele, money managers—from risk-seeking venture capitalists to boring old pension funds—have been getting into the death business. Last year the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund bought one of Spain's largest funeral...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 06, 2018

A good Russian is vindicated on the Orthodox church's holy day


TODAY is Good Friday in the Orthodox Christian calendar. All over the eastern Christian world, from villages in Greece and Romania to cathedrals in Moscow, it is a day of haunting ceremonies that re-enact the death and burial of Jesus. There are chants of deep lamentation, interlaced with quietly confident declarations that mortality has been conquered and life will prevail. This builds up to the noisy, exuberant Resurrection festivities which take place on the night from Saturday to Sunday.  This year, for some rank-and-file Russian Orthodox believers, the story of a just man unfairly accused but ultimately vindicated has even greater poignancy.

To the relief of human-rights campaigners inside and outside Russia, a brave historian who has devoted his life to uncovering, literally and metaphorically, the crimes of the Stalin era was largely acquitted this week of the surreal charges which had been laid against him. Prosecutors  were demanding a nine-year prison term. A court in northwestern Russia cleared Yuri Dimitriyev (pictured) of...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 05, 2018

Household smoke may be the world's deadliest environmental hazard


IMAGINE building a small pile of wood and kindling in the smallest room in your house, and setting fire to it. You can keep the door open, to let out some smoke, but cannot switch on an extractor fan. You must tend the fire for an hour. Repeat the process three times a day.

This is how Fatou N'Dour lives. Her kitchen, separate from her home and built of mud bricks, measures roughly two metres by two. She usually cooks indoors because of the winds that whip across Lambayene, the village where she lives in central Senegal. Asked about ventilation, she points to a hole in one wall, which is about ten centimetres square. Other women in the village cook rice, couscous and meaty sauces in similar conditions, using wood from a nearby forest.



Wood and charcoal in Africa; coal in East Asia; wood and animal dung in South Asia—in much of the world, food is heated by burning primitive solid fuels. Each fire is tiny, but the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based research group,...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Apr 05, 2018

Wood-burning stoves are in fashion but cause serious pollution
Toasty toes, wheezing lungs

CHRISTMAS 2016 was hygge's moment in Britain. A crush of books appeared seeking to explain how Danes—for the word is theirs—achieve hygge, which means comfort or convivial ease. An important ingredient, say the books, is a wood fire, around which one is supposed to sit, sipping something warming. British readers ought to have been prepared for that. A surprise publishing hit of 2015 had been "Norwegian Wood", a book that teaches how to chop and dry firewood.

About 175,000 new wood-burning stoves are sold in Britain each year. In 2015 an official survey found that 7.5% of Britons burn wood at home, usually to provide a little extra heat (most wood-burning households have central heating) or because they like looking at flames. Wood-burning is fashionable and seemingly environmentally friendly, since trees can be replanted. It is also, unfortunately, a big contributor to air pollution in...Continue reading

The Economist International News
Mar 30, 2018

Why a papal comment about hell triggered a misunderstanding


ON TUESDAY, two distinguished, elderly gentlemen who live in Rome (one aged 81, the other 93) had a warm meeting at the younger one's residence. It was the latest in a series of pleasant and stimulating conversations they have enjoyed in recent years. A few days later they seemed to be having a public misunderstanding about hell, or rather about what exactly one of them had said on that subject.

The interlocutors were Pope Francis and Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the left-wing newspaper La Repubblica who is an avowed non-believer. In keeping with Mr Scalfari's well-established style, he avoided using notebooks or tape-recorders during his papal chat. However on March 29th, he published his own impressions of the meeting, complete with some lengthy direct "quotes" that reflected his memory of what the pontiff had said.



The most controversial bit was an answer the journalist apparently received to his question on the fate of unrepentant sinners. Francis is quoted as saying something like:


The Economist International News
Mar 28, 2018

The deal that curtails Iran's nuclear ambitions seems doomed


EVER since Donald Trump's election, he has had in his sights the "worst deal ever"—the one reached in 2015 that sought to circumscribe Iran's nuclear ambitions. For a while the threat to the survival of the agreement looked more rhetorical than real. No longer. On January 12th the president signed the waiver that prevents the reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran for a further 120 days. But, against the advice of his national-security team at the time, he warned that this would be the last such waiver unless the European parties to the deal—Britain, France and Germany—worked with America to fix what he regards as the fatal flaws in the agreement.

The prospects for the deal became even bleaker on March 13th, when Mr Trump announced the sacking of Rex Tillerson. His replacement as secretary of state is Mike Pompeo, a fierce critic of the agreement, known more formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The replacement of H.R. McMaster as national security adviser nine days later by John Bolton almost...Continue reading

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