Helping close divisions in the US: Insights from the American Well-Being Project

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Editor’s Note:The American Well-Being Project is a joint initiative between scholars at the Brookings Institution and Washington University in St. Louis.

Issues of despair in the United States are diverse, widespread, and politically fueled, ranging from concentrated poverty and crime in cities to the opioid crisis plaguing poor rural towns. Local leaders and actors in disconnected communities need public policy resources and inputs beyond what has traditionally been available.

Scholars at Brookings and Washington University in St. Louis are working together to analyze the issues underlying America’s disaffection and divisions in order to provide policy ideas for a better, more inclusive future. Through on-the-ground community research in Missouri—a microcosm of America’s problems—as well as the application of ongoing policy research, we hope to develop approaches that can tackle factors like lack of access to health care, scarcity of low-skilled jobs, weak education systems, and hollowed-out communities.

Simply put, we are asking how has the American Dream been broken and how can it be restored?

WHAT WE KNOW AND WHAT IS MISSING

In general, indicators such as economic growth and unemployment rates continue to improve in the U.S., as do some markers of well-being, such as longevity. Yet the aggregate indicators mask inequality of access and outcomes. Such indicators do not account, for example, for the decline in prime age male labor force participation, nor do they reflect the rising numbers of “deaths of despair” due to opioid or other drug overdoses, suicide, and other preventable causes. Such deaths are concentrated among less than college educated, middle-aged whites.

The past few decades have also seen a dramatic increase in the disability rate (the number of disabled Social Security beneficiaries), greater income inequality, and stagnating mobility rates. Different regions have had divergent fortunes, meanwhile, and many, particularly in the heartland where manufacturing has declined, are characterized by “left-behind” populations in poor health and with little hope for the future, and a hollowed out middle-class.

As such, the macro numbers simply do not capture the full picture of inequality, public frustration, and socioeconomic distress. Well-being metrics could be part of the solution in understanding trends among and across subpopulations.

Looking back on recent episodes of political upheaval, previous decades produced clear indicators that should have been seen as red flags for the current crisis. If we can better identify these risk factors in advance, then we can provide appropriate policy recommendations to those working in communities most affected, as well as anticipate the challenges of those populations and places at greatest risk.

HOW CAN RESEARCH AND DATA BE USED AT THE LOCAL LEVEL? THE APPLICATION OF SUBJECTIVE MEASURES

As we further explore metrics of well-being, the question will be how to analyze data in a way that is useable and valuable to local leaders. While well-being measures offer interesting insights, they are inherently subjective and focused on mindset rather than quantitative outcomes. Pairing well-being measures with traditional “hard” measures like GDP and employment rates has proven useful in the past.

As shown by research in Peru into the relationship of traditional economic and social measures to perceived well-being, status, identity, and inclusion, hope is a significant factor in determining success. People who are more hopeful tend to have better economic and social outcomes.

Communities should also strive to achieve a balance between hope and realism. Although our research shows that hope is a key determinant of well-being, excessive optimism can easily lead to disappointment.

Personal responsibility for success is also an important factor. To the extent that people blame themselves (or their neighbors) for the current social and economic challenges, pressure for policy responses is lost. Too much blame on individual agency makes a community unwilling to try to make things better through policy. The goal should be to achieve a healthy balance of outlooks, personal responsibility, and realistic understanding of chances for success.

Better indicators of people’s outlooks on life combined with indicators of opportunity and deprivation could help achieve this at the grassroots level. Novel approaches that combine quantitative and qualitative data can inform a range of community efforts. Scholars at Washington University have already taken the lead by using national data from call-in distress services for individuals and families, with the goal of identifying specific geographic information, down to the neighborhood level, on vulnerable areas.

Brookings scholars actively participated with the state of Colorado to implement a comprehensive system for monitoring mobility and opportunity—the Colorado Opportunity project, and in a separate effort, with the city of Santa Monica to design an effort to regularly monitor a range of well-being dimensions.

NEXT STEPS

Now is an opportune moment for local, regional, and state leaders to make positives changes in communities, rather than waiting for action at the federal level. And, given the complex nature of our crisis of divide and desperation, policies must be better targeted to different age, racial, and socioeconomic groups—and their circumstances, something best achieved at the local level.

Even if analyses and practices are adapted for specific geographic regions and demographic groups, local governance challenges will still make implementation difficult to achieve on the ground. Many communities lack local leadership and empowered community organizations. Nongovernmental organizations, state level governments, and even the private sector can help fill the leadership void in communities and support existing local efforts.

The fact is that the issues of despair in America have no one answer, nor does the responsibility fall on a single sector, institution, or group of people. It will take a concerted effort from many stakeholders, focusing on an immense set of challenges that differ from community to community.

Our collaboration between Brookings and Washington University aims to help those taking the lead by providing valuable data, analyses, and policy ideas.

[“Source-brookings”]

Spacewatch: SpaceX reuses rocket to launch north American satellite

The SpaceX Falcon 9 lifting off in Florida on 11 October this year. Photograph: SpaceX/flickr

SpaceX set a brisk pace this week, with two successful launches of the Falcon 9 rocket. The second launch by the company – whose chief executive is its billionaire founder, Elon Musk – re-used a previously flown first stage booster, increasing confidence that SpaceX could deliver re-useable rockets and so drive down launch costs.

The first launch took place on 9 October. The rocket lifted off from the Vandenberg airforce base in California at 05:37 PDT (12:37 GMT). It placed 10 communications satellites in a 400-mile-high orbit for Iridium, the telecommunications company.

Iridium runs a constellation of telecommunications satellites. This launch is the first of eight launches scheduled that will place 75 satellites in orbit for the company.

On 11 October a second Falcon 9 rocket lifted off, this time from Kennedy Space Centre, in Florida. The launch took place at 18:53 EDT (22:53 GMT), and carried a larger communications satellite into orbit for SES and EchoStar.

This second launch was notable because it re-used a previously flown Falcon 9 first stage. This part of the rocket first launched last February when it boosted a Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station; it then flew back and soft landed in Florida for re-use. This booster has now landed back on Earth again, several hundred miles from Cape Canaveral on a drone ship.

Reusing significant spacecraft components is the key to SpaceX’s business model of reducing launch costs. After each flight this week all the first stages returned safely to Earth.

These launches bring the total of SpaceX launches this year to 15, establishing the company as a leading player in the satellite launch market. In September, Musk declared his intention to use his rockets to colonise Mars.

[“Source-theguardian”]

American Gods Season 1 Finale, Episode 8 Recap: Come to Jesus

American Gods Season 1 Finale, Episode 8 Recap: Come to Jesus

Kristin Chenoweth as Easter in a still from American Gods

HIGHLIGHTS

  • American Gods streams on Amazon Prime Video
  • The first season contains a total of eight episodes
  • Episode eight introduced Kristin Chenoweth as Easter

From its start, American Gods – from creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, with the author Neil Gaiman as an executive producer – has been unafraid to alter its written source, to either update it for our times, place a bigger emphasis on the book’s minor characters, or set things on a course that takes longer to come to fruition. During the first season, which ended this week, that has resulted in some fascinatingly unique episodes on television (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney”) and others that tended to meander for no obvious reason (“A Murder of Gods”).

The eighth episode, “Come to Jesus”, is far from an ideal season finale. It manages to bring together the disparate and separated cast together for a spring outing, but the show meets none of the usual expectations from a finale: there’s no big revelation, nor a setup for the next season, nor even an offer of some closure. Sure, Wednesday finally uttered his real name upon Shadow’s insistence, but since the audience has always been so far ahead of our “hero”, it didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.

The bigger reveal in the season finale was the story delivered by Mr. Nancy, the alter ego of the African spider god Anansi, whom we first met in the second episode. He’s a storyteller by nature, and he starts off with the most traditional of openings: “Once upon a time… See? It sounds good already. You’re hooked.” It helps that Orlando Jones is a fascinating orator, from his enunciation to his mannerisms, but the story is equally fascinating.

From the Bar’an temple in 9th-century BCE Yemen, where a queen participates in an orgy, and a nightclub in 1979 Tehran, which is stormed by Shi’a revolutionists, to her turn as a homeless person in the land of Hollywood, Nancy describes the fall of a goddess who had it all. The story is also constructed as an attack on all women by the world of men, in his own words, which serves as an allegory for the rise of sexism over time. Through it all, the show hints at her identity, with her ability to make people disappear with sex.

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Bruce Langley as Technical Boy, and Yetide Badaki as Bilquis in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

With her best days behind her, she is paid a visit by none other than Technical Boy, who offers her the gift of an iPhone. Or more accurately, a gift of what’s on the phone. It’s a Tinder-like app called Sheba, which gives her unrestricted access to a bigger pool. And going by what we saw of Bilquis in the season’s beginning, it’s safe to say she readily accepted the deal handed to her by the New Gods. It’s a different arc for the character from the book, but it makes a lot more sense since dating apps weren’t exactly around in the same fashion when Gaiman wrote American Gods, which was published in 2001.

Nancy, of course, is more interested in the moral of the story. Shadow doesn’t have a clue – “Did you get this one off the discount rack?” Nancy jokingly asks of Wednesday – but the old man knows what he’s referring to. After killing Vulcan, who was part of the New Gods’ team, Wednesday needs a queen of his own. He then berates Shadow for not understanding “the concept of pissed off”, and the latter eventually accepts that he’s very confused.

In a short dream soon after, Shadow climbs a mountain of skulls to come across a buffalo with fire in its eyes. He wakes up in a shock to find himself on the passenger seat, with Wednesday driving the Cadillac. The bunnies from the previous episode make a return, except there’s a colony of them this time around. Their attempts to drive Wednesday off the road, like one did with Laura, don’t work, as he knows what they represent, and instead just floors the accelerator. Thank goodness American Gods doesn’t deem it necessary for the rabbits’ killing to be given its usual graphic treatment.

What follows for the next few minutes is a gallant depiction of the production designer and food stylist’s work. The house they arrive at is brimming with the colours – Shadow is quick to remind us that it’s Easter in the show’s timeline – from the ostentatious decorations, the multi-coloured beans and macaroons, and the bright dresses worn by the guests. Wednesday then proceeds to deliver the history behind the holiday, culminating with a raised glass to Ostara.

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Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday, and Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

Shadow is smitten from the first moments he lays his eyes on her, and after a brief encounter with a Jesus Christ – not the, but one of the many versions people believe in – he checks with Wednesday: “That’s Easter? Because people believe in Easter.” Easter (Kristin Chenoweth) is surprised to find Wednesday at her home, and she toys with Shadow who face turns into a full blush after greeting her.

Out in the lawn, Wednesday and Easter’s conversation gets hostile after he takes the blunt route. Sure, the holiday is in her name, but it’s Jesus Christ that people remember. Even as they enjoy searching for hidden eggs, no one prays in her name, he says. An aghast Easter drags Wednesday back into her home, and demands why he’s trying to spoil her day. Wednesday then spins the death of Vulcan as an orchestration of the New Gods – he’s a big liar, as Nancy attested – and pitches his war to Easter.

“They will worship you, if you make them pray,” Wednesday concludes. When Easter points out the bigger importance of Christ, Shadow butts in to add: “But he’s not the goddess of spring.” Wednesday’s plan is to starve people, to make them work for the food on the table. The show seems to be ignoring the involvement of science and technology in food production today, and the excuse of being a fantasy show doesn’t work when you’ve got New Gods around. Hopefully, we’ll get to see a Science God too.

Meanwhile, new guests – some familiar faces in Laura and Mad Sweeney – have arrived. After a bunny brings Easter word of dead in her home – it’s a holiday of rebirth, after all – she meets the pair in the bathroom. Sweeney asks Easter to resurrect Laura as a favour, but she concludes it can’t be done since Laura was killed by a God. A surprised Laura turns to her new favourite move – putting the screw on Sweeney, this time on his scrotum – who confesses that it was Wednesday’s plan all along.

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Bruce Langley as Technical Boy, and Gillian Anderson as Media in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

The get-together is complete with the presence of Gillian Anderson’s Media, who’s dressed as Judy Garland from the 1948 musical Easter Parade. She has her own pitch to make, with the faceless goons from the lynching by her side. There’s talk about brand makeover, ‘religious Darwinism’, and an underlying threat as always. Frankly, it’s gotten a little repetitive considering we’ve heard it a few times already.

Wednesday crashes the party to offer his counter arguments, which is slightly newer though a retelling of the same basic principle. “People create gods when they wonder why things happen,” he adds. “Do you know why things happen? Because gods make them happen.” It’s an immediate warning to what’s about to occur, as Wednesday rejects Mr. World’s worldview and delivers lightning from above to strike the faceless goons.

It also sets up a dramatic reveal of Wednesday’s true identity, which seems anti-climactic given the show itself has undone its work over the season, having hinted at it so much since the beginning. He lists a dozen names, and finishes with the most popular among them all: Odin. The problem is that the look on Shadow’s face can’t possibly match with the viewer’s, as mentioned previously, and the moment doesn’t carry the power it had in the book.

Thankfully, the show has a trick up its sleeve: Wednesday hands the baton to Easter, and tells her to show them – the New Gods – what she’s capable of. With a simple lift of her arms, she opens the skies and makes the wind blow, as hundreds of petals start to revolve around her. As her power builds, the land around her turns from green to brown, with all the trees and crops withering instantly, receding into the sprouts they once were.

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Kristin Chenoweth as Easter in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

And if it wasn’t clear enough, Wednesday confirms Easter’s doing: “Tell the believers and the non-believers: tell them we’ve taken the spring. They can have it back when they pray for it.” It’s addressed to Media and Technical Boy, who control all the channels of distribution in today’s time. Shadow’s belief system has been overturned – he believes everything, he says – but the moment is interrupted by Laura, who’s interested in a tête-à-tête with her husband.

The oddness of that moment, as evinced by the two actors and the musical cues, underscored the failings of the season finale. As an hour of visual splendour, it was top-notch as always, thanks to Fuller’s sense of crafting exquisite TV. But as season arcs go, the episode didn’t deliver enough on that front. At the same time, they are only a handful of shows that spend half their first season – a shortened run of eight episodes on that – fleshing out minor characters.

Those moments and asides have given us the season’s best moments – an empowering gay scene involving an Omani native, and commentary on vigilante gun violence and Mexican immigrants among others – which have hopefully shone through despite American Gods’ emphasis on experience over narrative. Now, we pray and wait for season two.

[“Source-ndtv”]

American Gods Recap: Season 1, Episode 6 “A Murder of Gods”

American Gods Recap: Season 1, Episode 6

Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan in a still from American Gods

HIGHLIGHTS

  • American Gods streams on Amazon Prime Video
  • The first season contains a total of eight episodes
  • Episode six introduced Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan

“Did you just name drop Jesus Christ like you know a guy who knows a guy?” Laura asks Mad Sweeney in the sixth episode of American Gods, “A Murder of Gods”. It’s only slightly connected to the opening vignette we get featuring Mexican immigrants crossing over to the US, with the bigger connection reserved for the man – umm, God – Shadow and Wednesday will meet on their travels.

Note: spoilers below for the sixth episode of American Gods.

This week’s episode, after the frenetic pace of last week, felt it meandered needlessly. Unlike Neil Gaiman’s book, the show now has two parallel road-trips. The first is the one we’ve been following since the premiere, with Shadow and Wednesday, on a journey across America to gather the Old Gods for a coming war against the New Gods. The other, beginning this week, is the pairing of Laura, Sweeney, and Salim.

The latter conveniently shows up at the same motel the other duo were holed up at, in the taxi he was given earlier in the season. Salim pulls a gun on Sweeney when he finds the latter trying to hotwire his car. Sweeney had decided on it after revealing that he can’t manage the alarm on the more modern car Laura picks out in the parking lot. Having overheard Sweeney tell Laura that he’s a leprechaun, Salim asks him if he’s ever met a Jinn.

After Sweeney gives a description that matches who Salim met, he tells Salim to drive them to Kentucky. “I’ll tell you where to find a whole murder of Gods, demi and otherwise, every goddamn one of them,” Sweeney adds. They don’t end up in Kentucky, though, after Laura decides to embark on a detour to Indiana, seeing the third member has slept off in the back.

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Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeney, and Emily Browning as Laura Moon in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

Given that she seems to share Salim’s “f– those assholes” motto – she used to pray her family would disappear, and says she’s thankful that she won’t have to hear her mother say her name, or have to eat her cooking – it’s a bit strange that she still feels a need to see them. The detour raises even more questions when it fails to achieve anything, except another trip to Jack’s Crocodile Bar from the premiere, which is a good way of reusing a set that probably took a lot of money to construct.

It’s almost as if the writers needed to send the trio off for a literal detour, while they could arrange the other pieces on the board for this season’s home stretch. We’re only two episodes away from the finale, though the constant world-building showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (along with the help of Gaiman himself) keep doing doesn’t make it look like they’re going to offer up many answers.

This episode introduced another new character, Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen), the ancient Roman god of fire, who has adapted himself with time. He’s also not the only one, with Wednesday revealing a little while earlier what the mad tree we’ve been seeing truly is. It’s another Old God who sold his forest for a new life as Mr. Wood, as he pulls out a horrifying creeper by placing one hand on Shadow’s wound, and another on his heart.

While Mr. Wood exists in the book, Gaiman personally wrote the character of Vulcan to define America’s obsession with guns. The trouble is that, given American Gods’ penchant for visual flair and panache, the way the montage of bullet production is framed, it’s hard to tell if the show is glorifying firearms, or intended to come off as a subtle satire of how strongly Americans take their gun laws.

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Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

The town of Vulcan, Virginia – named after the God himself – is solely devoted to their manufacture, and it treats the death of a site supervisor, who falls into the molten lava, as an excuse to close the town, and dispel their guns in salute. There’s an obvious Nazi-feel in the manner of the red armbands worn by the citizens, and Wednesday lays out why that’s so: “There aren’t just two Americas. Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face. Even if it crumbles under question,” to shots of people proudly bearing arms, even old women in wheelchairs.

Wednesday greets Vulcan as an old friend, and after the two reminiscence about old times, Vulcan takes them to his home. “The power of fire is firepower,” he says. “Not God. But god-like.” In mythology, he was described as the God of volcano, metalworking, and the forge. Since those crafts have faded over the ages, Vulcan has allowed himself to evolve into the manufacture of firearms, with bullets etched in his name.

Those bullets show up in the episode’s ‘Coming to America’ segment, as a group of American cowboys mow down Mexican immigrants who crossed the river into the US. The list of the fallen includes the Mexican Jesus – whose existence was hinted at by Wednesday in the third episode – as he tries to save a family by stepping in front of them. Jesus lands in the desert belly up in the crucifixion pose, and as a tumbleweed rolls across his face, it leaves behind a crown of thorns on his forehead.

Of course, he’s not the only God that gets murdered; the episode title is plural for a reason. Vulcan’s comments about Shadow’s lynching raises questions in the latter’s mind, wondering who told him about it. Wednesday says it didn’t occur to him, and when Shadows puts two and two together, the old man says he’s been thinking of a “personal f– you retort”.

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Corbin Bernsen as Vulcan, and Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday in a still from American Gods
Photo Credit: Jan Thijs/Starz

Down in the forge, after Vulcan forges a new sword for Wednesday, he bites after Grimnir asks whether they’ve been sold out. While Wednesday declined Mr. World’s offer, it seems Vulcan readily accepted the brand makeover he was given. “They put power back in my hand,” he adds, “and I gotta tell ya, it feels good.”

Wednesday is aghast at him switching sides, joining with those he believes to be the oppressor. Thinking on his feet, he beheads Vulcan in a swift stroke with the new blade, and then pushes him into the open fire. He’s not done, though. As an on-the-edge-of-retching Shadow grabs the sword, Wednesday urinates on top of the burning corpse, and lays down a curse on the factory. It’s not exactly clear how that will affect the bullets, but it’ll hopefully play out soon enough.

The episode closed out with the other travelling trio, who make an early morning stop on the road for Salim. For a fantasy show that’s ultimately about a war between different Gods, it’s nice to see a gentle portrayal of cultures that tend to be severely stereotyped on American TV. After the Omani turns to Laura, and says: “Allahu Akbar. God is great,” the dead woman replies: “Life is great.” Salim smiles back at her, and concurs: “Life is great.”

The two have gone through very different experiences recently, but have come out with a better appreciation of the same thing. Both seek the men that mean everything to them, even as their reasons for doing so vary widely. Mad Sweeney may not share their enthusiasm, but that won’t stop them from smiling to themselves, and basking in the sun’s glow.

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Tags: American Gods, Prime Video, Starz, Neil Gaiman
[“Source-ndtv”]