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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    GWEN IFILL: Next: a view from the Senate.

    Last night, I talked with Michigan Democrat Carl Levin.

    Tonight, Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer. She's a member of the Armed Services Committee. We spoke earlier this evening.

    Senator Deb Fischer, thanks for joining us.

    So, tonight, where do you stand on the president's request for a war authorization?

    SEN. DEB FISCHER, R-Neb.: Well, I have many concerns.

    We need to look at the consequences of any action that we take in Syria. We need to know what the strategy is, what's the mission, what are the goals, both long term and short term.  

    GWEN IFILL: You know, the president was in Stockholm today, as I'm sure you're aware. One of the things he was talking about was that it's not his credibility on the line; it's the world's credibility, it's Congress' credibility.

    What do you think about that? Whose credibility, if anybody's, was on the line?

    DEB FISCHER: I was pretty surprised by his comments.

    It was the president who drew that line. It's the president's credibility. He's now come to the United States Congress, and we will be looking at his mission, as he's going to define it. But I think it is his credibility. He needs to make the case, and he needs to make it to the people of this country.

    I would like to see the president have a meeting, have a press conference in the Oval Office, have an address, and lay this out, lay out the mission, lay out the goals. The people of this country truly understand that they're war-wise. They're not just war-weary. Martha Raddatz said that on a Sunday program, and I think it's very insightful.

    The Nebraskans that I talk to, they understand war. They understand war in the Middle East. We have been there. We have done it. We know what's coming. So the president has to make this case.

    GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about what Congress and the Senate in particular is trying to do to make this war authorization fit. It's almost like a Goldilocks too-hot/too-cold choice, in this case, whether it's too broad, whether you end up with boots on the ground and too -- and involved in a civil war, or too narrow, a limited strike that doesn't accomplish much.

    What do you think is the greatest concern in trying to strike that balance?

    DEB FISCHER: I think the greatest concern is to understand what the mission is. I have said that before.

    We can have a narrow strike. But then, is that a shot across the bow? What does that mean? Let's define that. Let's define what the mission is. There's a lot of unintended consequences out there. I have been in that region twice now. I have had the opportunity to meet with officials with the Jordanian government. They have many, many concerns going forward.

    So this just doesn't affect us as a country. It affects our allies as well. It affects this entire region. It affects the world. Again, the president has to make a case.

    GWEN IFILL: The president, the secretary of state, and the latest drafts in these resolutions have all made the point that there would be no U.S. boots on the ground in any kind of enterprise in Syria. Do you agree with that? Is that taking it too far?

    DEB FISCHER: I think the American people don't want to see boots on the ground. As I said, we have been in the conflicts in that region before. We're not ready to go back.

    We need to understand what the ramifications are. We can say no boots on the ground, but what if Assad uses chemical weapons again? How do we respond? It's happened 14 times. We're just responding now. The British prime minister said this has happened 14 times. So why are we just responding now? That's a question that needs to be answered as well.

    GWEN IFILL: So there is -- as you try to figure that out, why it didn't happen before, have you ruled out in your mind that it should happen now?

    DEB FISCHER: You know, I haven't ruled out anything. We're learning more and more every day.

    We just heard from the secretary of defense, Secretary Hagel today, that the Russians are supplying chemical weapons to Syria. We didn't know that before. I have gone through two conference calls, briefings. I went through a briefing with the Armed Services Committee this morning. We just heard that today.

    So what else don't we know? If the Russians are involved in this, are they supplying the Syrians with chemical weapons, and what consequences are we going to see from that action? How are they going to respond if we go in and attack Syria?

    GWEN IFILL: How important, if this resolution is granted, is it to you that the president at some date concern come back to Congress?

    DEB FISCHER: As I said, the president needs to talk to the American people. Let's have that address from the Oval Office, have him lay out his case.

    We're getting more and more information in briefings, but the American people have so many questions on this. They need to be a part of this discussion, too. And it's up to the president to be able to put that case forward.

    GWEN IFILL: Is one of the answers to the question for you that perhaps the Arab League or that more Arab nations should be involved?

    DEB FISCHER: Well, I would like to see a number of our allies step forward. We have heard that there are a few out there. I understand that the French are going to be involved in some manner, but I haven't heard details on how these different countries are going to be involved.

    We aren't getting support from the United Nations. We aren't getting support from our very reliable allies such as Great Britain. And we need to look at other solutions that may be out there. As I mentioned, we have the British prime minister saying that there have been 14 instances of chemical weapons used, but this is our response to this one situation that took place.

    It's horrible. I'm not saying that it isn't. We have seen about 2,000 people, many of them children, that have been attacked by their own government and died. But we have seen over 100,000 Syrians killed in this civil war over the last two years with no response from the administration.

    GWEN IFILL: Do you worry at all, as some of your colleagues appear to, that there is a potential for retaliation from others in the region against the U.S. should it get involved?

    DEB FISCHER: Well, as I said, we don't know what the consequences of any action we take will be. We don't know what the ramifications will be.

    Somebody will retaliate. I would ask a question of the administration and of the secretary of state and the secretary of defense is, how effective are these small strikes? Give me some examples. Give me some examples in the past when we have seen how effective that they can be. And, again, are we going to see a retaliation against us or against our allies because of that?

    I would like to hear some answers to those questions.

    GWEN IFILL: Some of your colleagues, Senator John McCain among them and the House leadership, have said that they believe that if a resolution -- if the president's request for a war resolution, an unprecedented rejection were to occur, that this would be bad for the nation. Do you think that would be true?

    DEB FISCHER: I think what would be bad for the nation is to become embroiled in a situation in the Middle East again where we don't have a clear mission, where we don't have a defined goal.

    GWEN IFILL: Senator Deb Fischer, Republican of Nebraska, thanks for joining us.

    DEB FISCHER: Thank you.

     


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    KWAME HOLMAN: The Cleveland man convicted of holding captive and raping three women over a decade was found dead in his prison cell overnight. Ariel Castro had begun serving a life sentence on August 1. Ohio prison officials said the 53-year-old hanged himself with a bed sheet. His three victims declined comment, but former neighbors said Castro avoided facing his crimes.

    ROSS WALDREN, neighbor: I was just astonished. I thought he would be in prison for a long time, and then maybe someone would do an interview and find out the truth of as to why he would do something like this and carry it on for 10 years.

    ANGEL ARROYO, neighbor: They made a deal so he can spend the rest of his life in jail. Maybe -- he couldn't even last 10 years, as long as he held these girls. So, I thought it was a cowardly action that he chose to end his life.

    KWAME HOLMAN: Prison officials said Castro was in protective custody, but not on suicide watch. Corrections officers were to check on him every 30 minutes. The American Civil Liberties Union called for an investigation into the death.

    U.S. Army Private Chelsea Manning has formally requested a presidential pardon for leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. The soldier, formerly Bradley Manning, is serving a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She has said she wants to live as a woman and receive hormone therapy. The pardon request was sent to President Obama through the Justice Department.

    Tens of thousands of gold miners walked off the job overnight and today in South Africa. They had demanded up to a 60 percent increase in pay, but reportedly lowered it to 10 percent. That's still more than the offer gold mining companies have made. Gold prices have fallen and South Africa has been overtaken as the number one gold producer. The country's mining industry has been hit by sometimes violent labor strife; 46 people died last year during unrest at a major platinum mine.

    Thomas Perez was sworn in today as U.S. secretary of labor. Vice President Biden presided over a ceremony at the Labor Department. Perez vowed to focus on speeding up the pace of economic recovery.

    THOMAS PEREZ, U.S. Secretary of Labor: Boiled down to our essence, the Department of Labor is the department of opportunity. And as we emerge from the most -- the worst recession of our lifetime, I will make it my top priority to expand opportunity in a number of different ways. And, first, we must invest in our work force.

    KWAME HOLMAN: Perez previously led the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

    Automakers in the U.S. posted double-digit gains in August, their best showing in at least five years. Toyota racked up a 23 percent gain, General Motors was up 15 percent, and Ford and Chrysler sales rose 12 percent. The companies did well on both ends of their lineups, posting strong sales of pickup trucks and small cars.

    The auto news helped Wall Street rally. The Dow Jones industrial average gained almost 97 points to close near 14,931. The Nasdaq rose 36 points to close at 3,649.

    Those are some of the day's major stories.


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: When former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified documents to the press in May, he revealed extensive U.S. spying operations carried out on enemies and allies alike.

    Last week, The Washington Post published a detailed account of the so-called black budget, money the U.S. government spends on spy operations. It was also revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies have been reading the personal e-mails of the presidents of Mexico and Brazil.

    At his press conference with the Swedish prime minister in Stockholm today, President Obama denied that the U.S. was eavesdropping.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we're not going around snooping at people's e-mails or listening to their phone calls.

    What we try to do is to target very specifically areas of concern. And there may be situations in which we're gathering information just because we can that doesn't help with us our national security, but does raise questions in terms of whether we're tipping over into being too intrusive.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, I'm joined by Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post. He's written many stories based on the Snowden leaks. Plus, Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, and Stewart Baker. He's former general counsel at the National Security Agency.

    Thank you, all three, for being with us.

    Craig Whitlock, let me start with you and ask you about what we just heard the president commenting on. There have been several sets of disclosures. One set did have to do with the U.S. reading the e-mails of the leaders of these countries that are supposed to be allies. Tell us a little bit about what those disclosures were.

    CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, I think as the president described, in a backdoor manner, the National Security Agency and other U.S. spy agencies conduct surveillance on a pretty astounding scale worldwide, and some of these embarrassing parts of it are starting to come to light, including communications, e-mails, phone calls involving the leadership of countries that are our partners and allies.

    And I think these countries maybe suspected this sort of thing was going on, but with a wink and a nod, they wouldn't inquire about it. Now it's coming to light, and it's embarrassing.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And when the president says it's not happening, how do you square that?

    CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, he didn't say it's not happening. He said, sometimes, we gather up in our surveillance things that maybe we weren't targeting.

    But, you know, you have to listen to him again. He didn't deny that it was happening. He just said maybe it wasn't intentional.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, then there's another set of disclosures. In fact, you wrote about this today in The Washington Post, and that is the story about al-Qaida trying for several years now to disable American drones. Give us -- give us that story in a nutshell.

    CRAIG WHITLOCK: Yes, this was another revelation in some of the documents that Snowden gave to us, which was that U.S. spy agencies for some time have been monitoring al-Qaida's research and development efforts to shoot down or jam or even hijack drones, which, of course, have been the bane of their existence.

    And they haven't been able to do that yet, but there is evidence that they have been able to mount some rudimentary electronic warfare to try and defend themselves. And it's pretty striking the degree and energy in which they have put into that effort.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: They haven't been able to do it so far, as far as we know?

    CRAIG WHITLOCK: Not so far as we know, but there are vulnerabilities in how these drones fly, and so you can see why they would try and target that.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the other -- one other -- there have been a number of disclosures, but the other major one that your newspaper, The Washington Post, reported last week, was the black budget, the so-called black budget, the actual amount of money, what is it, $52 billion being spent every year on intelligence gathering.

    CRAIG WHITLOCK: That's right.

    And the government, to its credit, would say each year this is how much we spend on the black budget. But they would give one number, and this is it. What these documents that Snowden provide said, here is what our priorities are, here's what the different agencies -- the fact that the CIA gets about 30 percent of that, much more than the National Security Agency did.

    And the details on their priorities, what they were spending it on all had been secret for years. So this document, 200 pages almost, really outlines to Congress what this money is being spent on, what parts of the world, what kinds of intelligence gathering, and that had all been secret for pretty much ever.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of details in there.

    So, let me -- Stewart Baker, Kate Martin, let me bring the two of you into this conversation.

    First to you, Stewart Baker, what about this black budget? Is this information that should be in the public realm?

    STEWART BAKER, National Security Agency Former General Counsel: No, under no circumstances.

    Even the -- you know, 95 percent of it was withheld by The Post, which was persuaded that it was too dangerous to release. And even the things they released tell the Syrians and the Iranians and al-Qaida what we know about them, and, more importantly, what they have successfully hidden from us. That tells them what's working and what's not. It's going to set us back.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying it's done damage, it will do damage?

    STEWART BAKER: Yes.

    And I think the fact that it does damage without revealing any scandals -- I didn't see any scandals in the Post coverage -- tells us something about Snowden. He didn't release this as a whistle-blower because of a scandal. He released it, as far as I can tell, to do as much damage to the U.S. intelligence community as he could do.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Martin, how do you see this in terms of damage or not?

    KATE MARTIN, Center for National Security Studies: Well, I don't think it's at all clear how much damage there will be from The Post's disclosures about what was in the document.

    The Obama administration, for example, in its defense of the Syrian action, has talked about intercepting Syrian military officers talking to each other. So that's not a secret. And when I read the story about the black budget, it's not clear how much of that is actually a secret from our adversaries.

    I think what is a secret and what we need more of is the question of, how much money are we spending on the intelligence community? How are we spending it, not the details, not who are we paying off, and whether or not it's effective. And that's a hard balance to strike. How do you end up with a public discussion about that?

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you're saying more information needs to be out, not less?

    KATE MARTIN: Well, more information than had been released by the administration does need to be out.

    And I think one of the contexts for the Snowden disclosures is that there's been too much secrecy, and now there's too much disclosure by somebody who wasn't authorized to disclose and hadn't any basis for deciding what to disclose.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Stewart Baker, what about another set of disclosure that we were just discussing, this spying or eavesdropping on personal communications of leaders of other countries who are supposed to be American allies? Damaging or not?

    STEWART BAKER: It is damaging in the short run, because it focuses a lot of attention on something that is usually understood by everyone, but not talked about.

    The fact is, our allies all spy on us. It's just part of international affairs. But no one likes to see it and be reminded of it in such a dramatic way.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about today's disclosure in The Washington Post again about al-Qaida trying for several years to disable U.S. drones?

    STEWART BAKER: I'm hoping they can persuade them that if eight of them go out into a field and all turn on their cell phones at once, that that might work.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

    STEWART BAKER: Because we will target them most -- particularly easy then.

    No, I think that's a fool's errand for them. That's my guess. It's not going to work.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don't see that as particularly damaging, is my question, just...

    (CROSSTALK)

    STEWART BAKER: Only -- only in -- on sort of byplay. That is to say, it might tell al-Qaida which of their communications have been intercepted, because they will say, yes, I remember saying that. So something I was -- that was in the room when I said that is a source for U.S. intelligence.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Kate Martin, what about these other two elements? How damaging or not?

    KATE MARTIN: Well, it's hard to say as an outsider.

    On the other hand, when I read the story by Mr. Whitlock about the -- what al-Qaida is trying to do with regard to our drones, it looked to me like lots of that was already in the public domain. I think one of the things that the government hasn't gotten its hands around is that, in the new Internet globalized age, it's very hard to keep information locked up.

    They don't have very good systems, it looks like, for keeping it locked up. But it's all -- it's out there anyway. And the problem and the importance of it Is that we need to have a democratic debate and understanding about what our intelligence community is doing and whether or not it's doing it effectively.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying this makes that more possible.

    Craig Whitlock, just finally, back to you, The Post made it very clear that you were not disclosing everything you knew, everything you were given by Edward Snowden. How do you make that decision? Where do you draw the line?

    CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, each line is -- each story is a different line.

    And, in general, we don't disclose things that would bring any -- put anyone in personal danger who works for the U.S. government. We wouldn't disclosure things that might jeopardize military systems, pretty obvious secrets like that. On things like the budget, it's a little more difficult. These are numbers. This is policy matters.

    It's something that the government has kept secret for a long time. We felt pretty strongly that that's something, as Kate had said, the public deserves to have a debate about. Operational details, we wouldn't disclose that, but sometimes that information is twinned together, and you have to sort of figure out how to separate it out.

    It's not an easy process, and it's one we're pretty careful about.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Clearly an ongoing discussion.

    We thank you, all three, Craig Whitlock, Kate Martin, Stewart Baker. Thank you.

    KATE MARTIN: Thank you.

     


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    United Nations arms experts arrive to inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack last week on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus. Photo by Mohamed Abdullah/AFP/Getty Images.

    The deadly nerve gas Sarin is believed to be behind the poison gas attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the Syrian suburbs of Damascus on August 21, according to Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday. And the horribly potency of the gas has raised questions about what it would take to arm the public against a future chemical weapons attack.

    To answer the question requires an understanding how Sarin and other nerve agents in its class work.

    Sarin, a clear, odorless, tasteless nerve gas, was developed in Nazi Germany in 1938, originally for use as a pesticide, though it was produced and stockpiled as a weapon by American operatives after the war. Also known as GB, it's thought to have been deployed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and it was released by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult on five Tokyo subway trains in 1995. Its chemical structure is similar to that of organophosphates, a common class of insecticides, which contain carbon-based groups coupled to a phosphorous atom. And it is believed to work on the body in the same way that the pesticides act on the bugs - or on agricultural workers who are exposed to too much of the stuff.

    Except Sarin is immensely more powerful. A dab the size of a pea is enough to cause death, according to Pete Estacio, a physician and chemist who works with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Forensics Science Center.

    Sarin and other nerve gases work to disrupt bodily functions by blocking the brain's ability to control muscle movement. For a muscle to contract, the brain must send that muscle a message in the form of electrical pulses across a system of nerves. Passing from one nerve to the next requires a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine, which is naturally produced by the body. But as soon as this chemical does its job, it must immediately get broken down, or the muscles will contract uncontrollably.

    Enter acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that breaks down the chemical. Normally, the chemical acetylcholine is released, sends its message, and then the enzyme binds to the acetylcholine molecule to essentially shut it off.

    "The bigger the dose you're exposed to, the more quickly you need early intervention," Estacio said. "You've got 15 minutes to be treated, and if exposed to a large dose, you're done for."

    But here's where the nerve agents come in. Sarin gums up that process by binding to the exact same dock as the acetylcholinesterase, blocking the enzyme from doing its job.

    "It that's messed up, that messes everything up," said Carlos Fraga, a chemist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "If you're not able to destroy acetylcholine, it just builds up and causes the nerves to keep firing."

    Delivery of the chemical message without interruption by the enzyme leads to overstimulation, Estacio added.

    "For example, if it's a secretion in the mouth, it will make the person foam at the mouth," he said. If it's tear ducts, it will make you cry. if its muscles in the leg, it will make the muscles twitch."

    The result is the terrible symptoms seen in the recent attack in Syria. Pupils narrow to the size of pinpoints. People experience sudden nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, muscle spasms, excessive runny nose and most dangerously, difficulty breathing - ultimately the main cause of death, Fraga said.

    The good news is that there's a suite of antidotes that can counter these effects. A drug called atropine blocks the acetylcholine receptor, reversing the immediate effects of the nerve agent. Another drug called 2-PAM breaks the chemical bond between the acetylcholine molecule and the nerve agent, preventing the poison gas molecules from binding irreversibly to the nerve cells -- a process known as "aging."

    But here's the problem: to work, these drugs must be administered immediately - within minutes.

    "The bigger the dose you're exposed to, the more quickly you need early intervention," Estacio said. "You've got 15 minutes to be treated, and if exposed to a large dose, you're done for."

    Bottom line: you have to be prepared for a chemical attack in order for the treatment to work.

    "You have to have it on you," Fraga said. "When you start seeing symptoms, you've got minutes. You have to know that you're in that situation."

    The Fabric That Might Save Our Lives

    Meanwhile, a team of about 30 researchers led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is working to develop material for a new "smart" military uniform that could transform its structure to repel chemical agents. The carbon nanotube-based material is only three times the thickness of a piece of Xerox paper and designed to be breathable in hot weather. When it encounters a nerve agent like Sarin or VX, polymers embedded into the fabric would rapidly react with the poison gas molecules to seal the material shut, providing instant protection. These polymers would also be designed to destroy and shed the uniform's contaminated surface layer like snakeskin.

    Click on the image to see the full version. Graphic by Jeff Durham/Bay Area News Group.

    Existing protective gear is effective -- gas masks can also prevent people from inhaling toxic chemicals, for example. But the military uniforms used now are known for being thick with poor breathability, and can cause heatstroke if worn too long in hot weather.

    "We're hoping to design a material that protects the general population of warfare agents, instead of a material that's agent specific," said Kuang Jen Wu, a physicist and researcher with the biosecurity and nanosciences group at Lawrence Livermore. "We want to start developing materials that could be eventually made available to the general public."

    Rebecca Jacobson contributed to this report.

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    GWEN IFILL: Now we continue our occasional look at aging and the challenges of long-term care.

    Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan reports on a push to make New York City more livable in later years.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: It's 9:30 in the morning in East Harlem, New York City, and the Thomas Jefferson Pool is springing to life.

    WOMAN: Take the plunge. Come on.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Several dozen seniors have come to take the plunge, and take part in the pool's senior swim hours; 72-year-old Maria Pacheco, who takes attendance, comes three times a week.

    MARIA PACHECO: People socialize. And being around people their own age -- our age, I should say -- you are not self-conscious of who's looking. And here, nobody's comparing you to anyone else.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The Jefferson Pool was the first to offer the senior swim hours. Now there are 15, with more than 1,000 seniors participating. It's Pacheco's third summer here at Jefferson. It helps keep her days busy.

    So, you're volunteering, you are teaching seniors, you are taking a swim class. You are pretty active.

    MARIA PACHECO: I don't want to get old, and this does it for you, being involved into everything.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And that's becoming easier to accomplish thanks to a recent initiative to make the city more livable for seniors. They now account for roughly one out of every six New Yorkers.

    Age-Friendly New York City was launched in 2009 with $4 million that was provided by the mayor's office, the New York City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine, along with the assistance from many foundation grants.

    LINDA GIBBS, Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services: The population that is 65 and older has just surpassed the population that is 18 and younger.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Linda Gibbs is the city's deputy mayor for health and human services.

    LINDA GIBBS: What we're really trying to do is change the culture of the city as a whole so that we -- instead of seeing elderly New Yorkers as a deficit, as a problem to be solved, instead, we say the world is fundamentally a changing place. We're living longer, we're living healthier, and older New Yorkers now are here in numbers that have surpassed anything in history.

    RUTH FINKELSTEIN, New York Academy of Medicine: These programs are working.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: One key ingredient to the initiative is listening to seniors, according to Ruth Finkelstein Of The New York Academy Of Medicine. She leads the initiative's private sector efforts.

    RUTH FINKELSTEIN: Everything we do is grounded in the perspectives and voices of older adults. The first thing that they have to realize is, we don't stand in the shoes of the people that we're addressing and that we need first and foremost to understand the city through their perspective.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The program is now up and running in all five boroughs, including Manhattan, where we met up with Ed and Sarah Aarons. They can't imagine living anywhere but here.

    ED AARONS: It's all near what's happening, what's happening in the world. I can't conceive of adjusting to anyplace else, and I can't conceive of having the facilities and conveniences and the excitement in other places.

    SARAH AARONS: The only two places he would like to live the rest of his life is in New York or Paris.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Sarah, who's 93, and Ed, 85, have lived in the same Upper West Side apartment for 50 years. Sarah now gets around on a motorized chair. We tagged along with her while she ran errands around her neighborhood. Most of the city buses can now kneel down to make it easier for Sarah to roll on and off.

    SARAH AARONS: Thank you.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But there are still challenges for Sarah and for the city.

    SARAH AARONS: I can't get up on this side. It's too high, so I have to go around this way and get into traffic.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: It spent millions on infrastructure changes spread across many agencies. But while more than 100 intersections have been redesigned to include longer crossing times and cuts in the curb to make it easier to navigate, there are thousands left to make the whole city more senior-friendly.

    But it is working in East Harlem, where we toured with Finkelstein.

    If I look at this whole corner, I have got a -- in the shelter, I have got a bench so that a senior can sit. I have got glass so that they feel safe. I have got shade for from so that they don't feel too hot. They have got cutouts so that they can use their ramps, their walkers.

    WOMAN: How are you today?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: For seniors like the Aarons, being able to get out and about to do their errands is essential to staying out of assisted living.

    SARAH AARONS: You go there, and everybody has white hair. They don't look like they are enjoying life. To me, to be able to do things yourself, rather than have something done for you, you know, to try your best to do as much for yourself as possible.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Age-Friendly also partners with the private sector to help businesses better serve older customers. The changes are simple: better lighting, a place to sit, and larger fonts so seniors can see what's available. Local stores like Fairway Markets offer shuttle buses and in-store assistance.

    LINDA GIBBS: If you are in the retail business and you want to serve a meal and you want to cut hair and you want to, you know, offer supplies, you know, you have got to think about who is in the city buying.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: More than 1,000 businesses have now signed up for the program.

    MAN: At home, you're going to be paying for an Internet service provider.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: In their talks with seniors, the collaboration also found there was an increasing technology gap. This technology lab, Senior Planet, is the first technology-themed center for people over 60 in the country. New York City is arguably the most diverse on the planet, and creating a program that was inclusive to everyone was essential.

    RUTH FINKELSTEIN: Affordability is a huge issue for older adults, and it's not adequate to make a city work well for only for people with means.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: But it's been a challenge that goes beyond curb cuts. They want to find a way to make the city more affordable for all seniors.

    RUTH FINKELSTEIN: In New York, I have to say, housing is so difficult. We have ideas that we haven't yet implemented, but the essential basic price of real estate, how expensive it is to be housed in New York, is a challenge that I don't feel that we have addressed adequately.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And the need for these types of changes isn't just in New York City, according to Dr. Linda Fried, the dean of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health.

    DR. LINDA FRIED, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health: The aging of the population is one of the most significant historic shifts in the history of the world, and what we're going to see is what countries all over the world are seeing, which is that we are living longer lives.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: This summer, a delegation from Hong Kong visited to get tips on making their city more age-friendly. Dozens of other cities across the U.S. and around the world have started their own plans or used the city as a model. According to Deputy Mayor Gibbs, the reason it's worked in New York is because they started allocating resources differently.

    LINDA GIBBS: While there are some additional costs associated with the program, overwhelmingly, what we ask agencies to do is think about what you are doing already, and can you do it in a way that is more age-sensitive, so that when you do the repaving, when you do the new curbs, when you spend your money on your senior centers, why not spend it in a different way? And this way, I think, is very replicable.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: And there are benefits that aren't limited to just seniors.

    LINDA FRIED: The dirty little secret on this planning is that, from my point of view, anything you design that will facilitate access, engagement, safety, enjoyment, and participation by older people turns out to be good for all age groups.

    So you are not designing just for one age group, but you are ensuring the engagement and contributions of all age groups by doing that.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Meanwhile, on this hot day in New York, the seniors all here at the Jefferson Pool agree, so far, they're in step with all the changes.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, with millions of students returning to class this week, we continue our series about ideas being discussed and debated in the world of education.

    Tonight, we turn to the role of universities and explore a question getting plenty of attention amid concerns about student debt: What is the real purpose of college?

    Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

    JEFFREY BROWN: "If you want an education, the odds aren't with you," just one of many provocative lines from a new book exploring the contemporary university, very much including the most elite institutions and the lives of teachers and students. It's called "Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education."

    Author Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and he joins us now.

    And welcome to you.

    MARK EDMUNDSON, "Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education": Thank you so much.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, first, what is a real education and why does it need defending?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, a real education -- I will offend a few people by saying this -- is humanities-based and it's oriented around the prospect of getting to know yourself, figuring out who you are and what you really want to do with your life.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And that is not what is taught now?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, I think a lot of student come to school having been primed by their parents and their teaches to go into a business school, to go into an economics major, to do a science major, whether they're scientists or future businesspeople in their heart or not.

    So, that's something that really -- we really have got to speak to that, it seems to me, and that's what I try to do in the book.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You add a larger level. You write: "Midway through the last decade, the 20th century, American higher education changed. Colleges and universities entered a new phase in which they stopped being intellectually driven and culturally oriented and began to model themselves on business."

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes, a lot of truth in that, I still think.

    Schools have become more consumer-oriented. Can we give you the best kind of food? Can we give you the best kind of gym? Can we give you all the entertainment that you need on Saturday and Sunday, the best kind of football team? But, then, at the end, you are going to have to pay for it.

    So, there's a lot of diversions out there, but there is still the heart of a good education in just about every American college.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But why has that happened, that it became more business-oriented? And what does that do to the actual exchange between teacher and student?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, it became more business-oriented because, like businesses, I think the universities competed for students. Right?

    And one of the ways to compete is offer as plush and easy a circumstance as possible. So the professors have had to step forward and try to undermine those expectations of a continuing consumer pleasurable encounter, do a little bit of challenging, do a little bit of questioning, do a little bit of the Socratic thing that we try to do.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But not enough? I'm trying to figure how far are you pushing this? Is it coddling the students, in the sense that they're not challenging them enough because they're more like customers, rather than students? What's the argument?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Well, I think they come with those expectations, but I think professors try to push back in the direction of a more serious kind of engagement.

    One of the things that we're doing, it seems to me, is that we're teaching students very well how to read and interpret demanding and interesting texts. But we're not going far enough in asking them this critical question: Is this true? How would you apply it to your life? How would you live it out?

    And that's a place where I think we professors could do some stepping up.

    JEFFREY BROWN: We talk a lot about a crisis in the humanities. You seem to refer -- you seem to think of a crisis within the humanities, that it's -- that the humanities are being sold the wrong way, if that's the right word, as ways to help you get a job or to help you, I don't know, do better in life, rather than something else.

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Right.

    Well, I think that, you know, the humanities can help you to do better in life. You can learn to read well, write well, think well, present yourself in an appealing sort of way. But I think that fundamentally we're not about success. What we're about is challenging and examining every single kind of socially accredited standard out there.

    If a student studies the humanities and reads Plato and reads Socrates, he may come out believing that he wants to be a conventional success, but he may also come out believing that success is really for somebody else; he's going to lead a life of what Thoreau called voluntary poverty, and that's that. And that's the risk that parents take, but better a happy kid than a slogging-away, successful -- in conventional terms -- kid.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Successful in conventional terms.

    You mean so the colleges shouldn't be telling the kids -- I mean, what do you tell the -- what -- you want to attract kids to your class, right?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Sure.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But not to say this might help you become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: What I'm more likely to say is, this will help you decide whether you want to become a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer.

    And if you do decide to do that, you are going to be all the more successful because you made the decision on your own, not because it's been imposed on you from outside.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, what are you saying? Because I can hear people saying, look, it's a tough economy. Right? Kids and parents pay a lot of money to go to college.

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Mm-hmm.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What do you tell people? Why should they not be thinking that this has to lead to something with money or the economy in mind?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Uh-huh.

    Well, you know, if you look at people's professional lives and you ask them why do they fail, right, frequently, they fail because they are a round peg trying to slam themselves into a square hole of a profession that they really do not love and are not committed to, right, so that if a student learns what it is he or she really values and wants to do, the chances of success are much better.

    And that's something we provide in the humanities that others don't. But the thing to add is that students may in the humanities look into this idea of success and say, no, not for me. I have a son who lives in Austin, Tex., works in a bike shop, and is writing a novel. I'm tremendously proud of him. He looked into the success thing, and so far, what he's saying is, not for me.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But you're probably going to hear from people, this is the privilege of the well-off, to be able to have that kind of, I don't know, four years of thinking and of, as you use the word from John Keats, soul-making. Right?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: I would like it to be a privilege that everybody had access to. Right?

    And that -- when we say we can't afford that, we can afford 2.5 million people in jail. We can afford armies that can fight three wars at the same time. We can afford rich people who pay 15 to zero percent of their taxes, but we can't afford to give everybody a chance at the humanities? I would rather open it up for everybody.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, what do you tell -- you refer at one point to the astonishing opportunities at colleges. For all the kind of tough things you have to say, you talk about the wonders of our universities.

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes. Yes.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What's the advice? How should a student take those -- particularly those starting maybe right today, right, or this week, how should they take advantage of that?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: Yes.

    You have got to look around for the teacher who is going to be great for you. There is this period that they call shopping period -- probably not the best name -- but you go from class to class, from professor to professor, and you see, you look around for somebody who really lights it up for you. You're looking for somebody with a keen mind, love of learning, and a warm heart.

    And you get those things together in the same person and you have found somebody who might actually be able to teach you something, and maybe you will teach him something, too.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And what about for those in your profession? What's the answer to your question, why teach?

    MARK EDMUNDSON: You know, it's a little bit of a mystery. There's something just plain wonderful about watching people develop.

    And the ages between 18 and 22 are among the very best for that. People come, and they're very unformed. And they read and they think and they spend time with their friends. And they grow at this astronomical rate. And it's just wonderful to be around and see it happen.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We're going to continue this conversation online. I want to ask you about your own experience to becoming a professor.

    But, for now, Mark Edmundson, the new book is "Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education." Thanks so much.

    MARK EDMUNDSON: My pleasure. Thank you.

     


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    I hate to admit it because it sounds cynical, but I'm not often surprised by what happens in Washington. After years of watching presidents, members of Congress and other powerful characters, one develops a feel for where decisions are going. Even "shocking" behaviors often turn out, upon reflection, to be consistent with what that person had been signaling earlier.

    So it was, heading into last weekend.

    It was assumed, after a drumbeat of talk about preparations for a military strike on Syria, after a passionate argument by Secretary of State Kerry, and after a careful explanation by President Obama that the use of a certain type of particularly lethal weapon required a response, that he would move to do just that. He told Gwen Ifill and me in an interview at the White House last Wednesday: "... we want the Assad regime to understand that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people -- against women, against infants, against children, that you are not only breaking international norms and standards of decency, but you're also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop."

    We also knew warships were in place in the Mediterranean. The commanders on those ships believed an order to strike was imminent. One defense department official told CNN: "We were standing multiple watches. Everyone was pretty sure it was going to happen."

    But the president surprised just about everyone, even some of his closest advisers. The New York Times reported that when he summoned them into the Oval Office Friday night to tell them he wanted to seek congressional approval first, "the resistance ... was immediate."

    Most of us are now still looking for a full explanation of why he did what he did. We've asked questions, understand the setback represented by the British Parliament's "no" vote, and think perhaps this former constitutional law professor was troubled by the precedent a go-it-alone decision would create. We heard Mr. Obama say "... our democracy is stronger when the president and the people's representatives stand together."

    But presidents going back more than half a century have taken much more sweeping military moves without first seeking blessings from Capitol Hill. Harry Truman circumvented Congress, calling the Korean War a "police action," even though more than 35 thousand American men died there. Further, presidents as different as Johnson, Reagan and Clinton declared they did not need an OK from the legislative branch before they launched attacks in Vietnam, Grenada and Kosovo.

    Despite overwhelming public opposition to military engagement in Syria, the White House insists that Mr. Obama will get the congressional support he says he wants. Skeptical Democrats are being warned that anything less would weaken him too much politically; Republicans are facing pressure to stand up for a strong American defense. If so, it's certain there will be repercussions. There's no way to predict how a vote of approval may affect military-related decisions by future presidents, or even by this one. And there's even greater uncertainty about the toll that casting this vote will take on upcoming votes on crucial domestic issues like the federal budget and immigration.

    No action in Washington, as in physics, occurs in a vacuum. As Newton taught us, there is always a reaction. Having been surprised by what the president announced Saturday, I'm as anxious as everyone else to see what the fallout is -- overseas and here at home.

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    BerkShares are the local paper currency of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Lauren Fuller Photography.

    What if you used a different currency to buy a sandwich from your main street deli than you did to make a purchase at the Wal-Mart 10 miles outside town? "BerkShares," the local paper currency of Berkshire County in Massachusetts, lets you do that. The popularity of BerkShares has ebbed and flowed, but with about $130,000 worth of notes currently in circulation, the number of businesses accepting the currency has jumped to about 400 from the 100 that initially participated in 2006.

    Shooting a Making Sen$e segment on the phenomenon in Western Massachusetts, which is slated to air on PBS NewsHour Thursday, Paul Solman spoke with Alice Maggio, the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Great Barrington, named after British economist E.F. Schumacher, the author of the 20th century classic about acting locally, "Small Is Beautiful." What follows is their extended conversation about the evolution of the currency, its reach and Maggio's hopes for more region-specific currencies that would be used instead of the U.S. dollar. Keep the Business Desk tab open; we'll return this afternoon with a web-exclusive video about artists in the Berkshires who use BerkShares.

    Alice Maggio: BerkShares evolved from a lot of experiments in this area with local currency. There have been Berkshire Farm Preserve notes, Monterey General Store notes and Deli Dollars, all experiments in funding upfront the costs of a business that everybody believed in and everybody understood already. So the Deli Dollars was the best example of that. There's a deli in town and it needed to move but the owner couldn't get a bank loan. So he turned to his customers and asked: Will you fund my move? And so he issued Deli Dollars. The customers could buy a Deli Dollar for $8 that was worth $10 when redeemed. So he basically financed his own move.

    Paul Solman: So then how did BerkShares start?

    Alice Maggio: Well, after these different experiments, the merchants on Main Street in Great Barrington said, "Hey, we want to do the same thing. We're local businesses; we need some support, too." And so they worked out a program called BerkShares in the early '90s. It was sort of like a promotion: during the summer you could get one BerkShare with every purchase you made from a local business, and then at the end of the summer, there was one weekend where you could redeem them. And from there, people said, "Well, why are we doing this just in the summer? Let's just do it all the time."

    Paul Solman: And so when did it become a viable alternative currency?

    Alice Maggio: BerkShares were issued six-and-a-half years ago, in 2006, and they've been issued through 13 branches of five local banks, where you can exchange dollars for BerkShares. And then you spend them in the local businesses. So we started off with maybe 100 businesses participating in 2006 and we've grown to about 400 businesses.

    Paul Solman: So how many BerkShares are in circulation?

    Alice Maggio: There are about 130,000 BerkShares out in circulation now, but it goes up and down with the seasons. We can tell how many BerkShares are in circulation because we know how many dollars are in the bank accounts. Every branch that has BerkShares in its vaults has a BerkShares account. And people bring their dollars and put them, basically, in that BerkShares account, which can't be touched unless somebody brings BerkShares back to get dollars out.

    MORE FROM THE BUSINESS DESK: Why Isn't There a Single World Currency?

    Paul Solman: And how much money in BerkShares are in the vaults of banks?

    Alice Maggio: We printed about $1 million worth of BerkShares and we've estimated that 4.3 million BerkShares total have gone out of the banks. Obviously they have come back in and circulated through.

    Paul Solman: How widely can I use BerkShares?

    Alice Maggio: Well, there are so many different kinds of businesses that accept BerkShares. There are excavators, dentists, lawyers, accountants...so there's lots of services...

    Paul Solman: Tanglewood?

    Alice Maggio: Tanglewood doesn't accept BerkShares yet, but there are lots of arts organizations. There's the Mahaiwe Theater, which is an old vaudeville theater that's beautifully restored. We just bought tickets for a show in October using BerkShares. We're also putting on a big BerkShares event there in the fall. Then there are all sorts of goods that are produced here. There's lots of local food, lots of restaurants that accept BerkShares. And then there are things like ukuleles that you can buy with BerkShares and that are produced right here in the Berkshires.

    Paul Solman: Geographically, how far can I go before I run out of places that will take BerkShares?

    Alice Maggio: Well, we don't really put strict limits on it. The idea is that about 10 miles outside of the border of Berkshire County is where the BerkShare region ends, but we don't enforce who can take BerkShares and who can't. Anybody who finds it useful to take BerkShares can take BerkShares.

    Paul Solman: Where's the nearest Walmart?

    Alice Maggio: In Pittsfield.

    Paul Solman: That's within the county.

    Alice Maggio: It is. It's a little bit beyond the center of BerkShares' activity. BerkShares are usually used in south county, because that's where the banks are that have them in the vaults.

    Paul Solman: But, still within Berkshire County.

    Alice Maggio: Yes.

    Paul Solman: So would you be happy or unhappy if Wal-Mart signed on?

    Alice Maggio: Well, we don't really worry about Walmart signing on because Wal-Mart is sort of antithetical to the BerkShares spirit. We want to support locally owned stores that are employing people with living wages and producing things here for local consumption. Wal-Mart's business model is to export the money they take in to their corporate center. So it wouldn't make any sense for them to take BerkShares because BerkShares stay here.

    Paul Solman: Well, but it would make sense if everybody in town was using Berkshares and would stay away from Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart didn't accept BerkShares, right?

    Alice Maggio: I would be very surprised if Wal-Mart started accepting BerkShares, but it would be a good thing because it would be an indication that they were interested in the local economy.

    Paul Solman: McDonald's?

    Alice Maggio: I don't think McDonald's will happen any time soon. We have a chain supermarket here that's owned by a company out of Springfield and when BerkShares first started they looked into the program, but they realized that it just didn't match up because if they were taking in BerkShares, they would have to change them all to dollars, which they could do, but then they would be losing 5 percent of what they had taken in. It just didn't make sense for their model.

    Paul Solman: And supermarkets operate with very thin margins.

    Alice Maggio: Exactly.

    Paul Solman: We were told that initially, there was a lot of action in BerkShares, then less and now maybe a little bit more. Is that an accurate reflection of what's happened?

    Alice Maggio: Well, I think that the interest in BerkShares and the use of BerkShares goes up and down, because you have to be constantly reminded about something that's out of the ordinary. So people often go back to using U.S. dollars, or credit cards especially, because it's just easy. And BerkShares are just a little bit out of your normal habit.

    Paul Solman: But wouldn't it be a bad thing if every community in the world was simply trading within itself?

    Alice Maggio: What we want to do is create an appropriate scale currency for our region that will then serve the needs of our region. We used to have a system in this country of local currencies everywhere, and then there was a national currency, too. So that's what we'd like to see again: regional currencies that work for their region and then a national currency -- why not? You need that too so that you can trade across the country, or even an international currency.

    Paul Solman: So that's why you call it a complementary currency?

    Alice Maggio: That's where the term complementary currency comes from because it's not meant to be self-sufficient; it's not meant to be the only currency that people use.

    Paul Solman: Could you imagine, in your wildest dreams, that BerkShares might become preferable in some people's minds to the U.S. dollar?

    Alice Maggio: That is our goal: to create a currency that holds its value, as opposed to a currency like the dollar that's inflating constantly, and at that point people will want to use BerkShares. But they'll only use them within this region and then there'll be other regional currencies elsewhere, but the goal of BerkShares is to provide affordable and appropriate capital for businesses here in the region.

    Paul Solman: How would you make it so that BerkShares don't lose their value?

    Alice Maggio: Well, you have to base it on real production and this would be issuing currency at the point of making a productive loan. That's something that we used to be accustomed to in this country. Savings and loans banks used to make loans out of saved money, and commercial banks used to make loans out of invented money. So that's what we'd like to do now; we'd like to issue currency as a productive loan.

    Paul Solman: So give me an example.

    Alice Maggio: The simplest one is a farmer who needs start-up capital in the beginning of the season. So you issue a little bit of currency, knowing that he will use it to buy seeds and then produce a lot of product that people want and need in this region. So when you issue that little bit of currency, it's backed by the future production of the farmer because the people issuing the currency (the loan committee) know the farmer, know his business history and know that there's a market for his local cabbages, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and lettuce.

    Paul Solman: But of course, I could take out a loan, say, for a blimp, and you all could think, "Looks like a productive loan; he's going to ferry people back and forth from Boston to the Berkshires." And then the Hindenburg goes up in flames and people get scared of taking blimps so I go out of business.

    Alice Maggio: That's why it's a risk, but in our case we want to create a way for the community to share that risk and make decisions about what we want to support. This is something that we've already accomplished with the community-supported agriculture model -- that's the community sharing in risk, investing in a business that they're trusting. They're trusting the business person; they're trusting the market. So we'd like to use that model, and the model of old-fashioned commercial banks, to invest in local production.

    Paul Solman: You also said you were going to try a basket-of-goods-based evaluation model.

    Alice Maggio: Yes, that's basically what you're doing when you issue currency for different productive purposes. We're not going to issue only to farmers, or only to bakers, or only to hi tech; we're going to issue to a broad range of import-replacing businesses -- businesses that are producing things that we have been importing. That way if it's a bad year for farmers, your currency isn't going to lose value if all the farmers have a hard year. You're going to have this balanced way of keeping your currency sound.

    Paul Solman: But it's tricky to do this, right?

    Alice Maggio: Yeah, of course it's tricky, but it's not beyond us. We used to do this. The difference is that BerkShares is a non-profit organization run by a community board, so it's not a for-profit bank that's issuing currency.

    Paul Solman: But it could become politically dominated by one group that could get more money loaned to it than to others, and then you run the risk that if that group, that industry fails, the currency is in trouble, right?

    Alice Maggio: That's true, except that the membership in BerkShares is open to the public in this region. Anybody can join, anybody can run for election to the board and the board is elected by the membership.

    Issuing currency through productive loans is a way of sharing the risk for entrepreneurs because right now entrepreneurs shoulder all that risk themselves, but this way you allow the community to invest in the businesses they want to see in the region. And that way, if you make 10 loans and one of them goes bad, yes, your currency's going to lose a little value, but the community has already said, "That's okay. These other loans are going to hold their value and we'll be okay. We're going to make it in the long run."

    Paul Solman: So it's like the community as bank.

    Alice Maggio: It is. It's like community banking.

    Paul Solman: Have any people begun to hoard BerkShares? I was looking at them and thinking, if they're really backed by productive value and the U.S. dollar is in danger of inflating at some point, maybe I should just hold on to some of these BerkShares for a while.

    Alice Maggio: Well, right now we're still tied to the dollar. We're not yet at the point of being an independent currency that holds its own value. But if we did become independent and worth more than the dollar, then I don't know what would happen.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman


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    Student at Regis University. Photo By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images.PBS NewsHour holds live Twitter chats each Thursday from 1 to 2 p.m. EDT. Join us on Twitter @NewsHour using the hashtag #NewsHourChats. Photo by: Photo By Glenn Asakawa/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

    Summer may not be over for a few more weeks but Labor Day, September and the start of the school year always make it seem like fall. With most students back in school, we focused on college education and affordability in this week's Twitter chat. We discussed paying for college education, if college is worth the steep price, what should be done to make college more affordable, how important is it to narrow the broad socio-economic gap at the nations most competitive schools and what advice you wish you could give your school age self. Visit our Education page for all of the latest in our education coverage and tune in next week when NewsHour Correspondent Jeffrey Brown reports on the widening socioeconomic gap at elite colleges.

    Read a transcript of the chat below.

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    Join correspondent Gwen Ifill for a live chat, hosted by PBS' Washington Week 1 p.m. EDT today.

    On the table: all things politics.

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    WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama pressed skeptical lawmakers to give him the authority to use U.S. military force against Syria during his overseas trip while the administration struggled to rally international support for intervention in an intractable civil war.

    Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters on Thursday that Obama was making calls to members of Congress while he attends an economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. The president spoke to a bipartisan group of five lawmakers on Wednesday.

    "He is going to be doing outreach on the Hill," Rhodes said of the president's lobbying during the two-day summit in Russia.

    The Obama administration cleared one obstacle on Wednesday when a deeply divided Senate panel approved a resolution authorizing military force, but a significant number of senators remain unconvinced and opposition is growing in the House.

    Two Republican senators announced on Thursday that they would vote against any military action. Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, members of the Armed Services Committee, expressed their opposition just 24 hours after participating in briefings with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    Lee said in a statement that the risks of the president's plan outweigh the gains, while Vitter said he was concerned "that getting involved in Syria, after Iraq and Afghanistan, would make mustering our resolve to stop a nuclear Iran impossible."

    The administration continued its full-scale sales job on Thursday, holding another round of closed-door meetings for lawmakers about its intelligence on Syria.

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said officials showed a DVD on chemical weapons with "what pinpointed eyes mean, what the convulsions mean" when nerve agents affect people. She said all senators would receive a copy.

    "It's horrendous," Feinstein said.

    The administration has focused on influencing lawmakers who will vote, but public opinion polls show little desire for military intervention in Syria. Feinstein acknowledged the lack of popular support.

    "It weighs on me," she said. "There's no question: What's coming in is overwhelmingly negative."

    The information has been provided to members of Congress. The public has had no access, a point that Feinstein recognized.

    "But you see, then they don't know what I know. They haven't heard what I've heard," she said.

    Days from a Senate vote, an Associated Press survey of senators found 34 supporting or leaning toward military action, 26 opposed or leaning against and 40 undecided.

    Obama has called for military action after the administration blamed Assad for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that it says killed more than 1,400 civilians, including at least 400 children. Other casualty estimates are lower, and the Syrian government denies responsibility, contending rebels fighting to topple the government were to blame.

    Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, questioned the necessity of U.S. military action as she entered the classified hearing.

    "This is not a choice between doing nothing and doing a military strike," she said.

    Collins appeared undecided but insisted there were other ways to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad short of an American intervention. She said the Obama administration still hasn't presented a clear strategy and that she had "many questions with the wisdom of the president's request."

    Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said it was up to the administration to present members with the necessary information. "I think if they do, everybody will agree," he said.

    But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., remained undecided. "What the effects of a military strike would be are not clear," he said.

    The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday to authorize the "limited and specified use" of the U.S. armed forces against Syria, backing a resolution that restricts military action to 90 days and bars American ground troops from combat.

    Obama's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken, picked up the sales pitch for the absent president Thursday, appearing on several morning news shows.

    In an appearance on MSNBC, Blinken said he believes the American people will be more supportive of Obama's request once they see the Syrian situation as a separate and distinct problem as opposed to viewing it "in the prism of the last decade" of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    "This is not open-ended. This is not boots on the ground. This is not Afghanistan. This is not Iraq. This is not even Libya," Blinken said.

    He said that if the United States does not stand up to Assad and against the use of chemical weapons, some world figures will believe "it's OK to use them with impunity."

    Secretary of State John Kerry, testifying for the second consecutive day before Congress, insisted that the U.S. military response would be restricted as Americans fatigued by more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan show little inclination to get involved in Syria.

    "I don't believe we're going to war, I just don't believe that," Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, citing the ground troops and long-term commitment that he said wars entail. "That's not what we're doing here. The president is asking for permission to take a limited military action, yes, but one that does not put Americans in the middle of the battle."

    In the Senate, five Republicans, including potential presidential candidates Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, and two Democrats opposed the resolution, which is expected to reach the Senate floor next week. The timing of a vote is uncertain.

    Obama personally lobbied Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., calling the lawmaker last Sunday. Murphy was a vote against in committee.

    Paul, a Kentucky conservative with strong tea party ties, has threatened a filibuster, although he acknowledged that proponents have the votes to prevail in the Senate, and he pinned his hopes on the House.

    The notion of a contained operation has failed to sway many Republicans and Democrats in the House, who question why the U.S. should get involved now in a Syrian civil war that has killed an estimated 100,000, displaced millions and is in its third year. While House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., have expressed support for military action, but rank-and-file Republicans remain reluctant or outright opposed.

    Kerry told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he believed Obama would address the nation on Syria in the next few days. The president returns home from overseas Friday night.

    ___

    Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Josh Lederman in Russia and Bradley Klapper, Alan Fram, Deb Riechmann, Kimberly Dozier, Lolita C. Baldor and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.


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    Presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama greet each other Thursday at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

    First, it was National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden getting temporary asylum in Russia and then the stalemate over U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria. Lately, Russia and the United States appear far from being on the same page, even in the same book at times, but will it impact their relationship long-term?

    Not likely in the case of Snowden, said Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Russia and Eurasia Program.

    Russia granting one-year asylum in August to Snowden, whose release of top-secret NSA surveillance programs continues to dog President Obama during foreign trips, won't have much of a shelf-life, said Mankoff.

    It was more like a Cold War-era tweak of the United States, agreed presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

    But Syria is more complicated with real interests at stake on both sides, said Mankoff. As the United States appears poised to strike the military infrastructure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in response to an Aug. 21 chemical attack on Damascus, "there's a lot we don't know about the consequences and how Russia might respond," setting up the prospect for lingering tensions between the two countries, he said.

    The United States and Russia don't agree on whether Assad has a future in the government, nor do they agree on military intervention, but they aren't that far apart on the end game in Syria: "there needs to be some sort of political agreement and a government in Damascus that's not dominated by extremists," said Mankoff.

    Despite their differences on Syria, Russia continues to help the United States with supply lines for its troops in Afghanistan, and both countries are working together on counterterrorism and nonproliferation efforts.

    When asked about strained relations with Russia at a press conference in Sweden on Wednesday, President Obama cited those efforts as examples of the United States and Russia working together on matters of mutual interest.

    Although Putin has resisted "even the most modest of resolutions" condemning Syria's actions in the U.N. Security Council, President Obama said, "I will continue to engage him because I think that international action would be much more effective and ultimately we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems."

    Mankoff said it's a familiar cycle. Every U.S. presidential administration going back to the end of the Cold War starts off seeking to prioritize efforts with Russia, and both sides are engaging. "Then over time, the cooperation gets exhausted, disagreements build up and you get these periods of tension."

    Other areas of disagreement include the U.S. pursuit of a missile defense system in Europe and Russia's law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors," which President Obama criticized during an appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show" last month.

    During the Cold War, according to Beschloss, things were almost easier. The leaders of both countries knew that they were dealing with an equal superpower with control of nuclear weapons. "It wasn't a friendly relationship, but there was a predictability about it."

    But in a post-Cold War climate, the two countries manage a new kind of relationship. "This is someone who is neither friend nor foe, so it's a relationship that's more unpredictable," said Beschloss. "And oddly enough the result could be more dangerous" in a world of untidy governments and the potential for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    In a more complicated world, how U.S. and Russian leaders view each other personally seems to matter less than whether the issues are of mutual interest, Beschloss noted.

    "We've kind of hit a wall," President Obama said at the Stockholm press conference. "But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues."

    Putin struck the same note when asked about the United States in an interview with the Associated Press: "We work, we argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes one of us gets vexed. But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for finding a joint solution to our problems."

    Related Resources

    If U.S. Attacks Syria, 'Russia Would Stay on the Sidelines,' Analyst Says

    White House Takes Stock of Russia Relationship After Snowden Asylum Dispute

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    The regional "BerkShare" currency helps support local artists. Watch the full Making Sen$e segment on BerkShares on the NewsHour Thursday. Photo courtesy of NewsHour.

    In Thursday's Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman visits Berkshire County, Massachusetts, to explore the region's local paper currency: "BerkShares." Learn more about the evolution of the currency and its reach in this transcript of Paul's conversation with Alice Maggio, the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, named for the British economist E.F. Schumacher, who wrote the 20th century classic about acting locally, "Small Is Beautiful."

    For a closer look at how producers and consumers use BerkShares, Paul visited graphic artists Aurel and Molly de St Andre of Moho Designs in their Great Barrington workshop. So just how important is the local currency to this artistic couple? "We came here because of the BerkShares," says Aurel. "That is the trick." Indeed small is beautiful, they suggest, because it's the local customers -- using BerkShares -- who allow Moho Designs to survive. Watch Paul's interview with them below.

    Watch Video

    Paul Solman speaks with graphic artists Aurel and Molly de St Andre about how their business uses and benefits from BerkShares.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions. Follow @paulsolman

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    The regional "BerkShare" currency helps support local artists. Watch the full Making Sen$e segment on BerkShares on the NewsHour Thursday. Photo courtesy of NewsHour

    In Thursday's Making Sen$e segment, Paul Solman visits Berkshire County, Massachusetts, to explore the region's local paper currency: "BerkShares." Learn more about the evolution of the currency and its reach in this transcript of Paul's conversation with Alice Maggio, the local currency program director at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, named for the British economist E.F. Schumacher, who wrote the 20th century classic about acting locally, "Small Is Beautiful."

    For a closer look at how producers and consumers use BerkShares, Paul visited graphic artists Aurel and Molly de St Andre of Moho Designs in their Great Barrington workshop. So just how important is the local currency to this artistic couple? "We came here because of the BerkShares," says Aurel. "That is the trick." Indeed small is beautiful, they suggest, because it's the local customers -- using BerkShares -- who allow Moho Designs to survive. Watch Paul's interview with them below.

    Watch Video

    Paul Solman speaks with graphic artists Aurel and Molly de St Andre about how their business uses and benefits from BerkShares.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown -- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman


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    On Sept. 6 at 11 a.m. EDT, PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan (@hari) will host a Google Plus Hangout On Air. The conversation will feature a first look at NewsHour Weekend's signature field-reported pieces, premiering on air Sept. 7 and 8 on PBS.

    Hari will be joined by:

    Jeffrey Brown (@JeffreyBrown), Chief Correspondent for Arts, Culture and Society for NewsHourMegan Thompson, producer and correspondent for NewsHour Weekend, who reported from Israel with long-time NBC Tel Aviv bureau chief Martin Fletcher.

    Brown's upcoming conversation with award-winning composer and songwriter Stephen Sondheim is a retrospective of the artist's life work. Watch that below: 

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    And Thompson's upcoming pieces on the show include an in-depth look at Israel's recent discovery of huge offshore natural gas reserves. Watch a sneak preview below:

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    JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. push to punish Syria over chemical weapons use dominated the G20 summit that opened in Russia today. The president hoped to advance his policy in the face of stiff opposition from the Kremlin.

    President Obama arrived in Saint Petersburg knowing his host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a central obstacle to action against Syria. The two men exchanged a handshake and pleasantries, but little else, underscoring the palpable tensions between them. Those were already evident in June, when they met at a conference in Ireland, and since then things have gone from bad to worse.

    The president said as much yesterday in Sweden.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues. Where we have got differences, we should be candid about them, try to manage those differences, but not sugarcoat them.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A key difference came when Russia granted asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker. That prompted President Obama to call off a formal meeting with Putin during this trip.

    The Russian leader suggested yesterday, it doesn't matter whether they like each other.

    PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): President Obama hasn't been elected by the American people with the purpose of being pleasant to Russia, and your humble servant hasn't been elected by the people of Russia to be pleasant to anyone. We work. We argue about some issues. We are human. Sometimes, one of us gets vexed. But I would like to repeat once again that global mutual interests form a good basis for searching for joint decisions.

    JEFFREY BROWN: On Syria, though, Putin said it's -- quote -- "completely ridiculous" to conclude that the Syrian government was behind a chemical attack outside Damascus last month.

    So far, Russia has blocked action by the U.N. Security Council, and today, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that leaves no viable path forward at the world body.

    SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Even in the wake of the flagrant shattering of the international norm against chemical weapons use, Russia continues to hold the council hostage and shirk its international responsibilities, including as a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, back in Washington, there were more closed briefings for senators and House members, as the administration pressed the need for a military strike at Syria.

    The argument was bolstered by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who came out in favor of the president's policy. Still, a number of lawmakers remained uncertain, including Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine.

    SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, R-Maine: I am firmly undecided at this point. This is very serious. It's a very difficult issue. We have to look at the impact on Israel's security. We have to look at the signals that it sends rogue states like Iran or North Korea if we don't act. But we also have to consider the possibility that our acting would cause a further escalation of the violence in the region.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Two other Republicans, Louisiana's David Vitter and Utah's Mike Lee, announced today they're opposed to using force in Syria.

    But Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she's convinced by the evidence that it's time to act.

    SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif: It's enough for me. See, I think that the prohibition on chemical weapons is well-founded. And after you watch exactly what happens, you can see why that's so, because they have tons and tons and tons of this stuff. They have one of the largest, if not the largest, storage base of chemical weapons in that part of the world.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A Senate vote is expected next week. And an Associated Press survey found today that 40 senators are undecided on how they will vote; 34 support or lean toward military action, and 26 are against.

    Even from Saint Petersburg, aides said the president has been calling lawmakers in search of more yes votes. He's expected to continue lobbying both Congress and world leaders before returning home tomorrow night. 


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the challenges ahead for President Obama at the G20 and here at home, I'm joined now by former National Security Adviser to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush General Brent Scowcroft, and Christopher Hill, a former diplomat who served as special envoy to Kosovo while the U.S. intervened in that conflict in the 1990s.

    Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

    General Scowcroft, to you first.

    First, let me just understand where the two of you are coming from. Do you think an attack on -- a strike on Syria right now is the right thing to do for the United States?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT, former U.S. national security adviser: We have put ourselves in a position where one can argue it is because of the chemical warfare convention, but we have not sought help from anybody to enforce the chemical warfare convention.

    It's not a U.S. treaty. It's an international treaty that says these are terrible weapons of mass destruction and shouldn't be used. We have been unilateral in this. We haven't formally gone to the U.N. We haven't formally gone to NATO. And so, yes, if we're going to enforce it, but if we're going to enforce it, we should do it as a part of the world unity.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Hill, how do you see it? Is this the right thing for the United States to be doing right now?

    CHRISTOPHER HILL, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq: Well, I think it's the right thing in the absence of any alternatives at this point.

    We need to take a stand on the use of chemical weapons, weapons that have been banned for some 80 years, weapons that were never even used in World War II. And so these have been used by Syrian forces. And I think we do need to take action. But I completely share the view that we have not done enough internationally.

    And in trying to talk about it in terms of only weapons and in terms of only chemical weapons, without discussing the Syrian conflict, is really something that people don't really buy that distinction. And the problem with the Syrian conflict and with our -- with our activities there is we have had really no diplomacy to try to work through what it is that Syria should be in the future.

    And what really disturbs me lately is the fact that not only do we have a crisis in Syria, but, as a result, we are emerging with a kind of crisis in our relations with Russia and with some other major states. So, we really need to step up the diplomacy to have a way forward on Syria.

    You know, even if al-Assad gets hit by a bus tomorrow, there has to be a future in Syria. And we need to do a much better job of working with the international community to identify what that future should be.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, General Scowcroft, President Obama right now is meeting with leaders of these other countries. Given the lack of diplomatic outreach that you and Ambassador Hill described, what are the arguments? What should President Obama be saying to these other leaders at the G20?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: Well, what he should be saying now is that the Chemical Weapons Convention is a worldwide convention against a horrible weapon, and everybody needs to stand together to do something about it.

    Then the next question is what to do. And I think, you know, the administration has not been very specific about what to do. And I think, if we're going to do something, it has to make a difference, because if it's a slap on the wrist, that merely strengthens Assad, makes the United States look impotent.

    So, if we say we're going to do something about the chemical warfare convention, we need to do something, and it has to make a difference.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And does what you're hearing from the administration sound like it's more than a slap on the wrist?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: They have been, I think, remarkably silent about what kind of attack it will be.

    They have, with some reluctance, agreed no boots on the ground, but that's about the only restriction they have talked about.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Hill, from your perspective, what should the president be saying right now to these leaders? He's gathered with the leaders of the G20, the Group of 20. What should he be -- what argument should he be making that he hasn't made?

    CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think he should make precisely the argument that General Scowcroft just outlined.

    Plus, he should be saying that this Syria conflict, if left unattended, is going to have more such outrages. It's already metastasized to the rest of the Middle East. It's affecting many of our interests in that part of the world, and that, therefore, the United States is going to work with like-minded states on coming up with a diplomatic way forward, whether it's coming up with some kind of plan for Syria, that is, Syria should remain within its international borders, Syria should be some kind of federalist state.

    This has nothing to do with whether the parties in Syria could agree to this at this point. It has do with the U.S. being diplomatically committed to working with others to find a future for Syria. I think what a lot of countries looking for is, if you're going to use military, if you're going to use weapons and bombing in the context of -- and dropping them on a country, it can't just be in terms of the -- of an international agreement.

    It also has to be done in terms of what the political way forward is. And that's where we have essentially told people that we're washing our hands of Syria, that we want Assad to go, and that's that. But I think many people and many -- indeed, many leaders in that G20 have real suspicions about what this opposition in Syria would look like, what are their plans, how could they ever take over Syria, and ensure that it would be a better place than it is today.

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: Judy, it's remarkable how different we have approached Syria from the way we did in Libya.

    In Libya, we got a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians. We got a NATO alliance to apply the force. And we got the local regional organization, the Arab League, to support it. That was perfect. Now, what we didn't do in Libya and we're doing now is go to the Congress for authorization.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: To the Congress.

    But isn't the idea of getting the U.N. on board impossible, given the relationship between the -- Russia and Syria?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: It is pretty much impossible right now, although even the Russians, I think, would be reluctant to be visibly opposed to supporting the Chemical Weapons Convention.

    But I think, ultimately, the U.S. and Russia agreement on Syria is the best way to stop the fighting.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But are we talking about something that's purely theoretical here, Ambassador Hill? Because we just saw the reporting from Saint Petersburg. The president, Vladimir Putin, we know those relations are frosty right now. The idea of depending on Russia supporting any U.S. action would be -- wouldn't that be tantamount to not doing anything?

    CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I don't think we're going to get any Russian acquiescence or Russian support, certainly not in the time frames we envision.

    But I think we need to give some reassurances to Russians and elsewhere that we're going to be diplomatically engaged. I really think, as heinous as this al-Assad has been, I think we ought to avoid talking about simply disposing of him as the -- as our political way forward.

    I think we need to talk more about how the parties in Syria need to come to terms, if not get around a table -- by the way, if you bring them around a table, they will start throwing things at each other. So what you do is try to get them around some ideas. You need to shop some ideas.

    In Kosovo, we had a contact group. In Bosnia, we had a contact group. Those conflicts were not -- were not ones that were solved through military action. They were political plans in which military action was there to support. And what we don't here is any kind of political way forward, except to say Assad must go. And I would argue that just saying Assad must go is not going to solve the problems of Syria.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: General -- General -- I was just going to say, General Scowcroft, are you saying it's too late to get this kind of diplomatic architecture together?

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: Well, it's very late.

    But I would remind you that, for a while, we and the Russians had useful discussions about Syria. And then Assad seemed to be doing better, and the Russians didn't see any need to make a deal. But I think we still need to try, because we can't solve the Syrian problem by ourselves. The best thing, I think, the best outcome possible, is to stop the violence and try to resolve the issue without the horrible violence going on now.

    But we're in a very tough position.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, Ambassador Hill, do you have a sense that there's still a chance to pull together some sort of diplomatic architecture, whatever the word is, that would backstop, that would back up any military action?

    CHRISTOPHER HILL: I do, in the sense of, if we're committed to a diplomatic approach -- and, by the way, the president has hinted at this in recent -- recent public statements -- so I think, if we started that, I think that would be a step in the right direction.

    I think people would like to see what we have in mind. I hear people say, well, the time for that was two years ago and it's too late. But, as things are going right now, this conflict is going to be around two years from now. And people will say, well, the time for it was two years ago.

    So, yes, I think it's something we can do, but I think we really have to make it the centerpiece of our strategy, rather than just talking about providing weapons or dropping bombs.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Chris Hill, General Brent Scowcroft, we thank you.

    BRENT SCOWCROFT: Thank you, Judy.

    CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you.

     


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    KWAME HOLMAN: The interior minister of Egypt's military-backed government survived an apparent assassination attempt today in Cairo. A suspected car bomb blew up near his convoy, wounding at least 22 people.

    Our Margaret Warner is in Cairo, and I spoke with her earlier about the incident.

    Margaret, welcome.

    What's been the reaction to this attack among the people in Egypt?

    MARGARET WARNER: Kwame, it is a huge story here. It led the evening news. It's playing in an endless loop, the scene of the bomb blast, the base of that building sheared off all the way up to the fourth floor.

    And there's a lot of commentary about how alarming this is, that this is the first assassination attempt or attack on any member of this new interim government since the military deposed the elected leader, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, two months ago, that this clearly looked like a very professional job, this was a big bomb, pros did this attack, and, third, that the target of the attack was the man who's been driving the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, that is, the interior minister, that has killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters and rounded up untold thousands more.

    And, in fact, the interior minister predicted -- he said, "I think this is not the end, but the beginning of a new wave of violence."

    We happened to be interviewing the deputy prime minister at the time. And he said, if the crackdown did drive some members of the Brotherhood or Islamists to start another insurgency of the type this country saw in the '80s and '90s, he said, "Then, we won't tolerate it and anything we do to crack down on it will be justified."

    KWAME HOLMAN: So, Margaret, we are seeing reports here of the Muslim Brotherhood officials making statements saying that they condemn this attack. What's to be made of that?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, Kwame, we happened to go, then interviewed this afternoon Amr Darrag, a longtime Brotherhood figure, who I think issued that statement condemning it.

    He flatly denied anyone from the Brotherhood was involved when I said, who do you think is involved? But, interestingly, he and the interior minister both agreed that this is a very dangerous thing to have happened in this volatile atmosphere right now, that this country is so polarized that acts, major acts of violence by one side can easily trigger a vicious cycle, more violence on the other side.

    KWAME HOLMAN: Our Margaret Warner in Cairo.

    Thank you.

    A two-month hunger strike by California prisoners ended today, after legislators agreed to consider reforms. At its height, more than 30,000 inmates at two-thirds of the state's prisons have refused to eat. They were protesting the solitary confinement of reputed gang leaders and others, sometimes lasting many years. Legislators now have promised hearings on that and other issues.

    An illegal fire set by a hunter caused the huge wildfire burning in and around Yosemite National Park in California. The U.S. Forest Service said today the hunter set a fire, then lost control of it. The individual has not been identified publicly. The resulting Rim Fire has become one of the largest in the state's history. It's now 80 percent contained.

    Wal-Mart workers and supporters demonstrated for higher wages across the country today, the latest in a series of such actions. They gathered in 15 cities to demand better jobs and a so-called living wage. They also said Wal-Mart should rehire employees allegedly let go for protesting.

    MARTHA SELLERS, protester: I want Wal-Mart to stand up and do the right thing and reinstate the illegally fired workers. I want them also to improve our working conditions, improve the poverty wages they put us through, and provide health care for all of their workers.

    KWAME HOLMAN: The demonstrations were the most extensive since some Wal-Mart workers staged Black Friday walkouts in November. The company maintained today that the vast majority of its employees do not share the opinions of the demonstrators.

    Google argued today that it should be allowed to go on scanning the contents of mail in Gmail accounts to help target advertising. The online search giant asked a federal judge in San Jose, California, to throw out a class-action lawsuit that seeks to end the practice. Google defends the scanning, saying it is automated and no humans read the e-mails.

    Wall Street managed small gains for the day, but investors mostly marked time ahead of tomorrow's report on unemployment and jobs. The Dow Jones industrial average gained six points to close at 14,937. The Nasdaq rose more than nine points to close at 3,658.

    The Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington announced today its two-week-old giant panda cub is a girl. The cub, not yet named, appears to be in good health. Zookeepers said she was born to Mei Xiang, the female panda artificially inseminated in March. Tests show the father is Tian Tian, also living at the National Zoo. Giant pandas are among the world's most endangered species.

    Those are some of the day's major stories.


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    JEFFREY BROWN: And we come back to Syria and the debate in Congress over a military strike.

    We have had one-on-one talks this week with two senators, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin and Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer.

    Tonight, the view of a House Democrat leading the charge against using force.

    Florida Representative Alan Grayson serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I spoke with him from Capitol Hill a short time ago.

    Well, thanks for joining us.

    Let's just get right to it. Why would a limited strike against Syria be a mistake?

    REP. ALAN GRAYSON, D-Fla.: Several reasons.

    First, it's not our responsibility. It's not our responsibility to act unilaterally. Secondly, it's not going to do any good. It's not going to change the regime. It's not going to end the civil war. It's not even going prevent a new strike and use of chemical warfare.

    Third, it's expensive, and, fourth, it's dangerous. It could easily spin out of control.

    JEFFREY BROWN: A key argument from the president of course has been that chemical weapons are simply different, the use of them must be punished, it must be stopped, or what kind of message do you send to the Syrian government and to other governments, including Iran?

    ALAN GRAYSON: As one of my colleagues said, if you want to send a message, use Hallmark, not missiles. I think that logic applies here.

    Listen, we have to stop thinking in terms of messages and start thinking about, what is our responsibility as a country? We have a responsibility to 20 million Americans who are looking for full-time work. We have a responsibility to 40 million Americans who can't see a doctor when they're sick.

    When my constituents in Central Florida hear that we might spend a billion dollars on this strike, they're appalled. The country is up in arms about even the possibility of this. We set up a Web site called dontattacksyria.com. Within a short time, 50,000 people have already signed our petition against the resolution.

    When I talk to other members, I find that the e-mails and the letters and the phone calls to their offices are running 100-1 against this resolution. And there's having -- there's an effect. According to the recent whipping numbers, 20 members are in favor of this, 183 against. Why? Because the American public understands it's simply not our problem.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But what -- but do you propose then no action? What is the role of the U.S. today in a case like Syria? What is our role as leaders in the globe?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Well, for instance, we could go to the U.N. We could go to NATO. We could go to the International Court of Justice if we were a member of it.

    We could do all sorts of things to relieve the humanitarian suffering of the two million refugees in neighboring countries. We could conceivably arm the rebels. In fact, the president said he would arm the rebels three months ago. So far, not a single gun has been delivered. Not a single weapon of any kind has been delivered to the rebels, despite the fact the president said it three months ago. There's all sorts of other alternatives that don't involve sending missiles and bombs on a so-called humanitarian war.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But, in a humanitarian crisis, is there ever an instance where -- I want to see how far you take this. Is there ever a case where you could make the case for military action by the U.S.?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Yes, genocide. And in that case, there would be enormous international reaction and enormous international support.

    You notice how, with 196 countries in the world, no one else wants to touch this problem.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What about the prestige, the credibility of the United States and of the president himself? Do you worry about that?

    ALAN GRAYSON: We don't -- no, we don't earn credibility by doing things that are stupid and counterproductive.

    We have to get over that whole idea. And if it were a question of our credibility, then, in fact, I think our credibility is stronger by making wise choices here. And I'll tell you this. We cannot go to war for the sake of anybody's, how shall I say this, credibility.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But this is your -- many people in your own -- of course, this is a president in your own party. He's talked about -- he said: "My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line."

    Is he wrong about that?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Yes. The international community has spoken. We are the only ones who are contemplating anything like this.

    If we don't do this attack, no one else will. The British, on exactly the same evidence, decided against doing exactly this specific thing. The international community has decided that, when it works, it works multilaterally, and not simply by lobbing missiles and bombs into a war zone, with effects we cannot even possibly anticipate.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What about the international community long ago coming out against the use of chemical weapons, saying that they are somehow different?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Honestly, I don't even know what that means. I mean, it sounds like many of the cliches that I hear coming out of the mouths of administration spokesmen.

    The fact is this. People understand, it's not our problem, it's not going to do any good, it's expensive, and it's dangerous. If you want to get us into a third war in the Middle East, this is the way to do it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you think going on with the president then? What are his motives? Is it principle? Is it politics? What's going on?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Oh, I don't question the president's motives at all. I think the president is a person of good spirit who is making a very serious mistake in this regard.

    And since we live a democracy, we can do something about it before anything bad happens. I'm delighted that the president came to Congress and he's willing to see that, when push comes to shove, 20 members of Congress think it's a good idea and 183 think that it's a terrible idea.

    That's what democracy is all about. And that's the message we're sending to the world, that we are a vibrant democracy and we can think things through without taking abrupt action that ends up being counterproductive.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens to the president from your own party if he loses this vote? What are the implications for him, for his stature, for his ability to get things done in the rest of his term?

    ALAN GRAYSON: With all due respect, that's irrelevant. We cannot decide whether to go to war on the basis of those kind of considerations. It simply doesn't matter.

    I will tell you this. I think this time would be much better spent for his own future and the rest of his term and for America's that we would start to think about the fact that three weeks from now, there's going to be a government shutdown, and five weeks from now, the government runs out of money when we reach the debt limit.

    It's appalling to me, appalling to me, that we spend two or three or four weeks debating whether to create a whole new category of war called humanitarian war, rather than dealing with our own problems and trying to solve them.

    JEFFREY BROWN: I take it you think the president was right in coming to Congress, though?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Yes.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And so what do you think -- where do you think the vote count is now? Do you think you have the votes to stop this?

    ALAN GRAYSON: Well, it's not even a speculative thing at this point. You can go to The Huffington Post. You can go to "The Hill" magazine. You can go to the Firedoglake Web site. And you can go to the Washington Post Web site.

    They're all saying that the count at this point is roughly 10-1 against the president's position, democrats roughly 4-1, Republicans much more than 10-1 against the president's position.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And, Congressman, if the president were to lose this vote, but go ahead anyway, under executive powers, what would you think then? What would be the implications, the consequences?

    ALAN GRAYSON: It's not even worth talking about. President Obama has established a certain tone during the first five years of his presidency. I trust that he will take the advice of Congress, and that will be the end of it. That's what I expect to happen.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Congressman Alan Grayson of Florida, thanks so much.

    ALAN GRAYSON: You're welcome.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: trading in Ben Franklins for Norman Rockwells.

    Economics correspondent Paul Solman visits one New England county that prints its own money.

    It's part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

    PAUL SOLMAN: The Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, home to the historic Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, operating continuously since 1773, back when the tab might have been settled with newly minted so- called Continentals, revolutionary currency; 240 years later, I can pay by United States dollar, of course, or credit card.

    Paul Solman. What's my bill?

    WOMAN: Right now, you have an outstanding balance of $148.10.

    PAUL SOLMAN: One-forty-eight-10?

    WOMAN: Yes.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But the inn offers another option.

    But I'm going to get BerkShares to pay with.

    WOMAN: Oh, perfect.

    PAUL SOLMAN: That's OK?

    WOMAN: Absolutely.

    PAUL SOLMAN: BerkShares, an alternative, small-is-beautiful local currency born in 2006 and now accepted by some 400 businesses in Berkshire County.

    The process begins at five area banks, one conveniently right next door to the Red Lion Inn. Among them, the banks have about a million BerkShares in their vaults, circulated only when someone like me steps up to the window.

    Can I trade dollars for BerkShares here, just no questions asked?

    No fuss, no muss, and you buy BerkShares at a 5 percent discount, getting 105 BerkShares for every $100.

    Seven hundred.

    For my $700, to cover our crew costs for several nights at the inn, 735 BerkShares.

    I'm back.

    WOMAN: Hi.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Hey, with BerkShares.

    And, thus, you get a discount at every place that accepts the local currency, because at the bank, it takes 105 BerkShares to buy back $100.

    The main purpose, then:

    BRIAN BUTTERWORTH, Red Lion Inn: BerkShares is just a way to keep money within the community.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Brian Butterworth is the Red Lion Inn's director of sales.

    BRIAN BUTTERWORTH: We don't make money off of it or lose money off of it.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But wait a second. I just got a 5 percent discount. That's not good for the Red Lion Inn, is it?

    BRIAN BUTTERWORTH: We take your BerkShares at the same value as U.S. dollars, and we spend them as U.S. dollars. And it stays in our community, because there's a geographical limit to where you can redeem BerkShares.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And in keeping with the small-is-beautiful philosophy, the limit is about 10 miles outside Berkshire County's borders.

    ALICE MAGGIO, Schumacher Center for New Economics: But we don't enforce who can take BerkShares and who can't.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Alice Maggio runs the BerkShares program out of the Schumacher Center for New Economics in Great Barrington. E.f. Schumacher was the author of small is beautiful. But Maggio admits small can also be parochial.

    ALICE MAGGIO: You can see local currencies as isolationist and secessionist.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Protectionist?

    ALICE MAGGIO: Or protectionist.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But she hardly thinks BerkShares represent a threat to global trade.

    ALICE MAGGIO: We used to have this system in this country. We used to have local currencies everywhere.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Yes.

    ALICE MAGGIO: That's what we’d like to see again, is this regional currencies that work for their region and then a national currency. Why not?

    PAUL SOLMAN: In a remarkably apt application of the phrase think globally, act locally, there's a mini-boom in local currencies worldwide, especially in Europe, the Chiemgauer in Southern Germany, in France, the Basque Eusko, and Toulouse Sol-Violette, the Bristol Pound and the Brixton Pound in the U.K.

    But, while thinking globally, we too were acting locally, and thus more interested in the currency of Berkshire county. So, Alice Maggio took us for a tour of our options, first stop, The Magic Fluke, a local ukulele manufacturer.

    ALICE MAGGIO: Hello.

    PHYLLIS WEBB, The Magic Fluke Company: We make a great solid-body ukulele, where we actually took the trees down and kiln-dried the wood.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Co-owner Phyllis Webb, a woman some might describe as from an earlier era.

    PHYLLIS WEBB: Right here in Sheffield, we have been able to find some wood for our fretboard, and in our new violin, we will be using an injection molder right here in Pittsfield, so not far away.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Ideally, The Magic Fluke pays in BerkShares for the parts to make its instruments.

    PHYLLIS WEBB: We do sell all over the world, but we hire local people. It's good for our country to keep manufacturing here. It's about community support. It's about shopping local. It's about sustainability right here where we live and where we work.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the Berkshires are known for a certain kind of lifestyle, which attracts what you might call cosmopolitan locals.

    JEAN FRANCOIS BIZALION, Bizalion's Fine Food: I came on a July 4 weekend 25 years ago and fell in love with the area. And it took me 10 years to move here full-time.

    This is Francois. How are you?

    PAUL SOLMAN: Jean Francois Bizalion, a native of Arles in the South of France, used to be a fashion editor, now runs his own gourmet shop in Great Barrington.

    JEAN FRANCOIS BIZALION: We take BerkShares from our customers when they purchase food or items off the shelf, and we also pay some of the vendors locally with our BerkShares.

    PAUL SOLMAN: So, is it more a political act on your part or a self-interested act, in the sense that you will get more business if there are more people circulating or owning BerkShares?

    JEAN FRANCOIS BIZALION: It's a bit of both. We're trying to encourage local industries and possibly put a stop to big formula stores who might be coming in and not having the same effects when they do business here as a small enterprise would. So, in that sense, it is political.

    PAUL SOLMAN: I assume you mean liberal political, or sort of left-wing political. That fair?

    JEAN FRANCOIS BIZALION: Yes, it is fair. Left-wing, maybe, liberal, yes.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And so it went everywhere we visited, at establishments that have been doing business with BerkShares since day one and with recent converts that Alice Maggio was just signing up.

    ARI ZORN, Zorn Core Fitness: My name is Ari Zorn of Zorn Core Fitness. I signed up for BerkShares today. And I think it's a beautiful thing.

    PAUL SOLMAN: A locavore latte lover's liberal dream come true? This isn't partisan, says Brian Butterworth, a Republican.

    BRIAN BUTTERWORTH: It -- also a conservative appeal as well, because of some concerns with the money system as it is right now in the United States.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Tom's Toys also fails to fit the stereotype.

    Anything that's made locally?

    TOM LEVIN, Tom's Toys: Local New England local or USA, but not in Great Barrington or Berkshire County, no.

    PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, most of the toys Tom Levin showed me for my grandkids, like most toys everywhere, were, yes, made in China.

    Still, Levin sees himself as doing his part to save Main Street for tourists and locals alike.

    Is BerkShares the answer to the threat to retail from the Internet and chain stores?

    TOM LEVIN: I would say it's part of the answer. The answer is also to create awareness among people that, if they shop online, 100 percent of what they spend goes into the same cyberspace that they're sending their order. If they shop at a big box store, 65 percent of what they spend leaves the community.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But, in the end, do consumers really care? Legend has it the very first BerkShare transaction took place across this counter at Rubi's Coffee shop. Owner Matt Rubiner says the BerkShare movement was something of a fad at first. Then:

    MATT RUBINER, Rubi's Coffee & Sandwiches: It went through kind of a fallow time, but now we're beginning to see more and more.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And Alice Maggio is working hard to add even more businesses, is eying a scheme to issue more BerkShares as so-called productive loans to local businesses by fronting them the currency to start up or expand.

    Ultimately, she also hopes to untie BerkShares from the U.S. dollar.

    ALICE MAGGIO: That is our goal, is to create a currency that holds its value, as opposed to a currency like the dollar that's inflating constantly. So, and at that point, people will want to use BerkShares.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And for folks in places like Berkshire Country, under the cloud of both de-industrialization and globalization for decades now, the hope is that here comes the sun once more.

     


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