PBS NewsHour full episode, Dec. 22, 2022

PBS NewsHour full episode, Dec. 22, 2022

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening. I'm Judy Woodruff. On the "NewsHour" tonight: a troubling trend. United States life expectancy falls to the lowest level since the mid-1990s due to deaths from COVID-19 and drug overdoses. Then: Let's make a deal.

Congress irons out the details of and amendments to this year's massive spending bill, in hopes of avoiding a government shutdown. And holiday retail. Despite the pandemic and online shopping causing widespread small businesses to close down, some operations are finding ways to adapt. C. EBERE ANOKUTE, Research Manager, JLL: We are actually approaching hopefully some sort of equilibrium in the online vs. brick-and-mortar equation. JUDY WOODRUFF: All that and more on tonight's "PBS NewsHour."

(BREAK) JUDY WOODRUFF: There is grim news today about the state of America's health. The average expected life span for a person in this country shrank by over seven months last year, according to the CDC. That comes after an even steeper decline in 2020. As William Brangham reports, the primary culprit's are COVID-19 and opioid overdoses.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Judy, because of this decline, the average American today is now expected to live just 76.4 years. That's lower than it's been in nearly twenty years. For more on this new report, I'm joined again by Dr. Steven Woolf. He's director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Dr. Woolf, nice to have you back on the "NewsHour," although this is sort of awful news to be talking about. A year-and-a-half ago, you sat here in our studio, and we had talked about a study that you had just done showing how lifespan in America had dropped by over a year. Now the CDC report comes out saying it's dropped another seven months.

Did this report surprise you, that this trend has continued? DR. STEVEN WOOLF, Virginia Commonwealth University: Well, I hate to sound like an academic, but yes and no. It did surprise me, in the sense that 2021, the year that these data are being reported for, was a year in which we had a vaccine available, in which many other countries -- enabled many other countries to recover their losses in life expectancy that they had experienced in 2020 during the pandemic. Many countries saw their life expectancy increase. So to see ours continue to plummet was very worrying.

It's not a surprise, in the sense that we have been tracking what we call a U.S. health disadvantage for some years, and all those problems rolled right into the pandemic. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One thing that really jumped out at this report to me was that, unlike in past declines, including in your own report, where some groups really fell behind and other groups held on, this seemed to be an across-the-board decline, all age groups, all demographics. How do you understand that? DR. STEVEN WOOLF: People of color in our country were devastated by this pandemic.

Black and Hispanic Americans, Native Americans were at much higher risk and sustained very large losses in life expectancy in 2020, much higher than in the white population. This new data shows that they continued to suffer losses, but it was actually the white population that experienced a larger decrease in life expectancy. Nonetheless, even with that pattern, death rates were still much higher among people of color.

As to the ages affected, we had already been aware for the -- for the decade preceding this pandemic that we have a problem in this country of rising death rates in the working-age population. That's people 25 to 64. Those groups are not experiencing increasing death rates in other countries. It's just the United States that's having this problem.

So, when the pandemic struck, I wasn't entirely surprised that we had a disproportionate increase in death rates in that young and middle-age group. Of course, the elderly were at higher risk. So, the increase in death rates among the elderly was also, unfortunately, anticipated.

What's worrying about this new report is that it's also reporting an increase in death rates in children and adolescents. That's not something we had seen before. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The CDC lays blame for this principally on COVID and on drug overdoses, principally linked to fentanyl. But there's other citations in there as well, including alcohol and alcoholism.

Can you talk a little bit about that? That's not something we often talk about, about its impact on public health. DR. STEVEN WOOLF: Well, again, even before the pandemic, in the years preceding it, we were very much aware of the opioid epidemic and rising death rates from drug overdoses, and alcoholism, suicides, and heart disease. All of those problems continued right into the pandemic. Layered upon that, though, of course, was the tremendous stresses that people experienced during the pandemic. So, individuals struggling with addiction disorders, either to drugs or alcohol, were more vulnerable to those conditions, and had reduced access to substance abuse and counseling services to address those problems.

So, unfortunately, we have seen a disturbing rise in deaths from alcohol and drugs, but also our health care system was disrupted overall. And so people with chronic diseases have more limited access to primary care and specialty services. And we saw increases in death rates from heart disease and diabetes and other chronic illnesses.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's just so striking to see this standard benchmark metric going down in a country as wealthy and prosperous as we are. And, as you're saying, we are unique compared to other similar nations. Why is that? DR. STEVEN WOOLF: Well, it's not because we don't spend enough on health care. We are unique from other countries also in the massive amount of money we spend on health care, much higher than other countries and much higher than countries in which people live longer lives and are healthier.

So this is a lesson for us that health care is only a partial answer It's -- studies suggest it only accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of health outcomes. Our health is really shaped by our living conditions, jobs, the wages we earn, our wealth accumulation, the education that enables us to get those jobs. And we're struggling in those areas. And it's because of that struggle that we're seeing our health suffer as a result. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You're describing, then, potential remedies to arrest this decline are fundamental structural changes to American society. It's not just vaccines to avoid COVID deaths or naloxone to avoid overdose deaths.

You're talking about something much more systemic. DR. STEVEN WOOLF: If this had only happened during the pandemic, we could blame it on a virus. But the fact that it's been going on for so many years tells us that we, as a society, have to make a decision. We have to shift our priorities if we want to be healthier and we want our children to not die prematurely.

The country that we live in is the richest in the world, but we have the highest level of income inequality. So, much of the resources that we need for a healthy population are not available to most of the population. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus at the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, always good to see you.

Thank you. DR. STEVEN WOOLF: Likewise, and thanks for giving attention to this important issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the day's other news: A massive winter storm is tightening its grip on a huge swathe of the country and threatening to upend holiday travel plans for many Americans. FlightAware, an app which tracks the flight status of airlines, reported more than 2,200 flight cancellations in the U.S. today. Roby Chavez has the latest. ROBY CHAVEZ: On one of the busiest travel days of the year, people across the country are finding themselves in the same position, trapped where they started. VERONICA WYMAN, Traveler: Tired, stressed, hungry, just hopeless, honestly.

ROBY CHAVEZ: The National Weather Service reporting that 190 million Americans are under some type of winter weather advisory, spanning a vast part of the country, from the Plains and Midwest to the East Coast. The blizzard-like conditions do not bode well for thousands trying to make it home for the holidays, creating even more chaos at overwhelmed airports, with thousands of cancellations. Some travelers are deciding to take matters into their own hands and skip the airport where they can.

BRANDON MATTIS, Traveler: We're trying to search on our phones, figure out other routes, maybe even taking a bus from here to Atlanta, which it'll take us about 21 hours, so that's really inconvenient, but anything we can do just to get there is what we're going to do. JOEY LARSON, Traveler: We have been monitoring the travel concerns for the past couple days since we heard the blizzard is going to Minneapolis, where we're heading, yes, and hoping we make it there on time and safely. And, once we get there, we're hoping we can drive safely to our destination.

It's just a little hectic right now. We're not exactly sure. ROBY CHAVEZ: But, in the Midwest in particular, road conditions are also posing a challenge. Roadways in Nebraska and Iowa are slick and blanketed in snow.

And, in South Dakota, this video from a local sheriff's office captured a bottleneck of over 100 cars on Interstate 90 late yesterday. Stranded motorists were rescued and taken to emergency shelters. With the worst of the heavy snow and powerful winds still to come, President Biden warns travelers to get out as early as they can, starting with his own staffers.

JOE BIDEN, President of the United States: If you all have travel plans, leave now. Not -- not a joke. I'm tell -- sending my staff -- my staff, if they have plans to leave on -- tomorrow -- late tonight or tomorrow, I'm telling them to leave now. They can talk to me on the phone.

It's not life and death. But it will be if they don't -- if they don't get out. ROBY CHAVEZ: Wintry conditions are expected through Saturday. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Roby Chavez.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. Senate passed a $1.7 trillion government spending bill 68-29 ahead of Friday's midnight deadline. The bill will fund the government through September.

It also includes aid for Ukraine and helps communities recovering from natural disasters, among other things. Members of both parties celebrated the bipartisan achievement. SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL): This bill, we know what it is.

We know it's omnibus. We know it's not perfect. But it's got a lot of stuff in it, a lot of good stuff. But it's the right thing for the government, right thing for the nation, I believe. SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): The omnibus was a appropriate metaphor for the last two years, a lot of Sturm und Drang, a lot of ups and downs, but at the end, a great result that really helped the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bill now heads to the U.S. House of Representatives for final passage. And we will have more on this after the news summary. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of cryptocurrency giant FTX, was released on $250 million bond today after his first court appearance in New York. The judge is allowing him to live at his parents' home in California, while he awaits trial on charges of fraud and money laundering. That comes a day after a U.S. prosecutor announced that two of his business partners secretly pleaded guilty to fraud charges.

The U.S. economy is showing more signs of strength, despite inflation and rising interest rates. The government revised its earlier estimate of third-quarter growth upward to 3.2 percent. Meanwhile, the Labor Department reported jobless claims rose slightly last week to 216,000.

That's up 2,000, but still relatively low. On Wall Street today, stocks tumbled, as investors remain concerned about higher interest rates. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 349 points to close at 33027.

The Nasdaq fell 233 points, and the S&P 500 slipped 56. Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan has won the Democratic nomination to succeed the late Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin, who passed away last month. She is the overwhelming favorite to win the February special election in her district, which stretches from Richmond to the North Carolina border. If she does, she would make history as the first Black woman to represent Virginia in Congress. And President Biden delivered a Christmas address from the White House today.

It was a message of unity and optimism, calling on Americans to move beyond the country's division to come together as one. JOE BIDEN: Really look at each other, not as Democrats or Republicans, not as members of team red or team blue, but as who we really are, fellow Americans. I sincerely hope this holiday season will drain the poison that has infected our politics and set us against one another.

I hope this Christmas season marks a fresh start for our nation. JUDY WOODRUFF: President Biden will be remaining in Washington over the Christmas holiday. Still to come on the "NewsHour": Vladimir Putin pushes to improve Russia's military, as the invasion of Ukraine grinds on; skyrocketing methamphetamine use poses a new security threat in Iraq; the discovery of two-million-year-old DNA in Greenland furthers understanding of ancient life; plus much more. With Congress coming down to the wire to keep government open, there were questions today about whether the $1.7 trillion spending bill would be derailed in the Senate.

Well, it cleared that chamber earlier today and heads now to the House of Representatives, where a vote is expected tomorrow. John Bresnahan is a veteran Capitol Hill reporter. He's been following the drama. He's the co-founder of the political news daily Punchbowl News.

John Bresnahan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." So, how much suspense was there really over this bill? JOHN BRESNAHAN, Punchbowl News: There wasn't a lot of suspense, though -- in the final outcome, it was going to pass. The question was when it was going to pass. This is a $1.7 trillion piece of legislation.

It's 4,100 pages' long. Nobody's actually read the whole thing. It's tremendously intricate. It's in -- it's in legislative language. So you can't follow it completely, as you would just reading a book.

I mean, it's not something you can read easily. So, there was some doubt about timing. The final outcome was not in doubt. It was a question, were they going to get it done this week, before Christmas, or were they going to get it done next week? That was the real question here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a lot of members of Congress in the Senate do want to go home for Christmas, no doubt about it. So, John, just remind us. I mean, we have touched on this, but just remind us, what are the main things that are paid for in this bill as it as it moves over now to the House? JOHN BRESNAHAN: This is a -- this is a -- again, it's a huge piece of legislation. There's $850 billion for this year, for F.Y.-2023, for the Pentagon and other national security agencies. There's $800 billion in domestic spending.

So this covers the entire government. There's -- as you mentioned in your lead-in, there's $45 billion in additional aid for Ukraine, in military and economic aid for Ukraine and NATO allies in the region as they deal with a Russian attack in Ukraine, the Russian war in Ukraine. There's $40 billion in additional funding, economic aid, for here in the United States, disaster aid for fires, droughts, hurricanes, so when that goes across the country. So this legislation literally touches every American, and it will -- it impacts every American, and it will impact millions of folks overseas as well. JUDY WOODRUFF: What about in terms of the politics of this, which is, of course, always going to play a role? Did one party or another come away with more of what it wanted than the other? JOHN BRESNAHAN: You know, you have to say, Republicans, in this case, they had a very strong position. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted a big defense increase, and Republicans -- and they pushed for it.

There were a lot of Democrats who wanted that as well. They worry about Ukraine. They worry about Taiwan. They worry about the rise of China as a military superpower. But there was a 10 percent increase in military spending. There was a -- that was even a higher rate than the higher -- than the rate of inflation.

There was an increase in domestic spending of just over 5 percent. But that's less than the rate of inflation. So, in a real sense, there was a cut or a semi-cut in real dollars for domestic spending. What Republicans wanted to do the last couple of years, as the Democrats have insisted, if we raise defense spending, we're going to raise spending for domestic programs, and Republicans said, no, we're not going to do that anymore. We're not going to go along with that. They had some leverage here.

They used it. And so Republicans came away with a lot of victories in this bill. But, again, there's lots of money in there for domestic priorities that the Democrats want. For instance, there's $700 million for the Violence Against Women Act.

That was a huge impact for Democrats. They wanted more money for the National Labor Relations Board. They got $25 million more. So there's money in there for Democratic priorities. But I have to say, overall, Republicans did very well on -- during these -- the later part of these negotiations. JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, what were just some of the big-ticket items that did not make it in? JOHN BRESNAHAN: Well, there was -- there was a number of issues.

One was, for instance, Afghan Adjustment Act. This was an issue for helping Afghans who assisted the United States during the war. That was something that did not make it in. That was -- there was a lot of debate over that. Democrats had also pushed for an extension of the child tax credit, the enhanced child tax credit, which had happened -- which was implemented during the pandemic. They wanted to extend this.

This was not. Republicans blocked this. So there was a lot of stuff that was left on -- that was left on the cutting room floor here. One thing that did make it which was very important -- and we have talked about this before -- was Electoral College Reform Act. And this is a reform in the role of vice president in certifying the Electoral College victory. It was very important to senators and members in both parties that we don't have a repeat of what happened in 2020, what led to the January 6 insurrection.

And this legislation, once it's enacted, will help stop that. JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, just quickly remind us, for those of us who don't follow every nuance of what happens in Congress, Democrats now have a majority in both houses, but you're saying they were not able to work their will on everything they wanted here. JOHN BRESNAHAN: No, and they're historically small majorities. Democrats have a two-seat majority in the House, 435 House members. They only have a two-seat majority.

And it's a 50/50. Senate. It's been a 50/50 Senate the whole time.

This is the longest period in American history where we have had a 50/50 Senate. So they're -- it's actually a tribute to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer what they have gotten done with centrist Democrats -- centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats. They have been able to pass some significant legislation, but historically small, narrow margins here. And it's a tribute to President Biden and the White House.

They -- I mean, they achieved a lot in this Congress. And I briefly talked to Senator Chuck Schumer today. And he was ecstatic of what they have done over the last 24 months. And he just was really over the moon about what he's getting done. And he's able to send his members home having passed this legislation today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then it goes, of course, to the House. They will take a vote tomorrow, where it is expected to pass. Is that right, yes or no? JOHN BRESNAHAN: That's -- yes, ma'am, it is. It's going to -- it may actually slide later tonight.

There was thought they could get it done tonight. There's some technical correct -- technical problems they have to deal with... JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. JOHN BRESNAHAN: ... just putting the legislation together. It could slide into tomorrow night, but it's going to pass.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we know you're going to be up all night, or day, or whatever hour it is, following all of this. John Bresnahan, thank you very much. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned to Ukraine today.

Yesterday, he met with President Biden at the White House, and he received thunderous applause during his address to Congress. Meanwhile, this week, the Russians announced plans to beef up their military and to double down on the war effort. Geoff Bennett has that story.

GEOFF BENNETT: Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu today visited Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine. He inspected the soldiers' canteen and dormitories and he walked through the fields where the Russians are waging war. Before leaving, his final message was clear: Everything is fine. But in a speech to his military chiefs yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted shortcomings. VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through translator): We need to improve the system of military recruitment offices.

We will continue to equip our strategic forces with the latest types of weapons. GEOFF BENNETT: Putin also pledged to modernize the military and yesterday stopped to serve a Moscow's newest weapons, including surveillance drones. Russia plans a 30 percent expansion of its armed forces and wants to form new and bigger units.

Meantime, Russian troops have lost ground in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops this year reclaimed more than half the territory Russia has taken. Moscow's recent focus is in the east, in Donetsk, where the city of Bakhmut has sustained a relentless attack.

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, Ukrainian President: They have been attacking it day and night, but Bakhmut stands. (APPLAUSE) GEOFF BENNETT: In his historic speech to a joint meeting of Congress last night, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Americans for their support, as he called for more weapons. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Your money is not charity. It's an investment in the global security.

GEOFF BENNETT: The U.S. has announced an additional $1.8 billion in military aid to Ukraine. The new package includes a Patriot missile battery, its most advanced air defense weapon. Today, President Putin downplayed the weapon's capabilities. VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): With regards to Patriots, it's a rather old system.

GEOFF BENNETT: But in a video addressed to his nation, President Zelenskyy said his trip to Washington was a success. VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY (through translator): We are coming with good results, ones that will help. The victory will be ours.

GEOFF BENNETT: For more on Russia's plans to rebuild their military and continue to fight in Ukraine, we turn to Samuel Bendett, a Russian military analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses. It's great to have you with us. And Vladimir Putin, he is admitting mistakes. He's acknowledging criticism that his army lacked the basic necessities to wage war. But he's also suggesting that the Kremlin is digging in for a protracted war effort. How should we interpret his remarks? SAMUEL BENDETT, Center for Naval Analyses: Well, his remarks are nothing new to millions of people who've been following different Telegram channels that have been screaming about the deficiencies and problems and offering very frank critique of what the Russian forces were doing in Ukraine, and about the lack of basic supplies, and about the lack of systems and weapons.

And a lot of that actually really came forward during the mobilization issues that were also actively covered, not just in Russia and abroad. And so he really couldn't hide from the truth in that regard. As far as this war going long term, this has always been the plan. Neither side is going to give up. Russia isn't going to give up.

The Kremlin indicated that this is a war to the finish. And, therefore, he had to announce that this is going to be a long-term conflict. GEOFF BENNETT: Putin said -- quote -- "We have no limits in terms of financing." Is that so? I mean, the Russian economy struggling under the weight of Western sanctions will likely limit how much the Kremlin can spend to improve its military. SAMUEL BENDETT: That's correct.

And some of what he said may be posturing. But Russia does have a lot of resources. We have to remember it's a large country with a diverse economy still. It's got a lot of human resources, material resources. There are still finances available.

This may be an indication that maybe this war isn't going to last another year. Perhaps, if it drags into 2023, it will go on for several months in that year with whatever result can be achieved. But, again, he is speaking to the nation that is looking to him for leadership to deliver a victory after all the blood, all the loss, and after all the resources have been already dedicated to this conflict.

GEOFF BENNETT: You mentioned all of the blood and all of the loss. Russia's defense chief, as you well know, he announced a plan to increase Russia's military by roughly 500,000 service members. Help us understand the significance of that and this overall effort to reallocate civilian resources and civilian labor to this ongoing war in Ukraine. SAMUEL BENDETT: Well, Russia military lost a lot of people over the last year. It lost a lot of good officers. It lost a lot of experienced officers who could have made a difference downrange.

There were a lot of losses amongst the privates, amongst the regular ground troops. And tens of thousands of people are no longer available. And so these resources have to be replenished. Russia is dedicating the mobilized troops, the force that's up to 300,000 that has been called up, to basically shore up its defenses and to plug the existing gaps.

Excuse me. But for Russia to continue and for Russia to actually try and win this conflict, it needs a lot more resources than it planned for. After all, it launched the war with a very limited resource base, thinking this is going to be a very limited conflict. It is going to be a long-term conflict.

And Russia needs a lot of, basically, bodies to launch at Ukraine from different directions. And, therefore, there was an announcement that Russia will have a standing force of up to 1.5 million, of whom 700,000 are going to be the contractors. These people will have to be found somewhere. They will have to be called up.

They will have to be mobilized. And all of this, of course, is against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of fighting-age men escaping the country because they don't want to fight in the war. GEOFF BENNETT: There is the ground war, and there's also the air war. The U.S. announced this week that it's providing a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine, considered

one of the most capable long-range air defense systems on the market. How much will that change the dynamic of this war? It takes months to train troops on how to use that complex system, as I understand it. And it also won't be able to provide blanket cover for the entire country.

SAMUEL BENDETT: Well, it remains to be seen what the effect of this one system is going to be. Maybe this is a test for another sort of long-term transfer of additional systems. But, as you indicated, one system is not enough. Ukraine has a lot of targets, civilian targets, military targets. And it needs protection over most of them. And so this particular Patriot system will have to be stationed near a high-priority target.

But, overall, Ukraine needs lots of these systems to make a difference against Russian missiles and against Russian drones. GEOFF BENNETT: Samuel, was this -- all of this news from the Russian side, was this intentionally designed as counterprogramming? How have the Russians responded to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Washington and his speech last night before that joint meeting of Congress? SAMUEL BENDETT: Well, most of the country responded -- responded in a predictable fashion, because most of the country follows state media. And so they criticized Zelenskyy's visit. They criticized the United States for waging the war by proxy via Ukraine. They criticized Ukraine for not leaving room for dialogue or negotiation in the speech. So, of course, it was -- it was a very predictable response.

GEOFF BENNETT: Samuel Bendett is a Russian military analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses. Thanks for your time and for your insights. SAMUEL BENDETT: Thank you. JUDY WOODRUFF: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of retail in cities across the country, with small and independent businesses bearing the brunt of closures.

And, this winter, many have seen a drop in demand from last year. But as Paul Solman reports, owners and even a city are doing what they can to buck the trend this holiday season. DAPHNE OLIVE, Co-Owner, Tabletop: This is my first store. PAUL SOLMAN: Daphne Olive's first trip back to Tabletop, her defunct gift shop in downtown D.C. So what happened here? I mean, you started this in, what, 2003? DAPHNE OLIVE: 2003, yes.

And we just needed to not get to a place where we're really losing money. PAUL SOLMAN: The store folded back in January. DAPHNE OLIVE: It's sad. I loved my store.

I really loved my store. PAUL SOLMAN: But, six miles away, at the store's second location in residential Takoma Park: DAPHNE OLIVE: We have actually so far had a really -- a great December, like a really festive and busy December. PAUL SOLMAN: Both stores had been bustling until COVID. Then, in downtown D.C.:

DAPHNE OLIVE: The hotels and the business district both became shadows of their former selves. It was not great, because most of the people who work in D.C. commute to D.C. from somewhere else. PAUL SOLMAN: In some sense, your business shifts from Dupont Circle, where people are coming into work...

DAPHNE OLIVE: Yes. PAUL SOLMAN: ... to Takoma Park... DAPHNE OLIVE: Right. PAUL SOLMAN: ... where people are staying from work. DAPHNE OLIVE: Right. C. EBERE ANOKUTE, Research Manager, JLL: It is a little bit of a tale of two corridors

if you will. PAUL SOLMAN: C. Ebere Anokute, who tracks national retail trends, says Olive's experience is echoed in cities across the country, retail rents up in residential areas. C. EBERE ANOKUTE: As opposed to the parts of the city that are dependent on tourism and office workers, where they have had a little bit of a more difficult recovery story. PAUL SOLMAN: While domestic travel has returned, international tourism is still 30 percent below pre-pandemic levels.

And research says more than 50 percent of offices in 10 major U.S. cities languish unoccupied. Among the hardest hit, downtown Chicago, where the city is trying desperately to fill empty storefronts. At once prime State Street, just off Chicago's Magnificent Mile of retail, the city has morphed a shuttered chain store into a pop-up holiday market. Microbusinesses hawk their wares rent-free.

ANDRE WILSON, Owner, The Stylish Bundt: As a native Chicagoan, I have traveled downtown State Street all my life and never thought for a moment that I would be on State Street, like, selling a product. PAUL SOLMAN: A human resources manager for about 20 years, Andre Wilson turned his pandemic hobby, baking, into a bundt business. ANDRE WILSON: So, I do some really fun things with bundt cake. For instance, I have a lemon and thyme, lemon and basil, apples and olive oil. PAUL SOLMAN: So it's good for you too.

ANDRE WILSON: It's really good for you, yes. Don't worry about the sugar. I mean...

(LAUGHTER) PAUL SOLMAN: Wilson rents space in a commercial kitchen and sells online. But thanks to Chicago's Small Business Storefront Activation Program... ANDRE WILSON: OK, I will be here. PAUL SOLMAN: ... he's been coaxed into turning on the charm. ANDRE WILSON: I'm naturally an introvert. PAUL SOLMAN: Really? ANDRE WILSON: I had to really change that and become more extroverted.

I have learned things about myself that I never would have learned behind a spreadsheet, behind a laptop, working in corporate. PAUL SOLMAN: So, the personal touch behind an artisanal bundt, or, for marijuana aficionados, blunt. Plus, in this era of thinking globally, customers like Lauren Roush get to shop locally. LAUREN ROUSH, Chicago Resident: I would much rather spend my money here and support people from the community, people from the Chicago area, than going to a big department store, where the money is not necessarily going to come back to the community.

PAUL SOLMAN: The city program has even turned vacant storefronts into art. Nez Garza: NEZ GARZA, Artist: The city of Chicago had a grant for artists in Lakeview and Roscoe. So, that's where the money came from for this project.

PAUL SOLMAN: So you're a government employee here? NEZ GARZA: For this one, yes. PAUL SOLMAN: Back in D.C., in-person can mean unearthing buried treasures at Capitol Hill Books. KYLE BURK, Co-Owner, Capitol Hill Books: We just got this Really great set of Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs. PAUL SOLMAN: And that's the one that Mark Twain got him to write.

KYLE BURK: That's exactly right. PAUL SOLMAN: But when COVID closed Kyle Burk's doors, how to personalize? With grab bags. KYLE BURK: We kind of converted to an online business, and these grab bags were the main way that we were able to stay afloat. PAUL SOLMAN: Customers submit favorite authors or genres and a budget. KYLE BURK: When you go on Amazon, you're just going to get recommended the newest, latest thing. The algorithm that we have, which is our actual human employees, is just better.

PAUL SOLMAN: Human employees who read the way most of us eat. So I plunged online for a $50 bag, mentioning Samuel R. Delany, who writes speculative fiction, and then, offline, none 9of these are in any way obvious.

KYLE BURK: Same with this one. This is "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead. It's about rival elevator inspector factions. (LAUGHTER) KYLE BURK: I guarantee you, a better novel about elevator factions, you will not read than this one. (LAUGHTER) PAUL SOLMAN: Today, Burk survives because he's in the right corridor, residential Capitol Hill, which benefits from work from home. But wait a minute, I ask our retail expert, isn't physical bricks-and-mortar retail a bad bet, given the growth of online shopping? C. EBERE ANOKUTE: No, Paul, I would not say that.

PAUL SOLMAN: Online shopping spiked to historic highs when COVID hit, Anokute says, but has leveled off at about 15 percent of all U.S. retail. C. EBERE ANOKUTE: What that tells me, Paul, is that we are actually approaching hopefully some sort of equilibrium in the online vs. brick-and-mortar equation. All of the most successful retailers have figured out a way to combine both into some sort of omnichannel strategy that allows them to meet their consumer and their customer wherever they are in as convenient a manner as possible. PAUL SOLMAN: So, in-store experience married to online convenience, it's how all the retailers we spoke to are trying to buck this season's un-merry trend: slower sales than expected.

For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman in Takoma Park, Maryland, and reading about the elevator wars back home in Boston. JUDY WOODRUFF: The Middle East has long been plagued by geopolitical conflicts, but now a crisis of a different sort is taking hold. The narcotics trade poses security threats and risks for ever-changing societies whose conservative norms had usage in check.

We explore the drivers behind the regional drug trade and why efforts to combat it have largely failed. Special correspondent Simona Foltyn brings us the first of two reports from the region, tonight from Basra in Southern Iraq. SIMONA FOLTYN: As night falls over the southern port city of Basra, the anti-narcotics unit is dispatched for a mission in the battle against the booming drug trade. After years of conflict with ISIS, Iraq's security forces are now fighting an undeclared war against a new enemy, crystal meth. The anti-drug unit just received information from a source about a dealer who is selling crystal meth out of his home, and they're on their way now to try to arrest him.

These operations happen nightly, and they are dangerous. In Basra alone, seven police have been killed over the past year during raids like these. Luckily, the men face no resistance tonight as they detain the suspect. Brigadier General Ismail Ghanem Abdalla is in charge of the unit. BRIG. GEN.

ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA, Iraqi Police (through translator): Show us where it is, and we will help you. We're coming for the crystal meth you keep in this house. We know someone who is buying from you. SIMONA FOLTYN: Next door, investigators find what they're looking for.

The young man and his father are taken away for questioning. But they are just small fish in a city that is flooded with crystal meth. Nestled on the Persian Gulf between Iran and Kuwait, Basra's strategic location has turned it into a hub for the regional drug trade. Crystal meth from Iran and Afghanistan is smuggled through Basra and onwards to the Gulf and the Mediterranean. But much of the drug is finding a market here, a country of 40 million plagued by rampant youth unemployment.

The anti-narcotics unit sets up checkpoints every night to stop distribution inside the city. But apart from causing traffic jams and alienating residents, it does little to stop dealers. BRIG. GEN. ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA (through translator): We don't have the technology.

We rely on human intelligence and our own resources. That's why its sometimes difficult to, for example, locate a suspect while he's on a call. It takes a lot of time.

The criminals are becoming sophisticated and we need to keep up. SIMONA FOLTYN: The trade is facilitated by tribal networks protected by powerful armed groups and enabled by corrupt officials. A 2017 anti-narcotics law introduced rewards for informants and officers to increase interdictions and curb corruption. Five years on, this unit hasn't received any funding.

BRIG. GEN. ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA (through translator): If we had the resources, the number of informants would go up and corruption would go down.

Instead, we depend on our relationships with sources. We appeal to their patriotism and our relations with them. And that's not enough.

SIMONA FOLTYN: In a worrying development, the traders are turning into producers. According to a 2020 U.N. report and two insiders the "NewsHour" spoke to, there are now crystal meth laboratories inside Iraq, something the government still officially denies. BRIG. GEN.

ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA (through translator): There's no production or cultivation inside Iraq. Iraq is importing 100 percent. SIMONA FOLTYN: And there's another problem. Iraq's prisons have become a breeding ground for drug dealers.

General Ismail shows us the holding cells in a Basra police station, so crowded that not all prisoners can sit down at the same time. BRIG. GEN.

ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA (through translator): If a drug user goes in there, it's like he's enrolling in school, and he will graduate as a dealer. Unfortunately, this is the current capacity of the state. SIMONA FOLTYN: In the first six months of 2022, the government arrested a staggering 8,000 people on drug-related charges across Iraq. Police prisons like these are intended only for pretrial detention. BRIG.

GEN. ISMAIL GHANEM ABDALLA (through translator): Half of these prisoners have already been convicted. They're supposed to be transferred to prisons run by the Ministry of Justice. SIMONA FOLTYN: But those main prisons are also full. There are more than 700 drug users and dealers crammed inside these prison cells, more than four times their intended capacity.

It's a telling indicator of just how severely the drug epidemic is afflicting Iraqi society, and authorities are simply struggling to cope. We're allowed to interview some prisoners, a rare opportunity for these men to leave the crammed prison cell and sit on a chair, rather than the floor. PRISONER (through translator): Two people share the same spot on the floor. And, every six hours, they swap.

It's very depressing. It's a miserable situation. Even if you want to reform yourself, you can't in this place. All the thinking and talk inside revolves around drugs. SIMONA FOLTYN: This man is serving a six-year sentence for selling crystal meth. But it was his first stint in prison that turned him into a drug dealer.

PRISONER (through translator): Before I went to prison the first time, I knew 10 people who did drugs. In prison, I was introduced to 200. After I was released, we reconnected.

The government does not provide any work opportunities, so I was obliged to start dealing. SIMONA FOLTYN: Under Iraqi law, drug users get one to three years in prison, except for those who voluntarily seek treatment, if they can get a spot at Basra's only rehabilitation center. Its 44 beds are not enough to serve a city home to four million. DR. AQEEL SABAH, Psychiatrist (through translator): We are lacking the appropriate staff and the necessary infrastructure.

And buildings are also not available. We are just in the beginning of the journey. Even the title psychotherapist doesn't officially exist in Iraqi government institutions. SIMONA FOLTYN: Dr. Aqeel Sabah is a psychiatrist leading group therapy sessions here, a new concept in a country where mental health is widely misunderstood and drug addiction is taboo.

DR. AQEEL SABAH (through translator): People do not admit that they are taking drugs. This is one reason which prevents them from coming to the hospital.

SIMONA FOLTYN: It took this patient, whom we will call Ali, seven years before he sought help for his addiction. ALI, Patient (through translator): I did everything just to get the drugs. Something was pushing me to get the drugs. I would do anything, even if it meant stealing. I lost a lot. I lost my family.

I lost my car. I lost money. I lost everything. SIMONA FOLTYN: Ali doesn't want to leave the facility, fearing he will relapse when he returns to the same environment.

I ask him what percent of his friends smoke crystal meth. "All of them," he replies. Ali blames Iraq's ruling elites for backing the drug trade to line their pockets and to numb the young, restive population into complacency. ALI (through translator): Nobody thinks about the government.

Nobody is thinking, where is the oil, where is Iraq, where we were and where we are headed to. Impossible. We are busy taking crystal and pills. Otherwise, we might think, why don't I have a job? Why is Iraq not like other countries? SIMONA FOLTYN: The drug epidemic risks consuming Iraq's young generation.

In a country crippled by political crises, unemployment and rampant corruption, crystal meth offers the only escape. For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn in Basra, Southern Iraq. JUDY WOODRUFF: Scientists working in Greenland have identified the oldest samples of DNA ever found on Earth. By analyzing this two-million-year-old genetic material, they have revealed how Northern Greenland was once a wildly different environment than the cold, polar region it is today, one teeming with ancient wildlife and plants, including some that scientists thought had never lived so far north. William Brangham is back now to explore this with one of the researchers who made this discovery. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For more on this remarkable discovery, I'm joined by one of the lead scientists on this project.

Professor Eske Willerslev is an evolutionary geneticist and one of the early pioneers in studying ancient DNA. He's director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen's GLOBE Institute. Professor Willerslev, so good to have you. And congratulations on this research. So, you discovered this DNA in Northern Greenland.

Can you just tell us a little bit about how you actually found the DNA? ESKE WILLERSLEV, University of Copenhagen: So, it's some settings, big hills of two million-year-old dirt, basically, lying in Northern Greenland. And what we did is, we were digging into this dirt, and we were drilling out some dirt core. You can't see any biological material, like bones or anything like that.

It's basically dirt, but the DNA from the past has stuck to this dirt. And this is because we're shedding DNA all the time while we're alive. And so did these animals and plants also two million years ago.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, you're not drilling into an ancient carcass or an ancient tree. This is something that the animals or plants excreted during their lives? ESKE WILLERSLEV: That's correct. So it's coming from skin cells. It's coming from ancient feces, from urine and stuff like that. If I touch the screen like this, right, my DNA will be on the screen, so we will basically -- every person are shedding DNA to the surroundings, and some of this DNA will bind to these sediment particles and survive for two million years, basically.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: What you just said there is so striking, though, because I had no idea that DNA could survive for such a long period of time. How is that possible? ESKE WILLERSLEV: Well, I was surprised about that too. So, the oldest DNA until this study was one million years. And that's basically what most people believed was -- is possible.

But, apparently, I mean, when it binds to these mineral particles in the soil, it basically protects the DNA, so it can survive much longer. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, once you have isolated the DNA and said, aha, this is ancient, ancient DNA, how do you go about then trying to figure out what it's DNA from... ESKE WILLERSLEV: Yes.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: ... what these organisms were? ESKE WILLERSLEV: Yes, that was a challenge too, because two million years is a long time in evolution, right? So whatever DNA we were finding are not identical to what we see today. But we can basically compare it to all known DNA sequences ever recorded from both the present, but also what people have retrieved from bones and teeth of the past, for example.

And then we can basically identify these fragments, and, from these fragments, through the comparison, reconstruct, what animals and plants did they belong to? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And tell us a little bit about what you discovered. ESKE WILLERSLEV: It's a total surprise. I mean, you have to understand that, today, this area up in Northern Greenland is what we called an arctic desert. There's almost nothing. It looks like Sahara, basically. And then what we can see, two million years ago, it was a diverse forest of all kinds of trees and also animals, like mastodon, these extinct big elephants, as well as the ancestor of reindeers.

There was hares. There was lemmings. There was geese. I mean, so a very different ecosystem than what you see today.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And I understand as well you found some traces of horseshoe crabs as well. ESKE WILLERSLEV: Yes. Yes. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, again, I'm no -- I'm no paleontologist, but I don't -- it seems striking to think that you're finding mastodons in some proximity to horseshoe crabs. ESKE WILLERSLEV: Yes, but this is because, if you had been there two million years ago, and you were standing at the shore with your rubber boot at the water, right, you would see basically a river -- facing a river that is coming out, bringing material with it into, you can see, the bay, into the ocean.

So, therefore, it's a mixture between the DNA from the terrestrial surroundings, right? You would have looked up, again, at this forest and seen the mastodon and so forth. And then you also get marine organisms, right, because the sediments fold into a marine setting. And that's why we see the horseshoe crab. And all of these animals suggest a time where it was way warmer than today, probably 11 to 12 degrees Celsius warmer than today. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, walk me through the implications of that.

If these species existed in that warmer world, what does -- what are the implications for modern-day man? ESKE WILLERSLEV: Well, to me, there's two major implications. One is that what we see is an ecosystem with no modern analogue. There's nowhere in the world you find this ecosystem, which is a mixture between arctic organisms and temperate organisms. So, what it tells us is really that climate change, when it's getting warmer, it's actually quite unpredictable. I mean, most model, if not all models that are trying to predict how will our surroundings, our biology react to this moment probably wouldn't be able to have predicted this when you go back in time.

So, you can say the plasticity of organisms are different than what we think. And the -- well, this is, of course, worrisome, because if you're bad at forecasting, it means you also have -- it's difficult to make a strategy how to mitigate, right, the consequences of global warming. On the other hand, I would say now we have a generic road map, right? We have a genetic -- it's the building blocks of life.

We have a genetic road map, where we can find out, how did these organisms back in time adapt to global warming? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I know that you have been studying ancient DNA for much of your career, but this does seem like a genuinely striking advancement in your own work. And I wonder how that personally resonates with you. When you realized what you had and what you discovered, what is that like for you? ESKE WILLERSLEV: I mean, it's amazing, right? I mean, I -- sometimes, I kind of divide our discoveries into what we call founding papers, and then you can see the papers where we just built on what we found, basically. And this is definitely one of the founding papers. I mean, it allows us to go back to -- for the first time back to perform the last Ice Age, right, and to a climate which is very similar to what we are heading towards because of global warming.

So it's also a very important period, because it tells us something about what we can expect to happen in the future. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Such a tremendous discovery here. Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen, thank you so much for talking with us. ESKE WILLERSLEV: My pleasure. JUDY WOODRUFF: So fascinating. I am in awe of these scientists.

And on the "NewsHour" tonight online on our TikTok and Instagram pages, you can see how our own "NewsHour" correspondents are celebrating the holidays by sharing some of their favorite recipes of the season. That's on our Instagram and TikTok pages now, and you can't miss this. No ancient DNA in these recipes, we promise. And that's the "NewsHour" for tonight.

I'm Judy Woodruff. Join us online and again here tomorrow evening. For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thank you, please stay safe, and we'll see you soon.

2022-12-24 10:08

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