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Science & Environment

News Brief: Federal Deficit, New Immigration Policy, DNA Experiment


One trillion dollars of red ink is a whole lot of red ink.


Yes, it is. And the Congressional Budget Office says the federal budget deficit could rise to nearly that level, a trillion dollars, in fiscal year 2019. The CBO gave that estimate yesterday. And, of course, this comes as we're getting mixed signals on some other really important economic indicators.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, who has been covering this. Good morning, Danielle.


GREENE: So you just say a trillion dollars, and that sounds bad, but, I mean, what do these numbers mean? What does this new deficit estimate actually say about the economy right now?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, I mean, let's start with the super, super basics. It means that we're going to keep borrowing a lot as a government. Now, the actual number - you said a trillion there - it's going to be 960 billion in fiscal 2019 and an average of, yeah, 1.2 trillion over the next decade. So the deficit is set to be well above average; those are the CBO's words. By 2029, the CBO projects, debt could hit levels we haven't seen since after World War II.


KURTZLEBEN: Like, that's over 90% of our economic output. Now, the CBO director Phil Swagel, he said, quote, "the nation's fiscal outlook is challenging" - that the nation's debt level, on this trajectory, could become unsustainable, in his words. So deficits - they're not always bad. But he seems to say that, yeah, if our debt keeps piling up, that could be a not-good thing.

But what's interesting here is what this doesn't say about the economy, because right now, the economy is pretty good, despite a few warning signs. So in times like these, the deficit should shrink. That's what usually happens. But one thing that happened recently was we enacted these big tax cuts. Those tax cuts eat into revenue. So that helps explain why that debt and growth relationship has gone haywire.

GREENE: Well, and the CBO was weighing in on a lot of stuff yesterday, right? I mean, didn't they also talk about new tariffs that have come from the Trump administration and how they may be affecting American families and businesses right now?

KURTZLEBEN: Right? Yes. And they didn't say great things. Now, to be clear, the CBO, they don't make policy judgments. They don't come out and say a policy is good or bad. They tend to be drier (laughter) and not judgmental about...

GREENE: They crank the numbers.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, yes. Here are the numbers. But what they said was largely not good for the effects of these tariffs. The report said that the tariffs the U.S. imposed are slowing the economy down. They're making goods more expensive. They're lowering our buying power. They're increasing uncertainty. And they're causing China to retaliate - and other countries. So that means others are buying fewer U.S. goods, which means we are exporting less.

So if you put all that together, you're hurting U.S. growth. And one stat that the White House might not love is that if these tariffs remain in place, the CBO projected, it could reduce average real household income by $580 next year.

GREENE: So to what extent does all of this coming from the CBO call into question President Trump and his argument that the economy is just really - all things are rosy right now?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So this doesn't change that the unemployment rate is low. It doesn't change that the economy has been doing pretty OK. This is more about how our revenues and spending don't reflect that. It means that in the future - and this is, again, CBO director Phil Swagel - he said that we're going to have to do some belt-tightening. We're going to have to deal with our debt burdens, which could leave us less fiscal room to deal with future economic issues, potentially.

GREENE: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben. Thanks so much, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Thank you.


GREENE: Immigrant advocates are raising concerns right now that the Trump administration will start detaining migrant families seeking asylum in the United States for much longer periods of time. And this would be a big change.

KING: Yeah. At the moment, kids cannot be detained for more than 20 days. That rule has been around for years, and it was meant to protect children from the harsh conditions of being confined. But then yesterday, the Trump administration announced these new regulations that would let the government detain kids with their families indefinitely.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration and is with us. And, Joel, just explain what the Trump administration is implementing here.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Right. The administration is proposing to get rid of the Flores settlement, which is this longstanding legal agreement that basically set standards for the care of migrant children in detention. And it also limits how long those kids can be detained. The administration has been arguing for a while that Flores has come to be a, quote-unquote, "loophole" in U.S. immigration policy because migrant families from Central America know if they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border with kids and ask for asylum, the entire family is likely to be released into the U.S. to wait for their day in immigration court.

Here's acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan yesterday.


KEVIN MCALEENAN: This single ruling has substantially caused and continued to fuel this current family unit crisis and the unprecedented flow of Central American families and minors illegally crossing our border until today.

ROSE: McAleenan says these new rules will discourage tens of thousands of migrant families from making this journey because they know they won't be quickly released into the U.S. and, instead, they'll be detained together until their cases are resolved. But immigrant advocates dispute that. They say these migrants are fleeing from extreme violence and just want a better life for their kids and that many are going to keep coming regardless of changes in our immigration policy.

GREENE: Well, and if that prediction is right - if this does not serve as a deterrent and families escaping these horrible conditions do keep coming - is the government prepared to detain all of these families?

ROSE: The short answer to that is, no, not at the moment. There are three detention facilities that are currently set up to detain families together, only about 3,000 beds, all told. But McAleenan says that these new rules around detention will still help stem the crisis because officials will be able to get through more asylum cases more quickly if the families are detained and will be able to deport more of them back home. And that is supposed to send this message that bringing a child along with you does not get you into the U.S. anymore.

McAleenan also says these new rules would uphold the spirit of the Flores settlement by setting high standards for care while kids and families are in detention.

GREENE: But, Joel, we've heard so many horror stories of kids in just these crowded facilities, unsanitary conditions, you know, in places like Border Patrol stations. I mean, as the government - as the Trump administration makes this change, I mean, can they guarantee that kind of stuff is not going to keep happening?

ROSE: Immigration lawyers say, no. They do not trust the government to set its own detention standards, which is basically how it would work under these new rules. And the lawyers point to those allegations of squalid conditions, especially a few months back when there were record numbers of migrant families arriving at the border.

Here is Holly Cooper from the UC Davis School of Law. She's one of the lawyers involved in the Flores case.

HOLLY COOPER: So we're going to have a world that looks a lot like the internment of families and children, where we have, you know, basically, regularized prison as the default for a family seeking political asylum in this country.

ROSE: In other words, it would look a lot like the world before the Flores settlement more than 20 years ago, except potentially on a much bigger scale.

GREENE: NPR's Joel Rose covers immigration for us. Thanks, Joel.

ROSE: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right. So in recent years, use of the gene-editing technique that's known as CRISPR has really been the talk of the whole scientific world.

KING: Yeah, it's exciting stuff. Researchers have edited genes in human embryos. They're experimenting with it - with using it to cure a genetic disorder. And now NPR has learned that scientists are trying to come up with a new way to make modifications in human DNA that would be passed down for generations. They want to edit the DNA in human sperm.

GREENE: All right. And let's talk about that with NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, who has been reporting on many of these discoveries for us. And he recently got exclusive access to the lab where this research is being done. Hi there, Rob.


GREENE: OK. So editing DNA in human sperm - what is this research exactly? And who's doing it?

STEIN: Yeah. So the experiment is being conducted by scientists at Weill Cornell Medicine - that's in New York City - in a lab run by Gianpiero Palermo. He's a reproductive scientist who runs the andrology lab. And here's a little bit of what he told me when I met with him recently.

GIANPIERO PALERMO: I think it's important, from the scientific point of view, to investigate in an ethical manner, to be able to learn if it's possible to remove certain disease that afflict the family.

STEIN: So the goal here is to find ways to fix genetic mutations in sperm and to do things like, you know, maybe prevent genetic forms of male infertility or diseases caused by genetic mutations that are passed from men to their children through their sperm. And, in fact, Palermo's team is starting with one of the so-called breast cancer genes, which men can pass down to their kids, too.

GREENE: How is the team doing this? I mean, you were actually in the lab watching this, right?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. It was really interesting, David. You know, it turns out the big obstacle to editing DNA in human sperm is that the genes are packed really tightly inside the head of each sperm. And that makes it really hard to get the microscopic gene-editing tool they're using - you know, the CRISPR gene-editing tool - into the DNA. So what they're doing is literally shocking sperm with a machine that delivers a split-second 1,100-volt jolt of electricity to basically try to loosen up the DNA.

Let's listen a little bit to how June Wang, one of the lab techs, explained this as she was running the experiment.

JUNE WANG: I'm going to turn on the machine here, the machine that we are going to use to zap the sperm to hopefully get the CRISPR inside.

STEIN: I have to say that zapping is - it's kind of - I don't know - kind of Frankenstein almost.

WANG: (Laughter).

STEIN: It's like lightning or something.

WANG: Yeah. It's a little bit of a weird concept, but it works pretty well.

GREENE: Rob, this all sounds weird.

STEIN: Yeah.

GREENE: So let me ask you this. I mean, Palermo, the scientist, said they're doing this in an ethical manner. Does everyone agree with that?

STEIN: Yeah. Well, I mean, editing the DNA in sperm - it does raise, you know, many of the same really tough questions raised by editing the DNA in human embryos, which is, you know - you might remember is how a Chinese scientist created the world's first genetically modified babies.

GREENE: Right.

STEIN: And that triggered, you know, outrage around the world. You know, there are big questions about, is it safe to do that sort of thing? And could it open the door to, possibly, someday, someone trying to create designer babies? I talked to Fyodor Urnov - he's a scientist at University of California, Berkeley - about all this.

FYODOR URNOV: We know from events in China last year that, despite our best hopes, folks will tend to go rogue. We've also learned that it's really hard to prevent them from doing so. Thus, before we let the CRISPR IVF genie out of the bottle, we have to ask ourselves, how will we be able to control it?

GREENE: So what do the scientists say about concerns like that, Rob?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, they acknowledged that they know this is really controversial and very sensitive stuff. But they say, look; you know, it's important to at least try to see if this is possible because there's so much potential here with CRISPR to try to do so much good. But, you know, it's important to make clear that they haven't gotten it to work yet. And some scientists say that it may never just be technically possible to do it and it just may be too hard. So the researchers are planning to just keep trying to see if they can do it.

GREENE: Interesting stuff from NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Oh, sure. You bet, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU SONG, "STAR TREKKING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.