As March spills into April, the "dead animals in Chinese rivers" toll seems to have stabilized: recent reports indicate that the over 16,000 dead pigs have been joined by 1,000 dead ducks and, rather ominously, 13 dead black swans. The discovery of so many carcasses has elicited no small amount of public concern in China, as well as mockery elsewhere -- even Jay Leno got into the act.
So, how the hell did this happen? Here are a few ideas:
1. There are a lot of pigs in China. A lot of people, too. But, seriously, a lot of pigs.
China has more people than any other country in the world, and even those with only a passing knowledge of Chinese cuisine are aware of the central role that pork plays. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there are a lot of pigs in China -- around 700 million, according to a MarketWatch estimate. By contrast, the United States, a country with around a quarter of China's population, has a mere 70 million porkers; and we Americans love our bacon. So it perhaps isn't too surprising that the country with a dead pig crisis is also the same one that consumes half of the world's pork. However, in China you also have....
2. ...a highly fragmented agricultural sector.
As in other developing countries, a lot of Chinese people work in agriculture -- roughly 37 percent of the population, in fact, in comparison to 0.7 percent in the United States and 1.4 percent in the United Kingdom. Many of these farmers work on tiny parcels of land rather than on large commercial farms and correspondingly raise a small number of livestock.
This fragmentation has a number of consequences. For one, the sheer number of farms makes government regulation extremely difficult owing to enormous differences in seed quality, pesticide use, and water sources. This, according to economic analyst Rich Brubaker, "creates pressure on distributors and consolidators to separate the different quality levels," giving the unscrupulous and desperate a prime opportunity to shirk on quality control.
Secondly, the small size of the farms means that there just isn't a lot of room to bury dead pigs -- especially if a lot of pigs all die at the same time from an illness. The Chinese government actually compensates large-scale farmers for their dead pigs, but this only applies to those farmers who have more than 50 on their farm, leaving out the many millions of small-scale players in the market. Therefore, a farmer with fewer than 50 pigs faces a choice when confronted with a carcass: either give the pig up to the government for processing (and get nothing for their trouble) or sell the carcass to a "dealer" who would "fix" the meat and slip it into the food supply. Understandably, many farmers chose the latter option, and that worked fine until ...
3. ... China cracked down on illegal pig meat.
Responding to political pressure to avoid food supply scandals, local authorities in Jiaxing recently cracked down on these "dead pig merchants", tossing three of them in jail for life for selling dead and/or diseased pigs to market. As a result, small-scale farmers in the area lost their one outlet for financial compensation, turning a once-lucrative dead pig into a deadweight loss. At this point, then, the fast-flowing river nearby looked like a pretty attractive solution to an annoying (and smelly) dead pig problem.
Can the government make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again? The agriculture sector is consolidating, as millions of Chinese leave the countryside for the cities each year. Bigger farms will create economies of scale and standardization -- leading to cheaper, more reliable pork for Chinese consumers -- and will perverse incentives to dump dead livestock in the river. The dead pig problem is then, like teenage acne, just another awkward byproduct of China's rapid growth spurt.
Then again, there are legitimate concerns that China's political system makes it more susceptible to these types of incidents than other countries. When news of the dead pig fiasco broke, the Communist Party immediately declared that Shanghai's water supply was safe and later, in a characteristically paranoid attempt at information control, quashed a planned protest. This behavior follows a clear pattern in China in the case of environmental catastrophe, and is one of the single leading causes of anti-government sentiment in the country.
A second problem is inefficiency. China's government has a reputation in the West for being streamlined and effective, able to implement complex policies without any of the gridlock that characterizes American and European politics. However, this competence masks the fact that, like any enormous bureaucracy, the Communist Party is riddled with inefficiencies. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, "the Ministry of Agriculture oversees the raising of hogs, while butchering is the province of the Ministry of Commerce. And at least four different departments are responsible for the quality of pork." While attempts at consolidating relevant government organizations are apparently underway, these overlapping jurisdictions are extremely common in China, making it easy for officials to pass the blame in the event of a mess-up.
No country is immune to environmental catastrophes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw conclusions to them. Hurricane Katrina in the United States resulted from a terrible storm -- but also from a chronic government underinvestment in infrastructure as well as an incompetent federal emergency-management organization. China's dead pigs can be dismissed as simply an unintended consequence of a government crackdown, but this misses the larger point: China's government seems unable to prevent the environmental catastrophes that most threaten their hold on power.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
In 1992, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson got a challenge from the Dalai Lama. By that point, he’d spent his career asking why people respond to, in his words, “life’s slings and arrows” in different ways. Why are some people more resilient than others in the face of tragedy? And is resilience something you can gain through practice?
The Dalai Lama had a different question for Davidson when he visited the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader at his residence in Dharamsala, India. “He said: ‘You’ve been using the tools of modern neuroscience to study depression, and anxiety, and fear. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?’ … I did not have a very good answer. I said it was hard.”
A new book by the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne tackles arguments that the two institutions are compatible.
In May 1988, a 13-year-old girl named Ashley King was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital by court order. She had a tumor on her leg—an osteogenic sarcoma—that, writes Jerry Coyne in his book Faith Versus Fact, was “larger than a basketball,” and was causing her leg to decay while her body started to shut down. Ashley’s Christian Scientist parents, however, refused to allow doctors permission to amputate, and instead moved their daughter to a Christian Science sanatorium, where, in accordance with the tenets of their faith, “there was no medical care, not even pain medication.” Ashley’s mother and father arranged a collective pray-in to help her recover—to no avail. Three weeks later, she died.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
The Fourth of July—a time we Americans set aside to celebrate our independence and mark the war we waged to achieve it, along with the battles that followed. There was the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention.
Confused? These are actually conflicts invented for the novel The Disunited States of Americaby Harry Turtledove, a prolific (and sometimes-pseudonymous) author of alternate histories with a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. The book is set in the 2090s in an alternate United States that is far from united. In fact, the states, having failed to ratify a constitution following the American Revolution, are separate countries that oscillate between cooperating and warring with one another, as in Europe.
The executive producer of Masterpiece says Jane Austen works a lot better on screen than Hemingway does.
For 44 years, PBS’s Masterpiece franchise has brought high-end Britain TV programs to American audiences. While the ultra-successful Downton Abbey comes from an original screenplay, many of Masterpiece’s shows over the years have been adapted from great works of literature. And the vast majority of those great works of literature, unsurprisingly, have been British.
But every so often, an American novel—like James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark—has been turned into a Masterpiece. On Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of Masterpiece, said she wished that the program had tackled more U.S. authors over the years. “The reasons that we haven't are twofold,” she said. “One is money, the second is money. And the third is money. Also, the dark nature of American literature, which is something to think about for a moment."
The meaning of the Confederate flag is best discerned in the words of those who bore it.
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten. Over the next few months the word “heritage” will be repeatedly invoked. It would be derelict to not examine the exact contents of that heritage.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.