The factors that can lead to the rise of far-right movements appear increasingly common in Germany today, where residents worry about immigration and eurozone crises
Police officers clash with a far-right demonstration in Frankfurt in 2007 / AP
When German authorities last week connected neo-Nazis to several murders of foreigners in Germany between 2000 and 2007, it shocked the country and its leaders. Chancellor Angela Merkel struck early and hard, calling the attacks "shameful" for Germany, pledging action. Meanwhile, of course, the European debt crisis isn't going away, and Merkel has fought to stay on-message, encouraging Germans to stick with other European countries on the bailouts.
It's possible, though, that these two topics might not be as separate as they seem.
The link is explored most forcefully in a 2005 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, by Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman. At the time, he wanted to explain why caring about the economy isn't just a matter of neo-mercantilist greed. "Are we right to care so much about economic growth as we clearly do?" he asked in the book's opening. Economic growth doesn't just make us richer, he argued, it also makes our societies more tolerant. But what about the converse?
In that book as well as lectures taking off from it, Friedman reviewed the histories of the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, arguing, among other things, that there is a strong association of liberal democratic advances -- think civil rights legislation, for example -- with periods of economic growth. Similarly, there is a strong association of racial, ethnic, or religious tension and violence -- or anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation -- with periods of economic stagnation.
People evaluate their standard of living in two ways, according to Friedman: whether they are living better than they previously have and whether they are living better than others around them. But, as Friedman explained in a 2006 lecture to the American Economic Association, these two types of evaluation function as substitutes for one another. "Getting ahead by either benchmark strictly diminishes the urgency that people attach to getting ahead by the other one," he said. When people's living standards rise (due to economic growth, for example), they stop caring so much about being ahead of their neighbors, making them less suspicious and more tolerant of those around them. This is the mechanism by which Friedman believes tolerance, and other values of a liberal democracy, are encouraged.
But there's a flip side. If, argues Friedman, large swathes of society believe their progress is the "circumstance under which the society also moves forward in the political, social, and ultimately moral dimensions" mentioned above, "then no society -- no matter how rich it becomes or how well formed its institutions may be -- is immune from seeing its basic values at risk whenever the majority of its citizens lose their sense of forward economic progress."
In other words, if Europe's about to plunge back into recession, or even continue with the current stagnation and instability, then Germany really should be worried about these anti-immigrant attacks -- the sentiment that fueled them is at risk of growing, according to this theory, not shrinking.
Though Friedman's work received largely quite positive reviews in academic journals, it has its critics as well. The neo-Nazi attacks in Germany happened between 2000 and 2007, a time in which Germany's GDP trended healthily upwards. That's actually not the sort of objection Friedman's fellow academics seem to raise. For starters, Friedman doesn't suggest that individual upticks or dips in tolerance can always be explained by economic indicators, or that it's always easy to perceive the relationship between the two. His argument, rather, is that when one reviews the history, there does seem to be a correlation. At the time of his lecture to the American Economic Association, for example, he pointed out that in the preceding five years, "real U.S. GDP advanced on average at 2.6 percent per annum." In each of those years, median income "failed to keep pace with inflation." Therefore "the fruits of that increased production have been sufficiently skewed that more than half of all Americans nonetheless saw their incomes decline."
What critics have taken issue with is more the implications of Friedman's argument: is growth really a cure-all? Avner Offer of All Souls College at Oxford, reviewing Friedman's book for the Economic History Review, didn't think Friedman "engaged" enough "with the disorders of growth," suggesting that in as rich a country as the U.S., "redistribution" might be a better focus. Amitai Etzioni for the Sociological Forum pointed out the "very likely possibility that as people gain more, their aspirations will grow in turn, and that under these conditions they will compare themselves to still richer people and hence become less content and less liberal, not more so." He pointed out that "high economic growth, especially in developed nations," can come with its own sacrifices. Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia University economist and former Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisers and Chief Economist of the World Bank, offers a particularly clear articulation of this theme: though economists have often suggested growth brings more social justice, "even if it has been true in the past, it may not be in the future." The environment starts to become an issue, for one thing. And Stiglitz doesn't seem 100 percent convinced that the U.S.'s increased wealth is currently resulting in increased tolerance.
But for such a bold argument as Friedman's, that's actually not a whole lot of criticism. And even these reviewers think Friedman has gotten a lot right. Furthermore, there's already some evidence to support Friedman's theory as it would apply, say, to Germany, depending on how you read the numbers. Though right-wing politically motivated crime dropped from 2009 to 2010 in Germany, according to Germany's Federal Ministry of the Interior, neo-Nazis in Germany actually been picking up members and set a new record for demonstrations over the same period. As I pointed out in an earlier post, it was only last year that then-director of Germany's central bank, Thilo Sarrazin, made a splash by authoring a book arguing that unintegrated, uneducated immigrants posed an existential threat to Germany, and that educated Germans needed to out-breed them.
Economically, the danger right now is that even if Germany's growth so far has remained strong, Europe as a whole may be sliding into recession. Austerity measures to address the debt crisis take money out of national economies, making lower growth more likely. Already in France -- one of the stronger countries, economically -- growth predictions for next year have been revised down from 1.75 percent to 1 percent, and that was before France's latest round of austerity measures were announced.
As in most countries, there are plenty of preexisting resentments that this sort of economic stagnation could inflame. Though Turkish immigrants were targeted in the string of murders, represent the largest and most prominent population that Germans might consider un-intregrated, and are viewed with particular suspicion, Germany also hosts plenty of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. German fears of Muslim extremists among the Turkish population haven't helped integration, and while changes in the highly old-fashioned German blood-based citizenship law took effect back in 2000, many immigrants still feel themselves facing an unfair battle when it comes to finding jobs and working their way up.
They're not imagining it, either: a study in 2010 found firms overall 14 percent more likely, and small firms 24 percent more likely, to follow up with an applicant with a German-sounding name than with one with a Turkish-sounding name. With German neighbors confronted with statistically confirmable higher crime rates in the immigrant populations, both sides have things to complain about. It's possible that natural stores of goodwill and generosity are rapidly being depleted as well, as all residents deal with belt tightening in order for Germany to bail out its more profligate southern European neighbors. Despite Germany's best and most generous efforts, Reuters reported Wednesday that "bond market contagion is spreading across Europe."
Who knows to what extent Germany will see more of the kind of tension on display in the past few years, most disgustingly in the string of neo-Nazi-perpetrated murders. One thing's for sure, though: Germany's doing very well economically right now compared to the rest of Europe, and arguably even compared to the U.S. So if Germany should be worried about the social effects of economic stagnation, a whole lot of other countries probably should be worried too -- perhaps even more so.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
Why the ingrained expectation that women should desire to become parents is unhealthy
In 2008, Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. The move was part of a "safe haven" law designed to address increased rates of infanticide in the state. Like other safe-haven laws, parents in Nebraska who felt unprepared to care for their babies could drop them off in a designated location without fear of arrest and prosecution. But legislators made a major logistical error: They failed to implement an age limitation for dropped-off children.
Within just weeks of the law passing, parents started dropping off their kids. But here's the rub: None of them were infants. A couple of months in, 36 children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over 13 years old. A 51-year-old grandmother dropped off a 12-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family -- nine children from ages one to 17. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion.
Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?
I have been alive for a long time. I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when I was a 10th-grader, and then watching with my family through the grim following days as newscasters said that something had changed forever. The next dozen years were nearly nonstop trauma for the country. More assassinations. Riots in most major cities. All the pain and waste and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and then the public sense of heading into the utterly unknown as, for the first time ever, a president was forced to resign. Americans of my children’s generation can remember the modern wave of shocks and dislocations that started but did not end with the 9/11 attacks.
Through all this time, I have been personally and professionally, and increasingly, an American optimist. The long years I have spent living and working outside the United States have not simply made me more aware of my own strong identity as an American. They have also sharpened my appreciation for the practical ramifications of the American idea. For me this is the belief that through its cycle of struggle and renewal, the United States is in a continual process of becoming a better version of itself. What I have seen directly over the past decade, roughly half in China and much of the rest in reporting trips around the United States, has reinforced my sense that our current era has been another one of painful but remarkable reinvention, in which the United States is doing more than most other societies to position itself, despite technological and economic challenges, for a new era of prosperity, opportunity, and hope.
A unified theory of why political satire is biased toward, and talk radio is biased against, liberals in America.
Soon after Jon Stewart arrived at The Daily Show in 1999, the world around him began to change. First, George W. Bush moved into the White House. Then came 9/11, and YouTube, and the advent of viral videos. Over the years, Stewart and his cohort mastered the very difficult task of sorting through all the news quickly and turning it around into biting, relevant satire that worked both for television and the Internet.
Now, as Stewart prepares to leave the show, the brand of comedy he helped invent is stronger than ever. Stephen Colbert is getting ready to bring his deadpan smirk to The Late Show. Bill Maher is continuing to provoke pundits and politicians with his blunt punch lines. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is about to celebrate the end of a wildly popular first year. Stewart has yet to announce his post-Daily Show plans, but even if he retires, the genre seems more than capable of carrying on without him.
To many white Trump voters, the problem wasn’t her economic stance, but the larger vision—a multi-ethnic social democracy—that it was a part of.
Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the November election for many liberals is that Hillary Clinton lost because she ignored the working class.
In the days after her shocking loss, Democrats complained that Clinton had no jobs agenda. A widely shared essay in The Nationblamed Clinton's "neoliberalism" for abandoning the voters who swung the election. “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders said on CBS This Morning, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to where I came from.”
But here is the troubling reality for civically minded liberals looking to justify their preferred strategies: Hillary Clinton talked about the working class, middle class jobs, and the dignity of work constantly. And she still lost.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.
Unless he divests himself of his business holdings, the president-elect could violate constitutional rules meant to guard against corruption.
With the recent news that two Republican electors are refusing to vote for Donald Trump, we have been inundated with inquiries asking whether other electors should decline to select Trump because of a particular constitutional issue. It’s one we worked on when we were advising Presidents Bush and Obama, respectively: the Emoluments Clause.
Every elector must search his or her own conscience, but after a blizzard of reporting on the president-elect’s foreign business relations in recent days, it appears that Trump will be in violation of this clause of the Constitution from the moment he takes office—and the plan for his business that he hinted at on Twitter last week does not solve the problem.
Strangling public-sector unions in Wisconsin has shrunk teachers’ pay and benefits. Who’s next?
Back in 2009, Rick Erickson was happy with his job as a teacher in one of the state’s northernmost school districts on the shores of Lake Superior. He made $35,770 a year teaching chemistry and physics, which wasn’t a lot of money, but then again, he received stellar healthcare and pension benefits, and could talk honestly with administrators about what he needed as a teacher every two years when his union sat down with the school district in collective bargaining sessions.
Then, five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which dramatically limited the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain with employers on wages, benefits, and working conditions. After Act 10,Erickson saw his take-home pay drop dramatically: He now makes $30,650. His wife is a teacher, too, and together they make 11 percent less than they did before Act 10. The local union he once led no longer exists, and so he can’t bargain with the school district for things like prep time and sick days. He pays more for health care and his pension, and he says both he and his wife may now not be able to retire until they are much older than they had planned.
Babylonian tablets suggest that Earth’s rotation is slowing less than expected.
On the morning of April 15, 136 B.C.E., residents of the ancient city of Babylon, in what is now Iraq, experienced quite a sight. An hour and a half after sunrise, the moon moved across the face of the sun, blotting it out so only the golden halo of its atmosphere was visible. The sky went dark.
“Venus, Mercury and the Normal Stars were visible; Jupiter and Mars, which were in their period of disappearance, were visible in that eclipse,” a Babylonian astrologer inscribed in cuneiform, on a clay tablet now stored in the British Museum.
To measure the eclipse’s duration, the astrologer would have used a cylindrical vessel called a clepsydra, or a water clock, whose slow draining marked the passage of time. “It moved from SW to NE. 35 us [time duration] for obscuration and clearing up. In that eclipse, north wind which...” The rest of the observation is on a missing chunk of tablet and was lost to history, but the astrologer may have been noting that the wind shifted direction, which happens during a total eclipse.
Now there’s another chance. Here’s Trump, meeting with Al Gore. Here’s Trump, saying maybe torture isn’t a tremendous idea. Here’s Trump, telling Time that he wants to find an accommodation for DREAMers, the unauthorized immigrants brought here as children and raised in the United States.
So with an eye toward recent history, here’s some advice: Don’t be tempted.
Take the Gore meeting. There’s no good way to know what motivated the summit, which was arranged by Ivanka Trump. Gore gave a tight-lipped statement when he emerged. Whatever the point of the meeting, as Robinson Meyer notes, the balance of Trump’s statements and his concrete actions on climate change point in a clear direction. There are his repeated claims that climate change is a Chinese hoax, and there is his appointment of Myron Ebell, an outright denier of global warming, to head his EPA transition team.