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.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
When two black holes collide, the noises scientists hear are birdlike.
This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravity Observatory announced that LIGO had detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, an event so cataclysmic that it converted the mass of three solar systems into pure energy in about a tenth of a second.
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to “listen” to gravitational waves—and to prove their existence—ever since Einstein predicted them in 1915. But until September 14, 2015, when the colliding black-hole event was first detected, this was beyond our technical abilities. In the words of Scott Hughes, “Gravity is a weak force. Measuring these things is bloody hard.”
Hughes is a theoretical physicist at MIT who has been contemplating LIGO since its inception in 1992. He has struggled with a question at the heart of the observatory program: Once we do hear gravitational waves, how will we know where they come from? How can we use them to explore the mysteries of the cosmos? To this end, Hughes has modeled the “sounds” of a host of astrophysical events, including colliding black holes. (You can listen to his impressions of these sounds below.)