The Italian leader who seems to have survived every sort of scandal there is might finally succumb to the dropping economy
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at a meeting in Rome / Reuters
Update, 2:30 p.m.: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is to resign following the approval of "key economic reforms," reports the BBC. This is Berlusconi's third term as prime minister. Though his political persistence is legendary, it looks for now as if economic troubles have accomplished what countless scandals--several arguably more serious than the Watergate scandal that forced an American president's resignation--could not.
How do you say "it's the economy, stupid," in Italian? On the face of it, those thinking the economy determines all political fortunes should be thrilled by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's current troubles, which include pressure to resign and a crucial vote today that could force early elections. What better proof of their theory? This is a guy who, just to name a few of his shenanigans, appointed a former topless model "Minister for Equal Opportunity," almost certainly bribed a witness in his corruption trial, tried to shove political debate off the airwaves (which he largely owns), cavorts around with underage girls, and makes inflammatory and diplomacy-damaging public statements about the superiority of Western civilization: how has he not been chucked already? Apparently, a debt crisis was required.
Of course, if all Italian politicians needed to push for early elections was disastrous economic performance, one does wonder what took them so long, especially given the great cover they had from Berlusconi's rotten polling. As the Financial Times' Rachel Sanderson pointed out at the time, local elections in May were presented by Berlusconi as "a referendum on himself," wherein he was pretty well trounced. November 1, Bloomberg reported Italian IPR Marketing's poll results showing that confidence in Berlusconi "fell two percentage points to 22 percent from a survey last month." That, of course, means that he wasn't in a great place last month, either.
Take a look at this rendering of Italian GDP over time, courtesy of Google's visualization of World Bank data. See that giant peak at the end? That peak is when Berlusconi began his latest stint as prime minister (he also held the office from 1994 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2006). That dive is what happened immediately after. Though one can hardly blame Berlusconi for the worldwide financial crisis or a resulting recession, it's not like Herbert Hoover caused the Great Depression, either, and he still got scrapped for it.
There's another fascinating thing about this graph. See the dip in the early nineties that appears to be the next largest dive after the current one? The prime minister who presided over that, Giuliano Amato, only got one year before losing office (although his real problem was dealing with corruption investigations in which he was never directly implicated; The Economist graded him rather well on budget issues). But then he got a second try from 2000 to 2001.
You could even argue that Berlusconi's already been removed once over the economy. Bruno Mascitelli and Emiliano Zucchi floated precisely that theory in the Journal of Contemporary European Studies in August 2007. Though the economy as a whole may have superficially appeared to have done all right, there was a "noticeable decline in economic and business confidence expressed by both Italian families and, more importantly, by Italian business" during his 2001 to 2006 term as prime minister, they argued. "Promising much, as Berlusconi had, and delivering little, as the reality demonstrated, may well have been decisive in the decision taken by Italians to deny Berlusconi [another] term," they wrote at the time.
His reputation obviously recovered, though, as he resumed office in 2008. Quirk of the parliamentary system though it may be, Italian politics appears to be pretty forgiving to those with economic black marks.
That's not to say the parliamentary system explanation for Berlusconi's longevity is by any means the most fun. Take, for example, another 2007 academic paper, "When Likeness Goes With Liking," this one in Political Psychology and put together by a team largely from the University of Rome "La Sapienza." The authors found that, in both the U.S. and Italy, "people saw their own personalities as being more similar to those of the candidates they prefer." The team's results could not establish the "mechanism" by which this occurred -- i.e. whether people liked Berlusconi because they identified with him or whether they identified with him because they liked him.
The social and political sciences are messy and complicated. Results are rarely about a single factor, and a single factor doesn't always produce the same results. Of course, if these last paper's authors could have established that Berlusconi's three-time success was in part about Italian wish fulfillment, what a conclusion. Just imagine an attempt by James Carville to formulate campaign strategy in Italy: "It's the economy, stupid. Also, the prostitutes."
The passing of Antonin Scalia roils the presidential campaign and could leave the Supreme Court deadlocked until 2017. Will the Senate even consider a replacement nominated by President Obama?
The sudden death of Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, on Saturday morning will shake up American politics like few events in recent memory, reshaping the 2016 presidential campaign and potentially leaving the Supreme Court deadlocked for more than a year.
In the short term, President Obama will have to decide who to nominate to replace the voluble conservative jurist, and the Republican-led Senate will have to decide whether to even consider the president’s pick in the heat of the election campaign. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately signaled that an Obama nominee would not get a vote this year. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
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.
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.”
Does his faith influence his judicial decision making?
March was a hugely important month for religion and the Supreme Court, and a pivotal moment for Justice Antonin Scalia, the subject of a fat new biography. Too bad we couldn’t talk plainly about what was, and is, at stake. In a country historically averse to political debates about competing faiths, nowhere is frank discussion of religion more taboo than at the U.S. Supreme Court. “Religion is the third rail of Supreme Court politics. It’s not something that’s talked about in polite company,” as Jeff Shesol, the author of a book about the New Deal Court, put it. He was speaking with NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2010, when John Paul Stevens was looking at retirement and, for the first time in American history, there was the prospect of six Catholics, three Jews, and no Protestants on the highest court in the land—a watershed almost too “radioactive,” Totenberg remarked, even to note. And beware of venturing any further than that, as the University of Chicago Law School’s Geoffrey Stone did in a controversial 2007 blog post suggesting that the Supreme Court’s five conservatives likely derived their abortion views from Catholic doctrine: Scalia—a devout Catholic, and the current Court’s longest-serving conservative—announced a boycott of the school until Stone leaves the faculty.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who served for three decades on the U.S. Supreme Court, died in his sleep of apparent natural causes Saturday at age 79.
The news was confirmed by John Roberts, the chief justice, who called Scalia “an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues.”
According to the San Antonio Express-News, Scalia was attending a private party at the Cibolo Creek Ranch in west Texas on Friday night. Staff reportedly found him on Saturday.
President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986, where he became the intellectual leader of the Court’s conservative wing. Among the wider public, Scalia was one of the few justices who became a household name, due in part to his outspokenness and his often-blistering dissents from the bench.
This wasn’t terribly surprising. When Streep was asked, last year, in the course of promoting her extremely feminist film Suffragette, whether she is herself a feminist, the actor replied that, no, she isn’t. Instead: “I am a humanist,” she said. “I am for nice, easy balance.”
And why stopping it requires that governments get out of the way
As it stands, the international coalition is far from winning the information war against the Islamic State. Its air strikes may be squeezing the group in Iraq and Syria and killing many of its leaders, but that has not halted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s ideological momentum. Indeed, at the end of 2015, it was estimated that the number of foreigners travelling to join militant groups in Iraq and Syria—predominantly the Islamic State—had more than doubled in the course of just 18 months. What’s more, while these figures may be striking, sheer numbers are less important than intent when it comes to the organization’s actual threat to the world. As we have already seen, it takes a very small number of people to unleash great terror, whether in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Our telephone habits have changed, but so have the infrastructure and design of the handset.
One of the ironies of modern life is that everyone is glued to their phones, but nobody uses them as phones anymore. Not by choice, anyway. Phone calls—you know, where you put the thing up to your ear and speak to someone in real time—are becoming relics of a bygone era, the “phone” part of a smartphone turning vestigial as communication evolves, willingly or not, into data-oriented formats like text messaging and chat apps.
The distaste for telephony is especially acute among Millennials, who have come of age in a world of AIM and texting, then gchat and iMessage, but it’s hardly limited to young people. Whenasked, people with a distaste for phone calls argue that they are presumptuous and intrusive, especially given alternative methods of contact that don’t make unbidden demands for someone’s undivided attention. In response, some havediagnosed a kind of telephoniphobia among this set. When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame: When asynchronous, textual media like email or WhatsApp allow you to intricately craft every exchange, the improvisational nature of ordinary, live conversation can feel like an unfamiliar burden. Those in powersometimes think that this unease is a defect in need of remediation, while those supposedly afflicted by it say they areactually just fine, thanks very much.
How those three little words sound around the world
I love saying “I love you.” I’ll say “love ya” to my parents when I’m about to get off the phone with them, and “love you!!” to my wife as she’s heading out the door for work (“love you???” on Gchat means I’ve gotten myself into trouble with her and I’m searching for a way out). I tell my son I love him, and he doesn’t even get it—he’s an infant. I’ve been known to proclaim that I love sushi and football and Benjamin Franklin (I mean, how could you not love Ben?).
Many people in this world would find my behavior rather strange. That’s because Americans are exceptionally promiscuous when it comes to professing their love. In the United States, “I love you” is at once exalted and devalued. It can mean everything ... or nothing at all. This is not universally the case.