The German chancellor, who has also been Greece's most important champion, is facing a domestic political challenge.
It happened. Standard & Poor's downgraded Greece's long-term rating Monday to "Selective Default." And, well, the markets seem to be fine. Greece seems to be fine. The one who's really in trouble, though, is German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The German leader has had one heck of a bad week-and-a-half, and the hits keep coming. The Greek bailout vote and the S&P downgrade are part of it. But the rotten political run began last Sunday with a confrontation that, on the surface, had absolutely nothing to do with Greece. Instead, it had to do with appointing a new German president.
The president of Germany is, in theory, elected: the members of the German parliament--the Bundestag--together with various delegates from the German states form the Federal Convention, who choose the president by secret ballot. But such is the power of coalition politics that the president, in practice, is more or less appointed, following a flurry of activity behind the scenes among whichever parties jointly hold a majority.
The old president of Germany, Christian Wulff, resigned February 17 over corruption allegations involving a loan, after having said for months that no resignation would be necessary. Merkel's reigning coalition, made up of her own Christian Democratic Union, its sister the Christian Social Union, and the Free Democratic Party, then had to come up with a successor.
It turns out, though, that FDP chairman and German vice chancellor Philipp Rösler came to his 5pm Sunday meeting with Merkel looking for a fight. Anonymous sources told Der Spiegel that Rösler came to the meeting having already gotten a unanimous vote from FDP leadership for Joachim Gauck as a candidate--the very Joachim Gauck whom Merkel had rejected for the presidency in 2010 and whom both she and her party were against this time around as well. Though Merkel and the FDP have tussled quite a bit in the past few months--Der Spiegel's team phrases it as "Merkel has humiliated the FDP repeatedly," while "the FDP has done nothing to defend itself"--the opposition took Merkel by surprise. Rösler apparently left the chancellor no choice: if the CDU/CSU voted for their candidate, Christian Töpfer, the FDP would vote with the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, effectively ending the coalition through which Merkel has governed.
So that was Sunday, February 12. The following Tuesday, European leaders finally settled the terms of a second bailout for Greece. It was greeted in Germany, as I explained last week, with very little enthusiasm. That is to say: half a dozen op-eds suggested it's a losing battle, a few wanted to drop the project entirely, and another half dozen pleaded for patience while Greece gets its stuff together. Given that European solidarity is Merkel's signature issue, the waning public enthusiasm wasn't a good sign.
A poll quantified that waning enthusiasm: Sunday, February 26 weekly newspaper edition Bild am Sonntag reported an Emnid Institute poll showing 62 percent of Germans opposed the bailout--up from 53 percent in September.
But that wasn't the only blow Merkel was to receive over the weekend. Evidently unknown to her, her interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, had also given an interview to Der Spiegel in which he came out in favor of Greece exiting the euro. When the interview was published on Monday, Merkel was then had to rebuke her own minister by announcing that she "[didn't] share this view," while Friedrich, presumably after some awkward behind-scenes shuffling, tried in Der Spiegel's words "to distance himself from his own statements." Happy Monday.
Then came vote time: the Bundestag had to approve the bailout package. Though the package passed, it did so without an absolute majority, and with 17 of Merkel's own coalition members defecting. That was enough for opposition leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of Merkel's previous coalition with his SPD party, to declare Tuesday that "the collapse of the [current] coalition is in full swing." In remarks made to Der Tagesspiegel, he announced: "this is the twilight of the chancellor."
And now S&P has downgraded the Greek debt, not just despite the bailout package, but because of it. Greek default may always have been on the horizon, but the immediate "Selective Default" rating on the long-term debt seems unlikely to play well in public opinion.
Let's not be too hasty to accept the words of a man who is, for now at least, Merkel's adversary. Merkel has proved a canny operator on more than one occasion, and Steinmeier has every incentive to declare her coalition done-for as soon as possible. That said, this is not looking good. Athens and the markets may be weathering the downgrade all right for now, but their champion is taking some hits. And Merkel is the Greek champion right now, much though rioting Athenians despise her for the austerity measures they've been forced to accept: for over a year now Merkel's been the keystone in the European effort to break Greece's staggering financial fall.
So take the markets' nonchalance about S&P's downgrade with a grain of salt. Greece was probably always headed towards default, and it may even already be set to leave the euro. But how hard the country hits the ground makes a big difference, and Merkel is a big factor in how hard Greece hits the ground. Right now, she's looking a little shaky.
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.
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.
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.”
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
Carly Fiorina’s exit from the 2016 race could stifle debate over gender equality across the political spectrum.
When Carly Fiorina dropped out of the presidential race, she took the opportunity to talk about the meaning of feminism—or at least advance her own definition of the term. “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses and uses all her God-given gifts,” Fiorina wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. The message was familiar for Fiorina, a Republican candidate who used her most recent moment on the national stage to argue that women in America still face an uneven playing field.
Fiorina’s assertions lent credibility to the idea that gender inequality is not merely a lament of the political left, but a reality to be confronted by Republicans and Democrats. That message opened the door to debate over what kind of policy platform might best improve quality of life for women in America. Now that Fiorina has exited the race, it seems extremely unlikely that any Republican presidential contender will take up the mantle of talking about feminism and the challenges women face. The debate that Fiorina fostered will be far less prominent as a result.
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.
Though the senator may be running as a moderate, his proposal is anything but.
Senator Marco Rubio is running as the acceptable moderate among the three leading Republicans presidential candidates, compared to Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. But as the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center reported yesterday, his tax plan is not moderate, and it is scarcely acceptable.
Rubio’s proposals would deliver a $1 million tax break to the richest 0.1 percent of the country in its first year and slash government revenue by $6.8 trillion over the next decade. To avoid adding to the deficit, it would require “unprecedented” spending cuts, according to TPC. But that’s not all. Rubio has also called for higher military spending, delayed cuts to Medicare and Social Security, and a Balanced Budget Amendment. To appreciate the impossibility of balancing the budget while raising military spending and slashing taxes at unprecedented levels, try running a marathon while fasting.
In New Hampshire, he won working class men without college diplomas—and most every other demographic group.
Earlier this year, when Mona Chalabi wanted to describe a Donald Trump voter in The Guardian, she conjured a 45-year-old male named Michael who never attended college, works 9-hour days as an exterminator, and earns $33,000 per year. Trump “is more popular among Americans that are white than those who aren’t, and more popular among Americans with penises than those without,” she wrote. “Often, these white men are also working or middle class and middle-aged.”
The New Hampshire primary didn't contradict that conventional wisdom. The billionaire won among voters who never attended college; the working class; and the middle-aged.
Then again, Trump won almost every other demographic, too.
The exit polls couldn’t be clearer. As Ramesh Ponnuru put it, “They raise questions about what we think we know about the Trump phenomenon.” Since the Granite State is so white, it didn’t test the candidate’s performance among minorities. But Trump proved an ability to best all his rivals among the following groups:
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.