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Society

Doubting the Dream

Americans doubt that they live in a land of equal economic opportunity, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. It reports that Americans are nearly twice as likely as they were 20 years ago to describe the country as divided between haves and have-nots. This change is particularly significant, the authors argue, since Americans have traditionally “turned a deaf ear” to narratives of class warfare, seeing individuals— not society—as responsible for their economic fate.

However, the new, bleaker view of the economic landscape is filtered through a partisan prism: 63 percent of Democrats see the country as split between haves and have-nots, compared with 33 percent of Republicans—by far the greatest divide between any of the subgroups studied and considerably larger than the one between upper-income and lower-income Americans (43 percent of respondents in the top third of household income perceive a have–have-not divide, versus 52 percent in the poorest third). Perceptions about personal finances have also changed for the worse: Only 43 percent of middle-income Americans now think they’re among the haves, compared with 61 percent in 1988. But perception may tell us only so much: 19 percent of the wealthiest third of Americans see themselves as have-nots, suggesting that financial security is sometimes in the eye of the beholder.

“A Nation of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots’?” Jodie T. Allen and Michael Dimock, Pew Research Center

Society

The Oldster Boom

Yes, the looming “senior tsunami” of retiring Baby Boomers will swell the retiree population in Sun Belt states. But according to a new Brookings Institution report, many of the Boomers who’ll be spending their golden years in warmer climes won’t be migrating south when they turn 65; they’re already there. The study focuses on what it calls “pre-seniors”—Americans aged 55 to 64, who represent the fastest- growing part of the Boomer population, particularly in the Southwest and the South Atlantic states, where they tend to be “aging in place,” often retiring in the same suburbs where they’ve spent middle age. (In Georgia, for example, the report estimates that between 2010 and 2020 immigrating retirees will raise the state’s senior population by just 3 percent, whereas the aging of existing residents will raise it by 40 percent.) Overall, pre-seniors are more educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than their Social Security– collecting predecessors, and more pre-senior women have worked. But pre-seniors are also plagued by higher rates of divorce and lower rates of marriage, leading the author to speculate that many of them will struggle financially as they reach retirement age.

“Mapping the Growth of Older America: Seniors and Boomers in the Early 21st Century,” William Frey, Brookings Institution

Iraq

Surge-o-nomics

When General David Petraeus testified before Congress in September on the efficacy of the military surge in Iraq, his presentation included several charts purporting to show progress—fewer civilian deaths and “security incidents,” and more seized weapons caches. But a report by an MIT economist released shortly afterward suggests a different metric: the financial markets, particularly the market for Iraqi state bonds. The study reports that from the start of the surge earlier this year until September, there was a “sharp decline” in the price of Iraqi state bonds, signaling a “40% increase in the market’s expectation that Iraq will default” on its obligations. Since the bonds are sold on international markets (hedge funds hold a large portion), where the profit motive eliminates personal and political bias, the trajectory of bond prices may be the most accurate indicator available for assessing America’s military strategy. And the data suggest that “the surge is failing to pave the way toward a stable Iraq and may in fact be undermining it.”

“Is the ‘Surge’ Working? Some New Facts,” Michael Greenstone, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; National Bureau of Economic Research

Immigration

The Islamic Edge

The usual measures of successful integration into a new society—the decline of segregated neighborhoods, a rise in levels of education and income—may not apply to Europe’s Muslim immigrants, according to a new study from a German research center. Drawing on 1990s data from the United Kingdom’s Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities, the report’s authors find that religious identity has persisted more among Muslims in Britain than among other ethnic and religious minorities, and that Muslims have integrated more slowly. Neither education nor the amount of time spent in Britain appears to have weakened Islamic identity. The authors found no evidence that the formation of Islamic identity was strengthened in segregated neighborhoods; if anything, living in an integrated neighborhood appeared to reinforce a strong Islamic identity, as did higher incomes, better job qualifications, and mixed-work environments (defined as places where English is spoken). In other words, even if Muslim immigrants are well-educated, well-paid, and living and working among non-Muslims, the “intense and oppositional identities” that stoke Europe’s current religious and cultural tensions may persist.

“Are Muslim Immigrants Different in Terms of Cultural Integration?” Alberto Bisin et al., Institute for the Study of Labor

Education

Separate and Superior

The self-segregation of historically black colleges and universities may seem antiquated, but a new study from two Virginia Tech researchers suggests that such institutions have been a path upward for disadvantaged black men. By comparing the first and the most-recent wages reported, the authors found that men who attended black colleges in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s—despite starting out lower on the socioeconomic ladder, on average, than black men at more-integrated schools—ultimately catch up. Over his career, a man who attended a black college could expect to earn 9 percent more than if he had attended a more integrated institution.

“The Wage Earnings Impact of Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Bradford Mills and Elton Mykerezi, Southern Economic Journal

Culture

Do Gamers Dream of Electric Abs?

That little boy on the couch with his Nintendo may look unathletic, but inside he’s thinking about building muscles—big muscles. Two researchers at the University of Illinois surveyed 181 boys (average age: 8.77) and found that young white males who read video-game magazines had an even stronger “desire for muscle mass” than those who read only sports or muscle-and-fitness magazines. Their desire to get pumped up may be explained by the exaggerated bulges—and powers—of video-game characters. This finding did not hold for young blacks, even though they tend to be more avid game players—perhaps, the authors speculate, because most heroes in the video-game magazines are white.

“Gaming Magazines and the Drive for Muscularity in Preadolescent Boys: A Longitudinal Examination,” Kristen Harrison and Bradley J. Bond, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History

Why Venice Thrived

Old doges can teach modern political scientists new tricks, according to a paper by two computer scientists who analyzed the long and cumbersome— but ultimately very effective—means by which the Venetian Republic elected its sovereign-for-life. From 1268 to the fall of the republic, in 1797, Venice’s council of oligarchs took 10 rounds to choose each doge, with the first nine rounds determining the electors for the next round and the final round picking a winner. Five of the first eight rounds were decided not by election but by the drawing of lots. This injection of randomness into the process, the authors argue, conferred considerable advantages over proportional-representation or simple-majority systems, and may explain the republic’s great durability. The element of uncertainty forced electors to weigh minority opinions with special care; it also encouraged compromise and guarded against corruption. Moreover, by accepting an arduous selection process (which in the days before probability theory must have seemed highly arbitrary), Venice’s oligarchs demonstrated to the people their collective commitment to the republic.

“Electing the Doge of Venice: Analysis of a Thirteenth-Century Protocol,” Miranda Mowbray and Dieter Gollmann, IEEE Computer Security Foundations Symposium [PDF]

Psychology

How You Sleep Is Who You Are

Being a morning person or a night owl doesn’t just determine when you start or end your workday; your internal clock may help define your psychology as well. A Spanish researcher found that our preference for engaging in activities earlier or later in the day shapes both our perceptions and our interactions. The author gave personality tests to 360 university students, whom he describes as a “proper sample,” noting that the circadian rhythms of students “are not much under the influence of time schedules and social patterns.” (Despite the occasional all-nighter, students presumably can follow their preferred sleep schedules more easily than working adults can.) His results offer new evidence that morning and evening types think differently. Early risers prefer to gather knowledge from concrete information. They reach conclusions through logic and analysis. Night owls are more imaginative and open to unconventional ideas, preferring the unknown and favoring intuitive leaps on their way to reaching conclusions. Social behavior diverges as well: Morning people are more likely to be self-controlled and exhibit “upstanding” conduct; they respect authority, are more formal, and take greater pains to make a good impression. (Earlier research also suggests that they are less likely to hold radical political opinions.) Evening people, by contrast, are “independent” and “nonconforming,” and more reluctant to listen to authority—which suggests that teachers may have several reasons to prefer those students who wake up in time for class.

“Morning and Evening Types: Exploring Their Personality Styles,” Juan Francisco Díaz-Morales, Personality and Individual Differences

Society

Holy Social Networking, Batman!

One of the least-noticed powers of Marvel Comics heroes may be their superhuman ability to network. A physicist in Argentina mapped connections among 6,486 characters in 12,942 Marvel comic books and found that superheroes’ social connections —as measured by joint appearances in the same comic book —resemble those of computers, rather than those of your typical human being. Humans who have rich social networks tend to connect with others who have rich social networks. But superheroes tend to associate with many characters whose social networks are much smaller, in a pattern that resembles computer networks: a series of major hubs, each of which serves many clients that connect only to the hub. The author suggests that this pattern of social organization is due to the “Comics Authority Code” of the Comics Magazine Association of America, which explicitly forbids villains from occupying primary roles. Superheroes are required instead to face a succession of minor antagonists, limiting the exposure of a superhero like Spider-Man to the richly connected, social-butterfly types he’d likely catch in his web in real life.

—P. M. Gleiser, “How to Become a Superhero,” Centro Atomico Bariloche

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