As March spills into April, the "dead animals in Chinese rivers" toll seems to have stabilized: recent reports indicate that the over 16,000 dead pigs have been joined by 1,000 dead ducks and, rather ominously, 13 dead black swans. The discovery of so many carcasses has elicited no small amount of public concern in China, as well as mockery elsewhere -- even Jay Leno got into the act.
So, how the hell did this happen? Here are a few ideas:
1. There are a lot of pigs in China. A lot of people, too. But, seriously, a lot of pigs.
China has more people than any other country in the world, and even those with only a passing knowledge of Chinese cuisine are aware of the central role that pork plays. Unsurprisingly, as a result, there are a lot of pigs in China -- around 700 million, according to a MarketWatch estimate. By contrast, the United States, a country with around a quarter of China's population, has a mere 70 million porkers; and we Americans love our bacon. So it perhaps isn't too surprising that the country with a dead pig crisis is also the same one that consumes half of the world's pork. However, in China you also have....
2. ...a highly fragmented agricultural sector.
As in other developing countries, a lot of Chinese people work in agriculture -- roughly 37 percent of the population, in fact, in comparison to 0.7 percent in the United States and 1.4 percent in the United Kingdom. Many of these farmers work on tiny parcels of land rather than on large commercial farms and correspondingly raise a small number of livestock.
This fragmentation has a number of consequences. For one, the sheer number of farms makes government regulation extremely difficult owing to enormous differences in seed quality, pesticide use, and water sources. This, according to economic analyst Rich Brubaker, "creates pressure on distributors and consolidators to separate the different quality levels," giving the unscrupulous and desperate a prime opportunity to shirk on quality control.
Secondly, the small size of the farms means that there just isn't a lot of room to bury dead pigs -- especially if a lot of pigs all die at the same time from an illness. The Chinese government actually compensates large-scale farmers for their dead pigs, but this only applies to those farmers who have more than 50 on their farm, leaving out the many millions of small-scale players in the market. Therefore, a farmer with fewer than 50 pigs faces a choice when confronted with a carcass: either give the pig up to the government for processing (and get nothing for their trouble) or sell the carcass to a "dealer" who would "fix" the meat and slip it into the food supply. Understandably, many farmers chose the latter option, and that worked fine until ...
3. ... China cracked down on illegal pig meat.
Responding to political pressure to avoid food supply scandals, local authorities in Jiaxing recently cracked down on these "dead pig merchants", tossing three of them in jail for life for selling dead and/or diseased pigs to market. As a result, small-scale farmers in the area lost their one outlet for financial compensation, turning a once-lucrative dead pig into a deadweight loss. At this point, then, the fast-flowing river nearby looked like a pretty attractive solution to an annoying (and smelly) dead pig problem.
Can the government make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again? The agriculture sector is consolidating, as millions of Chinese leave the countryside for the cities each year. Bigger farms will create economies of scale and standardization -- leading to cheaper, more reliable pork for Chinese consumers -- and will perverse incentives to dump dead livestock in the river. The dead pig problem is then, like teenage acne, just another awkward byproduct of China's rapid growth spurt.
Then again, there are legitimate concerns that China's political system makes it more susceptible to these types of incidents than other countries. When news of the dead pig fiasco broke, the Communist Party immediately declared that Shanghai's water supply was safe and later, in a characteristically paranoid attempt at information control, quashed a planned protest. This behavior follows a clear pattern in China in the case of environmental catastrophe, and is one of the single leading causes of anti-government sentiment in the country.
A second problem is inefficiency. China's government has a reputation in the West for being streamlined and effective, able to implement complex policies without any of the gridlock that characterizes American and European politics. However, this competence masks the fact that, like any enormous bureaucracy, the Communist Party is riddled with inefficiencies. According to a report in the South China Morning Post, "the Ministry of Agriculture oversees the raising of hogs, while butchering is the province of the Ministry of Commerce. And at least four different departments are responsible for the quality of pork." While attempts at consolidating relevant government organizations are apparently underway, these overlapping jurisdictions are extremely common in China, making it easy for officials to pass the blame in the event of a mess-up.
No country is immune to environmental catastrophes, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to draw conclusions to them. Hurricane Katrina in the United States resulted from a terrible storm -- but also from a chronic government underinvestment in infrastructure as well as an incompetent federal emergency-management organization. China's dead pigs can be dismissed as simply an unintended consequence of a government crackdown, but this misses the larger point: China's government seems unable to prevent the environmental catastrophes that most threaten their hold on power.
Plagues, revolutions, massive wars, collapsed states—these are what reliably reduce economic disparities.
Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.
The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
Two historians weigh in on how to understand the new administration, press relations, and this moment in political time.
The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.
To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum
“The question confronting us as a nation is as consequential as any we have faced since the late 1940s,” a group of Republican and Democratic experts write.
Ben Rhodes, one of Barack Obama’s top advisers, once dismissed the American foreign-policy establishment—those ex-government officials and think-tank scholars and journalists in Washington, D.C. who advocate for a particular vision of assertive U.S. leadership in the world—as the “Blob.” Donald Trump had harsher words. As a presidential candidate, he vowed never to take advice on international affairs from “those who have perfect resumes but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Both men pointed to one of the Beltway establishment’s more glaring errors: support for the war in Iraq.
Now the Blob is fighting back. The “establishment” has been unfairly “kicked around,” said Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former official in the Reagan administration. As World War II gave way to the Cold War, President Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, “invented a foreign policy and sold it successfully to the American people. That’s what containment was and that’s what the Truman Doctrine was. … That was the foreign-policy establishment.” During that period, the U.S. government also helped create a system for restoring order to a world riven by war and economic crisis. That system, which evolved over the course of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, includes an open international economy; U.S. military and diplomatic alliances in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East; and liberal rules and institutions (human rights, the United Nations, and so on).
The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald Trump could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism.
It’s 2021, and President Donald Trump will shortly be sworn in for his second term. The 45th president has visibly aged over the past four years. He rests heavily on his daughter Ivanka’s arm during his infrequent public appearances.
Fortunately for him, he did not need to campaign hard for reelection. His has been a popular presidency: Big tax cuts, big spending, and big deficits have worked their familiar expansive magic. Wages have grown strongly in the Trump years, especially for men without a college degree, even if rising inflation is beginning to bite into the gains. The president’s supporters credit his restrictive immigration policies and his TrumpWorks infrastructure program.
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A $100 million gangster epic starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci has become too risky a proposition for major studios.
Martin Scorsese’s next project, The Irishman, is as close as you can get to a box-office guarantee for the famed director. It’s a gangster film based on a best-selling book about a mob hitman who claimed to have a part in the legendary disappearance of the union boss Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro is attached to play the hitman, Al Pacino will star as Hoffa, and Scorsese favorites Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel are also on board. After Scorsese branched into more esoteric territory this year with Silence, a meditative exploration of faith and Catholicism, The Irishman sounds like a highly bankable project—the kind studios love. And yet, the film is going to Netflix, which will bankroll its $100 million budget and distribute it around the world on the company’s streaming service.
In late 2015, in the Chilean desert, astronomers pointed a telescope at a faint, nearby star known as ared dwarf. Amid the star’s dim infrared glow, they spotted periodic dips, a telltale sign that something was passing in front of it, blocking its light every so often. Last summer, the astronomers concluded the mysterious dimming came from three Earth-sized planets—and that they were orbiting in the star’s temperate zone, where temperatures are not too hot, and not too cold, but just right for liquid water, and maybe even life.
This was an important find. Scientists for years had focused on stars like our sun in their search for potentially habitable planets outside our solar system. Red dwarfs, smaller and cooler than the sun, were thought to create inhospitable conditions. They’re also harder to see, detectable by infrared rather than visible light. But the astronomers aimed hundreds of hours worth of observations at this dwarf, known as TRAPPIST-1 anyway, using ground-based telescopes around the world and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
You can tell a lot about a person from how they react to something.
That’s why Facebook’s various “Like” buttons are so powerful. Clicking a reaction icon isn’t just a way to register an emotional response, it’s also a way for Facebook to refine its sense of who you are. So when you “Love” a photo of a friend’s baby, and click “Angry” on an article about the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl, you’re training Facebook to see you a certain way: You are a person who seems to love babies and hate Tom Brady.
The more you click, the more sophisticated Facebook’s idea of who you are becomes. (Remember: Although the reaction choices seem limited now—Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry—up until around this time last year, there was only a “Like” button.)
Neither truck drivers nor bankers would put up with a system like the one that influences medical residents’ schedules.
The path to becoming a doctor is notoriously difficult. Following pre-med studies and four years of medical school, freshly minted M.D.s must spend anywhere from three to seven years (depending on their chosen specialty) training as “residents” at an established teaching hospital. Medical residencies are institutional apprenticeships—and are therefore structured to serve the dual, often dueling, aims of training the profession’s next generation and minding the hospital’s labor needs.
How to manage this tension between “education and service” is a perennial question of residency training, according to Janis Orlowski, the chief health-care officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Orlowski says that the amount of menial labor residents are required to perform, known in the profession as “scut work,” has decreased "tremendously" since she was a resident in the 1980s. But she acknowledges that even "institutions that are committed to education … constantly struggle with this,” trying to stay on the right side of the boundary between training and taking advantage of residents.