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.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The country’s exceptionally thin safety net prompts residents—especially those with less-steady employment—to view partnership in more economic terms.
Over the last several decades, the proportion of Americans who get married has greatly diminished—a development known as well to those who lament marriage’s decline as those who take issue with it as an institution. But a development that’s much newer is that the demographic now leading the shift away from tradition is Americans without college degrees—who just a few decades ago were much more likely to be married by the age of 30 than college graduates were.
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. The marriage gap for men has changed less over the years, but there the trend lines have flipped too: Twenty-five percent of men with high-school degrees or less education have never married, compared to 23 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees and 14 percent of those with advanced degrees. Meanwhile, divorce rates have continued to rise among the less educated, while staying more or less steady for college graduates in recent decades.
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
Many presidential appointees face an agonizing choice—leave the president with fewer restraints on his darker impulses, or stay to serve the republic even if it costs their integrity.
John Kelly’s stricken look, head slumped on chest, as President Trump brayed a defense of the “fine people” on both sides in a Charlottesville march of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, said it all. A man raised to believe in a code of decency and honor had to endure language from his boss which would have earned one of Kelly’s Marine lieutenants the chewing-out of a lifetime. And he had to listen knowing that despite his efforts to instill discipline in the White House, he could expect more rhetoric—lies, bombast, and provocation—that would inflame some of the worst memories and darkest impulses of the American soul. If Kelly had not chosen to be there fully aware of who Donald Trump is, one might have felt sorry for him.
Life inside North Korea's Camp 14 so twisted 13-year-old Shin In Geun that he betrayed his mother and only brother.
Life inside North Korea's Camp 14 so twisted 13-year-old Shin In Geun that he betrayed his mother and only brother.
A North Korean soldier patrols inside the fence of a prison camp near the Chinese border / AP
Nine years after watching his mother's hanging, Shin In Geun
squirmed through the electric fence that surrounds Camp 14 and ran off through
the snow into the North Korean wilderness. It was January 2, 2005. Before then,
no one born in a North Korean political prison camp had ever escaped. As far as
can be determined, Shin is still the only one to do it.
He was 23 years old and knew no one outside the fence.
Within a month, he had walked into China. Within two years, he was living in
South Korea. Four years later, he was living in Southern California.
Jen Hatmaker says the “days of silence are over” in polite evangelical culture.
By her own estimation, Jen Hatmaker is “low-grade Christian famous.” She has written 12 books, starred in an HGTV series with her family, built a large social-media following, and gone on tour with other prominent female Christian writers.
In some circles, Hatmaker is also controversial. Last fall, she told the writer Jonathan Merritt she thinks LGBT relationships can be holy. LifeWay, a large Christian retailer, pulled her books from their stores. Some of her followers were “angry or shocked or confused,” she said, and her interview set off a round of debate on the authority of evangelical women in ministry. This spring, Hatmaker wrote on her blog that she has “[become] painfully aware of the machine, the Christian Machine.”
The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history.
When did America become untethered from reality?
I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books.
Dan McLaughlin got famous for valuing hard practice over talent. Then he didn’t reach his goal.
Dan McLaughlin reckons he’s sat down to compose the farewell post to the Dan Plan a hundred times. “I just don’t know what to write,” he says.
Sitting in his spartan home in Portland, Oregon, McLaughlin is self-effacing and soft-spoken. He recently launched an artisanal soft-drink venture. Discussing the Dan Plan is like reaching back into another life: Seven-plus years ago, aged 30 and unsure even of which hand to grip a golf club in, McLaughlin quit his job as a commercial photographer, took in lodgers to cover the mortgage, husbanded his savings for green fees, and set out to make the PGA Tour, home to the world’s elite golfers.
He created a catchily named blog to document his quest, and in short order the Dan Plan commanded magazines spreads and TV spots. Along the way, it drew an avid community of followers riveted by the spectacle of a regular Joe living out an everyman fantasy. No less captivated: a salon of leading figures from the science of learning and human performance.