Primary Sources

How gay marriage could reduce the federal deficit; what your eleven-year-old has in common with presidential debaters; Cuba's looming chaos


Cuba Not-So-Libre

Americans (and Cubans) who have been waiting a long time for Fidel Castro to die assume that Cuba's Communist dictatorship will pass into history along with its founder. This is almost certainly a mistake, according to the RAND analysis "Cuba After Castro," which calls even a democratic-leaning post-Castro government a "remote possibility." Forty-five years of Communist rule—particularly the fifteen lean years since the Soviet collapse—have ravaged Cuba's economy and civil society; any would-be democratizer will have to cope with rising discrimination and racial inequality, disaffected youth, and an atmosphere of pervasive distrust and alienation. Worse, Cuba's population, like Western Europe's, is rapidly aging—and Cuba's lack of resources and infrastructure leaves it far less well equipped to cope with a shrinking labor force and an expanding pensioner class. The study's authors argue that given all these obstacles, and the absence of any anti-Castro organization with a serious claim to political legitimacy, the most likely fate for post-Castro Cuba is some form of military rule, perhaps similar to the Jaruzelski regime in 1980s Poland. Bleak as this prospect sounds, it's better than a scenario in which Cuba becomes a lawless "failed state" like Haiti, forcing the United States to choose between military intervention and a humanitarian crisis that sends floods of migrants toward American shores.

"Cuba After Castro: Legacies, Challenges, and Impediments," Edward Gonzalez and Kevin F. McCarthy, RAND Corporation

Waving the Bloody Jpeg

The mainstream press has shied away from showing the most graphic images from the Iraq War—the beheading of hostages, the Abu Ghraib atrocities, the murdered American contractors. But the media blackout hasn't kept the increasingly Web-savvy public from viewing them. According to a recent survey, some 30 million people—or 24 percent of all adult Internet users—report having seen images online of graphic violence in Iraq that have been kept out of other media, and 28 percent of those have logged on with the express intention of tracking such images down. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea for these images to be available online: just 29 percent of women approve, for example, compared with 53 percent of men. The gender gap grows among those who have actually sampled such photos: 68 percent of men report being glad to have seen them, and 55 percent of women report wishing they hadn't.

"The Internet as a Unique News Source," Deborah Fallows and Lee Rainie, Pew Internet & American Life Project


The Making of the President—of Sixth Grade

Just how smart are American voters? If the way politicians address the electorate is any measure, about as sharp as a middle school student. Taking into account factors including grammar, word choice, and sentence length, the language Web site found that during the 2000 debates George W. Bush and Al Gore spoke, respectively, at a sixth- and a high seventh-grade level. (The Lincoln- Douglas debates were carried out at about a twelfth-grade level.) And the Bush-Gore contest actually marked a slight uptick after almost two decades of decline. As disheartening as this sounds (it's safe to say that most Americans would prefer leaders with post-pubescent rhetorical skills), the voters themselves inspire more confidence. At the third debate in 2000, in a "town meeting" setting where Bush and Gore responded to questions from the audience, the candidates logged their lowest scores of the campaign (low sixth grade for Bush, high seventh grade for Gore). The audience's questions, in contrast, were at the ninth-grade level on average.

"Presidential Debates Mirror Long-term School Decline," Robert Beard and Paul JJ Payack,


The Varieties of Consumer Experience

Do the forty varieties of coffee for sale in your local Starbucks mean that America's standard of living is significantly higher than we think? That's the case made by a pair of economists from Columbia and New York's Federal Reserve Bank, in a paper that highlights the role globalization plays not only in reducing prices for goods but also in dramatically increasing the variety of goods for sale. In 1972, they note, the United States imported 74,667 varieties of 7,731 goods from around the world; in 2001 it imported 259,215 varieties of 16,390 goods. The significance of this increase lies in the inherent value of variety to consumers, who are willing to pay higher prices not only for higher quality but also for greater choice. The authors estimate that the explosion of variety in imports has created a heretofore unmeasured increase in national economic well-being, equivalent to a 2.8 percent spike in annual GDP—adding the equivalent of roughly $300 billion in value to the U.S. economy, and to the lives of gourmet-coffee drinkers, anime aficionados, and imported-beer connoisseurs everywhere.

"Globalization and the Gains From Variety," Christian Broda and David Weinstein, Federal Reserve Bank of New York


Writer, Read Thyself

Reading is in sharp decline in the United States, according to "Reading at Risk," a doom-laced report from the National Endowment for the Arts. The report draws on census data showing that the percentage of the adult American population reading "literature"—defined somewhat snobbishly as fiction, plays, and poetry—has dropped by seven points in the past decade, and ten points since 1982, to its current low of 47 percent. (The decline is steep among men, only a third of whom now report reading literature regularly, and among young adults, with the group aged eighteen to twenty-four seeing a particularly sharp drop.) The picture seems less dire, however, when one considers that the reading of all books, nonfiction included, dropped by only four points over the past decade—suggesting that readers' tastes are increasingly turning toward nonfiction. It's not for want of would-be novelists and poets: the number of people who claim to do "creative writing" has risen from around 11 million to nearly 15 million since 1982, meaning that a full seven percent of the adult population is currently churning out writing for an ever diminishing pool of readers.

"Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," National Endowment for the Arts

Crimes of the Heart

It's often said that half of all marriages end in divorce, but there's an upside, according to a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research: at least they aren't ending in unnatural death. The study, which looked at the impact of divorce law on family violence since 1969, finds that states permitting unilateral, "no-fault" divorce—whereby either spouse may initiate separation proceedings for any reason—saw female suicide rates decline by around 20 percent over a twenty-year period (male suicide rates stayed relatively constant). The passage of unilateral-divorce legislation also correlated with large declines in domestic violence: male-on-female abuse dropped by 36 percent over ten years, female-on-male abuse dropped by 24 percent, and the number of women murdered by their husbands dropped as well. (No conclusive impact on the number of husbands murdered by their wives was found.) People aren't just using divorce to escape miserable or abusive marriages, the study's authors argue; rather, the presence of an easy path to divorce may have "changed the bargaining power in marriages," by offering unhappy spouses a way out, and giving their partners an incentive to improve their behavior. "In a society in which people can leave abusive partners," the authors suggest, "spouses may be less likely to be abusive."

"Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress," Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, NBER

The Revenue That Dare Not Speak Its Name

While most people are wondering how gay marriage might influence American culture, the family, and the institution of marriage, the Congressional Budget Office has calculated what it might do to the deficit. If America's approximately 600,000 cohabiting homosexual couples tied the knot and the federal government recognized their marriages, the CBO finds, the effect on taxes and spending would cut the deficit by $350 million to $450 million annually over the next five years. A large proportion of the new crop of joint tax filers would be hit with the marriage penalty, raising Uncle Sam's share of their earnings. Meanwhile, spending outlays for Social Security and health care would increase only modestly or, under some assumptions, actually decline. But before socially liberal deficit hawks reach for another snort of champagne, they should remember that the windfall from same-sex marriage is insignificant alongside a federal deficit expected to hit $445 billion for fiscal 2004.

"The Potential Budgetary Impact of Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages," Congressional Budget Office

A Nation of (German) Immigrants

They lost two world wars, but they conquered America. According to a recent Census Bureau report, when asked their ancestral ethnicity, 43 million Americans chose German, which beat out the runner-up, Irish, by more than 10 million. (The next most commonly cited ethnicities were African-American and English, with roughly 25 million each, followed in descending order by Mexican, Italian, Polish, French, and American Indian.) Teutonic dominance used to be even greater: from 1990 to 2000 the German-identifying share of the population decreased from 23 percent to 15 percent, and the other major Northern European groups suffered smaller but significant dips. The groups that grew the most in percentage terms were Latin Americans (particularly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans) and Asians (with Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos leading the way), and also those describing themselves more generally as Hispanic, African, European, or white. Good news for those who fear looming ethnic balkanization: the number of people who called their ancestry simply "American" grew by eight million, to roughly 20 million, during the 1990s, in the largest numerical increase for any group.

"Ancestry: 2000," U.S. Census Bureau