Primary Sources

Grade inflation at Cornell; what the Saudis are teaching Muslims in America; what the UN does better than the United States


Coalition of the Generous

Late last year the Congressional Research Service set out to quantify international contributions to the rebuilding of Iraq, and found that some of the biggest checks have been written, or at least promised, by Iraq's neighbors. Kuwait has donated $1.5 billion to the reconstruction effort, making it second only to Japan among nations other than the United States; and Saudi Arabia, with pledges and loans of around $1 billion, matches the United Kingdom for the third largest contribution. Significant aid has also flowed in from Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. As for the European countries that opposed the war, Germany has donated $155 million—whereas the French have put up only $10.7 million, barely edging out the $10 million donation from … Iran.

"Post-War Iraq: A Table and Chronology of Foreign Contributions," J. M. Sharp, Congressional Research Service


Sexual Pension?

George W. Bush might have better luck getting the American people to support changes in Social Security if he cast his argument in different terms—for instance, by arguing that Social Security is partly responsible for the nation's birth dearth, as two new studies from the National Bureau of Economic Research imply. The first study reviewed data from fifty-seven countries, and found that pay-as-you-go pension systems like Social Security depress fertility—and also saving and investment in human capital more generally—because they fix old-age income at a set amount, making it independent of both one's personal contributions and the contributions of one's children. The second study compared fertility rates over the past half century in America and Europe; it found that they have been consistently lower in Europe (and the gap is widening), and suggested that Europe's much larger system of government-funded pensions accounts for up to 60 percent of the difference. Given that Europe's drop in fertility rates poses a far greater demographic and economic challenge than that in the United States, a pension-privatization plan might meet with a warmer reception on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Social Security, Demographic Trends, and Economic Growth: Theory and Evidence From the International Experience," I. Ehrlich and J. Kim, NBER; "Fertility and Social Security," M. Boldrin et al., NBER


Gut Check
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In 1997 Cornell University began posting median grades for every course online, so that students could put their own grades in a larger perspective. (After all, an A in "Physics for Poets" is presumably less impressive than an A in "Physics for Physicists.") The university's theory—which reveals an astonishing naiveté about human nature—was that this would encourage students to choose more-challenging courses. Instead, according to a paper published early this year by two Cornell economists, the policy provided a case study in how to pump up GPAs. Armed with accurate, official grading information, students used it to pick easy classes and avoid difficult ones: once-hidden guts were now readily identified, enrollment in them ballooned, and since the new policy was instituted the overall rate of grade inflation—already a subject of concern at Cornell, as in the academic world in general—has more than doubled.

"Quest for Knowledge and Pursuit of Grades: Grade Information and Inflation at an Ivy League School," Talia Bar and Asaf Zussman, Cornell University

Steal From Gay Muslims

Saudi Arabia has long been generous to Muslims in America. Not only does the House of Saud supply funding to build mosques in the United States, but it provides a wealth of religious literature to stock those mosques' libraries and study halls. What does that literature say? Representatives from the human-rights organization Freedom House spent a year sampling Saudi-supplied literature at mosques in major American cities, and encountered a variety of troubling texts. Among other things, Muslims are urged to avoid befriending Jews and Christians; to treat their time in the United States as they would a trip behind enemy lines; to revile Sufism, Shia, and other non-Wahhabi variants of Islam; to rob and inflict violence on Muslims who engage in homosexual acts; and to kill Muslims who convert to other faiths. The usual anti-Semitic slurs are recycled (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for instance, is treated as a historical document in Saudi-donated textbooks), and many of the publications urge that women be required to wear veils and banned from various jobs. The report allows that most of these documents were supplied in the 1980s and 1990s, and that the government of Saudi Arabia claims to be "updating" its books and study materials. But the researchers add that the titles in question remain "widespread and plentiful" in the United States, and continue to be used in the education of Muslims here.

"Saudi Publications on Hate Ideology Invade American Mosques," Freedom House


Good News for Kofi
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Following up on a widely read 2003 report on U.S. nation-building efforts, the RAND Corporation has released a study of United Nations peacekeeping missions. It concludes that in many cases the UN is better suited than the United States to lead stability-building operations. The UN has a low cost structure, a high success rate, and, perhaps most important, "the greatest degree of international legitimacy" among possible peacekeepers. It has also done a better job of learning from the past than the United States—which, though it had successful experiences with nation-building in the 1990s (in Bosnia, Kosovo, and to a lesser degree Haiti), failed to apply their lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whereas UN operations are typically led by veterans of earlier missions, the authors argue, the United States "tends to staff each new operation as if it were its first and destined to be its last." And in Iraq, they write, American civil administrators were "late to arrive, of mixed competence, and not available in adequate numbers." The study also faults America for relying on "grandiloquent" rhetoric rather than careful diplomacy to build support for its missions. Of course, UN operations are not without weaknesses; they tend to be undermanned and underfunded, with military personnel of uneven quality, whereas U.S. missions benefit from greater access to donors and funds. In the end the UN may have a better success rate in part because the operations it undertakes are less demanding than those led by the United States. UN missions are limited to countries where no "forced entry" is required, the conflicting parties cooperate with the peacekeepers to some degree, and the number of troops needed is no greater than 20,000. East Timor and Mozambique, in other words—not Iraq.

"The UN's Role in Nation-Building: From the Congo to Iraq," J. Dobbins et al., RAND


The Black Death Versus HIV

Did one famous plague help protect Europe against another? So suggests a study published in the Journal of Medical Genetics, which reports that about 10 percent of Europe's present-day population seems to be resistant to HIV—a significantly higher proportion than on other continents. Researchers have traced this immunity to a genetic mutation that seems to have appeared some 2,500 years ago, and that protects white blood cells against penetration by HIV. In the mid fourteenth century, when the first outbreak of the Black Death occurred, the mutation showed up in only one of about 20,000 Europeans. From that point through the seventeenth century, however, its prevalence increased, in tandem with repeated outbreaks of the plague. The researchers suggest that the mutation protected against the disease, which culled the population of people who lacked it. This would explain why HIV resistance is more common in Scandinavia and Russia (16 percent of Russians, for example, have the mutation) than in southern Europe (in Sardinia only four percent do): the plague lingered in northern Europe far longer than in the Mediterranean region. The theory that an anti-viral mutation was selected for during the era of the Black Death calls into question the long-held notion that the plague was caused by rat-carried bacteria.

"Reappraisal of the Historical Selective Pressures for the CCR5-{Delta}32 Mutation," S. R. Duncan et al., Journal of Medical Genetics

The Measure of Men
primary sources chart Asian men are typically shorter and slighter than their Western counterparts. But a recent study of Taiwanese men found that they are more comfortable with their appearance than men in Western countries, who, when asked to pick the male body type they think women find most attractive, tend to select one that is about twenty pounds more muscled-up than they perceive their own to be. Taiwanese men thought that women would prefer a male form that was only ten pounds more muscular than they estimated their own to be. The study also noted that Taiwanese magazine advertisements rarely portray undressed or semi-dressed Asian men, whereas ads in U.S. magazines frequently show undressed or semi-dressed Western men—which could help account for why Taiwanese appear less preoccupied than Westerners with male body image. The researchers suggest that these findings explain why "muscle dysmorphia" (a condition in which people perceive themselves as smaller than they actually are) and anabolic-steroid abuse are far less common in East Asia than in the United States and Europe.

"Male Body Image in Taiwan Versus the West: Yanggang Zhiqi Meets the Adonis Complex," C. F. Yang et al., American Journal of Psychiatry