The Atlantic Monthly | October 2003
Primary Sources

Selections from reports, studies, and other documents. This month: yet another way the rich are different; the gay-lesbian workplace divide; popular support for Russia's undemocratic President; TV violence, girls, and "indirect aggression"
Foreign Affairs

Putin's Progress

In June of 2001, after famously claiming to have looked into Vladimir Putin's soul, George W. Bush pronounced the Russian leader an "honest and straightforward man." Two years later, after having looked carefully into Putin's record, the human-rights group Freedom House has pronounced him a budding autocrat. Russia's score on Freedom House's Democratization Index has fallen for the fifth straight year, and now overall lags behind those of the other formerly communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The accompanying report paints a bleak picture of a state plagued by rebellion, economic turmoil, and rising xenophobia, with political power increasingly located "not in competing branches of government or the interplay of political parties but in the proximity of groups to the executive." This executive, of course, is Putin, who faces little opposition to his rule: the presidency dominates under the Russian constitution, and Putin operates outside the existing political parties, which are numerous but fractious and suffer from low membership rates and poor organization. The Russian press is nominally free, but two of the three national TV channels are government-owned, and self-censorship is on the rise; Freedom House reports that journalists critical of Putin face "specious audits, complicated legal battles, and even beatings and arrests." Most dispiriting of all, perhaps, is how the Russian public views these issues; only 14 percent call Russia a democracy, and two thirds regard the electoral system as window dressing, yet the public nevertheless continues to support Putin. A recent poll gave him a 77 percent approval rating, and many Russians favor extending his term from four years to seven. As one Russian newspaper put it, "People do not see any other figures in whom they can place their hopes for a better life."

"Nations in Transit 2003: Russia," Freedom House

The Nation

Gay Pay

Despite the near ubiquitous media image of gay men as affluent bons vivants, male homosexuals actually earn 22 percent less than similarly qualified heterosexual men, according to a recent study from the University of Texas. By comparison, lesbians on average earn 30 percent more than straight women, leading the study's authors to discount anti-gay workplace discrimination—which, they argue, would affect gays and lesbians equally—as an explanation for the wage gap. Instead they trace the gap to the overall male-female earning disparity, arguing that since men in general make more money than women, gay male couples can expect to draw on two relatively high incomes, so neither partner needs to earn as much as a straight man, who may need to compensate for his spouse's lower wages. Lesbian couples face the opposite situation, however, and respond by outearning straight women. The authors of the study wonder whether perhaps gay men settle for earning less than their straight counterparts because many of them, knowing that they have no plans to raise children, actively choose leisure over income and savings. And the authors also wonder whether the high earnings of lesbians could result from the belief among their employers that they will not stop working at any point in their careers to raise children—which, if true, might mean that "making one's lesbian status public may be an especially credible signal of loyalty or workforce attachment."

"Measuring the Effect of Sexual Orientation on Income: Evidence of Discrimination?," Nathan Berg (UT Dallas) and Donald Lien (UT San Antonio)

The Rich Are Different

Why tax the well-off? Because, two recent studies suggest, it's practically the only way to persuade them to spend money on anyone but themselves. Philanthropy isn't the answer: a survey from The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that Americans making $70,000 or more dispensed a paltry 3.3 percent of their earnings to charitable cuases; in contrast, those making $50,000 to $69,999 gave 5.6 percent, and those making $30,000 to $49,999 gave 8.9 percent. Only at death does the tightfistedness diminish—but even then it's the threat of the estate tax that awakens the philanthropic spirit. Or at least that's the conclusion of another new study, which predicts that deathbed donations will drop precipitously if the Bush Administration succeeds rolling back the estate tax. The study finds that the cost of such a repeal, in lost donations and bequests, could be as steep as $10 billion a year—the equivalent of the grants doled out annually by the nation's 110 largest foundations.

—"How Americans Give," The Chronicle of Philanthropy; "Effects of Estate Tax Reform on Charitable Giving," Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

Between a Woman and Her Pollster

The columnist Ellen Goodman likes to observe that American women support abortion rights in only three instances: "rape, incest, and me." Now a new survey of females attitudes by the feminist and firmly pro-choice Center for the Advancement of Women finds that 51 percent of American women believe that abortion should be either banned completely or permitted only in cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother, whereas just 30 percent favor having abortion "generally available to those who want it." When asked to pick "top priority" issues for the women's movement, just 41 percent of respondents picked "keeping abortion legal," which lagged far behind domestic violence, equal pay for equal work, child care, and health care for women. Significant opposition to abortion in most situations coexists, however, with the assumption that the practice will remain legal: a mere 26 percent of women believe that the Supreme Court is likely to place any restrictions on abortion in the near future.

"Progress and Perils: New Agenda for Women," Center for the Advancement of Women

Indirect Aggression

It's not just murder and mayhem that are linked to childhood exposure to TV violence. So are gossip, petty theft, and backstabbing—but only among girls. Researchers at the University of Michigan recently examined the relationship between TV-violence viewing among children aged six to ten and their behavior fifteen years later, and the researchers' findings suggest that childhood exposure to TV violence (along with a tendency to identify with aggressive TV characters and a belief that the violence seen on TV accurately represents real life) better predicts adult aggressiveness than does a child's initial aggressiveness, intellectual ability, or parents' educational background. But whereas exposure to violence on TV correlates with adult physical aggression in men and women alike, it correlates more strongly with "indirect aggression" in women. Thus girls exposed to considerable TV violence are more likely not only to grow up to shove, punch, beat, or choke other people but also to try to talk their friends into disliking someone who has angered them.

"Longitudinal Relations Between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology

Science and Technology

Paging Agent Mulder

The conspiracy geeks and Area 51 obsessives are right—the U.S. government is heavily invested in research projects that brush the borders of science fiction. But many of those ventures aren't top secret, so long as you're willing to wade through the latest budget statement for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which contains funding estimates for various projects, including some distinctly sinister-sounding ones. The spookiest of these is probably the "Brain Machine Interface Program," which promises to "create new technologies for augmenting human performance through the ability to access neural codes in the brain in real time and integrate them into peripheral device or system operations." In other words, if the project pans out (a rather large "if," to be sure), the soldier of the future will be a functional telepath, controlling equipment from a distance and perhaps even communicating "brain-to-brain" with his fellow soldiers. This may sound implausible, but an article about the project in the journal Nature reports that experiments on rats and monkeys have already yielded remarkable results: electrodes were implanted in the animals' motor cortexes, and when neurons in that region of the brain fired in certain patterns, the electrodes successfully transmitted a signal to operate a simple lever or robot arm. Meanwhile, neuroscientists in another part of the same program are attempting to transmit sounds and images directly into the brain's auditory cortex, and a third group is aiming to discover whether parts of the human brain can be replaced by silicon microchips. Such "memory implants" could enable the military to insert combat experience into a soldier's head—creating, with the other projects, the possibility that a fighter pilot could "upload" his training and then fly a plane from the ground, all the while following orders beamed from headquarters directly to his brain.

"Fiscal Year 2003 Budget Estimates," Department of Defense, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

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The Atlantic Monthly; October 2003; Primary Sources; Volume 292, No. 3; 48-49.