The Jewish Head Start
When Roman soldiers destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple in AD 70, they unknowingly planted the seeds of centuries of Jewish flourishing. The temple’s destruction shifted power within Judaism from the high priests who had governed temple life to the widely scattered rabbis and religious scholars devoted to studying the Torah. Henceforth, every upstanding Jewish man would learn to read the Torah, the scholarly authorities ruled, and Jewish families would send their sons to school.
By learning to read and write, Jews transformed themselves into marketable assets in a largely illiterate world. Maristella Botticini, an economist at Università Bocconi in Milan, and Zvi Eckstein, an economist at Tel Aviv University, say that these skills led the Jews to carve out a lasting niche in finance, trade, and business that brought them wealth and carried them to the ends of the earth.
Judaism’s new requirements cost it dearly at first. Jewish farmers in the Near East had neither the money to learn to read nor much use for the skill. After the destruction of the Second Temple, some converted to Christianity and other faiths that imposed no reading requirement, helping to reduce the Jewish population between the third and sixth centuries AD.
But the literate Jews who endured soon prospered. After the birth of Islam in the seventh century, the Muslim caliphs built a vast empire, boosting urbanization, manufactures, and trade. Botticini and Eckstein note... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
“Spectacular” is not too strong a word to describe the reduction in poverty around the world during the past quarter-century. Between 1981 and 2005, world gross domestic product quadrupled. The percentage of the global population living on less than $1.25 fell by half.
That reduction resulted mostly from people being lifted out of poverty, and in the popular mind, that’s where the story ends. But it doesn’t. One-third of the world’s poor were not born in poverty. They fell into it.
New policies need to be preventive—focused on stemming the flow of people into the ranks of the newly poor, argues Anirudh Krishna, a public policy professor at Duke. He and several colleagues surveyed more than 35,000 households in Uganda, Kenya, Peru, India, and the United States over a nine-year period (2001–10). Poverty, they found, is sticky. Sixty percent of those who had fallen into poverty 15 or more years before they were surveyed were still poor.
Krishna and his colleagues isolated one reason: the cost of medical care. In the Indian state of Gujarat, 88 percent of the households that slipped into poverty attributed their plight to health care costs. A Peruvian man told of losing his wife to uterine cancer: “I was obliged to sell my animals, cows, oxen, and donkeys, and I also went into debt in order to care for her, and later, to bury her.” It’s not just the developing world: Medical expenses are to blame for... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Blues prophet Robert Johnson (1911–38) and other early blues guitarists captivated listeners with a new way of playing their instrument. Sliding a steel bar or other hard object over the strings to change the guitar’s pitch, they created a sound eerily like that of a weeping or singing human voice. Later blues and rock musicians such as Muddy Waters (1915–83) and Bonnie Raitt (b. 1949) would further improvise on the sound.
Scholars have mostly agreed that the slide style was directly influenced by the “diddley bow” or “jitter-bug,” a single-stringed instrument they say was carried to America by West African slaves. The more likely story, John W. Troutman argues, is that the musical technique popularized in the Mississippi Delta came from traveling Native Hawaiian musicians. Tracing the proliferation of their playing style, writes Troutman, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and weekend steel guitarist, once again underlines just how many ethnic and racial groups have shaped southern culture.
In the 19th century, the American South was just one of a number of regions around the world experiencing an influx of newcomers. Half a world away, Honolulu harbor received a steady stream of “sailors, whalers, merchants, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and laborers from distant lands such as the United States, Portugal, Mexico, and Japan,” as well as cowboys from Latin America brought in to wrangle cattle... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Double Helix Destiny
What gives rich societies their mojo? Scholars who look for the roots of economic development offer an array of answers: Culture, history, or geography push a country toward prosperity, they claim.
Quamrul Ashraf and Oded Galor, economists at Williams College and Brown University, respectively, propose an entirely different explanation: genetic diversity. They say the range of a given population’s genes—determined 70,000 to 90,000 years ago when humans first journeyed out of East Africa—played a decisive role in determining which lands would hit the economic jackpot.
In a process known as the serial founder effect, populations closer (via land migration routes) to modern-day Ethiopia, where the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens has been found, had higher levels of genetic diversity than groups that settled farther away. The nearer societies had more “founders”—or early settlers—and therefore more genetic variation. When smaller groups peeled off and ventured into Europe and Asia, they carried a smaller gene pool with them. It shrank further when humans trekked to the Americas.
This made all the difference. Societies flourish when their populations have just enough genetic diversity, but not too much. (Geneticists gauge genetic diversity with “expected heterozygosity,” which measures the likelihood that two people within a group will have, say, a difference in eye color or some other heritable trait.)... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
America the Strong
It’s rare to find agreement in academia, but when it comes to the grand strategy of the United States, there is near unanimity among security scholars: America is too dominant and too domineering for its own good. The cash-strapped and war-weary United States ought to cut its bloated defense budget and pull back from its “globe-girdling” foreign policy, a chorus of scholars implores.
Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, government professors at Dartmouth, and G. John Ikenberry, a political scientist at Princeton, say their colleagues are all wet: The United States mustn’t retreat. The nation is at its safest, richest, and most influential when it flexes its muscles far beyond North America.
“Deep engagement,” as Brooks and colleagues call U.S. strategy today, gets a bad rap, they say, from scholars who overlook its benefits. America’s vast network of military bases and alliances in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East prevents a foreign power from dominating all of Eurasia (and therefore menacing the United States). The strategy ensures American economic well-being by guarding global stability and keeping shipping lanes open. And deep engagement greases the squeaky wheels of diplomacy. When the United States wants to ink a free-trade deal or isolate a rogue state, its allies cooperate, lest they lose the perks of American friendship, such as American-made weaponry or U.S. security guarantees.
America plays nice with... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Stimulus or Wish List?
During the bleakest days of the recession, in February 2009, President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law. Congress and the president promised relief for the unemployed and other down-on-their-luck Americans.
But according to political scientists James G. Gimpel and Frances E. Lee of the University of Maryland, College Park, and Rebecca U. Thorpe, of the University of Washington, the areas of the country hit hardest by the downturn actually got a smaller share of the discretionary portion of the federal goodies than more fortunate regions.
Most of the stimulus money wasn’t geographically targeted, going for food stamps, tax cuts, and other general purposes. The authors focused on the remaining $308 billion. That works out to $917 per capita for the average county. But some of the worst-hit regions fared poorly. In Florida, which was wracked by home foreclosures and unemployment, all but three counties received less than the average amount of stimulus money per capita. The Midwest, where industry struggled to stay afloat during the recession, also largely missed out.
What was at work? Despite Republican charges of pork barrel politics—conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh dubbed the bill a “porkulus” measure—the authors found little evidence to support this characterization. Democratic legislators on powerful committees didn’t succeed in bringing home undue... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Japanese robotocist Hiroshi Ishiguro is building androids to understand humans—
starting with himself. (Photo by Makoto Ishida).
Subtly but surely, robots are making their way into our everyday lives. By some estimates, 8.5 million service robots are already in use worldwide, doing a wide range of tasks such as performing surgery, milking cows, and handling meat. They don’t resemble the friendly characters promised by science fiction, such as C-3PO from Star Wars and Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons. But in a not-too-distant future, that may change. Robots will serve up our daily java at Starbucks and assist people with physical therapy. “But,” writes Erico Guizzo, associate editor of IEEE Spectrum, “to be accepted in these roles, robots may have to behave less like machines and more like us.”
Generations of questioning churchgoers have struggled to accept the teachings of Christianity, as have, inevitably, some clergy. The stakes are certainly higher for the latter. What does it mean to be a nonbelieving pastor?
Escaping the Ghetto
What if the people living in America’s most impoverished ghettos could be moved en masse to better neighborhoods? Would a more favorable environment improve their lives? A new study suggests some surprising answers.
During the 1990s, a federal program called Moving to Opportunity offered housing vouchers to some 4,600 households in high-poverty city neighborhoods that allowed them to find apartments in better areas. More than 10 years later, Jens Ludwig, a professor of law and policy at the University of Chicago, went back with six colleagues to find out how the program participants had fared.
Moving to Opportunity didn’t have the effects its creators had hoped. Ludwig and his colleagues found that the participants—about half of whom actually took advantage of the vouchers—enjoyed no increase in “economic self-sufficiency” compared with a control group. There was some improvement in a “broad index of physical health measures,” but not enough to be statistically significant. There was a “marginally significant” increase in mental health.
By one measure, however, moving out and up made a world of difference: happiness. The “subjective well-being” of those who used the vouchers, measured by a survey the researchers carried out, soared after they moved. This was true even if they went to neighborhoods only somewhat better off than the ones they left behind (in which half the residents were poor... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Hidden Roots of the Financial Crisis
Don’t blame greedy bankers and hedge fund managers for everything that went wrong in the financial crisis of 2007–08. Decades of poorly conceived government policies set the stage by channeling money into consumer borrowing.
A crucial step, writes Louis Hyman, a historian at Cornell’s ILR School, was the creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) during the Great Depression. Previously, mortgage finance had been the domain of local banks, constrained by local resources. The new institutions tapped much larger sources of capital. The FHA insured mortgage loans, and Fannie Mae bought mortgages from banks and resold them to investors. Under the FHA’s Title I program, moreover, the agency insured small home-improvement loans to consumers. In 1935, lenders committed nearly a half billion dollars to loans for home improvements, an amount several times greater than the budget of the New Deal’s Public Works Administration.
All of these measures unlocked desperately needed capital and helped the economy, but there were other effects. Commercial banks in the past had been wary of lending to consumers; the new federal financial infrastructure encouraged the banks to dip their toes into that market. And to the degree they did they siphoned credit away from small and medium-sized businesses.
The real problems began in the 1960s, Hyman says, “as federal policymakers lost... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The secret to early Jewish success: literacy.
One-third of the world’s poor were not born in poverty. They fell into it.
On the unlikely origins of the slide guitar.
Did genetic diversity play a decisive role in determining which lands would hit the economic jackpot?
Pulling back from America’s global commitments would amount to a “massive experiment.”
The federal stimulus often neglected the areas hit hardest by the recession.