Mormonism’s Mutable Zion
Joseph Smith (1805–44), who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, had a radical vision. Zion, the earthly community where “the Saints” would await the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ, was to be a classless commune in which Mormons would “hold all things in common,” writes Patrick Q. Mason, a professor of North American religion at Claremont Graduate University.
What happened to these early ideals? “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” Mason writes, “the church dropped many of its overtly communitarian practices and shifted toward making personal morality the mark of saintliness.” This change roughly followed the path of conservative Protestant churches at the time as they parted ways with the reform agenda of the liberal Social Gospel movement.
Mormons today tend to “downplay the radically countercultural aspects” of Zion, such as the elimination of poverty, inequality, and war. The Mormon church instead focuses on individual morality and the importance of family.
From the beginning, Mormonism had emphasized the fundamental importance of individual rectitude. Smith rejected the concept of original sin, emphasizing human free will. “We believe that man will be punished for his own sins,” one Mormon tenet asserts, “and not for Adam’s transgression.” The theological emphasis on individual responsibility has very concrete... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
China’s Imaginary Middle Class
In China, social mobility is inextricably tied to migration—the best-paying jobs are in cities. As more and more Chinese trade the hoe for the conveyor belt, the thinking goes, a middle class will naturally form. There are reasons to trust such a scenario: It has been a classic pattern since Britain pioneered it during the Industrial Revolution. Last year, for the first time in China’s history, more than half of the country’s population (which then totaled almost 1.35 billion people) was living in cities. Furthermore, a Brookings Institution economist has estimated that China’s middle class will grow from 12 percent of the population in 2010 to 50 percent by 2021.
But geographer Kam Wing Chan, of the University of Washington, Seattle, argues that the development of a Chinese middle class faces a formidable obstacle: the hukou system, a residential registration scheme imposed under Mao Zedong that governs local employment eligibility and access to schooling and other government services. Chan thinks it threatens to choke off the benefits of urbanization.
An ideological relative of the Soviet prospiska system, hukou was originally a method for the government to manage the planned economy and ensure the proper distribution of labor. The system has persisted, and benefits remain substantially greater in urban areas. But it’s very difficult for people to obtain urban hukou status even after living and working in a Chinese city for years.
... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Obama administration has taken great pains to defend recent U.S. drone attacks on targets outside conflict zones, namely in Pakistan and Yemen. But by “trying to please everyone at once instead of holding firm to basic, time-tested principles,” writes Charles G. Kels, an attorney with the Department of Homeland Security and a major in the Air Force Reserve, the administration has pleased no one. In fact, Kels says, it risks undermining its own legal authority and setting poor legal precedents for drones’ use in the future.
Kels further asserts that the administration is trying to reconcile two fundamentally different rationales for military action. It has pursued the fight against Al Qaeda and its associates as a war and obeyed the requisite national and international laws on war. Article 51 of the UN Charter protects the right to self-defense and permits attacks on “nonstate actors” in countries that aren’t directly involved in the conflict if they are “unwilling or unable” to act. But the administration also wants to satisfy those who, speaking through humanitarian organizations such as the International Red Cross, reject the argument that the conflict with Al Qaeda qualifies as a war and insist that the United States must abide by human rights law. In effect, Kels writes, doing so would require the United States to act like a police officer rather than a warrior, reacting to attacks against it on a case-by-case... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Native Americans number in the millions today, and their colonial-era ancestors often tended large farms and lived in settlements across a broad swath of North America. But you wouldn’t know that from reading most contemporary scholars’ work, says James H. Merrell, a historian at Vassar College.
Merrell, who pioneered a new understanding of Native Americans in books such as The Indians’ New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors From European Contact Through the Era of Removal (1989), argues that even many of the best-intentioned historians cling to a flawed vocabulary that distorts our view of history. Largely inherited from the colonial era, today’s terminology is an obstacle to accurately describing what is now known about early America.
Historians still commonly associate Native Americans with words related to hunting, such as “forest,” “wilderness,” and “wild,” apparently ignoring long-known evidence of Indian agriculture. A Virginia colonist wrote in 1650 of an “immense quantity of Indian fields cleared already to our hand, by the Natives.” An early New England writer admired “diverse acres being clear so that one may ride ahunting in most places of the land.” Colonial armies certainly knew about large-scale Indian agriculture: They seized 70,000 bushels of corn from Cherokee farmers during the Revolutionary War.
Nonetheless, when historians do refer to indigenous farming,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Key to Africa’s Growth
Africa isn’t known for its smokestacks. After a spurt of industrial growth following decolonization, industry declined and workers streamed into farming and other less productive sectors. (South Africa and Mauritius are two exceptions.) Today, manufacturing accounts for a smaller share of the average low-income African country’s gross domestic product than it did in 1985. But no other sector can provide the same economic dynamism. Does Africa stand any chance of becoming an industrialized, middle-income continent in the near future?
Yes—though to do so, it will need to double down on exports, argues economist John Page of the Brookings Institution. It has a long way to go: Manufacturing’s share of output and employment is much smaller than it was in China, India, and Indonesia when they reached the lower-middle income status Africa now aspires to. And yet, while the continent faces a more competitive global environment for exports than East Asia and China did when they reinvented themselves as the “world’s factory” in the 1980s and ’90s, climbing wages and growing consumption in these areas offer an opening for Africa.
Page says African policymakers should focus on policies that enhance infrastructure and promote workers’ skill development, because deficiencies in these two areas are the chief factors driving the high cost of African exports. It still takes about three months for the average African business to... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Clunker Bust
When the “cash for clunkers” program debuted as part of the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus program in the summer of 2009, it inspired as much skepticism as glee. Some grumbled that the program wouldn’t help matters, while others saw economic and environmental sense in extending a credit of up to $4,500 toward the purchase of a new fuel-efficient vehicle to motorists who traded in old, pollution-spewing wheels. Economists Atif Mian of the University of California, Berkeley, and Amir Sufi of the University of Chicago argue that, in the end, the program did little to jump-start the economy.
One thing’s for sure, though: The credit got Americans to open their wallets. The program exhausted its $1 billion budget within a week, prompting Congress to approve another $2 billion for the program. Mian and Sufi calculate that an additional 370,000 vehicles were driven off the lot while the credit was available.
Just as skeptics warned, though, most sales “were borrowed from purchases that would have otherwise occurred in the very near future.” Mian and Sufi compared total car sales in areas with large numbers of clunkers to sales in areas with few clunkers in the year following the start of the program. While auto purchases in high-clunker areas were 40 percent higher than in low-clunker areas during the deal, they dropped off significantly in the months following the end of the tax credit. The rate of purchases in low-clunker... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The Surge and Its Skeptics
In January 2007, President George W. Bush ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq, where a fearsome insurgency and fighting between the Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority were tearing the country apart. Armed with a new counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. and Iraqi troops left their big bases and fanned out among the people. Their plan: to protect Iraqi civilians, put their society back on its feet, and flush out the insurgents. By the end of 2007, casualties were down sharply. Twenty-three Americans and about 500 Iraqi civilians died that December, compared to 126 and 1,700, respectively, in May.
So the surge worked? Academics, military officers, and others have debated the question ever since. A vocal group of naysayers point to another explanation. In late 2006, the Albu Risha, a tribe of Sunnis in Anbar province that included fighters for the insurgency, switched sides. They formed American-financed militias called the Sons of Iraq and turned their guns on the radical Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. In what became known as the Anbar Awakening, other Sunni tribes followed.
A lot rides on the surge versus Awakening debate, write Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Jeffrey A. Friedman, a PhD candidate at Harvard, and Jacob N. Shapiro, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. If the surge alone did the trick, then proponents of military intervention and unconventional warfare can point to... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Tocqueville’s Blind Spots
Alexis de Tocqueville literally wrote the book on the Unites States. Democracy in America (1835–1840), informed by his wide-ranging nine-month visit to the country, is generally recognized as one of the classic studies of American political culture.
But Tocqueville was only human, and Democracy in America is still just a book. For all its insight, writes the late political scientist James Q. Wilson, the French nobleman’s magnum opus “left a bit to be desired.”
Tocqueville believed that Americans would come to value equality over liberty. Reasoning that liberty appears immediately valuable only to dissidents, he concluded that equality, which can be enjoyed by all immediately, would lure the general public. But he was wrong, Wilson writes, observing that “we accept economic inequality here to a much greater degree than it is accepted elsewhere.” He notes that many Americans oppose equality-driven measures such as the inheritance tax and affirmative action quotas. Freedom, rather, is “the central organizing story of American life.” U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq, for example, often said they were defending freedom—even though that’s not the reason U.S. leaders gave for the Iraq war.
Tocqueville was deeply worried by American individualism, equating it with corrosive selfishness. But for Americans, Wilson argues, individualism has more to do with being “masters of our own souls.” A healthy... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
How to Bring Back the Constitution
Can a return to constitutional principles help address the immense economic and political challenges to governance of the United States? Many Americans, especially conservatives, think so. Responding to Tea Party activists, for example, the House of Representatives kicked off the 112th Congress with members solemnly reading the entire Constitution aloud. Political scientist James W. Ceaser of the University of Virginia, however, cautions that not all roads back to the Constitution are the same.
There are two kinds of constitutionalism, he says. Legal constitutionalism is mostly the domain of judges and legal experts, who interpret the Constitution’s application in specific cases. Political constitutionalism is the work of politicians and citizens. In this approach, the Constitution “fixes certain ends of government activity, delineates a structure and arrangement of powers,” and leaves it to “political actors making political decisions to protect and promote constitutional goals.” Until the 1960s, the two forms of constitutionalism were roughly in balance, but today most Americans, including many conservatives, take it for granted that constitutional interpretation is the sole province of the courts. That’s a mistake, Ceaser argues.
Consider the court challenges to President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (which had not been decided when Ceaser wrote). They rest mainly on the argument that... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Glossed in Translation
After Benito Mussolini’s execution in 1945, his people, brutalized and bankrupted by five years of war, might have been more united in hatred for the Italian dictator than in patriotic pride. One of Il Duce’s nationalistic mandates, however, would have unlikely staying power. Determined to rid his country of outside influences, the dictator had banned all foreign words written or spoken, including those uttered in the new talking movies that arrived in the 1930s. The art of dubbing that grew to fill the hush, writes Italian screenwriter Chiara Barzini, has since given Italians Doppiaggese (“Translationese”), a language stripped of regional dialect and peppered with new words and phrases.
American movie studios tested several workarounds after Mussolini’s ban. Intertitles left Italian viewers, many illiterate, to watch in gloomy silence, so the studios devised technology that played speech over pictures. When, in 1933, Mussolini prohibited even foreign films that had been dubbed into Italian outside Italy, his compatriots developed a voiceover industry, producing “stunningly literal translations” of foreign words, even names. The practice continued long after the ban expired. Louis Armstrong became Luigi Braccioforte, for instance, and an Italian curse word was truncated to sync with the lips uttering its Anglo-Saxon equivalent.
“By the ’80s, a whole segment of Italy’s pop culture existed in Doppiaggese,&... 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.