It’s become common for election monitors to file into countries around the world to look over the shoulders of government officials counting votes. Monitors provide an important service by helping detect election-day fraud. But their impact is waning in some countries as regimes ramp up “their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished,” write political scientists Alberto Simpser of the University of Chicago and Daniela Donno of the University of Pittsburgh. The bad news doesn’t stop there: Many of the tactics these regimes use have more insidious effects on governance than the ballot stuffing of yore.
Consider the case of Armenia. Reports of fraudulent voting and vote count manipulation were so widespread in the wake of its 2003 elections that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose activities include election monitoring, issued a condemnatory report. The next time around, Armenian president Robert Kocharian and his cronies fostered biased media coverage and pressured government employees into campaigning for the regime. They got what they wanted: Pro-government forces triumphed in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and Armenia received a passing grade from the monitoring bodies. But nobody would say that Armenian governance improved.
This dynamic has played out over and over again in many countries. In studying 944 elections around the world between 1990 and 2007, the authors... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Prescription for Health Care?
Health care costs are sucking the country dry. One remedy gaining support is consumer-directed health insurance plans, in which individuals accept high deductibles in return for relatively low monthly premiums. Many variants offer health care savings accounts that allow plan holders to store money tax-free to help pay for the increased out-of-pocket medical expenses. Enrollment in such plans expanded from four percent of employer-sponsored enrollment in 2006 to 13 percent in 2010. Big savings could be in the offing if the trend continues, report Carnegie Mellon University public policy and statistics professor Amelia M. Haviland and her coauthors.
Consumer-directed plans could eventually constitute 50 percent of employer-sponsored enrollment, in part because the 2010 Affordable Care Act encourages their growth. Haviland and her colleagues looked at the recent experience of plan users to estimate the effect. What they found will thrill budget hawks: Such a shift would reduce health care spending $57 billion per year. That’s equal to seven percent of all costs for the employer-sponsored population.
Because the insured have more “skin in the game” due to their high deductibles, they are more likely to evaluate their options closely and are less likely to seek out unnecessary care, Haviland and colleagues say. “About two-thirds of the savings would result from fewer episodes of care and about one-third from lower spending per episode,”... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Warming in My Backyard
Climate change activists take note: Your efforts appear to be in vain. Despite constant warnings about global warming, the American public doesn’t think about the issue much when making judgments about which domestic fuel choices to support. On the basis of this conclusion, Harvard government professor Stephen Ansolabehere and Georgetown public policy professor David M. Konisky argue that leaders would be smart to emphasize policies focused on other issues in order to tackle the climate challenge.
Ansolabehere and Konisky studied a series of public opinion surveys launched in 2002 to gauge how Americans assess the costs and environmental effects of different fuels used to generate electricity. The two researchers found, on the one hand, that many rated environmental impact an important factor in their opinions about national energy use. Specifically, they favored forms of energy they believed to be less harmful to the environment. Seventy-five percent wanted to increase the use of solar and wind power, for instance.
The problem is that most of the respondents did not have an accurate understanding of energy costs. And they conceived of environmental harms in terms of local problems—think water pollution and toxic waste—rather than grand phenomena such as climate change. Wind and solar power were perceived, wrongly, as being cheaper than coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear power. When surveyed again after being told that coal and natural gas are in... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
In Defense of Scholasticism
“Scholasticism” has long been a synonym for the worst kind of pedantry. “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” is the classic brush off directed toward this medieval school of thought. (It probably makes light of Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas’s inquiries into the nature of angels in Summa Theologica.) But Rhodes College historian Alex J. Novikoff argues that Scholasticism and its formal debate technique, disputation, were crucial to the Western intellectual tradition.
One normally associates rhetorical rigor with the philosophers of ancient Greece, who hashed out their arguments in the agora, a public meeting ground. The discipline continued in Rome’s forums, but with the demise of the Roman Empire, dialogue moved inward, becoming a meditative practice. That changed in the 11th century with Anselm of Bec, an Italian-born monk who taught in a Norman monastery; he found himself drawn into using reasoned dialogues with his students as a method of instruction. The logic-heavy form of dialogue he pioneered became the “polemical genre of choice” for thinkers in the 12th century. Around the same time, renewed interest in Roman law, which used a question-and-answer approach to arrive at decisions, further whetted the scholarly appetite for dialectic study.
Medieval disputation truly flowered with the 12th-century rediscovery and translation of Aristotle’s Topics and Sophistical Refutations, which... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Will Iran Defeat Itself?
Politicians in Washington and Tel Aviv debate the question daily: Are sanctions or bunker busters the best way to thwart Tehran’s nuclear ambitions? Jacques Hymans, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, suggests an alternative: Do nothing.
Before 1970, all seven states that sought the bomb succeeded, and in fairly short order. But of the 10 regimes that have attempted to go nuclear since then, six failed or abandoned the effort: Libya, South Korea, Yugoslavia, Brazil, Iraq, and Syria. Iran may become the seventh.
The difference is that the latecomers, Iran included, have all been developing countries with overbearing leaders and underdeveloped public administration systems. (One, Yugoslavia, no longer even exists.) These regimes “rely on a coercive, authoritarian management approach to advance their quest for the bomb, using appeals to scientists’ greed and fear as the primary motivators.” This seldom works. Scientists lose their professional pride; “bureaucratic sloth, corruption, and endless blame shifting” ensue.
Little wonder, then, that “the Iranians had to work for 25 years just to start accumulating uranium enriched to 20 percent, which is not even weapons grade.” Western intelligence agencies first feared that Iran would have nukes by 2000. That projection has subsequently been moved back to 2005, then 2010, and now 2015. Success, Hymans argues, is hardly inevitable... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Higher Education’s Wily Newcomer
The for-profit college is a relatively new animal in U.S. higher education. But it is rapidly making its presence known: The proportion of students enrolled in for-profit schools grew from less than one percent in 1970 to more than nine percent in 2009. Harvard economists David J. Deming, Claudia Goldin, and Lawrence F. Katz say it remains to be seen whether these new institutions are “nimble critters” using innovative methods to bring a needed service to an underserved population or “agile predators” picking the pockets of guileless students.
The three economists compared the educational and vocational status of students at for-profit colleges, community colleges, and other nonselective nonprofit institutions in the 2003–04 academic year. For-profit schools performed better than their competitors at enrolling students who normally struggle to see the inside of a college classroom, such as single parents, low-income students, and GED holders. For-profit schools also did a slightly better job at retaining students in short-term certificate and associate’s degree programs, posting modestly higher completion rates than nonprofit two- or four-year colleges.
But negative stereotypes about for-profit schools were also borne out. Students at these institutions carried larger debt burdens, reflecting the higher sticker price of tuition. In the 2010–11 academic year, the average undergraduate tuition at for-profit colleges was... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Bad Medicine for the Congo
Multilateral interventions rarely go as planned. The one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where nine years of war beginning in 1994 left millions dead, is no exception. The Congo is the largest sub-Saharan African country by area, and its 74 million people belong to more than 200 ethnic groups. Despite the odds, UN peacekeepers—in concert with the African Union and other organizations—arrived in 1999 and eventually brought a measure of security to most of the country. In 2006, they oversaw multiparty elections. Yet Séverine Autesserre, a political scientist at Columbia University, contends that the outsiders have made life worse for many Congolese.
The interveners, particularly Westerners, erroneously believed that nefarious warlords profiting from the country’s rich mineral deposits (principally gold and diamonds, as well as coltan, a metallic ore) were responsible for the violence. Their solution was straightforward: to expand the fragile Congolese state’s power into the country’s troubled eastern region, and to ban mining that benefited armed groups.
But only some of the violence is directly related to so-called conflict minerals, according to Autesserre. The Congo is riven with corruption and intense “grassroots antagonisms over land and power.” To focus on mining is to overlook these problems.
Stringent international requirements for mineral “supply chain verification”—including a... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Are more and more Americans clustering together in neighborhoods with people who share their lifestyle and beliefs, increasingly blind to those unlike themselves? Yes, said journalist Bill Bishop, and he put a name to the phenomenon with the title of his much discussed 2008 book The Big Sort. The trend, he argued, is helping to spread mutual incomprehension and political polarization in America.
Bishop is all wet, contend political scientists Samuel J. Abrams of Sarah Lawrence College and Morris P. Fiorina of the Hoover Institution and Stanford University. “Geographic political segregation is lower than a generation ago,” they say. (Think about it: Are Mississippi and Massachusetts more different from each other than they were in 1950, or more alike?)
Bishop’s case leans heavily on his finding that there has been a big increase in the proportion of voters living in counties where a presidential candidate has rolled up a “landslide” victory margin of 20 percentage points or more. But he chose 1976 and 2004 for his comparison; it’s not surprising that an election pitting centrists Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter against each other produced closer votes at the county level than one in which George W. Bush squared off against John Kerry.
More important, Abrams and Fiorina argue, presidential elections don’t give a very granular view of political reality. Montana voted overwhelmingly for Bush in 2004, for example, but it also... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Linguists at War
Noam Chomsky is well known as a left-wing public intellectual, but in the academic world he is renowned as the father of the foundational modern theory about human language.
Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, forged in the 1960s, has two central tenets: There is a single underlying structure for all human languages, and humans have this structural information hard-wired in their brains at birth. But many of Chomsky’s arguments are elusively theoretical. So when he published a paper in 2002 that seemed to say that the distinctive feature of human communication is “recursion,” a critic pounced.
A recursive language, explains Tom Bartlett, a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, allows for “additional phrases and clauses [to] be inserted into a sentence, complicating the meaning, in theory indefinitely.” In a new book, Language: The Cultural Tool, linguist Daniel Everett argues that a language called Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), spoken by some 250 people in a remote part of Brazil, proves Chomsky’s theory wrong because the language lacks this crucial trait. Everett’s book “is an attempt to deliver, if not a fatal blow, then at least a solid right cross to universal grammar,” Bartlett reports.
But Everett, the dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, also offers a broader critique of Chomsky’s theory, arguing, as Bartlett puts it, “that the structure of... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Don’t Blame Madrasas
Pakistan’s madrasas have gotten a bad rap, asserts Georgetown University political scientist C. Christine Fair. If you want to know how terrorists are groomed in Pakistan, she says, you need to look beyond the walls of these Islamic religious schools.
As Islamist terrorism became a bigger threat in the 2000s, U.S. analysts and politicians fingered Pakistani madrasas (which are attended by children and teenagers) as “nurseries of jihad,” Fair observes. The United States has since granted Pakistan $100 million in aid to improve public education and essentially “lure madrasa students back to public schools.” But claims that madrasas are “expanding dramatically” and “churning out jihadists by the thousands” are false, she writes. The misunderstanding can be traced to a 2002 International Crisis Group report that incorrectly stated that one-third of Pakistani students attended madrasas full-time. More credible research shows that the real number is between one and three percent. In addition, Fair’s research shows that madrasas’ share of the Pakistani student population has remained stable. There is no basis for the alarmist claims about the “burgeoning number of Pakistani madrasas and their supposed legions of aspiring terrorists,” she argues.
There is also a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of the institutions. The common view is that madrasas are schools of last resort, where... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
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