Saturday, January 29, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
Today Editorial by The Guardian:
Gerald Kaufman once described Labour's 1983 manifesto as the longest suicide note in history. If ever a set of documents merits this epithet, it is surely the one we publish today. Written by Palestinian officials, obtained by al-Jazeera and shared with the Guardian, the papers are the confidential record of 10 years of efforts to seek a peace agreement with Israel.
It is hard to tell who appears worst: the Palestinian leaders, who are weak, craven and eager to shower their counterparts with compliments; the Israelis, who are polite in word but contemptuous in deed; or the Americans, whose neutrality consists of bullying the weak and holding the hand of the strong. Together they conspire to build a puppet state in Palestine, at best authoritarian, at worst a surrogate for an occupying force. To obtain even this form of bondage, the Palestinians have to flog the family silver. Saeb Erekat, the PLO chief negotiator, is reduced at one point to pleading for a fig leaf: "What good am I if I'm the joke of my wife, if I'm so weak," he told Barack Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell.
Palestinian concessions roll on. The Israeli settlements around East Jerusalem? Sold, two years ago in a map which allows Israel to annex all of the settlements bar one, Har Homa. Mr Erekat called it the biggest Yerushalayim (he used the Hebrew word for Jerusalem) in history. Israel's former foreign minister Tzipi Livni acknowledges the pain involved, but refuses the offer. Israel banks the concession anyway. They are building in occupied Gilo today as if there is no tomorrow. Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in the Muslim world? That, too, is up for grabs. Mr Erekat said he was prepared to consider "creative ways" to solve the problem of Haram al-Sharif or the Temple Mount.
The surrender of land Palestinians have lived on for centuries prompts more demands. Not only does Israel want all of East Jerusalem, Har Homa, and the settlement blocs of Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim which carve strategic swathes out of the West Bank. Not only does it insist on a demilitarised state. It also wants Palestinian leaders to sign away their future. When Mr Erekat asked Ms Livni: "Short of your jet fighters in my sky and your army on my territory, can I choose where I secure external defence?". She replied: "No. In order to create your state you have to agree in advance with Israel – you have to choose not to have the right of choice afterwards. These are the basic pillars."
Before the extreme right politician Avigdor Lieberman rose to prominence, the papers reveal that Israel asked for some of its Arab citizens to be transferred to a new Palestinian state. Since then, state population swaps have entered the mainstream of Israeli debate, but no one is asking the Israeli Arabs themselves. Has the former nightclub bouncer from Moldova become more Israeli? Or is Israel behaving more like a Moldovan nightclub bouncer?
One requires Panglossian optimism to believe that these negotiations can one day be resurrected. Nineteen years of redrawing the 1967 borders, of expanding the boundaries of Jerusalem, of refusal to accept the return of Palestinian refugees, and of pleading for a fig leaf, has sullied the concept of peace.
The Palestinian Authority may continue as an employer but, as of today, its legitimacy as negotiators will have all but ended on the Palestinian street. The two-state solution itself could just as swiftly perish with it. If that is to be saved, three things have to happen: America must drop its veto on Palestinian unity talks and take up Hamas's offer of a one-year ceasefire; a negotiating team that represents all major Palestinian factions must be formed; and Israel has to accept that a state created on 1967 borders, not around them, is the minimum price of an end to the conflict. The alternative is to allow the cancer of the existing one-state solution to grow and to prepare for the next war. No one will have to wait long for that.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Saturday, January 22, 2011
Soumaya Ghannoushi says socialists and Islamists should unite for change in Tunisia (Tunisians must dismantle the monster Ben Ali built, 18 January). No they should not. Socialists and Islamists both opposed Ben Ali, true – but they disagree about what should be done next.
The real left is democratic, secular, in favour of women's equality, opposed to antisemitism and sees the united working class as an agency for change. Many Muslims are leftists on this basis; but Islamist parties stand for something radically different.
This attempt to blur the lines between the left and Islamism is a feature of politics in this country too. For 10 years parts of the far left (for reasons of opportunism and lack of political confidence) have allied with Islamists in the anti-war movement, with disastrous consequences for the political health of the socialists.
It is time to get back to constructing alliances on the basis of what we are for, not simply on what we are against.
• Soumaya Ghannoushi's call for an alliance between socialists and Islamists is a disaster from the point of view of the left. In 1978-80, many Iranian leftists thought they and the Islamists shared a common struggle against the Shah. The result was the crushing of the left, the destruction of the workers' movement and the installation of an Islamist tyranny just as bad as what went before. Islamists may use democratic slogans against secular and western-backed regimes, but their real goal is to destroy all elements of democracy and workers' self-organisation in society. The left should make solidarity with democratic, secularist and socialist forces in Tunisia, not political Islam.
Alliance for Workers' Liberty
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
ONE of last year’s most interesting business books was Clay Shirky’s “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age”. The rise of the affluent society has left people with lots of time and talent to spare, Mr Shirky argues. For decades they squandered this cognitive surplus watching television. Today, thanks to the internet, they can also channel it into more productive pursuits.
For a surprising number of people these productive pursuits involve worrying about companies’ logos. Howard Schultz, the boss of Starbucks, recently announced that his company would mark its 40th anniversary this March by changing its logo a bit. The words “Starbucks” and “coffee” will disappear. And the mermaid, or siren, will be freed from her circle.
Starbucks wants to join the small club of companies that are so recognisable they can rely on nothing but a symbol: Nike and its swoosh; McDonald’s and its golden arches; Playboy and its bunny; Apple and its apple. The danger is that it will join the much larger class of companies that have tried to change their logos only to be forced to backtrack by an electronic lynch mob.
As soon as the change was mooted, bloggers started blogging and tweeters began to tweet. Starbucks.com has been inundated with complaints, such as “focus on your core business and forget this foolishness”. Fox News, not normally an authority on corporate marketing strategy, has likened the proposal to Prince’s decision, in 1993, to swap his name for an unpronounceable symbol, an action he reversed seven years later. The protesters have plenty of success stories to inspire their efforts. Gap, a clothing retailer, abandoned a new logo in October after a week of concentrated online hazing. Tropicana (which tried to replace its straw-in-an-orange logo with a picture of a glass of orange juice) and Britain’s Royal Mail (which renamed itself Consignia) held out a bit longer but eventually had to retreat.
Why do people get so upset about such changes? An obvious reason is that so many logos and names are either pig ugly or linguistically challenged. Think of BT’s “piper” logo, which looked like someone drinking a yard of ale and disfigured all things BT-related for 12 years (admittedly, Britain’s incumbent telecoms firm was not too popular to begin with); or the SciFi channel’s decision to call itself SyFy—a name that raises the spectre of syphilis.
Moreover, the people who spend their lives creating new logos and brand names have a peculiar weakness for management drivel. Marka Hansen, Gap’s president for North America, defended the firm’s new logo (three letters and a little blue square) with a lot of guff about “our journey to make Gap more relevant to our customers”. The Arnell Group explained its $1m redesign of Pepsi’s logo with references to the “golden ratio” and “gravitational pull”, arguing that “going back-to-the-roots moves the brand forward as it changes the trajectory of the future”.
Ghastly stuff, to be sure. But why do aesthetically sensitive consumers harry companies to go back to old logos rather than simply shifting their loyalties elsewhere? One answer is that people have a passionate attachment to some brands. They do not merely buy clothes at Gap or coffee at Starbucks, but consider themselves to belong to “communities” defined by what they consume. A second reason is that the more choices people have, the more they seem to value the familiar. These days there are so many choices available to Western consumers—the average supermarket stocks 30,000 items and America’s patent and trademark office issues some 200,000 patents a year—that they are in danger of being overwhelmed. Homo economicus may be capable of carefully considering all available products. But poor, fumbling Homo sapiens seizes on logos as a way of creating order in a confusing world.
The debate about logos reveals something interesting about power as well as passion. Much of the rage in the blogosphere is driven by a sense that “they” (the corporate stiffs) have changed something without consulting “us” (the people who really matter). This partly reflects a hunch that consumers have more power in an increasingly crowded market for goods. But it also reflects the sense that brands belong to everyone, not just to the corporations that nominally control them.
Companies have gone out of their way to encourage these attitudes. They not only work hard to create emotional bonds with consumers (Victoria’s Secret is one of many firms, including The Economist, that encourage customers to “like” them on Facebook). They involve them in what used to be regarded as internal corporate operations. Snapple asks Snapple-drinkers to come up with ideas for new drinks. Threadless encourages people to compete to design T-shirts.
Starbucks has been in the forefront of this consumer revolution. It consults consumers on everything from the ambience of its stores to its environmental policies. It emphasises that it is not just in the business of selling coffee. It sells entry to a community of like-minded people (who are so very different from the types who get their coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s) gathered in a “third place” that is neither home nor work.
The company’s new logo hints at a big ambition. Mr Schultz wants to burst asunder the bonds created by Starbucks’s humble origins as a coffee shop. Some of his cafés are to sell alcohol as well as coffee. Many more Starbucks-branded goods are to appear in supermarkets. Starbucks is to become a force in the emerging world as well as the emerged. Such changes would be difficult even for an old-fashioned corporate dictatorship. Mr Schultz is about to discover whether they are possible for a company that has made such a fuss about giving power to its customers.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
2. The Basque Country
4. South Ossetia
7. Western Sahara
8. The Republic of Cascadia
10. Second Vermont Republic
We are not very sure if number 8 and 10 are just jokes or Time reflects the historical American ignorance about the world - not mentioning, among others, Tirol or Catalonia. As someone said "War is the tool God uses to teach Geography to Americans".
Click the headline for link to original article in Time.
The official response to unrest on Tunisia's streets comes straight out of a tyrant's playbook: order the police to open fire on unarmed demonstrators, deploy the army, blame resulting violence on "terrorists" and accuse unidentified "foreign parties" of fomenting insurrection. Like other Arab rulers, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seems not to know any better. For this murderous ignorance, there is less and less excuse.
The trouble started last month when Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, an unemployed graduate, set himself on fire outside a government building in protest at police harassment. Bouazizi's despairing act – he died of his injuries last week – quickly became a rallying cause for Tunisia's disaffected legions of unemployed students, impoverished workers, trade unionists, lawyers and human rights activists.
The ensuing demonstrations produced a torrent of bloodshed at the weekend when security forces, claiming self-defence, said they killed 14 people. Independent sources say at least 50 died and many more were wounded in clashes in the provincial cities of Thala, Kasserine and Regueb. The latest reports spoke of continuing clashes in El-Kef and Gafsa.
Despite Ben Ali's assertions, there is no evidence so far of outside meddling or Islamist pot-stirring. What is abundantly plain is that many Tunisians are fed up to the back teeth with chronic unemployment, especially affecting young people; endemic poverty in rural areas that receive no benefits from tourism; rising food prices; insufficient public investment; official corruption; and a pseudo-democratic, authoritarian political system that gave Ben Ali, 74, a fifth consecutive term in 2009 with an absurd 89.6% of the vote.
In this daunting context, Ben Ali's emergency job creation plan, announced this week, looks to be too little, too late.
If this long tally of woes sounds familiar, that's because it's more or less ubiquitous. Across the Arab world, with limited exceptions in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, similar problems obtain to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed, until recently, Tunisia was held to be better than most. In Algeria, four days of rioting about price rises in food staples earlier this month forced the government to use some of its vast $150bn stash of gas export cash to boost subsidies.
Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has problems that dwarf Tunisia's but are basically similar: the population is booming, 60% are under 30, youth unemployment is soaring, 40% of citizens live on under $2 a day, and one third is illiterate.
Add to this a growing rich-poor divide, a corrupt electoral system that bans the country's largest party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and President Hosni Mubarak's apparent determination to cling to power indefinitely, and the picture that emerges is both disturbing and largely typical of the illiberal, unreformed Arab sphere.
Failing or failed Arab governance across an arc stretching from Yemen and the Gulf to north Africa is not a new phenomenon, nor are the likeliest remedies a mystery, except perhaps to rulers such as Ben Ali.
A discussion last month at the Carnegie Endowment identified high unemployment triggering social unrest, rapid population rises and slow growth, caused partly by the European downturn, as the key challenges facing relatively poorer, oil-importing Arab states. Governments were urged to seek new export markets, increase manufacturing and enhance competitiveness through education and labour market reform.
But analyst Marina Ottaway suggested political leadership and the will for reform was lacking as regional governments openly flouted calls for change. Other experts deplored a general trend towards "authoritarian retrenchment" as Arab leaders used the west's preoccupation with terrorism, its energy dependence and the Palestine stalemate to deflect external and internal reform pressures.
The striking underperformance of most Arab governments in political, economic and social terms – and of the Arab League, dubbed by some an "autocrats club" – has been expertly charted in the past decade by a series of UN-sponsored Arab human development reports. Overall, they make depressing reading. Ben Ali and his ilk would do well to study the 2009 Arab Knowledge survey produced by the Al Maktoum Foundation.
It says, in part:
"Stringent legislative and institutional restrictions in numerous Arab countries prevent the expansion of the public sphere and the consolidation of opportunities for the political participation of the citizenry in choosing their representatives ... on a sound democratic basis.
"The restrictions imposed on public freedoms, alongside a rise in levels of poverty and poor income distribution, in some Arab countries, have led to an increase in marginalisation of the poor and further distanced them from obtaining their basic rights to housing, education and employment, contributing to the further decline of social freedoms."by Simon Tisdall
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Ownership is strictly prohibited unless there are "genuine reasons" such as licensed sport, animal control or employment requirements.
If you are over 25 and have registered a weapon, you are free to keep it indoors. The country has the second-highest gun-related death rate after the US.
Significantly stricter than the neighbouring US. To acquire a licence, applicants must undertake a safety course, pass a criminal records check and be certified by a firearms officer.
Civilians are not allowed guns, except for hunting and protection from wildlife. The illegal sale of arms can be punished by death sentence.
Gun ownership is a "privilege" under the Arms Act of 1959, allowing civilians to have a licence if they can prove that there is a "threat to life".
Liberal laws compared with the rest of Europe. Applicants must pass a questionnaire on firearms, have no criminal record and show ID proving they are over 21.
Also liberal. Guns are classified by four categories – the lowest, for non-repeating shotguns, requires no registration for over-18s.
The Federal Weapons Act (1972) restricts everything apart from replica guns to over-18s, who must pass checks for "trustworthiness, knowledge and adequacy".
Citizens can have up to three "common" handguns in their home, but if they want to hunt or carry a concealed weapon they must apply for a licence.
Licensing requirements are considered a formality – there is little enforcement of the strict laws. However, gun deaths are among the lowest in the world.
Strict laws apply for ownership, including criminal records checks. However, there are growing concerns that smuggling from the US is undermining these regulations.
Since 1989, no registration has been required for buying a shotgun over the counter. There are an estimated 500,000 unregistered guns in homes. However, gun crime is very low.
Hand guns and fully automatics are prohibited, but over-18s with no criminal record can apply for a licence for shotguns and air rifles. Self defence is not an excuse for carrying firearms outside the home.
All able-bodied men between 20 and 34 are required to have fully automatic firearms in their homes in case of a call-up to the army under the doctrine of "universal conscription". Others may own weapons for hunting but need a licence. Gun crime is so low that statistics are not kept.
Anyone convicted of a criminal offence cannot handle, possess or shoot a gun. A licence is needed for any firearm except low-powered air rifles/pistols. Self-defence is not a valid reason for ownership. The country has one of the world's lowest gun crime rates.
Fully automatic firearms are legal in most states. However, you need a criminal records check and must pay $200 registration tax. In 2004, there were 29,569 gun-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At 10.53pm on Christmas Day, Simone Back posted her last status update on Facebook. It read: "Took all my pills be dead soon so bye bye every one." One of her friends responded: "She ODs all the time and she lies." Another chimed in: "She has a choice and taking pills over a relationship is not a good enough reason." Others argued among themselves about whether it was a bluff.
Of the 1,048 people listed on Facebook as a friend of Back, not one checked up on her. She died at 5.05pm on Boxing Day. Shortly after, her mother wrote this: "My daughter Simone passed away today so please leave her alone now."
Among the most miserable, morale-sapping aspects of this story is its lack of surprise. You've come across these elements before: a worn-down individual; an inarticulate plea for help, and a crowd of internet associates who don't lift a finger, apart from to type withering comments. The indifference to Back's fatal overdose belongs in the same file as those semi-regular tragedies of children bullied to death on social-networking websites – and even the one about the Hertfordshire teenager who announced her birthday party on Facebook, and received 21,000 RSVPs. Running through those vignettes is a common question: what's an online friendship worth? Or, put another way, how is it possible to rack up more than 1,000 friends on a website, and for none of them to step in when you try to kill yourself?
When Facebook and other online social networks crop up in public debate, it is usually on issues of online privacy, or how they might aid political activism. The question of how they are reconfiguring our relationships is less often asked. Yet Facebook is now the most visited website in America; it has more than 500 million users who between them upload 2.7m photos and more than 10m comments to its pages every 20 minutes (even if most of them read: "Lol!"). Whatever congregation is meeting on that website – with its dark-blue heading and its collection of news, photos and links to YouTube – it's worth studying.
Defenders of friendship, Facebook-style, point to those figures and argue that more must mean better. Anthropologist Stefana Broadbent argues that new websites and technology have allowed users to keep in closer contact with their loved ones, however far away. She tells a good story about a Brazilian couple in Italy who once a week use a webcam to have a virtual dinner party with their relatives in Sao Paulo. Then there's John Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness, who points out that Facebook, Skype and plain old email are a boon to severely disabled and housebound people who might otherwise go without social contact. As he says, "Something – no matter how little – has got to be better than nothing."
No doubt. But what these anecdotes rightly celebrate is that the internet has made communication – from email through to video-conferencing – almost free. What they leave out is how that communication is structured by $50bn businesses such as Facebook.
Anyone who has ever had a Facebook page will know what I mean. On signing up, you are asked to fill in a questionnaire. Under date of birth you are asked to fill in your favourite quotation (because obviously everyone has one of those); then what you are looking for: friendship; dating; a relationship; networking? Those are the four states of socialising in Facebook world. "Insurrectionary chat" isn't available; neither, strangely, is "mutual solipsism". In the good old days you were at least offered "random play", which had the merit of sounding at once pervy and vaguely situationist.
Such tick-box definitions are a form of "self-reduction", according to Jaron Lanier. In his recent book You are Not a Gadget, the computer scientist points out that this "semi-automated self-presentation" (not to mention those "suggested friends" and "who to follow" prompts on Facebook and Twitter) is borne of the binary approach of software engineering, rather than the ambiguities of human interaction. Read that, then recall how, when Time made Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg its Person of the Year for 2010, it noted: "He approaches conversation as a way of exchanging data as rapidly and efficiently as possible, rather than as a recreational activity."
But it isn't just Zuckerberg who lost the ability to see conversation as a form of recreation. Others do it too, whenever they self-consciously refer to the impermanence of relationships by talking about new best friends, or ickify the ancient ideal of close male friendships with the term bromance. Or when they post birthday greetings – "have a good one!" – on the Facebook wall of someone they haven't spoken to in five years. If you're pressured at work and at home, starved of time and running to catch up, your friendships (at least outside your close circle of loved ones) will naturally become more breathless and shallow. All Facebook and Twitter do, with their short, sharp updates on what you're thinking Right Now, is exacerbate that trend.
Let me end by comparing two visions of friendship. Here is Theodore Zeldin, historian of emotions. Friendship, he told me, "is an exchanging of self-revelation; when one explains to others what one feels very deeply". With time and trust and talk, "you make yourself vulnerable to another".
Then there is this research from 2009 by Jane Lewis and Anne West at the LSE on how London undergraduates use Facebook. One respondent tells them "a couple of them clicks, y'know, and a nice little message and . . . things are kept ticking along." I suspect we all agree which of those versions is more attractive.
by Aditya Chakrabortty
Monday, January 10, 2011
Friday, January 07, 2011
When experts talk about the coming food security crisis, the date they fixate upon is 2030. By then, our numbers will be nudging 9 billion and we will need to be producing 50% more food than we are now.
By the middle of that decade, therefore, we will either all be starving, and fighting wars over resources, or our global food supply will have changed radically. The bitter reality is that it will probably be a mixture of both.
Developed countries such as the UK are likely, for the most part, to have attempted to pull up the drawbridge, increasing national production and reducing our reliance on imports.
In response to increasing prices, some of us may well have reduced our consumption of meat, the raising of which is a notoriously inefficient use of grain. This will probably create a food underclass, surviving on a carb- and fat-heavy diet, while those with money scarf the protein.
The developing world, meanwhile, will work to bridge the food gap by embracing the promise of biotechnology which the middle classes in the developed world will have assumed that they had the luxury to reject.
In truth, any of the imported grain that we do consume will come from genetically modified crops. As climate change lays waste to the productive fields of southern Europe and north Africa, more water-efficient strains of corn, wheat and barley will be pressed into service; likewise, to the north, Russia will become a global food superpower as the same climate change opens up the once frozen and massive Siberian prairie to food production.
The consensus now is that the planet does have the wherewithal to feed that huge number of people. It's just that some people in the west may find the methods used to do so unappetising.
That, of course, is all history, but the Pax Americana that has taken shape since 1989 is just as vulnerable to historical change. In the 1910s, the rising power and wealth of Germany and America splintered the Pax Britannica; in the 2010s, east Asia will do the same to the Pax Americana.
The 21st century will see technological change on an astonishing scale. It may even transform what it means to be human. But in the short term – the next 20 years – the world will still be dominated by the doings of nation-states and the central issue will be the rise of the east.
By 2030, the world will be more complicated, divided between a broad American sphere of influence in Europe, the Middle East and south Asia, and a Chinese sphere in east Asia and Africa. Even within its own sphere, the US will face new challenges from former peripheries. The large, educated populations of Poland, Turkey, Brazil and their neighbours will come into their own and Russia will continue its revival.
Nevertheless, America will probably remain the world's major power. The critics who wrote off the US during the depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s lived to see it bounce back to defeat the Nazis in the 1940s and the Soviets in the 1980s. America's financial problems will surely deepen through the 2010s, but the 2020s could bring another Roosevelt or Reagan.
A hundred years ago, as Britain's dominance eroded, rivals, particularly Germany, were emboldened to take ever-greater risks. The same will happen as American power erodes in the 2010s-20s. In 1999, for instance, Russia would never have dared attack a neighbour such as Georgia but in 2009 it took just such a chance.
The danger of such an adventure sparking a great power war in the 2010s is probably low; in the 2020s, it will be much greater.
The most serious threats will arise in the vortex of instability that stretches from Africa to central Asia. Most of the world's poorest people live here; climate change is wreaking its worst damage here; nuclear weapons are proliferating fastest here; and even in 2030, the great powers will still seek much of their energy here.
Here, the risk of Sino-American conflict will be greatest and here the balance of power will be decided.
Ian Morris, professor of history at Stanford University and the author of Why the West Rules – For Now (Profile Books)
Thursday, January 06, 2011
ASK people how they feel about getting older, and they will probably reply in the same vein as Maurice Chevalier: “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” Stiffening joints, weakening muscles, fading eyesight and the clouding of memory, coupled with the modern world’s careless contempt for the old, seem a fearful prospect—better than death, perhaps, but not much. Yet mankind is wrong to dread ageing. Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.
When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.
This curious finding has emerged from a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being. Conventional economics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dismal way in which the discipline talks about happiness. But some economists, unconvinced that there is a direct relationship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the matter and measure happiness itself.
- Comparing countries: The rich, the poor and Bulgaria Dec 16th 2010
These ideas have penetrated the policy arena, starting in Bhutan, where the concept of Gross National Happiness shapes the planning process. All new policies have to have a GNH assessment, similar to the environmental-impact assessment common in other countries. In 2008 France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, asked two Nobel-prize-winning economists, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, to come up with a broader measure of national contentedness than GDP. Then last month, in a touchy-feely gesture not typical of Britain, David Cameron announced that the British government would start collecting figures on well-being.
There are already a lot of data on the subject collected by, for instance, America’s General Social Survey, Eurobarometer and Gallup. Surveys ask two main sorts of question. One concerns people’s assessment of their lives, and the other how they feel at any particular time. The first goes along the lines of: thinking about your life as a whole, how do you feel? The second is something like: yesterday, did you feel happy/contented/angry/anxious? The first sort of question is said to measure global well-being, and the second hedonic or emotional well-being. They do not always elicit the same response: having children, for instance, tends to make people feel better about their life as a whole, but also increases the chance that they felt angry or anxious yesterday.
Statisticians trawl through the vast quantities of data these surveys produce rather as miners panning for gold. They are trying to find the answer to the perennial question: what makes people happy?
Four main factors, it seems: gender, personality, external circumstances and age.
Women, by and large, are slightly happier than men. But they are also more susceptible to depression: a fifth to a quarter of women experience depression at some point in their lives, compared with around a tenth of men. Which suggests either that women are more likely to experience more extreme emotions, or that a few women are more miserable than men, while most are more cheerful.
Two personality traits shine through the complexity of economists’ regression analyses: neuroticism and extroversion. Neurotic people—those who are prone to guilt, anger and anxiety—tend to be unhappy. This is more than a tautological observation about people’s mood when asked about their feelings by pollsters or economists. Studies following people over many years have shown that neuroticism is a stable personality trait and a good predictor of levels of happiness. Neurotic people are not just prone to negative feelings: they also tend to have low emotional intelligence, which makes them bad at forming or managing relationships, and that in turn makes them unhappy.
Whereas neuroticism tends to make for gloomy types, extroversion does the opposite. Those who like working in teams and who relish parties tend to be happier than those who shut their office doors in the daytime and hole up at home in the evenings. This personality trait may help explain some cross-cultural differences: a study comparing similar groups of British, Chinese and Japanese people found that the British were, on average, both more extrovert and happier than the Chinese and Japanese.
Then there is the role of circumstance. All sorts of things in people’s lives, such as relationships, education, income and health, shape the way they feel. Being married gives people a considerable uplift, but not as big as the gloom that springs from being unemployed. In America, being black used to be associated with lower levels of happiness—though the most recent figures suggest that being black or Hispanic is nowadays associated with greater happiness. People with children in the house are less happy than those without. More educated people are happier, but that effect disappears once income is controlled for. Education, in other words, seems to make people happy because it makes them richer. And richer people are happier than poor ones—though just how much is a source of argument (see article).
Lastly, there is age. Ask a bunch of 30-year-olds and another of 70-year-olds (as Peter Ubel, of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, did with two colleagues, Heather Lacey and Dylan Smith, in 2006) which group they think is likely to be happier, and both lots point to the 30-year-olds. Ask them to rate their own well-being, and the 70-year-olds are the happier bunch. The academics quoted lyrics written by Pete Townshend of The Who when he was 20: “Things they do look awful cold / Hope I die before I get old”. They pointed out that Mr Townshend, having passed his 60th birthday, was writing a blog that glowed with good humour.
Mr Townshend may have thought of himself as a youthful radical, but this view is ancient and conventional. The “seven ages of man”—the dominant image of the life-course in the 16th and 17th centuries—was almost invariably conceived as a rise in stature and contentedness to middle age, followed by a sharp decline towards the grave. Inverting the rise and fall is a recent idea. “A few of us noticed the U-bend in the early 1990s,” says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick Business School. “We ran a conference about it, but nobody came.”
Since then, interest in the U-bend has been growing. Its effect on happiness is significant—about half as much, from the nadir of middle age to the elderly peak, as that of unemployment. It appears all over the world. David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, and Mr Oswald looked at the figures for 72 countries. The nadir varies among countries—Ukrainians, at the top of the range, are at their most miserable at 62, and Swiss, at the bottom, at 35—but in the great majority of countries people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. The global average is 46.
The U-bend shows up in studies not just of global well-being but also of hedonic or emotional well-being. One paper, published this year by Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University, and Angus Deaton of Princeton, breaks well-being down into positive and negative feelings and looks at how the experience of those emotions varies through life. Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.
Turn the question upside down, and the pattern still appears. When the British Labour Force Survey asks people whether they are depressed, the U-bend becomes an arc, peaking at 46.
There is always a possibility that variations are the result not of changes during the life-course, but of differences between cohorts. A 70-year-old European may feel different to a 30-year-old not because he is older, but because he grew up during the second world war and was thus formed by different experiences. But the accumulation of data undermines the idea of a cohort effect. Americans and Zimbabweans have not been formed by similar experiences, yet the U-bend appears in both their countries. And if a cohort effect were responsible, the U-bend would not show up consistently in 40 years’ worth of data.
Another possible explanation is that unhappy people die early. It is hard to establish whether that is true or not; but, given that death in middle age is fairly rare, it would explain only a little of the phenomenon. Perhaps the U-bend is merely an expression of the effect of external circumstances. After all, common factors affect people at different stages of the life-cycle. People in their 40s, for instance, often have teenage children. Could the misery of the middle-aged be the consequence of sharing space with angry adolescents? And older people tend to be richer. Could their relative contentment be the result of their piles of cash?
The answer, it turns out, is no: control for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend is still there. So the growing happiness that follows middle-aged misery must be the result not of external circumstances but of internal changes.
People, studies show, behave differently at different ages. Older people have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”
There are various theories as to why this might be so. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, talks of “the uniquely human ability to recognise our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons”. Because the old know they are closer to death, she argues, they grow better at living for the present. They come to focus on things that matter now—such as feelings—and less on long-term goals. “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.” For instance, she says, “young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.”
There are other possible explanations. Maybe the sight of contemporaries keeling over infuses survivors with a determination to make the most of their remaining years. Maybe people come to accept their strengths and weaknesses, give up hoping to become chief executive or have a picture shown in the Royal Academy, and learn to be satisfied as assistant branch manager, with their watercolour on display at the church fete. “Being an old maid”, says one of the characters in a story by Edna Ferber, an (unmarried) American novelist, was “like death by drowning—a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.” Perhaps acceptance of ageing itself is a source of relief. “How pleasant is the day”, observed William James, an American philosopher, “when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”
Whatever the causes of the U-bend, it has consequences beyond the emotional. Happiness doesn’t just make people happy—it also makes them healthier. John Weinman, professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, monitored the stress levels of a group of volunteers and then inflicted small wounds on them. The wounds of the least stressed healed twice as fast as those of the most stressed. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Sheldon Cohen infected people with cold and flu viruses. He found that happier types were less likely to catch the virus, and showed fewer symptoms of illness when they did. So although old people tend to be less healthy than younger ones, their cheerfulness may help counteract their crumbliness.
Happier people are more productive, too. Mr Oswald and two colleagues, Eugenio Proto and Daniel Sgroi, cheered up a bunch of volunteers by showing them a funny film, then set them mental tests and compared their performance to groups that had seen a neutral film, or no film at all. The ones who had seen the funny film performed 12% better. This leads to two conclusions. First, if you are going to volunteer for a study, choose the economists’ experiment rather than the psychologists’ or psychiatrists’. Second, the cheerfulness of the old should help counteract their loss of productivity through declining cognitive skills—a point worth remembering as the world works out how to deal with an ageing workforce.
The ageing of the rich world is normally seen as a burden on the economy and a problem to be solved. The U-bend argues for a more positive view of the matter. The greyer the world gets, the brighter it becomes—a prospect which should be especially encouraging to Economist readers (average age 47).
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Sunday, January 02, 2011
"Fuck Hamas. Fuck Israel. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNWRA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community!
"We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in...
"We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal-dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, home-made fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.
"There is a revolution growing inside of us, an immense dissatisfaction and frustration that will destroy us unless we find a way of canalising this energy into something that can challenge the status quo and give us some kind of hope.
"We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead, where Israel very effectively bombed the shit out of us, destroying thousands of homes and even more lives and dreams. During the war we got the unmistakable feeling that Israel wanted to erase us from the face of the Earth. During the last years, Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed. We cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want.
"ENOUGH! Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart-aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians, religious bullshit, enough incarceration! WE SAY STOP! This is not the future we want! We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask?"