CRF Blog

Colbert vs. Wieseltier

by Bill Hayes

Satirist Stephen Colbert interviews Leon Wieseltier, cultural critic of the New Republic on that magazine’s 100th anniversary. Wieseltier makes a good case for the necessity of citizens to be informed.

China Strikes Back!

by Bill Hayes

In China Strikes Back! for the New York Review of Books, Orville Schell reports on how relations with China have changed in the last 35 years.

[M]any Chinese officials and military officers now seem so proud that their country has become rich and strong that they appear almost relieved to at last be able to stand up militantly to the Japanese and the Vietnamese — and even to quietly insult prominent Americans — never mind the negative, even dangerous, possible consequences for the rest of the world of such truculence. Right now people on both sides seem to be filled with increasing perplexity about why things are so difficult, just at a time when we are urgently in need of finding ways to avoid the kind of conflict many worry can all too easily emerge with the rising of a large new power.

Where does such a standoffishness, which impedes our two sides from truly engaging, come from? Perhaps from a concern of the Chinese that being too obviously flexible and accommodating might be misinterpreted as weakness, the very frailty that China’s hard-earned rise to wealth and power has sought to remedy. A second is perhaps Beijing’s awareness that despite all its economic progress, Western-style democracies not only still look down on China’s Leninist system of governance, but wouldn’t mind seeing it fundamentally changed. Western attitudes toward Chinese Communist Party rule are, not surprisingly, experienced as condescending, and they rankle many proud Chinese.

Now that China is enjoying such success in its own development that the global balance of power has begun to dramatically shift in its favor, the US finds itself confronting a new reality in Beijing. Xi’s version of reform no longer even includes a meaningful program of political reform. Gone are the days when officials might say, “Give us time. China cannot change all at once.”

What is more, China’s new confidence in its own system of Leninist capitalism and its new assertiveness in the world have only been encouraged by the spectacle of a paralyzed US Congress and Europe’s faltering governments. Such models of democratic practice leave Party officials feeling more justified than ever in rejecting Western democracy’s checks and balances, electoral politics, universal values, human rights, independent civil society, open media, and freedom of religious organization. [more]

40 maps that explain the Roman Empire

by Bill Hayes

In a special map section, Vox presents maps that may be of particular interest to the history-social science teachers. One collection is 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire. Below is “Italy before Roman conquest,” one of the 40 maps.


The Transparency Trap

by Bill Hayes

In The Transparency Trap for the Atlantic, David Frum argues that “trying to make government more accountable has backfired.”

Reformers keep trying to eliminate backroom wheeling and dealing from American governance. What they end up doing instead is eliminating governance itself, not just in the White House but in Congress, too. Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson tells a story that illustrates how the system used to work. Immediately upon becoming president, Johnson worked to pass President Kennedy’s stalled tax cut. He did so by wooing the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Harry Byrd, a conservative Virginian gripped (in Caro’s words) by a “fixation on frugality.” Byrd demanded that Johnson produce a budget of less than $100 billion. Caro details how Johnson insisted that officials in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget drive the figure down, to $97.9 billion. Byrd was satisfied; the Kennedy economic program passed.

Congress has no more Harry Byrds, single figures who can make things happen. In 1963, a committee chairman was an awesome figure. Committees could under certain circumstances convene in secret, their proceedings known only to a handful of insiders. The chairman’s power was mighty, tempered in the Senate only by the need to show courtesy to the ranking senator of the other party. House chairmen didn’t need to do even that. They had to worry only about a few other barons whose jurisdiction overlapped with their own: notably, the chairman of the Rules Committee, who wrote the “rule” that determined whether amendments to their handiwork would be allowed on the House floor. Chairmen weren’t elected. They attained their position by seniority. [more]

Chart of the Day: Financial Aid for the Ebola Crisis

Infographic: The World's Financial Response to Ebola | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

How Business Can Change Cuba

by Bill Hayes

In How Business Can Change Cuba for Bloomberg Businessweek, Tom Padgett argues that loosening restrictions on trade with Cuba will over time bring democracy to the island nation.

[A] powerhouse group of four dozen U.S. political, business, and military leaders advised President Obama in May to relax Washington’s 52-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. Even career conservatives such as John Negroponte, President George W. Bush’s intelligence chief, signed the letter urging Obama to use executive powers and “help Cubans increase their self-reliance.” Among its recommendations: Lift the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba, allow U.S. investors and NGOs to fund Cuban micro-enterprises, and let private U.S. and Cuban businesses import and export goods to each other.

Hard-line Cuban exile leaders are furious at this approach — or the suggestion that anything short of an exile-led reconquista will change Cuba. Cuban American Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami called it a “pathetic” trend that would “give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio, another Cuban American hard-liner, accused U.S. Chamber of Commerce boss Tom Donohue of handing the Castros a “propaganda coup” by making a “misguided” visit to Cuba as the letter was sent to Obama. [more]

Popping property bubbles

by David De La Torre

In Choosing the right pin, The Economist reports that a housing bubble seems to be inflating in Europe.

It is not just Sweden: in June the IMF called on policymakers to do more to curb housing prices around the world, pointing out that valuations looked high in many countries. In May the European Central Bank singled out sky-high prices in Belgium, Finland and France; in July Moody’s, a ratings agency, said that Britain showed signs of a new property bubble. The trend is all the more remarkable given that many of those economies have not fully recovered from the financial crisis and are growing feebly if at all. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson on bubbles, see “Tulipmania and Economic Bubbles.” It is available from our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Parents, too, could use a break on student loan debt

by Bill Hayes

In Parents, too, could use a break on student loan debt for the Los Angeles Times, Kerry Madden argues that students are not the only ones burdened with student-loan debts.

The master promissory notes we signed for our kids through the Department of Education Direct Loan Program made us responsible for 80% of the amount borrowed, while our children are each responsible for 20%. The Parent PLUS loans we were given came with an average interest rate of about 8% annually. The kids’ interest rate was 3%. All of the loans were dispersed through the Department of Education and are managed by Sallie Mae.

We have consolidated those loans into one automatic payment of $954.42 a month. Barring a miracle, Kiffen and I will make our last installment when we are nearing 75. By that time, with interest, we will have actually paid about $300,000 for our $120,000 in loans. [more]

Charlie Rose interviews Richard Haass

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

Fallen Idols

by Bill Hayes

In Fallen Idols, an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Margo Rabb writes about how loving a book doesn’t mean you necessarily will love its author.

Falling in love with a book is a unique and sometimes strange experience; it’s not hard to make the leap from adoring a novel to adoring its creator. The writer Justin Cronin compares it to a celebrity crush: “When you read a book, you spend hours in intimate contact with the mind of another person — it’s an intense, but one-sided relationship. If any reader knew who we really were, it’s guaranteed they’d find us disappointing. The experience of a book is so much better than the experience of a person.” The author Elizabeth Gilbert agreed. “When I meet readers, I feel a responsibility not to disappoint them. But how do you not disappoint someone who’s invented you?” She said she avoids meeting some of her favorite authors. “I love Martin Amis, but I probably shouldn’t hang out with him. And I don’t think he wants to hang out with me either, and talk about our ‘Aha! moments’ and what we’re doing to become healthier, better people.” [more]

Elena Ferrante Writes Fiction That Feels Autobiographical

by Bill Hayes

In Elena Ferrante Writes Fiction That Feels Autobiographical. But Who Is She? for the New Republic, Mona Simpson reviews Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

In the first novel of Elena Ferrante’s three-volume and still ongoing series, two young girls in an impoverished neighborhood of postwar Naples own in common their most treasured possession: an American book. The little Italian girls read Little Women and extract a dream of success. The girls in Little Women are poor too, and the most bookish one of them ends up supporting the family and making a name for herself as a writer. “In that last year of elementary school, wealth became our obsession. We talked about it the way characters in novels talk about searching for treasure. Then, I don’t know why, things changed and we began to link school to wealth. We thought that if we studied hard we would be able to write books and that the books would make us rich. Wealth was still the glitter of gold coins stored in countless chests, but to get there all you had to do was go to school and write a book.”

This is a fairytale — for readers. Two poor girls in a bleak neighborhood, with an atmosphere of brutality, discover a book from half a world away. In a literary variation on the Cinderella myth, someone writes the story of her world, and that document, rather than a prince with a gaudy glass slipper, initiates a transformation. We see the previously endangered child living in comfort by the end. That is also the story of David Copperfield, and also, in many ways, of its author; and of Louisa May Alcott, too, who wrote her novel “in record time for money” and died a wealthy spinster. David Copperfield, Little Women, and Elena Ferrante’s three Neapolitan books — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay — are five stations on the long line of novels that are written as if they were autobiography, specifically the autobiography of a professional writer. With these stories, a part of the reader’s pleasure derives from the idea that the book in her hands has helped to enact the very transformation that affords its hero or heroine (and implicitly its author) a happy ending. Of course, in the cases of Dickens and Alcott, as with most long-dead authors, it is easy to trace the parallels of the characters’ and the authors’ biographies and see where they overlap and diverge. With living authors, the dissection is more complicated. [more]

In Xinjiang, China, journalists work in the shadow of censorship

by Bill Hayes

In In Xinjiang, China, journalists work in the shadow of censorship for the Los Angeles Times, Julie Makinen reports first hand on censorship in China.

[E]ven as Chinese officials insist that this is a clear-cut battle against religious zealots and hard-core separatists, local authorities are making it difficult for anyone to independently question (or substantiate) that narrative. Outsiders inquiring about the scale or causes of the carnage in Xinjiang are unwelcome, and locals are discouraged from speaking freely about it.

That became abundantly clear on a recent Thursday when I and my assistant, our driver and guide suddenly found ourselves accompanied by two extremely persistent Xinjiang security officers who trailed us for hours and whose intimidating presence ensured that no one would talk openly to us.

China’s state-run media must follow the Communist Party line, but foreign journalists are supposed to be able to travel freely anywhere in the country except Tibet and interview anyone who consents.

In reality, though, authorities employ various tactics to stifle coverage. [more]

The Value of Brands

by David De La Torre

In What are brands for?, The Economist reports that the value of brands is a subject of debate.

[A]rguments rage about how much brands are worth and why. Firms that value them come to starkly different conclusions. Most of the time they do not appear as assets on companies’ balance-sheets. One school of thought says brands succeed mainly by inspiring loyalty. “Consumers would die for Apple,” believes Nick Cooper of Millward Brown [a market research company]. Others take a cooler view. Bruce McColl, who as the chief marketer of Mars oversees Snickers chocolate bars, Whiskas cat food and other brands, is on record as saying that “consumers aren’t out there thinking about our brands.” And however much brands may have been worth in the past, their importance may be fading.

Brands, of course, vary. Some identify products that are distinctive (like The Economist, we hope). Others confer distinction on products that are otherwise hard to tell apart, such as cola. The brands of banks and insurers are shaped less by advertising and marketing (the usual ways of building a brand) than by customers’ experiences… [more]

Infographic of the Day: Executions in 2013

Infographic: Which Country Carried Out The Most Executions In 2013? | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

Buy the Painting, Hold the Painting, Sell the Painting

by Bill Hayes

In Buy the Painting, Hold the Painting, Sell the Painting, a feature story, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at the incredible boom in the art market.

Contemporary art sales at auction shot up 33 percent last year and 1,078 percent over the past decade, according to France-based (PRC:FP). And those figures don’t include private sales and gallery transactions, which dwarf auction sales.

The boom has made single works more expensive than the market values of more than 800 members of the Nasdaq Composite Index. The same $142.4 million spent on the Bacon triptych at Christie’s would have funded India’s entire Mars orbiter mission — twice. Koons’s Balloon Dog, a 10-foot-tall stainless-steel rendition of a child’s party favor, went for roughly the same amount the White House recently requested to develop an Ebola vaccine.

At these levels, art has become a significant slice of the net worth of some of the planet’s richest inhabitants, a portfolio-diversifying store of value for anyone who already has enough homes, bonds, stocks, or airplanes. Financier Ronald Perelman’s fortune includes $3 billion in art — more than a fifth of his $14.8 billion total — according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Artwork valued at $2.3 billion is the single biggest chunk of music mogul David Geffen’s total $6.6 billion, and Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad’s $7 billion includes $2.2 billion of art. The Bloomberg index counts $1 billion of art each in the fortunes of hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, publishing baron Si Newhouse, and Pinault, who owns Christie’s.

The art market has reached similar dollar amounts (adjusted for inflation) before, notably when Asian buyers snatched up Impressionist artworks in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it has never seen such extraordinary prices for contemporary art, when a 25-year-old word painting like Apocalypse Now goes to auction estimated at more than a 400-year-old work by a Dutch master, such as Jan Brueghel the Elder’s The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man, which sold for $11.7 million in July.

“If you’re looking for something rational in the art market,” says art adviser Thea Westreich, “go fishing or go do something else instead.” [more]