CRF Blog

Church, Temple, Mosque

by Bill Hayes

In Church, Temple, Mosque for the New York Times Book Review, Damon Linker reviews The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age by Martha C. Nussbaum.

As Nussbaum notes, the American and European developments differ in important ways. Above all, she writes, nothing in the United States “even remotely approaches the nationwide and regional bans on Islamic dress in Europe, or the nationwide Swiss minaret referendum” — let alone an anti-Islamic massacre. In Nussbaum’s view, the difference in severity stems from divergent views of national identity. Whereas European nations tend to “conceive of nationhood and national belonging in ethno-religious and cultural-linguistic terms,” the United States associates citizenship with the affirmation of an ideal of freedom that explicitly precludes the persecution of religious minorities. She suggests that Europe migrate to “a more inclusive and political definition of national belonging, in which land, ethnicity and religion would be less important than shared political ideals.” In other words, Europe should become more like America. [more]

9 questions about North Korea you were too embarrassed to ask

by Bill Hayes

In an explainer piece, Vox answers 9 questions about North Korea you were too embarrassed to ask.

  1. What is North Korea?

North Korea, known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a small country sandwiched between China and South Korea in Northeast Asia. It is home to an estimated 25 million people, nearly 3 million of whom live in the capital city of Pyongyang.

Since 1948, it has been run by the Kim family. The first leader was Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who was in power from 1948 to 1994. He was treated like a god in both life and death. He is still known today as the “Great Leader” and the “Eternal President,” and monuments glorifying his reign are everywhere in the country.

Kim Il Sung’s cult of personality really began to take root in 1950, when he led the Soviet-backed invasion of South Korea, kicking off the Korean War. The United States intervened in the war on behalf of South Korea, and China later intervened on behalf of the communist North. It was a bloody war that ultimately killed some 5 million soldiers and civilians.

At the war’s end in 1953, the two countries became separated by a demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and remain so to this day. Technically, both sides are still at war, since an armistice (truce) was signed, not a peace treaty.

After the deal was signed, South Korea — with heavy US financial and security support — began to slowly transform itself into what is now one of the world’s wealthiest, best-educated, and most technologically advanced societies.

The North also briefly flourished because of support from the Soviet Union and China, but those good times didn’t last. Mismanagement, crippling debt, and a series of devastating droughts and floods demolished the North Korean economy and set off what would eventually become lingering food shortages in the country.

At the same time, the Soviet Union was suffering its own economic troubles, causing its leaders to pull back on aid to North Korea. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the early 1990s, the North Korean economy went into a dramatic downward spiral, culminating in a horrendous famine that killed between 600,000 and 1 million people.

Yet through all of this, Kim Il Sung cultivated a powerful cult of personality. North Koreans were inundated with propaganda branding Kim as the country’s benevolent father figure who was transforming the country into a glorious socialist utopia through his unique brand of ideology, known as “juche.” Translated as “self-reliance,” juche stresses total independence in all facets of national life, from foreign policy to economics to national defense.

When Kim died at the age of 82, the Korean Central News Agency, the country’s official news organization, published a glowing seven-page announcement that said “he turned our country, where age-old backwardness and poverty had prevailed, into a powerful Socialist country, independent, self-supporting and self-reliant.” He was, as the news agency concluded, the “sun of the nation.”

Since Kim’s death in 1994, his son and grandson, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, respectively, have carried on his legacy, aiming to run the country exactly like he did. They purposefully demonstrate in their own propaganda how closely they hew to Kim Il Sung’s style of governance. Kim Jong Un even goes out of his way to look as much like his grandfather as he possibly can.

Despite some modest reforms to the economy under the two younger Kims, the country is still far, far behind the rest of the world. The CIA ranks North Korea as the 215th-poorest country out of the 230 it tracks, and its people live on about $1,700 a year.

North Korea is almost solely reliant on China as a trading partner, with most of its money coming from the millions of tons of coal it exports to China every year. It also sends iron ore, seafood, and clothing to the Chinese. This is why the news that China had suspended its coal imports from North Korea back in February was such a big deal, even though China’s overall trade with North Korea has increased. [more]

The Fall After the Arab Spring

by Bill Hayes

In The Fall After the Arab Spring for the New Yorker, George Packer looks at how Tunisia, which inspired the revolutions, has now “become the leading exporter of jihadis.”

A few miles northwest of Tunis, with its sidewalk cafés and streets lined by rows of manicured ficus trees and its avenues named after European cities, there is a poor suburb of eighty thousand people called Douar Hicher. The streets are narrow and rutted, with drains cut through the middle, and the houses cluster close together, as if to keep out strangers. In the first days of 2011, thousands of young people from Douar Hicher and other suburbs poured into downtown Tunis to demand the ouster of the country’s corrupt and autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Within two weeks, he had been overthrown, in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. This sudden change was soon celebrated around the world as the first sprout of the Arab Spring.

In the new Tunisia, freedom brought tumult as well as joy. Douar Hicher became the scene of preaching, protesting, and, at times, violence by Islamists. Before the revolution, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis — the word refers to the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad — took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighborhoods. Some of the Salafis belonged to an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, the Defenders of Sharia, which opposed electoral democracy and wanted to set off an Islamist insurrection. The group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October, 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post in Douar Hicher. In 2013, faced with a state crackdown, the Salafis went underground, and young men and women began disappearing from neighborhoods like Douar Hicher.

In November, I was shown around Douar Hicher by Mohamed, a local engineer in his late twenties. Mohamed, who grew up there, said, “The friends I was studying with in high school and boxing with — ninety per cent have gone, and not to Italy. They went to Syria and Iraq. There are no longer any young people.” Small children were picking discarded clothes from a garbage pile, but there were few of the idle young men who gather so conspicuously in the streets of working-class Arab neighborhoods. Thirteen residents of a single block had been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq, Mohamed said. He pointed to a small side street: “Two weeks ago, thirty people disappeared from here.” They were on the run from the police, and were believed to have joined the Islamic State, or isis, in Libya — an increasingly common destination for Tunisian jihadis. The families of Salafis seldom report these departures, fearing harassment by the authorities. “It’s a surprise when they leave, but we know who’s contemplating it,” Mohamed said. The main reasons for leaving, he added, were “marginalization and joblessness.”

A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.

Mohamed and I passed a hole-in-the-wall café where middle-aged men were smoking water pipes and drinking coffee. It had been the hangout of a young local named Hamza Maghraoui, who went to Syria and joined the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. In 2013, he returned to Douar Hicher, where he told war stories at his favorite café (and violated the anti-smoking strictures of Al Qaeda). Maghraoui went back to the front, and joined isis. Last February, he became famous in Douar Hicher when a video was posted to YouTube showing him help capture Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian Air Force pilot, who was then burned alive. Maghraoui was killed in September, in an American air strike.

At a garden café on the outskirts of Douar Hicher, I met another friend of Mohamed’s, whom I’ll call Kamal. He was in his mid-twenties, with scruffy jeans, hair that was gelled upward, and a look of hurt in his eyes. He had once worked in tourism, acting as a freelance guide for foreigners and as a d.j. in Tunisia. Now he was jobless. Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.

Kamal had joined the Jasmine Revolution, but he was angry that it had not improved the prospects of young Tunisians like him. For a few months, he worked at an Airbus plant in the south of Tunis, but the salary was so low that he decided he was better off trying to make a living in Tunisia’s informal economy. Most of the men in his family worked in the police force, but Kamal had been rejected at the recruitment office, without explanation. He glanced at the other tables in the garden café, lowered his voice, and outlined what he called “the project.” He said, “The Islamic State will rule the world. There will be no flag other than the flag of Allah, and there will be justice and peace all over the world. Those who have done wrong, who have killed people, will be killed under the Koran. Some will die in public trials, in front of everybody.” He went on, “In Tunisia, the President and all his officials will be removed. They’ll get what they deserve. They are infidels.”

In 2013, Kamal joined demonstrations organized by Ansar al-Sharia. He had known the imam who was killed in Douar Hicher, and many of Kamal’s friends had died abroad after becoming jihadis; those who had returned to Tunisia were jailed for supporting terrorism. He wasn’t ready to fight in Syria, but he dreaded the thought of remaining in Tunisia. Less than an hour away from Douar Hicher, along the Mediterranean, were the upscale restaurants of La Marsa, home to wealthy Tunisians and expatriates, and the ancient Roman waterways of Carthage, which were lined with sprawling villas still occupied by the corrupt relatives of Ben Ali. “The rich in Tunisia get richer, and the poor get poorer,” Kamal said.

At the table, another young Tunisian, Aslam Souli, was interpreting for us. Souli was a member of the élite — his father was a well-known professor of Arabic literature, and he was studying to be a radiologist. After the Sousse massacre, he and some friends formed an organization called the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism. The group provides poor youths with activities at recreation centers and offers counselling sessions against jihad. When Souli described this effort, Kamal was dismissive — Souli and his friends, he said, were just wealthy kids seeking yet more money and attention.

“The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation — because the roads are terrible — and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”

For all his talk about jihad, Kamal seemed like a young man who would jump at a chance to party at a techno club. He was eager to mention European friends with whom he discusses religion (but not the project). To my surprise, he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional — an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight. [more]

How Mikhail Gorbachev ended the cold war

by David De La Torre

In How Mikhail Gorbachev ended the cold war, The Economist reviews Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman.

Ever since the end of the Soviet Union, the question of “why” has lingered in Western, Russian and Chinese minds. Why did a man at the head of a superpower undermine his own authority? Did he simply fail to understand the consequences of his actions, or did he act out of courage and vision? How did Mr Gorbachev, the peasant boy turned Communist Party boss in a fedora, become the statesman who liberated his people from 70 years of lies and fear, end the cold war and bury the Soviet Union? Was he a product of the Soviet system, as he claimed, or its “genetic error”, as Andrei Grachev, an earlier biographer described him? What made Gorbachev Gorbachev?

These are the questions William Taubman, an American political scientist, sets out to answer in his comprehensive and immensely readable account of Mr Gorbachev’s life. “Gorbachev is hard to understand,” the former Soviet leader told Mr Taubman, speaking of himself in the third person. The author applies a Tolstoyan lens to Russia’s recent history and displays particular sensitivity in his assessment of a life that would prove richer than politics. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “The Cold War: How Did It Start? How Did It End?”  It is available from  CRF’s 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.

Finding North America’s lost medieval city

by Bill Hayes

In Finding North America’s lost medieval city for Ars Technica, Annalee Newitz reports on the latest research on what was one of the world’s largest cities.

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region’s tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city’s apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

Despite its greatness, the city’s name has been lost to time. Its culture is known simply as Mississippian. When Europeans explored Illinois in the 17th century, the city had been abandoned for hundreds of years. At that time, the region was inhabited by the Cahokia, a tribe from the Illinois Confederation. Europeans decided to name the ancient city after them, despite the fact that the Cahokia themselves claimed no connection to it.

Centuries later, Cahokia’s meteoric rise and fall remain a mystery. It was booming in 1050, and by 1400 its population had disappeared, leaving behind a landscape completely geoengineered by human hands. Looking for clues about its history, archaeologists dig through the thick, wet, stubborn clay that Cahokians once used to construct their mounds. Buried beneath just a few feet of earth are millennia-old building foundations, trash pits, the cryptic remains of public rituals, and in some places, even, graves.

To find out what happened to Cahokia, I joined an archaeological dig there in July. It was led by two archaeologists who specialize in Cahokian history, Sarah Baires of Eastern Connecticut State University and Melissa Baltus of University of Toledo. They were assisted by Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Watts of Indiana University, Bloomington, and a class of tireless undergraduates with the Institute for Field Research. Together, they spent the summer opening three large trenches in what they thought would be a sleepy little residential neighborhood southwest of Monk’s Mound.

They were wrong. The more they dug, the more obvious it became that this was no ordinary place. The structures they excavated were full of ritual objects charred by sacred fires. We found the remains of feasts and a rare earthen structure lined with yellow soils. Baires, Baltus, and their team had accidentally stumbled on an archaeological treasure trove linked to the city’s demise. The story of this place would take us back to the final decades of a great city whose social structure was undergoing a radical transformation.

Finding a lost city in the modern world isn’t exactly like playing Tomb Raider. Instead of hacking through jungle and fighting a dragon, I drove to Cahokia on a road that winds through the depressed neighborhoods of East St. Louis and into Collinsville, Illinois. As recently as the 1970s, the ancient city’s elevated walkways and mounds were covered over by suburban developments. Just west of Monk’s Mound was the Mounds Drive-In Theater. Farmers often plowed over Cahokia’s smaller landmarks.

All that changed 40 years ago when Illinois declared Cahokia a state historic site, and UNESCO granted it World Heritage status. The state bought 2,200 acres of land from residents, clearing away the drive-in and a small subdivision. Now the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site and Visitors’ Center is devoted to preserving what remains of the ancient city’s monumental downtown architecture. [more]

Can Yascha Mounk Save Liberal Democracy?

by Bill Hayes

In Can Yascha Mounk Save Liberal Democracy? for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Elbert Ventura profiles Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard who emigrated from Germany.

Mounk, a lecturer in political theory at Harvard, was sounding the alarm on this populist turn more than a year before Trump’s victory. Sifting through mounds of public-opinion data, he argued that the consensus around liberal democracy was more brittle than we thought. Writing in The New York Times in September 2015, Mounk and his co-author, Roberto Foa, now a lecturer in political science at the University of Melbourne, reported that survey trends showed a “deep disillusionment with democracy.” They found that “citizens over the last three decades have become less likely to endorse the importance of democracy; less likely to express trust in democratic institutions; and less likely to reject nondemocratic alternatives.” The upshot: There was an opening for antidemocratic demagogues. [more]

What You Can Do About Climate Change?

by Bill Hayes

In What You Can Do About Climate Change? for The Upshot section of the New York Times, Josh Katz and Jennifer Daniel provide seven rules of thumb for thinking about climate change.

1. You’re better off eating vegetables from Argentina than red meat from a local farm. Eating local is lovely, but most carbon emissions involving food don’t come from transportation — they come from production, and the production of red meat and dairy is incredibly carbon-intensive.

Emissions from red-meat production come from methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Experts disagree about how methane emissions should be counted in the planet’s emissions tally, but nearly everyone agrees that raising cattle and sheep causes warming that is an order of magnitude more than that from raising alternate protein sources like fish and chicken (the latter of which have the added benefit of creating eggs).

According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon, a typical household that replaces 30 percent of its calories from red meat and dairy with a combination of chicken, fish and eggs will save more carbon than a household that ate entirely local food for a full year.

Yes, eating nothing but locally grown fruits and vegetables would reduce your carbon footprint the most. But for people not ready to make that leap, reducing how much meat you eat matters more than going local. [more]

The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau

by Bill Hayes

In The surprising persistence of Henry David Thoreau for The Nation, Jedediah Purdy reviews Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls.

Thoreau’s political engagement isn’t exactly news, but Walls foregrounds it vividly to show him as part of a set of engaged communities: radical Concord, the Transcendentalist network, the abolitionist movement, and his own militant family. Far from being a hermit, the Thoreau that Walls portrays is, above all else, a social and political creature. He travels to Brooklyn for a visit with Walt Whitman (“It is as if the beasts spoke,” Thoreau wrote of Leaves of Grass) and elsewhere spends evenings with both Douglass and Brown. A key part of his early formation was working as a teaching apprentice under Orestes Brownson, the Catholic convert and proto-socialist who figures prominently in the history of American left-wing thought. He also spent time with the Alcotts and Nathaniel Hawthorne — who, Walls tell us, used Thoreau as the basis for the title character of The Marble Faun, a moody aristocrat rumored to be descended from satyrs.

Yet Thoreau was no aristocrat, Walls reminds us, no matter how he might have struck Hawthorne. He wasn’t a laborer’s son, as Brownson was, and he came from some means. But family members kept dying at inconvenient times, and the result was a life spent somewhere between what George Orwell called the “lower-upper-middle class” and Europe’s impoverished aristocrats. Thoreau found time for hiking trips and boating expeditions with college friends, and the family rose economically during his lifetime, becoming the leading pencil manufacturers in North America. But he always had to work for a living, including stints in his family’s pencil factory, as a schoolteacher and a surveyor, and years as a handyman, doing jobs that could be fitted in between writing and walking. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson, see The Transcendentalists in Action from CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.

The crisis of expertise

by Bill Hayes

In The crisis of expertise for Aeon, Tom Nichols argues that it is “time to reboot the relationship between expertise and democracy.”

Experts get things wrong all the time. The effects of such errors range from mild embarrassment to wasted time and money; in rarer cases, they can result in death, and even lead to international catastrophe. And yet experts regularly ask citizens to trust expert judgment and to have confidence not only that mistakes will be rare, but that the experts will identify those mistakes and learn from them.

Day to day, laypeople have no choice but to trust experts. We live our lives embedded in a web of social and governmental institutions meant to ensure that professionals are in fact who they say they are, and can in fact do what they say they do. Universities, accreditation organisations, licensing boards, certification authorities, state inspectors and other institutions exist to maintain those standards.

This daily trust in professionals is a prosaic matter of necessity. It is in much the same way that we trust everyone else in our daily lives, including the bus driver we assume isn’t drunk or the restaurant worker we assume has washed her hands. This is not the same thing as trusting professionals when it comes to matters of public policy: to say that we trust our doctors to write us the correct prescription is not the same thing as saying that we trust all medical professionals about whether the US should have a system of national healthcare. To say that we trust a college professor to teach our sons and daughters the history of the Second World War is not the same as saying that we therefore trust all academic historians to advise the president of the US on matters of war and peace.

For these larger decisions, there are no licences or certificates. There are no fines or suspensions if things go wrong. Indeed, there is very little direct accountability at all, which is why laypeople understandably fear the influence of experts.

How do experts go wrong? There are several kinds of expert failure. The most innocent and most common are what we might think of as the ordinary failures of science. Individuals, or even entire professions, get important questions wrong because of error or because of the limitations of a field itself. They observe a phenomenon or examine a problem, come up with theories and solutions, and then test them. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong.

Science is learning by doing. Laypeople are uncomfortable with ambiguity, and they prefer answers rather than caveats. But science is a process, not a conclusion. Science subjects itself to constant testing by a set of careful rules under which theories can be displaced only by other theories. Laypeople cannot expect experts to never be wrong; if they were capable of such accuracy, they wouldn’t need to do research and run experiments in the first place. [more]

North Korea and the Bomb

by Bill Hayes

Foreign Affairs magazine has a series of 26 articles titled North Korea and the Bomb: The Origins of the Current Crisis and What’s Next.

What Are Impeachable Offenses?

by Bill Hayes

In What Are Impeachable Offenses? for the New York Review of Books, Noah Feldman and Jacob Weisberg review The Case for Impeachment by Allan J. Lichtman and Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide by Cass R. Sunstein.

Because it has been used so rarely, and because it is a power entrusted to Congress, not the courts, impeachment as a legal process is poorly understood. There are no judicial opinions that create precedents for how and when to proceed with it. Past cases are subject to competing and often contradictory interpretations. Some might even be tempted to argue that because impeachment is ultimately political, it cannot be considered in legal terms at all.

That extreme view cannot be right. Impeachment must be a legal procedure because it derives from specific constitutional directives. The impeachment clauses of the Constitution are subject to interpretation, like all language, legal or otherwise, but they function as law. Members of Congress have a sworn legal duty to apply the Constitution correctly — including when they are considering impeachment. Calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1970, then Congressman Gerald Ford asserted that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” That statement ought to be taken as a description of political reality, not a prescription that Congress may choose to treat any conduct as impeachable.

The legal limits of the impeachment power are subject to debate. Yet it is clear both historically and logically that impeachment was designed to deal with abuses committed while in office, not prior crimes. Any wrongdoing of Trump’s before he assumed the presidency must be considered separately from offenses he may have committed in office. The former, however serious it might be, is not a basis for impeachment; and the president is presumptively protected from prosecution by presidential immunity until he leaves the White House.

Between this before-and-after division lies an unexplored gray area: Can a president be impeached for attempting to steal an election while he was not yet in office? On the one hand, actions taken by a candidate are not technically an abuse of an office that he does not yet hold. On the other hand, crimes committed in pursuit of the presidency could count as “high” in the sense that they are connected to the presidency even if they are not committed in office.

The decision would lie with Congress …. [more]

In Praise of Short Sellers

by Bill Hayes

In In Praise of Short Sellers for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki looks at the positive side of short selling.

Shorting and distorting does happen, and is illegal. But the rise of activist shorts has been, on the whole, a good thing. All kinds of forces conspire to push stocks higher: investor overconfidence, corporate puffery, and Wall Street’s inherent bullish bias. Shorting helps counterbalance this, and it contributes to the diversity of opinion that healthy markets require. In 2007, a comprehensive study of markets around the world found that ones where short selling was legal and common were more efficient than ones where it was not. And a 2012 study concluded simply, “Stock prices are more accurate when short sellers are more active.”

Short sellers can also play a vital role in uncovering malfeasance. [more]

Baby Brains

by Bill Hayes

In Baby Brains, National Geographic reports on the importance of the first year in the development of a baby’s brain.

In the late 1980s, when the crack cocaine epidemic was ravaging America’s cities, Hallam Hurt, a neonatologist in Philadelphia, worried about the damage being done to children born to addicted mothers. She and her colleagues, studying children from low-income families, compared four-year-olds who’d been exposed to the drug with those who hadn’t. They couldn’t find any significant differences. Instead, what they discovered was that in both groups the children’s IQs were much lower than average. “These little children were coming in cute as buttons, and yet their IQs were like 82 and 83,” Hurt says. “Average IQ is 100. It was shocking.”

The revelation prompted the researchers to turn their focus from what differentiated the two groups toward what they had in common: being raised in poverty. To understand the children’s environment, the researchers visited their homes with a checklist. They asked if the parents had at least ten books at home for the children, a record player with songs for them, and toys to help them learn numbers. They noted whether the parents spoke to the children in an affectionate voice, spent time answering their questions, and hugged, kissed, and praised them.

The researchers found that children who received more attention and nurturing at home tended to have higher IQs. Children who were more cognitively stimulated performed better on language tasks, and those nurtured more warmly did better on memory tasks.

Many years later, when the kids had entered their teens, the researchers took MRI images of their brains and then matched them up with the records of how warmly nurtured the children had been at both four and eight years old. They found a strong link between nurturing at age four and the size of the hippocampus — a part of the brain associated with memory — but found no correlation between nurturing at age eight and the hippocampus. The results demonstrated just how critically important an emotionally supportive environment is at a very young age.

The Philadelphia study, published in 2010, was one of the first to demonstrate that childhood experience shapes the structure of the developing brain. Since then, other studies have shown a link between a baby’s socioeconomic status and the growth of its brain. [more]

What caused the French Revolution?

by Bill Hayes

In this TedEd video, Tom Mullaney offers his take on What caused the French Revolution?

Letter From Mumbai

by Bill Hayes

In Letter From Mumbai, an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in American Scholar, author Murzban F. Shroff argues that India should be more open to freedom of expression.

I fear, Mr. Prime Minister, that India is falling prey to a kind of fascism far worse than we have seen before in the course of our tumultuous history. Repression of the arts springs from our own loins, attacks us on our own soil, mocks our constitution, ties up our courts, subverts our police, and silences the means by which we claim to be a democracy. Practiced with increasing fervor, it generates fear and denies free speech and free thought their God-given sanctity.

As you must know, the most celebrated case occurred this year when Penguin India, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, ordered unsold copies of the work to be withdrawn and pulped after a member of a right-wing organization brought civil and criminal lawsuits against it. The author, a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, contended that Hinduism was a pluralistic religion open to various interpretations; the complainant held that the work had several factual errors that showed Hinduism in a poor light. In support of the author, the American Academy of Religions issued this statement:

To pursue excellence scholars must be free to ask any question, to offer any interpretation, and to raise any issue. If governments block the free exchange of ideas or restrict what can be said about religion, all of us are impoverished.

The lawsuits were filed in 2010, the year the book was published in India, and after four years of litigation, the publisher conceded that “the Indian Penal Code, and in particular section 295A of that code, will make it increasingly difficult for any Indian publisher to uphold international standards of free expression without deliberately placing itself outside the law.” Here, Mr. Prime Minister, is one example of our national shame.

Now, may I remind you of another case from a decade ago? [more]