The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers
Foreign Policy presents a unique portrait of 2012's global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them.
In 2012, the hopes for the Arab Spring began fading into cynicism as the world watched Syria descend into civil war, while the region’s nascent democracies struggled with their newfound freedom. But, meanwhile, one of the most remarkable and unexpected political reversals of our time has unfolded on the other side of the globe: Burma, long among the world’s most repressive dictatorships, began to reform under the leadership of two very unlikely allies.
For nearly 20 years, dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was sealed under house arrest by Burma’s paranoid military junta, which had drawn an iron curtain over the country since 1962. Now she’s a duly elected member of the country’s parliament — and it’s partly thanks to reformist President Thein Sein, a former general often described as an awkward, bookish bureaucrat. To the astonishment of many, Thein Sein began loosening restrictions on free speech and opening the economy after coming to power in 2011. This year, as the United States restored diplomatic ties with Burma (which the junta renamed Myanmar in 1989) and eased travel and economic sanctions, his government curbed censorship of the media and freed hundreds of political prisoners.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the soft-spoken, iconic political activist whom devotees call simply “the Lady,” may not seem like an obvious partner for Thein Sein, but she has become one by doing what few legends of her stature can: embracing the messy pragmatism of politics. Although Burma’s struggles are far from over — she has warned that international investment has been too rapid, and ethnic violence is escalating — the willingness of both the Lady and the general to embrace short-term compromise and foster long-term reconciliation in what was only recently one of the world’s most isolated countries is something to celebrate.
Fittingly, Aung San Suu Kyi finally was able to accept her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in June. She used the occasion to remind the world of those like her, who struggle in the most forlorn places: “To be forgotten too is to die a little. It is to lose some of the links that anchor us to the rest of humanity.” It is a sentiment still felt from Aleppo to Havana, Pyongyang to Tehran, but also, as Aung San Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have shown, one that doesn’t need to be permanent.
As the spirit of 2011 has faded this year amid religious violence in Egypt and Libya and the bloody sectarian civil war in Syria, Tunisia remains the Arab Spring’s most promising success story, with a contentious but robust political system and an economy that is growing again.
Much of the credit goes to President Moncef Marzouki, who has provided vision and wisdom since taking office in December 2011. At the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, the doctor-turned-democracy-activist called on the United Nations to declare dictatorship a “disease” and launch an official campaign against autocratic rulers, including the establishment of an international court to arbitrate elections and government legitimacy so as to prevent dictators from taking power in the first place. “It behooves us to implement an ambitious, bold program to eliminate dictatorship in the same way in which we got rid of polio and smallpox,” Marzouki said.
But Marzouki, a former professor of public health, is no starry-eyed idealist. An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, he devoted himself to human rights early in his career, traveling to India in his youth and South Africa soon after the end of apartheid. As head of Tunisia’s leading human rights organization, he was arrested several times by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime and was eventually forced into exile in France, where he remained a prominent figure in Tunisia’s liberal opposition but angered many of his cohorts by working with the Islamist Ennahda movement. Marzouki returned home after Ben Ali’s ouster and was elected president by the country’s Constituent Assembly.
A committed secularist, Marzouki, who is overseeing the writing of a new constitution, insists that Islamist parties must play a role in Tunisia’s governance, though he has also been willing to stand up to them when they overreach. He describes the country’s ultra-conservative Salafi groups as “extremely dangerous” but outside the mainstream. If anyone can guide Tunisia through its transition to democracy — and hopefully create a model for a troubled region — it’s Marzouki, who just might have the right combination of tenacity and levelheadedness to see the country through.
Reading list: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future, by Peter D. Ward; anthology of haikus. Best idea heard in 2012: Tax financial transactions. Worst idea: The support of China, Russia, and Iran to the Syrian regime. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not to tweet.
Love them or hate them, America’s ultimate power couple are also its most effective advocates for liberal internationalism: a vision that government can build prosperity at home and promote democracy and development abroad without demonizing the successful or needlessly antagonizing other countries. It’s a different kind of American exceptionalism, based on more than just firepower. And in a U.S. election year that often felt like Randian revanchism vs. opportunistic populism on economics and chest-thumping aggression vs. coldhearted realism on foreign policy, it’s no wonder that America is in the grips of a serious case of Clinton nostalgia.
In an ironic twist, Hillary Clinton — once seen as the calculating cynic to Barack Obama’s idealistic optimist — has emerged as one of the Obama administration’s most forceful advocates for human rights and democracy. Clinton, who was among those who led the push for the United States to intervene in Libya last year, remains a relentless campaigner for women’s rights and economic development, and she has insisted on the promotion of rights for gays and lesbians as an official component of U.S. diplomacy for the first time. But she has also added hardheaded global tactician to her portfolio, as when she spearheaded tense negotiations in China this past spring for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng (No. 9). With a 66 percent approval rating, she’s a lot more popular than her boss these days and has taken the ups and downs of the Arab Spring — which she accurately predicted at a time when many others succumbed to starry-eyed wishful thinking — as proof that her brand of pragmatic politics harnessed to global star power can be a recipe for American restoration.
As for Bill Clinton, he silenced the doubters at the Democratic National Convention with an impassioned speech on Obama’s behalf that had many pining for the salad years of the 1990s. Forty-eight minutes long and heavy on statistics and his trademark folksy ad-libs as he made the case for economic revitalization, the speech proved once again that no one in American politics does a better job of “‘splainin’ stuff” to the public. He’s still willing to criticize the president, for example, questioning Obama’s assaults on opponent Mitt Romney’s business success. And fittingly, Clinton’s signature post-presidency achievement, the Clinton Global Initiative, is dedicated to the notion that bringing the world’s most powerful and successful people together to work on pressing global problems is more productive than attacking those people. He has been busy on his own innovative projects as well, touring Africa to promote sustainable agriculture and Haiti to discuss alternative energy, periodically dispensing his homespun wisdom along the way. “We have a saying in Arkansas,” he told a group of baffled nurses in Kigali, Rwanda. “If you find a turtle on a fence post, he didn’t get there by accident.”
After four years and a record 112 countries visited (as of writing), Hillary will soon step down as secretary of state. Despite her stated plans to retire from politics as a grandmother-in-waiting, many supporters still haven’t given up hope that the Clintons will once again be in the White House come 2016. Only this time, Bill may be the one at home baking cookies.
Not since Henry Ford’s Model T brought driving to the American masses at the turn of the 20th century has a motor vehicle so promised to revolutionize global transportation. Hydrogen and electric cars once seemed poised to fill that void, but their costs and upkeep have proved prohibitive. Enter the driverless car, the brainchild of Google fellow and Stanford University computer scientist Sebastian Thrun — and now street-legal.
How radical is it? Thrun has in effect reimagined the future of cars — as more about software than hardware. Relying on high-powered sensors and artificial-intelligence software that mimics human decisions, Thrun’s cars can maneuver on and off highways and through rush-hour traffic all by themselves. (One even made it up San Francisco’s famously winding Lombard Street.) The self-driving cars’ growing legion of advocates says the vehicles could completely overhaul the way we think about transportation, making it more efficient, cheaper, greener, and safer. “This is an opportunity to fix a really colossal, big problem for society,” the German-born Thrun says. Robot drivers don’t drink, get distracted, or fall asleep behind the wheel — and their reflexes are measured in milliseconds. Thrun thinks the cars could halve the number of annual road deaths, now at more than 1.2 million worldwide. And because the safer driverless vehicles could be built smaller and lighter, they could also radically reduce fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.
The journey toward a self-driving vehicle began back when Thrun and his team of Stanford researchers spent a year in the California desert designing the Stanley robot car to compete in a 2005 Pentagon road race aimed at sparking innovation. Stanley took home the $2 million prize after successfully traveling 131 miles across the Mojave Desert.
Today, the driverless cars of 2012 are hitting the streets. In August, Google’s fleet of experimental cars logged its 300,000th mile on public roads. That followed Nevada’s move in March to issue the first license for a self-driving car. As of September, Google’s version of Stanley was also cleared to drive in California, the most populous U.S. state and one that historically sets the standard for how cars are built worldwide. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Volvo are all designing or testing self-driving vehicles now.
Plenty of technical hurdles remain — not to mention the need to update current traffic laws that assume a human driver — before the cars are produced for a mass market. Still, it’s no longer a stretch to imagine that someday soon, if you’re driving on Highway 101 between San Jose and San Francisco, you just might see Thrun finally starting to relax behind the wheel of his robo-powered Prius.
Reading list: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Best idea: New approach to desalinization of seawater. Worst idea: Cutting taxes for the rich helps poor people. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Absolutely.
For insisting on women’s power to choose.
As a leader of the world’s largest private development organization, Melinda Gates has long impressed development hands by tackling extreme poverty, pioneering vaccinations, and waging a bold campaign with her husband to eradicate polio. Now she’s establishing herself as a powerful force in her own right, taking on the Catholic Church for its conservative resistance to contraception. By 2020, she says, the Gates Foundation will make “affordable, lifesaving contraceptive information, services, and supplies” available to 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries. According to Gates Foundation-funded research, increasing access to contraception could save the lives of more than 100,000 women each year, slashing maternal mortality by nearly one-third.
Gates, a practicing Catholic, firmly disagrees with the Vatican’s longstanding opposition to contraception and argues that improving access to it is vitally important for public health — and she has personally and more or less single-handedly vowed to “get this back on the global agenda.”
“This will be my life’s work,” she told the Guardian in July. And she has the funds to do it: By 2020, she announced this year, the Gates Foundation will invest $560 million in improving access to birth control, and it plans to raise roughly $4 billion from outside donors. Most will be spent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where access to contraceptives is not widespread and maternal and infant mortality rates are devastatingly high. Contraceptive use already prevents 272,000 maternal deaths per year, but millions of women around the world still lack access to modern family planning — precisely the void Gates has taken bold steps to fill.
Reading list: In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner; A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, by Mark Shriver; The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow. Best idea: Three Tanzanian women who innovated an unbreakable security system for their group mobile money account. Worst idea: Women in the developing world not being empowered to determine if and when to have a child. American decline or American renewal? American renewal because of the human promise, innovation, and opportunity that exists in our country. More Europe or less? More Europe, they continue to be leaders in global development aid. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet and join the global conversation.
For daring to imagine a better everything.
A perennial FP Global Thinker for the enormous scale and ambition of his efforts to finance — and reimagine — global health and development, Bill Gates earns a mention this year for investing in … toilets. Don’t snicker. It’s an urgently worthy cause: 2.5 billion people — or nearly 40 percent of the world‘s population — lack proper bathroom sanitation, leading to the spread of diarrheal diseases that claim the lives of 1.5 million children each year.
To combat it, his Gates Foundation has invested nearly $150 million in programs that improve global sanitation, hosting an engineering competition to develop a “super-toilet” that’s inexpensive to build and maintain and that doesn’t require a water or sewage system. It’s a simple concept but one that Gates, the man whose innovations helped transform personal computing software, says will “revolutionize” sanitation in the developing world as well as in wealthy countries. The winning design, from the California Institute of Technology, uses a solar-powered electrochemical reactor that kills off microorganisms while producing hydrogen and electricity. The foundation hopes to make a pilot version of the system operational by 2014.
Of course, sanitation is just one sideline for Gates. Late last year he became the first private citizen to address a G-20 summit, giving a speech on the future of development that cemented his move from “businessman to statesman,” as the Guardian put it. With much of the world looking inward to fix economic messes at home, Gates is filling the development void abroad — from spearheading an ambitious effort to eradicate polio by 2018, with the foundation giving $150 million to the cause annually, to ramping up his push for food security, including committing $2 billion toward fighting hunger over the next five years. Meanwhile, Gates and Warren Buffett (No. 42), who has committed to giving much of his wealth to the Gates Foundation, persuaded 11 more billionaires to join their two-year-old “Giving Pledge,” bringing the tally to an astonishing 92 families who will donate half their wealth to philanthropic causes before they die.
The Taliban’s most fearsome enemy in Pakistan isn’t U.S. drones or the military’s tanks: It’s a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Malala Yousafzai’s tool of defiance? Her own bravery in speaking out for the simple idea that girls should have access to the same education as boys. That shouldn’t be a radical notion in 2012, but even as Pakistan bristles with roughly 100 nuclear warheads, up to 60 percent of women are still illiterate and two out of every five girls fail to finish primary school. Challenging the tyranny of those low expectations can get you killed in today’s Pakistan.
In October, as Malala headed home after an exam, a Taliban gunman stopped her school bus and announced that she must be punished for insulting “the soldiers of Allah.” Then he shot her in the head.
Malala, who was grievously wounded but miraculously survived, has fit a lifetime of activism into her few short years. When Islamist militants overran Malala’s native Swat Valley in 2009, banning girls’ education, she penned an anonymous blog for the BBC about the daily horrors of life under Taliban rule. “My five-year-old brother was playing on the lawn. When my father asked him what he was playing, he replied ‘I am making a grave,'” she wrote in one entry. The journal offered a ground-level view of the creeping totalitarianism in Pakistan — and some soon compared it to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, but set in modern-day Swat Valley.
Armed only with her convictions and the firm support of her father, who runs a private girls’ school, Malala refused to be silenced. She became a celebrity in Pakistan through her outspoken interviews, chaired a “child assembly” that aimed to expand opportunities for youth in the Swat Valley, and pleaded with late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to help halt the Talibanization of her country. “I shall raise my voice,” she said last year. “If I didn’t do it, who would?”
It’s a lesson in courage that is inspiring others to stand up to the forces of barbarism in their midst. Too bad it took a tragedy to do it.
The brainy 44th president is a huge basketball fan, but Barack Obama knows that none of the plays he calls from the Oval Office are slam dunks. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” he said in an interview this year. “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision.”
At home, Obama has done far more to lift the faltering U.S. economy out of the doldrums than his critics will acknowledge, while expanding the social safety net and daring to take on the greatest threat to America’s fiscal well-being: the country’s exploding health-care costs. Abroad, he has curbed his predecessor’s dangerous excesses, though that doesn’t mean retreating from the world. As he never ceased reminding us on the campaign trail, Osama bin Laden is dead; killer drones aggressively patrol the skies over Pakistan and elsewhere in search of al Qaeda targets; and Obama’s decision to lead (from behind!) an international coalition against Libyan despot Muammar al-Qaddafi created the strange paradox of an avowedly pro-American Arab country awash in armed militias.
But Obama, ever the cautious realist, has been a careful steward of American power. This year has seen the pullout of tens of thousands of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the theater of America’s longest war. The president has also been wary of getting entangled in the even bloodier sectarian conflict in Syria, refusing to contemplate a Libya-style intervention, and he has wisely adopted a low-key approach to Egypt as it struggles to preserve its newly won democratic freedoms amid an Islamist resurgence.
Whoever sits in the Oval Office in the years ahead will find it hard to break away from Obama’s more restrained view of America’s role in the world — especially now that he has four more years to follow through on his promise to end the wars of the post-9/11 decade.With the president’s determination to “chip away” at global problems and make America’s allies part of the solution, he has conclusively put cowboy diplomacy out to pasture.
Repeal Obamacare. Lower income tax rates and simplify the tax code. Cut Medicaid by a third and make it a state-controlled block-grant program. Overhaul Medicare by giving beneficiaries money to buy competing public and private health plans. Reduce non-entitlement spending to its lowest level since World War II. And save $5 trillion in the process.
These are the bold ideas contained in Paul Ryan’s austere budget proposal, which the congressman from Wisconsin has gradually persuaded Republican thought leaders, lawmakers, and presidential candidates to support in an effort to shed the reputation for fiscal profligacy that the Republican Party earned under President George W. Bush. “To find a parallel to the way Ryan has so thoroughly seized control of the Republican agenda and identity, you have to go back at least to Gingrich in his nineties heyday, or possibly to Reagan,” New York magazine marveled last spring.
In the 2012 presidential election, contender Mitt Romney didn’t just champion Ryan’s ideas — he tapped the 42-year-old libertarian-leaning lawmaker as his running mate, catapulting the debate over the size and scope of the U.S. government to the top of the political agenda. “The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government,” Ryan declared during his speech at the Republican National Convention, where organizers prominently displayed a humming national debt clock.
Ryan’s anti-deficit jihad has global implications too. He has embodied his party’s internal struggle over defense spending, voting for automatic defense cuts to trim the deficit while opposing reductions in military spending. “Letting budgetary concerns drive national-security strategy means choosing decline,” Ryan declared in his budget, proposing cuts that would effectively slash funding to entities such as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department — but not the military — by nearly $5 billion. We may not see Ryan’s dramatic ideas enacted now that his ticket has lost the election. But they might very well prove prescient.
A year ago, Chen Guangcheng was living under house arrest in the small Chinese village of Dongshigu, unable to travel or receive visitors and subject to constant harassment by the local authorities. Today, he is a global human rights icon, living with his family in New York’s Greenwich Village and free to study and go where he pleases — though uncertain about whether he will ever be allowed to return to his homeland.
Chen, a self-taught lawyer who has been blind since early childhood, first came to prominence in 2005, when he brought a class-action lawsuit alleging that local authorities had forced women in his region to undergo forced abortions and sterilizations as part of their adherence to China’s one-child policy. He was imprisoned for four years for his temerity and then detained in his home, where he faced regular physical abuse. As his fame grew within China, futile attempts to break past the phalanx of guards near his house became a popular method of protest. He soon was adopted as an international cause célèbre, with everyone from U.S. Rep. Chris Smith to actor Christian Bale seeking to visit.
Chen shocked the world in April when he made a daring, next-to-impossible escape, climbing over the wall surrounding his house (breaking his foot in the process) and catching a ride some 350 miles to Beijing, where he took refuge in the U.S. Embassy. After a tense, days-long diplomatic standoff closely involving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (No. 3), a deal was struck under which Chen would be allowed to travel to the United States to study. Now at New York University, Chen has embraced his new role as an evangelist for human rights, making the case that incremental change — one village or even one person at a time — can eventually transform a superpower. Against all odds, he remains optimistic, believing that China, taking a cue from Japan and South Korea, must “learn Eastern democracy.” He even thinks it’s inevitable: “Nobody can stop the progress of history,” he says.
Best idea: The determination of China’s common people. This is the hope of China’s future. Worst idea: Violence. American decline or American renewal? This depends on whether the good nature of common people can be given expression in government policies, including foreign policy.
Flip-flopping gets a bad rap. Yes, it can be depressing to hear politicians cynically reverse strongly held positions from one election cycle to another. Sometimes, however, when a particularly forceful and articulate voice in a policy debate switches sides, it can be the most effective way to shift the entire conversation.
David Blankenhorn may not have been the most high-profile gay marriage opponent to have had a change of heart this year — that was President Barack Obama — but he was definitely the most surprising. The founder of the conservative Institute for American Values wrote The Future of Marriage, a 2007 book offering intellectual cover to those arguing that same-sex marriage threatens to undermine the institution of the family. He also served as an expert witness in court defending California’s Proposition 8, which legally defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. This year, however, swayed by the growing support for same-sex marriage, Blankenhorn did a full 180, putting his heresy on display in the New York Times in June. “Whatever one’s definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness,” he wrote, prompting an enraged reaction from his former allies.
Monetary policy may not provoke the same visceral emotions as the marriage debate, but it was no less shocking in the economics world when Narayana Kocherlakota, the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank’s president, said publicly in September that the Federal Reserve should hold interest rates near zero until unemployment falls below 5.5 percent. Kocherlakota, a lifelong inflation hawk, had been one of the most outspoken opponents of lowering rates and had voted against doing so in 2011. Why did he switch? Facts on the ground, namely little real threat of inflation and the need for jobs, jobs, jobs (in Fed speak: “By increasing monetary accommodation,” he said, “the committee can better meet its employment mandate while still satisfying its price-stability mandate.”) The turnabout was in line with a major shift by the Federal Reserve and its chairman, Ben Bernanke (No. 15), resulting in the new growth-targeted monetary policy known as quantitative easing. Time will tell whether this will kick-start America’s job market or lead to out-of-control inflation.
A closer look at the numbers also changed the mind of Richard A. Muller, a University of California/Berkeley physicist and author of popular science books like Physics for Future Presidents, who had long been the go-to climate-change skeptic for those unsatisfied with sneering Drudge headlines. For years, he argued that widely used climate-change models were flawed because thermometers around the world had been placed too near the pavement and scientists were manipulating the temperature data they used. So Muller, along with his daughter, embarked on his own effort — the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project — which automated data analysis to eliminate human bias. Given that they were partly funded by conservative billionaire Charles Koch, who also bankrolls the climate-skeptical Heartland Institute, Muller’s numbers were widely expected to “disprove” global warming. But instead, he had an epiphany: “Call me a converted skeptic,” he wrote, saying that “prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct” and “humans are almost entirely the cause.”
As these three thinkers prove, it’s never too late to change your mind.
MULLER Reading list: The Social Animal, by David Brooks; Uncommon Sense, by Alan Cromer; Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. Best idea: Clean fracking (producing shale gas in an environmentally acceptable way). Worst idea: Shut down conventional energy (Japanese nuclear, Gulf oil). American decline or American renewal? Renewal is possible, but it requires more sensible policies in the three Es: energy, education, and economics. We need less politicization and more objectivity. More Europe or less? Europe is about the right size. Maybe it should add Turkey and Morocco. To tweet or not to tweet? Twhat?
“Global warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening,” James Hansen wrote in a New York Times op-ed this year. Using his stature as NASA’s top climate scientist, Hansen has arguably done as much as anyone to sound this alarm, forcefully and unequivocally arguing that climate change is the work of humans long before other scientists were willing to say so. A self-described “reticent Midwestern scientist,” he may not look like a radical protest figure, but when it comes to the climate, Hansen is a latter-day Abbie Hoffman. After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc across the Eastern Seaboard in October, an American public distracted for years by the troubles of the Great Recession finally seemed to awake to the destructive potential of a changing climate — which Hansen had been warning of for decades.
Since publishing some of the seminal studies on the effects of greenhouse gases in 1981, he has steadily ratcheted up the pressure on public officials to take his dire warnings seriously. Last year, the 71-year-old was even arrested in front of the White House after imploring President Barack Obama, via megaphone, to reject the Keystone XL pipline “for the sake of your children and grandchildren.” Nor was it the first time the outspoken scientist has found himself on the wrong side of the law. He has been censored by NASA, attacked by conservatives, and denounced by other climate scientists for his advocacy. But Hansen continues to speak widely about a threat he compares to a large asteroid headed for the Earth. Just in the last few months, as Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest level yet, he published a study finding that as much as 13 percent of the planet’s surface has suffered from extreme heat in recent summers, up from less than 1 percent before 1980. We doubt Hansen is happy to see his theories confirmed.
More than half the countries in the European Union have changed leaders since the region’s sovereign debt crisis erupted three years ago, but Angela Merkel has not only remained in charge — as the steward of Europe’s largest economy, she has become the continent’s chief crisis manager. And Merkel, long known as “Frau Nein” for opposing efforts to bail out Europe’s troubled south, finally seemed to embrace that leadership role in 2012, prescribing a mix of austerity measures, structural reforms, and fiscal integration. She has tacked on mandatory spending cuts to aid packages for Greece, Ireland, and Portugal and spearheaded a historic EU deficit-reduction treaty. All along, the much-misunderstood Merkel has insisted on solving the regional crisis with more Europe, not less.
Yet she has done it by deftly catering to the frugal instincts of her political base. “We all have to resist the temptation to finance growth with increased debt yet again,” Merkel cautioned in June. A month earlier, France had elected François Hollande, who supports the very solutions — stimulus spending and collectivizing eurozone debt — that Merkel opposes. Caught between European leaders’ renewed focus on growth and domestic opposition to bailouts for Germany’s debt-saddled neighbors, Merkel finally backed a new European rescue fund and the European Central Bank’s plan to buy the debt of troubled eurozone countries.
What all her moves have in common is a relentless determination to resolve Europe’s gravest crisis since World War II by deepening the continent’s economic and political union, not unwinding it. Inspired to pursue politics by the fall of the Berlin Wall and EU architect Helmut Kohl, Merkel the onetime East German physicist often cites German reunification as an object lesson in Europe’s ability to overcome. “Do we dare to be more European?” she asked this year, advocating for more centralized decision-making on budgets and taxes. The answer could very well determine whether Merkel will be remembered as the savior of the European project or the leader who presided over its demise.
KNOCKED OUT: 15 of the EU’s 27 member states have lost leaders thanks in part to the eurocrisis. The list includes: Ivars Godmanis (Latvia, 2009), Ferenc Gyurcsany (Hungary, 2009), Mirek Topolanek (Czech Republic, 2009), Gordon Brown (Britain, 2010,) Brian Cowen (Ireland, 2011), Jose Socrates (Portugal, 2011), Mari Kiviniemi (Finland, 2011), Lars Lokke Rasmussen (Denmark, 2011), George Papandreou (Greece, 2011), Silvio Berlusconi (Italy, 2011), José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (Spain, 2011), Emil Boc (Romania, 2012), Borut Pahor (Slovenia, 2012), Iveta Radicova (Slovakia, 2012), Nicolas Sarkozy (France, 2012).
Almost single-handedly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have wrenched the world’s attention toward the apocalyptic potential of a nuclear Iran. “Today a great battle is being waged between the modern and the medieval,” Netanyahu said at the United Nations in September. “At stake is not merely the future of my country. At stake is the future of the world.”
Barak, once the standard-bearer of the Israeli left and an implacable foe of Netanyahu, has improbably become Bibi’s closest ally in the effort to stop Tehran from going nuclear. He has played a crucial role in focusing minds on what he calls the “zone of immunity” — when Iran’s nuclear program is past the point it can be destroyed by arms. If Israel does decide to strike on its own, it will be in no small measure due to Barak’s framing of a threat that he has called “a sword on the neck” of the Jewish state.
The effects of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities remain unknown, but the result of this rhetorical offensive has been impressive. The two Israelis not only sparked a political debate at home but also induced Europe to cut off oil imports from Iran and got U.S. President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney into a prolonged argument over which presidential hopeful would be a better ally to the government in Jerusalem. Pretty impressive for a country the size of New Jersey.
As Netanyahu, at times an open partisan of the Republicans in the U.S. campaign, pressed Washington to define “red lines” that could provoke military action, Obama rushed to warn the Islamic Republic that “time is not unlimited” for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, in addition to lining up an international coalition to isolate Iran. Israeli leaders have watched these moves with grudging appreciation, but they haven’t taken their fingers off the trigger. “We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work,” Netanyahu said recently. “None of us can afford to wait much longer.”
If the Israeli government doesn’t end up launching a war against Iran, it won’t be because of the persuasive abilities of U.S. President Barack Obama or the political machinations of Israel’s opposition parties. More likely, it will be the work of calculating former security officials like onetime intelligence chief Meir Dagan and internal security director Yuval Diskin, who have stepped into the public arena in unprecedented fashion to make a convincing, hard-nosed case that a strike would only make the Iranian threat greater.
These former soldiers are no peaceniks: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once praised Dagan by saying that he went to war not with a knife but with “a rocket-propelled grenade between his teeth.” So when the legendarily aggressive former spy chief opposes a strike because it “would lead to a regional war and solve the internal problems of the Islamic Republic,” Israelis take note.
Diskin has not only criticized a strike on Iran as unworkable, but has also called into question the capability of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to make the right decision. Their judgment is clouded by “messianic feelings,” Diskin has warned — an accusation that Israel often directs at the mullahs. These former spymasters are doing their best to help cooler heads prevail, reminding Israelis that not every problem can be solved by their impressive military.
“Professors at Bentley University who’ve never published a famous book don’t normally shift the public debate,” Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias wrote after the Federal Reserve announced in September a new round of “quantitative easing,” stimulating economic growth by buying assets from private banks. But Scott Sumner’s dogged blogging on his website, TheMoneyIllusion, has won rare bipartisan plaudits across the economics world, ranging from Goldman Sachs to Paul Krugman (No. 34) — and Sumner just might have permanently shifted U.S. monetary policy.
His big idea is nominal GDP targeting, the notion that the Fed’s policies should be focused on economic growth rather than inflation rates. As Sumner explains, “it’s about setting specific goals and promising to do whatever one can to meet those goals.” This means the Fed should keep up aggressive easing and inject money into the financial system until growth returns — inflation be damned.
The most important convert to Sumner’s ideas was Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke himself. As recently as November 2011, he dismissed the notion that the Fed should reorient its policies from inflation to growth targets. Over time, however, Bernanke reportedly came to realize that the U.S. jobs crisis was more severe than he realized and needed some unorthodox thinking. And he managed to bring his hawkish board around: On Sept. 13, the Fed announced that it would buy $40 billion a month of mortgage-backed securities and continue doing so until the U.S. job market improved, and never mind about inflation. “This is a ‘Main Street’ policy,” Bernanke said. “What we’re about here is trying to get jobs going.”
Influential economist and blogger Tyler Cowen, one of Sumner’s earliest champions, proclaimed it “Scott Sumner day.”
SUMNER Reading list: The Great Recession, by Robert L. Hetzel; 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami; The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart. Best idea: Develop self-driving cars. Worst idea: For the eurozone to double down with a fiscal union. American decline or American renewal? Decline in the short run. More Europe or less? More money, less Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? Not.
When was the last time a rock band changed the world? The Russian punk collective known as Pussy Riot captured global attention this year after three of the group’s members were sentenced to jail for the “punk prayer” they staged at a Moscow cathedral, earning the support of everyone from Madonna and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the U.S. State Department, and becoming the unlikely international symbols of Russia’s re-energized opposition to an increasingly autocratic Vladimir Putin.
But the three members of the band arrested for the stunt — Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who were sent to remote prison camps for two-year sentences, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, who was released — are more than just slam-dancing “hooligans,” as the authorities describe them. Just read the powerful closing statements at their closely watched trial — a ringing manifesto that puts them squarely in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vaclav Havel.
In a sense, the band argued, it had already won its case by drawing an almost comical overreaction to an act that would have been treated as a minor infraction almost anywhere else. By using its own trial as a platform to indict the system as a whole, Pussy Riot did something more profound, exposing Putin’s “sovereign democracy” as “an organism sick to the core.” As Alyokhina put it, “The sickness explodes out into the open when you rub up against its inflamed abscesses.”
Tolokonnikova concluded with a speech citing Dostoyevsky, Socrates, and the Bible, laying out a mission statement for the project. “People can sense the truth. Truth really does have some kind of ontological, existential superiority over lies,” she said. “It is not three singers from Pussy Riot who are on trial here,” she declared. “It is the entire state system of the Russian Federation.”
Tolokonnikova then quoted a line from one of the band’s songs — “Open all the doors, tear off your epaulets/Come, taste freedom with us” — just before being led off to jail. What could be more punk than that?
If Adm. William McRaven has turned hunting terrorists into an art form, Abraham Karem is the man who provided him with the paintbrush. It has been three decades since Karem, a former Israeli Air Force engineer, retreated to his garage to construct something the Pentagon did not then consider possible — an unmanned drone that would reliably stay aloft for hours on end. The ultimate result of the project was the Predator drone, which has emerged as the defining weapon of the post-9/11 era.
McRaven, who oversees some of the most elite U.S. fighting forces at Special Operations Command, has spent a lifetime studying special operations and has formulated a blueprint for what makes them successful. He emphasizes the need for speed in commando assaults and extensive planning that relies on precise intelligence, which is where drones come in. In the operation that earned McRaven a spot in the history books — the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year — drones provided vital intelligence for months on the compound where the al Qaeda chief was staying. The raid presented a compelling vision for the 21st-century U.S. military: fast, networked, and deadly. But though the modern-day warrior has tools at his disposal that his ancestors could only dream of, McRaven doesn’t discount the old-fashioned virtue of a soldier’s dedication to the mission. “In an age of high technology and Jedi Knights we often overlook the need for personal involvement, but we do so at our own risk,” he has written.
While McRaven is busy revolutionizing warfare and the drones are buzzing over faraway lands such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen — killing well over 1,000 people in countries with which the United States has not been at war during Barack Obama’s presidency — Karem, now 75, is hard at work designing the next generation of aviation technology. His current project: a Boeing 737-size plane capable of taking off and landing like a helicopter. A pipe dream? “I never fail,” he retorts.
KAREM Reading list: East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, by Susan Butler; Einstein, by Walter Isaacson; Stalin, by Dmitri Volkogonov. Best idea: Capital gains tax on a sliding scale (90 percent on assets held less than six months, 10 percent on assets held 10 years). Worst idea: Acceptance of unlimited growth of political campaign financing without transparency of contributors. American decline or American renewal? Both very feasible. More Europe or less? Europe has the same economic problems as the U.S., except they are more complex and more difficult to solve. To tweet or not to tweet? I didn’t start. But it is an unstoppable next step for human contact through computer networks.
The Arab Spring might have brought newfound freedoms to the Middle East, but it also saw a wave of Islamists rise to power intent on restricting the liberties of women. Tunisian feminist Ahlem Belhadj has fought back — and proved in the process that liberals will not remain silent as Islamist forces attempt to hijack the revolution for their own ends.
Belhadj’s Tunisian Association of Democratic Women has led the charge against Islamist attempts to bring back archaic practices such as polygamy and female circumcision, which were banned under the previous regime. But unfortunately, the 47-year-old child psychiatrist has her work cut out for her. This summer, Islamists pushed through a clause in the draft constitution that declared women “complementary” to men. In response, Belhadj helped organize a thousands-strong demonstration in the streets of Tunis to protest what women saw as an open assault on their rights. The clause was soon reworded, but Belhadj sees more subtle dangers on the horizon. “Parents are exercising greater moral pressure on young girls to wear the veil,” she worries. “And feminists are the victims of intimidation: They are attacked on the streets [and] insulted during sermons in mosques.” Belhadj has also taken her battle to the courts, where she helped represent a woman who was questioned about whether she was guilty of “indecency” after allegedly being raped by two policemen.
The battle to expand women’s rights is being fought not only in Tunisia but across the Arab world, where only one-fourth of women are part of the labor force, polygamy and arranged marriages are all too common, and there is not a single country where women’s political voice is equal to that of men. To Belhadj, these battles are inseparable from the Arab world’s larger struggle for freedom. “As feminists, we are more vigilant than ever in the face of these reversals,” she says. “It is out of the question to see the result of 50 years of struggle go up in smoke.”
How Bad Is It? •More than 90 percent of women ever married in Egypt have been subjected to genital mutilation; 80 percent report experiencing sexual harassment. •In Yemen, 52 percent of girls are married before age 18, and 53 percent of women are illiterate. •An estimated 20 percent of women in Iraq and at least 35 percent in Lebanon are victims of domestic violence. •In both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is not a single woman in parliament and not a single female minister.
With Syria mired in sectarian mayhem, a few brave souls still stand as a testament to the possibilities — and the extraordinary costs — of nonviolent revolution. When dictator Bashar al-Assad‘s artillery laid waste to entire neighborhoods this spring, Rima Dali, a volunteer for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, strode alone into a busy Damascus street with a sign bearing a simple message: “Stop the killing. We want to build a country for all Syrians.” She repeated her act of silent defiance the next week, and even more onlookers gathered to cheer her on — a sign that the spirit of peaceful protest that sparked Syria’s uprising in early 2011 endures even after a bloody year and a half of civil war. Dali, a 33-year-old law school graduate, was arrested for her activism, but she has refused to be cowed, either by the Assad regime’s intimidation or by the spread of extremism within the ranks of the armed rebellion. “We look for hope, day in, day out,” she said after her release from jail.
Not all those who have publicly defied Assad have been so fortunate. Bassel Khartabil is, or was, a young computer engineer living in Damascus whose innovative programming skills helped integrate Syria into the online community — fostering an open-source community in a country long on the margins of the Internet’s youth culture. He was hauled off by Assad’s security forces in March, and despite a “#FREEBASSEL” campaign launched by his friends, he has not been heard from since. “The people who are in real danger never leave their countries,” he tweeted weeks before his arrest. “They are in danger for a reason and for that they don’t leave.”DALI Reading list: Le Dérèglement du Monde, by Amin Maalouf; Dictionary of Nonviolence, by Jean-Marie Muller; Positive Approaches to Peacebuilding, edited by Cynthia Sampson, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, Claudia Liebler, and Diana Whitney. Best idea: “The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” –Martin Luther King Jr. Worst idea: “Al-Assad or we burn the country down.” —shabiha slogan American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
When Mario Draghi, head of Italy’s central bank, was mooted to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as European Central Bank (ECB) president in 2011, two factors held him back: his stint at Goldman Sachs — a firm that had helped Greece disguise its debt — and his nationality. “For Italians, inflation is a way of life, like tomato sauce with pasta!” the German tabloid Bild groused. But “Super Mario” eventually prevailed over his critics (even Bild later conceded, “He’s actually pretty German”), and he has since embarked on an aggressive effort to resolve Europe’s three-year-old sovereign debt crisis. In the process, he has liberally interpreted the ECB’s mandate to control inflation and, just maybe, has established himself as the savior of the European project.
Draghi’s boldest move came in September, when he announced that the ECB would buy the bonds of debt-saddled eurozone countries such as Italy and Spain in an effort to bring down their borrowing costs and reassure investors. (A flood of headlines like “Mario Draghi May Become the Man Who Saved Europe — and the World” followed.) But perhaps it was his vow to do “whatever it takes to preserve the euro” that finally cooled the fever. Draghi’s bold moves have helped him win over markets, bankers, and politicians, though nearly one in two Germans mistrusted him on the eve of the bond-buying announcement. After introducing the measure, Draghi offered to allay Germans’ concerns by defending his monetary policies before the German parliament. Why volunteer to enter the lion’s den? After months of pitched battle with the bond markets, perhaps the Bundestag didn’t seem so daunting.
As Europe’s crisis rages on, don’t expect reassurance about the future of global capitalism from this Hungarian-born hedge fund billionaire and market guru. At a June speech in Italy, George Soros argued that the financial crisis represents a failure of economic theory “more profound than generally recognized” and decried the austerity-promoting policies of European governments, arguing that they “cannot reduce the debt burden by shrinking the economy.”
Soros has been particularly withering in his assessment of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s (No. 12) response to the crisis. In a widely discussed New York Review of Books essay in September, he made the case that penny-wise, pound-foolish Germany, not Greece, is the country most at fault in the crisis. Germany must either lead Europe out of the crisis or leave the eurozone, he argued, which would limit the fallout of the crisis and allow smaller countries to return to growth with a devalued currency. Shortly thereafter, Merkel reversed course and supported the European Central Bank’s plan to buy Spanish and Italian bonds — so perhaps Berlin was listening.
Soros, often the object of conspiracy theories for his support for liberal groups in the United States, dialed it back a little this election year — even going so far as to say that there “isn’t all that much difference” between President Barack Obama and contender Mitt Romney. An investor as shrewd as Soros knows it’s always wise to hedge.
When Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack in April, it wasn’t immediately clear what would become of his vice president, Joyce Banda. The two had fallen out in recent years, with the increasingly autocratic president booting Banda from his political party in 2010. Even Mutharika’s wife publicly derided the smalltown veep — a longtime grassroots advocate for women, children, and the poor — scoffing, “She will never be president. How can a mandazi [fritter] seller be president?” After a tense two days in the wake of Mutharika’s death, however, Banda proved the first lady wrong, becoming Africa’s second-ever female president.
Governing Malawi — where an estimated 75 percent of its more than 15 million residents live on $1 or less a day — presents enormous challenges, to be sure. But in just seven months Banda has largely thrown out her predecessor’s playbook, showing the world how to take charge and work to turn around a troubled country. Within days of taking office, she dismissed key members of Mutharika’s administration, including the police chief in power when 19 Malawian demonstrators were killed at a 2011 opposition rally, and in May, amid rising persecution of gays in Africa, she vowed to repeal Malawi’s laws against homosexuality. By devaluing the Malawian currency by more than a third, a move Mutharika had long refused despite the IMF’s urging, Banda also secured a much-needed $157 million IMF loan in June — a first step toward rebuilding Malawi’s debilitated economy.
Her work is cut out for her. So far, however, all signs suggest Banda could become a new model for African leadership — shedding the strongman syndrome and getting down to business to help the poor. To prove it, she has cut her own salary by 30 percent and put her predecessor’s $12 million presidential jet and most of his fleet of 60 luxury cars up for sale. “I can as well use private airlines,” she said. “I am already used to hitchhiking.” But it’s more than that: “I must demonstrate to Malawians that we are in this together,” she explained to Al Jazeera. “I must be the first person to set an example.” For Malawi, and the world over.
In March, Ed Morse and several Citigroup colleagues published a 92-page report with a provocative thesis upending the conventional wisdom on global energy scarcity. North America, they said, is hurtling toward energy independence on the strength of shale, oil sands, and deepwater output in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. By 2020, booming energy production and declining consumption could have a transformative impact on the sluggish U.S. economy, goosing GDP by more than 3 percent, reducing the current account deficit — the balance of imports and exports — by 60 percent, and creating nearly 4 million new jobs. The continent, in short, could become the “new Middle East” in less than a decade.
The study has already had a far-reaching impact, encouraging both U.S. political parties to revamp their energy strategies and focus not on the dangerous U.S. dependence on Mideast oil but rather on the country’s potential to supply its own energy needs and the many benefits that come along with doing so. When Republican Mitt Romney announced a plan to achieve energy independence by 2020, his presidential campaign’s white paper cited the Citi report eight times. Barack Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, touted the president’s commitment to reducing “our dependence on foreign oil” through “an all-of-the-above approach to developing all our energy resources.”
Morse, Citi’s global head of commodities research, argues that the United States’ new role as a net petroleum-product exporter could reshape the geopolitical landscape by weakening OPEC countries and insulating North America from oil price spikes. “We will no longer be kowtowing to despotic rulers and feudal monarchs whose oil supply lines are crucial to other aspects of foreign policy,” he recently predicted. And the effects could be even more profound if a more inward-looking United States decides it no longer needs to play the country’s post-World War II role as the guarantor of global supply lanes and protector of Gulf sheikhdoms. As for Romney’s plan? “I think they have the basic story absolutely correct,” Morse told the Atlantic. And he should know. After all, he wrote it.Reading list: A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, by Amanda Foreman; Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer; Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, by Robert Bryce. Best idea: The G-Zero world. Worst idea: A unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear enhancement facilities. American decline or American renewal? The energy revolution in North America could well be the source of long-term American renewal and strength in the 21st century. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? Not I, never.
Jabs at the “1 percent” became the battle cry of disgruntled Occupy Wall Street protesters and the subtext of much of the U.S. presidential campaign this year, but they were hardly the first to draw attention to the outsized wealth of America’s top earners. Much of the credit should go to Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Armed with a century’s worth of hard data, the two French economists have revealed just how acute income inequality has become in the United States. And the disparity, their research found, has recently reached levels not seen since the eve of the Great Depression.
Piketty, at the Paris School of Economics, and Saez, at the University of California/Berkeley, started their income-tracking project two decades ago. Their deep dive through U.S. Internal Revenue Service tax returns dating to 1913 resulted in their signature paper, first published in 2003 and recently updated. The study’s centerpiece is a stark, U-shaped graph showing the top 1 percent’s share of total U.S. income bottoming out after World War II, rising after the 1970s, and, by the mid-2000s, nearly matching the record set back in 1928. (After the financial crisis, guess which group recovered fastest — and most robustly?) Today, that squiggle has become a favorite smoking gun of left-leaning intellectuals who argue that the rich should bear much more of the U.S. tax burden. Piketty and Saez’s work is cited in White House budget documents and “helped to point the way for the administration in its pledge to rebalance the tax code,” according to Peter Orszag, President Barack Obama’s first budget director.
The French duo’s suggested remedy is something they say is as American as apple pie: higher income taxes on the very richest. They recommend a rate as high as 83 percent for the top bracket of earners — much higher than the 30 percent of the proposed “Buffett Rule” and even more than French President François Hollande’s proposed 75 percent top tax rate. Piketty, who calls the level of U.S. income inequality today “completely crazy,” argued this year that the United States is switching places with Old Europe. “Inequality of wealth and income used to be much larger in France,” he told the New York Times. “And very high taxes on the very rich — that was invented in the United States.”
PIKETTY Reading list: Premodern Financial Systems, by Raymond Goldsmith; The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk; Arthur Young’s Travels in France, by Arthur Young. Best idea: Hollande’s 75 percent top tax rate, if it were applied in the U.S. and Europe with a broad tax base. Worst idea: Hollande’s 75 percent top tax rate, as applied in France with a narrow tax base. American decline or American renewal? Slow, steady decline. More Europe or less? More Europe: The world needs the United States of Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? No tweet so far.
We all know the effect of a deadline when it comes to a project at work or paying a bill. Nadim Matta sees this power as something much more consequential. Matta is the head of the Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit that helps poor communities around the world set ambitious goals on timelines so short that they seem unreasonable — just 100 days. Rapid Results then moves in to train locals, who coach their peers to meet the targets: build a school in a Sudanese village, get 700 people tested for HIV in Addis Ababa, double the number of attended births in a Rwandan town. The driving idea behind the method, Matta believes, is that an often overlooked barrier to development is motivation — that final push to get over the finish line. The work Rapid Results does, he says, is about stepping in and “unleashing local capabilities.”
This deadlines-driven approach, developed four decades ago at the management consultancy where Matta also works, was originally applied to Fortune 500 companies. It was Matta who adapted the method for the realm of development — and with impressive results. Since its founding in 2007, Rapid Results has set down roots in more than half a dozen sub-Saharan African countries. Nearly all of Kenya’s government ministries, as well as the World Bank, have adopted the method, and this year in the United States, it’s helping provide housing to tens of thousands of homeless people. “The biggest issue is that people don’t actually mobilize.… The last mile is where solutions need to come together in specific ways,” Matta explained. “We think we have part of the answer to the last-mile problem.”
Reading list: Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath; Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World, by Tina Rosenberg. Best idea: Incubators and Internet start-ups in Arab countries — channeling the energy of the youth in post- (and pre-) Arab Spring countries toward productive economic activity. Worst idea: The resurgence of the concept of American exceptionalism in this election season. American decline or American renewal? Renewal, always. More Europe or less? About the same — I hope. To tweet or not to tweet? So far I have not felt the urge to join the tweeters. Maybe in 2013.
It has been a year of shrinking horizons for China’s best-known artist turned dissident, but as he has throughout his career, Ai Weiwei has turned his difficult circumstances into living performance art, exposing just how petty and paranoid even the most seemingly impregnable authoritarian system can be. Ai was released from prison in July 2011 after being held for three months on trumped-up tax-evasion charges. Once a source of pride for the Communist Party as a designer of the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium, he got on the government’s bad side after ripping into its response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In September he lost his final appeal and was ordered to pay $2.4 million in back taxes; he’s still not allowed to leave the country. (Many of Ai’s supporters folded money into paper planes and flew them over the walls of his home to help him cover his bill.)
But Ai has found ways to occupy his time. When one of his Twitter followers asked in May whether he was working on any new artwork, Ai tweeted back, “I am the artwork.” In April, he set up cameras throughout his house, providing a live feed on his website and to his 170,000 followers. (“Twitter is my city, my favorite city,” he told FP this year.) The authorities soon pressured him into removing the cameras, evidently preferring that they be the only ones to watch the rotund 55-year-old work on his computer and play with his cats.
But make no mistake — this performance art is deeply political. Throughout his career Ai has insisted that artists have a duty to humanity that outweighs the obligations of nationalism. Even declaring one’s opposition to “trafficking children, selling HIV-infected blood, [and] operating slave labor coal pits” is enough to get branded as “anti-China” in today’s political climate, Ai once noted on his blog, asking, “If we aren’t anti-China, are we still human?”
In October, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington presented the first major U.S. retrospective of Ai’s work. The artist was not in attendance.
Ai-isms: Tweets from Confinement •”Love of totalitarian propaganda is more evil than hatred.” •”This country does not need to give reasons. It isn’t accustomed to it, nor is it able to, until we no longer need an explanation.” •”Sovereignty without human rights is just a ruler’s privilege.” •”Saving a country must start from saving one person.” •”In the courtroom, the idiot judge went so far as to say ‘Comrade Ai Weiwei’…I puked.”
While members of the U.S. Congress were threatening to cancel $450 million in emergency aid promised to Egypt, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde was meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council representatives and laying the groundwork for a $4.8 billion loan to rescue Egypt’s damaged economy. In the wake of the Arab Spring, which slashed growth rates across the region as political instability overwhelmed already fragile economies and left nascent democracies struggling to provide basic services like water and sewage treatment, the former French finance minister — who replaced the scandal-ridden Dominique Strauss-Kahn midway through the 2011 uprisings — has set about filling the void.
The Middle East’s destiny “lies ultimately with the region itself, but the international community also has a responsibility to help,” she said one year after the protests began. Neither Washington nor Brussels has really answered the call, so Lagarde’s IMF has approved $2 billion in loans for Jordan and a $6.2 billion liquidity line for Morocco, not to mention helping Tunisia improve its financial sector, Libya revamp its government payment system, and Egypt make its tax code more equitable. In total, the IMF has pledged $35 billion to the countries affected by the uprisings. U.S. President Barack Obama’s funding request for Arab Spring states this year, by comparison, totalled just $770 million — and Congress rejected it. If the Middle East ever emerges from its economic morass, Lagarde and her foresight will deserve more than a little of the credit.
It wasn’t a reference you’ll ever hear in Washington’s corridors of power: “I say it very clearly: What is happening in Syria right now is exactly the same thing as what happened in Karbala 1,332 years ago,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this fall, referring to one of the foundational battles of Islam, which cemented the divide between Sunni and Shiite. The allusion to sectarian bloodshed may have made some Western leaders cringe, but it also showed why Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership has emerged as the Middle East’s indispensable power, grappling with the region’s struggles over identity and religion in a way no American politician ever could. With the Arab world in disarray and the United States criticized for “leading from behind,” Turkey has taken on an increasingly prominent international role, fueled by a belief that its unique culture and history make it an ideal bridge between East and West.
But as Erdogan and his cerebral academic turned foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are discovering, that new leadership comes at a price. Their opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — Erdogan blasted his old friend as presiding over a “terrorist state” — has created new security threats in Turkey’s southeast, while the flood of more than 100,000 Syrian refugees into its territory has stretched Ankara’s resources to the breaking point. Now, Erdogan and Davutoglu face a dilemma on Syria that is all too familiar in Washington: stay on the sidelines or go it alone. The premier has blasted Assad’s “attempted genocide” and ordered Turkey’s relentlessly globe-trotting top diplomat, the intellectual architect of the country’s newly assertive foreign policy, to rouse the world to action. As Davutoglu put it before the U.N. Security Council, “How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?”
Willem Buiter, Citigroup’s chief economist, relishes a good intellectual dust-up, especially if it involves debunking an economic conventional wisdom or two. “I like saying things that drive people around the bend,” he recently told the Wall Street Journal.
When it comes to Europe’s monetary union, Buiter has been doing just that for quite some time. In 1999, the Dutch-born economist published a paper, “Alice in Euroland,” arguing that the European Central Bank (ECB), created a year earlier, was so flawed it could threaten not just the embryonic common currency but the “continued success of the post Second World War European integration process.” At the time, it seemed an unlikely critique; today, it seems like gospel. Buiter is Europe’s prophet of doom. Ever since the European debt crisis broke out in 2009, he has considered whether debt-hobbled, bailout-bound Greece will exit the eurozone — a prospect so often discussed that Buiter and a colleague coined a word in February to describe it: “Grexit.” The term went viral by May as political instability rocked Athens and the media embraced the year’s catchiest eurocrisis shorthand. By September, even Greece’s beleaguered prime minister was using it, as in: “What they call ‘Grexit’ is not an option for us — it would be a catastrophe.” Buiter isn’t done prophesying. In September, his team challenged the conventional wisdom that an ECB bond-buying program marked a turning point in the debt crisis, arguing that the plan made a Greek departure from the eurozone “more manageable” and estimating the probability of a Grexit in the next 12 to 18 months at 90 percent. The news isn’t good for Europe either. The eurozone could be in “cardiac arrest” for at least two to three more years, he informed clients that same month. That’s plenty of time to drive more euro-optimists around the bend.Reading list: Books — what’s that? Best idea: Listen more to your kids. Worst idea: “We must have growth, not austerity.” American decline or American renewal? Renewal through decline. More Europe or less? More please… To tweet or not to tweet? Tweeting is for mindless illiterates.
Look closely during a party scene in the blockbuster Iron Man 2, and you’ll see eccentric playboy billionaire Tony Stark shaking hands with Elon Musk, the real-life model for Robert Downey Jr.’s update of the comic-book superhero.
He may not be able to fly — yet — but at 42, Musk’s way-outside-the-box ideas of how to make the world a better place have resulted in the creation of not one but four of America’s most innovative companies. Shortly after college, Musk and fellow future billionaire Peter Thiel founded the online payment system that eventually became the now-ubiquitous PayPal. After selling it for $1.5 billion in 2002, Musk started SpaceX, the private spaceflight company that in 2008 won a NASA contract to take over cargo transportation to the International Space Station from the now-defunct space shuttle. This May, SpaceX launched the first-ever commercial flight to the station. Musk is also co-founder of Tesla Motors, which stands a real chance of producing the first economically viable all-electric cars. And his latest passion project is SolarCity, an innovative energy company that provides low-cost solar services to businesses and is working to build electric car-charging stations in California — a business idea that came to Musk during a road trip to Burning Man, the annual hippie-meets-Silicon Valley extravaganza.
He isn’t done yet. Other plans include the “Hyperloop,” a tube-based “fifth mode of transportation” that he claims will one day be able to take passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 30 minutes, and an idea to build a Mars lander that can create a mini-greenhouse to grow crops and set the stage for eventual human habitation of the red planet. “I would like to die on Mars,” Musk has said. At this rate, it would be foolish to bet against him.
In 2012, a record-breaking number of women reached the top of America’s Fortune 500 companies. The number that broke the record? Twenty — just 4 percent. As more and more women enter the workplace but remain stubbornly absent from the corner offices, the conversation about female titans of industry has taken on a new urgency, and former Google executives Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg are at the center of the storm.
Sandberg, now chief operating officer of Facebook, had a roller-coaster year when the company’s much-touted stock offering turned into a flop. But it was her comments on why there are too few women in the workplace that helped transform her into a controversial feminist icon for the tech era. In a series of widely discussed talks, Sandberg urged women to close the “ambition gap” — a tendency to defer to men in the workplace so as to not appear “bossy” or in anticipation of leaving to start families. The predictable raging dispute ensued — and is sure to flare back up when she publishes a book on the subject in 2013 — but through it all Sandberg has stuck to her pragmatic approach to how women can help themselves get ahead while still getting home for dinner with the kids (at least occasionally). Sandberg is certainly leading by example: The mother of two young ones holds dual degrees from Harvard University, cut her teeth at the U.S. Treasury Department as Lawrence Summers’s chief of staff (before his comments implying women are innately less capable at the sciences than men), and tirelessly campaigns for other women to fight for having it all as well.
For her part, Mayer announced this summer both that she was pregnant and that she was taking the helm of troubled tech behemoth Yahoo. Disapproval rained down from business elites, who accused her of compromising the health of her company, and from mothers, who accused her of compromising the health of her baby. But Mayer, a Stanford University-educated engineer who rose from one of Google’s earliest employees to a vice president, refused to be cowed, and Yahoo agreed. Two weeks after giving birth to a boy in September, she tweeted that she was back in the office full time and announced a new COO to boot.
Between the two execs, the endless compromises and contradictions of the modern working woman were laid bare, prompting a searingly honest debate about women in power at a time when only a handful have made their way to its most exclusive corridors. Maybe the world is finally beginning to realize that a generation of mothers is going to need to figure out how to get to the top — and stay there.
Anne-Marie Slaughter has been a dean at Princeton University and a top official at the U.S. State Department, where she oversaw the first-ever attempt to review and rationalize the sprawling bureaucracy’s overseas priorities. She has been a passionate advocate for intervention in Syria. And she is an innovative and prolific scholar, arguing in numerous books and articles that the stodgy foreign policy of old is being transformed by the new realities of a networked world. But it was in another role — as a mom and disaffected global policymaker — that she catapulted herself into the public eye this year.
Slaughter’s summer cover article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” chronicles her two years juggling her high-level Washington job with the needs of two teenage boys back in New Jersey — a balancing act she concluded “was not possible.” At more than 12,500 words, her essay on the inflexible work environment for even the planet’s most successful women sparked a viral debate about the harsh reality of the glass ceiling in the U.S. workplace and around the world. Her critics zeroed in on the phrase “having it all” as implausible or even indulgent, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded that while “some women are not comfortable working at the pace and intensity you have to work at in these jobs.… Other women don’t break a sweat.” But Slaughter said her hope is ultimately to make it easier for ambitious women to balance their family and professional lives — an urgent necessity given that fewer than 20 women lead countries in the world today, 80 percent of all parliamentary seats are held by men, and a grand total of 17 percent of the world’s government ministers are women.
“I think if I had an absolutely accurate title, it would be ‘Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Make It to the Top,'” Slaughter later said. But then again, “I’m not sure a million people would have read it. And I wanted to start a conversation. And we’ve started a conversation.”Reading list: China Airborne, by James Fallows; The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future, by Geoff Mulgan; Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. Best idea: The “slow money” movement. Worst idea: The creation of national intranets and greater global regulation of the Internet through the International Telecommunication Union. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet!
More than two decades before U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East were overrun by rioters angry about a crude anti-Islamic video and more than a decade before the 9/11 attacks, Salman Rushdie received the phone call that changed his life forever when a BBC reporter asked him, “How does it feel to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?”
This year saw the release of Rushdie’s astonishingly well-timed memoir, Joseph Anton, which describes his life in hiding after the 1989 fatwa condemning him to death for The Satanic Verses, a book that fundamentalists deemed offensive to the Prophet Mohammed. The title of Rushdie’s memoir comes from the pseudonym — composed of the first names of his favorite authors, Conrad and Chekhov — he adopted while underground. The book’s release took on added political significance amid anti-American riots across the world this fall provoked by the online video Innocence of Muslims. “I always said that what happened to me was a prologue and there will be many, many more episodes like it. This is one of those,” Rushdie said. “The correct response would be to say it is garbage and unimportant,” he said of the video. “To react to it with this kind of violence is just ludicrously inappropriate.”
Through it all, Rushdie has continued to make a powerfully personal case for freedom of expression, writing that the fatwa was “a violent attack not on the novel in general, or on free speech per se, but on a particular accumulation of words, and on the intentions and integrity and ability of the writer who had put those words together.”
To hear Paul Krugman tell it, the U.S. economic crisis is Americans’ own damn fault. “The depression we’re in is essentially gratuitous: we don’t need to be suffering so much pain and destroying so many lives,” he wrote recently. Washington’s obsession with austerity is to blame, he rails; what is needed is an aggressive, deficits-be-damned stimulus package to jump-start the economy and get Americans working again.
The Nobel Prize-winning Princeton University economist’s prescription for the U.S. economy is actually fairly simple: Inject cash into it, and fast. He has suggested boosting federal aid to state and local governments, providing assistance to homeowners struggling with the deflation of the housing bubble, and having the Federal Reserve buy up government bonds to reduce long-term interest rates. While those ideas make Krugman anathema to those on the right, his New York Times column is required reading by conservatives and liberals alike — and his insistence on providing help for struggling American families is a welcome antidote to the Washington establishment’s relentless focus on budget cuts. “Tens of millions of our fellow citizens are suffering vast hardship, the future prospects of today’s young people are being eroded with each passing month,” he wrote, “and all of it is unnecessary.
Thanks to his academic bona fides and slashing style, Krugman — who this year also published a pro-stimulus book, End This Depression Now! — has become a sort of folk hero among liberals and a scourge of both Republicans and moderate Democrats. One safe prediction for 2013: He’ll keep on being a thorn in the side of the powers that be, whichever way the political winds blow.
As far back as 2005, Nouriel Roubini saw dangerous speculation in the housing market for what it was: a harbinger of financial Armageddon. At the time, as Paul Krugman (No. 34) later noted in Time magazine, “the likes of Alan Greenspan were dismissing concerns about excessive home prices and declaring that banks were stronger than ever.”
Since then, Roubini has hardly had time to gloat; he has been too busy warning that the worst isn’t over. In 2006, he speculated about a eurozone breakup at a time when it seemed outlandish, and in 2008 — when most economists were throwing around numbers in the hundreds of billions — Roubini warned that bank losses would total more than $2 trillion. (It turns out he was close but if anything too cautious: The IMF’s 2010 estimate was $2.28 trillion.) He was also ahead of the curve in identifying the global reach of the subprime-mortgage crisis and has repeatedly warned against rosy predictions of recovery. In 2010, when the stock market appeared to be turning around, Roubini — dubbed Dr. Doom by the financial press — asserted: “The crisis is not over; we are just at the next stage.”
Lately, Dr. Doom has taken to warning of a “perfect storm” in which the “slow-motion train wreck” in Europe, along with the cooling Chinese economy and sluggish U.S. recovery, coincides with a war between Israel and Iran that inevitably drags in the United States. But Roubini is more than just a bearer of bad news: He has become the gloomy bard of this age of financial upheaval.
Every year in Nigeria, roughly 1.5 million students would like to go on to college, but because of limited university space, only a few hundred thousand can. That means some 80 percent of Nigerians hoping to pursue higher education are simply out of luck. Enter Shai Reshef, an Israeli-born entrepreneur whose online education NGO, University of the People, promises to grant bachelor’s degrees to the poor around the world — essentially tuition-free. Reshef’s idea piggybacks on the growing migration of world-class university lectures to the Internet, where students from any country can now have access to the best international minds and at least a virtual slice of the Ivy League educations that for so long were the preserve of a small elite. But his project goes a step further, offering a full, four-year college education to “anyone who speaks English and has an Internet connection,” as he told the New York Times. His audacious goal is nothing less than to change how the world learns.
Reshef, who made his fortune in for-profit supplementary education, does not draw a salary from the university, which has only 10 paid employees; the professors are all volunteers, many from top universities around the world. Although 1,500 students in 135 countries have been admitted to University of the People, which Reshef founded in 2009, the program is still in the process of applying for accreditation from the U.S. government. But partnerships with heavyweights like Yale Law School, New York University, the Gates Foundation, and the Clinton Global Initiative hint at the outsized impact his idea is likely to have on the world of higher ed. Reshef says University of the People plans to increase enrollment to 5,000 students by 2015 — and then grow indefinitely. With 3,000 volunteers now working toward that goal, “we don’t know what to do with them,” Reshef recently told the Washington Post.Reading list: Woman Flees Tidings, by David Grossman; Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, by Ben Wildavsky. Best idea: Using the goodwill of educators in developed countries to educate students in developing countries. Worst idea: To attack Iran.
Note: This profile has been updated to reflect University of the People’s most recent enrollment and employee numbers.
Since 1980, tuition increases at U.S. universities have outpaced the consumer price index, inflation, and even the housing bubble that precipitated the current financial crisis. But with the arrival of companies like Coursera, an online educational consortium founded by Stanford University computer scientists Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, higher ed is reaching far beyond the privileged few in the ivory tower. Through Coursera, anybody with an Internet connection and the desire to learn can log on and tune in to courses at the world’s leading research universities — and for now at least, it’s free. “We have the incredible opportunity to make education what it should be,” Koller and Ng write, “a fundamental human right.”
Several similar programs offering “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs — most prominently Sebastian Thrun’s (No. 4) Udacity and edX, a Harvard-MIT joint venture — have helped online education flourish in recent years. Coursera alone is partnered with more than 30 brick-and-mortar universities, including Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University, and it offers a wide range of courses in engineering, computer science, math, and, increasingly, the humanities. As of August, it had enrolled more than 1 million students from 196 countries. The for-profit tech company has no immediate plans to offer degrees, but its course-by-course certification scheme is already advancing students’ careers. This year, for instance, a 22-year-old computer science student from Kazakhstan scored a job at Twitter — after taking an artificial intelligence course at Stanford through Coursera.
KOLLER Reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini; Night, by Elie Wiesel. Best idea: Increasing U.S. efforts in green energy. Worst idea: Republican attempts to cut support for family planning. American decline or American renewal? Neither. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet selectively.
NG Reading list: The Essential Drucker, by Peter Drucker; Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson; In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. Best idea: More Pell grants. Students should not have to choose between paying for college and paying for groceries. Worst idea: Ouster of University of Virginia president. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet, and use hashtags wisely.
If scaring us silly were a religion, Dick Cheney would be its high priest. The most powerful vice president in U.S. history is still waging a campaign, even after a heart transplant in March, to convince us that the dark side of terrorists and rogue states is out there and must be defended against at all costs. An unrelenting critic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, Cheney has called the president’s efforts to portray himself as strong on national defense “hogwash.” In the wake of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in September, Cheney framed the administration’s confused response to the attack as symptomatic of a larger failure of leadership. “They refuse to recognize the situation we are in, and that’s the first step towards ultimate failure and ultimately the future terrorist attacks,” he said on the Sean Hannity Show.
But it may be daughter Liz, a former official in George W. Bush’s administration who founded the advocacy group Keep America Safe in 2009 and co-wrote her father’s bestselling 2011 memoir, who has emerged as the most influential and outspoken member of the Cheney family, arguing for a more imposing U.S. presence abroad. “In too many parts of the world, America is no longer viewed as a reliable ally or an enemy to be feared,” she recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The younger Cheney, a Fox News political analyst, raised funds for Mitt Romney’s campaign in her home state of Wyoming, and there’s speculation she may be planning her own run for office.
Following the Bush administration’s foreign-policy controversies, many believed the Republican Party would move away from its more pugnacious recent past. Some, like Condoleezza Rice (No. 39), maintain a sunnier optimism about American power. But given the hawkish rhetoric and hard-line advisors of Romney’s campaign, it seems that Cheneyism is alive and well in today’s Republican Party.
Condi Rice has long dismissed the terms “idealist” and “realist” as meaningless academic distinctions. An expert on the Soviet Union whose worldview shifted dramatically with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the woman who became George W. Bush’s national security advisor and secretary of state is at once both and neither. More than anything (and very much unlike her dark-side-minded rival, No. 38 Dick Cheney), Rice is an optimist whose faith in historical progress — and America’s role at its forefront — has been likened to “theology.”
This unwavering belief in American indispensability guided her principled critique of Barack Obama’s administration this year, when she re-emerged into the Republican spotlight with a starring role at the Republican National Convention. “Where does America stand?” Rice asked emphatically in a speech that drew praise from both sides of the aisle and stirred rumblings of “Condi 2016.” Without robust American leadership, she warned, chaos will ensue — “or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values.” And Rice, rarely a partisan warrior, made a pointed jab at Obama, saying, “We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind.”
Unlike much of candidate Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy team, however, Rice would have America lead the world in a decidedly moderate direction. There is considerable continuity between the foreign policy of Bush’s second term — when Rice was secretary of state — and that of the Obama administration. But Rice, though she has largely escaped public blame for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is no dove — “Peace really does come through strength,” she reminded the audience in Tampa. Still, rebuilding America’s alliances, so that friends and partners know the United States is “reliable and consistent and determined,” and expanding free trade top Rice’s priority list, as do “sensitively” developing America’s oil and natural gas reserves and coming up with new immigration laws that “show that we are a compassionate nation of immigrants.” In a party increasingly dominated by its spoon-banging right wing, Rice has emerged as an important voice in favor of tough, but smart, foreign policy.
Boasting hundreds of millions of customers for his company’s anti-virus software, Eugene Kaspersky is one of the leading global authorities on cybersecurity. So when he warned executives at a technology conference this spring that “cyberweapons are the most dangerous innovation of this century,” the tech world took notice.
After all, Kaspersky was among the first to publicly document the state-sponsored use of cyberweapons, signaling the advent of a new era of war. His company, Kaspersky Lab, alerted the world to the danger posed by the Stuxnet worm — reportedly developed by the U.S. and Israeli governments — that attacked the Iranian nuclear program before spilling out into the wider web, as well as the Flame virus that infected thousands of computers, mostly in the Middle East. He has also provocatively called for Internet users to be issued online virtual “passports” that would work like driver’s licenses in the offline world.
Kaspersky is no stranger to controversy. Before co-founding Kaspersky Lab in 1997, he was educated at a technical school sponsored by the KGB, and he spent time working for the Russian military. He has refuted allegations that he still has ties to Russian security services and was working on their behalf to expose U.S. cyberweapons. “I’m just a man who’s ‘here to save the world,'” he wrote in a rebuttal to a negative profile in Wired.
Kaspersky’s Hobbesian view of cyberspace might be discomfiting for people used to thinking of the Internet as a place of cute cat videos and anodyne status updates, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we can no longer afford to ignore his warnings.
Reading list: Why Smart Executives Fail — and What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes, by Sydney Finkelstein; Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson; On China, by Henry Kissinger. Best idea: This was a boring year in terms of amazing ideas. Worst idea: Advocating cyberweapons and a cyberarms race. American decline or American renewal? Both — renewal after decline. More Europe or less? More, to accelerate science, technology, education, economy, and democracy. To tweet or not to tweet? Definitely yes, if you want and can write.… Definitely yes, if you can’t write.
Many lament the plight of women in Afghanistan — Sima Samar has actually done something about it. The 55-year-old doctor founded the Shuhada (“Martyrs”) Organization in 1989, and it has gone on to help educate tens of thousands of Afghan girls and provided health services to millions more. Now, ahead of a scheduled U.S. withdrawal in 2014 that is raising the prospect of a post-American Afghanistan where the Taliban once again force women out of public sight, Samar insists the government in Kabul and its Western allies take their rhetoric on women’s rights seriously. As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in at a ceremony honoring Samar last year, she challenges us to “think more deeply about what making peace really requires” — and it’s more than just getting the men to lay down their arms.
From her perch at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, the country’s official monitor for everything from civilian rights during wartime to detainee abuse, Samar has rung the alarm bell about the dismal state of women’s participation in modern-day Afghanistan. Even after a decade of the United States showering Afghanistan with some $90 billion in taxpayer dollars, there’s not enough to show for it. “The sad part is that the international community’s actions do not reflect what they say,” Samar said this year. “It talks about women’s rights, but then they don’t include them” in peace negotiations with the Taliban, or much of anything else. She has also taken on her own government, loudly criticizing its reliance on Islamic law and cultural norms that force women to wear burqas.
It’s a vital message in a country where almost 90 percent of women can’t read and childbirth is more dangerous than just about anywhere else on the plantet; a country where a woman who is raped can be prosecuted for adultery and the female suicide rate is among the world’s highest. And with the government actively trying to bring the Taliban back into the political process, Samar represents a bulwark against the return of the Islamist movement’s medieval vision. “I am used to playing with fire,” she has said. “Somebody has to do it.”
Reading list: Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward; Siraj al-Tawarikh, by Faiz Mohammad Kateb. Best idea: The impact of social networking. Worst idea: Another war in the region. American decline or American renewal? American decline. More Europe or less? Less Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? Not sure.
Not long ago, the world’s fourth-richest man did something very unusual: He demanded to pay more taxes. “[W]hat I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office,” Warren Buffett announced to a chorus of hosannas in the New York Times.
One person who enthusiastically took up the call was U.S. President Barack Obama, who made “Warren Buffett’s secretary” part of his stump speech amid a growing debate over skyrocketing inequality in the tax code and most other facets of the American economy. He soon proposed a tax plan known as the “Buffett Rule,” which would impose a minimum 30 percent tax on individuals making more than $1 million annually. (Republicans in Congress were decidedly less enthusiastic about the idea.) In Obama’s State of the Union address in January, when he came to the line, “Right now, Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary,” the camera flashed on 56-year-old Nebraska native Debbie Bosanek, a living symbol of tax inequality. The modest Bosanek, who has worked for Buffett for two decades, says merely, “I was representing just the average citizen who, you know, needs a voice and wants to be treated fairly in the area of taxation.” But it’s clear that the Sage of Omaha and his assistant have sparked a long overdue conversation about economic fairness in the United States and the public policies that undermine it.
Charles Murray thinks that the United States is splitting at the seams, and the culprit is a widening gap between the country’s wealthy and its poor. But it’s the yawning cultural gulf between the two white Americas that he’s most worried about, as he writes in his 2012 book, Coming Apart, which paints a sad picture of the decline of the white working class in the United States amid the rise of a globally empowered wealthy new upper crust.
To examine this divergence, Murray devised hypothetical Fishtown and Belmont, the first corresponding to a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood and the second to a wealthy Boston suburb. In Fishtown, marriage rates plunged from 84 percent to 48 percent between 1960 and 2010, the violent crime rate sextupled, and the number of disabled quintupled. But in Belmont, a full 83 percent of the adult population is married and 84 percent of children live with both biological parents. In other words, Murray’s conclusion is that those Volvo-driving, latte-sipping coastal liberals got where they are today by embracing conservative “family values,” not rejecting them.
Even some critics of Murray — whose lightning-rod views came to the fore with his controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve — have called Coming Apart a compelling portrait of a new problem that American politics has yet to grapple with. “The word ‘class’ doesn’t even capture the divide Murray describes,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote. “You might say the country has bifurcated into different social tribes, with a tenuous common culture linking them.” Rich and poor Americans used to engage in the same leisure activities and live in the same ZIP codes, but today, as Murray notes, it’s inconceivable to imagine Belmont’s 1 percenters turning up at Applebee’s or a NASCAR race. “The problem I describe isn’t a conservative-versus-liberal problem,” Murray said. “It’s a cultural problem the whole country has.”Reading list: Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley; Emperor series, by Conn Iggulden; A History of Britain, by Simon Schama. Best idea: Using a palm scan as a replacement for all computer passwords. Worst idea: The National Security Agency’s new Utah facility that will effectively capture everything U.S. citizens do electronically, encrypted or not, and store it indefinitely. American decline or American renewal? If Obama wins, American decline, perhaps abrupt. If Romney wins, perhaps stabilization (at best). More Europe or less? Monetary union without centralization of fiscal policy was doomed to fail, and Europe is deep in the endgame. To tweet or not to tweet? For me, it has turned out to be an acquired taste. I have fun with it.
Known as the Pentagon’s “futurist in chief” — or, more affectionately, “Yoda” among Defense Department insiders — Andrew Marshall has spent the past 40 years speculating about over-the-horizon threats to the United States. At the top of his list today: a rapidly militarizing and increasingly belligerent China. As the longtime director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, the nonagenarian Marshall has spent recent years devising battle plans for an admittedly unlikely showdown with Beijing.
But unlikely scenarios are Marshall’s specialty. The details of his blueprint, known as the Air-Sea Battle, are classified, but its aim is to coordinate the U.S. Air Force and Navy more closely in order to respond to future threats to the global commons, not just in potential flash points like the South China Sea but all over the world — even helping the military reach melting ice caps in the Arctic. Marshall’s ambitious “organizing concept,” as Air Force Secretary Michael Donley calls it, has moved outside the realm of ideas as Barack Obama’s administration has sought to turn its proclaimed “pivot” to Asia into military reality. A hot war with China, for one, would be one of the most complicated logistical problems in U.S. military history. In that sense, Air-Sea Battle is bigger than any single military doctrine — it’s a bureaucratic reorientation that has already inspired more than 200 Air Force and Navy initiatives, including a new precision conventional-weapons system called Prompt Global Strike, as well as the Next-Generation Bomber program. Wired magazine has called Marshall’s concept a “help desk for 21st Century warfare.”
Marshall, an appointee of Richard Nixon who has been reappointed by every president since, seems also to have shaped Chinese military strategy. Gen. Chen Zhou, who helped write China’s four most recent defense white papers, told the Economist, “Our great hero was Andy Marshall in the Pentagon. We translated every word he wrote.”
Alexey Navalny almost single-handedly reinvented Russia’s moribund activist culture for the digital era. Soon, he could be spending his days behind bars, if President Vladimir Putin has his way. A commercial-rights lawyer by training, Navalny painstakingly built a large following in recent years for his unique LiveJournal blog, a pioneering exercise in accountability in which he and his loyal readers sift through mountains of paperwork to uncover corrupt practices by Russia’s political and business elite — a busy job in a country that ranks 143rd on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. After exposing embezzlement and malfeasance at major state-owned energy companies and banks, he turned to politics more explicitly. Navalny famously described Putin’s ruling United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves,” a nickname that stuck and helped fuel the anti-regime protests that began in late 2011. Navalny took a central role in organizing those protests, sparked by Putin’s impending return to the presidency — a process that felt more like a coronation than an election. Regularly at the forefront of major demonstrations in Moscow, the blogger has ties to nationalist parties rather than the traditional Western-backed anti-Putin intelligentsia, making him a particularly potent, homegrown threat. Navalny has said he took inspiration from Arab Spring uprisings, telling Reuters, “If they do not voluntarily start to reform by themselves, I do not doubt that this will happen in Russia.”
Now the Kremlin has seemingly struck back by filing charges of embezzlement against Navalny. Although they appear dubious, they’re certainly cause for concern given the fate of Kremlin critics like former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in his ninth year in prison. Of course, if the authorities do lock up Navalny, they’ll only be proving his point.
The past few years have produced one testament after another to America’s broken political system: the most partisan Congress on record, the first U.S. credit-rating downgrade ever, one of the most polarizing presidencies in recent memory, and the least popular and productive U.S. legislature in modern history.
But that’s usually where the conversation ends. Enter the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Mann and the American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, two of the Beltway’s most respected congressional experts, who had the temerity to point fingers and name names. Their verdict, rendered in their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, is surprisingly blunt for two such consummate centrist insiders: The increasingly adversarial relationship between the Democrats and Republicans is imperiling America’s constitutional democracy, and the GOP is the primary villain.
The Republican Party “has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,” they write, while allowing that the Democratic Party is “no paragon of civic virtue” either. The “asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for ‘balance,’ constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance,” they add.
It’s hard to disagree, when Republicans’ obstinate refusal to countenance any new revenues has America staring at a “fiscal cliff” that independent economists warn could plunge the country into a new recession. We can’t say they didn’t warn us.
MANN Reading list: Our Divided Political Heart, by E.J. Dionne; The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald; Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Best idea: Progressive consumption tax pegged to the state of the economy. Worst idea: Libertarianism. American decline or American renewal? Renewal (if we get our republic working effectively once again). More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not for me.
ORNSTEIN Reading list: Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics, by Jeff Greenfield; The New New Deal, by Michael Grunwald; The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. Best idea: A lottery prize for voting. Worst idea: We need more permanent tax cuts. American decline or American renewal? Teetering at the edge, but renewal is more likely. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not me, thanks.
“Make no mistake,” Saudi activist Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani said this summer after being arraigned on a long list of charges accusing him of promoting sedition. “We are all going to prison.” It’s hard to argue with that: The Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which Qahtani co-founded, has broken some of Saudi Arabia’s biggest taboos, highlighting corruption within the monarchy and questioning its legitimacy to govern.
Qahtani, an American-educated economics professor outraged at Saudi Arabia’s treatment of political prisoners, has been at the forefront of efforts to popularize the idea that even citizens of one of the planet’s most repressive and unaccountable monarchies deserve to be treated like human beings, regardless of what lies beneath its sands. “All authoritarian rule is illegitimate, even more so when it is an apartheid and despotic regime,” a petition posted on his group’s website reads.
The Saudi regime charged Qahtani with “breaking allegiance to the ruler,” but the activist has tried to put the entire government on trial. Banned from leaving the country as he awaits his verdict, he faces years in prison if convicted. Although few Saudis are nearly as outspoken, Qahtani hears the rumblings of dissent on the horizon. “Eventually, the regime will fail,” he told Al-Monitor. “This price … is a small token for regaining our people’s liberty and freedom.”
Reading list: The Oil Kings, by Andrew Scott Cooper; On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — and Future, by Karen Elliott House; Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally, by Thomas W. Lippman. Best idea: The increasing possibility of political change in Saudi Arabia that will bring about democracy. Worst idea: Stories that still praise tyrannies in Arab countries. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? Europe will weather the storm. We will see “more Europe.” To tweet or not to tweet? I do tweet. @MFQahtani.
Bahrain, the tiny archipelago wedged between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is the only country where tear gas and buckshot have succeeded (so far) in squelching an Arab Spring uprising. And for the ruling monarchy, the brave activists who run the Bahrain Center for Human Rights are Public Enemy No. 1.
The center, co-founded in 2002 by Nabeel Rajab, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and others, played a vital role in advancing the idea that all Bahrainis should be treated equally in this religiously divided kingdom, regardless of their sect. But after Rajab called via Twitter for a powerful member of the ruling family to step down, the monarchy had enough — in July he was hauled into prison for “insulting” Bahrainis. Khawaja, who has been a thorn in the government’s side since the 1970s, fared even worse: His jaw was shattered in four places by police upon his arrest last year, and he subsequently embarked on a marathon hunger strike that turned him into a global cause célèbre.
The activists’ sacrifices, however, have gone largely unrecognized in Washington, which has been only too eager to ignore the revolt in a country that hosts a critical U.S. naval base and is an ally in efforts to isolate Iran. “It has become evident today that, to the United States, democracy and human rights should only be applied to countries that are in conflict with the United States — but not with dictatorships it calls its allies,” Rajab told Foreign Policy before his arrest. With the two veteran opposition leaders in jail, the Khawaja daughters, Maryam, 25, and Zainab, 29, have taken up their father’s mantle to remind Americans that their founding principles are applicable the world over. “This is an issue of pride and dignity. People are sick and tired of living in a country where they cannot speak about what is on their mind,” Zainab told Der Spiegel. “I am speaking out, but we are paying a high price for it.”
MARYAM AL-KHAWAJA Reading list: Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi; Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West, by Zoya Phan; The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, by Peter Popham. Best idea: Developing laws that protect people online. Worst idea: Use of drones. American decline or American renewal? Decline. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To always tweet.
RAJAB Reading list: As We Forgive: Stories of Reconciliation from Rwanda, by Catherine Claire Larson; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, by Mohandas Gandhi; Call of Surat (history book in Arabic). Best idea: We got rid of some autocratic tyrants during the Arab Spring. Worst idea: Tribal and sectarian feuds taking over. American decline or American renewal? American decline. More Europe or less? Less Europe and weaker eurozone. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
When New York Times Magazine critic Sam Anderson visited Tokyo last year to interview Haruki Murakami, he arrived, he later wrote, “expecting Barcelona or Paris or Berlin — a cosmopolitan world capital whose straight-talking citizens were fluent not only in English but also in all the nooks and crannies of Western culture: jazz, theater, literature, sitcoms, film noir, opera, rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s no wonder — Anderson had immersed himself in Murakami’s fictional Japan, where ennui-afflicted characters read Kafka and listen to Thelonious Monk. Although his novels are set in his insular native country, Murakami has become something of a patron saint of globalization.
Growing up outside Kobe, Murakami became enamored of American jazz and Western writers, from Dostoyevsky to Vonnegut, Dickens to Capote. He owned a jazz club in Tokyo before turning to the world of fiction, where he is renowned for his genre-bending novels that span different universes yet are littered with real-world cross-cultural references. Now, with 12 novels and dozens of short stories translated into more than 40 languages, Murakami is his country’s most famous living author.
His latest novel, the nearly 1,000-page 1Q84, has been hailed as a lively, if bizarre, creative achievement and a paean to a Tokyo that Murakami calls “a kind of civilized world.” But Murakami doesn’t shy away from hot political topics. Last year he controversially called Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident a “mistake committed by our very own hands.” And this year, after his books were pulled from shelves in China amid a territorial dispute with Japan, he chalked up the standoff to the “cheap liquor” of nationalism. 1Q84‘s title is a nod to the classic by George Orwell, with whom Murakami says he has a “common feeling against the system” — a subversiveness he perhaps best expresses by creating a universe all his own.
These days, it’s nearly impossible to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on anything. But Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, managed to capture the attention of both left and right with this year’s The World America Made. The book, which argues forcefully that American decline is a myth and calls for a continued assertive U.S. role in world affairs, was a major influence on Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, in which the president declared, “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Mitt Romney’s campaign, meanwhile, brought on Kagan as a foreign-policy advisor.
Kagan, whose previous big-think book cemented the Bush-era image of a muscular America from Mars and a soft-power Europe from Venus amid the disagreements of the Iraq war, now makes a powerful case that the present international order rests on U.S. military and economic might — not its liberal values. Maintaining American hegemony is imperative for global peace and security, he argues, because “one of the main causes of war throughout history has been a rough parity of power that leaves nations in doubt about who is stronger.” In an election year, it’s not difficult to see why Kagan’s narrative about America’s indispensability appealed to both parties. Romney, for example, took to including a line or two about how America is the “greatest country in the history of the world” in his speeches. Obama liked the book so much that he reportedly spent 10 minutes during a meeting with leading media personalities going over an excerpt line by line.
Reading list: Breaking the Heart of the World, by John Milton Cooper; George F. Kennan, by John Lewis Gaddis; Berlin 1961, by Frederick Kempe. Best idea: Reviving the long-form essay. Worst idea: More social networking. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not.
As a candidate in this year’s unusually public race for the World Bank presidency, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala seemingly had it all: an MIT education, high-level experience with both the bank and the Nigerian government, the potential to be the first woman and first person of color to run the institution, and the support of everyone from the African Union to the Financial Times. She just didn’t have the one thing that really mattered: a U.S. passport.
But though she may have missed out on her chance to run the bank — American Jim Yong Kim got the post — Okonjo-Iweala is arguably as influential in her role as the powerful finance minister of Africa’s most populous country and one of its fastest-growing economies. In a previous stint in the position, she successfully negotiated to wipe out millions of dollars of international debt, and since reassuming the post last year she has cut spending and helped establish a sovereign wealth fund to manage Nigeria’s oil riches. Her driving idea: African countries can’t hope to develop economically until they get their institutions in order.
It hasn’t always been easy. Although she enjoys a potent mandate from President Goodluck Jonathan, Okonjo-Iweala has seen her reform efforts consistently meet opposition from the “godfathers” — the powerful officials who benefit from the oil wealth in Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt political system. Her efforts to end a popular but economically disastrous fuel subsidy have also so far been slow going. “It has not been easy, and the struggle is still ongoing,” she told Reuters this year. “You make progress; then you get courage to make more.” If she can succeed in helping one of Africa’s most pivotal countries overcome the infamous oil curse, it might have a much more lasting impact than anything she could have accomplished back in Washington.
You might call Martin Feldstein, a former head of the National Bureau of Economic Research and chairman of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, the original euroskeptic. “If a single currency is accepted,” the longtime Harvard University economist wrote back in 1992, “national governments might soon have to decide whether to accept the greater volatility of employment and incomes that comes from abandoning an independent monetary policy and flexible exchange rate, or accept instead the loss of national sovereignty over taxes and spending.” (Translation: The euro is doomed.) He doubled down on his argument five years later in Foreign Affairs, warning of the “danger of a treaty or constitution that has no exits” and the “adverse economic effects of a single currency on unemployment and inflation.”
With the seemingly successful introduction of the euro in 1999, Feldstein was in a distinct minority. He stuck to his guns, however, even suggesting in 2008 — a month before Slovakia joined the euro (ironically, to seek relief from the global financial panic) — that a eurozone breakup could be “a real possibility.” Now, amid the very real talk of just such a breakup, Feldstein has turned to critiquing European leaders’ responses to the meltdown. Some of his predictions — Greece defaulting and exiting the eurozone, for example — have yet to come true. Feldstein can point to his prescience, however, noting that his early warnings “were pretty much on target, even though they were written 20 years ago.”
The Great Recession is coming up roses for Mohamed El-Erian. The Egyptian-American investor has already emerged as one of the most important theorists of the economic downturn — positing a “new normal” of sluggish growth and lower returns — and is poised to take over the investment firm Pimco, making him what the New York Times called the bond markets’ “new leading man.”
El-Erian, who made his intellectual reputation by describing the destructive cycle between financial crises and political instability, had proclaimed that 2012 would be “Europe’s moment of truth.” Now the verdict is in, and El-Erian’s warnings about the collapse of the eurozone and global market contagion seem more Cassandra-like than ever. Europe, El-Erian said recently, is simply avoiding the tough decisions that will allow it to recover. “Greece is like the infection in your toe. If you don’t pay attention to it, it’s small, and then the next thing you know, it’s spread to your leg, and the next thing you know it’s affecting your vital organs,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with it. And Europe has not dealt with the problem of Greece.” Although El-Erian saw the current financial crisis coming before just about anyone, he lays the blame for this latest downturn squarely at the feet of politicians, whose endless bickering and buck-passing have become the dangerous “new new normal.” Now, when the markets come crashing down, he writes, Western leaders “won’t have anyone to blame but themselves.”
China’s leaders often declare publicly that their country needs to “reform.” “Reform can only move forward,” Premier Wen Jiabao waxed after the country’s rubber-stamp legislature met in March. “It cannot stagnate. Even more so, it can’t move backward.” But China’s mandarins rarely elaborate on just what reform means, preferring instead to govern by cryptic slogans and vague pronouncements.
Not so Yu Jianrong, the rare Chinese academic who has taken up the challenge of defining how exactly China could change course — and from inside the system. In April, he released a succinct, two-phase plan he called a “10-Year Outline of China’s Social and Political Development.” Despite its bland title, Yu’s blueprint offers a timetable for Chinese reform that for once is as credible as it is ambitious. The plan puts dates and specifics to the task, advocating, for example, a stronger law on private property, the revealing of “information pertaining to government affairs” and “officials’ property,” and the abolition of “speech crimes,” after which China should “open up” the media and political parties. Yu’s short manifesto immediately caused a splash when he released it to his nearly 1.5 million followers on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo (though the government has maintained a deafening silence). “We’ve already decided to change,” Yu explained in an interview. “The question is: In which direction do we change, and from where do we start?” Sweeping reform in this authoritarian land of 1.3 billion won’t be easy, but Yu’s plan is as good a place to begin as any. The era, he said, of crossing the river “by feeling the stones” is over. Best idea: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize. Worst idea: Political reform in China may be delayed. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? Less.
Today, the old cliché that money can buy anything is more true than ever. The going rate for an Indian woman’s womb is about $8,000, the right to emit a metric ton of carbon dioxide costs $10.50, and for $15 to $20 an hour, a man will stand in line overnight for a lobbyist who wishes to attend a congressional hearing. On the one hand, it’s a testament to the power of the modern market, where efficiency rules and anything is open to free exchange. But should everything be for sale? That is the burning question posed by Harvard University professor Michael Sandel, who has emerged as the world’s foremost critic of the rush toward “commodification.”
The problem with putting a price on everything, Sandel argues in his new book, What Money Can’t Buy, is twofold. First, it exacerbates inequality: When more and more goods and services — including health care, education, and political access — can be bought and sold like gold or oil futures, the rich can accumulate them in greater amounts. Second, placing objects and ideas on the free market, Sandel argues, often degrades their social value. Think, for example, of the growing practice of paying students to read. In our quest to boost test scores, are we recasting learning as a chore rather than a joy?
At Harvard, Sandel teaches one of the university’s most popular courses — simply titled “Justice” — which in a single semester has drawn upwards of 800 students, to whom he poses vexing moral dilemmas. A runaway train is hurtling toward a fork in the track. On one side, Gandhi lies tied to the rails; on the other, two ordinary individuals. Should you save Gandhi or save the two others? What if 10 people were on the other side? Sandel has also become an international phenomenon and a pioneer in the democratization of a world-class education: His class is now an internationally syndicated television show, making him a minor rock star in China, Japan, and South Korea, where his open-ended teaching style and focus on big questions are far from the norm. The introductory lecture for “Justice” has tallied more than 4 million views on YouTube. Who knew a philosophy-minded professor’s tough questions about Bentham and Kant could compete with cat videos and “Gangnam Style“?
Reading list: The Syrian Rebellion, by Fouad Ajami; Strings Attached: Untangling the Ethics of Incentives, by Ruth W. Grant; How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life, by Robert and Edward Skidelsky.
John Brennan has been at war with al Qaeda longer than any other top U.S. official, and he has learned a trick or two along the way. The 25-year CIA veteran has gone from a supporter of “enhanced interrogation techniques” under George W. Bush to the architect of Barack Obama‘s counterterrorism strategy, emphasizing pinpoint strikes and commando raids over grandiose attempts to transform the cultures of distant lands. And he has reframed Bush’s expansive war on terror as a more focused mission to dismantle specific terrorist groups in places like Somalia and Yemen.
Brennan no longer operates only from the shadows. He has mounted a public defense of the White House’s reliance on drone strikes, which have emerged as Obama’s signature tool in hunting terrorists, as “legal, ethical, and wise,” in a bid to convince skeptics that the administration has wielded its extraordinary powers responsibly. And he has largely won the argument: More than 60 percent of Americans support drone strikes to target terrorists abroad.
Brennan, reportedly the last man in the room with Obama before the president decides to order a strike, doesn’t take these life-or-death decisions lightly. The man whom colleagues refer to as the “priest” of the counterterrorism effort has formulated a moral blueprint for when to call in the drones. “It is the option of last recourse,” he explained this year. Obama “wants to make sure that we go through a rigorous checklist: the infeasibility of capture, the certainty of the intelligence base, the imminence of the threat, all of these things.”
Barack Obama has turned drones into his signature counterterrorism tool, even personally selecting targets from a “kill list” as he has deployed this new sort of air force to rain death down on terrorists across two continents and bludgeon al Qaeda into submission. But far too much of the U.S. president‘s secret assassination program has been shielded from legal scrutiny — and Jameel Jaffer, an influential lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union specializing in national security issues, is working to change that.
“[T]he legal foundation of the targeted killing campaign is not simply shaky, but rotten,” Jaffer wrote this year. For the first time, he’s forcing the CIA to justify its veil of secrecy: In a landmark court case, he’s challenging its consistent refusal, over several years, to confirm or deny the drone program’s existence. Even as multiple U.S. officials — from Obama on down — have spoken publicly about the strikes, America’s top spies still refuse to say whether they have records about the drone program, let alone share them.
Jaffer, who played a central role in challenging the warrantless wiretapping program and use of torture under George W. Bush, isn’t giving Obama a pass either. “Remember outcry after Bush detained Americans as [enemy combatants]?” Jaffer recently tweeted. “Imagine the outcry if he’d proposed killing them (secretly!) instead.”Reading list: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander; Mating, by Norman Rush; NW, by Zadie Smith. Best idea: The Arab Spring was a good idea, and still is. Worst idea: Canada’s decision to close its embassy in Iran. American decline or American renewal? Private opulence and public squalor (as John K. Galbraith said). More Europe or less? More would be good, but less is more likely. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet, but regret it constantly.
The climate-change debate’s most consistent iconoclast continued to go after environmental sacred cows this year, dismissing the Rio+20 summit as a “wasted opportunity,” warning against “policy by panic” efforts to connect this summer’s droughts to global warming, and celebrating hydraulic fracturing as “this decade’s best green-energy option.”
But Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist often mislabeled a “climate skeptic,” is more than just a critic of environmentalism run amok. In a world of terrifyingly daunting problems and limited resources, Lomborg doesn’t say that global warming isn’t happening; he tries to urge leaders to think realistically about what to tackle first. For his innovative Copenhagen Consensus 2012 project, he convened a panel of more than 50 experts, including four Nobel-winning economists, and asked them how they would spend $75 billion — a 15 percent increase in global aid spending — to most efficiently bolster global welfare. The panel’s top recommendations were interventions to fight hunger and improve education, as well as increasing subsidies for malaria treatment and childhood immunizations. Research to “fight biodiversity destruction and lessen the effects of climate change”? That came in sixth.
Reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; Sustainable Energy — Without the Hot Air, by David MacKay; The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality, by Branko Milanovic. Best idea: Fracking gas could be this decade’s best green option — it has actually reduced U.S. emissions twice what the Kyoto Protocol ever did. Worst idea: Predictions that 100 million people would die from global warming by 2030 — turned out it was exaggerated more than 12-fold, to get attention.
If there’s one man who has stepped into the void in the Middle East, it’s Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the ruler of a tiny country that few had heard of. Some might say it’s his vast oil and natural gas wealth that has made the enigmatic emir a major player in conflict zones as varied as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen — not to mention Palestine, where Qatar has largely usurped Egypt’s role as the principal mediator between the feuding factions of Hamas and Fatah.
But the Qatari emir, who has been called the “Arab Henry Kissinger,” is not just a sheikh with a big bank account. His ambition is nothing less than the remapping of power dynamics in the Arab world. Known for his grit and determination, which enabled him to turn the nearly bankrupt statelet he inherited in a bloodless 1995 coup into the planet’s richest country, the emir also knows how to play great powers off each other to get what he wants. Qatar is home to one of the largest U.S. air bases, but the canny emir maintains cordial relations with his neighbors in Tehran as well, never mind his misgivings. (In one leaked 2010 diplomatic cable, he told U.S. Sen. John Kerry that “based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100.”)
Magnifying Sheikh Hamad’s voice is Qatari media giant Al Jazeera, which became the “unquestioned home of the revolution” during the Arab Spring, as FP‘s Marc Lynch put it. Not content simply to cheer the revolutionaries from the sidelines, the Qatari emir took the lead in mustering Arab League support for the NATO intervention that toppled Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, provided at least $400 million in aid for the rebels, and helped them establish training camps. He has also unveiled a mini-Marshall Plan for the post-Arab Spring world, pledging billions of dollars in aid and investment to Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Gaza. Now the loudest Arab voice calling for intervention in Syria, Sheikh Hamad, at September’s U.N. General Assembly meeting, urged Arab countries to “do what is necessary to stop the bloodshed in Syria.” Based on his track record, the rest of the world will get there — eventually.
Hew Strachan may be an expert on World War I, but the Oxford University professor isn’t stuck in the past. He has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent thinkers on the character of modern warfare at a time when governments are confronting a host of new realities, from drones to cyberattacks to asymmetrical warfare. And he has the ear of top U.S. military officials. Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, is one of many to call himself one of Strachan’s students.
Strachan would tell you that war hasn’t changed as much as we may think because states are still the primary actors in conflict. But, perhaps more than any other military scholar, he has pressed civilian leaders to think deeply about how they articulate strategy, while urging military leaders to wrestle with their role in implementing it. He argues that since the 1980s, the U.S. Army has had an ever freer hand in running America’s wars, while opting out all but entirely from the crucial policy debates on whether and in what way to use military force. Conflict, Strachan writes, became “a policy-free zone, in which military expertise was unfettered and where armies reasserted their authority over war’s conduct.” Unsurprisingly, he thinks this is what led to disastrously unsound strategy post-9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, like the dramatic 2010 firing of Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, which Strachan says stemmed from the general’s frustration over a lack of political guidance from the capital. And he has lacerated Barack Obama’s administration for sending mixed messages to Afghans and Americans alike, citing its failure to understand that in modern warfare, communications are strategy. Reflecting on the war on terror in late 2011, Strachan made an observation that could equally apply to many of today’s conflicts: “The paradox of having wars with big objectives, at least in declaratory terms, but only being ready to use limited means and limited levels of mobilization to fight them, puts you in a pretty confused place.”Reading list: The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E. Ricks; And the Land Lay Still, by James Robertson; War from the Ground Up, by Emile Simpson. Best idea: Reintroducing the idea of victory in counterinsurgency. Worst idea: Bombing Iran. American decline or American renewal? Decline unless the U.S. recognizes the need for renewal. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? Not to tweet.
Husain Haqqani and Farahnaz Ispahani have spent their careers fighting the slow-motion radicalization of Pakistan — even as it became increasingly obvious that the deck was stacked against them. The husband and wife, now in self-imposed exile in the United States, were two of Islamabad’s most prominent interlocutors with Washington as jihadists spread throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas and Osama bin Laden was discovered a mile away from the country’s version of West Point. Now, after a career defending Pakistan’s deeply unpopular ties to the United States, Haqqani is beginning to think it’s time for a geopolitical divorce.
“If in 65 years, you haven’t been able to find sufficient common ground to live together, and you had three separations and four reaffirmations of marriage, then maybe the better way is to find friendship outside of the marital bond,” Haqqani, a scholar of the Pakistani military, said in August. Ispahani, meanwhile, has tried to push Pakistan toward a frank discussion of its internal demons. The real struggle in Pakistan, she wrote this year, is “the systematic elimination” of anyone who stands up to the country’s generals, who have created “a militarized Islamist state.” She found out what standing up to them means in Pakistan’s parliament, where she was a leading voice calling for the repeal of the country’s notorious blasphemy laws — an explosive cause that has cost several of Pakistan’s leading liberal politicians their lives at the hands of Islamist killers.
Their outspokenness has had its own cost: Haqqani was forced to resign as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington and was hauled before a Pakistani court over allegations that he had sought U.S. help to head off a possible military coup, while Ispahani was stripped of her seat in parliament, ostensibly because she holds dual U.S.-Pakistani nationality. Instead of convincing Washington to rush to their aid, however, they’re trying to convince Pakistanis that their true struggles can’t be won by burning American flags. As Ispahani tweeted recently: “Stop blaming the world — look inside.”
HAQQANI Reading list: Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, by William J. Dobson; The World America Made, by Robert Kagan. Best idea: Containment of totalitarian Islamism. Worst idea: Leading from behind. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? More Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet, but only meaningfully and with purpose.
ISPAHANI Reading list: Ideas of a Nation, by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad; Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea; Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact, edited by Samantha Power and Graham Allison. Best idea: Using social media to defeat the overwhelming presence of jihadi extremists on social media. Worst idea: Not intervening in Syria immediately with the backing of the international community. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? Europe with all its issues is still a more reliable partner than any others. Will prevent a resurgent Russia. To tweet or not to tweet? Always tweet. So many ideas emerge; so many conversations with ordinary people, intellectuals, and voiceless groups happen on Twitter and only on Twitter.
A tenured MIT professor since age 29, winner of various top-notch economics prizes, co-author of a groundbreaking book on poverty (last year’s Poor Economics) — Esther Duflo, still just 40, is firmly cemented among the world’s elite economists. Her place there is secured by a relentless (and prolific) dedication to the novel proposition that we should subject our wishful thinking about how to help poor people to cold, hard analyses of whether those ideas actually work.
She and her Poor Economics co-author, Abhijit Banerjee (her partner in life too — they had a baby this year), are co-founders and directors of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where they have the radical idea of actually asking poor people about how they live and subjecting the various programs aimed at helping them to real, scientific, randomized controlled trials to evaluate their effectiveness. This year, for example, Duflo and two colleagues released a study debunking the oft-touted saving graces of Western-designed cookstoves. Contradicting previous laboratory results, a four-year trial in one Indian state found no evidence that families that received the stoves had improved lung function or reduced their fuel consumption. “More broadly,” Duflo’s team wrote in what could be read as her raison d’être, “this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts.”
Despite results that often show good intentions aren’t nearly good enough, Duflo insists her work should be seen as encouraging. “The fact that policies often fail for no good reason is annoying but less depressing than the view that it is a big conspiracy against the poor,” she explained to the Financial Times this year. “Name your favorite enemy — capitalism, corruption.… Our view is easier. You think hard about the problems and you can solve them.”
On March 11, 2011, tsunami waves from the worst earthquake Japan had ever seen slammed the island country. Some 15,872 people died; 129,577 buildings collapsed; and three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in eastern Japan suffered a full meltdown, spewing radiation into the air and tainting a 50-mile radius of surrounding area. In the national debate that followed, the Japanese government commissioned three major reports to determine what happened. The most searing one was chaired by the outspoken Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and emeritus professor who blasted “collusion” between government regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, for causing the disaster.
In Japan’s opaque political system, Kurokawa’s report amounted to a bombshell. Following a six-month investigation, including interviews with more than 1,100 people, he concluded not only that the Fukushima disaster was “man-made” but also that it resulted more fundamentally from the “ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” Critics have argued that even Kurokawa didn’t go far enough; the report names no names, and critical elements that appear in the English-language report didn’t make it into the Japanese. But his rare willingness to point fingers is exactly what may be needed to shake the world’s third-biggest economy out of its dangerous complacency.Best idea: Critical importance of human wisdom. Worst idea: Continuing greed. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
It’s fitting that in the year after the Arab Spring and the European debt crisis dethroned one head of state after another, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson put out an authoritative tome arguing, based on a sweeping historical survey stretching back to the Neolithic age, that state failure stems not from culture, geography, or insufficient technocratic expertise, but rather from what they call “extractive institutions” — those that concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a few elites. “Poor countries are poor because those who have power make choices that create poverty,” the two write in Why Nations Fail. “They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.”
In tackling one of history’s most vexing questions — why some countries flourish while others flounder — Acemoglu and Robinson argue that Mexico is poorer than the United States because of the institutions established by Spanish versus British colonialists, and that authoritarian China’s current economic growth is simply not sustainable. The duo has also launched a blog to apply their thesis to everything from the eurozone crisis to sexual repression in North Korea.
Along the way, Acemoglu and Robinson are making people think again (and again) about geopolitics. “The more you read [Why Nations Fail], the more you appreciate what a fool’s errand we’re on in Afghanistan and how much we need to totally revamp our whole foreign aid strategy,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman marveled. “But most intriguing are the warning flares the authors put up” about America’s growing inequality and China’s unsustainable growth. They’re danger signs world leaders would do well to heed.
ACEMOGLU Reading list: Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, by Laurent Dubois; Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns; The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright. Best idea: A growth pact for Europe. Worst idea: A growth pact for Europe based on just carrying on with business as usual. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Why not?
ROBINSON Reading list: Oblivion: A Memoir, by Héctor Abad Faciolince; Country of Bullets: Chronicles of War, by Juanita León; Antecedents to Modern Rwanda: The Nyiginya Kingdom, by Jan Vansina. Best idea: To have the World Bank led by someone who actually has a track record in solving the problems of poor people in developing countries. Worst idea: CIVETS (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa) as favored emerging markets. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not.
Back in 2009, Paul Romer began talking about “charter cities” — his novel idea for persuading a developing country to sign away a parcel of land to be governed by a foreign power as a model for economic growth, essentially creating mini-Hong Kongs throughout the Third World. The concept was generally received as intriguing but infeasible. Free trade zones and low-cost maquiladora factories are one thing, but what government would ever voluntarily let another country enforce laws on its territory? It seemed like a mix of wild-eyed futurism and old-school colonialism, and the one government that seriously considered adopting it — Madagascar’s — was overthrown in a coup shortly afterward.
Then came Honduras. President Porfirio Lobo, who came to power following his own country’s coup in 2009, was intrigued by Romer’s proposal, and over the past two years, Honduras moved substantially toward enacting his dream, even passing legislation establishing a Región Especial de Desarrollo — or RED — that would have special, market-friendly laws to attract international investors. In a geographically bizarre arrangement, the court system of Mauritius, a tiny island country in the Indian Ocean, was enlisted to serve as the RED’s appeals court. Still, big dreams don’t come easily. In September, Romer resigned from the project’s advisory board after the Honduran government signed an investment deal without the board’s input. In October, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled “private cities” unconstitutional. “I don’t know what people mean when they refer to private cities,” Romer told the Guardian before the decision. “But if it suggests that there will be no institutions or government, then I fear that misses the essential requirement for successful urbanization.”
Whether or not the Honduran Hong Kong ever materializes, Romer deserves credit for showing the power of even an outlandish idea to make us reimagine the world’s poorest places.
With last year’s Arab uprisings, the world saw the power of Twitter to channel popular sentiment, mobilize protests, and even, some argued, topple dictators. That power isn’t always a given, however, and it’s Alexander Macgillivray’s job to defend it. As Twitter’s head lawyer, he has done battle with governments across the globe to protect the right of tweeps everywhere to spout off — provided, of course, they do it in 140 characters or less.
In just the past year, the longtime Silicon Valley attorney, who previously represented Google as it redefined intellectual property law for the search era, has contested attempts by the Indian government to shut down accounts, fought a U.S. court order to release data on Occupy Wall Street protesters, and even reprimanded a fellow Twitter employee for helping the company’s corporate partners silence critical voices on the site. “You don’t want business interests affecting judgment about content,” Macgillivray insisted. “It’s against the trust your users have in your service.”
But it’s a tricky balancing act. Early this year, Twitter announced a new policy giving the company the ability to “reactively withhold content from users in a specific country — while keeping it available in the rest of the world.” (Removing a tweet previously meant deleting it from the web entirely.) Critics said the move was a form of censorship, but Twitter promised tweets would be removed only upon request and only if they broke the law — a system that Macgillivray, one of the policy’s architects, defended as a way “to keep more tweets up in more places.” The company refused to comply with all six government removal requests in the first half of 2012, but in October Twitter blocked access in Germany to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the German government, in addition to removing anti-Semitic tweets in France. “Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently,” Macgillivray tweeted.
The microblogging service may still be figuring out the kinks of this new policy, but at a time when multinational corporations are caving left and right to countries like China, Macgillivray’s principled defense of free speech is vital. “No one wants a pen that’s going to rat them out,” he told the New York Times. “We all want pens that can be used to write anything and that will stand up for who we are.”
In 2008, the crash of Lehman Brothers sent the world economy into a tailspin. Four years later, the United States and the major economies of the European Union are growing anemically, if at all. The investing world has seen the Chinas and Indias as practically the only bright spots of global growth. According to Ruchir Sharma, however, the golden age for these up-and-comers is fast coming to a close.
In his new book, Breakout Nations, Sharma — who oversees a portfolio worth an estimated $25 billion — debunks the conventional wisdom that the emerging markets of the last decade will continue to drive global growth in the next one. Where some see in India, Mexico, and Russia’s growing ranks of billionaires symbols of newfound affluence, Sharma sees dangerous imbalances. Smart investors should look instead to a new class of promising economies — like “boring” Poland. Sharma’s smart geoeconomic insights — like his riff on how overpriced cocktails in Rio could be a sign of green shoots in Detroit or his take on why China’s slowdown won’t be the “cataclysmic event” that many fear (after all, “a dead camel is still larger than a horse”) — are the end product of two decades of traveling the world to seek out ground truth for himself. “The next decade is full of bright spots,” Sharma writes, “but you can’t find them by looking back at the nations that got the most hype in the last decade.”Reading list: The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential … in Business and in Life, by Leo Babauta; Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie; The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Best idea: The abundance of oil. Worst idea: Another marketing acronym for which countries will do well: MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey). American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? Not to tweet.
A giant of contemporary African letters for more than half a century, Chinua Achebe is still best known for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, which drew on oral traditions to tell the story of a Nigerian village transformed by colonialism and Western-imposed Christianity. He also achieved renown for his withering critiques of depictions of Africa by European writers, demanding a literature that traveled well beyond the Heart of Darkness clichés to reveal African realities, while urging Africans to be the ones to tell their own stories.
True to that appeal, this year brought Achebe’s own powerful memoir, There Was a Country, an account of his life during the 1967-1970 Biafran war. Achebe had taken the Biafran side in the conflict, which left more than 1 million people dead, and served as a roving international ambassador for the breakaway government, narrowly escaping Nigerian attacks on multiple occasions. His book makes the case that the Biafran war — Africa’s first civil war to generate major international media attention — was a harbinger of African conflicts to come, from Rwanda to Congo to Sierra Leone, all of which have their roots in the arbitrary drawing of borderlines during colonialism, were exacerbated by natural resources, and proved the inability of the international community to stop the bloodshed. “Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal,” writes Achebe, today a professor of Africana studies at Brown University. “But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.”
Sludge flows through China’s rivers. The air tastes like glue. Synthetic eggs and pigs pumped full of growth hormones and cooked in oil made of recycled sewage feature on menus across the country. In the United States, asking “Why is the sky blue?” implies something so obvious that it doesn’t have to be explained. But in China, home to some of the world’s most polluted cities, the question’s very premise is questionable.
Enter Ma Jun, the most prominent Chinese activist attempting not only to hold the government accountable but, first, to get it to tell the truth about just how dire China’s pollution problem really is. His method: diligently and painstakingly collecting evidence of companies behaving badly to try to shame them into compliance. A journalist turned environmentalist who founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Ma applies scientific rigor to exposing such corporate violations (more than 90,000 to date), flagging everything from a small coal-tar factory improperly storing its dangerous waste to Apple suppliers poisoning workers with a toxic chemical used on touch screens — as well as local governments that flout environmental regulations across China. Dozens of major multinationals now consult Ma’s pollution readings when working with suppliers in China. And by documenting environmental violations that had long been obvious but were never compiled in a way the public could easily understand, Ma has given statistical ammunition to Chinese citizens trying to nudge the Communist Party into cleaning up its act.
Ma has pushed his message with vivid depictions of China’s black rivers and dun-colored heavens. In one recent article titled “A Dream of Blue Skies,” Ma writes of waiting for the day when “hospitals aren’t filled with children suffering from respiratory diseases … when you don’t have to think hard to choose the type of dustproof mask so that they can walk home from school without breathing in too much soot and exhaust.” He might be waiting for a long time, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Yevgenia Chirikova had never been involved in politics before 2007, when she noticed red paint on the trees of the Khimki forest outside Moscow, where she enjoyed taking walks with her family. When she learned that a wide swath of the forest was due to be razed for the construction of a highway, she did something almost inconceivable in Russian political culture: She got organized.
A successful businesswoman with her own engineering company, Chirikova soon proved an effective activist, organizing protests and blogging her struggle to save the forest. When thousands of people began attending the rallies and celebrities including U2’s Bono began speaking out on her behalf, the Russian state fought back. Chirikova was jailed multiple times, and at one point officials threatened to take away her children on trumped-up neglect charges. The Khimki protests were an early sign of the growing levels of dissent in Russia, which boiled over into the massive rallies held before, and after, Vladimir Putin’s reelection this year. And Chirikova, who helped organize the protests and recently challenged the ruling United Russia party in local elections (she lost, but alleged voter fraud), was way ahead of the curve. During the Putin era, the public faces of the Russian opposition have typically been intellectuals, ex-politicians, or tycoons. With Chirikova, who runs her campaign out of a tiny basement beside a fruit and vegetable store, Russian activists have a more accessible symbol: an ordinary woman with unusual determination fighting to save her home.
Reading list: Anton Chekhov short stories and novels (reread); Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas Friedman. Best idea: Preserving the view from your own window, the small motherland each of us has. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. Smart America will realize it is time to walk away from the idea of consuming society and become a responsible society. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
Chirikova tells FP:“Before the Arab revolutions, many lived with the stereotype that poverty pushes people to street protests. The Arab Spring demonstrated that even when people do not starve, they still go to protest, because they are unhappy about the regimes in their countries. If they can do it, why cannot we? We saw that the square can be real, that we also can come out and demand changes. Before, people were too scared to demonstrate their views. Since last winter, our squares have filled up with people demanding Putin’s resignation, demanding political changes.” “I am against revolutions. We have had negative experience with coups and rallies in the past. We remember the shooting at the White House in Moscow. We still mourn dozens of victims. The new Russia’s protest is the most beautiful, most peaceful, most intelligent protest in the world — not a single broken window, not a single burned car or victim.”
In the years since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Republican Party’s base has grown increasingly wary of engagement overseas — to the point where Republican primary voters in 2012 were split straight down the middle about whether the United States should intervene in world affairs whenever America’s interests are challenged. And since 2010, when he rode the Tea Party wave to Washington, Rand Paul has quickly emerged as the standard-bearer for his party’s noninterventionist wing. The freshman senator from Kentucky — son of libertarian leader Ron Paul, the congressman who waved the come-home-America flag as an also-ran in this year’s Republican presidential primaries — has called for a “foreign policy of moderation” that “works within the confines of the Constitution and the realities of our fiscal crisis.” He has also argued that a “more defensive foreign policy” is in the long-term interest of a Republican Party whose support is increasingly concentrated in the American South. “I think that would go over much better in New England than the typical ‘we have to bomb everybody tomorrow’ policy that you hear some Republicans have.”
In practice, these views have translated into opposition to the Patriot Act, military intervention in Libya, aggressive rhetoric against Iran, and increases in defense spending. This year, Paul also held up a government-funding bill and several ambassadorial confirmations in an effort to cut foreign aid to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. “We send billions of taxpayer dollars abroad and what do we get in return?” he asked in September after the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. “Disrespect, disdain and, ultimately, violence.” Plenty of Americans are starting to agree.
As Indonesia’s finance minister from 2005 to 2010, Sri Mulyani Indrawati won high praise for tough-minded reforms — from dismissing corrupt tax officials to nearly quadrupling the roll of income-tax payers — that helped the country of 250 million beat back the global financial crisis with annual growth rates averaging 6 percent. Now that she’s a managing director at the World Bank (and its most senior woman), Sri Mulyani is peddling her wares to the rest of the world, offering advice on economic growth for those countries hoping to replicate the Indonesian miracle.
Her prescription is simple: sensible fiscal cutbacks plus policies that encourage growth — the tried-and-true methods of breaking down barriers to trade, investment, and innovation. At a March speech in Beijing, for instance, she cautioned that China’s rise could be in jeopardy unless it allowed more, and more equal, competition. In a bit of role reversal for an official from a former Dutch colony, Sri Mulyani has also dispensed words of wisdom to debt-saddled Europe: Countries like Greece and Spain should get their balance sheets in order and then worry about building up their economies, she says — but the two go hand in hand. Call it the Indonesian model.
Sri Mulyani has good reason to put her country on a pedestal: Indonesia has the world’s third-fastest-growing consumer base after China and India, and it is predicted to surpass the likes of Britain and Germany to become the world’s seventh-largest economy by 2030. So forget the BRICS, she says, and find a way to put another “I” on the list of the world’s most successful emerging economies.
The foreign policy of the world’s No. 2 superpower remains a bit of a mystery. Chinese leaders rarely elaborate or take questions in news conferences, instead offering canned statements to Communist Party propaganda outlets such as the People’s Daily. And lower-ranking Chinese officials and think-tank experts are far more constrained in their ability to explain what’s really going on than their voluble U.S. counterparts.
That’s why Wang Jisi, China’s most respected expert on the United States, is so crucial to understanding what Chinese leaders think about the world. A gifted writer and the former director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School, the most prestigious training institution for Communist Party officials, Wang has both the ability and, crucially, the permission to demystify Chinese views. What does Wang want us to know? That the feel-good stories U.S. officials tell themselves about China’s global ascent are an elaborate form of denial. In an influential monograph co-authored by Brookings Institution senior fellow Kenneth Lieberthal, Wang this year described China’s actions on the world stage as rooted in the conclusion that “America will seek to constrain or even upset China’s rise.” Beijing’s view, he says, is that the United States is “heading for decline” and that China’s development model provides an “alternative to Western democracy and market economies.” The result? “[T]hese views make many Chinese political elites suspect that it is the United States,” Wang says, “that is ‘on the wrong side of history.'”
How much is a good fourth-grade teacher worth? Enough to pack an extra apple with your kid’s lunch? Or maybe a nice gift for the holidays? How about $700,000? That figure, it turns out, is the amount of extra income the students of an average-sized U.S. classroom, combined, can earn over their lifetimes thanks to a good fourth-grade teacher. If that sounds excessive, Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economist, has the numbers to back it up — just one of this 33-year-old’s pioneering, empirical discoveries in his short career so far.
The Indian-American Chetty, who earned tenure at Harvard at the tender age of 29 and is a winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant this year, has been bucking the conventional economic wisdom since he was an undergraduate, also at Harvard. As a sophomore, he caught the eye of legendary economist Martin Feldstein (No. 52) by proposing a counterintuitive reason that companies might increase investment under higher interest rates; Feldstein told Chetty to quit working for him and instead pursue his own research. Since then, Chetty — driven by the simple impulse for “math to guide the intuition, not for the intuition to guide the math,” as he has put it — has managed to overturn various age-old assumptions and ensure his place at the center of the U.S. policy debate over everything from unemployment benefits (they’re not necessarily a crutch — they give people time to find well-suited jobs) to tax breaks (one of their most important qualities, it turns out, is that beneficiaries actually know how they work). With an already hefty list of findings like these, Chetty is at the forefront of the growing field of behavioral public finance, using hard data to track how economic policy affects individual behavior and social welfare. It may sound simple, but, as Feldstein once put it, most economists today are “happy to take the data as they find it.” That’s just what makes Chetty’s novel, truth-testing experiments, in Feldstein’s words, “ingenious.”
Weeks after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel a “cancer tumor” in the latest rhetorical salvo of hatred from the leaders of the Islamic Republic, Asghar Farhadi presented a decidedly different portrait of their country. Accepting the Academy Award for best foreign film in a gilded Hollywood theater, he spoke of peace and tolerance, reminding tens of millions of viewers worldwide that “at the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”
Farhadi’s carefully chosen words avoided outright criticism of the Iranian regime. (And for good reason: Fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking for 20 years after speaking out in support of Iran’s 2009 opposition protests.) Yet, precisely by sidestepping the overtly political — by depicting “the way that millions of normal people live in Iran today,” as the lead actor put it — Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film, A Separation, reminded us how art can transcend nationalism. The story of a Tehran couple’s split — which arises from a clash over how to raise their daughter but blows up after a violent incident, setting off a complex legal imbroglio — had decidedly Iranian trappings, broaching questions about Islam and the treatment of women. At its core, though, the film’s appeal proved universal. In a year when Iran and Israel seemed to grow more aggressive by the day, Farhadi elegantly articulated the basic shared humanity of peoples across borders, even on the brink of war.
The reports from Mexico are all too familiar: another journalist who has been killed, the latest victim of that country’s protracted drug war. The means are as grisly as they are varied, but the reason is nearly always the same — a willingness to report on cartel violence and corruption in the Mexican government. As a result, self-censorship has become rampant among journalists across Mexico, but Adela Navarro Bello is a striking exception. The editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta, Navarro leads one of the few remaining publications that prides itself on investigative work into the drug war and the associated miasma of corruption and incompetence. For Navarro and her staff, the stakes could hardly be higher. In 1988, the magazine’s co-founder, Héctor Félix Miranda, was shot and killed, and in 2004, co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was murdered. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón came to office and unleashed the official campaign against the country’s cartels, at least 40 Mexican journalists have been murdered or disappeared in a conflict that has killed at least 50,000 — more than the number of American combat deaths in the Vietnam War. Navarro’s magazine practices a kind of journalism both essential and extremely dangerous — she’s following the money. “They say Chapo Guzmán [Mexico’s most powerful cartel boss] is worth a billion dollars,” she said in a recent interview. “Where is that money? Where are their investments?” In Navarro, who travels with two bodyguards, Mexicans have found a rare reporter brave enough to keep asking the right questions.Reading list: The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster; To Each His Own, by Leonardo Sciascia; Confessions of a Young Novelist, by Umberto Eco. Best idea: Rich people paying more taxes. Worst idea: Restricting Internet content.
Like Haiti, Somalia, and Mississippi, India’s Bihar state has been called many unflattering names; it’s often referred to as the country’s “bleakest state” and the “jungle Raj” for its colonial levels of poverty and corruption. Many viewed it as one of the most dysfunctional corners of a country world famous for government dysfunction. Much of that began to change, however, when a low-key bureaucrat from a local center-left party, Nitish Kumar, won the 2005 election and set out to clean up a wasteland where 100 million people are squeezed into a territory smaller than Arkansas.
In his two terms in office, he has done just that, relying on an array of innovative programs to crack down on crime, shame corrupt public officials, and boost economic development. In addition to setting up a special fast-track court system to move trials along more quickly, Kumar’s administration has offered cash rewards to whistleblowers and has broadcast bribery complaints on YouTube. A law passed last year allows the government to take control of ill-gotten land and, unless the owner is cleared in court, use it for schools and health clinics. He has overseen the construction of nearly 15,000 schools, hired 150,000 new teachers, launched a program to give free bikes to girls so they can get to class, and distributed free radios to lower-caste citizens to “listen to music, news, and improve your areas of information,” as he put it. With crime rates finally plummeting and education rates rising, there’s no question these efforts have paid off. In 2011, Indian economists Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari called Bihar India’s least corrupt state, and this year the state’s service- and agriculture-based economy was the country’s fastest-growing for the second year in a row (this while India’s national economy is waning and, with it, enthusiasm for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh). Although Kumar says he’s not a candidate to replace Singh, he is now being floated as a potential prime minister for 2014. Quite a leap for the leader of a region once decried as a “criminal fiefdom.”
When the Tor Project was announced a decade ago, Google was still largely seen as fulfilling its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,” and Twitter didn’t even exist. But researchers Roger Dingledine, Nick Mathewson, and Paul Syverson could already see trouble on the horizon. Created in a U.S. naval lab to safeguard government communications, their brainchild the Tor Project (which stands for “the onion router”) is designed to protect anyone and everyone from the dangers of Big Brother. The free software, now relied on by hundreds of thousands of users daily, bounces information through the computers of 3,000 volunteers around the world, hiding the identity of the original user.
Operated by just 15 full-time employees with a budget just over $1 million, thanks to grants from the U.S. State Department and the National Science Foundation, Tor allows people who otherwise might be silenced online — whether corporate whistleblowers or domestic-violence victims — to bring important information to light. It has become an especially critical tool over the last two years as activists and journalists from Bahrain to Syria find themselves the targets of increasingly tech-savvy tyrants. “We developed Tor originally with civil liberties in mind,” Dingledine told an interviewer. “We want to let people in free countries be able to communicate and secure their communications so they can keep their freedoms.” Bit by bit, it’s working.
DINGLEDINE Reading list: Kallocain, by Karin Boye; Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay; Blindsight, by Peter Watts. Best idea: Holding Western corporations accountable for selling censorship and surveillance tools to dictators. Worst idea: Bloggers shouldn’t get the First Amendment protections that journalists do. American decline or American renewal? Decline, unless we can solve the corporate influence on our government. More Europe or less? Either, but pick one. To tweet or not to tweet? Feel free.
MATHEWSON Reading list: Homestuck (webcomic in progress), by Andrew Hussie; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker; Overcoming Bias (blog). Best idea: Cryptoparties, though the execution still needs work. Worst idea: The constellation of anti-democratic speech regulations and surveillance proposals operating under the names of “Internet safety,” “copyright enforcement,” and the like. American decline or American renewal? That’s up to us, isn’t it? More Europe or less? Some of each; European unity is not a single axis. To tweet or not to tweet? Yes, if you have a good number of 140-character ideas.
It was Eliot Cohen, the former State Department counselor and Pentagon advisor, who first laid out Mitt Romney’s vision for a bolder, more self-assured American foreign policy — one that the bow-tied Johns Hopkins University professor contrasted with President Barack Obama’s call to focus on “nation-building here at home.”
“The United States cannot withdraw from world affairs without grave danger to itself and to others,” Cohen warned in an October 2011 white paper for Romney’s presidential campaign. Above all, the United States must not look “weak and uncertain,” he wrote — a theme the candidate would earnestly take up on the stump. As for Obama, Cohen accused him of “currying favor with our enemies.”
For Cohen, the role of the presidency itself was at stake. The leading military strategist, whose 2002 book, Supreme Command, made it onto President George W. Bush’s reading list in the lead-up to the Iraq war, has long touted strategic vision and strong, hands-on leadership from the White House during wartime. He is perhaps best known for defying the conventional wisdom that presidents, once they’ve given the order to go to war, should leave the strategic planning to their generals. Romney may have lost despite touting the need to restore “strong, confident, principled global leadership,” but you haven’t heard the last of Cohen and his argument.Reading list: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5, by Christopher Andrew; Essays, by William Hazlitt; Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Best idea: Philip Tetlock’s finding that political experts tend to be systematically less correct in their predictions than the proverbial chimp throwing darts. Worst idea: That we should consider suppressing free speech at home to mollify Salafi mobs abroad. American decline or American renewal? Depends on what Americans choose. More Europe or less? The more of an artificially unified European polity, the less there will be of a Europe worth having. To tweet or not to tweet? Not on your life. At a time when we read less widely and deeply, and write less cleverly and precisely than in previous times, why make ourselves even more vapid than we already are?
In the United States, where Raghuram Rajan lived and worked for years as a professor at the University of Chicago and chief economist at the IMF, he is known primarily as one of the guys who saw it coming. In a 2005 paper — widely derided by his colleagues at the time — Rajan warned that financial markets were encouraging irresponsible speculation that could lead to a major crash. He would be vindicated three years later. In the past year, Rajan has argued against “the standard Keynesian line” that governments can simply borrow and spend their way out, urging the West to “treat the crisis as a wake-up call to fix what debt has papered over.”
Now, Rajan is bringing his know-how to his most challenging assignment yet: saving the world’s largest democracy from economic ruin. In August, he accepted the post of chief economic advisor to the Finance Ministry in his native India at a time when the country’s GDP is slowing and deficits are beginning to spiral out of control. Rajan argues that India has been coasting off the dividends from economic reforms passed in the 1990s as its politicians have gotten lazy, giving away government funding to politically influential groups while failing to make the investments in energy and infrastructure that could help India reach the next level of growth. As his appointment suggests, Rajan’s views are increasingly becoming the conventional wisdom. Winning the argument is one thing, though — getting India’s entrenched political interests to do something about it may prove another matter entirely.
The design world has long been preoccupied with dreaming up ever sleeker cars, laptops, smartphones, and even kitchen gadgets. But Patrice Martin and Jocelyn Wyatt are at the forefront of a hip new field fashioning decidedly less glamorous — if all the more consequential — systems and devices aimed not at the world’s yuppies but at those left out of the design revolution.
Martin is creative director and Wyatt executive director of IDEO.org, a spinoff of the design firm IDEO that brings engineering and marketing innovations to poor communities throughout the world. The idea: Put Silicon Valley’s brains and money toward tackling development challenges from sanitation to agriculture, financial services to gender equality. In Kenya, where only 61 percent of the population has access to clean water, IDEO.org came up with a subscription home-delivery system — designing everything from the shape and look of the water containers to a stylish logo to help market the service, now being piloted in Nairobi. “The solutions that we come up with, we really try to make tangible,” Wyatt explained. Part of the goal, she says, is “storytelling” — offering simple, visual explanations of their new designs, whether it’s an in-home toilet system in Ghana or kitchen accessories to make Tanzanians’ cookstoves easier to use.
Wyatt, a development expert, is the business brains behind IDEO.org, and Martin is the artist. Together, they’re turning Silicon Valley’s eye for elegance toward the needs of the poor. The wealthy have Apple iPads to handle their information overload and Herman Miller ergonomic chairs for their aching backs. Why not apply design thinking — which Wyatt calls “inherently optimistic, constructive, and experiential” — to the world’s messier problems too?
MARTIN Reading list: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; What Is the What, by Dave Eggers; Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Best idea: Coca-Cola and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria partnering to leverage Coca-Cola’s distribution systems for medicine delivery in Tanzania. Worst idea: The offensive YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? More Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet.
WYATT Reading list: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo; The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Best idea: Slavery Footprint’s Made in a Free World platform for businesses to eradicate forced labor in their supply chains. Worst idea: Mitt Romney’s Big Bird comments and suggestion to cut PBS funding. American decline or American renewal? American renewal. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet.
Brutal dictators, sectarian divisions, political repression. These are among the messy and unpredictable causes oft cited for modern-day conflicts. Robert D. Kaplan reminds us that other, more elemental factors are still often at play: mountains, rivers, even soil types. As he writes in his ambitious new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, topography and borders (or lack thereof) are inseparable from geopolitics — from the “utterly porous” frontier fatefully linking troubled Afghanistan and Pakistan to the vast natural resources spanning China and Russia, whose proximity “commands a perennially tense relationship.”
In 1993, Kaplan, then a globe-trotting Atlantic correspondent, skyrocketed to fame when President Bill Clinton reportedly read his gloomy third book, Balkan Ghosts. (Presidential aides said it helped convince Clinton against initially intervening in the Balkans.) Flash forward 17 years and 11 more books. Kaplan predicted in his 2010 book, Monsoon, that the Indian Ocean would “demographically and strategically be a hub of the twenty-first-century world,” a view that caught the attention of Barack Obama’s administration as it weighed a strategic “pivot” to Asia and one that looks more and more ahead of the curve as global power continues to shift from northern landmasses to southern seas.
Now, in The Revenge of Geography, Kaplan synthesizes his canon of geographic writings to show how landscapes and climates still shape our world. He links America’s failures in the Iraq war (which he initially backed) to a misunderstanding of Iraq’s desert landscape and “terrain-specific” militias, and he argues it’s no coincidence that last year’s Arab democracy protests began in one of the North African countries closest to Europe. Most controversial (at least among the “liberal humanists,” whom, Kaplan warns, he will make “profoundly uneasy”) is his revival of early 20th-century geographers like Halford Mackinder, whose theory that control of Central Asia “is the pivot on which the fate of great world empires rests” was infamously adopted and distorted by the Nazis to justify their idea of Lebensraum. Kaplan’s book is not only the definitive account of geography in modern history, but the most convincing argument in recent memory for its centrality in foreign policy today.
Reading list: The Second Nuclear Age, by Paul Bracken; God’s Playground: A History of Poland, by Norman Davies; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. Best idea: We need to return to the bipartisan realism of the likes of the elder Bush administration. Worst idea: Obama is a foreign-policy disaster. American decline or American renewal? Both. More Europe or less? Both, as the EU will compete with Russia and Turkey for influence in Central Europe and the Balkans. To tweet or not to tweet? If we could all only stop.
Despite growing into the world’s second-largest economy in 2011, China is still most often dismissed as a manufacturer rather than an innovator, a borrower rather than a creator. The man most likely to guarantee that China becomes a pioneer and not merely a pirate is Kai-Fu Lee, the Taiwanese-American former head of Google China and a tech guru who manages China’s most prominent venture-capital fund and whose koan-like pronouncements on everything from start-ups to sports are eagerly lapped up by his millions of online followers.
In an effort to replicate the successes of Silicon Valley, Lee has raised more than $600 million and invested in more than 50 companies since he started his firm, Innovation Works, in 2009; he also hosts educational programs and incubators for promising Chinese entrepreneurs. His companies include Zhihu, a question-and-answer-based “social knowledge network”; Wonderpod, which helps users sync their mobile and PC content; and Nevel, a cloud-based service that optimizes websites while helping to protect them from security breaches. With more than 33 million followers combined on China’s two most popular microblogging platforms, Lee is also a real-world celebrity.
In an article he published on his LinkedIn page in October, Lee named China’s narrowly focused school curriculum and the risk-averse nature of Chinese students, as well as the country’s chaotic Internet environment, among the reasons China hasn’t yet produced its own Mark Zuckerberg. That may be why he has also started a popular education website encouraging Chinese students to think more creatively. Although none of his companies has exploded yet, Lee’s ultimate contribution may be more fundamental: laying both the intellectual and financial groundwork for a revolution in the world’s largest online community.
Reading list: Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson; The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries; Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, by Ezra Vogel. American decline or American renewal? American renewal, because American innovation cannot be challenged yet. More Europe or less? Less Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet, but people need more expressiveness than 140 characters. Chinese people tweet about five times more information in 140 Chinese characters, and the quality, usage, and impact show the difference.
When U.S. President Barack Obama issued a memorandum on his first full day in office to make government more transparent and open, it was no coincidence he tapped Beth Noveck to lead the unprecedented initiative. Noveck, an open-government pioneer who made a cause of crowdsourcing experts to help the overloaded U.S. Patent and Trademark Office review all those innovative patent applications, not only took the job, but she used it to draft open-government rules for federal agencies with input from Internet users and launch data.gov, which, to date, has published nearly 400,000 government data sets that fuel roughly 1,500 apps on everything from product recalls to national obesity trends. Her goal, she said in an interview, was sweeping: to “use new technology to hard-wire this kind of reform and accountability into the culture of government so that it can’t be undone in the next administration.”
Now back in academia, Noveck continues to experiment with how data and technology can revolutionize democracy. She has advised British Prime Minister David Cameron on open government (“Beth literally wrote the book, Wiki Government, on how policymaking needs to change in the Internet age,” George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer, noted in announcing the hire), founded a “do tank” that has developed ideas like virtual town-hall forums, and prototyped OrgPedia, a Wikipedia-esque platform for data on corporations.
Open government isn’t built in a day, or one presidential term, for that matter. But if the initiatives she has set in motion — from the National Archives dashboard for citizen archivists to the Department of Health and Human Services website for comparing insurance options — are any indication, Noveck has arguably done more than anyone to lay the foundations for a Washington that feels less like a cloistered village and more like an online public square.
Reading list: A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway; Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson; Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas Seeley. Best idea: The National Endowment for the Arts should become more like Kickstarter. Worst idea: That Kickstarter should replace the National Endowment for the Arts. American decline or American renewal? American reinvention. More Europe or less? More innovative European cities. Less agile and capable nation-states. To tweet or not to tweet? Early and often: @bethnoveck.
As the only country in the European Union that never went into recession, Poland has a unique vantage point on Europe’s economic woes. And Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has taken up the mission of delivering hard truths to governments that need to hear it.
In a speech late last year, Sikorski shocked his Berlin audience by saying, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity” — a near-historic statement given the long past enmity between the two countries. In an op-ed, he described the prospect of a eurozone breakup as a “crisis of apocalyptic proportions” and demanded that Germany, as one of the prime beneficiaries of European integration, take greater action to help the rest of the continent escape the crisis. In September, Sikorski turned up the pressure on Britain, demanding that David Cameron’s government take a greater interest in European leadership. “The EU is an English-speaking power. The single market was a British idea,” he said. “You could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defense policy. But if you refuse, please don’t expect us to help you wreck or paralyze the EU.”
A onetime journalist married to Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, Sikorski is a staunch advocate of transatlantic cooperation to tackle security threats — particularly an increasingly belligerent Russia. Although he has credited Poland’s own 2007 “reset” with Russia with paving the way for the policy of Barack Obama’s administration, Sikorski now warns of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ever-creeping authoritarianism. Nor is Sikorski, who has close ties to Washington hawks, always impressed with the current occupant of the Oval Office: In May, when Obama made an offhand reference to a “Polish death camp,” rather than calling it a Nazi death camp located in Poland, Sikorski tweeted that the remark was evidence of “ignorance and incompetence.”
Reading list: Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum; Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies. Best idea: Rewarding bankers in proportion to capital they create, rather than debt. Worst idea: The UK leaving the EU. American decline or American renewal? Renewal, in a form of reinventing itself. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet, of course.
For Americans, world events inevitably come colored through a Western prism, whether it’s believing that the American ideal of democracy inspired the Arab Spring or that China’s economy will stall without opening more to the West. And that’s not surprising: The West dominated the 20th century, and today nearly every society “seems at least partially Westernized, or aspiring towards a form of Western modernity,” as Pankaj Mishra writes in his provocative 2012 book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. But Mishra reminds us, “there was a time when the West merely denoted a geographical region, and other peoples unselfconsciously assumed a universal order centered in their values.”
Mishra, an Indian-born novelist and essayist, offers the rare ability to write both knowledgeably and critically about the continent of his birth — and for a largely Western audience. At his day job, he pens columns for Bloomberg View on Asia’s shifting role in today’s geopolitical climate. In From the Ruins of Empire, he looks back at the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much of Asia was still wrestling with the ideological influence of its colonizers. The book focuses on Liang Qichao, a Chinese reformer and early influence on Mao Zedong who wrote — in a line that might have been plucked from the 2012 news cycle — about the risks and temptations of viewing China as the world, as well as Persian ideologue Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who advocated pan-Islamic “zeal” as the way to revive the Muslim world. If these unheralded thinkers were better known, Mishra argues, the world might better understand Asia’s rise today. In Afghanistan, for instance, money and lives could have been saved, Mishra says, “if the simple moral equations — miniskirts versus Taliban beards” were replaced with deeper intellectual engagement with the past. Binary frameworks like this, he says, show just how unaware East and West are of their history — both shared and, more importantly, not.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, which simultaneously swept Islamists to power and brought new democracies into being in much of the Middle East, Arab countries are grappling with how to reconcile Islamic tradition with freedom, gender equality, and human rights — ideas that many perceive as alien imports from the West. These are precisely the questions with which Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University and the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has spent his career wrestling. Islam, he argues, is not inherently anti-Western; the two can be reconciled. Ramadan’s aim is to reform minds, he is fond of saying, not rewrite holy texts.
It’s a message that resonates among émigré populations in the West, but has much to offer newly liberated Middle Eastern societies as well. In Islam and the Arab Awakening, his controversial new book that infuriated some because of its conspiracy-theorizing about the Western origins of the Arab Spring, Ramadan challenges Muslims to embrace democracy on their own terms, suggesting now is an excellent time for some “political creativity.” He’s no mere cheerleader for street politics, though, acknowledging that decades of oppressive dictatorship crippled “the life of ideas” in much of the Arab world and demanding change rather than blind adherence to the past. There can be, he says, “no faithfulness without evolution.”
Reading list: The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean; Spiritual Gems: The Mystical Qur’an Commentary Ascribed by the Sufis to Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, translated by Farhana Mayer; The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Best and worst idea: To run for the Egyptian presidency! American decline or American renewal? American decline. More Europe or less? More Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
Among a generation of gloomy 20th-century European philosophers who sought to tear down reason and justice as instruments of oppression, Jürgen Habermas long remained an intemperate optimist. He found his inspiration in the coffeehouses and cafes of an earlier era in European history and, in 1981, coined his most famous concept: communicative rationality, the idea that the very process of talking and arguing produces agreement.
But the current crisis in Europe has beaten the optimism out of Habermas. He has described European politicians’ halting response to the mess as a creeping coup d’état that has put power in the hands of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. And as the eurozone economy imploded, the nationalism that the European Union was supposed to suppress came roaring back, with parties across the continent dabbling in a potent brew of racism and Islamophobia that has turned right-wing extremism into a political growth industry. For the first time in the EU’s history, the 83-year-old Habermas told Der Spiegel, “we are actually experiencing a dismantling of democracy. I didn’t think this was possible.”
So what is this Europe whose decline Habermas so laments — and how will it be saved? In his new book, The Crisis of the European Union, Habermas lays out a case for a more cosmopolitan Europe that more fully transcends its national borders, where political power vested in an EU government elected by the people of Europe would foster the kind of cross-border solidarity that the crisis has so clearly exposed as lacking. It is a bold vision of a pan-European democracy that would effectively end state sovereignty and foster a unity that no market force could undermine. In a year of stifling incrementalism, Habermas’s ambitious vision is like a breath of fresh air.
Ricken Patel has taken the fuzzy concept of a “global community” and given it teeth. Avaaz, the civic organization he co-founded in 2007, has grown into the world’s largest web activism movement. Its more than 16 million members vote on the organization’s priorities and direct their donations in support of a wide array of causes, from combating global warming to convincing the Hilton hotel chain to train staff to spot guests trapped in prostitution. In harnessing the Internet as a force for global change, Patel has disproved the notion that such ventures are mere “clicktivism” and has pioneered a new model for advancing human rights and democracy.
Patel, a Canadian who spent his career working as an analyst in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, modeled Avaaz after the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, but on a global scale. These days, however, Avaaz has gone far beyond the usual roster of progressive causes, most notably with its daring bid to play a direct role in Syria’s civil war. Armed with millions of dollars donated from supporters across the world, Patel’s network has smuggled medicine and communications equipment to activists inside the country and helped with the evacuation of journalists from the besieged city of Homs. In stark contrast to the international community, which has “been full of words and light on actions,” Patel said, “we’ve given concrete support and assistance.”
Whether coordinating assistance in a guerrilla war or supporting gay rights in Uganda, Patel says that Avaaz’s ethos of transnational empowerment remains the same. “There are two types of fatalism,” he said. “The belief the world can’t change, and the belief you can’t play a role in changing it.”
Best idea: Shift fossil fuel subsidies to the renewables sector. Worst idea: Saudi vision of expanded Gulf Cooperation Council to team up against the Arab Spring. American decline or American renewal? American choice. Corrupt plutocratic decline or progressive democratic renewal. More Europe or less? More! But of the right kind — people-driven, people centered. To tweet or not to tweet? To each his own.
Start-ups create jobs. Immigrants create start-ups. But immigrants have such a difficult time entering the United States that for the first time in decades, immigrant entrepreneurship has stalled. According to a study by entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa — which he turned into a book this year, The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent — even as the number of immigrants in the United States has risen, the percentage of immigrant-founded companies has hardly budged from the 25 percent it was at in 2005; in Silicon Valley the numbers fell from 52 percent to 44 percent. It’s so bad that the start-up Blueseed is planning to anchor a ship in international waters outside Silicon Valley so that foreign entrepreneurs can live on the vessel and be closer to their investors and clients without needing work visas. How can the United States hope to compete in the 21st century, Wadhwa asks, without welcoming the world’s best and brightest?
An Indian-born U.S. citizen, Wadhwa is at the forefront of the movement to institute what he calls a “start-up visa,” through which entrepreneurs with proven job creation and company size get fast-tracked for long-term visas. Otherwise, Wadhwa says, the skilled immigrants will be long gone. “They’ll be back home building the next Googles and Intels in other countries, and we will wake up five years from now and wonder how we let this happen,” he says. It’s a wake-up call that post-recession America would do well to heed.
Reading list: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler; Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, by Brad Feld; The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries. Best idea: Dean Kamen’s “Slingshot” water purifier. With cheap, pure water, we can dramatically reduce the incidence of disease and illness in the developing world. And we can reduce the likelihood that wars will break out over water shortages. Worst idea: When you live in Silicon Valley, you come across an abundance of bad ideas. One idea is worse than the next! Entrepreneurs are still trying to build more Facebooks and Twitters. American decline or American renewal? Major renewal. We live in the most innovative period in human history. More Europe or less? The same. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet or perish! Social media has become part of the fabric of modern society. You need to be on it or be left out.
The discussion of Big Data — a buzzword for the proliferation of information in the digital age and the technologies that have emerged to collect and analyze it — often centers on potential: the power of massive data sets to transform government and revolutionize business, and even spell the “end of theory” in the social sciences, as Wired‘s Chris Anderson boldly asserted. Federal agencies from the CIA to the Defense Department have launched initiatives based on the concept.
danah boyd (not a typo: she stripped her name of capital letters in 2000) has done her share of data-mining too, studying the key role social media has played in spreading information during the Arab Spring and Mexican drug war. But, she warns, Big Data isn’t necessarily better data. “Will large-scale search data help us create better tools, services, and public goods?” boyd and a co-author inquired in a paper this year. “Or will it usher in a new wave of privacy incursions and invasive marketing? Will data analytics help us understand online communities and political movements? Or will it be used to track protesters and suppress speech?” boyd worries about using data gathered from sites like Facebook and Twitter just because it is accessible. She’s also concerned about the growing power gap between the many people who create data (think Facebook’s 1 billion users) and the few with the resources and the power to establish rules governing its use (think Mark Zuckerberg). They’re questions we often forget to ask as we move more and more of our lives online, but if we don’t listen to visionaries like boyd, we may not like the answers so much.
Reading list: Communication Power, by Manuel Castells; Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline; Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, by Lawrence Lessig. Best idea: When mathematician Doug Muder wrote an essay on “privileged distress,” that was an aha moment for me. Privileged distress describes the anxiety that privileged individuals feel when the cultural norms that have benefited them start to shift, thereby undermining their status even though they’re not directly responsible for the inequalities that gave them privilege in the first place. Worst idea: I am still dumbfounded that anyone could possibly believe that raped women have biological mechanisms that prevent them from getting pregnant and, therefore, any woman who does get pregnant must have secretly enjoyed being raped. American decline or American renewal? Relative to other countries, American decline, but when measured locally, American renewal. More Europe or less? I’m not sure what this even means.… More European power? No. More countries in the eurozone? Probably not. More European crises? Definitely. More European influence on other countries? Perhaps in some domains. To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question.… I tweet, but not because I am. I tweet because I am committed to the dissemination of information and the production of knowledge in the hope that doing so will benefit others.
With intellectual influences ranging from Karl Marx to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and the Matrix trilogy, Slavoj Zizek has emerged over the past two decades as a modern rarity: a celebrity philosopher, appearing everywhere from op-ed pages to cable-news debates to your local art-house movie theater. At a time of capitalism in crisis, Zizek has proved that the hard left can still offer valuable critiques of current events and contemporary culture — even as the left itself has often been the subject of his withering criticism.
Zizek, who holds professorships at the University of Ljubljana and the European Graduate School in Switzerland, is an almost absurdly prolific writer of dozens of books, including four just this year on subjects ranging from the global financial crisis to Hegel. He’s perhaps better known, however, for his agitated, rapid-fire public speeches. He’s a favorite on the university speaking circuit, not to mention the star of several feature-length documentaries, including Zizek! and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. It doesn’t hurt that he laces his arguments with frequent allusions to pop culture. Zizek is a self-described communist but is probably a bit too misanthropic (“Humanity? Yes, it’s OK — some great talks, some great arts. Concrete people? No, 99 percent are boring idiots.”) to neatly fit into any particular ideology. He spoke at Occupy Wall Street in its early days but later lost enthusiasm for the movement, describing the New York Police Department’s clearing of Zuccotti Park as a “blessing in disguise.”
With his flair for self-promotion and penchant for the deliberately outrageous — he has written that “the problem with Hitler was that he was not violent enough” — Zizek has led some critics to wonder whether he is more performance artist than philosopher, a “Borat of philosophy,” as he has been called. But in an ever-more-absurd world, that might be just what we need.
Reading list: Logiques des Mondes, by Alain Badiou; Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution, by Rebecca Comay; Hegel’s Rabble, by Frank Ruda. Best idea: The big revolution the left is waiting for will never come. Worst idea: The nation-state is back. We should support it against the global market. American decline or American renewal? Neither, things just dragging on. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not, loss of time.
In a year when an anti-Islam video sparked deadly protests across the Arab world and a spate of violent incidents targeted minority groups in the United States, Martha Nussbaum’s new book offered a thoughtful, timely corrective to the divisive dangers of religious intolerance, particularly Islamophobia. Charting its rise and evolution in Europe and the United States since the 9/11 attacks — from European laws prohibiting burqas in public to the uproar over a proposed mosque near Ground Zero in New York — Nussbaum’s The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age forcefully defends those whose religious freedoms have recently been circumscribed or attacked.
An author and editor of dozens of books ranging over the big ideas of everything from the Greek classics to feminism, Nussbaum brings a philosopher’s mind to an explosive political topic, pinpointing the roots of religious fear as a fundamentally “narcissistic” emotion that dovetails with a “visceral reaction against strangeness.” Nussbaum, who converted to Judaism in the 1960s and is the daughter of a Southern Protestant she admits was anti-Semitic and racist, knows religious hatred firsthand. “When it’s a minority that dresses differently, that has different customs, people are afraid of that,” she explained in an interview this year. “It’s easy for them to swallow some paranoid fantasy.”
Reading list: Sailing on the Sea of Love, by Charles Capwell; Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton; The Counterlife, by Philip Roth. Best idea: For me, the best ideas are always subtle and complicated ideas, and not always new, so: John Rawls’s idea of “political liberalism,” Peter Strawson’s idea of the importance of the “reactive attitudes” in human freedom, Rabindranath Tagore’s proposal for a global culture of imagination, emotion, and justice. American decline or American renewal? In the area of religious toleration, I hope for renewal; in the area of social justice, I hope for renewal but predict decline; in the area of education, similarly, I hope for renewal but am skeptical about whether it will occur. More Europe or less? There never was a “Europe” in the sense of a unified political culture, and we are now seeing the fruits of premature economic union without political union. To tweet or not to tweet? I avoid all social media because they will devour all one’s time if one uses them, and I am fond of writing.
When John Maynard Keynes used the term “animal spirits” in 1936, he was referring to the ways human hubris and fear can inflate profits and deepen losses. But that is only part of the story. John Coates — who ran a trading desk at Deutsche Bank during the dot-com crisis and left Wall Street to become a Cambridge University neuroscientist — realized that his traders’ responses to big gains and losses were also driven by their physiology, an insight that is changing our understanding of financial risk at a time when the actions of a handful of traders can increasingly dictate the course of global markets.
Humans’ innate fight-or-flight response, which primes the body for danger, forms the basis for the kind of risky behavior that can drive big gains. But these physical processes can also work against Wall Street traders. The title of Coates’s fascinating 2012 book, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, refers to a medieval French expression that describes the transformation in a man as his testosterone level climbs and he is primed for a fight: He becomes cocky, aggressive, and confident in his own superiority. These are qualities that have helped humans overcome risky situations for millennia, but on Wall Street, Coates argues, our primal instincts can backfire.
His research measuring traders’ hormone levels, which has helped spur newfound interest in the biology of risk, reveals that as profits mount, testosterone levels increase, contributing to the irrational exuberance crucial to a financial bubble. Conversely, when losses increase, a different hormone, cortisol, begins to build up. That stress hormone contributes to the irrational pessimism that can turn a market downturn into a full-fledged crash. The solution, Coates suggests, is simple: Hire more women and older men on trading floors and end the practice of massive bonuses for short-term profits. “If we want to understand how people make financial decisions, how traders and investors react to volatile markets,” Coates writes, “we need to recognize that our bodies have a say in our risk-taking.”
Reading list: The Wisdom of the Body, by Walter Cannon; Creation, by Gore Vidal; Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger. Best idea: None come to mind. Worst idea: Too many come to mind. American decline or American renewal? Holding steady. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? Not.
When the World Conference on International Telecommunications convenes in Dubai in December, delegates will tackle an enormously consequential question: Should the United Nations assert greater control over the Internet, or should a motley collection of public and private “stakeholders” continue to govern it? Ahead of the summit, authoritarian countries such as China and Russia have expressed support for international standards in the name of cybersecurity — raising concerns that human rights will be trampled and the Internet shackled.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 book, The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It, focused on the threat that government regulators and companies, in their quest to address security problems and assert control, pose to digital freedom. It helped establish Zittrain as the general counsel of the digital age, and the Harvard University law professor has continued to wrestle with the web’s biggest questions ever since. Is Internet access a human right? How do we respect the rights of the unwitting people who become the subject of Internet memes? Is it legal for an insurance company to set rates for its customers based on GPS data? More than anyone, Zittrain has asked who the Internet’s public and private gatekeepers are, how they’re acting, and what that means for the future of the open web. And he has addressed his own questions by helping establish the OpenNet Initiative, which monitors Internet surveillance around the world, and Chilling Effects, which posts legal complaints about online activity. In May, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission tapped Zittrain to chair a committee tasked with evaluating the agency’s efforts to keep the Internet open and the telecommunications market competitive. There’s little doubt Zittrain is skeptical of this latest bid by Russia and China to put the Internet back in the box; the web can’t be governed by committee. As he wrote in his book, “The Net and its issues sail blithely on regardless of the carefully worded communiqués that emerge from a parade of meetings and consultations.”
Reading list: Consent of the Networked, by Rebecca MacKinnon; Interop: The Promise and Perils of Highly Interconnected Systems, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser; Some Remarks, by Neal Stephenson. Best idea: Dealing with cybersecurity problems through technically facilitated mutual aid among many participants, rather than solely top-down mandates or rigid best practices. Worst idea: Rioting over a YouTube video. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet! With a link to a more thorough blog entry and a willingness to tweet later corrections.
When deficit hawks compare the United States to the ailing economies of Europe, they’re often making a point about America’s unsustainable debt and social welfare spending. But Luigi Zingales, an influential business professor at the University of Chicago, likens the United States to his native Italy for a different reason: They’re both reeling from crony capitalism. Runaway debt and ballooning entitlements, he argues, are merely symptoms of a debilitating disease: widespread collusion between politicians and big business. Zingales left Italy for the States in 1988 to escape a country that “invented the term nepotism and perfected the concept of cronyism,” only to find the phenomenon spreading like a virus in his adopted home.
In his new book, A Capitalism for the People, Zingales contends that the Republican Party abandoned its pro-market principles under George W. Bush and instead became pro-big business, courting companies with tariffs and tax breaks rather than building a competitive marketplace. Now he’s pleading with Republican leaders to return to their conservative roots by busting monopolies, refusing to bail out banks, eliminating de facto corporate subsidies in the tax code, and imposing a tax on lobbying. “We need to stand up and criticize business when business is not helping the cause of free markets,” he declares.
It’s a resonant message at a fraught moment for American-style capitalism. In the wake of the global recession, faith in the free market has plunged in countries such as Italy and Spain and declined in the United States, albeit less sharply. Nearly 40 percent of Americans believe their country has a system of crony capitalism, while seven in 10 think government and big business are working together against them. In that sense, his ringing denunciation is the Capitalism and Freedom of our time. As economist Tyler Cowen put it, “If I had to pick out one book … to explain what is going on right now to a popular audience of non-economists, this might well be it.”
Reading list: Bailout, by Neil Barofsky; So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, by Robert Kaiser; Republic, Lost, by Lawrence Lessig. Best idea: Debt restructuring for Greece. Worst idea: Another stimulus plan for America. American decline or American renewal? Hoping a renewal, fearing a decline. More Europe or less? More reformed Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? With moderation.
Among the largest companies in the European Union, women held just 10.3 percent of corporate board seats five years ago. This year, that figure is all of 13.7 percent. “Sorry,” Viviane Reding, the European Commission’s top justice official, told Der Spiegel, “that’s just too slow for me.”
Her solution? Reding this year pushed an ambitious, if improbable, EU law to create mandatory quotas for women in the boardroom across the member states of the world’s biggest economic union. The proposal called for large companies to give at least 40 percent of their supervisory board positions to women by 2018. (In the United States, women filled a grand total of 16 percent of board seats at Fortune 500 companies in 2011.)
A native of Luxembourg and ex-journalist, Reding insists that giving women greater decision-making powers is not only a matter of fairness but also would be a boon for the economy. Having women on corporate boards corresponds to higher profits, she argues, and a standardized policy would make intra-European business easier. Unsurprisingly, she faces entrenched opposition. The law was shot down amid legal concerns in October, though Reding vowed to put forward a modified version. She is keeping at it if only because her proposal is the one serious idea on the table for addressing a gender imbalance that is consequential enough to impact Europe’s economic performance — and its values. “I hope that I’ll live to see the day when we have a society in which it isn’t important whether you’re a man or a woman,” she sighs.
Why is it that poor Americans might vote against their apparent economic self-interest and pull the lever for a candidate like Mitt Romney? Jonathan Haidt, whose work explores the psychology of political and religious division, has a message for liberals: Conservatives understand how to speak to voters’ moral concerns. Liberals, concludes Haidt, author of this year’s The Righteous Mind, just don’t get it.
A leading member of a new generation of psychologists applying the insights of evolutionary theory to morality, Haidt argues that we form political opinions not through simple reasoning but based on moral preferences humans have developed to reinforce ties to larger groups or tribes. He identifies six values that form the baseline of any moral system: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Using experiments, ethnographies, and surveys of tens of thousands of people around the world, he demonstrates that both left- and right-leaning people respond positively to the first three values, though the left-leaning place greater emphasis on care and fairness. Conservatives, meanwhile, emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Both groups value liberty but consider it threatened by different oppressors. The right wing, Haidt posits, simply has a greater number of moral taste buds. Arriving in a year marked by unprecedented political polarization in the United States and elsewhere, Haidt’s book offers a psychological explanation for the partisan divide. By stepping back and dispassionately examining the deeper origin of our disunion, he also offers hope that we can achieve something more — a wisdom that transcends brute moral emotions.
Reading list: It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein; The Mind and the Market, by Jerry Muller; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. Best idea: Paul Romer‘s charter cities. Start new cities with good norms and institutions, rather than trying to change old and corrupt ones. American decline or American renewal? Decline for a while, until we can reboot our institutions and efficiency and reduce corruption and cronyism. More Europe or less? Less. Europe does not have a strong enough shared identity to manage a union among unequals. If the weaker nations drop out, a Europe of wealthy and efficient equals can survive. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet. It’s a normal human reaction to want to share interesting and useful information. I see it as a public good.
Few issues are as contentious as Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian territories, and few debates are as heated as that over the role of America’s Jewish lobby in enabling those policies. Peter Beinart, former editor of the New Republic, took on both this year with his explicitly controversial new book, The Crisis of Zionism.
Heralded as “brave” by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (No. 34) and blurbed by Bill Clinton (No. 3), who called it a “deeply important book for anyone who cares about Israel,” The Crisis of Zionism offers a powerful critique of both Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the American Jewish establishment’s willingness to go along — an especially pointed critique in the midst of a U.S. election year that once again saw politicians in both parties rushing headlong to profess their reflexive defense of Israeli policies. At its heart, The Crisis of Zionism is a plea to resurrect what Beinart calls the “liberal Zionist dream” — a progressive democratic state that’s also capable of safeguarding the Jewish people — against the rise of the Israeli far right, which, aided and abetted by Jewish leaders in the United States, has slowly pushed Israel toward a de facto one-state solution.
The Crisis of Zionism not only shines a much-needed spotlight on Israel’s hard-right turn, but it may also prove a bellwether for shifting American attitudes toward the Jewish state. Beinart’s call for moral vigilance marks the rise of a new generation of American Jews who are unwilling to support Israel blindly. It’s unclear if this cadre of young intellectuals can change this bedrock assumption of American politics, but if Beinart’s book is any indication, they’re going to ruffle a few feathers trying.
In September, when deadly riots swept across the globe following the release of the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, the seriousness of the charge of “blasphemy” became starkly clear. In Egypt, for instance, there were calls for an anti-blasphemy clause in the country’s new constitution, and observers were outraged when officials in Pakistan arrested a 14-year-old Christian girl under the country’s blasphemy laws, widely used to persecute religious minorities. It will take people like Sana Saleem, a 25-year-old activist and blogger in Pakistan who is waging her own private campaign against government censorship, to push back.
In February, Pakistan solicited proposals for a “URL Filtering and Blocking System” — a system reminiscent of that in authoritarian China next door that could allow the government to block unwanted websites en masse. Saleem, founder of the Karachi-based anti-censorship group Bolo Bhi, which means “speak up,” decided to fight the proposal, the latest in a series of moves by Islamabad to curb free speech. Saleem reached out to executives at international companies, asking them not to participate in building Pakistan’s firewall. Despite threats and offensive taunts on Twitter, Saleem and her partners eventually shamed the government into shelving the proposal. She is still fighting for an official court injunction.
As she wrote in April on her blog, Mystified Justice, “When a state embroils its citizens in an ‘either you are with us or against us’ argument every dissent is at risk of being equated to treason — or in an Islamic country, blasphemy.” As an increasingly networked world butts heads with the historical forces of obscurantism and discrimination, we’ll need savvy activists like Saleem to defend everyone’s right to free speech online — even, or especially, if we don’t like what’s being said.
Reading list: The Moslems Are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist, by Azad Essa; The New Rulers of the World, by John Pilger; Consent of the Networked, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Best idea: (Last year, but still unmatched): raiding an office used for spying on civilians, reclaiming your private data, and exposing the criminals. The Egyptian people, this one’s for you. Worst idea: Pakistan advertising its plans to censor 20 million people. American decline or American renewal? #OccupyWallStreet. More Europe or less? More Europeans in Pakistan. To tweet or not to tweet? Think before you tweet.