Larry Summers on the Rise of China and India

The United States is entering uncharted waters as a superpower, as it slowly climbs out of a crippling recession and faces an electoral showdown this fall between cautious globalism and a desire to retrench its economy against external competition from emerging third-world dynamos. 


President Obama in his State of the Union address earlier this year highlighted mildly protectionist measures to shore up US manufacturing against cut-throat competition in Asia, through tax credits and a task force that would investigate potentially unfair trade practices. 

Meanwhile Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachussettes and frontrunner in the Republican presidential primary, has strategetically stoked fears among party voters about falling behind China as part of a permanent American decline. In a February op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Romney proclaimed:

Unless China changes its ways, on day one of my presidency I will designate it a currency manipulator and take appropriate counteraction. A trade war with China is the last thing I want, but I cannot tolerate our current trade surrender.

Harsh words for America's most important trading partner, highlighting our schizophrenic stance toward an mushrooming economic giant that we rely on to produce cheap goods for US consumers while at the same time fearing that its rising prosperity will ultimately knock us off the pedestal of the only remaining superpower. 

Former senator Rick Santorum, current underdog in the Republican presidential primary, is perhaps responsible for ratcheting up anti-China rhetoric by declaring the following during an October, 2011 debate: I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business."

Using the unadorned term "war" in relation to a formal ally is incendiary to say the least, and indicative of the deep uncertainty felt by much of the electorate about our reliance on the Communist nation to maintain our standard of living and the anxiety that they'll turn the tables and put America in the subservient position. 
But for all the bluster about reversing the tides of globalization, how did China and India go from disorganized and economically laggard countries in the last century to unprecedented growth wunderkinds in the last ten years? Here's Lawrence Summers, former Secretary of the Treasury to Bill Clinton and chief economic adviser to Barack Obama, giving his take on the subject:

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.