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No, Mr. Putin, liberalism is not dead
Когда рак на горе свистнет.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin recently stated that liberalism has "outlived its purpose."
- Research suggests, however, that liberal ideals — among them, democracy, individual agency, and economic freedom — are not only on the rise but improve the wellbeing of people living in countries that support them.
- Recent challenges to liberalism are serious but have not overpowered the liberal tradition.
During an interview with the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed liberalism dead:
"What is the reason for the Trump phenomenon, as you said in the United States? What is happening in Europe as well? The ruling elites have broken away from the people. There is also the so-called liberal idea, which has outlived its purpose. Our Western partners have admitted that some elements of the liberal idea, such as multiculturalism, are no longer tenable."
He later doubled-down, saying that liberals "cannot simply dictate anything to anyone" and liberalism "presupposes that nothing needs to be done."
A gander at recent headlines may suggest Putin has read liberalism's fate correctly: white supremacists and nationalists marching in the streets; Europe's upsurge of support for populists parties; and President Donald Trump touting military might at a Fourth of July parade that critics said reeked of rinky-dink Soviet propaganda. It can certainly seem like we are living in a strange dream.
While these recent trends are disturbing, and offer a challenge to liberal ideals, the data shows that liberalism remains alive and well in the world today.
Not your American-style liberalism
Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump shake hands at the 2017 G-20 Summit, Hamburg. (Photo: The Kremlin/Wikimedia Commons)
First, let's clarify what we mean by "liberalism." For Americans, the term has drifted to become a catchall for political ideologies that lean left (and an epithet for those who lean right).
This is how President Trump understood it when asked about Putin's comments: "I guess you look at what's happening in Los Angeles, where it's so sad to look, and what's happening in San Francisco, and a couple other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don't know what they're thinking but [Putin] does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is."
To be fair to Trump, "liberalism" is a slippery term spread out across an expansive historical lineage — and that's before we start qualifying it with prefixes (e.g., neoliberalism) and adjectives (cultural, social, classical, and muscular liberalism). But Putin meant "liberalism" in its more traditional and European sense.
For our purposes, we can hew the term to mean an ideology that puts primacy on individual rights and human agency. Under liberalism, all people should be free to pursue their dreams, be able to compete in an open market, and be allowed to decide for themselves — all offered with equal opportunity under the law and free of government coercion.
In other words, liberalism provides the foundation of modern liberal democracies that stand in opposition to Putin's own ideology, an old Soviet-era belief in the primacy of the state and the nobility found in sacrificing individuality for its glory. (Dulce et decorum est pro Putin mori, as it were.)
As Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, whose book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia won the 2017 National Book Award, reminds us:
"Putin is a bloody dictator who jails and kills his opponents and has waged several illegal wars to the tune of hundreds of thousands of lives [and] has presided over the near complete destruction of [the Russian] public sphere."
A graph showing the number of democracies and autocracies in the world over time. Image source: Our World in Data
Putin may ardently wish for liberalism's death, but the facts of history aren't on his side.
In an article disputing Putin, Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator for the Financial Times, combined the World Bank's measure of "voice and accountability" in governance and the Heritage Foundation's "index of economic freedom." He found that liberal societies perform better economically than repressive ones. Furthermore, post-communist states that have transitioned into liberal democracy — such as Poland, Romania, and Lithuania — have all economically outpaced Putin's Russia.
"Mr. Putin's posturing on the world stage is a way of turning the attention of the Russian people away from his regime's corruption and its failure to give them a better life," Wolf writes.
It isn't just by economic success by which we can measure liberalism's success. We can measure the number of countries that have made the transition into liberal democracies.
Starting in the 20th century, worldwide autocracies began to dwindle in tandem with democratic growth. According to the Varieties of Democracy Project, by 2001, the world held a roughly even number of both. Ever since, democracies have outnumbered autocracies, while the latter continue to lose ground.
Of course, political anocracies don't fall neatly in the democratic vs. autocratic binary, leading to some differentiation in absolute numbers. But the trend lines remain consistent: countries are becoming more democratic than autocratic.
Why? Because by almost any measure of human happiness, liberal democracies provide better for their citizens. They are less corrupt than other forms of governance. They score significantly higher on metrics looking at happiness, life satisfaction, human development, and protecting human rights. And though public perception in the U.S. is that violence is at an all-time high, the opposite is true. Rates of homicide in Europe are at historic lows, and the United States has seen its homicide rate fall sharply in the last quarter century.
Can liberalism meet the challenges ahead?
Putin's claim of liberalism's death isn't an analysis off the world stage based on data and well-reasoned argument. It's old-school agitprop courtesy an international troll. Liberalism is not only alive but making the lives for billions of people better the world over.
Of course, to say liberalism is alive and well is not to say that it does not face challenges. It does, and it always has.
Some originate from Putin himself. The Muller Report found the Kremlin exploited security gaps in the United States' election security to mount an online campaign in support of populist Donald Trump. Russian agencies have used similar tactics in European campaigns, in addition to providing European populists with loans.
"The goal here is bigger than any one election," Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst, told the New York Times. "It is to constantly divide, increase distrust and undermine our faith in institutions and democracy itself. They're working to destroy everything that was built post-World War II."
But as Masha Gessen reminds us, Putin isn't some Bond villain (though he styles himself as one). Any influence he achieved over American and European elections originated with discontent and disinformation already metastasizing within liberal countries.
"Russian attempts to sow discord — first of all, they're predictable. Second of all, they're ridiculous," Gessen told The Atlantic. "They've been doing pretty much the same thing for at least 50 years. American political reality has moved a lot closer to the Russian perception — what used to be a really distorted perception, it used to be a total caricature — which I think is a little disturbing."
This discontent centers on issues as complex as immigration, economic equity, social mobility, and political polarization. In response, conservatives have sacrificed their liberal heritage in favor of strongman populists and promises of returning to a halcyon, if ill-defined, past. On the left, progressives have grown to mistrust the liberal experiment, having seen its boons disseminated unevenly or, in some cases, entirely pass over those who have been historically disenfranchised.
But as Martin Wolf reminds us, liberalism is not a "Utopian project." It is a "work in perpetual progress" that "requires constant adaption and adjustment." Such progress requires good data, an honest assessment of the problem, a willingness for political compromise, and an understanding that a perfect solution is the enemy of a good one.
In other words, the opinion of a wannabe-SPECTRE autocrat may not be the one we should listen to.
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Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The pandemic has many people questioning whether they ever want to go back to the office.
If one thing is clear about remote work, it's this: Many people prefer it and don't want their bosses to take it away.
When the pandemic forced office employees into lockdown and cut them off from spending in-person time with their colleagues, they almost immediately realized that they favor remote work over their traditional office routines and norms.
As remote workers of all ages contemplate their futures – and as some offices and schools start to reopen – many Americans are asking hard questions about whether they wish to return to their old lives, and what they're willing to sacrifice or endure in the years to come.
Even before the pandemic, there were people asking whether office life jibed with their aspirations.
We spent years studying “digital nomads" – workers who had left behind their homes, cities and most of their possessions to embark on what they call “location independent" lives. Our research taught us several important lessons about the conditions that push workers away from offices and major metropolitan areas, pulling them toward new lifestyles.
Legions of people now have the chance to reinvent their relationship to their work in much the same way.
Big-city bait and switch
Most digital nomads started out excited to work in career-track jobs for prestigious employers. Moving to cities like New York and London, they wanted to spend their free time meeting new people, going to museums and trying out new restaurants.
But then came the burnout.
Although these cities certainly host institutions that can inspire creativity and cultivate new relationships, digital nomads rarely had time to take advantage of them. Instead, high cost of living, time constraints and work demands contributed to an oppressive culture of materialism and workaholism.
Pauline, 28, who worked in advertising helping large corporate clients to develop brand identities through music, likened city life for professionals in her peer group to a “hamster wheel." (The names used in this article are pseudonyms, as required by research protocol.)
“The thing about New York is it's kind of like the battle of the busiest," she said. “It's like, 'Oh, you're so busy? No, I'm so busy.'"
Most of the digital nomads we studied had been lured into what urbanist Richard Florida termed “creative class" jobs – positions in design, tech, marketing and entertainment. They assumed this work would prove fulfilling enough to offset what they sacrificed in terms of time spent on social and creative pursuits.
Yet these digital nomads told us that their jobs were far less interesting and creative than they had been led to expect. Worse, their employers continued to demand that they be “all in" for work – and accept the controlling aspects of office life without providing the development, mentorship or meaningful work they felt they had been promised. As they looked to the future, they saw only more of the same.
Ellie, 33, a former business journalist who is now a freelance writer and entrepreneur, told us: “A lot of people don't have positive role models at work, so then it's sort of like 'Why am I climbing the ladder to try and get this job? This doesn't seem like a good way to spend the next twenty years.'"
By their late 20s to early 30s, digital nomads were actively researching ways to leave their career-track jobs in top-tier global cities.
Looking for a fresh start
Although they left some of the world's most glamorous cities, the digital nomads we studied were not homesteaders working from the wilderness; they needed access to the conveniences of contemporary life in order to be productive. Looking abroad, they quickly learned that places like Bali in Indonesia, and Chiang Mai in Thailand had the necessary infrastructure to support them at a fraction of the cost of their former lives.
With more and more companies now offering employees the choice to work remotely, there's no reason to think digital nomads have to travel to southeast Asia – or even leave the United States – to transform their work lives.
During the pandemic, some people have already migrated away from the nation's most expensive real estate markets to smaller cities and towns to be closer to nature or family. Many of these places still possess vibrant local cultures. As commutes to work disappear from daily life, such moves could leave remote workers with more available income and more free time.
The digital nomads we studied often used savings in time and money to try new things, like exploring side hustles. One recent study even found, somewhat paradoxically, that the sense of empowerment that came from embarking on a side hustle actually improved performance in workers' primary jobs.
The future of work, while not entirely remote, will undoubtedly offer more remote options to many more workers. Although some business leaders are still reluctant to accept their employees' desire to leave the office behind, local governments are embracing the trend, with several U.S. cities and states – along with countries around the world – developing plans to attract remote workers.
This migration, whether domestic or international, has the potential to enrich communities and cultivate more satisfying work lives.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.