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Does It Matter Who Wins in November?
Arguments on both sides of this question were aired at a thought-provoking colloquium sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College on September 21-22: “Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Disrepair.” Video recordings of the proceedings are available here.
Let’s begin with three reasons to be skeptical about the importance of the election’s outcome.
1. Mitt Romney and President Obama are uncannily similar in a host of ways.
Ordinarily it is only people on the far right or far left for whom candidates closer to the center appear to be identical. But consider: both Romney and Obama are politically pragmatic Harvard grads who haven’t served in the military. And they aren’t that far apart on many issues. This may come as a surprise to anyone who watched the party conventions, where speakers drew bright, clear lines between their side and the Other, but there is an impressive number of issues on which the two men converge. There is also reason to believe that candidate Romney’s rhetoric against Obamacare and in favor of radical Medicare reform will soften once in office — for both ideological and structural reasons.
2. Structural constraints on the presidency radically limit the ability of chief executives to act in the domestic arena.
The founders sought to instill “energy" in the executive branch, but they were careful to establish limits on a president’s power as well. In Federalist 51, James Madison made the case for the separation and limitation of federal power:
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place....In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
The Founders thought checks and balances were essential, but a frozen, dysfunctional government was not what they had in mind. They would be surprised by the level of acrimony defining the relationship between the legislative and executive branches today, and by the intransigence Congress displays in considering a president’s agenda. They’d be stunned by procedural rules the Senate has adopted for itself — provisions nowhere to be found in the Constitution — which make it impossible to get legislation passed by a simple majority vote. Here is Jon Stewart’s incredulity in the face of 58 senators’ inability to pass a jobs bill for veterans last week:
Things are only getting worse, as Daniel Drezner wrote in the New York Times on Friday:
Congress has become increasingly sclerotic. During the 1950s, for example, Congress passed an average of 800 laws per session; in the post-cold-war era, that figure has declined to fewer than 400. Based on the 112th Congress, that figure will continue to decline in the future.
The party not in the White House has been increasingly obstructionist — and if you doubt this, look up the filibuster statistics. Any president trying to accomplish something with Congressional approval either needs a majority of the House and 60 votes in the Senate, or needs to compromise with an opposition party ever further away on the ideological spectrum. Short of a landslide, presidents have a brief honeymoon period in which to push major domestic policy initiatives through Congress.
3. Presidential campaigns do not attract candidates with true leadership skills.
Eric Liu, a domestic policy advisor under Bill Clinton, noted at the conference that presidents are “trailing indicators” rather than “leading indicators” of social mores. And Roger Berkowitz, director of the Center, notes that recent presidents have not been effective leaders:
The last two presidents who successfully amassed large majorities to pass transformative legislation were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. What unites Johnson and Reagan — different in temperament and politics — was an uncanny quality of leadership. They were able to bring opposing sides together to accomplish grand and important visions. It is just such political leadership that we desperately need and clearly lack today.
Politics, Hannah Arendt argued, requires courage. It demands a risky and rare willingness to experiment and seek to bring about new directions in the world. To act politically demands doing things that are spontaneous and new; politics requires actions that are surprising and thus attract attention and generate interest, drawing people together around a common idea...
Leaders are those who take risks and are willing to fail. To look at Mitt Romney and President Obama is to see what happens when leaders are afraid to lose. We must now confront the fact that the need to raise money and the rise of consultants and the dominance of public relations has sapped politics of the spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and fun that can and should be at the center of political action.
I'm not sure thoughtfulness has evaporated as completely as Berkowitz argues, and the conventions did give the party faithful a chance for some spectacle and a tiny bit of spontaneity (witness Clint Eastwood's inane, unscripted performance). But Berkowitz is right that courage and risk-taking — and genuine creative thinking about solutions to national challenges — seem to be in short supply in recent election campaigns.
Given all this, does it matter who wins the election this fall? In my view, absolutely.
As hampered as presidents are in the domestic arena, they can still get some things done. The limited recovery from the economic crisis the stimulus produced may have been a lot more halting — or we may still be in recession — had John McCain had won the election in 2008. General Motors might be history. There would certainly be no Affordable Care Act providing health insurance coverage for millions of Americans.
And from a broader perspective, the identity of the president matters. For Leon Botstein, president of Bard, the shadow of race hangs heavily, if imperceptibly, over this election. If Obama were white, Botstein said on Friday, he’d be crushing Romney in the polls. Anne Norton, a political theorist at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that Barack Obama’s presidency was significant from a symbolic perspective. She notices less discomfort and more civility in her racially integrated Philadelphia neighborhood than there was before 2009. “The United States is still a nation of white supremacy,” she said, “but now it’s a nation of white supremacy with a black president.”
Expanding on this point, Eric Liu argued that a president matters crucially on a symbolic level. For Liu, the president “sets a frame of narrative for the rest of the country,” not only in terms of legislative proposals but on questions of national identity and the polity’s challenges and aspirations. Think of President Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon, President Reagan’s “it’s morning in America,” President Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” or President Obama’s frank address on race & politics late in his first campaign. In the age of electronic media in which “all kinds of memes can spread instantly,” Liu said, “the president has an unparalleled ability to set off cascades of memes at will.” Even when he faces a hostile Congress or low approval ratings, the president “embodies our sense of unity,” appealing to the people’s “tribal need” to belong.
It matters a great deal who wins the election this fall, but no president has the capacity to heal our political disrepair all by himself.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
What is the price of peace?
Or put another way, how much better off would we all be in a world where armed conflict was avoided?
To give some context, 689 million people - more than 9% of the world's population - live on less than $1.90 a day, according to World Bank figures, underscoring the potential impact peace-building activities could have.
Just over 10% of global GDP is being spent on containing, preventing and dealing with the consequences of violence. As well as the 1.4 million violent deaths each year, conflict holds back economic development, causes instability, widens inequality and erodes human capital.
Putting a price tag on peace and violence helps us see the disproportionately high amounts spent on creating and containing violent acts compared to what is spent on building resilient, productive, and peaceful societies.
—Steve Killelea, founder and executive chairman, Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP)
The cost of violence
In a report titled "The Economic Value of Peace 2021", the IEP says that for every death from violent conflict, 40 times as many people are injured. The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
Grounds for hope
But the picture is not all bleak. The economic impact of violence fell for the second year in a row in 2019, as parts of the world became more peaceful.
The global cost dropped by $64 billion between 2018 and 2019, even though it was still $1.2 trillion higher than in 2012.
In five regions of the world the costs increased in 2019. The biggest jump was in Central America and the Caribbean, where a rising homicide rate pushed the cost up 8.3%.
Syria, with its ongoing civil war, suffered the greatest economic impact with almost 60% of its GDP lost to conflict in 2019. That was followed by Afghanistan (50%) and South Sudan (46%).
The report makes a direct link between peace and prosperity. It says that, since 2000, countries that have become more peaceful have averaged higher GDP growth than those which have become more violent.
"This differential is significant and represents a GDP per capita that is 30% larger when compounded over a 20-year period," the report says adding that peaceful countries also have substantially lower inflation and unemployment.
"Small improvements in peace can have substantial economic benefits," it adds. "For example, a 2% reduction in the global impact of violence is roughly equivalent to all overseas development aid in 2019."
Equally, the total value of foreign direct investment globally only offsets 10% of the economic impact of violence. Authoritarian regimes lost on average 11% of GDP to the costs of violence while in democracies the cost was just 4% of GDP.
And the gap has widened over time, with democracies reducing the cost of violence by almost 16% since 2007 while in authoritarian countries it has risen by 27% over the same period.
The report uses 18 economic indicators to evaluate the cost of violence. The top three are military spending (which was $5.9 trillion globally in 2019), the cost of internal security which makes up over a third of the total at $4.9 trillion and homicide.
Peace brings prosperity
The formula also contains a multiplier effect because as peace increases, money spent containing violence can instead be used on more productive activities which drive growth and generate higher monetary and social returns.
"Substantial economic improvements are linked to improvements in peace," says the report. "Therefore, government policies should be directed to improving peacefulness, especially in a COVID-19 environment where economic activity has been subdued."
The IEP says what it terms "positive peace" is even more beneficial than "negative peace" which is simply the absence of violence or the fear of violence. Positive peace involves fostering the attitudes, institutions & structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.
The foundations of a positively peaceful society, it says, are: a well functioning government, sound business environment, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of human capital, low levels of corruption and equitable distribution of resources.
The World Economic Forum's report Mobilizing the Private Sector in Peace and Reconciliation urged companies large and small to recognise their potential to work for peace quoting the former Goldman Sachs chair, the late Peter Sutherland, who said: "Business thrives where society thrives."
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.