The Countries That Love and Hate America the Most

A country as big, powerful, and globally consequential as the United States is sure to attract a lot of attention and scrutiny. For better or worse, America has had considerable impact on world events for at least the past century — if not from its very foundation — and the mixed legacy of U.S. foreign policy, culture, and ideals continues to impact millions of people across the globe to this day.

So it is not surprising that the latest results from the Pew Research Center’s study on America’s global reputation are so mixed. The reputable polling group asked respondents in 39 different countries whether or not they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the U.S. The results, courtesy of this graph by Business Insider, might surprise you. Continue reading

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

To Understand Russia, Read Its Literature

If you are both a Russophile and lover of literature, you will appreciate James Stavridis’ piece for Foreign Policy,  which recommends several Russian books across the last 150 years that offer a look into the nation’s soul, psyche, and condition. Whether or not you care to learn more about this enigmatic — and still highly consequential culture — the following literary works are well worth considering for their value alone.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

It is the blackest of black humor, a story in which a mysterious businessman moves through the Russian countryside “buying up souls” (i.e., taking away a tax burden from the estate owners). It is an absurdist construct, and the novel functions as a satiric portrait of the dysfunctional Russian landowner society that eventually fell in the 1917 revolution. It tells us that Russians see the world as somewhat absurd and contradictory, and hardly a place where overarching humanist value systems triumph. For a nation whose leader struts around the world stage without a shirt on, plays with a pet Siberian tiger, and flies in a motorized mini-plane chasing white storks, there is a certain appeal to the absurd. It is a novel that evokes the most skeptical and cynical in the human condition and appropriately ends abruptly in mid-sentence — a signal of the inability to predict a coherent future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

…shows us how the Russians think about their ability to fight, and illuminates the deep patriotism that fuels today’s nationalist tendencies. Tolstoy makes clear the largest landmass under national sovereignty in the world is literally unconquerable, even by the brilliance of Napoleon. Moscow might burn, but the Russian military will never give up. Tolstoy also debunks the 19th-century theory of world events once-called “the great man” approach, arguing instead that events are driven by the collision of thousands of small events coming together. And when it comes to leaders, Russians throw the cosmic dice: One time they get an Ivan the Terrible, the next a Peter the Great. They know that eventually the dice will roll again, and a new leader will emerge. The bad news is that what comes after Putin may be even worse, given the growing xenophobia and ultra-nationalism. As we look at Putin’s dominance, we should remember that the dice will roll again. The Russians do.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (my personal favorite)

…a tale that captures the Russian sensibility perfectly: A deeply troubled protagonist chooses to kill, but then is haunted by guilt and — encouraged by the good people around him — eventually confesses. He is then purified and ultimately achieves redemption. The central character, Raskolnikov, is a largely sympathetic figure, full of tragic contradictions, who strays into a brutal crime but is redeemed through punishment and faith. While it is hard to see Putin as a Raskolnikov, perhaps there is a touch of that pattern of redemption in the life and times of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch turned political opposition leader, who was jailed and then finally released. The next chapter of his journey will be an interesting one. Russians have a deep belief in their own goodness and justness, recognizing mistakes will be made along the road to righteousness. They believe in both crime and punishment in a very literal sense.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Think the Russians will crack under sanctions? [The] protagonist, a convict in a Siberian gulag, finds a hundred ways to scrape through the day, dealing with the petty corruption, laughing at the predicaments, occasionally reveling in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, and powerfully exhibiting the ability to overcome adversity. Like Denisovich, Russians will find an ironic pleasure in overcoming the pain of sanctions, and we should not put too much faith in our ability to break their will through imposing economic hardships.

One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko.

It’s a foot soldier’s memoir set in Chechnya during the height of the war there in the 1990s waged by the Russian conscript military against the rebellious population. This is counterinsurgency turned upside down — the Russians aren’t trying to win the hearts and minds; they are quite content with putting a bullet into each. The book is a good view into the mind of any conscripted force sent to Ukraine — which explains why it is the Spetsnaz special forces, not regular troops, who are operating across the border. There is much to learn here about the Russian military’s operational approach: The Russians have learned from their mistakes in Chechnya and in Afghanistan, and the new so-called hybrid war is full of lessons they took away. In Ukraine, the use of social media, strategic communications, humanitarian convoys, insurgent techniques, and cyber dominance all come from the Chechnya experience.

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

…To understand the view of the Russian émigré, the brilliant Russian-American novelist … captures the post-Soviet space better than any book of nonfiction. Set in Moscow and a thinly disguised Azerbaijan (a former republic of the USSR, in case you forgot), it serves up a portrait of Russian “capitalism” with a huge dose of black humor. It echoes Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a magical realist novel written in the 1930s, in its evocation of the Russians’ ability to exist quite happily in a world where everything is half a beat off the music.

While these represent a mere fraction of the vast body of Russian literature out there (indeed, the country is the fourth-largest publisher of books in the world), they are a great way to understand what shapes one of history’s most significant civilizations. The literature, art, and creative expression of any culture can go a long way in helping us bridge the gap between different languages, perspectives, and conditions.

NASA Confirms Severe Global Water Shortage

Years of documentation and research have shown that many of the world’s underground aquifers — the leading source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — have been depleted, in some instances well below naturally recoverable rates. Now, recent data from a NASA satellite show the full extent of this problem on a global scale, offering the first detailed assessment of its kind. As the following chart from the Washington Post vividly shows, the outlook is dire.

Continue reading

IMF Study Finds Trickle-Down Economics Does Not Work

The notion that as the rich get richer, the benefits ultimately  “trickle down” to the rest of society has been thoroughly debunked since it first emerged by in the 1980s. Even though no amount of evidence seems enough to kill off these pernicious and invalidated idea, it never hurts to add more ammunition to the argument — especially when it comes from an otherwise centrist and mainstream institution like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Continue reading

A Sobering Visualization of WWII Fatalities

It is widely known that the Second World War is one of the deadliest and most destructive conflicts in history, claiming the lives of 50 million to 85 million people. Given such an unfathomably large number of deaths (not to mention the many tens of millions maimed and/or psychologically scarred) it is difficult to truly comprehend the staggering level of human suffering that can be expressed only in cold, dispassionate numbers.

In light of this, filmmaker Neil Halloran has created a short film that presents a stark and highly detailed breakdown of all civilian and military deaths in the war, including those attributed to the Holocaust. Deaths are categorized by country, theater of war, front, and cause. Each human figure shown in the tally represents 1,000 individuals — a 1,000 personalities with hopes, dreams, life experiences, and loved ones. It is incredible to behold.

Vox.com, my source for the video, summarizes the emotional impact of this presentation perfectly:

It’s the starkness of Halloran’s video that really hits home. He simply represents the total death tally with a series of human figures, each standing in for 1000 deaths. So when the gigantic column of dead Soviet soldiers flies by, dwarfing every other combatant, you get a chilling sense of just how immense the conflict on the Eastern Front was. And when you see the column of Jews murdered by the Nazis, broken down by where and how they were killed, you understand the true enormity of the Final Solution’s apparatus of murder.

It’s an extraordinary film. And once you’ve watched it, you’ll appreciate just how lucky we are to be living through the most peaceful time in human history.

Though that last assertion remains disputed, there is no doubt that the Second World War stands out as one of the most calamitous and consequential conflict in human history, and one that is thankfully unlikely to occur again (or so one would hope).

The 26th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests

On this day in 1989, an over month-long, mostly peaceful protest involving workers, political reformers, and pro-democracy students — centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but later spreading across hundreds of cities around the country — was crashed by government security forces. Continue reading

The Horrific Cost of Qatar’s World Cup Bid

The recent $150 million scandal involving several senior FIFA officials has once again brought to light the international soccer body’s renowned culture of corruption and malfeasance (indeed, the tepid response among most soccer fans towards this revelation speaks volumes about what little regard there is towards the institution that governs the world’s largest sport).

But the more disturbing and sobering evidence of FIFA’s utter lack of human decency, at least as of late, can be best seen in the following chart, courtesy of the Washington Post: Continue reading

The Lasting Damage of High Inequality

In my previous post, I shared the grim results of a recent OECD study that found a consistent rise in wealth and income inequality across much of the developed world, with the U.S. taking the lead among the richest countries (though comparatively less wealthy countries Chile, Mexico, and Turkey were ahead).

Reporting on the same survey, the New York Times delved further and explored the impact that this worsening inequality is already having on societies: Continue reading

Income Inequality Growing Across The World

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 34 mostly wealthy countries, has published the results of a study finding that income inequality is “at its highest since records began”, with the with the United States ranking among the highest on the spectrum.

More from Al Jazeera:

The United States was near the high end of the inequality spectrum, followed by Israel, the United Kingdom and Greece. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile were found to have higher levels of income inequality than the U.S.

Denmark was the least unequal country according to the report, as measured using the Gini index, a common measure of income distribution. Slovenia, the Slovak Republic and Norway also ranked near the low end of the spectrum.

Overall wealth is even more unevenly distributed than income, according to the report. Across all 34 countries studied, the bottom 40 percent of households were found to possess 3 percent of all wealth. In contrast, the top 10 percent laid claim to half of all wealth, and the top one percent held almost 20 percent of all wealth.

Gurría said the report’s findings demonstrate that inequality slows down economic growth. He urged OECD member countries to adopt more redistributive policies, saying that redirecting wealth flows would benefit not just low-income households but the economy as a whole.

“Well-designed, prudent redistribution does not harm growth”, he said. “In fact, it goes hand-in-hand with growth”.

In addition to tax transfers, the OECD report recommends more investment in education, policies that promote remunerative employment, and measures that “remove barriers to female employment and career progression”. Bringing more women into the workforce and narrowing the pay gap was found to have a mitigating effect on income inequality.

In recent years, global elites have become increasingly concerned about income inequality. Last November, the World Economic Forum, which hosts the annual gathering of political and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, put out a report identifying income inequality as the number one trend to watch in 2015.