Graeme Wood

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States of Failure

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty”

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Crown. $14.99.

 

To find out how screwed up a country can be, sometimes you just need to get breakfast. A couple years ago in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), the only eggs I found for sale were marked as imported from Cameroon, some six hundred miles away, and they cost more than the cage-free organic variety on offer at my local yuppie mart here in America. Raising chickens is easy and cheap: At these prices, someone should have been able to make good money producing eggs locally. But C.A.R., like many countries, is disordered at a deep level, and the old laws of microeconomics apply there only in the same sense that the law of gravity applies on the moon.

 

“Why Nations Fail,” the large and ambitious new book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, aims to explain this disorder and come up with a general theory of how places with reasonably similar cultural and natural-resource endowments end up either poor or prosperous. They point to Nogales, the city that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson. Ethnically, the two sides of the city are identical twins. But the American side swims comfortably in cash, and the Mexican side is poor and violent. This same mismatch is visible across countless other political borders: North Korean kids are malnourished because they have no food; South Korean kids are malnourished because they skip meals to play Starcraft. Haiti exports refugees; the Dominican Republic exports shortstops. (For more on this check out “Natural Experiments of History,” the fascinating volume Robinson co-edited with Jared Diamond last year.)

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Filed under: The Daily, , ,

Liberty Abroad

El sueño del celta.
By Mario Vargas Llosa
Madrid: Alfaguara. 464 pages. $20.

Originally appeared in Bookforum.

Those who wish to see politics in everything frequently get their wish. The selection of a Nobel laureate in literature is a case in point. In 2001, the choice of V. S. Naipaul looked to some like a post-9/11 gesture of sympathy with America—even an endorsement of America’s incipient military rebukes to Islamism. Four years later, awarding the anti-American Harold Pinter looked like a rebuke to the American rebuke. And last year’s selection, the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, looks like the most overtly political winner in the past three decades.

The attention garnered by other laureates for their politics has been, by and large, a byproduct of their writing. This is true of Pinter as well as of Gabriel García Márquez (a “courtesan of Castro,” Vargas Llosa once called him). But for Vargas Llosa, politics is his métier, and his best work, both fiction and nonfiction, is political to the core. As a result of his failed 1990 campaign for the Peruvian presidency and five decades of political journalism, we know that he espouses Thatcherite classical liberalism with a Latin American face. (Much of Vargas Llosa’s journalism remains unavailable in English; to confuse matters further, his collected early political writing, Contra viento y marea [Against the Wind and Tide], happens to share a title with the Spanish edition of the autobiography of the conservative Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris.) Now, with the release in Spanish of his seventeenth novel, El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt), Vargas Llosa’s political reputation is due for a reappraisal. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bookforum, , , ,

Welcome to Limbo

In the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Policy, I have a broad-ranging piece on quasi-states — countries that haven’t yet achieved recognition (and in most cases never will).

UPDATE: French speakers can read the same piece at Slate.fr.

Filed under: Foreign Policy, Slate, , , , ,

A Groundling’s-Eye View

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com.

The Washington Monument stood wreathed in dust kicked up by the masses, as if the Mall were the nation’s largest feedlot. Everyone there for today’s inauguration wanted a piece of history, and the more ambitious of us imagined taking home something tangible. Of the 2 million present, no more than a quarter million had tickets. The rest of us dreamed of squeezing to the front of the crowd, and perhaps picking up a stray program. Or maybe, like football fans storming the field and pulling down the uprights, we’d rush the podium at the end and each take home a fragment of a presidential seal. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Hail to the Chief Scientist

Originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

By Richard A. Muller

W.W. Norton; 380 pages; $26.95

The late William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. No one, to my knowledge, ever asked him to choose between the Berkeley phone book and the UC Berkeley faculty. I suspect the conservative Buckley would have held his nose and opted for the faculty – if only in hopes that a few right-wing economists might compensate for the liberal yahoos that he imagined made up the rest of the professoriat, to say nothing of the population at large. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: San Francisco Chronicle, , ,

Fallout Holidays

The opening scene of the newest Indiana Jones film is set in Nevada in 1957, possibly during Operation Plumbbob, an actual nuclear-test series in which the U.S. measured the response of humans and physical structures to nuclear blasts. Satellite images give a hint of what’s left: a pockmarked brown landscape of craters and broken buildings. There are smashed reinforced-concrete domes, shattered windows, as well as iron rails and bridges that the heat and explosion have twisted. It looks, I am told, like a place where Superman (or perhaps Uri Geller) had given himself over to a fit of rage. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , , ,

Yucca Mountain High

The word “mountain” has lovely connotations: icy streams, conifer forests, unblemished views of a snowy sierra, yodeling competitions. (OK, so not they’re not all lovely.) Alas for Yucca Mountain, these images of alpine sweetness do not apply to it at all. If Yucca Mountain had a name that conveyed just how baking-hot, barren, forlorn, and lifeless it is — perhaps “Yucca Death Vault” would do it justice — more people might see the logic in the government’s plan, now nearly thirty years old, to use it to store the nation’s radioactive garbage. The mountain is dry, geologically appropriate, and far enough from human settlements to keep it secure in case of accident or attack. Nevadans and anti-nuke activists object and say that the risk of leaks, of terrorist attacks, and of unforeseen catastrophes is too great to allow Yucca Mountain to accept the waste. But the waste has to go somewhere, and Yucca Mountain is the right spot.

The alternative, first of all, is to keep the waste at the nuclear plants that produce it. Yucca Mountain is equipped to accept 77,000 tons of radioactive waste, which are currently distributed all over the country, often in areas near population centers. Few if any of the current nuclear plants could provide the security of a mountain in the middle of the country’s most inhospitable and militarized desert.

Scientists, engineers, politicians, and lawyers have bickered for decades about whether Yucca is seismically inert enough to ensure millennia of safe storage. I don’t blame skeptics for doubting. Storage beyond the scale of individual human lives, to say nothing of human history, is tricky and bound to pose risks, such as slow bleeds of radioactive waste into the ground or water. The good news is that the worst of the waste will have decayed significantly within centuries, and the scariest parts of what’s left — plutonium, which takes 24,000 years to decay by half — can be kept out of deep storage and instead reprocessed to power more reactors (or build bombs, about which more below). Now that storage and fossil-fuel costs are skyrocketing, this sort of reprocessing will make increasing economic sense, thereby reducing the period during which Yucca Mountain would have to be certified secure.

Finally, the subject of bombs: The most ridiculous fears surround the possibility that someone would seize any stored plutonium and use it build a bomb. Let’s assume a dramatic raid of Yucca Mountain actually did occur, and somehow the folks next door at Nellis Air Force Base were powerless to stop it. The terrorists would then have loads of fission fragments, plus a large quantity of the same material used to incinerate Nagasaki. That improbable outcome would not be good, but it wouldn’t be terrible, because contrary to its reputation, plutonium is neither all that dangerous nor all that difficult to get. It’s not available, as Dr. Emmett Brown predicted over half a century ago, “in every corner drugstore,” but nuclear power plants routinely produce the stuff as a waste product, and at last count there were nuclear plants all over the world, mostly not in the U.S. The trick isn’t getting the plutonium, but turning it into a bomb. (Enriched uranium is the opposite — hard to find, easy to blow up.)

Yucca Mountain won’t avert all catastrophes — whether of the bang or the whimper variety. But it will be better than the status quo.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Signed, Sealed, Not Yet Delivered

It was a college crowd: young women with Kool Aid-dyed hair, mop-topped men in novelty bow-ties, kids wearing t-shirts that advertised ironic slogans (“Super Jew!”) and summer holidays to Angkor Wat — all grooving to “Big Yellow Taxi.” But it was also more. A scan of the seats revealed lots of normal people as well, including a robust and enthusiastic contingent of African-Americans, thrilled to be in an Obama coalition, and by all evidence grooving to the Joni Mitchell just as to the Motown.

The coalition looked broad and deep. It did not, however, look like America, or even North Carolina.

Obama boasts of bringing together a diverse group, an alliance from demographics that had never previously united. But in a state with few areas that have the vibrant diversity of an Obama rally, it felt like the campaign’s possible undoing, probably not by next week’s vote, but someday. The Chapel Hill senior who introduced Obama spoke of his having inspired her friend Hans, a Swedish exchange student, to volunteer. If all North Carolina voters were Swedish exchange students, or even people who have Swedish exchange students as friends, I’m sure the candidate will do fine. The Dean Dome was not a scene that I imagine would have comforted an electorate looking for a better version of something cherished and familiar.

In any case, between the strains of Stevie Wonder and the live band, Liquid Pleasure, there was an unfamiliar weariness in the air. Was it that Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” no longer seemed like an Obama song, but rather like one adopted by his opponent? Was it that all this music, while good, still felt like the stuff of entertainment, not of politics, and the groove of a liberal college town, not of the heartland? I felt a twinge of dread for the Obama campaign: no candidate ever got far with an iTunes playlist that resembled my own.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

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