Graeme Wood


Economics by Other Means

The New York Sun
April 16, 2008

To be an economist nowadays is to be a professional smartypants, gleeful in explaining away nearly everything everyone else does or cares about. Got a funny name? Ask an economist, not Mom and Dad. Worried about spotted owls? Check out this incentive structure. Think each “X-Men” movie is worse than the last? Have I got a regression for you. In recent years, as if to signal that they have exhausted the field of human behavior, economists have tried (and largely succeeded) to move on to other species and explain capuchin monkey behavior as well.

“Castles, Battles, and Bombs” (University of Chicago Press, 424 pages, $29), co-authored by an economist, Jurgen Brauer, and a historian, Hubert van Tuyll, purports to explain military history through economics. It examines seven key moments in the last thousand years of warfare — among them, the building of castles in the High Middle Ages, France’s decision to irradiate the South Pacific with costly nuclear testing during the Cold War, the role of private military contractors in the Italian Renaissance, and the bombing of Germany in World War II. These are all, the authors say, susceptible to economic analysis and elucidation. If economics can explain the behavior of capuchin monkeys, then surely it can explain the behavior of Frenchmen.
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Filed under: New York Sun, ,

Great Schism

In Washington, this is a week of two Christian passages: Pope Benedict XVI’s celebration of his 81st birthday, and the burial of Bishop S. C. Madison, leader of TUHOPFAP for seventeen years. One of the largest and most powerful of the “black holiness churches,” TUHOPFAP is known for its street brass bands, cheap and delicious soul food, and mass outdoor baptisms, which involve fire-hoses and huge tanks of water imported from the River Jordan. This morning, members packed TUHOPFAP’s D.C. church, known as “God’s White House,” to bury Bishop Madison and mourn his passing. Many of the women wore white — a sign, perhaps, of the celebratory mood that the church seems incapable of casting off, even at the somber farewell to its beloved leader. In the cafeteria, Saint’s Paradise (“Where our Main Ingredient is Love”), no one cried into his grits, and the church’s signature brass piped its music, major-key, in over the intercom. But a question remains: Who will lead the Church next? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

On Wings of Amateurs

The splendid Effect Measure, a relentless tracker of avian influenza news, explains the paper’s relevance to public health. If diseases are human-borne, we have to watch human movement patterns (spraying planes before they touch down in New Zealand, vaccinating pilgrims before they join the scrums in Mecca); if they are bird-borne, we have to figure out where these ailing avians are going, and why. The birds in question here are leaf-warblers and thrushes who start off in Siberia and head toward South Asia. Some end up confused and end up in Europe, instead, where they die. The paper suggests that a longtime hypothesis — that birds end up in the wrong place because they get blown off-course — isn’t right. According to decades of reports by birdwatchers across Europe, the fat birds go off-course just as regularly as the skinny ones (who would presumably be more affected by winds). The paper says the lost birds have a genetically warped sense of direction: it tells them how far to go, but steers them wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

Useful Anarchy

Someone, somewhere, is hunting for rape statistics right now, to show that nationwide in the U.S., the rate of sexual assault is lower than the rate among contractors in Iraq. I would not be surprised if that is so. There are, for one thing, far fewer women per capita to assault among Iraq contractors than among the American population at large, and it’s far more probable that a female contractor is armed or has easy access to a weapon of vengeance. On the other hand, there does seem to be a connection between gruesome crimes like this one and the climate of lawlessness and license in which military contractors operate. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Two Eras End

If the phrase “Soviet commissar” has a vaguely old-fashioned ring — like “icebox,” “suffragette,” or “antimacassar” — then “Ottoman foot-soldier” has a near-ancient one. The two deaths this week consign both categories to history, and give an occasion for reflection on the passing of two eras. Read the rest of this entry »

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An Orthodox Messiah

Pyotr Kuznetsov has endured crude and unwarranted ridicule — unwarranted not only because he is a troubled man, but also because messiahs do this sort of thing all the time. To entertain self-doubt, to supplicate miserably to the higher power that sent you, to act, in moments of extreme stress, in ways that seem undignified — these are occupational hazards of being the Son or prophet of God. Kuznetsov’s self-battery is a normal stage of religious genesis.

Certainly, failed predictions and erratic behavior should not disqualify him as a prophet or apostle. At least one plausible reading of the New Testament has Christ’s followers incorrectly predicting, and preparing for, an imminent Apocalypse. The Prophet Muhammad may well have experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of the kind that led doctors to commit Kuznetsov. The Donmeh have gone nearly three and a half centuries believing Sabbatai Zevi to be the Jewish Messiah, even after he publicly converted to another religion. None of these stumbling blocks seems to have diminished the capacity of believers to experience transcendence — or, in the case of the True Orthodox Church, shaken their belief that the “Messiah of Siberia” had the right idea when he suggested they barricade themselves in a cave last year to prepare for the end of the world.

To mock Kuznetsov is to misunderstand the nature of religious belief. Thirty-five of his flock (called a “cult” by some) barricaded themselves in; fourteen remain underground and unwilling to leave, even though the cave is starting to collapse. Disconfirmatory evidence — the continued existence of the earth — does not matter to them, and may indeed make them even more avid in their faith. We might condemn Kuznetsov by the standards of normal people, but by the standards of Messiahs, so far so good.

Originally appeared at

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, ,

Bay of Capitalist Pigs

The Atlantic, April 2008

The American embargo on Cuba has spanned 48 years—a lifetime for many Cubans, and nearly all of Fidel Castro’s tenure as Maximum Leader. Now that Castro, 81 and ailing, has officially retired, the embargo’s end may be near. Some think Fidel’s brother Raúl (assuming he successfully consolidates power) might free Cuba’s economy and allow private investment. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly

Humid, All Too Humid

The Walrus, April 2008

Kultur, Jammed

Paraguay’s holdout German colony

Nueva Germania—In a grubby plastic chair in front of his family’s shack, a shirtless Wilhelm Fischer swats blackflies from his face between sips of yerba maté tea. He’s boasting in perfect German about the hardscrabble years he spent clearing enough land to eke out a living raising chickens and cows. “This was all forest,” he says proudly, pointing to the grassy paddock beyond the barbed wire. He leans down and whispers something to his daughter, Berta, in the local creole. But she and her mother, Delia Domínguez, a Guarani Indian cheesemonger, speak excellent German as well. Like Willi, Delia has barely left the steamy Paraguayan hamlet of their birth, but she longs for the hills of Saxony, the snow-covered banks of the Elbe — the land of her husband’s gullible ancestors.

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