Good Reads: Congress's failure, China's looming crisis, and sarcasm explained

Today's Good Reads include a look at the good in Congress's looming budget failure, how China's bubble may burst, and why sarcasm could make you smarter. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this Nov. 1 file photo, Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction Co-Chair Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, left, listens as former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., right, makes a point just before testifying before the panel on Capitol Hill in Washington.

There’s something about an abyss that tends to attract daredevils in Washington.

Most people would likely do everything they could to avoid defaulting on their loans – as the US government came close to doing this summer. Most also bring, or attempt to bring, their spending in line with their revenue – something Congress seems to be unable to do ahead of their deadline this week.

Yet the seasoned leaders of Washington are throwing caution to the wind, and pressing the accelerator for a Thelma-and-Louise finale.

Bless their hearts, they keep the news industry alive.

Toward the end of last week, the members of Congress’s “super committee” – do they wear capes? – started sending out signals that they would fail to reach a compromise to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade. Unlike past budget impasses, where Congress’s failure to pass a budget meant that government literally had to shut down for a few weeks until Congress could rediscover the spirit of compromise, there appear to be automatic spending cuts built into the process in both defense and domestic budgets.

But the Monitor’s Mark Trumbull writes that there are some pundits who believe this seemingly messy affair might actually be good for democracy. The new view in Washington is that failure might be good, he writes:

"That view: Don't get hot and bothered if the panel fails to deliver. The battles will just be fought again after the next election – and maybe on that day the side with the best ideas will have more political clout."

What about China?

Most economists assume that the current bad economic times will turn around for the better, driven by the economic engine of all those thriving emerging nations like Brazil, China, India, and parts of Africa. But what if China ends up having the same kind of overheated economy that the West has had, and goes into a tailspin? Well, that would be bad.

The Atlantic magazine’s Max Fisher writes that China’s leaders never anticipated that the West – their biggest customer – would suddenly have difficulty buying its cheap goods. And now, China will have to adjust its economic model quickly in order to keep that officially-ordained 8 percent growth rate going, and to prevent unrest.

"Though China's leaders have long planned to change the country's economic model – which is also at the heart of its political model – these crises mean that China must accelerate its plan to restructure its economy. Right now, China's economy is based on exporting to wealthy, developed countries. For that export-driven system to work, China's economy needs to remain weaker than those of its buyers. One of the biggest reasons that China sells so much stuff is because it can produce that stuff cheaply. But as China's growth accelerates and European and American growth slows due to financial crises, China is catching up with the developed economies faster than anyone had anticipated. If and when China gets too wealthy to continue exporting cheap products – or if the developed economies become too weak to keep buying them – it will be in big trouble."

Everyone's doing it

Economic discontent is all the rage these days, and Egypt’s streets are once more taken over by stone-throwing youths, demanding that the Egyptian military loosen its grip on political power. Here in the US, the Occupy Wall Street movement is shifting from financial districts to college campuses, and some Occupy Wall Street organizers see the rougher tactics of the New York City policy department in clearing out camping activists from Zuccotti Park as a possible boon for the movement’s next big thing.

The New Yorker’s Mattathias Schwartz spoke with Kalle Lasn, the 69-year-old Vancover activist seen as a leading light of the Occupy movement on the day after Zuccotti Park was cleared out, and Mr. Lasn sounded positively ebullient.

“I just can’t believe how stupid Bloomberg can be!” he said to me later that day. “This means escalation. A raising of the stakes. It’s one step closer to, you know, a revolution.”

A Good Read

But if there is one good thing that comes out of times like this, it is a need for introspection and study. And in that spirit, Smithsonian Magazine’s Richard Chin has written a story about the scientific study of sarcasm. It turns out sarcasm actually makes humans smarter. Who knew?

"Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do. Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm.

That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study. College students in Israel listened to complaints to a cellphone company’s customer service line. The students were better able to solve problems creatively when the complaints were sarcastic as opposed to just plain angry. Sarcasm “appears to stimulate complex thinking and to attenuate the otherwise negative effects of anger,” according to the study authors."

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