Good reads: Growth we missed, Berlin's awkward fit, and where kids know best

This week's long-form good reads may change your perspective on the effects of the Great Recession, the importance of geography, and how to measure the quality of a teacher.

David Snodgress, Herald-Times/AP
Stella Royal, assistant principal of Bloomfield Jr.-Sr. High School, observes a digital communications class as part of the teacher evaluation routine, Wednesday, Oct. 17.

Some five years after the dawn of the Great Recession, the global economic landscape is still sorting itself out. In a casual survey of the world horizon, Foreign Policy magazine takes stock of winners so far. 

Some samples: The net worth of the average Canadian surpassed that of the average American this past summer. (Think real estate.) Poland – not Germany, not Norway – grew 15.8 percent from 2008 to 2011 while the overall economy of the European Union actually shrank slightly. Turkey has become Europe’s biggest carmaker, and family incomes have tripled over the past decade. (Turkey is mostly not in Europe, but that’s a technicality.) South Korea was the first developed country to emerge from the recession. Its manufacturers from Samsung to Hyundai have been conquering global market share, and government R&D spending, already among the highest in the world, was increased. Sweden used the lessons it famously learned surviving a financial crash in 1992 to ride out the 2008 version with low debt levels and strong government finances, and last year it had the fastest-growing economy in Europe after Estonia. (And hey, Go, Estonia!)

But all of these are mere nations, small potatoes compared with the truly global hegemony of those Golden Arches. McDonald’s stock has risen by a factor of five in the last decade, powering right through the recession, notes author Frederick Kaufman in Foreign Policy.

With 33,500 restaurants in 119 countries, the chain is in the process of opening 700 new outlets in China this year alone. To fashionable Americans, the McDonald’s brand signals an obesity epidemic. But, writes Mr. Kaufman, “[t]he sad truth is that in most of the world, the McDonald’s menu doesn’t scream antibiotic-addled livestock and high-cholesterol death diets; instead it whispers of middle-class aspiration.”

Europe’s detached capital

The Great Recession has been a huge setback to the aspirations of the European Union. Its Mediterranean members are especially stressed. But the city of Berlin is looking like another winner. In 1946, barely a quarter of its buildings were habitable. Now, writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, it has become “the de facto capital of the European Union.” Brussels is still the headquarters. “But Berlin is increasingly where the decisions are made.”

This means that Germany is where the money is and that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is Europe’s unrivaled power player. Though Germans are now making the financial rules for the EU, Mr. Rachman writes, they tend to be less arrogant than serious-minded, patient, and committed to the European project. 

The problem may be that Berlin is pleasant, prosperous, and feels worlds away from the struggles of Greece and Spain, he explains. “That detachment from the rest of the eurozone – rather than any ‘will to power’ – is why Berlin remains a peculiar capital for Europe.”

Location, location, conversation?

Is all of this really about geography – weather, terrain, position on the planet? Author Robert Kaplan argues that ideas and politics get far more credit than they deserve. 

In the end, history’s hand is guided by the lay of the land. Mr. Kaplan’s book “The Revenge of Geography” is reviewed by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Kaplan argues for the influential role of the desert in the Iraq war, water sources in Middle East politics, the marshes that protected Venice in the Middle Ages, the historic German drive for territory to grow, Russia’s exposure to invading hordes from the east, Afghanistan’s field position in the Great Game of Central Asian commerce. 

All interesting, but ultimately Mr. Gopnik isn’t buying it. “Once, the sight of a Viking prow coming down a river was as terrifying a sight as any European could imagine. Now the Scandinavian countries are perhaps the most pacific in the world. Whatever changed, it wasn’t the shape of Scandinavia.” Rather, it was the shape of Scandinavian civilization. “Conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can.”

Let students grade the teachers

Most agree that a key to prosperity is the quality of education, and a key to education is the quality of teachers. But how do we know who the good teachers are? That question is politically fraught. But it turns out that we may have been making it too hard. Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic probes research on one simple strategy: Ask the kids.

With stunning consistency, it turns out that students as young as 5 can answer questions about their teachers that assess the effectiveness of teachers more reliably than any other measure. 

The right questions matter. This is not a popularity contest like the rate-the-professor websites at colleges. The questions that track successful teachers ask whether students in class behave, respect the teacher, stay busy and don’t waste time, learn a lot almost every day, and learn to correct their mistakes. Some school districts are trying out such surveys. What matters, in the end, is what they do with that information.

General failure

Much ink has been spilled over the breezy incompetence of the Bush administration’s post-invasion management of Iraq – some of it by then-Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks. But the civilian leadership was not the whole problem, argues Mr. Ricks.

In The Atlantic, he argues that the ineptitude of the Army’s generals themselves is part of the picture. He contrasts the current culture of mediocrity in the most senior ranks to the culture of accountability during World War II. Then, failing generals were quickly relieved of duty, and that happened often. It almost never happens any more, and not for lack of incompetent generals, in Ricks’ view. In the Iraq war, there was never really a strategic plan or a grasp of the nature of the war the US was fighting, he writes. And the generals who should be providing that strategic view were busy micromanaging and thinking tactically like sergeants.

The good news, ironically, is that the “tactical excellence” of enlisted soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have given some cover to the “strategic incompetence” of their general officers.

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