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Good Reads: Ben Bernanke, bilingualism, and a new study on God and civilization

Here's a survey of what's interesting in other magazines: a profile of 'the villain' Ben Bernanke, a look at the benefits of bilingualism, and a scientific explanation for society's need for God.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in February. Being Ben Bernanke has to be the second-toughest job in the world, after Being Barack Obama.

● I’m just going to come out and say this: I’m no expert in economic policy.

I look at the economic crisis that began in 2007, and has puttered along ever since, and I think, sheesh, I’m glad I’m not the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Being Ben Bernanke – the current Federal Reserve chairman – has to be the second-toughest job in the world, after Being Barack Obama. Mr. Bernanke gets begrudging credit for bailing out the US banking system and protecting the savings of millions of Americans. And because he is so powerful, pulling those magical financial levers like the Great and Powerful Oz, he gets blamed for almost everything else, such as a sluggish recovery, high unemployment, and for some hard-core believers in an unfettered free market, for simply being the chairman of the Federal Reserve.  

In the April edition of The Atlantic, Roger Lowenstein has an excellent profile of Bernanke and his achievements and failures, provocatively entitled "The Villain." A lot of it has to do with the fact that fixing the US and the global economy is painful, and we blame the guy we think is responsible for it. But while Bernanke has become a political target for both the left and the right, a closer look at his record shows that he has done a remarkable job in restoring a sense of order and faith to a market that was threatening to come apart.

During the financial crisis of 2007–09, he bailed out a handful of large banks and devised a series of innovative lending operations to disperse credit to banks, small businesses, and consumers (virtually all of these loans have been repaid at a profit to taxpayers). He also lowered short-term interest rates to nearly zero and made private banks run a gantlet of stress tests to ensure some minimal level of solvency going forward. Although fierce anger against the bailouts persists, there is little argument that this first stage was a success. However untidily the rescue was managed, the financial crisis is over.

● As a boy growing up in a mainly Hispanic border town in Texas, I always envied my bilingual friends who learned Spanish in their homes, who griped about the Dallas Cowboys in Spanish at the dinner table, who could start jokes in English and then deliver up the tasty punchline – to my chagrin – in Spanish. For all the talk of “saving American culture,” these were kids who had assimilated to American culture, but were able to operate in two worlds at once.

I knew they were smarter than me, just because of their grades and their admission to Ivy League schools. But now science tells me why.

In The New York Times, Yudhijit Bhattacharjee writes on how learning a second language at an early age makes your brain work better. Psychologists once worried that kids who lived in bilingual households faced obstacles that “hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.” Turns out they were right, and that very hindrance turns out to be an advantage.

In a 2009 study led by Agnes Kovacs of the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, 7-month-old babies exposed to two languages from birth were compared with peers raised with one language. In an initial set of trials, the infants were presented with an audio cue and then shown a puppet on one side of a screen. Both infant groups learned to look at that side of the screen in anticipation of the puppet. But in a later set of trials, when the puppet began appearing on the opposite side of the screen, the babies exposed to a bilingual environment quickly learned to switch their anticipatory gaze in the new direction while the other babies did not.

● And finally, here are a few words about God, or gods.

In New Scientist magazine – not your usual source for matters of evangelism – Ara Norenzayan writes that religion is a key ingredient for small hunter-gatherer societies to become larger civilizations. When you are related to everyone in your group, it is easy to resolve conflicts and to regulate behavior. But what if you live in a larger society, where you have no personal or tribal relationship with your neighbor?

For most civilizations, the answer was to form a common belief system, and most importantly, an all-knowing God who would ensure that everyone behaved themselves, even if their neighbor wasn’t watching.

…as groups expand in size, anonymity invades relationships and cooperation breaks down. Studies show that feelings of anonymity - even illusory, such as wearing dark glasses - are the friends of selfishness and cheating (Psychological Science, vol 21, p 311). Social surveillance, such as being in front of a camera or an audience, has the opposite effect. Even subtle exposure to drawings resembling eyes encourages good behaviour towards strangers (Evolution and Human Behavior, vol 26, p 245). As the saying goes, "watched people are nice people".

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