Good Reads: Globalization and the glass half full

Here is a survey of a few good articles to explain global doom, the globalized taste in literature, and the peculiar mental shortcuts and errors that smart people make. 

Eeyore Rules

If you have felt a sudden rush of hope this week, a sense of the incredible possibilities we all have to make a difference in this increasingly connected world of instant communications and idea-sharing, well, then clearly you haven’t been reading the newspapers recently.

Because the newspapers are all full of dread. It’s as if Eeyore, A.A. Milne’s dour donkey, had quietly taken over the world, slipped something into all of our morning coffees and convinced us that the glass was, indeed, half full. If the 1990s were the decade of "Me," then the 2010s are the decade of "Meh."

In the United States, the economy is growing and jobs are being created, but alas, not fast enough to keep the unemployment rate down. That, apparently, spells doom for the current occupant of the White House. Young people are so disillusioned in the man they voted for in 2008 that they are unlikely to vote at all in the upcoming elections, according to this article by Andrew Baumann and Anna Greenberg in The Atlantic magazine.

Last days of Pompeii

But for sheer existential angst, you can’t beat the Greeks. There, life which used to be care-free – especially after Greece joined the eurozone and foresaw a forever supply of tourists and European business travelers – but now, according to this excellent story by Rachel Donadio in the New York Times, the mood in Greece is so downbeat that one Greek filmmaker described it as “the last days of Pompeii.”

In her Letter from Athens, Ms. Donadio writes:

The feeling that the country is about to undergo an even greater economic upheaval is inescapable. Highly educated young people are desperate to emigrate. Families are putting their property up for sale to pay debts. Banks long ago stopped lending. Casual conversations between friends end in tears.

Blaming globalization

The world has had economic downturns before, but what makes this one different goes beyond mere numbers on a balance sheet. Its roots are found in the growing doubts that people are having about our increasingly globalized world. Remember the hope people felt when the cold war ended, and the Berlin Wall fell? Remember when once-hostile African and Eastern European countries opened themselves up to foreign investment, and US and European stock markets soared? Remember when email became commonplace, when it became possible to send photos or documents or songs or videos as attachments with a simple mouse-click?

Social scientists created a word for that phenomenon: globalization. Hillary Clinton quoted an African proverb that it took a village to raise a child. And for a moment, we all felt like members of one big village.

Now, in the 2010s, we’re seeing the downside of that globalization. It’s not pretty.

One of the odd things about a globalized world is that we view all political leaders, even those from other countries, to be our own leaders. When Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, many Kenyans living in the village where Mr. Obama’s late father grew up expected Obama to finally build the roads and create the new jobs that their own Kenyan government had failed to build and provide. And when Obama the candidate came to Berlin to announce that he would a different president than his predecessor, George W. Bush, many Germans cheered.

Now many of those same Germans express the same disappointments in Obama that young Americans feel. According to Pew opinion poll, printed in Der Spiegel, many Germans wouldn’t vote for Obama if elections were held today, and ahem, if Germans had the right to vote in a US election.

Global best-sellers

One other effect of globalization – the rise of the English language – has transformed the world of literature in surprising ways. As more Europeans adopt English as their second language, they are reading more English-language novels to brush up on their English skills, and acquiring a taste for English novels, and even books by English and American authors in local translations. This means not only greater profits for those English and American authors, but also that English and American ideas, tastes, and sensibilities are becoming globalized.

As Tim Parks writes in a blog this week in the New York Review of Books, those who keep up with English literature trends see themselves as global citizens. Among Dutch – who frankly speak English better than most Americans – Mr. Parks noticed that Dutch readers had come to see English language novels as “better,” because they are likely to be read by readers around the world. And by arming themselves with information about this globalized world, Dutch readers are creating a separate globalized identity to complement their Dutch identity.

The Dutch, Parks writes, use their novel-reading “to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world.”

Thinking makes it so

And finally, from the world of science, we now know why smart people make stupid mistakes. Remember those geniuses who ran the global economy in the 1990s, and then ran that global economy into the ground in 2007? The problem is that smart people take mental shortcuts. They hear a question, and assume, before the question is fully asked, they know the answer.

Consider this math problem, asked by by Richard West at James Madison University and Keith Stanovich at the University of Toronto, to a group of undergraduates, and see if you get the answer right.

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

 I won’t tell you the answer. For that, you should read the New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer.

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About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

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