Good Reads: on euro dreams, spoiled American children, and Pakistan

A survey of the best reads this week provides a look into the eurocrisis, Americans' concerns about their values and their children, and the geographical reasons why Pakistan is messed up. 

Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, arrives for a round table meeting at an EU Summit in Brussels on Thursday, June 28. European leaders gathering Thursday in Brussels are set to sign off on a series of measures to boost economic growth but expectations of a breakthrough on the pooling of debt have fallen by the wayside.

The euro: doomed again

Just a few weeks ago it looked like Europe’s single-currency deal was beginning to settle down.

The Greeks had elected a new government that was willing, finally, to negotiate and chip away at all of their expensive social benefits (and deal with their debt). The French had elected a government that was popular and would have the mandate to make tough choices.

Now, Europe is back to “imagining the unthinkable,” as Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine puts it. German central bank officers are starting to think that the collapse of Europe’s common currency, the euro, is a “very likely scenario.”

That’s bad not just for “old Europe,” but for America and anyone else who might have wanted the global economy to pull out of the current doldrums. As Der Spiegel puts it:

It would be a dream for nationalist politicians, and a nightmare for the economy. Everything that has grown together in two decades of euro history would have to be painstakingly torn apart. Millions of contracts, business relationships and partnerships would have to be reassessed, while thousands of companies would need protection from bankruptcy. All of Europe would plunge into a deep recession. Governments, which would be forced to borrow additional billions to meet their needs, would face the choice between two unattractive options: either to drastically increase taxes or to impose significant financial burdens on their citizens in the form of higher inflation.

American values, revisited

Thankfully, our Founding Fathers had the foresight to put a very large and deep body of water (the Atlantic Ocean) between us and Europe. Newspaper pundits periodically remind us that the American values that built this country into the resilient economic power (hard work, faith, self-sacrifice) will carry America through even rough economic waters.

Values change, of course, and a recent poll by The Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute shows us how much.

In the survey, two thirds of respondents said the country was going in the wrong direction, 70 percent said that people’s values were getting worse, and 46 percent thought that American values were likely to decline even further in the future.

Here’s my question: Did the respondents think that their own values were getting worse, or that the values of all those other bad people out there were getting worse? The survey suggests the latter.

Half of the respondents admitted that they rarely attend church. But more than 62 percent said they believe they are more tolerant of other people's values than their parents were.

The problem with America, it appears, is other Americans.

More than 77 percent believe that people are generally motivated by self-interest, 71 percent believe elected officials reflect the values of the wealthy (rather than the middle class), and 89 percent believe the values of American executives on Wall Street are worse than those of ordinary Americans, because they are just plain greedy.

The future generation

This is the point in time when politicians usually talk about the promise of the future generation. Times are tough now, a politician might say, rolling up his sleeves, but at least we know we are preparing our children to meet the challenges of tomorrow. But what if the future generation is, well, spoiled?

In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert looks the anthropological work of Carolina Izquierdo and Elinor Ochs, comparing the values of children in the hunter-gathering tribes of the Peruvian Amazon and back home in the Los Angeles area. While Peruvian children often volunteered to make themselves useful, sweeping up the hut or gathering leaves for roofing material, American children seemed to lack even the capacity to set the table or to tie their own shoelaces.

It’s a fascinating study, and provides food for thought.

Dearest Pakistan

For the past decade, American politicians and military planners have complained about the perfidious nature of its frontline ally, Pakistan, in the global war on terror. Pakistan was playing a double game, columnists wrote, by openly supporting the American fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on one hand, but quietly supporting those very same groups as a way to serve their own regional interests.

Excuses have been made for Pakistan’s apparent inability to deal with its internal demons, including weak or corrupt leaders, ill-educated citizens, messianic mullahs, and double-dealing generals. Now, in this week’s edition of Foreign Policy, Robert Kaplan has given us another excuse: geography.

With its unmanageable terrain, following the drainage of the Indus River from the unreachable Himalayan mountain range, past the hostile Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan on one side and the hostile Indian population on the other side, Pakistan is a nation that is practically designed for failure, Mr. Kaplan asserts.

Pakistan encompasses the frontier of the subcontinent, a region that even the British were unable to incorporate into their bureaucracy, running it instead as a military fiefdom, making deals with the tribes. Thus, Pakistan did not inherit the stabilizing civilian institutions that India did. Winston Churchill's first book as a young man, The Story of the Malakand Field Force, wonderfully captures the challenges facing colonial border troops in British India. As the young author then concluded, the only way to function in this part of the world is through "a system of gradual advance, of political intrigue among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions."

Agree or disagree, there is a lot to learn in Kaplan’s piece.

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