Good Reads: on Americans' shared economic values, and scandal in China

This week's best long-form articles may change how you think about America's 'polarized' political environment, China's stability, and new journalism ethics. Well, the first two anyway.

Mark Lennihan/AP
In this Aug. 2 photo, ironworker Stephen MacGray cuts a steel brace at the World Trade Center construction site, in New York.

Rebooting America

What if we could change America’s economic system? How would we do it? Would we follow the conservative model, and reward entrepreneurs and the wealthy few who create jobs? Or should we try to create a more egalitarian environment, where the distance between economic classes is not so huge that one can pursue the American dream and move up according to one’s abilities?

This was the impetus for an interesting public opinion survey, carried out by Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and written up in this week’s issue of The Atlantic.

Recently, he and a team of researchers conducted a survey of 5,522 people, asking them to create a distribution of wealth among five different groups of Americans, sorted from the poorest 20 percent to the richest 20 percent. Respondents could choose a perfect egalitarian society, with even-steven 20 percent cuts of the pie for each group, or a greed-is-good scenario with 100 percent ownership for the rich, and zero for the remaining 80 percent, or anything in between.

The response is likely to shock the pundits on all those noisy talk shows. Respondents voted for a scenario much more egalitarian that what presently exists. And the answer was consistent for men and women, Republicans and Democrats, and for all income levels.

What was particularly surprising about the results was that when we examined the ideal distributions for Republicans and Democrats, we found them to be quite similar…. When we examined the results by other variables, including income and gender, we again found no appreciable differences. It seems that Americans -- regardless of political affiliation, income, and gender -- want the kind of wealth distribution…., which is very different from what we have and from what we think we have….

China’s destabilizing scandal

If the politics of the predominant democratic country seem messy, don’t be fooled by the apparent tidiness of the world’s predominant authoritarian country: China. According to Minxin Pei – a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, writing in this week’s edition of The Diplomat – China’s top ruling elite has been rocked by corruption scandals of one of its rising stars, Bo Xilai.

Now that Mr. Bo’s wife has been charged with murder, the scandal continues to grow, and it is likely to reveal more about the Chinese government’s inner workings than most Chinese leaders would prefer.

…how the powerful lose power and what happens to them afterwards can tell us a great deal about the nature of the political regime in which they thrive and perish. In the case of the current Chinese regime, the ugly purge of Bo reveals many of its dark sides: corruption, lawlessness, hypocrisy, and ruthlessness. Such qualities of a regime make it illegitimate and undermines its durability.

Cleaning up toxic news ethics

It turns out the field of journalism could use a reboot, as well. In our drive to be first – made all the more possible, with the advent of web-based news distribution – news organizations now dish out “content” (formerly known as stories) faster than before, often with mistakes and biases attached.

Some news organizations go beyond mere mistakes and violate fundamental principles of journalism. Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, the News of the World, was shuttered after its top editors admitted to hiring a private detective to hack into a missing 14-year-old girl’s voicemail, just a few years after doing the same thing to members of the British royal family. But Mr. Murdoch’s not the only one facing ethical scrutiny. ABC news reportedly paid legal fees for Casey Anthony, mother of a murdered girl, a fact verified by Ms. Anthony’s lawyer.

David Carr, media reporter for the New York Times, writes this week that with criminal charges pending in the News of the World case, “the jig is up.”  It’s time for the news industry to get serious about its ethics, and its reputation.

A few words about the Boss

For people of a certain age, there is only one Boss, and that is Bruce Springsteen. This turns out to be true not just for people “born in the USA,” but also for people born farther afield.

Ahmed Rashid, one of the first Pakistani journalists to cover the Taliban phenomenon and writer of that textbook of young "War Against Terror," correspondents, “The Taliban,” turns out to be a major Springsteen fan. In this week’s New Yorker, he writes that one of the things that Springsteen does is create a community around him of fans who share the same love of rock, mixed with social values of hope and charity and progressive politics. As a Pakistani, Mr. Rashid pines for that same kind of community back home, but writes that Pakistan’s long history of military rulers and rich ruling elites have thwarted the country’s ability to create open spaces and concert venues where Pakistanis could gather to honor their own Springsteens.

Rock music, Rashid writes, “is about partaking of a cultural event in the company of others: bringing the maximum number of people into a venue, performing for them, and allowing them to go home with the feeling that they have shared something with other human beings. We want to hug the guy we are standing next to, we want to talk to people we don’t know, we want to keep singing the songs as we leave the theatre, and when the harsh reality of the street hits us we want every taxi driver to turn into an angel while we keep talking to strangers.”

I couldn't agree more.

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