Economist 2/26/16

  1. BY THE standards of any other Western country, the role played by faith in America’s presidential race seems enormous. A poll last month by the Pew Research Centre confirmed that being a professed atheist would be a deadly liability for anyone hoping to enter the White House. Some 51% of voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who did not believe in God, and only 6% more likely.The same poll found that 51% of American voters deemed it very or somewhat important to have a president who shared their religious perspective. Unsurprisingly, the percentage who felt that way was higher (64%) among Republican-leaning voters than among the Democratically-minded (41%).Still, the role played by faith is neither static nor easily predictable. As recently as 2007, the share of people who said they would be put off by a candidate’s atheism was higher (63%) than now. The proportion who said a candidate’s non-belief in God would make no difference has jumped in the past nine years from 32% to 41%. Among all respondents in 2016, some 68% thought that religion was losing influence on American life.But that clearly doesn’t mean that the more evangelical you are, the more Republican voters will like you. In three out of four preliminary contests, the thrice-married, loosely churched Donald Trump has prevailed over Ted Cruz, whose fervent evangelicalism has been a main selling point.
  2. Danish legislation designed to stop the “glorification of terrorism” has been used in a draconian way which sometimes treats the public assertion of Islam’s truth as suspect. On the other, strongly attacking Islam with words or gestures can also incur prosecution.Like many democracies, Denmark has inherited an ancient, almost obsolete ban on blasphemy, criminalising those who “ridicule or insult the dogmas or worship of a lawfully existing religion.”Several Western countries (Britain in 2008, Norway last year) have formally rescinded their near-defunct blasphemy laws, in part as a kind of protest against the appalling way in which such laws are misused in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Denmark considered that move but decided against it, citing the need to prevent provocative acts like the burning of holy books. But when faced with “provocation”, the authorities prefer not to allege blasphemy but to instead stretch the meaning of hate speech.
  3. The cinema business’s health seems as rude as ever. Revenue from the American box office grew by 6.3% in 2015, to a record high of $11 billion. Thanks to droves of new filmgoers in China, where the market grew by 49% last year, global revenues increased by 4% to $38 billion.But much of the industry’s recent success, at home and abroad, comes from the rise of the big special-effects event film: franchises like “Fast and Furious”, “Avengers”, “The Hunger Games”, “Jurassic Park”, James Bond and “Star Wars”.Academic studies in recent decades have generally failed to find any conclusive evidence to support studio bosses’ faith in stars’ pulling power. Our own analysis suggests only that a few of them do add a bit to box-office receipts.Among the few stars who do, by common consent among studio bosses, producers and agents, seem to be guarantors of success are the biggest comedy actors—names such as Kevin Hart and Melissa McCarthy. This is in part because they signal to the audience precisely what kind of entertainment is on offer, and are good at delivering.Foreign cinemas like to exhibit films with known names in the lead roles. Some old-school stars are still big draws—the likes of Mr Cruise or even, apparently, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The latter’s 2015 film, “Terminator: Genisys”, a flop in America with $90m in takings on a $155m production budget, was a blockbuster overseas, earning $351m, including $113m in China.
  4. On February 25th, after a year of deliberation, the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, announced that it was not, after all, going to recommend radical surgery for the Britain’s broadband network, as many had hoped.This means, in practice, allowing BT, the former state-run monopoly, to hang on to its very profitable subsidiary, Openreach, which is the main business by which nearly all homes and businesses are connected to fixed-line telephones and broadband.Many analysts, as well as BT’s rivals such as TalkTalk and Sky, had argued that Openreach should be separated from BT and run as an independent company, to give all telecoms providers an equal crack at using its infrastructure to connect to their customers.BT gets to keep Openreach, but only if it conforms to a new set of regulations and targets designed to make the system work better. Thus Openreach must now be run more independently from BT, with more control over its budget and strategy. BT will also have to make it easier for rivals to lay their own optical fibres along Openreach’s vast network.
  5. IRAN’S holiest city, and also its second-largest, has long been a conservative bastion. In parliamentary elections in 2012 Iran’s most right-wing party, the Paydari or Stability Front, won all of Mashhad’s five seats. In local elections the year after it won an outright majority and left the reformists with none. But after the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions, reformists backed by the city’s businessmen are attracting packed audiences to their hustings for elections due on 26th February.Their demands include a new railway to halve the time of travelling the 900 kilometres (560 miles) from Mashhad west to Tehran, the capital; highways designed to turn the city into Central Asia’s conduit to the Middle East; and leisure centres to diversify a rigidly spiritual form of tourism.Economic demands often turn cultural. Several female candidates are campaigning for an end to the glass ceiling on senior government posts.A campaign manager insists that, post-sanctions, hardliners also favour foreign investment. He fears the perception, even among the party’s traditional constituency, is that they are out of step with the times.
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