Economist 4/25/16

  1. NO QUESTION is more contested among Russia-watchers than what really motivates the regime.Charles Clover’s book is an important contribution to this discussion.“Black Wind, White Snow” traces the rise of Eurasianism: the belief (crudely put) that Russia’s national identity is determined by its ethnicity, geography and destiny.Russia’s new rulers, ideologically orphaned by the collapse of Soviet communism, have increasingly latched onto the belief. It lends grandeur and dignity to their doings, and allows them to look down on the notionally more successful societies of the West as doomed and decadent.People in and around the Kremlin take Eurasianism seriously. They run the biggest country in the world. They have nuclear weapons. And they believe history is on their side.
  2. In 2010, to British government decided to eliminate Britain’s budget deficit. In 2010 the deficit hit 10% of GDP; now it is more like 4%. The pain of deficit reduction (tax rises and spending cuts), the argument goes, has been shared across the British population evenly.When imposing austerity, it is difficult not to hit the poor hard. After all, for a working-age household in the bottom income quintile, benefits are worth about 45% of gross income, compared with just 2% for one in the top quintile.According to calculations from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, between 2010 and 2015 (the period of the first Conservative government, when they were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats) the average household in the bottom income decile saw their income fall by around 4%.A household in the top income quintile saw their income fall by more like 2%.
  3. In 2010 Britain was coming out of a deep recession. Unemployment was falling rapidly. As a result, the downsides of austerity were largely offset by the upsides of higher earnings in the labour market. When all this is factored in, a household in the bottom income decile probably saw their income rise between 2010 and 2015.The same cannot be said for the current government, which was re-elected in 2015. The pace of austerity has quickened. For instance, the government has pledged to shave £12 billion from the working-age welfare bill by the end of the parliament.This will hit the poorest hardest—and relatively harder than during the last parliament. The problem this time around is that the labour market cannot help the poor much more than it already has. Unemployment is around 5%, so it cannot fall much further.
  4. Rwanda and Burundi, two small countries with Hutu majorities and Tutsi minorities, have seen large-scale ethnic massacres in 1959, 1963, 1972, 1988, 1993 and 1994. These were not, as some outsiders imagine, spontaneous outbursts of tribal hatred. They happened because those in power deliberately inflamed ethnic divisions. The Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which perhaps half a million Tutsis were hacked to death, was meticulously planned by Hutu army officers and politicians. They did it to avoid sharing power with Tutsi rebels after a peace accord to end a civil war.The genocide ended only when a Tutsi army swept in to stop it, led by Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame.Today in Burundi, many people hear echoes of 1994. Since last April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, declared that he would seek a (probably unconstitutional) third term in office, the country has been plunged into turmoil.Tutsis have cause to be afraid. They are quietly being purged from the army. As was the case in Rwanda in 1994, today’s Burundian government feels besieged.It is far from clear that genocide is looming. But even if the worst is unlikely, it makes sense to take precautions.More targeted sanctions, which hurt the president’s cronies personally, are needed. If things get worse, outsiders should be ready to send in troops, under the aegis of the African Union or the UN.
  5. That people often experience trouble sleeping in a different bed in unfamiliar surroundings is a phenomenon known to psychologists as the “first night” effect. This is because if a person stays in the same room the following night they tend to sleep more soundly. Yuka Sasaki and her colleagues at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, set out to investigate the origins of this effect.Dr Sasaki knew the first-night effect probably has something to do with how humans evolved.She also knew from previous work conducted on birds and dolphins that these animals put half of their brains to sleep at a time so that they can rest while remaining vigilant enough to avoid predators.Dr Sasaki found that, as expected, the participants slept less well on their first night in the lab than they did on their second, taking more than twice as long to fall asleep and sleeping less overall.More specifically, on the first night only, the left hemispheres of their brains did not sleep nearly as deeply as their right hemispheres did.Dr Sasaki argues in Current Biology that the first-night effect is a mechanism that has evolved to function as something of a neurological nightwatchman.

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