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Flush With Happiness

The Economist on wealth’s role in contentment.

Economist, Dec. 23 An editorial argues that expecting both wealth and happiness out of capitalism is too much to ask. Some European politicians have begun peppering discussions of national wealth and GDP with references to “wellness” and “GWB,” or general well-being. Recent studies suggest that while rich people are generally happier than the poor, societies aren’t any happier now than three decades ago. This stasis owes largely to the value of “positional goods” like elite education or a nice job—goods you can enjoy only if others do not. As a result, “[p]eople are stuck on a treadmill: as they achieve a better standard of living, they become inured to its pleasures.” An article traces a short history of conversation, the rules of which have proven “surprisingly enduring.” Modern manuals add little to classic conversational guidance from luminaries like Cicero and Samuel Johnson. Johnson defined conversation as “talk beyond that which is necessary to the purposes of actual business.”— C.B.

New Republic, Jan. 15 The cover piece examines the challenges facing Mitt Romney as he prepares a run for the presidency. Romney may have more difficulty defending Mormonism to Americans than John F. Kennedy did with Catholicism. While Kennedy swayed skeptics by declaring the separation of church and state “absolute,” Romney’s reliance on Christian conservatives means he can’t distance himself from religion. Also, educating Americans about Mormon theology is less likely to ease their concerns than exacerbate them. Joseph Smith’s teachings place the United States “at the focal point of sacred history” and make American politics a stage for the “ultimate divine drama,” with the “Garden of Eden … located in Jackson County, Missouri.” In a travel piece, Tom Bissell visits Estonia and finds “what appear[s] to be paradise.” While other former Soviet states take awkward half-steps toward democracy and capitalism, Estonia has embraced reform. “[T]his country is about proving that Estonia is not Russia,” says a Canadian-born ethnic Estonian.— C.B.

New York Times Magazine, Dec. 24
The cover piece examines how immigration has turned Los Angeles into a booming Catholic community. Hispanics now make up 39 percent of the national Catholic population, and while the priesthood remains as Irish as ever, congregations are increasingly Latino. The Los Angeles archdiocese requires many seminarians to learn Mass in Spanish as well as English, and some Masses have begun to incorporate mariachi bands. ”The church must always be willing to ‘reread’ our own tradition in terms of those we’re serving,” says a pastor working in South Central L.A. “It’s what we’ve always done.” A piece discusses how conservative politicians—particularly Christian Republicans like Sen. Sam Brownback—have embraced prison reform. The Second Chance Act, poised to become law, seeks to reduce recidivism and smooth prisoners’ re-entry into society. But many criminologists remain unconvinced that re-entry programs work.— C.B.

Weekly Standard, Dec. 25 The cover celebrates the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. The Dutch Master dealt with the loss of his wife by burying himself in work and sex. Neither coping mechanism really worked out for Rembrandt: He became embroiled in a sex scandal involving a scorned mistress and was left bankrupt due to failed commissions and ostentatious spending. However, it did make his art a whole lot more interesting, according to the author: “Few lives have known the tempestuous ethical and emotional amplitude of Rembrandt’s, and in his work one sees the sun-graced uplands and the pits of degradation, sometimes at once.” An article stresses the importance of India’s role as a U.S. ally in Asia. “The world’s biggest democracy” can help temper jihadist strains in Pakistan and Afghanistan, serve as a model country for failed states in the region, and not only challenge China’s influence, but perhaps “set a standard of democratic cooperation and prosperity China itself might ultimately embrace on its own path to greatness.”—Z.K.

New York, Dec. 25 and Jan.1
A piece questions whether Barack Obama has the substance to match his style. Despite his popularity, Obama is “an empty vessel, with vulnerabilities that have been obscured by his blinding, meteoric ascent,” writes John Heilemann. Comparisons to RFK, whom Obama cites in his speeches, fail to note a disparity in political experience. Whereas Kennedy had served three years in the Senate, plus three as attorney general, before running for president, Obama’s legislative record has so far been “uniformly mundane, marginal, and provincial.” A piece finds New York health Commissioner Thomas Frieden defending the city-wide trans fat ban: “Exhorting people to eat less and exercise more is ineffectual.” But detractors think it’s more complicated. “Trans fats is about a person making a trade-off between flavor and longevity,” says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. “The point of life is not to maximize mortality reduction.”— C.B.

Time, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1
Time names “You” its Person of the Year. YouTube founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley get a full profile, which calls them “premoguls.” The pair dismissed as “too narrow” the original idea for the site—a “video version of HOTorNOT.com”—but maintained the DIY interface. The third founder, Stanford grad student Jawed Karim, finds himself excluded from the company’s foundation narrative, and YouTube’s rise has produced tensions: “Chad and I are pretty modest, and Jawed has tried to seize every opportunity to take credit,” Chen says, while Karim insists the product required “the equal efforts of all three of us.” A roundtable of best-selling authors and journalists discusses what went wrong in Iraq. Lawrence Wright speculates that U.S. intelligence erred in failing to hire more native Arabic speakers: “[The FBI sends agents] off to class for nine weeks, and at the end of that time they can order breakfast in Arabic. But they cannot interrogate a suspect. They don’t know anything about the culture.”— C.B.  

Newsweek, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 A cover piece asks not whether Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are ready for the White House, but whether America is ready for them. The jury is out on how gender and race affect their chances: “Historically, the odds favor a woman over an African-American,” the author argues. But Hillary may be a special case: “People don’t view her first as a woman—they view her as a Clinton,” says a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton. Voters also tend to demand more of female candidates: “A female Obama would be questioned a great deal more about stepping forward with his level of experience,” says a women’s political advocate. Al-Qaida is recruiting Westerners to stage attacks on their own countries, according to a piece. A group known as the “English brothers,” which includes British subjects, could penetrate American security more easily than jihadists from the Middle East. One of them reportedly said the London attacks of July 2004 “were just a rehearsal of bigger acts to come.”— C.B.

The New Yorker, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk molds a tribute to his father into a reflection on the creative process. Pamuk’s father once aspired to be a poet in Istanbul and late in life turned a suitcase full of notebooks over to his son. To Pamuk, that suitcase represents “the weight of literature.” “The writer’s secret is not inspiration—for it is never clear where that comes from—but stubbornness, endurance,” he writes. “The lovely Turkish expression ‘to dig a well with a needle’ seems to me to have been invented with writers in mind.” A piece examines the work of postwar Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose battles with chronic illness colored his work. Bernhard developed his narrative mold at a young age: A genius protagonist “is obsessed with an impossible project and is eventually destroyed by the tension between the desire for perfection in his work and the knowledge that it is unattainable.”— C.B.

Texas Monthly, January 2007
The cover piece honors Dick Cheney with its 2007 “Bum Steer of the Year” award, lauding the VP as “a man who’s a real blast to go hunting with, who this year gave the country (and his friend Harry Whittington) a shot in the arm, among other places.” A piece examines the debate over proposals to build 17 new coal power plants in Texas—a plan that would more than double the state’s reliance on the “dirtiest energy source.” What environmental advocates portray as an issue of public good versus private interest is complicated by the growing population, the rise in natural-gas prices, and the decline of nuclear power in the region. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey argues in an interview that the Republicans lost the elections after botching key issues like Terri Schiavo and illegal immigration: “Who is the genius that said, ‘Now that we’ve identified that [the Hispanic community] is the fastest-growing demographic in America, let’s do everything we can to make sure we offend them’? Who is the genius that came up with that bright idea?”— C.B.