BR Blog

April 17, 2014 Thinking Inequality Claude S. Fischer

Now that economic inequality has become a focus of attention—mentions of “income inequality” in the New York Times went up five-fold in the 2010s compared to the 2000s, 200-fold compared to the 1990s—we know a few things about it clearly. For example: American inequality is unusually great among western societies; it has been growing substantially in recent decades; most recently, the gaps have widened especially between the very richest and the rest; and a good deal of inequality is subject to policy decisions (although some folks have been making that point for decades).

One thing that remains quite unclear is how average Americans think about inequality. Do they know about it, care about it, understand it, want to do anything about it?

Americans want action on inequality in a notably American way.

In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. She disentangles the way Americans have answered a wide variety of survey questions on the topic over the last quarter-century or so, looking for the thread of logic that makes Americans’...

April 15, 2014 Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker: Can We Become a More Peaceful Species? John Berger

Editors' Note: This video is from a panel at the World Peace Foundation–sponsored conference, Unlearning Violence, held February 13 & 14, 2014. Video of the full event can be found here.

Are humans more peaceful? Do we face a future largely devoid of the endemic violence that has plagued our race for millions of years? In the opening panel of the World Peace Foundation’s Unlearning Violence conference, Dr. Steven Pinker and Dr. Daniel Dennett debated this point. Pinker, the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Decline, argued that all measurable indicators of violence have been steadily declining. According to Pinker, this trend has been driven by several factors. First, global literacy and access to information have increased. With these resources, the public is better able to educate itself, and an educated public is generally a more peaceful one. Second, we are increasing our capacity to extend access to proper nutrition and medicine every day, which decreases the probability of spontaneous violence spurred by lack of basic...

April 14, 2014 Listen to New Recordings of James Baldwin Boston Review

In this brief selection, James Baldwin (1924–1987) reads from two sections of his novel, Another Country. Published in 1962, and set in Greenwich Village, Another Country traces the complex interracial relationships of a group of artists, writers, and musicians, clustered around Rufus, a jazz musician whose suicide affects them profoundly. 

Excerpt 1

The final moments of Rufus Scott just before he commits suicide. As he takes the A train to Harlem, “He had thought that he would get off here and go home,” Baldwin reads. But as he does not get off, and “Suddenly he knew he was never going home anymore.” 

Excerpt 2

The pastor’s sermon at Rufus’s funeral. It is an exhortation to empathy: “Ain’t none of us been...

April 03, 2014 Which Radical Ideas Come True? Claude S. Fischer

 Penasco, New Mexico. Doctor Onstine, medical doctor, making an examination in the clinic operated by the Taos County cooperative health association. Photograph: John Collier, Library of Congress.

It’s 1974. Richard Nixon resigns the presidency; Barbara Streisand is singing, “The Way We Were” all over the radio (that music-playing thing before the internet); and you could buy a hand calculator that could only add, subtract, multiply, and divide for, in today’s currency, $100. Someone asks you: Here are three pretty radical ideas—which do you think is likely to happen first, if ever?

  • Americans will so fully accept homosexuals that they will be allowed to marry one another just like heterosexuals do.
  • A black man will be elected president of the United States.
  • Everyone will have government-subsidized health insurance—just like the elderly have Medicare and poor have Medicaid, both of which started just several years before; just like citizens in most western countries had.

I bet most Americans in 1974—and probably most social scientists—would have picked the third.

The first radical idea is...

March 31, 2014 Stop and Look: Geocaching Matthew Fishbane

N 40° 44.185 W 073° 59.427: the northwest corner of Union Square in New York City. According to information on my phone, “pvdjr” had placed a tiny magnetic canister, no larger than a Civil War shot, somewhere at those coordinates in August, 2011. Since then, it had been found, and replaced, 786 times. It had also not been found—by millions of people who had walked by the well-trafficked spot in the last few years, perhaps shopping at the pleasant Greenmarket in season, or racing to a nearby subway entrance, or crossing the Frederick Law Olmsted–designed park to an office or lunch. That’s because, if they weren’t looking for what pvdjr had hidden, they couldn’t have known it was there.

I don’t know pvdjr, but on a recent winter’s day, I went looking for his handiwork, playing the anonymous game of hide-and-seek known as geocaching, shared by some 6 million hobbyists and enthusiasts around the world. The game is simple: individual geocachers hide containers—there are more than 2.3 million active caches—name their treasure, and post coordinates and clues on a Web site (the largest is, so that the caches can be found. Following my phone’s built-in GPS, I knew this cache was somewhere near a corner of the renovated playground. New Yorkers tend not to judge public behavior, but clinging to a sense of dignity, I poked around the bamboo...