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Brainiac

I was into Hitler before he was big

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

What Marx got right

Here in America, our economic prophet is Adam Smith; hear the name “Karl Marx,” and you’re likely to think of Ronald Reagan condemning Marxism to “the ash heap of history.” But Marx was an original and deeply insightful economic thinker, and in the London Review of Books, the British author John Lanchester tries to sort out just how right and wrong he has turned out to be about today’s world. “Marx,” Lanchester argues, “was extraordinarily prescient. He really did have the most astonishing insight into the nature and trajectory and direction of capitalism.”

UWE MEINHOLD/AFP/Getty Images

Lanchester focuses especially on Marx’s thinking about labor. Marx, he writes, had an “idea of labor being hidden in things, and the value of things arising from the labor congealed inside them.” That hidden labor is the source of what Marx called surplus value, and offers “an unexpectedly powerful explanatory tool in the digital world.” Take Facebook: It’s relatively cheap to run, and yet the company might be worth $100 billion when it goes public. Where does all that value come from? Ultimately, from the surplus value generated by millions of hours of labor — labor performed by ordinary users like you and me.

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Marx was prescient about other things, too: about the way capitalism would create new, previously unknown wants, “requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes”; about the division of the world into a bourgeoisie and a proletariat (“the proletarian workforce [is] largely in Asia”); and about the way that, in a capitalist world, “all that is solid melts into air,” with few job skills remaining useful for very long.

But Marx got things wrong, too. In particular, he underestimated just how much capitalism would help people to live better, longer lives: Infant mortality in Britain, for example, has improved 3,191percent since Marx’s time. And Marx, who saw the world in terms of class struggle, couldn’t imagine the weird, contradictory complexity of modern capitalism. It’s true that most of us spend our lives as “wage slaves” — but, Lanchester points out, “many workers have pensions invested in companies whose route to profit lies in cutting to a minimum the number of workers they employ,” and so are both workers and capitalists. “Complicated though Marx’s model of the world is,” Lanchester concludes, “the modern world is more complicated still.”

How to survive a nuclear explosion

While we often imagine nuclear explosions to be inherently unsurvivable, your odds of surviving a terrorist-sized bomb — assuming you haven’t been vaporized in the initial blast — are perfectly decent! Writing on his blog, Just Well Mixed, Jason Lefkowitz explains some of the basic steps you can take if you want to survive a nuclear explosion. It would have been essentially impossible to survive a Cold War-sized bomb, but “the type of bomb a terrorist group would be able to develop and deploy would be something very different — something very much smaller, and much less destructive.”

Lefkowitz is drawing on a 2011 report from FEMA which offers a projection of what would happen if terrorists detonated a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb a few blocks from the White House. While many nearby buildings would be vaporized, buildings only a little further away, like the Capitol, would suffer only “light damage.” If you see the tell-tale flash of light which indicates a nuclear blast — “a bright flash of light like the sun, where the sun isn’t” — then, Lefkowitz says, you should do two things: stay away from the windows, and find yourself, within the next 10 minutes, a hideout which is well-insulated from fallout within. The basement of a big, concrete building would be ideal.

Survival is possible, of course, because the blast would likely be “only” 10 kilotons. Only a few decades ago, thousands of kilotons would have been detonated. In that sense, the threat of nuclear terrorism is a definite improvement over the threat of Cold War armageddon.

Some people thought he was amazing in 1909

A.N. Wilson’s new “Hitler: A Short Biography” has taken a drubbing from reviewers (in The New Statesman, the historian Richard J. Evans called it a “travesty”). And the book’s own jacket isn’t doing it any favors either. Its back cover, seen here, offers one of the more unfortunate praise lines we’ve seen.

“Advance praise for HITLER”

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at joshua.rothman@gmail.com.
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