A Russian Quest For The 'Patriotism Gene'

Russian researchers have been doing a rather unusual study that compares DNA across countries with political affinities. A patriotic take on the old nature v. nurture question.

In Saint Petersburg, Russia
Kirill Zhurenkov and Olga Filina

MOSCOW — Russian researchers say they've identified a "patriotism gene." And yes, compared to other nations, Mother Russia boasts a citizenry in which this gene is supposed to be quite well developed.

Researchers at Russia's Laboratory of Comparative Social Research at the Higher School of Economics have been comparing varieties of genes among residents of different countries, using research from the World Values Survey and DNA information from multiple sources. The first results are specifically related to the production of dopamine, which, in part, is responsible for the human sense of happiness, satisfaction with politics — and even how patriotic people feel.

The researchers have also now begun conducting surveys and collecting genetic material in different cities around the country to see how it breaks down by region. It’s still not clear though exactly how much one’s satisfaction with both life and political leaders depends on the “patriotism gene.” If a connection is found, then will government officials who work in genetically disadvantaged regions have to be paid a hardship stipend?

Will it be possible, then, in the future to give people a “patriotism pill,” so that citizens can be happier? It’s an open question, and researchers think that given the pace of current research, it’s not at all beyond the realm of possibility.

Twin studies

At the same time, the research on the “patriotism gene” is mixing with a similar line of research: a desire to dissect people’s political preferences. The hypothesis that these enthusiastic researchers are trying to prove has already inspired substantial discussion, with people arguing that our political ideas come at least as much from our upbringing and life experiences as from our genes!

Young Russian Cossacks — Photo: Arkady Zarubin

James Fowler, a leading researcher from the University of California at San Diego, has studied data from American teenagers who were taking part in a long-term health study. He looked at their genes and how it compared to their ideology on the “liberal-conservative” spectrum. The variety 7R of the DRD4 gene was particularly interesting: It impacted the search for novelty, which Fowler thought indicated an open mind and a more liberal political ideology. Yet it wasn’t actually associated with more liberal views — unless the teenager in question had a lot of friends.

So yes, social factors matter too, but their interaction with genetics is an important part of the puzzle.

There are many ways to research genetics, and one of the most popular ways to do so is by studying twins. Monozygotic (identical) twins share 100% of their genes, while dizygotic (fraternal) twins share just about half of them. At the same time, they live together and have the same parents and environment, making their case ideal for research.

Two researchers at the University of Nebraska, for example, studied 600 pairs of twins and found that those who shared all of their genes had more similar political interests than if the twins shared only 50% of their genes.

In addition to the genetic factor, neurology researchers are also trying to understand whether the brain has something akin to a "political switch." Researchers from London College determined that people who have a larger amygdala (which is partly responsible for emotions and fear) are more likely to be conservatives. On the other hand, people with a larger callosal gyrus — associated with adaptation to uncertainty and conflict — are more likely to be liberals.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania also found that politics can be related to body odor: Liberals can’t stand the smell of conservatives' BO, while conservatives tend to be forgiving of liberals' scent.

This didn’t make American conservatives happy, and they even threatened to cut federal financing for research along these lines.

Generally speaking, researchers think that to deny the effect of genetics on politics is like denying the effect of genetics on cancer. More cautious researchers say that it’s not really about "political" genes, but about discovering how genes influence a person’s personality, which includes his or her political activity or patriotism. But all of these genetic experts agree on one thing: No matter what these studies may find, social experiences will always play a central role in people's political attitudes.

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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