Quartz Weekend Brief—Democracy’s failures, WhatsApp’s power, economic haiku, space rescues

February 28, 2014
February 28, 2014

Another autocrat ousted; another victory for the people. Or was it? Viktor Yanukovych may be gone, his mansion now a museum of corruption for rubbernecking Ukrainians, but as the Economist notes this week in an essay on what’s gone wrong with democracy, “turfing out an autocrat turns out to be much easier than setting up a viable democratic government.” Yanukovych, after all, was ousted a decade ago in much the same way, and then re-elected. And Russia seems determined to keep the country off balance.

What has gone wrong with democracy? Briefly, old democracies are growing more dysfunctional (the US, Europe); young democracies are having patchy success (Brazil, India) or tilting more authoritarian (Argentina, Turkey); fledgling democracies have quickly lapsed (Russia, Egypt); and non-democracies have proved remarkably effective (China).

I spent the 2000s covering places—Mexico, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Russia, Ukraine, Palestine—where reformists and their Western backers acted as if a clean (or clean-ish) election would be enough to kickstart democracy. The Arab Spring should finally have laid this myth to rest. As the Economist points out, strong institutions and rule of law are crucial, and the world’s mature democracies all created those long before they allowed the vote.

This suggests we should be far more optimistic about China—where citizens increasingly demand accountability from Communist party officials, but not necessarily the end of the party itself—than places like Ukraine, where governments come and go but little else changes.

But above all it’s a reminder that democracies are like delicate pets. They must be bred under the right conditions, nurtured when young, and groomed and looked after their entire lives. So if you’re lucky enough to live in one, remember: You too are responsible for its care and feeding.—Gideon Lichfield

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Go back and watch Ghostbusters. The biggest-grossing film of 1984—whose co-star and co-writer, Harold Ramis, died this week—wasn’t just a puerile caper full of ectoplasm jokes, but a clever and multi-layered polemic in favor of Reaganomics, which coincided with a key shift in US public opinion, explains Matt Phillips.

The power behind the valuation of WhatsApp. You may shake your head at the $19 billion sticker price Facebook paid for it this week, but Sandhya Nankani shows eloquently how the messaging app has helped her family maintain ties while dispersed across four continents.

The entire European economy in haiku form. Well, not exactly haiku, but close. Jason Karaian collects the pithy, almost lyrical summaries with which European Commission officials rounded up the performance of the 27 member states. (Hint: the word “recovery” features prominently.)

How America fell out of love with orange juice. The most mundane of beverages is on its way to becoming a luxury drink, suggests Roberto Ferdman, thanks to a combination of citrus disease and changing dietary habits.

What if an internet company were a book? Betaworks—part venture-capital firm, part startup incubator, part something else—released its annual letter to shareholders as that quaintest of things, a 137-page printed book. Zachary M. Seward teases apart what it tells us about the complexity of 21st-century entrepreneurship.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

What you need to know about Crimea. As presumed Russian forces take up position in the eastern Ukrainian province, Robert Coalson at Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty investigates the “unique and tortured history” of the peninsula, not least the “post-genocidal mentality” of the Crimean Tatars, whom Stalin forcibly deported from the region.

How the Fed let the world blow up in 2008. In a detailed parsing of that year’s minutes from the Federal Reserve’s policy meetings, Matthew O’Brien in the Atlantic tracks how the US central bank dithered while markets collapsed, and suggests two things it could have done to soften the shock.

The space rescue that never was. After the space shuttle Columbia burned up on re-entry in 2003, NASA went back to figure out how it might have rescued the astronauts from orbit, had it spotted the damage the shuttle sustained at launch. In Ars Technica, Lee Hutchinson, then a junior Boeing employee, describes what the audacious mission would have looked like.

The dwindling promise of fusion energy. It’s the most expensive scientific instrument on earth. If it works it will solve humanity’s energy problems. But if it doesn’t… Raffi Khatchadourian in the New Yorker looks at the decades-long struggle to get the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, to the magic point of sustainable fusion.

Ghosting Julian Assange. In an extraordinary—and extraordinarily long—profile in the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan, the ghost-writer who worked with Assange on an abortive autobiography, gives what may be the most detailed and intimate portrait so far of the Wikileaks founder, in all his eccentricity.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, space rescue plans, and Assange anecdotes to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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