In Box

Did Hitler Bring Home the Bacon?

Why even the Fuhrer was a proponent of pork barrel spending.

In U.S. politics, "pork" is a well-known and oft-maligned concept: Alaska built its bridge to nowhere, and North Carolina had its teapot museum. It's a tried-and-true electoral strategy for politicians to invest in local projects, no matter how bizarre, to gain constituents' favor.

But did pork help even Adolf Hitler win German loyalty?

Academics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Zurich recently examined how infrastructure spending -- specifically, the construction of the Autobahn, the legendary German highway system -- affected citizens' support of the Third Reich in its early years. The Autobahn was a priority of Hitler's administration. The Führer himself even broke ground on a section of the road, after which he turned to the audience members in attendance and told them to "get to work."

Researchers Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth compared local election results for votes held in November 1933 and August 1934. Specifically, they were interested in comparing the number of votes against the Nazis in regions that had benefited from the Autobahn, whose construction had gone into full swing between the two polls, with those that hadn't benefited.

They found that opposition fell everywhere, and they noted that the 1934 vote was not held under entirely free and fair circumstances. But opposition declined 60 percent faster in regions where the highway was being built. Voigtländer and Voth estimate that in those areas, one in 10 people who had previously opposed the Nazi regime voted for it in 1934.

Were these one-time holdouts just voting for the party bringing home the bacon? Perhaps. Workers building the Autobahn stayed at local inns and spent money in local shops, and some construction sites even became minor tourist attractions. But the two researchers argue that voters were more likely swayed by the highway's demonstration of governmental competence and effectiveness. In the wake of Weimar gridlock, the Nazis' ability to get things done was appealing.

Of course, this same ability would later be used to perpetrate one of the worst tragedies in history. Yet as Voigtländer and Voth write, it's not so rare today to hear an elderly German, explaining to a grandchild why Hitler was so popular, utter the phrase, "At least he built the Autobahn."

Photo by Wikimedia

In Box

How Do You Say 'Let the Fat Man Die' in French?

How language influences morals.

If asked to kill one person in order to save many, you might have some questions (and that's putting it lightly): Is the person you'd be killing kind and just -- or an unapologetic criminal? What about the others for whom the person would be sacrificed?

What might not seem relevant to this difficult decision-making is the language used when you were asked to do the deed. But, it turns out, language might actually matter a great deal.

In a recent study, researchers at universities in Spain, Connecticut, and Chicago asked people to consider a well-known ethical test called the "fat man trolley dilemma": Would they shove one heavy person in front of a runaway, speeding trolley, knowing that his death could stop the car from hitting five other people in its path? The researchers presented the problem, on paper, to subjects in the United States, Spain, France, South Korea, and Israel. Based on random assignment, the subjects read the question in either their native tongue or a second language, and they were required to answer in the same language.

Across the board, the researchers found that when asked in a nonnative language, people were more willing to push the fat man: 18 percent of people asked in their mother tongue said they would push him, while 44 percent said the same when a second language was used.

Prior research has solidly established that speaking in a second language creates emotional distance from subject matter. Still, the researchers were stunned by the extent to which this distance seems to have come into play on an ethical question, says Boaz Keysar, one of the study's authors.

The findings have implications for judges, jury members, doctors, and others who may be faced with moral dilemmas every day in a second language; this is particularly true in countries where the ranks of immigrants are growing. Critically, the researchers caution that they are not suggesting people are making bad decisions when using second languages. Rather, they emphasize that it is important for decision-makers to understand how a potentially surprising factor may be influencing their thinking.

"You think that your morals are, to some extent, constant across the board," says Albert Costa, one of the paper's authors. "But [language] really fundamentally changes the way you feel about these acts."

Illustration by Pete Ryan for FP