Saturday, June 16, 2007

Flip Side of the Dream


Published: June 16, 2007

Camden, N.J.

Emmanuel Wayne pressed his back against the shabby, one-story building, trying unsuccessfully to escape the downpour. The blue-and-white sign overhead said Bill’s Liquors.

I was standing there with him. The water pouring down the teenager’s face created a funhouse mirror effect, making it look like he was laughing and crying at the same time. It was an absurd place to conduct an interview, but a lot of things about the inner-city are absurd.

“I been looking for a job,” he said, “but you know ... .” He shrugged. “I went to the McDonald’s. I was up to the Cherry Hill Mall. Ain’t too much out here.”

It was a gloomy late afternoon. Throughout the rundown neighborhood, young people were gathered in clusters on porches, looking out at the rain. I talked to some and they told the same story as Emmanuel. No jobs. No money.

“That’s why people go on the hustle,” said one young man. “Got to get the money somewhere.”

The summer job outlook for teenagers is beyond bleak. A modest 157,000 jobs were added to the nation’s payrolls in May. But teen employment fell for the fifth consecutive month, an ominous trend as we head into the summer months when millions of additional teenagers join in the hunt for jobs.

From January through May, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, “the national teen employment rate averaged only 33.1 percent, tying for the lowest employment rate in the past 60 years.”

For youngsters like Emmanuel Wayne and others in this distressed city just a stone’s throw from Philadelphia, the problem is much worse. Last summer, the employment rate for black teens from low-income families was an abysmal 18 percent.

This is the flip side of the American dream. Kids who grow up poor and never work at a regular job tend not to think in terms of postgraduate degrees, marriages and honeymoons, careers and the cost of educating the next generation.

A steady job could make all the difference. Along with the paycheck comes a sense of the possibilities. Kids develop a clearer understanding of the value of education and are more likely to stay in school. The heightened sense of self-worth that comes from gainful employment can be a bulwark against negative peer pressure. Contacts are made and a work history established.

“The more you work today, the more you’re going to work tomorrow,” said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies. “And the more you work while you’re in school, the easier it is to transition to the labor market when you graduate.”

It seems obvious that we should be putting as many young people to work as possible, but the opposite is happening. The youth labor market in the U.S. has all but collapsed. Teens were especially hard hit by the recession that followed the employment boom of the late 1990s, and there has been no substantial recovery in the teen job market since then.

Years ago the federal government played a major role in bolstering job opportunities for teenagers. There was substantial bipartisan support for both year-round and summer employment programs. But that important commitment vanished with the conservative onslaught of recent years.

The result was inevitable. As the center has reported, “Far fewer youth across the nation are gaining exposure to the job market and to the real world of work than in the late 1980s and 1990s.”

What you are left with are frustrated youngsters, full of energy but lacking appropriate outlets, who have trouble figuring out what to do with themselves. It’s an environment that is all but guaranteed to spawn bad choices.

I asked Emmanuel what he might do if he couldn’t find a job for the summer.

“Don’t know,” he said. “I got a buddy doing this and that. He could help me out.”

The rain had eased up and Emmanuel was off. A man named Darnell, who said he was 23, came out of the liquor store. He and I talked for awhile about the summer prospects for teens in the neighborhood.

“Well, there ain’t no jobs in Camden,” he said. “Not for teenagers. If you can’t get a job, you have to hustle. People be pushing weed. Cutting hair. Lifting stuff. The girls do their thing. It ain’t no picnic out here. It’s depressing.”

Read full post and comments:
"Flip Side of the Dream" >>

Friday, June 15, 2007

Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance

Wall Street is relieved that inflation is under control. Consumers know it isn’t.

Share prices are soaring today, on the good news that the core consumer price index was up just 0.1 percent in May. Economists are ignoring the fact that the overall C.P.I was up 0.7 percent.

The core figure leaves out food and energy, and since that is the rate the Federal Reserve watches, traders think there is little risk of a Fed move to tighten. The theory is that food and energy numbers can be volatile and thus misleading.

The trouble with only watching the core rate is that real people eat and also use energy. And changes in those prices are important over long periods of time.

Over the past three months, the total consumer price index has risen at a high annual rate of 7 percent, while the core rate is advancing at the small rate of 1.6 percent.

To be sure, three months is a short period. But four years is not. Over that period, the overall CPI is up at an annual rate of 3.15 percent, a full percentage point more than the core rate. Food is up at a 3.1 percent rate, a 13 year high for that measure. And energy costs have risen at a 12.9 percent annual rate.

The last four-year period that saw consumer prices rise as much as they did over the last 48 months was in the period ending in August 1994. If Wall Street paid attention to the real inflation figure, the moaning would be intense.

The University of Michigan survey of inflation expectations also came out today. The median forecast is for a 3.5 percent inflation rate over the next year. The average forecast is even higher, at 4.1 percent. “Clearly,” said Robert Barbera, the chief economist of ITG, “people who are polled by the University of Michigan think they have to buy food and gasoline.”

One more interesting piece of information: The U.S. Treasury Department survey of international transactions reports that China was a net seller of $941 million worth of Treasury bonds and notes in April, after buying $13.6 billion worth in the first three months of the year. April is a funny month, given that tax receipts reduce the government’s need to borrow, but in April 2006 China bought $4.15 billion in Treasuries.

One month does not make a trend, but if China is getting hesitant about adding to its Treasury portfolio, interest rates could be headed up even if the Fed does want to ignore the actual inflation rate.

Read full post and comments:
"Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance" >>

Rising Rates Squeeze Consumers and Companies

Published: June 15, 2007

The unusually low interest rates of the last three years have been an enormous boon to almost every corner of the American economy.

They have provided consumers with dirt-cheap mortgages that fed the real estate boom. They have supplied easy credit to companies and investment firms, propelling stocks and corporate profits to record highs and fueling a buyout binge.

Now that party may be coming to an end.

Yields on the 10-year Treasury note — a benchmark that influences many long-term interest rates, including home mortgages — jumped sharply on Tuesday and are up significantly in the last month. The fallout is likely to be widespread, and felt most immediately by homeowners and people looking to buy a house.

Economists said homeowners trying to refinance their adjustable rate mortgages before they reset to higher levels are already feeling pinched. The national average for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage jumped to 6.74 percent yesterday. At the beginning of the year, the average was 6.18 percent, according to Freddie Mac, a big buyer of mortgages.

Last year, adjustable rate loans accounted for 25 percent of mortgage applications, up from 11 percent in 1998, Freddie Mac said. Demand for adjustable rate loans peaked in 2004 at 33 percent; many of those are at or near the reset point.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Adam L. Stein, president of the Washington Association of Mortgage Brokers near Seattle. “I talk to people every day looking to get the fixed rate. You give them the current rate and they say, ‘That doesn’t do anything for me.’ ”

Homeowners are not the only ones who will have to swallow higher costs. Corporations, accustomed to financing operations with cheap debt, will see their expenses rise, cutting into profits. In addition, rate increases will crimp the private equity buyout boom, which has been fed in large part by the heavy issuance of corporate debt at low rates.

“There has been a half a percentage point rise in rates while inflation has been flat, so the real cost of capital has gone up for consumers and for corporate America,” said Mickey Levy, chief economist at Bank of America. He said he expects that the increase will put pressure on stocks and damp already weak demand for housing.

The recent rate move came as something of a surprise to Wall Street. It is the result, traders say, of heavy selling by foreign investors, who may be growing concerned about inflation, and holders of mortgage securities hoping to reduce the risks associated with higher rates.

While the Federal Reserve Board sets the nation’s interest rate policy, buyers and sellers in the Treasury market drive the rates that affect both consumer and corporate borrowers. Bond yields rise when prices fall. The 10-year Treasury note stood at 5.22 percent at the end of trading yesterday, up from 4.7 percent a month ago.

Adding to concern over rising rates, the Labor Department reported yesterday that producer prices rose 0.9 percent in May, more than forecasters had expected. The government will release May’s consumer price figures today.

Stocks have so far shrugged off the jump in interest rates. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 13,553.72 yesterday, up 71.37 points; the average is 0.8 percent below its high of June 4.

Some bond strategists said the recent rate spike is only the beginning. The sharp increase, they said, is just starting to bring interest rates back to their normal or long-term trend levels.

“Bond yields have been so low for so long,” said Richard Suttmeier, chief market strategist at RightSide Advisors. “But yields in the 10-year have moved up almost 100 basis points since the end of February. That, to me, is a big shock and enough for people to take notice.”

Particularly hard hit will be consumers with weak credit — known as subprime borrowers — who are faced with mortgage rates that will soon reset to higher, in some cases double-digit, levels. Some $100 billion in subprime loans are scheduled to reset between now and October.

Even before the latest rate increase, borrowers who were refinancing their mortgages were paying higher prices to do so. In the first quarter of 2007, Freddie Mac said, half of the borrowers who paid off their original loans and took out new ones absorbed an average increase in interest rates of three-eighths of a percentage point.

Betty King, a 42-year-old single mother of two in St. Louis, would like to refinance the adjustable rate mortgage on her three-bedroom townhouse but cannot. Her $1,200 monthly payment would rise too much. Her loan, with a rate of 5.9 percent, is scheduled to reset next year.

“Right now, it doesn’t pencil out for me,” said Ms. King, who works part time at an online travel site so she can spend time with her teen-age daughters.

A. W. Pickel III, a mortgage banker who is working with Ms. King, said several clients are in similar predicaments.

“I don’t think they are panicked,” he said. “But now they are wishing, ‘Why didn’t I take a fixed rate three years ago when I had the chance and rates were low.’ ”

Higher rates are already contributing to an increase in foreclosures. The share of mortgages entering foreclosure in the first quarter of 2007 rose to 0.58 percent, the Mortgage Bankers Association said yesterday, up from 0.54 percent in the previous quarter.

RealtyTrac, an online provider of foreclosure data, reported Tuesday that foreclosures in May were up 90 percent from the period a year earlier. Although RealtyTrac’s figures may overstate matters somewhat by reflecting loans in each step of the foreclosure process, the total foreclosures of 176,137 in May were sobering.

For struggling homeowners, the rise in rates could not come at a worse time. “In prior foreclosure waves, we had a drop in interest rates that allowed workouts to be done at lower interest rate levels,” said Louis S. Barnes II, a partner at Boulder West Financial Services, a mortgage banking firm in Lafayette, Colo. “Today rates are substantially higher than when a lot of these loans were created.”

In Florida, a glut of homes on the market combined with rising insurance premiums and higher interest rates will mean a slower recovery, said Patrice P. Yamato, a mortgage broker in Jacksonville and president of Florida’s mortgage broker association. One potential client, she said, decided not to buy a new home because the jump in rates meant a monthly payment of $500 more than what she would have paid a few weeks ago.

Consumers will not be the only ones encountering higher borrowing costs. Corporations will also have to absorb greater expenses, putting pressure on profits and stock prices.

“The trajectory of corporate profits has flattened out after growing in double digits for several years,” Mr. Levy said. “The stock market could handle that when rates were low, but a 50-basis-point rise in real bond yields should have dampening impact on stock valuations.”

The private equity buyout boom that has contributed to the bull market in stocks will also face headwinds. While prevailing rates remained below 5 percent, deals financed by corporate debt issuance worked well. As rates move up, the economics of selling big bond issues to pay for the deals becomes more difficult.

Consider Alltel, the nation’s fifth-largest cellphone company, which is being taken private in a $27.5 billion deal by the Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs.

This week, Alltel said that it would take on about $21.7 billion in debt to pay for the transaction. About $14 billion of that debt will be secured loans, but Alltel must sell $7.7 billion in bonds to get the deal done.

Assuming the bonds carry an 8 percent to 9 percent interest rate, the range for comparable telecommunication debt issued recently, Alltel will probably spend almost all the cash that it earns to service the debt, said Ping Zhao, a senior analyst at CreditSights. Ms. Zhao further assumes the company’s service revenue will grow 7.3 percent this year.

Alltel could prove to be a critical test of investor sentiment, said Kingman Penniman, chief executive of KDP, a bond research firm. “The first cracks will appear when you can’t do the $14 billion or the $8 billion deals,” he said.

For now, investors still appear to be receptive, said Andrew Feltus, a high-yield fund manager at Pioneer Investments. “The market seems to be saying, ‘I have got the money, I have got to put it to work.’ ”

Read full post and comments:
"Rising Rates Squeeze Consumers and Companies" >>

America Comes Up Short

Published: June 15, 2007


Traveling through Europe recently, I’ve been able to confirm through personal experience what statistical surveys tell us: the perceived stature of Americans is not what it was. Europeans used to look up to us; now, many of them look down on us instead.

No, I’m not talking metaphorically about our loss of moral authority in the wake of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. I’m literally talking about feet and inches.

To the casual observer, Europeans — who often seemed short, even to me (I’m 5-foot-7), when I first began traveling a lot in the 1970s — now often seem tall by American standards. And that casual observation matches what careful researchers have found.

The data show that Americans, who in the words of a recent paper by the economic historian John Komlos and Benjamin Lauderdale in Social Science Quarterly, were “tallest in the world between colonial times and the middle of the 20th century,” have now “become shorter (and fatter) than Western and Northern Europeans. In fact, the U.S. population is currently at the bottom end of the height distribution in advanced industrial countries.”

This is not a trivial matter. As the paper says, “height is indicative of how well the human organism thrives in its socioeconomic environment.” There’s a whole discipline of “anthropometric history” that uses evidence on heights to assess changes in social conditions.

For example, nothing demonstrates the harsh class distinctions of Britain in the age of Dickens better than the 9-inch height gap between 15-year-old students at Sandhurst, the elite military academy, and their counterparts at the working-class Marine School. The dismal working and living conditions of urban Americans during the Gilded Age were reflected in a 1- 1/2 inch decline in the average height of men born in 1890, compared with those born in 1830. Americans born after 1920 were the first industrial generation to regain preindustrial stature.

So what is America’s modern height lag telling us?

There is normally a strong association between per capita income and a country’s average height. By that standard, Americans should be taller than Europeans: U.S. per capita G.D.P. is higher than that of any other major economy. But since the middle of the 20th century, something has caused Americans to grow richer without growing significantly taller.

It’s not the population’s changing ethnic mix due to immigration: the stagnation of American heights is clear even if you restrict the comparison to non-Hispanic, native-born whites.

And although the Komlos-Lauderdale paper suggests that growing income and social inequality in America might be one culprit, the remarkable thing is that, as the authors themselves point out, even high-status Americans are falling short: “rich Americans are shorter than rich Western Europeans and poor white Americans are shorter than poor Western Europeans.”

We seem to be left with two main possible explanations of the height gap.

One is that America really has turned into “Fast Food Nation.”

“U.S. children,” write Mr. Komlos and Mr. Lauderdale, “consume more meals prepared outside the home, more fast food rich in fat, high in energy density and low in essential micronutrients, than do European children.” Our reliance on fast food, in turn, may reflect lack of family time because we work too much: U.S. G.D.P. per capita is high partly because employed Americans work many more hours than their European counterparts.

A broader explanation would be that contemporary America is a society that, in a variety of ways, doesn’t take very good care of its children. Recently, Unicef issued a report comparing a number of measures of child well-being in 21 rich countries, including health and safety, family and peer relationships and such things as whether children eat fruit and are physically active. The report put the Netherlands at the top; sure enough, the Dutch are now the world’s tallest people, almost 3 inches taller, on average, than non-Hispanic American whites. The U.S. ended up in 20th place, below Poland, Portugal and Hungary, but ahead of Britain.

Whatever the full explanation for America’s stature deficit, our relative shortness, like our low life expectancy, suggests that something is amiss with our way of life. A critical European might say that America is a land of harried parents and neglected children, of expensive health care that misses those who need it most, a society that for all its wealth somehow manages to be nasty, brutish — and short.

Read full post and comments:
"America Comes Up Short" >>

The National Pastime


Published: June 15, 2007

At this very moment thousands of people are surfing the Web looking for genetic material so their children will be nothing like me. They are looking through files at sperm bank sites with Jetson-like names such as Xytex, which have become the new eBays for offspring.

These sites take sex and turn it into shopping. They allow you to browse through page after page of donor profiles, comparing weight, noses, personality and what one site calls “tannability.”

Shoppers can use these sites and select much better genetic material than would be possessed by someone they could realistically lure into bed. And they can more efficiently engage in the national pastime — rigging our childrens’ lives so they’ll be turbocharged for success.

When given this kind of freedom of choice, people seem to want to produce athletic Aryans with a passion for housekeeping. There is tremendous market demand for DNA from blue-eyed, blond-haired, 6-foot-2 finely sculpted hunks who roast their own coffee. These are the kind of guys you see jogging in the park and nothing moves. They’ve got a stomach, a chest and flanks, but as they bounce along nothing jiggles, not even their hair. They’re like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime from the shoulders down, and Trent Lott from the scalp up.

Nor is brainpower neglected. In a bow to all that is sacred in our culture, one sperm bank has one branch located between Harvard and M.I.T. and the other next to Stanford. An ad in The Harvard Crimson offered $50,000 for an egg from a Harvard woman. A recent ad in the Chicago Maroon at the University of Chicago offered $35,000 for a Chicago egg and stipulated, “You must be very healthy, very intelligent and very attractive, and most of all, very happy. Liberal political views and athletic ability are pluses.”

(Is liberalism genetic? I thought it was the product of some environmental deprivation.)

In any case, a Harris poll suggested that more than 40 percent of Americans would use genetic engineering to upgrade their children mentally and physically. If you get social acceptance at that level, then everybody has to do it or their kids will be left behind.

Which means that sooner or later reproduction becomes a casting call for “Baywatch” and people like me become an evolutionary dead end. For centuries my ancestors have been hewing peat in Wales and skipping school in Ukraine, but those of us in the low-center-of-gravity community will be left on evolution’s cutting-room floor. People under 5-foot-9 can’t even donate sperm to these banks, so my co-equals are doomed, let alone future Napoleons.

The people who do this will pay no heed to the fact that mediocre looks have always been a great spur to creative achievement and ugliness is the mother of genius.

In a world in which Brad Pitt is average, say farewell to loneliness, sublimation and nerds’ witty bids for attention. In a world in which everyone is smart, good-looking and pleasant, everyone will be fit to perform in hit movies, but no one will be fit to review them.

I’m not under the illusion that any of this can be stopped. Conservatives like me think that if you want your kids to have Harvard genes you should have to endure living with a Harvard spouse. But the rest of the country is not with us. There’s no way people are going to foreswear the joys of creative genetics. “I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don’t have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time,” one potential mother told Jennifer Egan of The Times Magazine last year.

So as my kind heads off to obsolescence, I wonder about the unintended consequences. What if it’s true, as some believe, that genes are dominant and home environment has little effect on children? You could have two lesbian bikers giving birth to Mitt Romney.

What if parents are perpetually buying genes on the downward slope? After all, for maximum success, you don’t want President Kennedy’s genes. You want Joseph Kennedy’s genes. You don’t want Bill Clinton’s genes. You want his father’s. What if we get the national equivalent of the 38th generation of the House of Windsor?

Or, on the other hand, what if nurture still trumps nature? After all, if you look at world-historical figures you’re struck by how many had their parents die when they were about 12. How many super

Read full post and comments:
"The National Pastime" >>

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance

Bond prices plunge one day and soar the next. There were rumors yesterday, when prices leaped, that China was buying a lot of bonds. When prices decline, there is speculation that its appetite for American paper is almost sated. Every month it takes in another $10 billion or so that must be invested somewhere.

Anyone seeking inside information on what China is doing should turn elsewhere. I have none. But I do think it is interesting that this bout of volatility has come as some senators step up the pressure on China to revalue their currency more rapidly. Could this be a gentle (or perhaps, not so gentle) reminder to the United States that China now has the power to change American interest rates, with a bg impact on the American economy, whenever it chooses?

On Friday the U.S. Treasury will release data on international transactions in April. That will provide more information on how much appetite there is for Treasury securities abroad.

Read full post and comments:
"Floyd Norris: Notions on High & Low Finance" >>

A Failure to Protect Our Troops

Published: June 14, 2007

The Bush administration and military leaders in Washington are always claiming that they will do anything to support American troops fighting in Iraq. That makes it all the more infuriating to learn that, for more than two years, the Pentagon largely ignored urgent requests from field commanders for better armor-protected vehicles that could have saved untold lives and limbs.

Improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.’s, can blast through the flat underbelly of the military’s standard Humvees, maiming and killing the soldiers within. These devices, a low-tech response to America’s overwhelming military power, are now causing 70 percent to 80 percent of the American combat deaths in Iraq.

More than two years ago, according to newly disclosed documents, Marine commanders in Al Anbar Province, a center of the Sunni insurgency, submitted an urgent request for more than 1,100 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, or MRAPs, that have V-shaped bottoms able to deflect blasts from below. For reasons yet to be satisfactorily explained, military officials initially sat on the request and then ordered relatively few.

Some, second-guessing the judgment of the battlefield commanders, apparently felt that Humvees with upgraded armor could do the job. Others may have been reluctant to invest billions of dollars in vehicles that might have little use after Iraq. Turf battles were probably also a factor, as a large-scale purchase might threaten future weapons programs. But Iraq is the war that Americans are fighting and dying in today.

Only now are Pentagon leaders, prodded by Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other critics on Capitol Hill, rushing to ramp up production. Congress has accelerated funding to buy more than 7,000 of the vehicles by early next year, and the military services are seeking some 21,000 in all, at a cost that could exceed $20 billion. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has declared his determination to “produce as many of these vehicles and get them into the field as fast as possible,” though the precise number needed has yet to be established.

Unfortunately, the MRAPs will remain vulnerable to the deadliest I.E.D.’s, known as “explosively formed penetrators,” which destroy vehicles from the side. The military is looking for ways to add armor to the MRAPs and is testing another new vehicle to counter that threat.

If the small companies that make these vehicles are not able to produce the quantities needed quickly, President Bush and Secretary Gates ought to make this a crash program and enlist major manufacturers.

There can be no excuse for failing to provide the best possible protection for American troops in this disastrous war.

Read full post and comments:
"A Failure to Protect Our Troops" >>

Where the Goods Are Odd

Published: June 14, 2007

This time of year, Alaska is paradise. King Salmon hustle up to the front porch of Anchorage. Softball games unfold in the buttery glow of the midnight sun. And the woods are full of mega fauna in frisky pursuit.

But amid the lovely, longest days of the year, the political world — controlled and corrupted by age and oil — is unraveling. The farce in the far north involves two national politicians who are used to getting their way, and a lobby that treats legislators like houseboys.

Let’s start with the Senator for Life, Ted Stevens, 83, the longest-serving Republican in the upper chamber. You know him, perhaps, only because he described the Internet last year as a “series of tubes” that can get backed up for days. This, while discussing legislation involving that dad-gummed series of tubes.

Uncle Ted is to Alaska what Huey Long was to Louisiana, and tributes range from the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to the hundreds of projects built with “Ted Stevens money” as your tax dollars are called in Alaska. One of Uncle Ted’s best friends, Bill J. Allen, former chief executive of an oil services company, pleaded guilty last month to bribery and other charges in a scandal that has rocked Alaska and produced four indictments of state politicians. It looks like there’s more to come, soon.

If you live in Alaska, you pay no state taxes, and get a check every year in shared oil royalties. What keeps the gravy train going is oil. But as the decay in Saudi Arabia demonstrates, oil corrupts. And absolute oil corrupts absolutely. “There are two things we worry about here in Alaska: Life after oil, and life after Uncle Ted,” said Ivan Moore, an independent pollster.

Last week, Senator Stevens said the F.B.I. had asked him to preserve some of his records. He also said his son Ben, the former state Senate president, was under investigation. The probe is linked to bribes and other services paid by the oil services company, VECO. The F.B.I. has not said if the elder Stevens is a target.

Ted Stevens used to be a respected independent voice in the Senate. But his obsession with opening the Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, and his nearly 40 years in the Senate, have left him an embittered, tired old politician with a host of grudges.

Then there’s the Congressman for Life, Representative Don Young, 74. You know him from the Bridge to Nowhere, his effort to direct more than $200 million to build a span nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge from Ketchikan to an island with less than 100 people.

As chairman of the committee that bundled all pet projects into a single transportation bill last year, Young had this to say about the legislative process: “I stuffed it like a turkey.”

He said he was proud to be one of the biggest pigs at the trough — he used the word “oinker” — because the power to control $300 billion only comes around once in a lifetime. But as it turned out, the pipe dream really was a bridge to somewhere: the back door. Many Republicans say it cost them control of the House in the 2006 election.

Last week, David D. Kirkpatrick wrote in The Times about one of Young’s other earmarks — $10 million to a Florida district whose congressman had never requested it. But a Florida real estate developer who stood to gain a huge windfall with the new road was very interested in the project. So much so that he helped to raise $40,000 for the sole congressman from Alaska.

Asked about the earmark, Young made an obscene gesture, which was in character, given that he once expressed himself similarly with a group of wide-eyed schoolchildren in Fairbanks.

The good news for Republicans is that the most popular fresh face is one of theirs — Gov. Sarah Palin, who looks like Tina Fey of “Saturday Night Live” fame. A marathon runner and commercial fisherwoman — whose kids are named Track, Bristol, Willow and Piper — Governor Palin knocked out an encrusted incumbent in the primary last year. She supports a new ethics bill designed to bring light to the long winter of Alaska politics.

Maybe the women should have been given a chance earlier. With more men than women, Alaska has always been the kind of place where the odds are good, as the saying goes, but the goods are odd. Especially with age and power.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

Read full post and comments:
"Where the Goods Are Odd" >>

Africa’s World War


Published: June 14, 2007


Speciose Kabagwira lost another baby last week. It was the end of her 12th pregnancy, and the infant was stillborn on delivery.

It was her fifth stillbirth or miscarriage. And of her seven children born alive, four have died.

At one level, what killed her children and cost her those pregnancies was a combination of poverty and pathetic health care. But hovering in the background is another of Africa’s great killers: civil conflict and instability.

Earlier this year, I held a “win-a-trip contest” to choose a student and a teacher to take with me on a reporting trip to Africa. Now I’m taking the winners to the Great Lakes region here in Central Africa partly because it underscores the vast human cost when we in the West allow conflicts to fester in forgotten parts of the world.

On our two-week trip, the winners — Leana Wen, a medical student from Washington University, and Will Okun, a high school teacher in Chicago — will travel with me through Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Will and Leana are blogging and video blogging at

Since the Rwandan genocide began in 1994, at least five million people have died in the Great Lakes region in what is sometimes called Africa’s first world war. In the Congo, those deaths are still piling up.

Leana, Will and I visited the Catholic church yesterday in Nyamata, in Southern Rwanda, where hundreds and hundreds of terrified Tutsis were butchered in 1994 after they took shelter there.

Most numbing are the bloodstains on one section in the back of the church. That is where the attackers gathered babies and bashed them against the wall. Below the church is a crypt with endless rows of skulls and other bones of the victims — a monument to the shameful refusal of Western powers to get involved in African genocides.

The Rwandan bloodbath was over quickly, and Rwanda is now peaceful and booming, but the turmoil is still enveloping families like Ms. Kabagwira’s. We found her in an encampment of 2,000 Rwandans, all of whom who had fled tribal violence to Tanzania — but who were driven back last year by rampaging Tanzanians.

Now Ms. Kabagwira is living in a makeshift hut, in an area where water is inadequate, soil is poor and the nearest hospital is a one-hour bus ride away. She says she might have been able to save her baby last week if she had gone to the hospital earlier, but she couldn’t pay the $1.20 bus fare.

So how do we help people like Ms. Kabagwira? Some excellent answers are found in the best book on international affairs so far this year: Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It.”

Mr. Collier, a former research director of the World Bank, notes that when the G-8 countries talk about helping Africa, they overwhelmingly focus just on foreign aid. Sure, aid has a role to play, but it’s pointless to build clinics when rebel groups are running around burning towns and shooting doctors.

One essential kind of help that the West can provide — but one that is rarely talked about — is Western military assistance in squashing rebellions, genocides and civil wars, or in protecting good governments from insurrections. The average civil war costs $64 billion, yet could often be suppressed in its early stages for very modest sums. The British military intervention in Sierra Leone easily ended a savage war and was enthusiastically welcomed by local people — and, as a financial investment, achieved benefits worth 30 times the cost.

Josh Ruxin, a Columbia University public health expert living in Rwanda, notes that a modest Western force could have stopped the genocide in 1994 — or, afterward, rooted out Hutu extremists who fled to Congo and dragged that country into a civil war that has cost millions of lives.

“Had an international force come in and rounded them up, that would have been the biggest life-saving measure in modern history,” he said.

So it’s time for the G-8 countries to conceive of foreign aid more broadly — not just to build hospitals and schools, but also to work with the African Union to provide security in areas that have been ravaged by rebellion and war. A starting point would be a serious effort to confront genocide in Darfur — and at least an international force to prop up Chad and Central African Republic, rather than allow Africa to tumble into its second world war.

You are invited to comment on this column at Mr. Kristof’s blog,

Read full post and comments:
"Africa’s World War" >>

The Cry of the Disappeared


Published: June 13, 2007


To disappear became a transitive verb in Latin America. Military dictatorships "disappeared" their opponents. That is to say, they kidnapped, tortured, murdered and disposed of them, leaving only an inconsolable absence in the place of a human being.

I spent some time in Argentina in the aftermath of the 1976-83 dictatorship. Enough to become familiar with countless picture frames holding images of impossibly lovely young women, taken from their homes for "brief questioning," never to be seen again. Enough to know the unquenchable parental tears these disappearances provoked.

It was not too early then, in rooms filled with the animal sobbing of the bereaved, to feel rage at the junta's crimes. But it was too early to know the full extent of them: the 30,000 disappeared, the torture at the Navy School of Mechanics in Buenos Aires, the corpse-dumping flights out to sea.

Argentines still hoped back in the 1980s. They hoped, whatever their heads told them, that the longing in their hearts might return their loved ones intact. No doubt, many still hope.

With disappearance, closure is impossible, for there is no evidence of an ending. In this infinite prolongation of suffering lay the particular contribution of the generals to the infliction of pain.

There was something else we did not know back then. Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, told Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti, the Argentine foreign minister, in June 1976: "If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures."

Later, Kissinger assured the admiral that the administration "won't cause you unnecessary difficulties." He also grew angry when he learned that the U.S. ambassador in Buenos Aires, Robert Hill, has given the junta a warning about violations of human rights. "In what way is it compatible with my policy?" Kissinger asked, before suggesting that Hill might have to go.

These exchanges, records of which were obtained in recent years under the federal Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit National Security Archive, suggest how the surrogate battles of the Cold War, as fought in the American hemisphere, drew the United States into forms of complicity that remain a shadow on its conscience.

More recently, the historian Robert Dallek unearthed transcripts in the National Archives that show Kissinger, bitter at negative newspaper coverage of the 1973 coup in Chile, complaining to President Richard Nixon that, "in the Eisenhower period, we would be heroes." The coup would lead to thousands of "disappearances."

I was thrust back into this Latin American vortex, which haunted me in the 1980s, by a powerful show called "The Disappeared" at New York's El Museo del Barrio. It features works about horrors, often followed by impunity, to which the United States turned a blind eye at best.

Ana Tiscornia's blurred portraits, palimpsests in which the subjects seem to hover between life and death, capture the slow fading of the disappeared, and their flickering hold on those from whom they were seized.

A corridor full of photographs of young couples feature women who were pregnant when "disappeared." The Argentine military would wait for the child to be born before murdering the mother. The babies went to childless military couples. Laconic captions say: "The couple and their child remain disappeared."

As Laurel Reuter and Julian Zugazagoitia write in their introduction to the show, organized by the North Dakota Museum of Art, the artists "ask us, as North Americans, to question what role our own country played in supporting the Latin American governments which killed their people as a matter of course."

The artists also ask us something else. This month six human rights groups listed 39 people they believe are secretly imprisoned in unknown locations by the United States as part of the war on terror.

President George W. Bush acknowledged last year that some individuals deemed particularly dangerous had been moved "to an environment where they can be held secretly." In effect, categorized as enemy combatants, they have been "disappeared."

This practice is unconscionable. It does not matter that the purpose of the disappearance is not murder, as it was in Argentina.

Once people disappear, every basic human right is at risk because every check, every balance, has gone with them. The worst becomes almost inevitable because there is nothing to stop it.

The United States demands accountability of others when its own people go missing. It must demand the same accountability of itself, whatever the fight. The lovely, longing and lost young faces of Latin America require at least that.


Read full post and comments:
"The Cry of the Disappeared" >>

HOME FIRES: Five Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life

By Brian Turner

I just got out of prison.

This is what I’ve been telling old friends when they ask me what I’ve been up to lately. And it’s the truth. And I’m not talking about Iraq.

Castlerea, 2007

At the end of April I visited Castlerea Prison near Galway, Ireland. I was there with another American, Nick Flynn (author of a book whose title profanity rules prevent me from mentoining), and an Englishman, John Healy (a former inmate and author of “The Grass Arena”); we’d each come to Ireland to share our work at the annual Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway. Midway through our week there, I found myself walking up to the 18-foot-high walls surrounding the prison, walls gray as faded asphalt, to step inside.

I have to tell you — standing inside Castlerea prison brought back memories I had while serving in uniform. Carrying a weapon creates an odd paradox: a soldier’s life is one of self-incarceration. And I know some people might balk at this idea, but whether a soldier is inside the wire of some base camp or out on a mission doesn’t matter. For soldiers, there is always a perimeter, even if only an invisible one surrounding three soldiers pulling security around a Humvee. So when I looked back at the gate being closed and locked behind me, I found an imagistic rhyme within that moment, a moment when disparate experiences mirror one another, years apart…

Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1999-2000

Near the small town of Brcko, south of the Sava River, in northern Bosnia. For nearly seven months I served as part of the NATO effort there, with the 10th Mountain Division, living on Camp McGovern. I once climbed onto a connex shipping container at dawn to watch the sun rise behind the noxious beauty of trash fires and pollution in the distance. Dusk and dawn were always spectacular and rich in color. A farmer on the road outside our camp gave a flick of the switch in his hands to spur on the ox burdened by a wooden cart overflowing with hay. Cars sped by on their way to work, or a relative’s house, or just to get out and drive to the roadside stands to drink slivovitz and talk about hip-hop and volleyball while a goat roasted on a spit in front of them. I was watching free people, at least those I could see from where I was, going about their lives.

Operation Iraqi Freedom I & II

Fast forward. Al Ma’badi, Iraq, August 2004. Twenty kilometers southeast of Mosul and about half a mile from the banks of the Tigris River. I’m standing in Tower 3 and scanning the rooftops of the village. The kids across the street have climbed atop the bombed-out building there, with sledgehammers to slam and pound and break the ceiling apart in order to strip the insides of rebar. Cars drive down the road to somewhere in the distance I can’t see from here. Maybe they’re on their way to Qara Qush, the Christian town where it’s possible to buy liquor and where Louie (our translator) tells me he often sits on the rooftops to eat pomegranates and drink with his friends and family until midnight.

I don’t want to make it seem like peaches and cream for Iraqi citizens driving down the road or eating dinner in their homes. Iraqis take a tremendous risk every time they turn the key in the ignition and put the car in drive. When I was there, the city of Tikrit was surrounded by concertina wire, transforming a huge urban center into a prison. Imagine if Albuquerque or Buffalo or Memphis were incarcerated in wire. I saw at least one other village that had a similar wire around it. (That’s the one I nearly swam in sewage to get into, by the way.) The Iraqis who live there must show identification in order to enter or leave these places through a security checkpoint.

So here I am: at the perimeter of Al Ma’badi. I’ve been divorced for 11 months now and I’ve been in-country for 10. I feel as if I’ve been cut adrift from my own life. A year ago, I had a family and a home in Tacoma, Wash. Now I have my ruck and my boots and the Stryker and the concertina wire coiled around this forward operating base. With only a platoon of us here, we can’t exert much power outward; we are here for a month or so to basically hold the fort. And when you’re inside the wire, how do you keep sane?

You talk to Bosch about his plans to go to film school while he snacks on black licorice he just got in the mail from back home. Jackowski tells you the gory details about the nasty fall he had while mountain climbing and how he wants to start a P.I. business one day. Hath tells his been-there done-that grizzled veteran stories. Zavala sings love songs in Spanish. Liu describes the chrome bumpers and rims he’s ordered online and had shipped to his parent’s house in Frisco. Noodles cleans his weapon and says he wants to visit a certain girl when he goes home on leave. Knight watches DVDs on the portable player we’ve rigged up and hidden from inspection inside our Stryker from the higher ups. Zoo explains why he chose the Army—because it offers dependable medical care for his young daughter, a child with special needs. Whitt takes a drag on his smoke, like it’s the last one ever, and tells you about the local band scene back home in West Virginia, the tattoo on his shoulder, the last song he composed on his electric bass. And Fiorillo, he describes his dread-locked days, days living on the beaches back East, rafting trips in Maine teaching college kids how to tie knots and find their way around in the woods. And at some point during the year here, three of these guys will tell you how the girls they love back home have left them.

One of the things that helped my sanity was to read when we had any down time. Our lieutenant had a foot locker and so he could carry more books with him. (He was kind enough to loan me a few, too). Among others, I received two books that spoke to me in terms of personal struggle and the ability we have to endure and persevere through adversity. The first was Slavomir Rawicz’s “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom.” The second was Henri Charriere’s “Papillion.” If you haven’t read these books, you might want to check them out. (And if you’d like to send something to a soldier but don’t know how, you might try ; I did, when I was in-country, and some anonymous person in America sent me the exact book I wanted to read: “Delights from the Garden of Eden; A Cookbook and a History of the Iraqi Cuisine.”) After I read Rawicz and Charriere, I clearly remember thinking that if these guys could struggle and suffer under all that they’ve gone through then surely I can make it day by day, raid by raid, mission by mission, here in Iraq. It was, in an odd way, uplifting and encouraging.

When I stepped out from the prison walls at Castlerea, leaving the men who were sentenced to life inside the wire, I had to stop for a moment. Feel the warmth of the sun on my face. And it’s true I have bills to pay and regrets and memories that keep me up late at night sometimes. But I also have this day. I can walk down the road in any direction I want.

Read full post and comments:
"HOME FIRES: Five Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life" >>

Basic Instincts: Behavior on Two, Four, Six and Eight Legs

By Richard Conniff

A lot of people have begun to lose their appetite lately at the thought that their food travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farmer to dinner plate. Buying, instead, from local farmers looks increasingly appealing: We get fresher produce (and benediction from Alice Waters), while also preserving open space and protecting local jobs.

But what’s really lifted the “buy local” movement out of the foodie realm and into general public awareness is fear of climate change: It suddenly seems dangerously profligate that we spend 36 calories of fossil fuel energy transporting one calorie of California lettuce to a consumer in New York. Likewise that apples in a New England supermarket come from New Zealand, or potatoes in Ireland from Cyprus, or flowers in the Netherlands from Kenya. Carrying carbon to Newcastle seems to be among the chief functions of modern international trade.

So my first reaction was to think that buying local makes a lot of sense. And if it’s true for food, what about the pots we cook that food in, or the furniture we sit on, or the cars we drive to the supermarket? When does “Buy American” morph from jingoism to progressivism?

And yet buying local may not be the simple answer we’re looking for. For starters, it’s more likely to hurt American farmers than help them. Agriculture is one area where the United States still enjoys a trade surplus, amounting to $5.66 billion last year. But the “buy local” movement is strongest in Europe, where it got its start, and American agricultural products feature prominently among the targets.

The “local” label also says little or nothing about a product’s actual environmental friendliness. A resident of Sacramento, for instance, can take comfort in buying “local” rice, but it’s still likely to be rice grown in a heavily irrigated desert, at huge environmental cost. In the overall carbon footprint of a product, the cost of transport often turns out to be relatively trivial. For instance, a New Zealand study recently made the case that better conditions make lamb grown there and shipped to Europe four times more energy-efficient than home-grown European lamb.

The opposite is true for products that must be air-freighted, like flowers and certain fresh seafood; good sushi probably comes with a huge carbon footprint. But sea freight can be surprisingly efficient, even for heavy manufactured goods. I asked an environmental group, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, to calculate the cost of getting an average car from Tokyo to San Diego, and we were all surprised that it came to between 1,000 and 1,800 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s close to what the same car will typically produce every month for the rest of its driving life.

But how do you factor a product’s total carbon footprint into the debate over international trade? For instance, would it make sense to impose a carbon tax at our borders, so countries that fail to control their global warming emissions, like China and India, don’t get an unfair competitive advantage over countries that take global warming seriously? Great idea. Kyoto-signatory nations in Europe are already talking about taking that kind of stand–against the United States.

Or maybe we could piggyback on cap-and-trade systems like the one already functioning in Europe. These systems impose mandatory overall limits on global warming emissions within a nation or region, but allow businesses that do better at meeting targets to sell carbon credits to businesses that do worse. To enter a market with a cap-and-trade system, an importer would have to compensate for a product with a big carbon footprint by adding the cost of carbon credits into the price. Such a system would catch countries or individual manufacturers that refuse to act on global warming (again possibly including the United States).

But either the carbon tax or the credit system is likely to lead to years of litigation through the World Trade Organization, according to Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. That’s because the subtext in both approaches is confrontational and protectionist. Avoiding the us-and-them mindset and seeking collaborative solutions makes far more sense when scientists increasingly suggest that all of us together could soon be up to our knees in the rising consequences of global warming.

So where does all this leave the individual shopper trying to make good choices? Tesco, Britain’s largest retailer, is now working to put a “carbon label” on every product it sells. Instead of the comfortable illusion of environmentalism provided by the “buy local” idea, this label will detail the actual global warming cost of a product. And that will probably show that it makes sense to buy that compact fluorescent lightbulb, even if it was made in China. And, yes, the climate will probably be better off if you buy a Prius manufactured in Japan, not a Cadillac Escalade made in the United States.

Beneath the surface, the urge to buy local is often just a disguised version of the urge to punish someone foreign. But as a way to fix global warming, fretting about where your salad was grown is like thinking you can win a war by calling your sauerkraut “liberty cabbage.”

Read full post and comments:
"Basic Instincts: Behavior on Two, Four, Six and Eight Legs" >>

Floyd Norris: Notions on High and Low Finance

Three articles in The Times this weekend tell all anyone needs to know about the state of the newspaper industry.
Daniel Wakin reports that papers around the country are shedding classical music critics. It is not that publishers suddenly care less about music; it is that papers are cutting staff left and right as they try to maintain profit margins while advertising declines in print editions and papers give away their content on the Internet.

David Dunlap notes in Week in Review that the Sunday edition was the last one put together in our 43rd Street offices, as we move to a grand new building contracted for in better times:

“But how can The Times maintain its gravity in the ether? How will it fulfill a commitment to thoroughness, accuracy and detachment if a premium is placed on speed, color and buzz? Can be produced to exactly the same standards as The New York Times? Should it be? If not, what will the new standards be?”

Finally, Richard Perez-Pena, who has been chronicling Rupert Murdoch’s efforts to take over Dow Jones, asks which newspaper company will be next. He says it would be this one but for the lock the Sulzberger family has on the company through super-voting stock and the Sulzberger family trust.

Our newsroom has largely escaped the cuts being made elsewhere. Wall Street thinks that is a mistake, and the depressed stock price reflects that opinion.

How long can this paper resist the tide? Will the Internet age bring the end of newspapers with the resources to do a quality job of reporting news, even as it allows anyone and everyone to voice their opinions?

It is an unsettling time that this paper has chosen to move to glorious new quarters.

Read full post and comments:
"Floyd Norris: Notions on High and Low Finance" >>

Between Dust and Deliverance

Published: June 13, 2007

Ramallah, West Bank

I’m sitting in Ramallah at The Yasir Arafat Foundation listening to Nasser al-Kidwa, the thoughtful former Palestinian foreign minister, talk about Palestinian society “disintegrating” around him. What pains him most, he explains, is that any of his neighbors today with money, skills or a foreign passport are fleeing for the West or the Gulf. As he speaks, an old saying pops into my mind — one that applies today to Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine: “Would the last one out please turn off the lights.”

The other day I wrote about how Israel was looking for a “Fourth Way” — after the collapse of the Israeli Left’s land-for-peace strategy, the Right’s permanent occupation strategy and the Israeli third way’s unilateral withdrawal strategy. Well, the Arab world also needs a Fourth Way.

The Arabs tried Nasserism, i.e. authoritarian-nationalism, and that didn’t work. It tried various brands of Arab socialism, and that didn’t work. It even took a flier with bin Ladenism. Bin Laden was the thumb that many Arabs stuck in the eye of the West and of their own hated regimes. But, I would argue, bin Ladenism, and its various jihadist offshoots, has died in Iraq. Yes, it will still have adherents, but it has lost its revolutionary shine, because it has turned out to be nothing more than a death cult.

In my book, the day it died was May 24, 2007, in Falluja, Iraq. Why? Because on that day, 27 people were killed when a suicide bomber in a car attacked a funeral procession for Allawi al-Isawi, a local contractor, who was killed earlier in the day. According to Reuters, “as mourners walked down a main street holding aloft al-Isawi’s coffin, the bomber drove into the crowd and blew himself up.”

Think about that. No — really think about it: A Muslim suicide bomber blew up a Muslim funeral. Is there anything lower? But that is what bin Laden and the jihadists have become: utter nihilists, responsible for killing more Muslims than anyone in the world today and totally uninterested in governing, only in making life ungovernable.

But who offers a way forward? Right now the best Arabs can hope for are the decent, modernizing monarchies, like Jordan, Qatar, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. I do not see any secular progressivism — a Fourth Way — emerging in the big Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Iraq, that is, a progressivism that would effectively promote more rule of law, global integration, multiparty elections, women’s empowerment and modern education to lay the foundations of decent governance. Far from it, Egypt had an election in 2005, and Ayman Nour, the candidate who dared to run against President Mubarak, got thrown in jail on phony charges.

I also don’t see a religious Fourth Way emerging — a progressive Islam articulated by the big, popular Islamic parties like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hezbollah took seats in the Lebanese cabinet and then proceeded to launch its own war with Israel. What a great vision.

“Sadly,” observed Middle East analyst Fawaz A. Gerges, in a recent essay on YaleGlobal Online, “mainstream Islamists have provided neither vision nor initiative to build a broad alliance of social forces and transform the political space. They arm themselves with vacuous slogans like ‘Islam is the solution.’ ” No wonder, he adds, that the average Arab citizen is fed up today with both their rulers and the opposition, “who promised heaven and delivered dust.”

But since the Islamic parties have monopolized the mosques and the authoritarian regimes have monopolized the public square, anyone trying to articulate an Arab Fourth Way today “is competing against either God or the state — and between God and the state, what room is left for secular democrats?” asked Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

Only weeds can grow there — small nihilist weeds, like Fatah al Islam in Lebanon or Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia in Iraq or Islamic Jihad in Gaza. And they are growing.

“Now any five guys who want to work together and believe they can uphold God’s name and have guns can start an army,” said Mr. Kidwa. “Money is all over the place. There is no money for the needed things, but there is a lot of money to finance [armed] groups.”

That’s why decent people, particularly Arab college grads, are leaving the area. They have no one to cheer for. The only hope for getting them back or for getting us out of Iraq — without leaving the region to the most nihilistic or impoverished elements — is an Arab Fourth Way. But it has to come from them — and right now, it is not happening, not inside Iraq, not outside.

Read full post and comments:
"Between Dust and Deliverance" >>

A Tale of Two Tonys, Exiting Tormented

Published: June 13, 2007


They’re both going out, not with a bang, but with a bing.

As they go dark, the two Tonys are bitter, paranoid and worn down by their enemies and scheming erstwhile allies. They both live in a bleak universe of half-truths, compromises and betrayals, a world changed utterly by the violence they set in motion. They were both brought low by high-stakes mistakes.

Tony Blair fears the feral beast. Tony Soprano is the feral beast.

The two Tonys found that their skin was never thick enough. And they stumbled into trouble with their Juniors, Junior Bush and Junior Soprano. Before he steps down in two weeks, Tony Blair decided to let loose with one of those self-pitying Tony Soprano-style rants that drove Dr. Melfi to terminate him. Call it No. 10 Downer Street.

“The fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack,” Mr. Blair said in a speech at Reuters in London. “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no one dares miss out.”

The British Tony actually begins his speech — “Reflections on the Future of Democracy and the Media, or Why Don’t You Love Me?” — with the word “whacking,” as in: “This is not my response to the latest whacking from bits of the media.”

Of course it is, at least partly. Talk about hoist on your own press. When Tony Blair announced last month that he would step down, the press that once doted on him devoured him. The commentary was a frenzy of complaints about the slick Blair spin machine that had manipulated the media and turned British discourse to “rot.”

The movie, “The Queen,” recounted the young prime minister’s triumph when he helped spin Diana’s posthumous image as “The People’s Princess” and cajoled the hidebound royals into listening and responding to the feral press beast that was tearing the monarchy’s reputation to bits.

But when the beast (as Evelyn Waugh slyly called his British newspaper in “Scoop”) turned on Mr. Blair over various scandals, most importantly his unholy alliance with W. on Iraq, he grew disillusioned, the lion tamer mauled by his own lion.

“The final consequence of all of this is that it is rare today to find balance in the media,” Mr. Blair said. “Things, people, issues, stories, are all black and white. Life’s usual gray is almost entirely absent. ‘Some good, some bad’; ‘some things going right, some going wrong’: these are concepts alien to today’s reporting.”

I worry more about the press when it’s reverent rather than irreverent, when it’s a tame lapdog, as it was in the buildup to Iraq, than when it’s a feral beast. And I worry about politicians like W. and Blair being black and white rather than gray, as they were in building their hysterical, phony case against Saddam. We would have been well-served back then if Mr. Blair had explained to the jejune Junior that there’s some good, some bad, and some gray in the world, and that sometimes it’s smarter to squeeze tyrants, rather than Shock-and-Awe them.

On his first visit to Baghdad Monday, Gordon Brown vowed never to repeat his partner’s mistake of politicizing intelligence to go to war. We’ll have to wait to see if David Chase, the Garbo of goombahs now pursued by a feral beast of disappointed “Sopranos” fans, is feeling as paranoid and thin-skinned as the two Tonys, and as deeply surprised by the consequences of his actions.

Mr. Chase, an apocalyptic tease, gave us a gimmicky and unsatisfying film-school-style blackout for an end to his mob saga, a stunt one notch above “It was all a dream.” It was the TV equivalent of one of those design-your-own-mug places.

Even though I loved the first few years of “The Sopranos,” Mr. Chase always struck me as passive-aggressive. The more fans obsessed on his show, the longer his hiatuses would grow and the slower his narrative velocity moved. His ending was equally perverse, throwing the ball contemptuously back at his fans after manipulating them and teasing them for an hour with red herrings — and a ginger cat.

After references in three shows to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” — the last allusion to the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem by A.J. at the diner table in the final scene — the least Mr. Chase could have dished up was some “mere anarchy.”

Surely, after eight years with this family, we deserved some revelation better than “Life goes on. ... Or not.”

The only revelation was that Mr. Chase and James Gandolfini are keeping their options open for a Sopranos movie. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic and a Sopranos aficionado who liked the might-or-might-not ending, tells me I made too much of the foreshadowing of the Yeats poem.

“It’s overused to express unhappiness,” he said. “If you’re at a restaurant and you want linguine and they only have manicotti, we’re slouching toward Bethlehem.”

Read full post and comments:
"A Tale of Two Tonys, Exiting Tormented" >>

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Divide in Caring for Our Kids

Published: June 12, 2007

A few weeks ago, Teri Hatcher, one of the stars of the television series “Desperate Housewives,” was on David Letterman’s show, talking very animatedly about a time when her daughter needed emergency dental care.

“It was causing her some pain,” Ms. Hatcher said. “And then, of course, it was a Friday night. Overnight the whole thing blew up and it turned out to be an abscess.”

Where to get a dentist on a Saturday?

Luckily, Ms. Hatcher’s best friend is married to a dentist who was more than happy to open up his office that Saturday. But he needed an assistant. Ms. Hatcher volunteered.

She digressed: “I hate the dentist... . Just my whole life, you know. It’s the worst. I would do anything to get out of going to the dentist. Really. Anything.”

But Ms. Hatcher stood there like a trouper as the dentist examined her daughter’s tooth. “He sees it is an abscess, and he has to do surgery,” she said. “So you, I’m trying to — I hate it. I’m squeamish. I’m going to throw up, and then I’m trying to pull it together...

“So he does the Novocaine and gives her a little of the gas. She is perfectly fine, because she’s going, ‘I love the dentist. I want to come here every day.’ And then, of course, I’m thinking, ‘Can I take a tank of that home? Because that is really what I need.’ ”

And so on. The story, of course, had a happy ending. Ms. Hatcher’s daughter was fine. Mr. Letterman got to tell a raunchy dentist joke. The audience was amused, and Ms. Hatcher eventually exited to a robust round of applause.

I was particularly interested in the segment because just a few hours earlier I had filed a column for the next day’s paper about health care for children. The column included the story of Deamonte Driver, a homeless 12-year-old from Prince George’s County, Md., who also had an abscessed tooth.

Now, if I had been in Ms. Hatcher’s position, I would have done exactly as she did. I would have knocked down doors if necessary to get help for a child in distress. So this is no criticism of her. It’s an illustration of the kind of stunning differences in fortune that can face youngsters living at opposite ends of America’s vast economic divide.

Deamonte needed his tooth pulled, a procedure that was estimated to cost $80. But his mother, Alyce Driver, had no health insurance for her children. She believes their Medicaid coverage lapsed early this year because of a bureaucratic foul-up, perhaps because paperwork was mailed to a homeless shelter after they had left. In any event, it would have been difficult for Ms. Driver to find an oral surgeon willing to treat a Medicaid patient.

Untreated, the pain in Deamonte’s tooth grew worse. He was taken to a hospital emergency room, where he was given medication for pain and sinusitis and sent home.

What started as a toothache now became a nightmare. Bacteria from the abscess had spread to Deamonte’s brain. The child was in agony, and on Feb. 25 he died.

There’s a presidential election under way, but this sort of thing is not a big part of the campaign. American children are dying because of a lack of access to health care, and we’re worried about Mitt Romney’s religion and asking candidates to raise their hands to show whether they believe in evolution. I’m starting to believe in time travel because there’s no doubt this nation is moving backward.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul,” Nelson Mandela once said, “than the way in which it treats its children.”

There are nine million children who lack health care in the U.S. and millions more who are eligible for coverage but fall through the cracks for one reason or another.

What we need is a national commitment to provide basic health care to all children, not just the children of the well-to-do. This should be a no-brainer. You’re a child in the United States? You’ve got health care. We’re not going to let you die from a toothache. We’re better than that. We’re not going to let your family go bankrupt because you’ve got cancer or some other disease, or because you’ve been in a terrible accident.

The cost? Don’t fall for that bogyman.

There’s plenty of give in America’s glittering $13 trillion economy. What’s the sense of being the richest nation on the planet if you can’t even afford to keep your children healthy and alive?

Read full post and comments:
"The Divide in Caring for Our Kids" >>

The Next Culture War

Published: June 12, 2007

The conventional view is that an angry band of conservative activists driven by nativism and economic insecurity is killing immigration reform. But this view is wrong in almost every respect.

In the first place, immigration is not now, nor has it ever been a primarily partisan issue. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 36 percent of Republicans support the bill, along with 33 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents. That’s hardly a party-line chasm.

In the second place, immigration attitudes have never dovetailed neatly with racist or nativist ones. Hostility to immigration often increases in periods when racist attitudes are on the decline. Moreover, established immigrants are nearly as suspicious of new and illegal immigrants as native-born Americans.

And in the third place, decades of research have failed to show any clean link between economic insecurity and anti-immigrant views. Pollsters ask voters if they feel their own wages are affected by immigrant labor. There is no strong connection between feelings of personal risk and anti-immigration opinions. Some studies find no link at all between income levels and those views.

What’s shaping the immigration debate is something altogether deeper and more interesting. And if you want to understand what it is, start with education. Between 1960 and 1980, the share of Americans enrolled in higher education exploded. The U.S. became the first nation in history with a mass educated class. The members of this class differed from each other in a thousand ways, but they tended to share a cosmopolitan approach to the world. They celebrated cultural diversity and saw ethnocentrism as a sign of backwardness.

Their worldview, which they don’t even understand as a distinct worldview, was well summarized by Richard Rorty, who died this week. The goal of any society, he wrote, was to create “a greater diversity of individuals — larger, fuller, more imaginative and daring individuals.” Social life should widen. New cultures should be explored. And, as Rorty concluded, “Individual life will become unthinkably diverse and social life unthinkably free.”

Liberal members of the educated class celebrated the cultural individualism of the 1960s. Conservative members celebrated the economic individualism of the 1980s. But they all celebrated individualism. They all valued diversity and embraced a sense of national identity that rested on openness and global integration.

This cultural offensive created a silent backlash among people who were not so enamored of rampant individualism, and who were worried that all this diversity would destroy the ancient ties of community and social solidarity. Members of this class came to feel that America’s identity and culture were under threat from people who didn’t understand what made America united and distinct.

The two groups clashed whenever a political issue arose that touched on America’s identity or role in the world: immigration, free trade, making English the official language or intervening for humanitarian reasons in Kosovo or Darfur.

These conflicts were and are primarily cultural clashes, not economic or ideological ones. And if you want to predict which side a person is likely to be on, look at his or her educational level. That’ll be your best clue.

As the sociologist Manuel Castells generalized, “Elites are cosmopolitan, people are local.” People with university values favor intermingling. People with neighborhood values favor assimilation.

What’s made the clashes so poisonous is that many members of the educated class don’t even recognize that they are facing a rival philosophy. Many of them assume that anybody who disagrees with them on immigration and such must be driven by racism, insecurity or some primitive atavism. This smug attitude sends members of the communal, nationalistic side into fits of alienation and prickly defensiveness. It’s what makes many of them, in turn, so unpleasant.

The bottom line is that the immigration debate is part of a newer culture war that has succeeded the familiar and fading culture war. This longer culture war is not within the educated class. It’s not the ’60s versus the ’80s. It’s — to mimic Mark Lilla — between the people who have absorbed both the ’60s and the ’80s, and everyone else.

It’s between open, individualistic cosmopolitans and rooted nationalists. It’s between those who ride the tides of the cultural mainstream and those so driven by marginalization that they’re destroying the best compromise they will get.

Read full post and comments:
"The Next Culture War" >>

The Opinionator

By Tobin Harshaw

War, too, makes for strange bedfellows, and the Bush administration is dealing today with the complications that inevitably ensue from such indiscretions: The Times reports that United States commanders are “arming Sunni Arab groups that have promised to fight militants linked with Al Qaeda who have been their allies in the past”; The Washington Post reports that “A tribal coalition formed to oppose the extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, a development that U.S. officials say has reduced violence in Iraq’s troubled Anbar province, is beginning to splinter”; while the Baltimore Sun finds that “Sudan has secretly worked with the C.I.A. to spy on the insurgency in Iraq - an example of how the United States has continued to cooperate with the Sudanese regime even while condemning its role in the killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Darfur.”

Good? Bad? Just the usual fog of war? On the Sunni alliance, former Washington Post reporter Douglas Farah has mixed feelings:

Having seen efforts to divide radical groups through material inducements (Marxist groups and paramilitary groups in Latin America, primarily), it seems clear that the U.S. will have to offer the Sunnis something tangible to make such an alliance more than a one-night stand where there is deep remorse on all sides almost immediately….

The question is, to me, if the U.S. arms Sunni groups who are fed up with the violence of the al Qaeda groups, and are willing and able to take them on directly, how does one insure they don’t eventually turn that fire back on U.S. troops?

The answer is that the Sunni groups will have to have some stake in the emerging political system of Iraq, something that they don’t now feel they have.

Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark is impressed that “American military officials seem to understand the complex motivations of those insurgency groups far better than they did even quite recently, and are at least trying to work with them.” However, he doesn’t find the fracturing of the Anbar alliance that mysterious: “It has become increasingly clear the extent to which the U.S. funded, armed, and guided the alleged Anbar Awakening. It was obvious from the beginning that whatever the real irritation they felt with al-Qaeda, the Anbar Salvation Council was a racket, created and paid for by US forces to provide local cover, rather than representing real Sunni political developments.”

“Turns out that the C.I.A. is using Sudanese spies against the Iraqi guerrillas,” notes Juan Cole, who doesn’t seem to be surprised or shocked. “Bush sees no enemies among the oil states, only opportunities to be exploited. Most Americans don’t realize that Bush has also de facto deployed Iran-trained Badr Corps fighters against the Sunni Arabs in Iraq, as well. So Iran and Sudan are the great bogeymen in Bush rhetoric, but the pillars of his Iraq policy in reality.”

Well, seeing as professor Cole has never, as far as I know, had a kind word for the White House, perhaps his finding that the administration’s actions are at least consistent amounts to a tiny bit of respect. In any case, it’s as close to bedfellows as those two sides will ever get.

Read full post and comments:
"The Opinionator" >>

The Opinionator

By Tobin Harshaw

  • Most of the coverage of last week’s Sojourners magazine conference on faith with the Democratic presidential contenders focused on efforts to win over evangelical Christians and other Protestants. John Cochran at CQPolitics, however, thinks another religious group is in play.

    “Mara Vanderslice, an evangelical and a Democratic strategist who advises candidates about how to reach religious voters, said Democrats have the best chance with Roman Catholics and with younger believers who are thinking differently than previous generations about faith and the issues.” Cochran reports. “Catholics are a swing constituency. Exit polling found that Bush won 52 percent of their vote in his 2004 race against Kerry, who is Catholic. That was up from the 47 percent he received in 2000. But the advantage edged back toward Democrats in last year’s election, with 55 percent voting Democratic.”

  • Many feel that America should stop backing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, including The Times’s editorial page, which said yesterday that “Washington needs to disentangle America, quickly, from the general’s damaging embrace.” But if he were to fall, would his replacement be any better? Ed Morrissey at Captain’s Quarters isn’t so sure:

    Pakistan has a natural affiliation with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The nation was founded by Muslim separatists and has usually had sympathies for like-minded groups. Musharraf himself allied with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar before the 9/11 attacks, a very popular position in Pakistan, and only moved away from that alliance under threat of American attack. A return to that policy under new leadership would be disastrous to the war effort. In the first place, it would leave the Taliban and AQ as a permanent threat to Afghanistan. Much more worrisome, however, is that it leaves at least a theoretical path for terrorists to get nuclear weapons for their efforts.

  • Does the death penalty deter killers? Surprisingly, some academics feel they have data proving it does.

    Patterico, a prosecutor in Los Angeles, has thoughts:

    At the very least, this article should prevent death penalty opponents from lazily arguing that there is no scientific support for the proposition that the death penalty deters murders. They are welcome to question the studies, and I would enjoy reading thoughtful criticism along those lines. … For me, the case for the death penalty doesn’t rest on the outcome of studies on general deterrence. It comes primarily from a sense that this penalty is the just result for callous criminals who commit premeditated murder, and secondarily from a concern that murderers can still kill as long as they are alive, whether in prison or not.

    But the concept of deterrence is important to many, and with good reason. If these studies are accurate, it spells trouble for death penalty opponents.

Read full post and comments:
"The Opinionator" >>

The Opinionator

By Tobin Harshaw

So, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales escaped the wrath of Congress after the Senate bill for a vote of “no confidence” in him fell short last night.

A front page story in this morning’s Times called the event “A Defeat for Democrats.” But are things so simple?

“The attorney general certainly inspires confidence in no one,” writes A.B. Stoddard at The Hill. “But any real attempt to impeach him or force his resignation would obviously begin in the Judiciary Committee, where ranking Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) seems ready to help. Democrats held their vote, which failed like they knew it would, but they dragged vulnerable Republicans on the record, just like they wanted to.”

(Not all of the Republicans were so dragged, or even the Democrats, as the Hotline gives us the following very interesting list: “The ‘08ers who did not vote on the Gonzales resolution: Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Chris Dodd, McCain, and Obama.”)

Indeed, many conservatives fail to see this as a victory. “Republicans should’ve beaten the Dems to this long ago,” insists James G. Poulos at American Spectator. “A whipping operation with an ounce of discipline could have nipped this entire thing in the bud simply by telling the President in public what he failed to hear privately: Gonzales is a marshmallow with eyes and hair and ought to be dismissed accordingly. He is a witless oaf at Justice and a lead-footed albatross round the neck of the Republican Party.”

Dick Polman even sees a trend here:

Conservatives wanted Bush to retain Peter Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but last Thursday Bush dumped him. Conservatives want Bush to pardon Scooter Libby (who, after all, merely lied under oath to impede a national security investigation), but Bush refuses to do it. Conservatives want Bush to dump attorney general Alberto Gonzales (whom they consider an incompetent toady), but Bush won’t do that either. So here’s the right-wing recipe thus far: Keep Pace, free Scooter, ditch Gonzo. Whereas the Bush recipe is: ditch Pace, ditch Scooter, keep Gonzo.

Thinking about the relationship President Bush’s father had with conservatives, one is tempted to say this is, in fact, an old family recipe.

Read full post and comments:
"The Opinionator" >>