July 30, 2008
July 30, 2008
ONE of my favourite Sydney watering holes has decided to try to improve business by hiring half-naked bar staff. It’s hard to miss the towering, new “lingerie waitress” sign out the front.
But the drum-playing academics and pierced L-plate lesbians who usually inhabit Pub X still look shocked when redheads in rectal-floss G-strings suddenly materialise tomake perky chit-chat over the free chickenwings.
Some unhappy customers relocate to the lingerie-less beer garden where it’s no longer necessary to navigate these unsettling representatives of modern womanhood with their big wide smiles, their big white teeth and their jiggly little bums like perfectly poached egg yolks.
Others take their beer-drinking business elsewhere. “It’s just embarrassing,” one purple-haired librarian says before moving on. “Titty bar staff are as anachronistic as theladies lounge and the six o’clock swill.”
I, meanwhile, can’t help but wonder: Why is it so? Why, after all this feminism, would young women still choose this line of work? And who is making it worth their while?
In search of answers, I head off to Pub X to brave the sparkly thongs and greasy finger food alone.
The first thing I notice is that the singular grammar of the “lingerie waitress” sign is spot-on: there is only one, a tiny blonde who skitters about in stiletto boots and a lacy twin-set that looks like it retreated into itself after a traumatic tumble dryer encounter.
The second thing that strikes me is the heavy fug of working-class masculinity. There are big, thick men in all directions. Men in track pants and fluoro vests. Men surrounded by spent Cheezel packets and little pyramids of sucked chicken bones. Men who look like they’re yearning for contact with women yet still come to a place like this where they are surrounded by Escher-esque images of themselves.
Feminists are notoriously critical of testosteroned consumers of female T&A but these Friday night drinkers are hardly the evil geniuses of the patriarchy. Most spend more time watching the plasma screen footy than they do ogling the micro-waisted waitress. They all know the only reason she stops to flirt is because she’s paid to.
Topaz — not her real name, but you get the precious stones vibe — calls me “darl” and sits down to chat after I tip her a few lousy bucks for a free soda water.
“Jeez, I’m cold,” she says, shivering. It’s an icy, midwinter night and everyone but her is wearing maximum fleece. “Not that I should complain,” she continues. “I used to do housekeeping and break my back cleaning toilets for the minimum wage. Now I earn $40 an hour plus sometimes $100 in tips. You can also claim everything on tax. Well, not everything, obviously. But, you know, ya clothes, ya lip gloss, ya fake tan.
“And it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong,” she adds quickly. “Mum knows what I do and all.”
Topaz says now she’s signed with an agency, she also gets bookings for “privates”, serving drinks at buck’s parties and the like. “It’s fantastic, $130 for two hours in — get this — hot pants.” (The lingerie waitress equivalent of casual Friday clobber and apparently quite the rort.)
With new Australian research showing female earnings lagging well behind those of men’s in workplaces still festering with discrimination — chicks such as Topaz seem to represent both the cause of and the solution to the problem. It’s hard to imagine the push towards gender equality ever succeeding while women’s bodies are still objectified and commodified so much more frequently than those of men.
But if one is genetically blessed with the ability to earn five times the minimum wage simply by showing off one’s egg yolks, isn’t it the height of capitalist empowerment to just say no to the toilet cleaning?
Topaz disappears for the mandatory mid-shift change of costume and emerges in new underwear and a different hat.
She’s even more goosebumpy than before but the glow-in-the-dark smile remains on full wattage. “So, boys, are we all havin’ a good time or what?”
Everyone mutters politely in reply, but the truth is none of us is really sure of the answer.
There has been little mutual trust lately between the governments of Russia and the European Union. Diplomatic relations between Britain and the Kremlin are at a low since Alexander Litvenenko was murdered — allegedly by a Russian agent — in London in 2006.
Such mistrust poses an obvious threat to trade and investment between Russia and the EU. Russia’s trade with the EU between January and August 2007 reached $173.3 billion, or 51.6 percent of its foreign trade turnover. More than a half of Russia’s goods are sold in Europe, and two of its top three trade partners are European: Germany, with turnover of $31.9 billion, and Holland, $28.3 billion.
Similarly, European countries account for 75 percent of direct investment in Russia. Britain ranks first, pouring in more than $15 billion in the first half of 2007, despite the Litvinenko case and the tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats during this period.
But the volume of foreign investment falls short of what Russia needs, for its economy is unbalanced. More than half of its exports are oil and gas, with the rest mainly chemicals and agricultural products. Petrodollars are Russia’s main resource for the development of an information-based society. EU countries will continue to demand energy, and Siberian deposits are far from exhausted.
As a result, diversification of Russia’s economy seems a distant prospect — all the more so because of its huge bureaucracy, together with the state’s interest in “strategic” areas of the economy, repels foreign business. Indeed, Europeans constantly reproach Russia for its growing state interference.
Russia’s relations with the EU are governed by an agreement signed in June 1994 concerning trade, business and investment, competition issues, protection of intellectual, industrial, and business property and financial cooperation. Over time, economic cooperation between the two sides has grown more complex, and a new legal framework is needed. But the European Commission is unable to start working on a new agreement until it has a mandate from the 27 EU member states. Such a mandate has not yet been secured.
At the same time, conditions for Russian investment in the EU are far from perfect. Investors face political discrimination and technical barriers, especially concerning the power industry. Some EU “open” tenders have turned out to be closed to Russian companies. Economic nationalism is growing. Foreign investment is limited in sectors that the EU considers to be strategically and politically important. Russian companies have had to face anti-dumping claims. European branches of Russian banks face over-regulation and expensive certification procedures.
In September 2007, a move by the European Commission to prevent foreign companies from controlling European energy transport networks was an example of a skirmish in this “silent war.” The commission’s order to “unbundle” energy companies into transport and distribution units is not likely to encourage foreign energy companies working in the EU to seek structural reforms in the Russian economy.
Russia also has to become integrated into the international economic system, accepting the rules applied by the rest of the world. Its eventual accession to the World Trade Organization will be crucial to this development, and its accession needs to be promoted more actively by Europe as well as by Russia. The long-delayed new trade and investment agreement will be less relevant once Russia is in the WTO`, whose rules take precedence over those of regional economic organizations. The legitimacy of European laws limiting the scope of Russian business activity in Europe and contradicting WTO regulations would be questioned immediately.
Russia’s business leaders are ready to work for the creation of a common economic space between Russia and the EU. For Russia, such integration would provide a real spark for economic and social modernization. Russia’s government will, of course, have the final word in this matter. But it is unlikely to balk at a policy that treats Russia fairly.
July 30, 2008
The parents of a teenage girl who fell to her death through the skylight in a Port Jervis elementary school in January are taking the school district and the city to court.
Peter and Denise Billman have hired New York City attorney Corey Stark in a wrongful death case involving their 15-year-old daughter, Lindsey Billman, according to court documents.
On Jan. 26, a night of youthful mischief ended in tragedy when Lindsey and her friend, Nicholas Moscatiello, 18, climbed up on the roof of Anna S. Kuhl Elementary School. Subsequently, they both fell through a 4-by-4 skylight that was unable to sustain their weight.
Moscatiello was flown to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla with serious injuries. Lindsey was taken to Bon Secours Community Hospital where she was pronounced dead.
The lawsuit, filed in Orange County Court on June 30, claims the district was irresponsible by stacking milk crates near the school. When stacked, the crates allowed access to the roof. The lawsuit contends school officials where aware of the problem of students climbing up to the roof even though it was prohibited.
The lawsuit also claims it was the school’s responsibility to maintain the roof.
The real eel deal. MMMMM
It’s the hottest season of the year in Japan, and that means it’s eel season. So, bottom’s up!
A canned drink called “Unagi Nobori,” or “Surging Eel,” made by Japan Tobacco Inc., hit the nation’s stores this month just ahead of Japan’s annual eel-eating season, company spokesman Kazunori Hayashi said Monday.
“It’s mainly for men who are exhausted by the summer’s heat,” Hayashi said of the beverage, believed to be the first mass-produced eel drink in Japan.
Many Japanese believe eating eel boosts stamina in hot weather.
The fizzy, yellow-colored drink contains extracts from the head and bones of eel and five vitamins — A, B1, B2, D and E — contained in the fish.
The Japanese particularly like to eat eel on traditional eel days, which fall on July 24 and Aug. 5 this year.
Demand for eel is so high that Japan has been hit by scores of eel fraud cases, including a recent high-profile incident in which a government ministry publicly scolded two companies for mislabeling eel imported from China as being domestically grown.
The eel involved in recent scandals was prepared in a popular “kaba-yaki” style, in which it is broiled and covered with a sweet sauce. The $1.30 drink costs about one-tenth as much as broiled eel, but has a similar flavor.
Eel extract is also used in cookies and pies made in Japan’s biggest eel producing town, Hamamatsu.
July 30, 2008
What if I told you that a prominent global political figure in recent months has proposed: abrogating key features of his government’s contracts with energy companies; unilaterally renegotiating his country’s international economic treaties; dramatically raising marginal tax rates on the “rich” to levels not seen in his country in three decades (which would make them among the highest in the world); and changing his country’s social insurance system into explicit welfare by severing the link between taxes and benefits?
The first name that came to mind would probably not be Barack Obama, possibly our nation’s next president. Yet despite his obvious general intelligence, and uplifting and motivational eloquence, Sen. Obama reveals this startling economic illiteracy in his policy proposals and economic pronouncements. From the property rights and rule of (contract) law foundations of a successful market economy to the specifics of tax, spending, energy, regulatory and trade policy, if the proposals espoused by candidate Obama ever became law, the American economy would suffer a serious setback.
To be sure, Mr. Obama has been clouding these positions as he heads into the general election and, once elected, presidents sometimes see the world differently than when they are running. Some cite Bill Clinton’s move to the economic policy center following his Hillary health-care and 1994 Congressional election debacles as a possible Obama model. But candidate Obama starts much further left on spending, taxes, trade and regulation than candidate Clinton. A move as large as Mr. Clinton’s toward the center would still leave Mr. Obama on the economic left.
Also, by 1995 the country had a Republican Congress to limit President Clinton’s big government agenda, whereas most political pundits predict strengthened Democratic majorities in both Houses in 2009. Because newly elected presidents usually try to implement the policies they campaigned on, Mr. Obama’s proposals are worth exploring in some depth. I’ll discuss taxes and trade, although the story on his other proposals is similar.
First, taxes. The table nearby demonstrates what could happen to marginal tax rates in an Obama administration. Mr. Obama would raise the top marginal rates on earnings, dividends and capital gains passed in 2001 and 2003, and phase out itemized deductions for high income taxpayers. He would uncap Social Security taxes, which currently are levied on the first $102,000 of earnings. The result is a remarkable reduction in work incentives for our most economically productive citizens.
The top 35% marginal income tax rate rises to 39.6%; adding the state income tax, the Medicare tax, the effect of the deduction phase-out and Mr. Obama’s new Social Security tax (of up to 12.4%) increases the total combined marginal tax rate on additional labor earnings (or small business income) from 44.6% to a whopping 62.8%. People respond to what they get to keep after tax, which the Obama plan reduces from 55.4 cents on the dollar to 37.2 cents — a reduction of one-third in the after-tax wage!
Despite the rhetoric, that’s not just on “rich” individuals. It’s also on a lot of small businesses and two-earner middle-aged middle-class couples in their peak earnings years in high cost-of-living areas. (His large increase in energy taxes, not documented here, would disproportionately harm low-income Americans. And, while he says he will not raise taxes on the middle class, he’ll need many more tax hikes to pay for his big increase in spending.)
On dividends the story is about as bad, with rates rising from 50.4% to 65.6%, and after-tax returns falling over 30%. Even a small response of work and investment to these lower returns means such tax rates, sooner or later, would seriously damage the economy.
On economic policy, the president proposes and Congress disposes, so presidents often wind up getting the favorite policy of powerful senators or congressmen. Thus, while Mr. Obama also proposes an alternative minimum tax (AMT) patch, he could instead wind up with the permanent abolition plan for the AMT proposed by the Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D., N.Y.) — a 4.6% additional hike in the marginal rate with no deductibility of state income taxes. Marginal tax rates would then approach 70%, levels not seen since the 1970s and among the highest in the world. The after-tax return to work — the take-home wage for more time or effort — would be cut by more than 40%.
Now trade. In the primaries, Sen. Obama was famously protectionist, claiming he would rip up and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). Since its passage (for which former President Bill Clinton ran a brave anchor leg, given opposition to trade liberalization in his party), Nafta has risen to almost mythological proportions as a metaphor for the alleged harm done by trade, globalization and the pace of technological change.
Yet since Nafta was passed (relative to the comparable period before passage), U.S. manufacturing output grew more rapidly and reached an all-time high last year; the average unemployment rate declined as employment grew 24%; real hourly compensation in the business sector grew twice as fast as before; agricultural exports destined for Canada and Mexico have grown substantially and trade among the three nations has tripled; Mexican wages have risen each year since the peso crisis of 1994; and the two binational Nafta environmental institutions have provided nearly $1 billion for 135 environmental infrastructure projects along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In short, it would be hard, on balance, for any objective person to argue that Nafta has injured the U.S. economy, reduced U.S. wages, destroyed American manufacturing, harmed our agriculture, damaged Mexican labor, failed to expand trade, or worsened the border environment. But perhaps I am not objective, since Nafta originated in meetings James Baker and I had early in the Bush 41 administration with Pepe Cordoba, chief of staff to Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas.
Mr. Obama has also opposed other important free-trade agreements, including those with Colombia, South Korea and Central America. He has spoken eloquently about America’s responsibility to help alleviate global poverty — even to the point of saying it would help defeat terrorism — but he has yet to endorse, let alone forcefully advocate, the single most potent policy for doing so: a successful completion of the Doha round of global trade liberalization. Worse yet, he wants to put restrictions into trade treaties that would damage the ability of poor countries to compete. And he seems to see no inconsistency in his desire to improve America’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world and turning his back on more than six decades of bipartisan American presidential leadership on global trade expansion. When trade rules are not being improved, nontariff barriers develop to offset the liberalization from the current rules. So no trade liberalization means creeping protectionism.
History teaches us that high taxes and protectionism are not conducive to a thriving economy, the extreme case being the higher taxes and tariffs that deepened the Great Depression. While such a policy mix would be a real change, as philosophers remind us, change is not always progress.
July 30, 2008
The security forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli army arrested 21 Islamic Hamas activists all-over the West Bank, Hamas movement said Wednesday.
Hamas said in a statement sent to reporters that Abbas security forces arrested 11 Hamas members in the West Bank, while the Israeli army raided towns and villages in the area and arrested ten Palestinians.
Israeli Radio, Arabic service and Palestinian security sources said the Israeli army arrested ten Palestinians in the West Bank cities of Jenin, Nablus and Hebron.
Hamas said Abbas security forces continued for the fourth consecutive day the crackdown on Hamas members all-over the West Bank areas.
It said that the security forces of Abbas arrested Wednesday 11Hamas members and supporters in the cities of Nablus, Qalqilia, Tubas, Ramallah, Jenin and Salfit after storming their homes.
Since Friday, Abbas security forces arrested over than 150 Palestinians, affiliated with Hamas movement, including the deputy mayor of Nablus, academics, notables and intellectuals.
Abbas security forces crackdown in the West Bank was a response to Hamas security forces crackdown on Fatah movement members and institutions in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
The exchange of crackdown came after a bomb attack on a Hamas militants’ car on Gaza city beachside last Friday, which killed five Hamas militants and a child. Hamas immediately accused Fatah movement for being directly behind the attack.
Egypt is exerting efforts to invite within the coming few days leaders of the Palestinian factions and political groups, including Fatah and Hamas to launch a comprehensive dialogue.
The two movements have severed dialogue right after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip last summer following weeks of fighting with Fatah movement’s militants. Hamas routed Abbas security forces and took control of the enclave.
July 30, 2008
Fact and fiction: what we know and what we don’t about Americans without health insurance.
…Federal law requires hospital emergency departments to screen and stabilize anyone arriving there with a serious medical condition, regardless of the person’s ability to pay. It’s sometimes said that no one goes to the emergency room anymore; it’s too crowded. But the rise in emergency department visits over the last decade came from disproportionate increases in use by non-poor persons and not the uninsured. The visit rates by Medicaid patients are twice those of the uninsured.
Q. Just how many Americans lack health insurance?
A. The short answer is “too many,” but the total numbers depend on whom you ask and how they measure the problem. The most commonly reported figure is from the Current Population Survey (CPS) by the U.S. Census Bureau. It found that 47 million people had no health insurance in 2006. The National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) reported that 41.9 million persons lacked health insurance when interviewed from January 2007 to March 2007. The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) estimated 50.4 million people were uninsured during the first six months of 2006.
Q. How long are they uninsured?
A. The widely cited CPS statistic is considered closer to an estimate of those who were uninsured at the point in time surveyed, rather than of the total number of people uninsured for the entire year. The Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), also handled by the Census Bureau, suggests that roughly half of those counted as “uninsured” remain without health insurance for the entire year. MEPS figures for 2005 range from 65.8 million individuals uninsured at some point during the entire year, to 35.8 million uninsured all year. NHIS estimates that 30.6 million had been uninsured for more than a year at the time of their interview in early 2007.
Q. My head is spinning. Which sets of numbers are right?
A. All of them tell us part, but not all, of a complex story. What we generally know is that the percentage of non-elderly Americans without insurance coverage at any one time has increased slightly in the past 15 years. However, it has remained within a narrow range, moving up and down from roughly 14 to 16 percent of the overall population.
The share of the uninsured without coverage for more than a year may have increased a bit in recent years as well, but it still generally represents about half of all those uninsured at any time during a year. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services researchers found that about half of those uninsured for at least one month during a two-year period turned out to be uninsured for over a year. Using much older but richer data from the late 1990s, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that about 16 percent of those uninsured at any time during a year remained uninsured for more than 24 months. The lengths of spells without insurance are important, because different solutions are needed to address the different problems they present. In any case, the broader issue of slowly declining rates of insurance coverage in the United States remains more like a chronic condition (needing better diagnosis and more than one kind of treatment) than a crisis (needing emergency surgery).
Q. Let’s get inside those rough numbers. Who tends to be uninsured?
A. They tend to be younger, with those most likely to be uninsured between ages 19 and 24. Almost all adults age 65 and above are covered primarily by Medicare, and many of them have supplemental private insurance. Men are a little bit more likely to be uninsured. Married individuals and persons with more than a high school education are much more likely to be insured. Most of the uninsured (88 percent) are in good to excellent health. The likelihood of being insured rises with income and full-time work status, although nearly half (47 percent) of the uninsured are full-time workers. Hispanics are considerably more likely than those in any other ethnic category to be uninsured (over 30 percent). More than a quarter of the uninsured are foreign-born. By Census Bureau estimates, about 10 million uninsured are not citizens and half of them are illegal immigrants.
Q. Don’t almost all workers obtain insurance coverage through their jobs?
A. Employer-sponsored insurance (ESI) covers almost 60 percent of all Americans. But the rate of work-related coverage has been falling gradually in recent years. Although 95 percent of all firms employing 50 workers or more offer insurance, only 45 percent of the smallest firms (with three to nine workers) do so. The recent drop in ESI coverage was due partly to a decline in health benefit offers by small employers, but also to fewer workers being “eligible” for coverage or electing to participate in employers’ plans.
Q. Don’t almost all low-income individuals gain medical coverage through Medicaid and other public programs?
A. Medicaid covers about 58 million beneficiaries, but that includes low-income elderly “dual eligibles” also covered under Medicare and the low-income disabled of all ages. As a joint federal-state program, Medicaid’s income eligibility levels for coverage vary from state to state, as do those of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Also, millions of potential beneficiaries do not enroll in public program coverage. Reasons include ineffective and limited outreach efforts and dissatisfaction with what coverage provides. Delaying enrollment is encouraged by the option to gain retroactive Medicaid coverage that may be available for three months prior to application if the individual would have been eligible during the retroactive period.
Q. So millions of uninsured persons counted in federal surveys just lack Medicaid coverage?
A. Hold on. Some of them actually have it but don’t report it accurately. The so-called “Medicaid undercount” is derived from findings that Medicaid coverage levels based on survey data are consistently lower than the count of Medicaid enrollees obtained from the program’s administrative records. On the high side, a recent study concluded that the CPS overestimates the uninsured population by as much as 9 million people for this reason alone! However, the latest research suggests that the undercount’s effect is smaller, because it’s more likely to involve Medicaid enrollees erroneously reporting that they have some other type of health insurance rather than none at all.
Q. Do many higher income people choose to be uninsured, even though they could afford to buy coverage?
A. Surveys suggest that one of the more significant sources for recent annual increases in the number of uninsured Americans involves persons in relatively higher income households. According to the CPS, more than 17.6 million uninsured live in households earning more than $50,000 a year, and household income is above $75,000 for more than 9 million uninsured. However, those numbers overstate the actual income available to those uninsured individuals, because household units are defined more broadly than are insurance purchasing units. As the composition of “households” changes, their income isn’t the same as family income available for spending on health insurance. The rising cost of coverage remains the primary barrier to insurance coverage for the uninsured, and in some cases, its value just may not be “worth it” for those in higher income families. But a more narrow and consistent measure of the higher income uninsured is closer to 2 million, involving people with regular incomes over $50,000 who lack insurance for spells of more than a year.
Q. Isn’t affordability of coverage the main problem, particularly for high-risk individuals?
A. The main reason cited by individuals for why they lack insurance is that it costs too much, but it’s not the only factor. Adults with weak or uncertain preferences for health insurance are less likely than others to obtain job offers with insurance, to enroll in offered coverage, and to be insured. On the other hand, individuals with higher health risks are more likely to seek and obtain health insurance coverage, particularly in the large employer group market. Higher premiums for higher risks are not a significant contributor to the large uninsured population.
Q. Don’t the uninsured obtain healthcare anyway?
A. Yes, but not as much, not as quickly, and not as effectively. People lacking health insurance pay out of pocket, receive uncompensated care, rely on other forms of private and public insurance (such as worker’s compensation), and wait until they have access to health insurance. Overall, the full-year uninsured receive about 50 to 55 percent of the dollar amount of medical care per person of those who have coverage for the entire year. People uninsured for only part of the year average more than 80 percent of the healthcare spending by the full-year insured. Eighty-eight percent of the uninsured are in good to excellent health.
Q. How much uncompensated care is received by the uninsured? Don’t the privately insured just pay higher premiums to make up the difference?
A. Best estimates indicate that about one-third of the cost of health services received by the uninsured is “uncompensated care”—less than 3 percent of all U.S. healthcare spending. Most of those costs are covered by various taxpayer-funded payments (particularly disproportionate share payments to hospitals likely to treat more uninsured and low-income patients). There isn’t much left in the residual costs of uncompensated care to “shift” to private insurance premium payers. To the extent such cost shifting can occur not just in theory but in practice, it’s due much more to public programs like Medicaid and Medicare that have the legal power to pay much lower “below-market” rates of reimbursement to hospitals and doctors. Expanding low-paying Medicaid coverage might actually make any possible cost shifting to private premium payers worse, not better.
Q. Can’t the uninsured just get needed care at ERs?
A. Federal law requires hospital emergency departments to screen and stabilize anyone arriving there with a serious medical condition, regardless of the person’s ability to pay. It’s sometimes said that no one goes to the emergency room anymore; it’s too crowded. But the rise in emergency department visits over the last decade came from disproportionate increases in use by non-poor persons and not the uninsured. The visit rates by Medicaid patients are twice those of the uninsured.
Q. Enough about problems. What are some solutions?
A. Here are a few basics: Universal mandates to purchase coverage won’t work as long as people can’t afford it, taxpayers won’t subsidize it any more than they already do, and politicians won’t enforce unpopular rules to buy it anyway. It’s increasingly hard for subsidies to catch up with healthcare costs that continue to grow faster than the overall economy. Insurance premiums over time just reflect the underlying costs of healthcare as it is delivered and demanded. The real solutions will come from keeping people healthier to begin with and treating their medical conditions more effectively and efficiently. Changing public policies that keep the entry price of insurance coverage too high for too many Americans would provide a starting point for more progress. Reversing decades of overregulation, mistargeted tax subsidies, and lack of transparency in the healthcare sector would not solve all problems, but it sure would help reduce them.
Drastic Surgery For Iran’s Gay Men: The Law Banning Homosexuality Has Forced Gay Iranians To Have Sex Changes
July 30, 2008
If you are a man who wants to become a woman, then the Islamic Republic of Iran can help.” This extraordinary proposal comes from the publicity material for a play about to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival.
Called Plastic, it is written by the acclaimed Iranian playwright Mehrdad Seyf, who in an interview this week with The First Post helped explain how Iran, land of Ahmadinejad and nuclear stand-offs, has become the world centre for sex change surgery.
The starting point is straightforward if shocking: homosexuality is a crime in Iran, punishable by death. Human Rights Watch has reported that as recently as November 2005 two men in their twenties were publicly hanged for homosexual conduct in the northern town of Gorgan.
But while the government persecutes gay men, it sanctions sex change operations – even ubsidising 50 per cent of the cost – on the grounds that the operation will ‘cure’ them of their homosexuality.
Mehrdad Seyf explains how this came about. “Ayatollah Khomenei actually decreed it in a fatwa 25 years ago,” he says.
Khomenei was confronted in his living room by a distraught young man called Fereydoon. Due to hormone replacement therapy, Fereydoon already had breasts. He was covered in blood, after being beaten badly by the Ayatollah’s bodyguards.
“He tied his shoes together and put them around his neck,” Seyf says, “which is a sign to Muslims that you must be heard. The Ayatollah listened and decreed that anyone who feels trapped inside someone else’s body has the right to get rid of this body and transform into the other sex.”
Since sex change operations became legal, many men have sought the help of Tehran’s best-established ‘gender reassignment surgeon’, Dr Bahram Mir Jalali, who has carried out about 460 sex change operations in the last 12 years. Relative to population, this is seven times the average number performed in the West.
It was Jalali who pioneered the idea that transexuals have a medical condition, which puts them beyond moral judgment. Feminine men in Iran are vulnerable to be pulled up by the authorities for anything that is seen as “corrupting society”. Yet as transexuals they are even allowed documentation declaring their new identity.
But are ordinary gay men being forced to have the operation in order to conform to Iranian society? This question is examined in the award-winning film Be Like Others (right), directed by Iranian Tanaz Eshagian.
Tanaz pointed out becoming transexual does not free the men from persecution. Seyf agrees, saying that many transexuals find it hard to find work in Iran, forcing them into prostitution. Jessica Stern of HRW states that the police have “created an atmosphere of terror for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people throughout Iran”.
Seyf also points out that many men who have the sex change operation come from very traditional, conservative Iranian families. One mother told him: “I am looking forward to my son becoming a nice Muslim girl”. Her son-turned-daughter became so traditional after the operation that her liberal male lover left, finding her too conservative.
And that’s just one of the complexities tackled in Plastic, Seyf’s entertaining, absurdist production.
July 30, 2008
The United States leads the Western world in mother-only families, according to Kathleen Parker, author of Save the Males: Why Men Matter and Why Women Should Care, which has just been published by Random House. Since 1960, she continues, the number of children living in fatherless homes has tripled, from 8 million to 24 million–at a time when the population didn’t quite double.
Interesting observations. And Save the Males–a book that purports to shows how men and fathers are under siege, and what might be done about it–has plenty of them.
Because of these observations, Save the Males is almost a very good book. Parker has raised some interesting ideas here and collected evidence from a wide variety of sources. But Parker doesn’t quite succeed. She’s done too much Googling, and not enough original reporting. And she delivers her observations in an snarky tone that is sometimes entertaining but more often sour.
But Save the Males has virtues. Parker busts commonly accepted myths about fathers, and tells us what’s really going on. Here’s one example: Deadbeat dads refuse to pay their child support to spite their exes or because they’ve abandoned their kids. That, says Parker, is not the common scenario. She quotes statistics showing that in 2005, 70 percent of child support debt was owed by men earning $10,000 a year or less. In other words, men who don’t earn enough to live on themselves. These are not angry, outlaw husbands and fathers. They simply can’t pay.
And she has a sharp eye for trends. Family courts, she says, are increasingly adding “virtual visits” to custody arrangements, counting emailing with Dad as part of the visitation time. She jumps into the charged debate about single motherhood, making her point by citing an extreme view. She quotes Peggy Drexler of Cornell University, who argues not only that fathers are not necessary in raising kids, but that they get in the way. “Single mothers get to do it their way, no ifs, ands, or buts,” Drexler has written. No father means no marital discord over the kids. Parker amusingly disagrees.
Midway through the book, however, Parker seems to lose her way. She veers into a chapter decrying the Vagina Monologues and feminist seminars that teach women how to pleasure themselves. (The chapter carries a printed warning underneath the title: “Reader discretion is advised.”)
She then zig-zags to an attack on “celebrity sluts” and the “porning of America.” Next comes an extended commentary on the military and on Private Jessica Lynch, the unfortunate young West Virginia woman who was manipulated and made into a hero by the Bush administration.
All of this is interesting, fun, maybe true. But what does it have to do with saving males?
Parker’s personal views also seem muddled. If it were not for feminism, she says, “I probably would be publishing this book under the name Kevin Parker.” But in a typical unpleasantly jokey aside on the same page, she wraps up a century of feminism this way: In first-wave feminism, women got the vote; in the second wave they got “employed and divorced”; and the third “is busy making them porn stars. More or less.” Another reader might take this to be a clever way of saying that feminism has been a mixed bag. I find it confusing.
And while Parker has some interesting things to say about parenthood, her own approach is strange. When she and a fellow Cub Scout leader wanted to talk to their cubs about Women’s History Month, Parker summoned the troops this way: “Boys, get in here, sit down, and shut up. Now!!” (The emphasis and exclamation points are Parker’s.)
I regret to say that I’ve used that tone with my kids, but I’ve always been sorry later. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, as Parker does. “Lo and behold, they did get in there. And they did sit. And they did shut up,” she reports.
In her conclusion, Parker loses the snarky attitude, and seems to finally tell us what she’s been trying to say. “Overall, I was happy to highlight the flaws of radical feminism and its damage to both men and women,” she says, “while recognizing that sensible feminism isn’t so much about advancing women as it is about advancing humankind.”
Even some moderate feminists might disagree with that. But props to Parker for entering the fray.