America Wins!

April 5, 2012

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The New Republic:

On a Monday in late February, I received a Facebook message from a Syrian activist notifying me that a demonstration was due to start in half an hour in a heavily guarded section of Damascus. The occasion was a funeral, and so the protest was likely to be large. “Two of the five martyrs are children, and funeral processions for children are always big,” the message explained.

I took a cab to the Kafr Sousa district, an area that is home to many government buildings, and walked for 20 minutes, until I came upon about 75 casually dressed men toting machine guns. These were the shabiha—the plain-clothes, pro-government militia who have taken the lead in suppressing the rebellion. Their presence suggested that I was headed in the right direction.

I followed a barely perceptible trickle of young people down a residential side street. Old men stood around nervously, as if waiting for something to happen. A boy of about ten came darting up the middle of the street, his face partly obscured by a hoodie. “Allahu Akbar,” he shouted as he ran. I fell in behind him and, after passing another line of heavily armed men, there it was: a nondescript mosque with several thousand ululating mourners huddled outside.

The body of a twelve-year-old boy was being held aloft on a wooden board—he had apparently been shot by the army during a previous protest. I could see no Western journalists or anyone from Syrian state television. Locals had clambered on the back of a disused truck and were shooting footage on iPads and digital recording devices. When I took out my phone to take a picture, however, a masked man approached and suggested that I put it away.

For a time, the shabiha looked like they might not let anyone leave. Eventually, however, the funeral procession began to move, with a group of teenagers at the front. A bearded man told me that this was common: Young people “have more energy than us,” he said, “so they take the lead.” I approached a nattily dressed young man in his mid-twenties wearing a beret and a cardigan, and introduced myself as a journalist. “Have you Coke and onions?” he replied. This response was not as nonsensical as it sounded: When the demonstrations are targeted with tear gas, protesters rub Coca-Cola into their eyes and use onions to take care of the acrid smell.

The young man, Mohammed, told me as we walked that the demonstrators were shouting to the child, “Your father said, ‘Hold your head up high,’” and to his parents, “We are all your son.” At funerals, he explained, mourners avoid political statements so as not to provoke the army or the shabiha. A single mention of Bashar Al Assad could provoke a hail of bullets. He warned me that, if anything happened, I shouldn’t run forward or backward but tear off down a side road. “You can’t get arrested,” he said. “You are going to be our voice.”

As we marched through narrow streets, people congregated on their porches and balconies to watch and pay their respects. The adults were stony-faced, but the children were smiling, and one or two were dancing. A group of boys began pounding hard on the iron grille of a closed shop front, but Mohammed, who seemed to double as an informal steward, shooed them away. The owner, he explained, was suspected of working with the secret police: “We can’t give the government the slightest excuse. If we so much as light a fire, they will come for us.”

Five minutes later, they did. A brief funeral oration was read, during which the crowd stood perfectly silent. Shortly afterward, it tried to push forward and the shabihacharged. Everyone dashed for cover; Mohammed and I raced down an alleyway. After about 100 yards, we looked behind us and saw no one was following. We emerged at an incongruously pristine shopping mall, and I invited Mohammed for coffee.

This was my third trip to Syria. I first visited in October 2010 and again in November last year. This time, I was particularly eager to meet the young activists who are the heart of the movement against the Assad regime. Three out of five Syrians are under 25, and, beyond the lazy clichés about a new “Facebook generation,” there’s little understanding in the West of who they are and what they might want. And so I came back to Syria for ten days, not as an officially sanctioned journalist but as a civilian—living in ordinary Damascus hotels and meeting as many Syrian activists as I could.

I HAD BEEN NOTIFIED of the funeral procession by a young woman named Nadia—a sassy, fast-talking 21-year-old student at Damascus University. (I’ve changed the names of some of the activists with whom I spoke.) She’d shown up for our first meeting wearing a glamorous white hijab and a plastic raincoat. Nadia seemed well-to-do—her parents, she told me, were comfortable but not rich—and she spoke in perfect, American-accented English. She refused my offer of coffee. “In the coffee bars, someone’s always listening,” she explained. So we walked to the nearby Ummayad Mosque and sat down outside.

Nadia had been involved with the anti-government movement for less than two months. She’d been quietly sympathetic to the protesters when demonstrations first broke out across Syria last March. But she hadn’t joined in, because of the horror stories about the way the Syrian regime treats female political prisoners. Then, in December, Arab League observers had arrived to monitor the regime’s treatment of the opposition. Baathist supporters of the Assad government decided to organize rallies to demonstrate their strength. One was planned for Damascus University; those who didn’t want to take part were ordered to leave the campus. Nadia told me that a friend of hers stayed behind and was raped by a shabiha. Not long afterward, Nadia went on her first protest.

Since then, she has become accustomed to the threat of violence. She told me almost matter of factly about one demonstration she’d attended in a district called Mezzeh—about 20,000 people gathered amidst falling snow. (Footage of this rally can be seen on YouTube.) Without warning, the shabiha opened fire. “I hit the ground immediately,” Nadia told me. “Most of the bullets went above our heads. I could hear them whizzing past.”

Together with a group of fellow students, Nadia helps organize demonstrations. She would occasionally send me cryptic text messages inviting me to check my Facebook account, where I would find directions to protests. Her texts tended to arrive at the last minute: The pervasive security presence in Damascus means demonstrations are frequently organized on the fly.

Her group also coordinates the delivery of medical supplies to beleaguered opposition strongholds like Homs, where activists fear hospital employees will turn them in to the authorities. Their caution is justified: In February, a report released by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that security forces “systematically arrest wounded patients in State hospitals … to interrogate them, often using torture.” The report also noted that sections of two hospitals had been converted into “torture centers,” where security agents “chained seriously ill patients to their beds, electrocuted them, beat wounded parts of their body or denied them medical attention and water.”

As we sat talking outside the mosque, a posse of shabiha wandered past in green khakis, handcuffs jangling from their waists. Some appeared to be barely more than teenagers. But Nadia was more concerned by a pudgy, bearded man holding a camera and staring in our direction. “Secret police,” she said. Nadia estimated that one in four Damascenes have some kind of relationship with the sprawling Syrian security state. In March, documents allegedly leaked from the Syrian security apparatus and published by Al Jazeera noted that 1,000 security staff were deployed around the Ummayad Mosque alone. (The day after I met Nadia, I discovered that the secret police had been asking questions about me. “State security. They wanted to know who you were and who you’d been meeting,” a man told me. “It’s normal, but be careful.”)…

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Boston Review:

Far too many American adults work in low-wage jobs. In 2010, 20 percent of adults earned a wage that would put a family of four below the poverty line. Twenty-four percent of adults earned less than two-thirds of the median wage, another widely used international standard for gauging low-wage work.

Better jobs seem the obvious solution. The government could raise and enforce labor standards and push firms to invest in training and to create advancement opportunities for low-wage workers. Unions can also play a key role by advocating for increased wages and training opportunities within firms. These steps would be effective, but they would face enormous resistance, even among liberals, because they intervene directly in the job market.

The conventional wisdom focuses almost entirely on two strategies: educating people so they can escape the low wage–job trap and, for those who cannot, providing some level of support through programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, an income supplement conditioned on work. The idea is to let the economy generate jobs of whatever quality firms choose and then, if necessary, compensate by enabling people to avoid the bad ones or by shoring up people who are stuck. The nature of available jobs is a given.

In practice this restrictive framework condemns millions to low wages and poor working conditions. And it continues to be the norm thanks to three myths: 1) economic growth and high rates of upward mobility will solve the problem; 2) policy efforts to alter the distribution of economic rewards inevitably slow down growth and damage labor market efficiency; 3) education alone is enough to help low-wage workers get better jobs.

None of these claims holds water when confronted with data. That’s good news because it opens the door to serious consideration of the low wage–jobs problem and how to fix it.

Myth 1: Lifting All Boats

Was President Kennedy right that “a rising tide lifts all boats”? When we climb out of the Great Recession, will we put the challenge of low-wage jobs behind us?

The 1990s offer a perfect test of a strong overall economy’s capacity to improve the quality of employment. It was a decade of remarkable prosperity during which unemployment steadily dropped, from 7.5 percent in 1992 to 4 percent in 2000. What happened to low-wage workers?

At the beginning of the boom, 25 percent of adults fell below the poverty line; by 2000, the rate was 19 percent. It is hard to look at these figures and argue that the boom substantially improved the low-wage labor market. Obviously full employment and a strong economy are good things, but generating better jobs requires more direct interventions.

And just as we can’t expect aggregate growth to improve jobs by itself, we can’t expect low-wage workers to move up without changes in policy. There is considerable evidence that U.S. adults remain confined in low-wage jobs over the course of their working lives. A 2004 study by economist Harry Holzer found that over the course of six years in the early 1990s—a growth period—less than a third of low earners raised their incomes enough to bring a family of four consistently above the poverty line. Studies of more recent data by Pamela Lopresete, Brett Theodos, and others find similar results.

Myth 2: Good-Jobs Policy Hurts the Economy

One critique of efforts to improve job quality and reduce the size of the low wage–labor market is that such efforts distort incentives and damage overall economic performance. The idea is that people will work harder and invest more if they fear the consequences of not doing so. There is an argument on the other side: people respond better to the carrot than to the stick, and if working conditions were improved, effort and productivity would rise.

These arguments can be tested by examining the performance of several northern European nations, all at the same level of technological sophistication as the United States and all competing in international markets.

How does America compare in terms of income inequality? Table 1 shows the ratio of the earnings of the top 10 percent of wage earners to the bottom 10 percent as well as the ratio of the median to the top 10 percent. Clearly the United States is the outlier. It is not surprising that the U.S. poverty rate substantially exceeds that of other developed nations.

Europeans achieve these results through a combination of higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and more egalitarian social norms. Economists often argue that more egalitarian wages reduce incentives to work and that a higher minimum wage increases the cost of labor and therefore encourages unemployment, so the European job market should suffer as a result of lifting the bottom. Does it? In fact, among both women and men, the fraction of the “prime age” (25–54 years old) population that works is higher in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands than in the United States.

This pattern has persisted for many years, and researchers looking at different measures reach similar conclusions. As labor economist Richard Freeman writes, “The best summary of the data—what we really know—is that labour institutions reduce earnings inequality but that they have no clear relation to other aggregate outcomes, such as unemployment.”

Myth 3: Education Solves Everything

Scholars and policymakers point to the correlation between education and wages and argue that if people had more skills and schooling then they would not find themselves in bad jobs. In other words, inevitable market forces are at work. But this commonly accepted narrative obscures important alternative solutions to the challenge of low-wage jobs.

“Human capital” is only part of the story. When we probe more carefully the relationship between education and earnings, we find that the average masks a great deal of variation, suggesting that job quality is influenced by much more than educational attainment. To illustrate this point, Table 2 shows the distribution of earnings among men and women, 31–39 years old, with only a high school degree. Even within these narrowly defined groups there is much variation in earnings, which cannot be explained by education, age, or gender. More sophisticated statistical analyses reach the same conclusion…

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Who Is Peter Pan?

April 5, 2012

NYRB:

A few writers have the kind of power that believers attribute to gods: they create men and women and children who seem to us to be real. But unlike gods, these writers do not control the lives of their most famous creations. As time passes, their tales are told and retold. Writers and dramatists and film-makers kidnap famous characters like Romeo and Juliet, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman; they change the characters’ ages and appearance, the progress and endings of their stories, and even their meanings.

One of the characters most frequently kidnapped by writers, dramatists, and filmmakers is James Barrie’s Peter Pan. As a result he and his adventures have become immensely famous: there have been scores, possibly hundreds of dramatizations and condensations, prequels and sequels and spinoffs. Some are interesting and even admirable, but there have also been many cheap and even vulgar versions.

It is a pleasure therefore to report that Norton has just published The Annotated Peter Pan, a large handsome book edited by the Harvard folklorist Maria Tatar. It contains the complete text of James Barrie’s novel Peter and Wendy (which was based on the original play), an excellent bibliography and notes, plus essays about Barrie’s life and work, and the stage and film and book adaptations of Peter Pan.It is full of remarkable pictures and photographs, including all of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations for Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and those of F.D.Bedford for Peter and Wendy. Though you might not want this book to be a child’s first experience of Peter Pan, it should interest anyone who already knows his story.

From Peanut Butter to Psychology

The central facts about Peter Pan are as follows: he is a charming, charismatic child who wants “always to be a little boy and have fun” and gets his wish. He can fly and teach other children how to fly, and he lives on an island called Neverland that combines the landscapes of contemporary British children’s fantasies and games. There he is the captain of a group of Lost Boys whom he leads on thrilling adventures with pirates, Indians, mermaids, fairies, and wild beasts. But he longs for a mother, and manages to entice a little girl called Wendy to leave her home in London and follow him, with her two brothers, to Neverland.

 Over the last hundred years this story has itself taken wing. Peter Pan’s name is now used symbolically for a bus company (speedy, thrilling travel), a brand of peanut butter (childhood treats), and shops, motels, and restaurants all over the world.

A psychological disorder, the Peter Pan Syndrome, has also been named after Barrie’s hero. This unfortunate condition, according to the formerly best-selling book of the same name by Dr. Dan Kiley, published in 1983, afflicts a great many American men.* Unlike the original Peter Pan, the victims of Peter Pan Syndrome don’t want to remain children; instead they are stuck in adolescence. Having passed puberty, they are interested in sex, but they have difficulty with love. In addition to irresponsibility, narcissism, and poor memory, common among very young children, they also suffer from anxiety, loneliness, and sex-role conflict, which lead inevitably to social impotence and despondency. Underneath a surface self-assurance these men usually have very low self-esteem and lots of guilt. According to Dr. Kiley, this is all the fault of their parents: fathers who are cold and distant and mean; mothers who are weak and needy and neurotically emotional.

An occupational hazard of the medical profession, and the natural result of a life largely spent in the company of people whose souls or bodies hurt, is a tendency to overestimate the prevalence of illness. Dr. Kiley tends to find examples of the Peter Pan Syndrome almost everywhere, and his book encourages people who recognize the symptoms in themselves or some family member to see a therapist immediately.

Though The Peter Pan Syndrome was published nearly thirty years ago, it still seems relevant, at least for popular culture. Contemporary films and TV are full of males in their twenties and thirties who are trying hard not to grow up. Essentially, they want always to be adolescents and have fun, which for them involves a lot of drinking and fast driving and drugs and easy if occasionally rather awkward sex. They are modern Lost Boys, lovable louts who avoid work as much as possible. Often they have a charismatic leader, a kind of super Peter Pan who initiates their many comic adventures and exceeds the rest in alcoholic excess and vulgar joking. They are often boorishly good-natured: they enjoy practical jokes and spectator sports.

Though they talk a lot about sex, usually in a crude way, their closest and most comfortable attachments are to their buddies. Occasionally they manage to hook up with attractive women who in real life would probably not want to have anything to do with them, and sometimes they actually get married and even make efforts to become responsible parents. Generally, however, demands for maturity from the external world are successfully resisted, and the protagonists feel only an occasional twinge of despondency, which can be cured, at least temporarily, by an excursion to the local Neverland, where they can find alcohol and drugs and the opportunity to take part in humorous brawls with the local pirates, Indians, and wild animals.

These characters are celebrated in what are now known as “slacker” comedies, of which one of the most famous was The Big Lebowski (1998). It stars Jeff Bridges as the Dude, a cheerful, lazy, unemployed bowling enthusiast who becomes involved with crooks, and with a crippled millionaire who is a kind of Captain Hook figure. In Slacker (1991), written, directed, produced by, and starring Richard Linklater (clearly no slacker in real life), the principal characters are a collection of entertaining, mostly idle misfits, incompetents, and individualists. It is a good thing that Barrie never met these contemporary Peter Pans; he would certainly have reacted with Dr. Kiley’s anxiety and despondency…

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Yet Another Airline Fee

April 5, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Tax Avoidance Loopholes

April 5, 2012

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