Friday, February 15, 2013

In the Cook Islands, A Role for Shame in Addressing Obesity. By Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky.

In Some Cultures, a Role for Shame in Addressing Obesity. By Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky. The Atlantic, February 15, 2013.

Egypt Against Itself. By Lee Smith.

Egypt Against Itself. By Lee Smith. The Weekly Standard, February 18, 2013. Also find it here.

More on Morsi and Egypt here.

Sports Illustrated Called Racist For Using “Exotic” People In Swimsuit Issue. By Meredith Bennett-Smith.

Sports Illustrated Called Racist For Using “Exotic” People In Swimsuit Issue. By Meredith Bennett-Smith. The Huffington Post, February 15, 2013.

Getting Married in Israel: Why It So Often Means Hiring a Detective. By Daniel Estrin.

Getting Married in Israel: Why It So Often Means Hiring a Detective. By Daniel Estrin. The Atlantic, February 13, 2013.

A Middle-Class Paradise in Palestine? By Armin Rosen.

A Middle-Class Paradise in Palestine? By Armin Rosen. The Atlantic, February 11, 2013.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s 213-Year Revolution. By Eric Trager.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s 213-Year Revolution. By Eric Trager. The Atlantic, February 15, 2013.

Islamists, Secularists, and the Future of Egypt. Interview by Ed Husain with Abdel Mawgoud Al-Dardery. Audio. Council on Foreign Relations, February 13, 2013.

More on Egypt and Morsi here.

China, Technology and the U.S. Middle Class. By Chrystia Freeland.

China, technology and the U.S. middle class. By Chrystia Freeland. Reuters, February 15, 2013.

The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States. By David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson. MIT working paper, November 2012. American Economic Review forthcoming.


President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this week confirmed it: The pre-eminent political and economic challenge in the industrialized democracies is how to make capitalism work for the middle class.

There is nothing mysterious about that. The most important fact about the United States in this century is that middle-class incomes are stagnating. The financial crisis has revealed an equally stark structural problem in much of Europe.

Even in a relatively prosperous age — for all of today’s woes, we have left behind the dark, satanic mills and workhouses of the 19th century — this decline of the middle class is more than an economic issue. It is also a political one. The main point of democracy is to deliver positive results for the majority.

All of which is why understanding what is happening to the middle class is urgently important. There is no better place to start than by talking to David Autor, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Autor is one of the leading students of the most striking trend bedeviling the middle class: the polarization of the job market. That is a nice way of saying the economy is being cleaved into high-paying jobs at the top and low-paying jobs at the bottom, while the middle-skill and middle-wage jobs that used to form society’s backbone are being hollowed out.

But when I asked him this week what had gone wrong for the U.S. middle class, he gave a different answer: “The main problem is we’ve just had a decade of incredibly anemic employment growth. All of a sudden, around 2000 and 2001, things just slowed down.”

Academics can usually be counted on to have a confident explanation for everything. That is why I was surprised and impressed by Autor’s answer when I asked him where the jobs had gone. “No one really understands why that is the case,” he said.

It was a winningly modest reply. But work by Autor and two colleagues — David Dorn, a visiting professor at Harvard, and Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego — is starting to untangle the two forces that both the conventional wisdom and the academy agree are probably responsible for a lot of what is happening to the middle class.

Those forces are technological change and trade. The easy assumption is that the two go together. After all, trade needs technology — it is hard to imagine outsourcing without the Internet, sophisticated logistics systems and jet travel. Technology is dependent on trade, too: The opportunity for global scale is one reason technological innovation has yielded such outsize rewards.

But in a careful study of local labor markets in the United States, Autor, Dorn and Hanson have found that trade and technology had very different consequences for jobs.

“We were surprised at how distinct the two were,” Autor said. “We found that the trade shock had a very measurable impact on the employment rate. Technology led to job polarization, but its employment effect was minimal.” Trade, at least in the short term, really did ship jobs overseas. Technology did not kill jobs per se, but it did hollow out those essential jobs in the middle.

The big surprise, at least for believers (like me) in the classic liberal economic view that trade benefits both parties, is the strong and negative impact of globalization on U.S. workers — Autor estimates it accounts for 15 to 20 percent of jobs lost.

“The rise of China was such a huge change. It really did matter,” Autor said. “First, China is such a huge country. Two, China was 40 or 50 years behind in technology, so it had a lot of catching up to do. Third, it happened so fast.”

What is striking, and frightening, is the extent to which, at least in the U.S.-China trade relationship, the knee-jerk, populist fears intellectuals tend to deride actually turned out to be true.

“U.S.-China trade is almost a one-way street. This trade relationship doesn’t clearly give you the benefit that you can sell a lot of stuff to your trade partner,” Dorn said. “If you talk to someone who is somehow involved in the promotion of free trade, they may say that maybe the headquarters of Apple (AAPL.O) benefits. That may be true. But the first-order effect is of job loss.”

The impact of technology is more familiar. Autor, Dorn and Hanson found that it did not create fewer jobs overall, but it did hollow out the jobs in the middle.

“Technology has really changed the distribution of occupation. That doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with reduced unemployment, but it creates a more bimodal set of opportunities,” Autor said. “There is an abundance of work to do in food service and there is an abundance of work in finance, but there are fewer middle-wage, middle-income jobs.”

What is challenging about both of these trends, and what makes the hollowing out of the middle class a political problem as well as an economic one, is how different they look depending on whether you own a company or work for one.

Shipping middle-class jobs to China, or hollowing them out with machines, is a win for smart managers and their shareholders. We call the result higher productivity. But, looked at through the lens of middle-class jobs, it is a loss. That profound difference is why politics in the rich democracies are so polarized right now. Capitalism and democracy are at cross-purposes, and no one yet has a clear plan for reconciling them.

Who Failed Chicago? By Michelle Malkin.

Who failed Chicago? By Michelle Malkin., February 13, 2013.


Democrats poured another $30 million in public money into the city’s public schools to curb youth violence over the last three years. The New York Times hailed the big government plan to fund more social workers, community organizers, and mentors and create jobs for at-risk youth. But watchdogs on the ground exposed it as a wasteful “makework scheme.” One local activist nicknamed the boondoggle “Jobs for Jerks” because “it rewards some of the worst students in the school system with incredibly rare employment opportunities while leaving good students to fend for themselves.”

Obama and his ineffectual champions of Chicago’s youth will demand more taxpayer “investments” to throw at the problem. But money is no substitute for the soaring fatherlessness, illegitimacy, and family disintegration that have characterized Chicago inner-city life since Obama’s hero Saul Alinsky pounded the pavement. As Heather MacDonald noted in a damning indictment of the do-gooders’ failures, “official silence about illegitimacy and its relation to youth violence remains as carefully preserved in today’s Chicago as it was during Obama’s organizing time there.”

Team Obama will find perverted ways to lay blame for Chicago’s youth violence crisis on the NRA, Sarah Palin, Fox News, George Bush, and the Tea Party. But as the community organizer-in-chief prepares to evade responsibility again, he should remember: When you point one finger at everyone else, four other fingers point right back at you-know-who.

Why Syria’s Islamists Are Gaining. By J. Malcolm Garcia.

Why Syria’s Islamists Are Gaining. By J. Malcolm Garcia. New York Times, February 14, 2013.



A YOUNG fighter for the Free Syrian Army sat at a checkpoint on a couch taken from an abandoned house. He cradled his Kalashnikov and waited on the empty street for a car to inspect, or a pedestrian to pat down. If only the future of Syria would reveal itself to him as easily.

The rebels in the Free Syrian Army don’t doubt that they will drive President Bashar al-Assad from power — eventually — but they have no idea what will happen afterward: Democracy? An Islamic republic? An Islamic dictatorship? The fighters I met on a recent visit here were unable to articulate any long-term political vision.

While the young rebel sat at his checkpoint, and while Americans continue to debate whether to intervene in Syria or just look the other way, Islamist militants are exploiting the uncertainty here. They have a clear mission: imposing an Islamist state in place of Mr. Assad.

“The people who believe in a strict Islam will do anything, fight anybody, do anything for Islam,” a barber who recently reopened his shop told me. “They are like the U.S. Special Forces. They like death more than life.”

The grass-roots supporters of the Islamists whom I spoke with were a mixture of devout fundamentalist Muslims, returning merchants struggling to make ends meet, parents of dead fighters for the Free Syrian Army, and some of the fighters themselves.

They insisted that they wanted only a “pure” Islam, not a Taliban-style government, to replace the Assad family’s regime, which has ruled Syria since 1971. But they offered examples of purity that sounded Talibanesque: Women must cover their entire bodies. Everyone must pray five times a day. Dancing should be prohibited. Differing interpretations of Islam would be tolerated, they say, as long as those beliefs remained “a secret” — a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

What the Islamists conveyed most clearly, however, was a firm sense of direction. They also managed to deliver much-needed social services in the rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

Perhaps their determination and efficiency were meant to silence qualms about their ultimate goals; if so, the tactic seemed to be working. Just as Afghans welcomed the Taliban in the 1990s — not for its harsh interpretation of Islam, but for the prospect of respite from decades of dislocation — some Sunni Muslims in this ancient, multi-sectarian city are now embracing Islamists out of sheer exhaustion from the conflict, which is nearly two years old.

“I had a shop,” one man told me, “but when the revolution came to Aleppo I couldn’t stock it, so I sold everything. Islamic youth organizations now give us flour. We need bread, at least, just to live. We support the Free Syrian Army, but the Islamists let us eat.”

If the West and moderate Arab nations want to prevent a Taliban-style dictatorship from replacing the current Baathist regime, it’s time for them to offer Syrians more hope. The Syrians I met here seemed ready to support anyone, or anything — except negotiations with Mr. Assad — that could restore normalcy to their lives.

The United Nations recently reported that record numbers of Syrians have poured into Jordan and Lebanon. But as of late January, the United Nations fund for Syrian refugees had collected less than 20 percent of the $1.1 billion it had sought from donor nations to care for the refugees. And even that money would not begin to address Syria’s shattered cities and ruined economy, even if the war were to end today.

So Syrians feel abandoned and increasingly skeptical of Western expressions of concern.

“Why did America go into Libya and not Syria?” asked Abu-Mohammad al-Husen, a Free Syrian Army commander. “In my opinion, America wants to maintain the war so Al-Assad won’t have a huge army to attack Israel. America only cares about Israel. That’s why we say only Allah and the jihadists support us.”

The Free Syrian Army soldiers, meanwhile, seem content with fighting a war with no clear end in sight.

One afternoon, I stood with a rebel commander as he rocketed a building that housed government soldiers. After he and his men fled the area shouting, “God is great,” he returned to his wife and children and considered watching a “Lord of the Rings” DVD. He had no firm plan to follow up the assault. “Possibly tomorrow,” he told me, “when they won’t expect us.”

His strategy embraced a skewed kind of logic, I suppose. Why rush? Without war, without guns, many of these fighters would most likely be unemployed or back at school. Their bravery and passion can’t be denied, but the longer the war lasts, the longer they have a purpose. “I don’t know what will happen when the war ends,” Akran Ahmed, a 16-year-old rebel, told me. “I just have my gun.”

The belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend has allowed the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists to cooperate — but only for now. Disappointment about American disengagement seemed to grow by the day. “Nobody there cares,” Khaled Sandah, 49, whose son, a rebel, was killed in the fighting. “They just talk and talk.” He added: “We will keep going with our own power and our guns and Allah. We will make victory ourselves and have freedom and an Islamic country.”

Any Solution to Syria? By Thomas L. Friedman.

Any Solution to Syria? By Thomas L. Friedman. New York Times, February 9, 2013.



SHOULD the U.S. intervene to stop the bloodshed in Syria? I find myself torn between four different perspectives — from New Delhi, Baghdad, Tel Aviv and the U.N.

Last week, I met with a group of Indian strategists here at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses to talk about how America should withdraw from Afghanistan and navigate the interests of India, Pakistan and Iran. At one point, I tossed out an idea to which one of the Indian analysts responded: That was tried before — “in the 11th century.” It didn’t work out well. That’s why I like coming to Delhi to talk about the region. Indian officials tend to think in centuries, not months, and they look at the map of the Middle East without any of the British-drawn colonial borders. Instead, they only see old civilizations (Persia, Turkey, Egypt), old faiths (Shiites, Sunnis and Hindus), and old peoples (Pashtuns, Tajiks, Jews and Arabs) — all interacting within long-set patterns of behavior.

“If you want to understand this region, just take out a map from the Ganges to the Nile and remove the British lines,” remarked M. J. Akbar, the veteran Indian Muslim journalist and author. It takes you back to the true undercurrents of history that have long ruled the Middle East “and to interests defined by people and tribes and not just governments.”

When you look at the region this way, what do you see? First, you see that there is no way the U.S. can keep Afghanistan stable after we draw down — without working with Iran. Because of the age-old ties between Iranian Shiites and the Shiite Persian-speaking Afghans of Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, Iran always was and always will be a player in Afghan politics. Shiite Iran has never liked the Sunni Taliban. “Iran is the natural counter to Sunni extremism,” said Akbar. It’s in Iran’s interest to “diminish the Taliban.” That’s why America and Iran were tacit allies in unseating the Taliban, and they will be tacit allies in preventing the reseating of the Taliban.

So from India, the struggle in Syria looks like just another chapter in the long-running Sunni-Shiite civil war. Syria is a proxy war between Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar — two monarchies funding the Syrian “democrats,” who are largely Syrian Sunnis — and Shiite Iran and the Shiite-Alawite Syrian regime. It’s a war that never ends; it can only be suppressed.

Which is why in Israel some Israeli generals are starting to realize that if Syria is a fight to the death it could pose as great a strategic threat to Israel as Iran’s nuclear program. If Syria disintegrates into another Afghanistan — on Israel’s border — it would be an untamed land, with jihadists, chemical weapons and surface-to-air missiles all freely floating about.

Can that collapse be avoided? From Washington, some hoped that by quickly toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the West and the Sunnis could “flip” Syria from the Iranian-Soviet orbit to the Sunni-Saudi-American orbit. I’m dubious. I doubt that Syria can be flipped in one piece; it will break apart in the air into Sunni and Alawite regions. And, if we did manage to flip Syria, Iran would try to “flip” predominantly Shiite Iraq and Bahrain into its camp.

Some Arab diplomats at the U.N. argue, though, that there is a middle way, but it would require the U.S. to lead: First, mobilize the Security Council to pass a resolution calling for the creation of a transitional government in Syria with “full powers” and with equal representation of Alawites and Sunni rebels. If the Russians could be persuaded to back such a resolution (not easy), it could break the stalemate inside Syria, because many regime loyalists would see the writing on the wall and abandon Assad. The stick would be to tell the Russians that if they don’t back such a resolution, the U.S. would start sending weapons to the secular/moderate rebels.

Can there really be such a policy between George W. Bush’s “all-in” approach to transforming Iraq and Barack Obama’s “you-touch-it-you-own-it-so-don’t-even-touch-it” approach to Syria? One should study Iraq. The lesson of Iraq is that deep historical currents were at play there — Sunnis versus Shiites and Kurds versus Arabs. The December 2010 Iraqi elections demonstrated, though, that multisectarian parties and democratic rule were possible in Iraq — and actually the first choice of most Iraqis. But America would have had to keep some troops there for another decade to see that shift from sectarianism to multisectarianism become even remotely self-sustaining. Syria is Iraq’s twin. The only way you’ll get a multisectarian transition there is with a U.N. resolution backed by Russia and backed by a well-armed referee on the ground to cajole, hammer and induce the parties to live together.

It’s the Middle East, Jake.

If you will the ends, you’d better will the means. You can’t change the politics “unless you say you’ll stay for a hundred years,” insists Akbar. But no one wants to play empire anymore. In which case, he argues, it’s always best not to stay long in any of these countries — five months, not five years. Five years, says Akbar, is just long enough for people to hate you, but not fear or respect you, let alone change their long-held ways.

India vs. China vs. Egypt. By Thomas L. Friedman.

India vs. China vs. Egypt. By Thomas L. Friedman. New York Times, February 5, 2013.