Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Death Spiral of the Volunteer Army

May 29, 2005
The New York Times

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld likes to talk about transforming America's military. But the main transformation he may leave behind is a catastrophic falloff in recruitment for the country's vital ground fighting forces: the Army and the Marine Corps. The recruitment chain that has given the United States highly qualified, highly skilled and highly motivated ground forces for the three decades since the government abandoned the draft has started to break down.

This is astonishing, even allowing for the administration's failure to prepare Americans honestly for how long and difficult the occupation of Iraq would be. There are over 60 million American men and women between 18 and 35, the age group sought by Army recruiters. Getting the 80,000 or so new volunteers the Army needs to enlist each year ought not to be such a daunting challenge. There are obvious attractions to joining the world's most powerful, prestigious and best-equipped ground fighting forces, and in so doing qualifying for valuable benefits like college tuition aid.

But Army recruitment is now regularly falling short of the necessary targets. Recruiters are having even more trouble persuading people to sign up for Army National Guard and Reserve units. The Marine Corps has been missing its much smaller monthly quotas as well. Unless there is a sharp change later this year, both forces will soon start feeling the pinch as too few trainees are processed to meet both forces' operational needs.

Why this is happening is no mystery. Two years of hearing about too few troops on the ground, inadequate armor, extended tours of duty and accelerated rotations back into combat have taken their toll, discouraging potential enlistees and their parents. The citizen-soldiers of the Guard and Reserves have suddenly become full-time warriors. Nor has it helped that when abuse scandals have erupted, the Pentagon has seemed quicker to punish lower-ranking soldiers than top commanders and policy makers. This negative cycle now threatens to feed on itself. Fewer recruits will mean more stress on those now in uniform and more grim reports reaching hometowns across America.

The results can now be seen at every Army and Marine recruiting office. (The Air Force and Navy, which have not been subjected to the same stresses and dangers as the ground forces, are meeting their recruiting quotas.) Missed quotas have translated into intense pressure to lower standards and recruit people who should not be in uniform. Earlier this month the Army required all of its recruiters to go through a one-day review of basic recruiting ethics.

Things might have been different if Mr. Rumsfeld had heeded the judgment of Gen. Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, in the months before the United States invaded Iraq and planned for a substantially larger occupation force. A larger force might have kept the insurgency smaller and more manageable. It would have been better able to defend itself without resorting to the kind of indiscriminate firepower that kills civilians, destroys homes and inflames Iraqi opinion. Individual combat brigades would not have been under such constant operational stress. But Mr. Rumsfeld rejected General Shinseki's sound advice. The Pentagon now says it gives field commanders as many troops as they ask for. But those commanders are aware of Mr. Rumsfeld's doctrinaire commitment to holding down troop numbers and of the diminished career prospects that could result from challenging him.

The Pentagon now hopes that next month's high school graduations will help it catch up to its recruiting goals. Besides crossing its fingers, the military should open more combat roles to women, end its senseless discrimination against gays and reach out to immigrants with promises of citizenship after completion of service. There should be no thought of reinstating the draft, which would be militarily foolish and politically explosive. But expanding the potential recruiting pool can be only a partial answer. Young people and their parents are reacting rationally to a regrettable and unnecessary transformation in how the United States government treats its ground troops. That is what needs to be changed.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Just Shut It Down

May 27, 2005
The New York Times

Shut it down. Just shut it down.

I am talking about the war-on-terrorism P.O.W. camp at Guantánamo Bay. Just shut it down and then plow it under. It has become worse than an embarrassment. I am convinced that more Americans are dying and will die if we keep the Gitmo prison open than if we shut it down. So, please, Mr. President, just shut it down.

If you want to appreciate how corrosive Guantánamo has become for America's standing abroad, don't read the Arab press. Don't read the Pakistani press. Don't read the Afghan press. Hop over here to London or go online and just read the British press! See what our closest allies are saying about Gitmo. And when you get done with that, read the Australian press and the Canadian press and the German press.

It is all a variation on the theme of a May 8 article in The Observer of London that begins, "An American soldier has revealed shocking new details of abuse and sexual torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in the first high-profile whistle-blowing account to emerge from inside the top-secret base." Google the words "Guantánamo Bay and Australia" and what comes up is an Australian ABC radio report that begins: "New claims have emerged that prisoners at Guantánamo Bay are being tortured by their American captors, and the claims say that Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib are among the victims."

Just another day of the world talking about Guantánamo Bay.

Why care? It's not because I am queasy about the war on terrorism. It is because I want to win the war on terrorism. And it is now obvious from reports in my own paper and others that the abuse at Guantánamo and within the whole U.S. military prison system dealing with terrorism is out of control. Tell me, how is it that over 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody so far? Heart attacks? This is not just deeply immoral, it is strategically dangerous.

I can explain it best by analogy. For several years now I have argued that Israel needed to get out of the West Bank and Gaza, and behind a wall, as fast as possible. Not because the Palestinians are right and Israel wrong. It's because Israel today is surrounded by three large trends. The first is a huge population explosion happening all across the Arab world. The second is an explosion of the worst interpersonal violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the history of the conflict, which has only recently been defused by a cease-fire. And the third is an explosion of Arabic language multimedia outlets - from the Internet to Al Jazeera.

What was happening around Israel at the height of the intifada was that the Arab multimedia explosion was taking the images of that intifada explosion and feeding them to the Arab population explosion, melding in the minds of a new generation of Arabs and Muslims that their enemies were J.I.A. - "Jews, Israel and America." That is an enormously toxic trend, and I hope Israel's withdrawal from Gaza will help deprive it of oxygen.

I believe the stories emerging from Guantánamo are having a similar toxic effect on us - inflaming sentiments against the U.S. all over the world and providing recruitment energy on the Internet for those who would do us ill.

Husain Haqqani, a thoughtful Pakistani scholar now teaching at Boston University, remarked to me: "When people like myself say American values must be emulated and America is a bastion of freedom, we get Guantánamo Bay thrown in our faces. When we talk about the America of Jefferson and Hamilton, people back home say to us: 'That is not the America we are dealing with. We are dealing with the America of imprisonment without trial.' "

Guantánamo Bay is becoming the anti-Statue of Liberty. If we have a case to be made against any of the 500 or so inmates still in Guantánamo, then it is high time we put them on trial, convict as many possible (which will not be easy because of bungled interrogations) and then simply let the rest go home or to a third country. Sure, a few may come back to haunt us. But at least they won't be able to take advantage of Guantánamo as an engine of recruitment to enlist thousands more. I would rather have a few more bad guys roaming the world than a whole new generation.

"This is not about being for or against the war," said Michael Posner, the executive director of Human Rights First, which is closely following this issue. "It is about doing it right. If we are going to transform the Middle East, we have to be law-abiding and uphold the values we want them to embrace - otherwise it is not going to work."

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bargaining for Freedom

The New York Times
Published: January 21, 2004
OIPET, Cambodia — Srey Neth and Srey Mom were stunned when I proposed buying their freedom from their brothel owners.

"It's unbelievable," Srey Mom said, smiling with an incandescence that seemed to light the street. "There's no problem with taking pictures and telling my story. I want to tell it. But I'm a little afraid that if my mother sees it, she'll be heartbroken."

After I decided to buy the two teenage prostitutes, as recounted in my column on Saturday, I swore them to secrecy for fear that the brothel owners would spirit them away, rather than let them tell their stories. But the first purchase, of Srey Neth, went smoothly.

[For an explanation on how I chose Srey Neth and Srey Mom read my post in the Kristof Reponds forum.]

I woke up her brothel's owner at dawn, handed over $150, brushed off demands for "interest on the debt" and got a receipt for "$150 for buying a girl's freedom." Then Srey Neth and I fled before the brothel's owner was even out of bed.

But at Srey Mom's brothel, her owner announced that the debt was not $70, as the girl had thought, but $400.

"Where are the books?" I asked. A ledger was produced, and it purported to show that Srey Mom owed the equivalent of $337. But it also revealed that the girls were virtually A.T.M.'s for the brothels, generating large sums of cash that the girls were cheated out of. After some grumpy negotiation, the owner accepted $203 as the price for Srey Mom's freedom. But then Srey Mom told me that she had pawned her cellphone and needed $55 to get it back.

"Forget about your cellphone," I said. "We've got to get out of here."

Srey Mom started crying. I told her that she had to choose her cellphone or her freedom, and she ran back to her tiny room in the brothel and locked the door.

In my last column, I described the sex trafficking in places like Cambodia as a modern form of slavery, and I believe that. But the scene that unfolded next underscored the moral complexity of a world in which some girls are ambivalent about being rescued and not all brothel owners are monsters. Some brothel owners use beatings and locked rooms to enslave their girls, but most use debts and ostensible kindness to manipulate them — and the girls are often so naïve, so stigmatized by everyone else and so broken in spirit that this works.

With Srey Mom sobbing in her room and refusing to be freed without her cellphone, the other prostitutes — her closest friends — began pleading with her to be reasonable. So did the brothel's owner.

"Grab this chance while you can," the owner begged Srey Mom. But the girl would not give in. After half an hour of hysterics about the cellphone, I felt so manipulated that I almost walked out. But I finally caved.

"O.K., O.K., I'll get back your cellphone," I told her through the door. The tears stopped.

"My jewelry, too?" she asked plaintively. "I also pawned some jewelry."

So we went to get back the phone and the jewelry — which were, I think, never the real concern. Srey Mom later explained that her resistance had nothing to do with wanting the telephone and everything to do with last-minute cold feet about whether her family and village would accept her if she returned. The possibility of rejection by her mother was almost as frightening as the idea of finishing her life in the brothel.

On our return with the phone and jewelry, the family of the brothel's owner lighted joss sticks for Srey Mom and prayed for her at a Buddhist altar in the foyer of the brothel. The owner (called "Mother" by the girls) warned Srey Mom against returning to prostitution.

Finally, Srey Mom said goodbye to "Mother," the owner who had enslaved her, cheated her and perhaps even helped infect her with the AIDS virus — yet who had also been kind to her when she was homesick, and who had never forced her to have sex when she was ill. It was a farewell of infinite complexity, yet real tenderness.

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We'll see.

Girls For Sale

January 17, 2004
The New York Times

OIPET, Cambodia

One thinks of slavery as an evil confined to musty sepia photographs. But there are 21st-century versions of slaves as well, girls like Srey Neth.

I met Srey Neth, a lovely, giggly wisp of a teenager, here in the wild smuggling town of Poipet in northwestern Cambodia. Girls here are bought and sold, but there is an important difference compared with the 19th century: many of these modern slaves will be dead of AIDS by their 20's.

Some 700,000 people are trafficked around the world each year, many of them just girls. They form part of what I believe will be the paramount moral challenge we will face in this century: to address the brutality that is the lot of so many women in the developing world. Yet it's an issue that gets little attention and that most American women's groups have done shamefully little to address.

Poipet, 220 miles on bouncy roads from Phnom Penh, is a dusty collection of dirt alleys lined with brothels, where teenage girls clutch at any man walking by. It has a reputation as one of the wildest places in Cambodia, an anything-goes town ruled by drugs, gangs, gambling and prostitution.

The only way to have access to the girls is to appear to be a customer. So I put out the word that I wanted to meet young girls and stayed at the seedy $8-a-night Phnom Pich Guest House — and a woman who is a pimp soon brought Srey Neth to my room.

Srey Neth claimed to be 18 but looked several years younger. She insisted at first (through my Khmer interpreter) that she was free and not controlled by the guesthouse. But soon she told her real story: a female cousin had arranged her sale and taken her to the guesthouse. Now she was sharing a room with three other prostitutes, and they were all pimped to guests.

"I can walk around in Poipet, but only with a close relative of the owner," she said. "They keep me under close watch.They do not let me go out alone. They're afraid I would run away."

Why not try to escape at night?

"They would get me back, and something bad would happen. Maybe a beating. I heard that when a group of girls tried to escape, they locked them in the rooms and beat them up."

"What about the police?" I asked. "Couldn't you call out to the police for help?"

"The police wouldn't help me because they get bribes from the brothel owners," Srey Neth said, adding that senior police officials had come to the guesthouse for sex with her.

I asked Srey Neth how much it would cost to buy her freedom. She named an amount equivalent to $150.

"Do you really want to leave?" I asked. "Are you sure you wouldn't come back to this?"

She had been watching TV and listlessly answering my questions. Now she turned abruptly and snorted. "This is a hell," she said sharply, speaking with passion for the first time. "You think I want to do this?"

Another girl, Srey Mom, grabbed at me as I walked down the street. She wouldn't let go, tugging me toward the inner depths of her brothel — but she looked so young and pitiable that I couldn't help thinking that she really wanted me to tug her away.

So I did. I paid the owner $8 to spring her for the evening and then took her away for an interview.

The owner let Srey Mom go out unsupervised, it turned out, partly because she had been a prostitute for several years and was trusted to return — and partly because her dark complexion meant that she was of little value anyway. The brothel sold her to men for just $2.50, compared with the $10 commanded by the lighter-skinned Srey Neth.

I asked Srey Mom what her freedom would cost. Payment of about $70 in debts to her brothel owner, she said. Two girls in her brothel had been freed after they found boyfriends who paid their debts, she said, and she spoke of her longing to see her sisters and the rest of her family in her village on the other side of Cambodia.

"Do you really want to leave the brothel?" I asked.

"I love myself," she answered simply. "I do not want to let my life be destroyed by what I'm doing now."

That's when I made a firm decision I'd been toying with for some time: I would try to buy freedom for these two girls and return them to their families. I'll tell you in my column on Wednesday what happens next.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

A Clampdown in China

May 17, 2005

The most important person in the world right now may be Hu Jintao, and we're beginning to get a better sense of what kind of a leader he is: disappointing.

More than anyone else, President Hu will determine whether China can continue to surge and whether its rise will be stable and peaceful. Ever since he vaulted into the top ranks of the Communist Party in 1992, there have been vigorous debates about whether he is a closet reformer or a closet hard-liner, but now that he has been the Communist leader for two and a half years, we can form a tentative conclusion: the second camp seems to have been right.

Mr. Hu appears to be an intuitive authoritarian who believes in augmenting the tools of repression, not easing them. Most distressing, Mr. Hu has tugged China backward politically. He has presided over a steady crackdown on dissent, the news media, religion, Internet commentary and think tanks. China now imprisons far more journalists than any other country.

At The New York Times, we've seen this crackdown firsthand. Zhao Yan, a colleague who works for the Times bureau in Beijing, was seized last September and tossed into prison. Why? We don't know for sure, because Mr. Zhao has never been tried and neither his lawyer nor his family members have even been allowed to see him.

Likewise, the bravest and boldest Chinese newspaper used to be Nanfang Dushi Bao. But then the paper reported that the police had beaten a university student to death because he wasn't carrying his ID. Two staff members were sent to prison last year for long terms, and China's newspapers are now more docile.

Mr. Hu also has a knack for using old-style propaganda phrases that make him sound like a time capsule from a more Communist past. And Chinese intellectuals were horrified when Mr. Hu issued an internal statement saying that while North Korea had made economic mistakes, it had the right ideas politically.

Still, Mr. Hu's clampdown has had only a limited effect, because China is now too porous and complex for anybody to control very successfully. Ordinary people are hiring lawyers to enforce their rights, and the rule of law is steadily painting the party leaders into a corner.

"They can't control everything any more," said a Chinese with long connections to the country's leaders. "They're like a fire brigade, rushing around to put out the fires that burn hottest, and leaving the others alone."

In any case, while Mr. Hu is a big disappointment in his political vision, he is turning out to be more solid in other areas, like foreign policy. Mr. Hu has done a good job managing foreign relations with other countries, aside from Japan and Sudan, and he has engaged North Korea more meaningfully on the nuclear issue than his predecessors did. Mr. Hu has at least managed to work out a coherent policy toward North Korea, which the Bush administration has yet to do.

Mr. Hu's economic instincts run to central planning, but he is also pragmatic. And he has a personal stake in a capitalist future: his only daughter, Hu Haiqing, has experience in the high-tech business world and is married to a Stanford-educated Internet tycoon, Daniel Mao.

Perhaps Mr. Hu's most important step has been to begin to address rural poverty and environmental problems, rather than focusing solely on economic growth and new market reforms to achieve it. This shift to more balanced growth is smart and long overdue.

At the same time, the pace of economic reform has also stalled, and the giddy expectation that major new reforms are on the way has gone. If this pause is a chance for China to catch its breath, that would be fine - but it looks like more than that.

Mr. Hu's basic problem is that he is trying to achieve stability by keeping the lid sealed tight on the pressure cooker. But the lesson of Taiwan and South Korea is the need to expand freedoms to provide outlets for those pressures. Otherwise, as Ukraine and Indonesia showed, pressure cookers can explode.

So Mr. Hu's emphasis on short-term stability may ultimately be increasing the risks of major instability in China down the road. And in that sense, the victims of Mr. Hu's crackdown are not just the individuals sitting in jail, but the entire Chinese people.


Monday, May 16, 2005

As Rich-Poor Gap Widens in the U.S.,

Class Mobility Stalls

Those in Bottom Rung Enjoy Better Odds in Europe;
How Parents Confer an Edge
Immigrants See Fast Advance
May 13, 2005; Page A1

The notion that the U.S is a special place where any child can grow up to be president, a meritocracy where smarts and ambition matter more than parenthood and class, dates to Benjamin Franklin. The 15th child of a candle-and-soap maker, Franklin started out as a penniless printer's apprentice and rose to wealth so great that he retired to a life of politics and diplomacy at age 42.

The promise that a child born in poverty isn't trapped there remains a staple of America's self-portrait. President Bush, though a riches-to-riches story himself, revels in the humble origins of some in his cabinet. He says his attorney general "grew up in a two-bedroom house," the son of "migrant workers who never finished elementary school." He notes that his Cuban-born commerce secretary's first job for Kellogg Corp. was driving a truck; his last was chief executive.

But the reality of mobility in America is more complicated than the myth. As the gap between rich and poor has widened since 1970, the odds that a child born in poverty will climb to wealth -- or a rich child will fall into the middle class -- remain stuck. Despite the spread of affirmative action, the expansion of community colleges and the other social change designed to give people of all classes a shot at success, Americans are no more or less likely to rise above, or fall below, their parents' economic class than they were 35 years ago.

Although Americans still think of their land as a place of exceptional opportunity -- in contrast to class-bound Europe -- the evidence suggests otherwise. And scholars have, over the past decade, come to see America as a less mobile society than they once believed.

As recently as the late 1980s, economists argued that not much advantage passed from parent to child, perhaps as little as 20%. By that measure, a rich man's grandchild would have barely any edge over a poor man's grandchild.

"Almost all the earnings advantages or disadvantages of ancestors are wiped out in three generations," wrote Gary Becker, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate, in 1986. "Poverty would not seem to be a 'culture' that persists for several generations."

But over the last 10 years, better data and more number-crunching have led economists and sociologists to a new consensus: The escalators of mobility move much more slowly. A substantial body of research finds that at least 45% of parents' advantage in income is passed along to their children, and perhaps as much as 60%. With the higher estimate, it's not only how much money your parents have that matters -- even your great-great grandfather's wealth might give you a noticeable edge today.

Many Americans believe their country remains a land of unbounded opportunity. That perception explains why Americans, much more than Europeans, have tolerated the widening inequality in recent years. It is OK to have ever-greater differences between rich and poor, they seem to believe, as long as their children have a good chance of grasping the brass ring.

This continuing belief shapes American politics and economic policy. Technology, globalization and unfettered markets tend to erode wages at the bottom and lift wages at the top. But Americans have elected politicians who oppose using the muscle of government to restrain the forces of widening inequality. These politicians argue that lifting the minimum wage or requiring employers to offer health insurance would do unacceptably large damage to economic growth.

Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. remains a more mobile society than Europe, economists and sociologists say that in recent decades the typical child starting out in poverty in continental Europe (or in Canada) has had a better chance at prosperity. Miles Corak, an economist for Canada's national statistical agency who edited a recent Cambridge University Press book on mobility in Europe and North America, tweaked dozens of studies of the U.S., Canada and European countries to make them comparable. "The U.S. and Britain appear to stand out as the least mobile societies among the rich countries studied," he finds. France and Germany are somewhat more mobile than the U.S.; Canada and the Nordic countries are much more so.

Even the University of Chicago's Prof. Becker is changing his mind, reluctantly. "I do believe that it's still true if you come from a modest background it's easier to move ahead in the U.S. than elsewhere," he says, "but the more data we get that doesn't show that, the more we have to accept the conclusions."

Still, the escalators of social mobility continue to move. Nearly a third of the freshmen at four-year colleges last fall said their parents hadn't gone beyond high school. And thanks to a growing economy that lifts everyone's living standards, the typical American is living with more than his or her parents did. People today enjoy services -- cellphones, cancer treatment, the Internet -- that their parents and grandparents never had.

Measuring precisely how much the prosperity of Americans depends on advantages conferred by their parents is difficult, since it requires linking income data across many decades. U.S. research relies almost entirely on a couple of long-running surveys. One began in 1968 at the University of Michigan and now tracks more than 7,000 families with more than 65,000 individuals; the other was started by the Labor Department in 1966.

One drawback of the surveys is that they don't capture the experiences of recent immigrants or their children, many of whom have seen extraordinary upward mobility. The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, says 52% of last year's undergraduates had two parents who weren't born in the U.S., and that's not counting the relatively few students whose families live abroad.

Nonetheless, those two surveys offer the best way to measure the degree to which Americans' economic success or failure depends on their parents. University of Michigan economist Gary Solon, an authority in the field, says one conclusion is clear: "Intergenerational mobility in the U.S. has not changed dramatically over the last two decades."

Bhashkar Mazumder, a Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago economist, recently combined the government survey with Social Security records for thousands of men born between 1963 and 1968 to see what they were earning when they reached their late 20s or 30s. Only 14% of the men born to fathers on the bottom 10% of the wage ladder made it to the top 30%. Only 17% of the men born to fathers on the top 10% fell to the bottom 30%.

Land of the Self-Made Man

Benjamin Franklin best exemplified and first publicized America as the land of the mobile society. "He is the prototype of the self-made man, and his life is the classic American success story -- the story of a man rising from the most obscure of origins to wealth and international preeminence," one of his many biographers, Gordon S. Wood, wrote in 2004.

In 1828, a 14-year-old Irish immigrant named Thomas Mellon read Franklin's popular "Autobiography" and later described it as a turning point in his life. "Here was Franklin, poorer than myself, who by industry, thrift and frugality had become learned and wise, and elevated to wealth and fame," Mellon wrote in a memoir. The young Mellon left the family farm, became a successful lawyer and judge and later founded what became Pittsburgh's Mellon Bank. In front, he erected a statute of Franklin.

Even Karl Marx accepted the image of America as a land of boundless opportunity, citing this as an explanation for the lack of class consciousness in the U.S. "The position of wage laborer," he wrote in 1865, "is for a very large part of the American people but a probational state, which they are sure to leave within a longer or shorter term."

Self-made industrialist Andrew Carnegie, writing in the New York Tribune in 1890, catalogued the "captains of industry" who started as clerks and apprentices and were "trained in that sternest but most efficient of all schools -- poverty."

The historical record suggests this widely shared belief about 19th-century America was more than myth. "You didn't need to be told. You lived it. And if you didn't, your neighbors did," says Joseph Ferrie, an economic historian at Northwestern University, who has combed through the U.S. and British census records that give the occupations of thousands of native-born father-and-son pairs who lived between 1850 and 1920. In all, more than 80% of the sons of unskilled men moved to higher-paying, higher-status occupations in the late 1800s in the U.S., but less than 60% in Britain did so.

The biggest factor, Mr. Ferrie says, is that young Americans could do something most British couldn't: climb the economic ladder quickly by moving from farm towns to thriving metropolises. In 1850, for instance, James Roberts was a 14-year-old son of a day laborer living in the western New York hamlet of Catharine. Handwritten census records reveal that 30 years later, Mr. Roberts was a bookkeeper -- a much higher rung -- and living in New York City at 2257 Third Ave. with his wife and four children.

As education became more important in the 20th century -- first high school, later college -- leaping up the ladder began to require something that only better-off parents could afford: allowing their children to stay in school instead of working. "Something quite fundamental changed in the U.S. economy in the years after 1910 and before the Great Depression," says Prof. Ferrie.

One reason that the once-sharp differences between social mobility in the U.S. and Britain narrowed in the 20th century, he argues, is that the regional economies of the U.S. grew more and more similar. It became much harder to leap several rungs of the economic ladder simply by moving.

The paucity of data makes it hard to say how mobility changed for much of the 20th century. Individual census records -- the kind that Prof. Ferrie examines -- are still under seal for most of the 20th century. Data from the two national surveys didn't start rolling in until the 1970s.

Whatever the facts, the Franklin-inspired notion of America as an exceptionally mobile society persisted through most of the 20th century, as living standards improved after World War II and the children and grandchildren of immigrants prospered. Jeremiads in the 1960s and 1970s warned of an intractable culture of poverty that trapped people at the bottom for generations, and African-Americans didn't enjoy the same progress as whites. But among large numbers of Americans, there was little doubt that their children would ride the escalator.

Old Wisdom Shatters

In 1992, though, Mr. Solon, the Michigan economist, shattered the conventional academic wisdom, arguing in the American Economic Review that earlier studies relied on "error-ridden data, unrepresentative samples, or both" and misleadingly compared snapshots of a single year in the life of parent and child rather than looking over longer periods. There is "dramatically less mobility than suggested by earlier research," he said. Subsequent research work confirmed that.

As Mr. Mazumder, the Chicago Fed economist, put it in the title of a recent book chapter: "The apple falls even closer to the tree than we thought."

Why aren't the escalators working better? Figuring out how parents pass along economic status, apart from the obvious but limited factor of financial bequests, is tough. But education appears to play an important role. In contrast to the 1970s, a college diploma is increasingly valuable in today's job market. The tendency of college grads to marry other college grads and send their children to better elementary and high schools and on to college gives their children a lasting edge.

The notion that the offspring of smart, successful people are also smart and successful is appealing, and there is a link between parent and child IQ scores. But most research finds IQ isn't a very big factor in predicting economic success.

In the U.S., race appears to be a significant reason that children's economic success resembles their parents'. From 32 years of data on 6,273 families recorded by the University of Michigan's long-running survey, American University economist Tom Hertz calculates that 17% of whites born to the bottom 10% of families ranked by income remained there as adults, but 42% of the blacks did. Perhaps as a consequence, public-opinion surveys find African-Americans more likely to favor government redistribution programs than whites.

The tendency of well-off parents to have healthier children, or children more likely to get treated for health problems, may also play a role. "There is very powerful evidence that low-income kids suffer from more health problems, and childhood health does predict adult health and adult health does predict performance," observes Christopher Jencks, a noted Harvard sociologist.

Passing along personality traits to one's children may be a factor, too. Economist Melissa Osborne Groves of Maryland's Towson University looked at results of a psychological test for 195 father-son pairs in the government's long-running National Longitudinal Survey. She found similarities in attitudes about life accounted for 11% of the link between the income of a father and his son.

Nonetheless, Americans continue to cherish their self-image as a unique land where past and parentage puts no limits on opportunity, as they have for centuries. In his "Autobiography," Franklin wrote simply that he had "emerged from the poverty and obscurity in which I was born and bred to a state of affluence." But in a version that became the standard 19th-century text, his grandson, Temple, altered the words to underscore the enduring message: "I have raised myself to a state of affluence..."

Write to David Wessel at

Lagging Behind the Wealthy, Many Use Debt to Catch Up

U.S. Borrowing Hits Record;
Soul-Searching in Utah As Bankruptcies Surge
'Monster' or Sign of Progress?
May 17, 2005; Page A1

SALT LAKE CITY -- In 1757, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "Better to go to bed supperless, than wake up in debt."

One of his modern-day namesakes hasn't heeded the admonition. Benjamin Franklin Baggett of Salt Lake City got his first credit card on his honeymoon in 1990 and promptly maxed out his $300 credit line. Mr. Baggett had grown up on tales of Franklin -- his father gave him a Franklin memorial coin and bought copies of Franklin's works. But he wanted to buy himself and his wife some new clothing and he hadn't saved enough to buy it outright on his $11-an-hour concierge job at a Doubletree Hotel.

The charges were the first of many for Mr. Baggett, now 38 years old. In 1995 he moved into a house in the Harvard-Yale section of Salt Lake, a tree-lined neighborhood near the University of Utah that is home to many doctors, lawyers and professors. Mr. Baggett used credit cards to furnish the home with the kind of carpets and furniture his neighbors and relatives could afford.

"I felt insecure; I was an hourly-paid worker in this fancy neighborhood," says Mr. Baggett. He says he was making $13 an hour for a time doing back-office work at a local bank while supporting two children.

Twice he used a home-equity loan to pay off his credit-card debts, and twice he ran up steep credit-card bills again. When his debts reached $30,000 and he ran out of home equity, he filed for bankruptcy in 2003. "We came to rely on credit as part of our income, even though it wasn't part of our income," says Mr. Baggett. "I looked at $1,000 on my credit card as disposable income." He now works at a foreign-exchange broker, and has sold his house and divorced.

More and more Americans are turning to debt to pay for lifestyles their current incomes can't support. They are determined to live better than their parents, seduced by TV shows like "The O.C." and "Desperate Housewives," which take upper-class life for granted, and bombarded with advertisements for expensive automobiles and big-screen TVs. Financial firms have turned credit for the masses into a huge business, aided by better technology for analyzing credit risks. For Americans who aren't getting a big boost from workplace raises, easy credit offers a way to get ahead, at least for the moment.

To some, the expansion of credit is a milestone of democracy, giving middle- and lower-income people financial flexibility that only the rich used to enjoy. Others see the borrowing binge as a way for average households to make up for sluggish growth in income over the past several decades. Since 1990, income for the median American household has risen only 11% after adjusting for inflation, while median household spending has jumped at 30%, according to an analysis by How could the typical family afford to spend so much? Median household debt outstanding leaped by 80%.

Utah vividly illustrates the changes credit has wrought in the U.S. Last year, 28 of every 1,000 Utah households filed for bankruptcy, twice the national average and nearly triple Utah's rate a decade earlier, according to, a West Chester, Pa., consulting firm. Utahns often get married early and have the largest families in the nation on average. That makes for a lot of young parents with modest incomes looking for big homes and cars. The median monthly mortgage payment in Utah equaled 45.3% of a worker's average monthly income in 2002, the fourth-highest level in the nation, according to the Utah Foundation, a Salt Lake City think tank.

In a conservative, largely Mormon state that favored George Bush over John Kerry, 72% to 26%, the surge in bankruptcies has led to soul-searching. At a conference of Mormon officials in April, Thomas Monson, the church's second-ranking leader, said he was "appalled" at advertising for home-equity loans that is "designed to tempt us to borrow more in order to have more." He repeated the words a Mormon elder spoke during the Depression: "Interest never sleeps nor sickens nor dies.... Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night."

Americans spent half the money from refinancing their homes in 2001 and early 2002 to pay for home improvements, cars, vacations and other consumer expenses, the Federal Reserve reports. Many other consumers relied on credit cards. U.S. households with at least one credit card owed $9,205 in 2003, a 23% increase from five years earlier after adjusting for inflation, says Inc., which tracks the industry.

Melanie Taylor, a 26-year-old French teacher in Kenosha, Wis., wanted to match the affluent lifestyle she had known as a young girl. Her father, a nuclear engineer, took his family of five out to eat several times a week, she says, and helped pay for her to study abroad in France. But she and her husband, also a Kenosha teacher, had to borrow heavily to afford similar extras. They ran up as much as $40,000 in credit-card and other debt to help pay for their wedding and outfit their home. Her husband flew to Toronto occasionally with his buddies to see Maple Leafs hockey games. "It was hard to put money away," she says.

After Ms. Taylor's husband developed a serious spinal illness, the couple decided recently to sell the lakefront home they had bought in 2003 to help pay off their debts.

Economists Fabrizio Perri of New York University and Dirk Krueger of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, trace the credit surge to the widening income gap between the rich and the rest of U.S. society. The gap between the incomes of those at the top and the bottom widened substantially between 1970 and 2000, but the gap in consumption widened much less as moderate-income Americans turned increasingly to debt. Cornell University economist Robert Frank sees house sizes, which have grown 30% since 1980, as an indication that middle-income Americans are battling to keep pace with the wealthy homeowners who build king-size McMansions.

Despite the dicta of old sages, many economists -- led by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan -- see the expansion of credit to lower-income families as a sign of progress. Some speak of the "democratization" of credit. In an April speech, Mr. Greenspan said that in colonial times through the late 19th century, only the affluent had access to credit and rates were high. In the early 20th century gasoline companies and retail stores started issuing credit cards, but cards didn't spread widely until the late 1960s when banks piled into the business. Now, Mr. Greenspan says, "innovation and deregulation have vastly expanded credit availability to virtually all income classes."

Those who celebrate credit's new reach, such as University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst, talk about income "smoothing" -- the idea that debt enables people to borrow from their future earnings. In an earlier era, many people had no choice but to save first and spend later. Now, with credit, they can spend right away. For many young people, it's realistic to expect their earnings to rise. Their spending isn't just on baubles -- they may buy a house in a neighborhood with good schools, helping their children get ahead over the long term.

In Miami, April Danese, a 30-year-old grade-school teacher, used a mortgage that required her to make only interest payments for the first five years to buy her first home, a $140,000 condominium. The interest-only feature reduced her payments by about $400 a month, she calculates. By the time she has to start paying principal as well, she hopes to have finished a master's degree and be in line for a substantial raise. Failing that, she figures she could sell the condo for a profit if the mortgage payments get out of hand.

Yet many fear credit has spread so widely that many Americans are overextending themselves, leaving a growing number anxiously in debt and, increasingly, bankrupt. Outstanding household debt doubled to more than $10 trillion between 1992 and 2004, after accounting for inflation. Because of low interest rates, consumers' monthly debt burden didn't increase nearly as rapidly.

Economists disagree whether this relatively benign situation can continue. Interest rates are rising -- although long-term rates remain low -- and wage growth is sluggish. One danger: Housing prices could stall or decline, upending calculations such as Ms. Danese's in Miami.

Concern about out-of-control credit is especially prevalent in Utah. Last month, Jay Evensen, the editor of the editorial page at Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News, wrote a column blasting "people who wield their Visa cards like swords as they cut through the jungles of greed on a shopping crusade."

By the time Jason Wadsworth graduated from the University of Utah in 1994, he was married with two children and he and his wife, Amy, had run up $60,000 in student loans. He ditched his dreams of becoming a music teacher and took a steadier job at the post office, where his father worked. To keep afloat financially and treat his growing family to occasional extras that many of his wealthier friends took for granted -- a video camera, DVDs, a stereo -- he eventually piled up an additional $15,000 in debt spread over a dozen credit cards.

The Wadsworths had two more children, and their debts became so onerous that they moved into the basement of Mrs. Wadsworth's parents' house for five years. Today they live in a tiny brick home with a carport a few miles from her parents, and are slowly paying down their debts, which include $45,000 in student loans and $7,000 in credit-card debt.

"Interest compounds and it becomes like a monster around the corner," says Mrs. Wadsworth. To bolster her husband's $60,000 annual income, including overtime, Mrs. Wadsworth started writing novels with a Mormon theme and now collects about $5,000 a year in royalties.

Robert Head, a Utah mortgage broker, reflects the state's ambivalence toward debt. He specializes in interest-only loans, which sometimes can leave people in over their heads. But at the same time he complains that too many Utahns suffer from what he calls "the Nephite syndrome," referring to a clan described in the Book of Mormon that was reduced to poverty through greed. Mr. Head says he also helps solve debt problems by restructuring high-interest loans.

One couple he counseled was Quinn and Miriam Stewart. Seeking a better life for their kids, the Stewarts have figured out how to use credit to their advantage. Mr. Stewart, 29, remembers how he and four brothers and sisters grew up jammed into a two-bedroom house outfitted with bunk beds and a single television set. With his wife, Mr. Stewart ran up more than $5,000 in credit-card loans to furnish their home in a run-down section of west Salt Lake. But they had their eye on a home in the suburb of South Jordan, near Mr. Stewart's childhood home, where every driveway seems to have a basketball hoop and the schools are considered top-notch.

Mr. Stewart, who has been moving up steadily at his job at Amsco Windows from a $10-an-hour production worker to a $16-an-hour computer programmer, wasn't able to find a buyer for his home. So he decided to refinance his mortgage, pay down his credit-card debt and rent the place. To pay for a three-bedroom $167,000 house in South Jordan, he found a mortgage that didn't require a down payment. Attending seminars on mortgages, Mr. Stewart says, "I was shocked at how many things you could do to get into a house." Once he refinishes the basement, he'll have enough space for his three boys to have their own rooms.

For others, using debt to try to move ahead has as many pitfalls as promise. Growing up in a small house crammed with as many as 11 kids, Winford Wayman, a 30-year-old construction worker, longed for privacy and open spaces. But he and his wife, Kristin, a 26-year-old bookkeeper, fell behind as they borrowed to buy pickup trucks. Mr. Wayman has purchased or leased four since 1999.

"I like trucks. They make them so damn good-looking. I see a good-looking truck and I have to have it," says the slender, goateed Mr. Wayman.

He keeps his green Ford F-150 SuperCrew in pristine shape, which he acknowledges is his way of trying to keep up with his wealthier younger brother, who favors diesel-powered trucks and owns the construction company where Mr. Wayman works.

Recently, the Waymans got interested in a $125,000 vinyl-side home in Tooele, a suburb in the Salt Lake flatlands abutting the snow-capped Oquirrh Mountains. They applied for an interest-only loan, but just as the loan was being finalized Kristin Wayman got cold feet. She feared the couple couldn't afford the mortgage payments. "We freaked. We didn't know what to do," says Ms. Wayman. They ended up going through with the house deal, fearing a lawsuit if they tried to back out.

Now the Waymans are trying to figure out how to finish the basement, an expense that may require additional borrowing. "I don't think I'm too glad that I have all these ways of borrowing," says Mr. Wayman.

Write to Bob Davis at

Friday, May 13, 2005

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

May 13, 2005
The New York Times

For so many years, America's economy was so dominant on the world stage, so out front in so many key areas, that we fell into the habit of thinking we were competing largely against ourselves. If we fell behind in one area or another - whether it was math and science skills, broadband capacity or wireless infrastructure - we took the view that: "Oh well, we'll fix that problem when we get to it. After all, we're just competing against ourselves."

In recent years, though, with the flattening of the global playing field, it should be apparent that we are not just competing against ourselves. The opening of China, India and Russia means that young people in these countries can increasingly plug and play - connect, collaborate and compete - more easily and cheaply than ever before. And they are. We, alas, are still coasting along as if we have all the time in the world.

I helped teach a course at Harvard last semester on globalization, and one day a student told me this story: He was part of a student-run collaboration between students in the U.S. and China. The American and Chinese students had recently started working together by using Skype, the popular, freely downloadable, software that enables you to make free phone calls over the Internet to other Skype users. But what was most interesting, the student told me, was that it was the Chinese students who introduced their U.S. counterparts to Skype. And, he noted, these Chinese students were not from major cities, like Beijing, but from smaller towns.

On April 7, CNET reported the following: "The University of Illinois tied for 17th place in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. ...

"That's the lowest ranking for the top-performing U.S. school in the 29-year history of the competition. Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China took top honors this year, followed by Moscow State University and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics. Those results continued a gradual ascendance of Asian and East European schools during the past decade or so. A U.S. school hasn't won the world championship since 1997, when students at Harvey Mudd College achieved the honor. 'The U.S. used to dominate these kinds of programming Olympics,' said David Patterson, president of the Association for Computing Machinery and a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley. 'Now we're sort of falling behind.' "

Earlier this week, a special report on the Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement, which covered 90,000 high school students in 26 states, was published. The study noted that 18 percent of college-track seniors did not take a math course in their last year in high school - and that "more than a fifth (22 percent) of first-year college students require remediation in math." Just 56 percent of the students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43 percent said they worked harder than they had expected.

Even though 55 percent said they studied no more than three hours a week, 65 percent of those students reported getting mostly A's and B's.

"Students are getting A's and B's, but without studying much," Martha McCarthy, the Indiana University professor who headed the study, told me. "Our fear," she added, "is that when you talk to employers out there, they say they are not getting the skills they need," in part because "the colleges are not getting students with the skills they need." Ms. McCarthy said one of the main reasons Indiana did this study is to better inform high school educators about what is going on in their own schools so they can find remedies. All of these shortcomings developed over time, Ms. McCarthy said, but "we as a nation became complacent about them."

America today reminds me of our last Olympic basketball team - that lackadaisical group that brought home the bronze medal. We think that all we need to do is show up and everyone else will fold - because, after all, we're just competing with ourselves.

And we think we don't need to get focused and play together like a team, with Democrats and Republicans actually working together. Well, on the basketball court - and in a flat world, where everyone now has access to all the same coaching techniques, training methods and scouting reports - a more focused, motivated team always beats a collection of more talented but complacent individuals.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

At Wal-Mart, Choosing Sides Over $9.68 an Hour

May 4, 2005
The New York Times

BENTONVILLE, Ark. - With most of Wal-Mart's workers earning less than $19,000 a year, a number of community groups and lawmakers have recently teamed up with labor unions in mounting an intensive campaign aimed at prodding Wal-Mart into paying its 1.3 million employees higher wages.

A new group of Wal-Mart critics ran a full-page advertisement on April 20 contending that the company's low pay had forced tens of thousands of its workers to resort to food stamps and Medicaid, costing taxpayers billions of dollars. On April 26, as part of a campaign called "Love Mom, Not Wal-Mart," five members of Congress joined women's advocates and labor leaders to assail the company for not paying its female employees more.

And in a book to be published this fall, a group of scholars will argue that Wal-Mart Stores, having replaced General Motors as the nation's largest company, has an obligation to treat its employees better.

Among workers at Wal-Mart's 3,700 stores across the United States, the debate is also heating up.

Frances Browning, for example, once earned $15 a hour, but now at Wal-Mart, where she is a cashier in Roswell, Ga., she is paid $9.43. She says she is happy to have the job.

"I was unemployed for two and a half years before I found my job at Wal-Mart," Ms. Browning, 57, said. "Like everybody else I'd love to make a lot more, but I have to be realistic."

But Jason Mrkwa, 27, a high school graduate who stocks frozen food at a Wal-Mart in Independence, Kan., maintains that he is underpaid. "I make $8.53, even though every one of my evaluations has been above standard," Mr. Mrkwa (pronounced MARK-wah) said. "You can't really live on this."

Labor groups and their allies are focusing on Wal-Mart because they say that the campaign will not just benefit its workers but also reduce the existing pressure on unionized competitors to reduce their own wages and benefits.

"Wal-Mart should pay people at a minimum enough to go above the U.S. poverty line," said Andrew Grossman, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch, the coalition of community, environmental and labor groups running the series of ads criticizing Wal-Mart. "A company this big and this wealthy has the ability to pay higher wages."

H. Lee Scott Jr., Wal-Mart's chief executive, vigorously defends his company, arguing that wages are primarily determined by market forces and that Wal-Mart pays more than most retailers and provides better opportunities for advancement.

"If people tell you that Wal-Mart is leading the so-called 'race to the bottom' in terms of job quality or pay, they're not only wrong, they're dead wrong," he said to journalists at a company-sponsored conference here in April, the first time Wal-Mart has gone out of its way to invite a number of reporters to its headquarters to hear its views. "We are instead creating a better workplace with more opportunity and more benefits than have been available in retail."

Mr. Scott contends that the critics, including competitors, are defenders of an outdated status quo, intent on upholding a retailing system full of inefficiency and inflated prices.

He said that if Wal-Mart were as greedy as its detractors say, it would never have attracted 8,000 job applicants for 525 places at a new store in Glendale, Ariz., or 3,000 applicants for 300 jobs in outlying Los Angeles.

Michael T. Duke, chief of the company's stores division, said, "Wal-Mart is a very good place to work for our associates, and every day we make it even better."

Mr. Mrkwa, the food stocker, does not see it that way. With pay that brings him about $20,000 a year, he said he could not afford a decent apartment or a vehicle better than his 1991 Dodge Dakota. "I don't see why Wal-Mart can't pay more," Mr. Mrkwa said. "Unfortunately, in the market we live in there just aren't many jobs available."

Wal-Mart says its full-time workers average $9.68 an hour, and with many of them working 35 hours a week, their annual pay comes to around $17,600. That is below the $19,157 poverty line for a family of four, but above the $15,219 line for a family of three.

Wal-Mart critics often note that corporations like Ford and G.M. led a race to the top, providing high wages and generous benefits that other companies emulated. They ask why Wal-Mart, with some $10 billion in profit on about $288 billion in revenue last year, cannot act similarly.

"Henry Ford made sure he paid his workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars," said William McDonough, executive vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. "Wal-Mart is doing the polar opposite of Henry Ford. Wal-Mart brags about how its low prices help poor Americans, but its low wages are helping increase the number of Americans in poverty."

Mr. Scott argues that retailers, with narrow profit margins, face a different competitive situation and cannot afford to be as generous to their workers as automakers and other capital-intensive companies.

"Some well-meaning critics," he said, "believe that Wal-Mart, because of our size, should play the role that General Motors played after World War II, and that is to establish the post-world-war middle class that the country is so proud of. The facts are that retailing doesn't perform that role in the economy as G.M. does or did. Retailing doesn't perform that role in any country in the world."

Many of those assailing Wal-Mart argue that the company can, and should, pay its workers at least $2 more an hour and add $1 or $2 an hour beyond that to improve its health benefits. A Harvard Business School study found that Wal-Mart paid $3,500 a year for each employee for health care, while the typical American corporation paid $5,600.

If Wal-Mart spent $3.50 an hour more for wages and benefits of its full-time employees, that would cost the company about $6.5 billion a year. At less than 3 percent of its sales in the United States, critics say, Wal-Mart could absorb these costs by slightly raising its prices or accepting somewhat lower profits.

But company executives dismiss such proposals, saying they would largely wipe out Wal-Mart's profit or its price advantage over competitors. Wal-Mart had a profit margin on sales last year around 3.5 percent. If "we raised prices substantially to fund above-market wages, as some critics urge," the company argued in a recent two-page ad in The New York Review of Books, "we'd betray our commitment to tens of millions of customers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet."

Here in Bentonville, Mr. Scott pursued that theme. "If you're telling me because you're Wal-Mart and you're going to pay $12 an hour and this other retailer is going to pay $5.15 an hour, the federal minimum wage, and they're not going to provide any benefits at all and somehow the consumer is rewarded in all this, all you're doing is perpetuating the status quo," he said. "You're driving inefficiencies into the system. It doesn't make any sense."

Wal-Mart argues that, as retailing companies go, it treats its workers better than average. It says 74 percent of its employees work full time, compared with fewer than 40 percent at many other retailers. But critics note that a leading competitor, Costco, pays $16 an hour - 65 percent more than the average wage at Wal-Mart stores and 33 percent more than the $12 average at its Sam's Club stores. At Costco, 82 percent of the workers are covered by company health insurance, compared with 48 percent at Wal-Mart.

George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants in San Marcos, Calif., said that Wal-Mart should ignore the attacks. "Retail has always paid poorly and it probably always will," he said. "Wal-Mart has a responsibility to serve their customers - to give them a good product - and to their shareholders. They don't have a responsibility to society to pay a higher wage than the law says you have to pay."

But Burt Flickinger, another retailing consultant, said it would be in Wal-Mart's long-run interest to pay better. "Wal-Mart's turnover will be close to half a million workers this year," he said. "By paying higher wages, Wal-Mart will make its employees happier and will reduce turnover. A lot of its new workers, for instance, don't know where to stock things. Higher wages will mean more productivity per person, and that should help raise profits."

The debate is far from over. LaTasha Barker, a single mother who worked for two years as a cashier at a Sam's Club in Cicero, Ill., said she earned so little that she could not afford the $1,860 a year for family health insurance.

"They don't pay a living wage," said Ms. Barker, who quit her $8.40-an-hour job in 2004 to take a $15-an-hour social work job. While at Sam's, she said, she qualified for Medicaid and $139 a month in food stamps.

By contrast, Jamie Schifferer, manager of the health and beauty aids department at a Wal-Mart in Algonquin, Ill., said Wal-Mart was a terrific employer. She quit her $25,000-a-year post running a Cingular wireless shop to go to Wal-Mart.

After 20 months, she earns $12.50 an hour - close to her previous pay - but now works 40 hours a week rather than the 60 hours at Cingular.

"I was very miserable," she said. "As soon as I heard about this store opening, I jumped. It's perfect for me right now."

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

N. Korea, 6, And Bush, 0

April 26, 2005
New York Times


Here's a foreign affairs quiz:

(1) How many nuclear weapons did North Korea produce in Bill Clinton's eight years of office?

(2) How many nuclear weapons has it produced so far in President Bush's four years in office?

The answer to the first question, by all accounts, is zero. The answer to the second is fuzzier, but about six.

The total will probably rise in coming months, for North Korea has shut down its Yongbyon reactor and says that it plans to extract the fuel rods from it. That will give it enough plutonium for two or three more weapons.

The single greatest failure of the Bush administration's foreign policy concerns North Korea. Mr. Bush's policies toward North Korea have backfired and led the North to churn out nuclear weapons, and they have also antagonized our allies and diminished America's stature in Asia.

The upshot is that there's a significantly greater risk of another Korean War, a greater likelihood that other Asian countries, like Japan, will eventually go nuclear as well, and a greater risk that terrorists will acquire plutonium or uranium.

In fairness, all this is more Kim Jong Il's fault than Mr. Bush's. Right now some administration officials are glaring at this page and muttering expletives about smarty-pants journalists who don't appreciate how wretched all the options are.

But if the Bush administration had just adopted the policies that Colin Powell initially pushed for - and that Mr. Bush largely came to accept several years later - then this mess could probably have been averted.

You don't have to take it from me. Charles Pritchard, the ambassador and special envoy who was the point man for North Korea in the first Bush administration, says of this administration's decision-makers: "They blew it." Another expert still involved in North Korea policy puts it this way: "Their A.B.C. approach - 'Anything but Clinton' - led to these problems."

A bit of background: North Korea made one or two nuclear weapons around 1989, during the first Bush administration, but froze its plutonium program under the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with the Clinton administration. North Korea adhered to the freeze on plutonium production, but about 1999, it se