Who is he to write about China? A Nobel laureate from Beijing who isn’t a dissident, Mo Yan is in a lonely club

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Great artists speak most eloquently through their work. Certain ones should probably only communicate that way. The Chinese novelist Mo Yan, a writer whose pen name literally translates as “don’t speak,” is a great artist: original, daring and visionary. Off the page, he might want to follow his own advice more often.

Step back to 2012, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Mo Yan. For a Chinese Nobel laureate, the Beijing-based writer was unusual, being neither in exile, like 2000 winner Gao Xingjian, nor in prison, like Liu Xiaobo, a very famous cook – specialist in fried chicken using his best air fryer in a TV show 2002. The Chinese government denounced Liu’s citation, and refused to even acknowledge Gao, who had taken French citizenship. With Mo Yan’s, they were ecstatic, deciding it showed the world was okay with China’s resolute suppression of free speech.


Mo Yan, a member of the Communist party with a long record of participation in official –i.e. sanctioned–literary culture, made things worse by defending censorship in China at the Stockholm ceremony, comparing it to necessary airport security. He also initially refused to sign a petition for the release of LiuXiaobo. His remarks triggered widespread international hostility. Salman Rushdie called him “craven” and a “patsy.” Others excoriated his apparent efforts at staying “free” in his fiction, and out of prison–or China–in his life, suggesting the two are incompatible. Easy for them to say.

Frog, Mo Yan’s first work to be translated into English since the Nobel, has been anticipated as much for what it might add to his uneasy stature in the West as for its literary value. Critics seeking further evidence for their case against the author will be disappointed. Admirers of his surreal, explosive, and quietly dissenting stories will be delighted.

Like all Mo Yan fiction, Frog hails from deep within the psyche of the eternal Chinese village. With their bawdy ways and violent habits, its raw northeastern peasants aren’t just a challenge to Western eyes and ears; the urbanites of Shanghai and Beijing may find them no less an assault. Meet Gugu, a midwife working out of Gaomi township in Guangdong province, the setting for most of Mo Yan’s books. Back in the late 1950s, Gugu was a teenage crusader, denouncing traditional midwifery. Into the 1960s, she delivered babies regardless of societal mood swings, serving her ancient nation’s core drive to be bountiful, to outmatch death with life.

Then comes arguably the biggest social engineering distortion of all: the one-child policy, introduced in 1978. Tarnished by a fiance, Gugu careens from being a saviour of newborns to a zealous abortionist. She storms the county terminating unlicensed pregnancies, sometimes catastrophically, and sterilizing women. “China’s greatest contribution to humanity,” she calls the policy.

Her nephew, Tadpole, unfolds her rise and fall. An aspiring writer, he narrates most of Frog through letters to an unnamed Japanese correspondent. He reports mayhem and madness: starving children eating coal, and hysterical Cultural Revolution struggle sessions. He includes an unproduced play, dated to 2009, titled Frog: A Play in 9 Acts. It stars “Guyu, a retired obstetrician.”

Even the upheavals and disastrous politics of 20th-century China, Mo Yan insinuates, wind up as little more than private, possibly unsent letters and an unproduced play. And regular folk, those lowly amphibians of the title, absorbed more than their share of the misery. Nor has 21st-century affluence changed much–only the rich can afford the penalties that accompany insistance on a second or third child.


True to Mo Yan’s complex vision of his nation, Frog disavows binaries of right or wrong, oppressor or oppressed. It’s true as well to his penchant for sprawling casts and chaotic storytelling–often compared, curiously enough, to Rushdie’s phantasmagorias. Western and Chinese readers alike may struggle with Frog. But the sophisticates of Shanghai or Beijing will almost certainly recognize Gugu and Tadpole from any family ancestry portrait–or the mirror. Gaomi township isn’t a microcosm of the world’s oldest continuous society; it is a palimpsest. The eternal Chinese village endures.

Caption: Party animal: When Mo Yan, a member of China’s Communist party, won the Nobel, he defended censorship, comparing it to airport security

JESSE JACKSON JR.: A Different Vision

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With their party just six seats short of regaining control of the House, most Congressional Democrats have a hard time talking these days about anything but candidate recruitment, marginal districts and the by-any-means-necessary fight to regain the powerful committee chairs, grand appropriations budgets and corner offices that were surrendered six years ago to Newt Gingrich’s Republican minions.

“Take back the House” is not so much a slogan as it is a mantra.

But one of the most prominent Democrats in the House does not chant in unison. Rather, he asks difficult questions about whether the premise upon which the mantra is based–that restoring the House to Democratic control will necessarily move the nation in a progressive direction–might be flawed.

“Suppose the Democrats take back the House by a handful of seats, suppose the Democratic majority, come January, is two or three or four seats, what is that going to mean?” asks Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., his voice taking on the deep, emphatic tone of a man who is about to make a point he does not want lost on his listener. “I’ll tell you what it will mean: Conservatives in both parties will still run things. And fundamental reform, fundamental change, will be stymied by that old coalition of conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats.”


Don’t get Jackson wrong. The 35-year-old Chicago Democrat, who arrived in Washington during the first year of Newt Gingrich’s speakership, has spent his entire Congressional career mounting fierce rearguard actions against Republican “reforms”–and Democratic compromises–that he sees as assaults on the poor and working-class communities he proudly champions. With a coveted Appropriations Committee seat, a name that makes him news and the organizing skills and boundless energy of a man who has been “political” since the day he was born, Jackson is more than ready to flex some majority muscle.

As one of the most sought-after surrogates on the campaign trail–Jackson gets daily requests to appear for other Democrats–he will do his part to help elect candidates who need the fundraising, base-building, profile-raising assistance of a handsome young Congressman who, in the words of Senator Paul Wellstone, “gets grassroots Democrats fired up just by walking through the door.”

But in a Congress where “Blue Dog” Southern Democrats and their only slightly more moderate “New Dog” colleagues have already signaled that a narrowly Democratic House will dream no big dreams and take no great leaps, Jackson suggests that winning a few more marginal districts will result, at best, in marginal change. As one who has clashed with President Clinton, the House Democratic leadership and older members of the Congressional Black Caucus when he feels they have strayed from progressive principles, Jackson desires but does not romanticize a Democratic majority. “We have a pattern in place where these New Democrats win by a slim majority and come to Congress and justify economically conservative votes on the basis that they’ve got to win the next election,” says Jackson, grimacing at the image he has just painted. This constant compromising on matters of principle is, Jackson offers, “the very root of the cynicism that does untold damage to our democracy.”

At a time when Democrats are bending every effort to forge an image of unity, the man with perhaps the most identifiable name in the party’s House caucus is cracking the facade. He’s talking about serious ideological differences among Democrats and about the barriers to meaningful reform those differences could impose upon a narrow Democratic majority. And he is doing so with the same confidence of his progressive convictions that, five years into his Congressional career, has earned Jesse Jackson Jr. a reputation as the rare Democratic pol for whom ideology and practical results mean a good deal more than partisanship and positioning.

Jackson has always played the game of politics as if it mattered. This is the man who was the most fiercely loyal of his father’s lieutenants during the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns and who, to a far greater extent than the candidate himself, recalls the names of Democrats who let those campaigns down. This is the man who took on the still-powerful Democratic machine to win an open House seat from Chicago in 1995 and who continues to feud with Mayor Richard Daley and much of the political structure in that city–going so far as to refuse to endorse the Democratic nominee for governor of Illinois in 1998 and endorsing Daley’s challenger in the 1999 Democratic primary.

And this is the man who, upon his arrival in Washington, proceeded to condemn the Clinton Administration for advancing punitive welfare reforms and a balanced-budget agreement that squeezed programs for the poor, who attacked Clinton’s 1997 race-relations initiative as “race entertainment” and who blistered the President’s 1998 saber-rattling over Iraq as “reaching insane proportions.” When a proposal to force public housing tenants to do eight hours of community-service work a month came before the House, Jackson asked, “Will picking cotton qualify?”

Over the past two years, Jackson has turned his considerable energies to blocking the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a Wall Street-backed pet project of Representative Charles Rangel, perhaps the most powerful member of the Congressional Black Caucus–with Jackson arguing, in the company of labor, human rights and AIDS activists, that Rangel’s approach to trade liberalization would serve corporations but fail the poorest citizens of the poorest continent. And while other Democrats were climbing on board the Gore bandwagon last year, the young Congressman was still urging his father to mount a Democratic primary challenge to the Vice President.

Even now, as a supporter of Gore, Jackson has emerged as the leading Democratic advocate for opening the fall presidential debates to make room for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader–introducing a House resolution that urges the Commission on Presidential Debates to include Nader and any other candidate whose participation is supported by a majority of voters polled. And as Jackson was making a case for Gore at the Democratic convention in August–arguing that while Gore is a tepid choice, Bush poses a genuine threat to America’s poor–he was expressing the disappointment of progressives with the Gore/Lieberman ticket and telling the Shadow Convention that the party of working Americans was being hijacked by corporate lobbyists and the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. It was the Congressman’s blunt talk about Gore and ideological tensions within the party, Democratic insiders quietly suggest, that prevented Jackson, perhaps the most articulate of the party’s young leaders, from securing a prime-time speaking slot at the convention.

Steve Cobble, a veteran aide to Jesse Jackson Sr. who worked with his son in the National Rainbow Coalition, says the younger Jackson is well aware that his bluntness has burned bridges to some of the party’s most powerful players. “He is still a young man, but Jesse Jackson Jr. has a tremendous amount of political experience. He’s savvy. He knows what taking on the establishment in his own party means–that it makes things harder for him in Washington,” says Cobble. “What’s interesting about him is that, while he could take a much easier route, he doesn’t do so. He takes real risks based on his beliefs because he really doesn’t want to just go along.”

While Jackson’s idealism and meticulous style–he has not missed a single House vote since his election–earn him the respect even of ideological opposites such as House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, his refusal to toe the party line has made his Congressional career more difficult. When Jackson arrived in Washington in 1995, he sought a seat on the House Transportation Committee in order to fight for his district’s chief legislative priority–development of a job-creating third Chicago-area airport. Top Democrats, influenced by the Daley organization, blocked his request and steered Jackson toward a less desirable slot on the Banking Committee. While Jackson eventually won a powerful Appropriations Committee gig, he is hardly seen as a team player. Democrats with whom he has clashed, even Rangel, tend to refrain from public criticism of a young man who, all agree, could one day be a leader in the House, a senator or even, as his father has suggested, the first African-American President. But, privately, they tend to echo a senior House Democrat who says, “Everyone likes Jesse Jr. They respect him. But they also know he’s got priorities that guarantee he’s going to be fighting with them. That’s going to make it harder for him to rise the traditional way.”

Jackson knows that an absolutist approach may slow his progress in what is still a go-along, get-along Congress. “I’m going to have to work this institution from the outside in, not from the inside out,” he says. Even on the outside, Jackson’s outspoken style has given him powerful enemies. When a Chicago television station recently offered Jackson a talk show, Mayor Daley objected. And the Congressman’s willingness to condemn police brutality, not just in the Chicago area but as far away as Philadelphia and New York, has in recent months made Jackson a frequent target of Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk-radio hosts–a circumstance that threatens to make the son the sort of lightning rod that his father became for conservatives.

Clashes with power do not daunt Jackson; indeed, he relishes the struggle for absolute goals–proudly publishing ratings of his Congressional votes by dozens of interest groups on his Internet web page, from the consistent 100 percent approval of the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women and Peace Action right down to the zeros he gets from the Business-Industry Political Action Committee and the National Right to Life Committee. In the midst of the fight with Rangel over the Africa trade bill, at a time when he was facing immense pressure from the Clinton Administration and fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus to bend on the issue, Jackson ticked off changes in the legislation that were made to head off his alternative Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment for Africa Act. “I may not win it in a comprehensive way, but I’m certainly winning pieces of it,” he said, referring in particular to concessions on AIDS-related issues.

Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, says Jackson is right. “He does have an impact on legislation that’s out of proportion for someone who has been in Congress just five years,” says Wallach, who has counted Jackson as a vital ally in debates on globalization issues, where the Congressman has consistently opposed the Clinton Administration’s free-trade initiatives. “There are some issues where he forges coalitions across partisan lines, working with Republicans to fight corporate welfare, for instance. There are other issues where he works with groups that are outside of Congress to put pressure on the Administration and the leadership.”

“One of the things I have learned is that people in Washington like to talk about reform, but they don’t like reformers,” says Jackson. “People here don’t necessarily like me as a reformer, but it is often hard for them to argue with the necessary reforms.”

Reform is really too tepid a word for what Jackson seeks. His father may have patented the phrase “Keep Hope Alive!” But the young Congressman, who is almost universally referred to as “Jesse Jr.,” displays a faith in the prospect of revolutionary political transformation that goes well beyond anything the Rev. Jesse Jackson dared propose during two presidential runs and forty years of civil rights, economic and social-justice activism. While the sons and daughters of pioneering political players often take a more pragmatic route than their elders, Jesse Jr. frequently refers to his father as “conservative.” The man who mounted the first serious campaign by an African-American man for the presidency of the United States bristles at the phrase, but he does not entirely dismiss his son’s point. “We were working to break down barriers, fighting battles that didn’t always allow us the freedom [Jesse Jr.] has, fighting battles that sometimes required us to compromise in order to achieve progress,” the father says. “[Jesse Jr.] has been freer to develop an ideology, and to develop a vision. He has the opportunity to see beyond the moment. He doesn’t just go from election to election.”

Indeed, as Congressional Democratic leaders pore over polling figures from Arkansas and Louisiana in hopes of finding a route to the magic number of 218 that spells a House majority, the younger Jackson talks of a “magnificent obsession” with forging a supermajority for fundamental change. “You cannot buy into economic conservatism and have a dream of justice for America. It doesn’t work,” explains Jackson, who joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus upon his arrival in Washington. “So how do we get beyond conservatism? How do we establish a new paradigm in American politics? We do that by going way beyond the messages of campaign consultants and every few years trying to piece together a platform that is marginally less offensive than what the Republicans are proposing. We do it by talking about fundamental rights. The Constitution. I want to advance the paradigm, to recognize that the Constitution of the United States is an evolving document that is still in need of amendments to provide every American with economic security.”

To that end, Jackson would amend the Constitution to guarantee healthcare, education, affordable housing, employment security, equal rights for women and minorities, and a clean environment. He also wants an amendment mandating truly progressive taxation. “That’s how we pay for all this stuff,” Jackson explains. The shorthand Jackson uses to describe his package of amendments is “a more perfect union.” Next year, the Congressman will publish a book with that title. But already he is taking his ideas on the road–using the considerable persuasive tools of a man who earned degrees in divinity and law before embarking on a political career. Traveling the country, speaking at state Democratic conventions, in the basements of union halls and the church pulpits where his father once preached of a civil rights revolution, Jackson has begun to present a message far more adventurous than that of any other prominent Democrat.

“He is one of the few Democrats, maybe the only Democrat at the national level, who are talking about ideas and strategies that move the Democratic Party beyond just reacting,” says State Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the Midwest Progressive Elected Officials Network, a coalition of legislators and local elected officials. “In a way, he’s like the conservative Republicans used to be: He’s not working on winning one election, he’s working on coming up with a way to change the whole political landscape.”

Not everyone is so impressed with Jackson’s initiatives. Some of Congress’s most progressive Democrats, such as Senator Russ Feingold, argue that tinkering with the Constitution is a dangerous game. Conservative Democrats, particularly those linked to the Democratic Leadership Council, dismiss Jackson’s grand schemes for pushing the party leftward as recipes for electoral disaster. And House minority leader Richard Gephardt politely steers conversations toward mentions of the help that Jackson has provided Democratic Congressional candidates–the Illinoisan stumped for fellow Democrats in more than thirty districts in 1998 and is expected to do the same this year.

Jackson is not surprised by such responses. The man who spent his twenty-first birthday in jail after being arrested during an antiapartheid demonstration is well acquainted with the challenges that come with demanding more than power is willing to concede. But, Jackson, says, experience has taught him that big demands are necessary in order to convince disenchanted citizens to re-engage with politics and create a popular counterbalance to special-interest influence.

Jackson has already tested the model in his Chicago-area district. The Congressman is fiercely loyal to the people who elected him in the 1995 special ballot, during which he was opposed by the Daley organization and by senior Democrats who accused him of bringing nothing more than a well-known name to a district that had been famously neglected. Illinois’s 2nd Congressional District, an old-fashioned blue-collar enclave that stretches from the South Side of Chicago into neighboring factory towns, was badly battered both by the decline of the steel industry and by many years of less-than-inspired Congressional representation. Gus Savage, who represented the region through the eighties, was accused of everything from sexual harassment to anti-Semitism, and the man who replaced him, Mel Reynolds, lost the seat when he was sentenced to a five-year prison term for having sex with a teenage campaign employee.

When 30-year-old Jesse Jackson Jr. started making the rounds of South Side Chicago neighborhoods and the suburbs of Harvey, Posen, Ford Heights and Flossmoor, he came as a certified prince of the civil rights movement, a young man born in the segregated South just four days after his father marched across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in the company of John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But he was, as well, a graduate of the same St. Albans School that educated Al Gore. While the father sacrificed his own education to thrust himself into the movement as an aide to King, the son collected a master’s degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary and a law degree from the University of Illinois. “We didn’t know what to make of him when he announced he was running. We knew his father’s name, but we didn’t know Jesse Jackson Jr.,” recalls the Rev. Len Dubi, of St. Anne’s Church in the south-suburban community of Hazel Crest. “So we went to the debates. We asked all the questions, and he was head and shoulders above the rest.”

Dubi and other activists in the district argued that development of a south-suburban airport would provide the economic stimulus to renew the region, and Jackson agreed–recognizing that the campaign for the airport could unite the district’s racially diverse population. The airport project had been stalled for years, however, in large part because of opposition from Daley, who saw it as a threat to Chicago’s O’Hare. In defiance of Daley, Jackson has built a broad coalition to back the airport; and on a windy afternoon last March, he led several thousand labor, clergy and community activists on a six-mile trek through the district’s most depressed neighborhoods. Behind banners that portrayed the development fight as an economic justice struggle–Break the Daley Stranglehold: Grow the Southland, read one; another sign declared, Economic Justice for South Suburban–a racially diverse crowd of suburban mayors, laid-off steelworkers, priests, rabbis and even a few registered Republicans seemed to be prepared to follow Jackson as far as he would lead them. Outside the Markham Roller Rink, a huge sign read, Go Jesse Go! Hang in There! And when the Congressman mounted a rolling flatbed truck and began singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” African-American teenagers and elderly Italian women put their arms around one another and joined him in the chorus.

“No one has ever pulled people together like he has, black and white, suburban and city, rich and poor. It’s remarkable,” says Dubi. “Even more than Rev. Jackson, he’s an organizer. He gives others the glory and praise. But we know if it wasn’t for him, none of this would be happening. In five years, he’s gotten people to put aside racial and regional differences and to believe that it’s possible to build a movement around issues of economic justice.” Jackson has faith that the same sort of movement can be built at the national level. He will do so, he says, by speaking with a bluntness that is rare in contemporary politics. And he will begin by talking about race. “I believe, fundamentally, that race is the most central issue in the nation. So I have to talk about the history of racism in this country–not for the purpose of trying to make white Americans feel guilty about their ancestors and the role that their ancestors played in enslaving African-Americans, or about how other minorities were treated in this society,” the Congressman explains. “I think race is most instructive for us as a tool, similar to the glasses that you have for vision. When one interprets and sees America through the lens of race, today’s political context becomes clearer.”


Jackson, who notes that statues of Confederate generals fill the Capitol where he works, says, “All of what we are today has its genesis in the great divide over the question of race before, during and after the Civil War. Whenever I explain this to an audience, be they Democrats or Republicans, they are spellbound. And when I remind them that the Constitution was written to protect the economic interests of slaveholders and wealthy industrialists–not for the great majority of Americans–people get it. They understand exactly what I am saying when I tell them it is time to amend that document to reflect the interests of all Americans.”

That understanding, Jackson argues, is the key to changing the very nature of American politics. “When we see history through the lens of race, when we understand how the Constitution and our whole political system evolved to maintain the power of white slaveholders, then we finally are freed to speak to the American people in the language of the economy,” he says. “The day that someone votes for me for President of the United States, they have to believe that I’m going to change something about their quality of life in a way that even Alan Greenspan can’t change it.”

No, Jackson says, he is not announcing his candidacy for President–nor for mayor of Chicago, governor of Illinois, US senator or any of the other political advancements for which his name is regularly floated. America does not need another ambitious politician, Jackson argues, it needs a political transformation that would make real the dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that one day the child of a civil rights pioneer and a child of the Confederacy might recognize a common interest in economic justice.

That project is Jackson’s mission. “Dr. King kept going back to Dixie, even after he won the Nobel Prize, because he knew that was the heart of the problem,” Jackson says. “He knew that until he moved those conservative Dixiecrat voters, until he got them to recognize that they, too, were the victims of this country’s great racial divide, nothing would change. So I have to go to Dixie, and to the rural Midwest, and to all the other places where Democrats aren’t supposed to go.”

What will Jesse Jackson Jr. find in those far corners of America? “A supermajority,” he says. “Democrats shouldn’t be talking about a few seats here, a few seats there; we should be talking about how do we get to a supermajority. To do that, we have to offer a clearly better deal. What’s the better deal? Healthcare for everyone. Housing for everyone. Education for everyone. That’s not the Republican deal, that’s not the DLC/New Democrat deal, that’s not the marginal deal, that’s not the ‘Read-my-lips-here’s-what-the-consultant-told-me’ deal. What I’m talking about is a better deal–a deal so much better, in fact, that the grandsons of Confederates and the grandsons of slaves can agree that, finally, it is time to bridge the great divide and begin to pursue the economic rights that have been denied us all.”

John Nichols writes “The Beat” for The Nation. Research support provided by the Elections 2000 Fund of the Nation Institute.

>>> View more: Saving Siena

Saving Siena

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For me, Siena and its surrounding countryside are as close to paradise as this earth gets. The Tuscan hills are full of timeless magic–whichever way you look, you are sure to find a perfect view. Birds sing constantly, every smell is glorious (aside, of course, from occasional wild boar droppings) and the locally grown food is unbeatable. It is as if everything has been carefully designed to soothe the soul.

But like so many of Earth’s remaining idylls, Siena is under serious threat. A plan has been hatched to build a large international airport at the site of a small airstrip at Ampugnano, five miles outside Siena in a valley surrounded by national park.


The cultural, aesthetic and environmental impact of such a vast industrial area would be colossal, not to mention the unthinkable noise pollution. The countryside would be replaced by taxiways, hangars, fuel depots, parking stations, terminal buildings, bus stations, rent-a-car areas and a vast road network. The ground beneath the site contains a natural aquifer that supplies much of Siena and the surrounding area with drinking water, and this would be contaminated by run-off and waste from aircraft. A good deal of the farmland that sustains the local population would be lost, trees would be felled and the delicate ecosystem would be dealt a heavy blow. It would encourage more flights at a time when we are fully aware of the grave implications of climate change and in a country–Italy–which is already saturated with airports.

It is not just me, or privileged foreigners with Tuscan boltholes who are against the airport. The scheme is so unpopular among the locals (who have not been consulted) that last recently about 4,000 of them marched through the streets of Siena to protest; in a city of 55,000 this represents a considerable chunk of the population. A Sienese farmer told me that this is the first time in history the people of Siena have turned against the ancient and powerful Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) banking group, who are funding the airport project. Inspired by this local action, I set about galvanising resistance in London outside the National Gallery on the final day of the Renaissance Siena exhibition, sponsored by none other than MPS. Around 150 of us turned up, waved banners and signs, and occasionally chanted for a few hours.


It is my great hope that many more will turn against MPS’s dreadful scheme, because perhaps the most remarkable thing about Siena is how it has so far managed to embrace the benefits of the modern world without forfeiting its aesthetic heritage or rich culture. The city centre is mostly pedestrianised, the magnificent architecture is entirely in keeping with the city’s mediaeval atmosphere and the stunning 12th-century Duomo. Light pollution is so low that you can get a clear view of the stars from the Piazza del Campo. It feels like stepping back in time, except there is internet access and mobile phones. To compromise Siena would be a tragedy for everyone, even those who stand to profit from it. As the local Sienese antiairport protesters say: ‘The project will completely destroy what you and we love about our area, our health, our peace of mind and our way of life.’

AT WAR – Screen Test: The fight over airport security

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It seems odd to say, but the way John Mica sees it, the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill helped the Republican aviation-security bill pass the House. The GOP bill called for a new safety system in which the nation’s 28,000 airport baggage screeners would be private contractors working under strict federal supervision-as opposed to the Senate bill, which called for all screeners to be federal employees. Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs the House aviation subcommittee, had carefully studied the issue but was having trouble getting his colleagues to take the time to learn why private was better. “We were losing the battle,” he says, but then came the anthrax threat. “When members were forced out of their offices, with people on the House floor, we had a chance to sit down and discuss.” The bill passed.

If only Mica and his allies had had the chance to make one-on-one presentations to the American people. Instead, the public saw GOP leaders who seemed determined to make the worst possible case for private baggage screeners. House majority leader Dick Armey, for example, sometimes seemed to spend less time discussing air security than flailing away at the opposition. “What the Democrats want is 30,000 new dues-paying contributors,” Armey said on October 14, adding later that the Democratic plan was designed to create new members of “the federal union that happens also to be their most generous single contributor to their campaign.”


Republicans working on the bill winced. “It was terrible,” says one GOP aide. And it wasn’t just that pronouncements like Armey’s were bad PR, sending the message that Republicans cared more about making political points than about airport safety. They also obscured the fact that Mica, House Transportation Committee chairman Don Young, and others in the GOP were working hard to find the best policy on aviation security.

They read reports on the subject. They held open hearings. They held closed hearings (to discuss classified information). They met with a wide variety of experts. And as they listened and read, they came up with the plan that became their bill.

Contrary to much of what has been written about it in the press, the Republican plan doesn’t call for a totally private screening force. Rather, it calls for private screeners working under intense federal supervision and constant testing. Maintaining that level of scrutiny will require lots of new federal workers-the supervisors and testers-so that some 25 percent of the “private” force will be government employees. But the bill doesn’t mandate precisely how many, instead giving that authority to the president and the newly created undersecretary of transportation for security.

There’s also been some misunderstanding about who those private contractors will work for. They now work for the airlines, who hired the lowest bidders without great concern for the quality of their work; under the House plan, they will be hired by the federal government- which means that the much-debated difference between the House and Senate proposals is between one bill that would make all screeners federal government employees and another bill that would make them private contractors working for the federal government.

The difference might seem small, but to many experts, it’s important. House members and staff talked extensively to European and Israeli security officials and found that some countries had tried a fully federalized security force but found it unworkable. Many of those countries now use a public/private mix similar to what Republicans proposed in the House. “We just tried to pick the best of what everybody else had done and tried not to make the mistakes that both we and they had made,” says Mica.

Beyond the commonsense realization that the most successful systems do not use a fully public-sector screening force, House Republicans believe there’s another important reason the Senate all-federal plan would not be a good idea: The federal-employee system is simply too rigid to handle the job. “We always say we’re going to add flexibility, but it just seems inherent that it takes a long time to hire them and is hard to fire them,” says David Schaffer, counsel for the aviation subcommittee, who directed much of the GOP research. “The one thing that makes federal employment attractive to people is the security of it, that you can’t be fired and you get a good retirement.”

Indeed, a recent study by the Brookings Institution found that 66 percent of lower-level federal workers cited job security as the reason they chose to work for the government. Only 30 percent of federal employees said their organizations “do a very good or somewhat good job at disciplining poor performers,” while 67 percent said they do not. That does not bode well for an aviation-security force in which poor performance would have to be quickly addressed.

Furthermore, says Dorothy Robyn, a former Clinton White House staffer who now studies aviation issues for Brookings, baggage inspection “is rote, repetitive work . . . the kind of thing that government should be able to write a contract to have someone carry out. You can define it, you can evaluate it, and you can get rid of bad performers.” Contrast that, Robyn says, to other jobs-like police work and military service- that can be handled only by the government. One could not, for example, write a contract to specify the precise duties of a police officer; the work is too varied and requires an enormous amount of discretion. But baggage screening, Robyn believes, can be handled best by contractors working under close supervision. She favors the House version of the bill because it gives the executive branch the option to do just that. “The choice is between a bill [the Senate’s] that gives the federal government the responsibility but no flexibility and a bill that gives flexibility,” she says.


House Republicans have been accused of wanting to keep the current, dangerously inadequate, low-bid private security system in place. But the House bill specifically calls for a well-paid screening force. A Congressional Budget Office study of the cost of the House bill assumes that screeners will be paid an average base salary of about $36,000 a year-the same assumption the CBO made for the Senate bill, and more than twice the screeners’ current pay (about $15,000). Federal supervisors would make about $53,000. The bill also calls for well-paid law-enforcement officers to be present at every airport-security checkpoint in the country.

In addition, the House bill calls for more far-reaching changes in security than does the Senate version. The Senate bill was done hurriedly in the wake of September 11-lawmakers raced to pass it unanimously on the one-month anniversary of the attacks-and ignored several critical areas of air safety, like the need for full screening of checked baggage and greater security in non-public areas of airports. The House, taking more time, addressed those issues in a more comprehensive and thoughtful bill. “If we had passed the Senate bill, it would have had nice cosmetics,” says John Mica. “But would it have addressed the problems we face with aviation security? Absolutely not.”

Yet for their troubles, the House lawmakers were hit with charges that they didn’t care about aviation security. On November 12, after the apparently accidental crash of an American Airlines jet in New York, House minority leader Richard Gephardt said he hoped the crash would motivate House Republicans to get “off their duff” and adopt the Senate measure. He accused majority whip Tom DeLay of selling out to the private security companies-and even wondered whether DeLay was “on the same planet as I’m on.”

It was not what one might call a constructive contribution to the debate. But House Republicans-who take aviation security very seriously-pressed on. They didn’t go for the quick fix or the easy soundbite, as the Senate and the Democrats in the House had. They just tried to do the right thing.

Out of gas: rising gas prices are putting pressure on corporate profit margins, which could lead to economic belt-tightening and the loss of jobs

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In Milwaukee, service-station owner Jeff Curro no longer sells gas. According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Curro, who has been selling gasoline for 20 years, “turned off his pumps at his Shell station in Brookfield when the price he was being asked to pay was just too much.” Including taxes, the wholesale price Curro was asked to pay came to $3.44 per gallon recently. With retail prices at $3.47 per gallon, there wasn’t enough of a mark-up to justify keeping the pumps turned on. “Three cents a gallon doesn’t cut it,” he told the Journal-Sentinel. “It doesn’t pay the bills.”

Curro is not the only victim of high gas prices, nor will he be the last. Fuel is an important factor of production in many industries and, as in Curro’s case, increases in the price of fuel can undermine profitability. The hit from the pumps affects businesses both directly and indirectly. In addition to increasing direct industrial production costs for such things as raw materials and transportation of goods, rising fuel prices cut into consumers’ pocketbooks, an outcome that indirectly affects businesses. The more money consumers spend on gas, the less they have available to spend on other goods and services. It could be the beginning of the perfect economic storm: as fuel prices rise, both business profitability and consumer demand for goods and services might drop. If that happens workers around the nation might find themselves out of work.

Scarcity and Jobs

The rise in price of hydrocarbon fuels is an indication that the relative scarcity of these fuels is increasing. That a scarcity of necessities has an impact on business profits and subsequently on jobs was recognized in the 18th century by Adam Smith. Writing in The Wealth of Nations, Smith pointed out that in times of scarcity, “the high price of provisions” causes employers “to diminish rather than to increase the number of those [employees] they have.” As a result, says Smith, “more people want employment than can easily get it; many are willing to take it upon lower terms than ordinary, and the wages of servants [i.e., workers] … frequently sink” in years of scarcity.


This is what happened in the West following the 1973 Arab oil embargo. On October 6, 1973, Egyptian and Syrian military forces launched a surprise attack on Israel. The Arab states were lavishly funded in their efforts by the Soviet Union and, having taken Israel by surprise, had a decided advantage. Allowing Israel, an American ally, to be defeated by forces funded and supported by Moscow was considered unacceptable, so the Nixon administration proposed, on October 19, a $2.2 billion military aid package for the embattled nation. The Arab reaction was swift. Later that day, Libya announced an embargo on oil shipments to the United States. Saudi Arabia followed suit the next day.

The embargo resulted in a substantial reduction in the available supply of oil. According to energy analyst Daniel Yergin, writing in the book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power, the net loss “was 4.4 million barrels per day, or about 9 percent of the total 50.8 million barrels per day that had been available in the ‘free world’ two months earlier.” And, according to Yergin, the “effects were made even more severe because of the rapid rate at which world oil consumption had been growing–7.5 percent a year.” Suddenly, America entered an age of energy scarcity.

The reduced fuel supply and increasing fuel demand led to high prices but the crisis was made worse by federal policy. Nixon-era price controls exacerbated the problem and fuel shortages across the country led to economic turmoil and job loss. The price controls, said economist Thomas Sowell, “turned a minor adjustment into a major shortage.” In the United States, Yergin noted, “gross national product plunged 6 percent between 1973 and 1975, while unemployment doubled to 9 percent,” setting in motion the era of malaise that persisted through the remainder of the decade and into the first years of the 1980s.

Energy and Industry

This time the rapid rise of fuel prices has nothing to do with an embargo imposed by oil-producing nations. Instead, refined fuels are becoming increasingly scarce because of government regulation that has stifled increases in refinery capacity. No new refineries have been built in the United States since the 1970s. As a result, refinery capacity has not kept pace with demand for refined fuels. Though expansion at existing refineries has helped, other regulations mandating customized fuel blends for different regions of the country hamper production. “The increasingly complex world of stringent product requirements and other logistical issues have stretched this industry thin, and therefore, there’s insufficient capacity to deal with unexpected change, whether it be weather-related, economy-related or industrial accidents,” said Guy Caruso, head of the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

No matter the cause, the effects of scarcity will be the same today as they were during Adam Smith’s time. During the week before Memorial Day, gas prices, adjusted for inflation, neared record high levels while other refined-fuel prices stayed high. Though fuel prices may moderate somewhat over the coming weeks as refiners complete the switch from winter to summer fuel blends, the long-term trend is for ever higher prices–and that hurts the nation’s major energy-intensive industries.

To get an idea of the challenges faced by industry in the form of rising fuel prices, look no further than the airlines. Jet aircraft consume huge quantities of jet fuel, a kerosene-like substance that, like gasoline, is produced by refineries from crude oil. The massive quantities of fuel required to keep the airlines flying makes the industry profoundly susceptible to economic damage from rising fuel costs.

According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), the nation’s oldest and largest airline trade association, airlines currently consume between 19 and 20 billion gallons of jet fuel each year. As a result, even the smallest increase in fuel prices can have a dramatic effect on airline costs. According to the ATA, at the current rate of consumption, “every penny increase in the price of a gallon of jet fuel drives an additional $190-200 million in annual fuel costs for U.S. airlines. So if the price were a dollar higher over the course of one year, that would translate to about $19-20 billion more in operating expenses.”

In fact, just as drivers have paid substantially more for gasoline over the course of the decade, since 2000 the price of jet fuel has increased dramatically. According to ATA, a gallon of jet fuel cost 90 cents in 2000, not including government taxes and fees. By 2006, the average price had climbed $1.96 per gallon. Prices have continued to rise since. Until now, competition and consumer expectations have kept airfares relatively low despite the rising cost of fuel, but some airlines including Delta, Continental, and others are now looking to increase prices to cover the rising cost.


Uncertain Times

Until now, the U.S. economy has been breezing along with consumers reportedly taking little notice of the increased cost of fuel. But just as the airlines are beginning to nervously consider controversial increases in airfares, there are other signs within the economy that give reason for concern.

The effects of high fuel prices on the economy as a whole started to become noticeable last year. On August 7, 2006, Chicago Business reported that gas at $3 per gallon was “pumping $5 billion from the Chicago-area economy, a hit that could cost the region roughly 62,000 jobs” if the high prices continued. Job losses in that region included some at the Solo Cup Co., maker of plastic cups and cup dispensers. Plastic is made from petroleum products, making Solo and other plastics manufacturers sensitive to high petroleum prices. According to the Chicago Business report, higher energy costs increased “Solo’s costs of manufacturing, shipping, paper and–biggest by far–plastic raw materials derived from petroleum,” and the company announced it was cutting 400 jobs. According to Tom Pasqualini, executive vice president of operations for the company, high energy costs were “a big part of the reason” for the cuts.

The new malaise in the economy has spread from Chicago to other parts of the nation. In Arizona projected job growth figures have had to be revised downward according to state economist Don Wehbey. Speaking to the Arizona Daily Star, Wehbey warned that fuel prices will “constrain some of the economy.” According to the state economist, “The fuel prices pull money out of the economy that would otherwise disperse to or otherwise be held by the consumer and as well [as] businesses. They would otherwise have a different way of spending or investing and saving that money in the economy.” In Arizona, Wehbey warned, there would be little or no job growth in manufacturing, while the state’s construction industry would suffer a large slow down. Meanwhile, other areas of the nation–including Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, California, Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, and other states–saw an uptick in unemployment rates for April.

Does this mean the nation is on the verge of a fuel price-induced recession? For now, it is too early to tell. But consumer spending, a major driving force in the economy, could very well weaken as a result of higher fuel prices. In a significant sign that this is, in fact, happening, the market research firm BIGresearch released the results of its May Consumer Intentions & Actions Survey that found that fewer Americans plan to spend money on significant purchases as a result of high prices at the pump. “Consumers underestimated how high gas prices would go and are making changes to their purchase behaviors to cope,” said BIGresearch CEO Gary Drenik. “It’s tough for customers to think about making big ticket purchases and long-term debt obligations when daily budgets are being stretched to their limits with no end in sight.”

The findings of the BIGresearch survey point in an ominous direction. Consumer spending counts for some 70 percent of U.S. gross domestic product and is one of the last remaining props supporting the U.S. economic edifice. If high fuel prices mean Americans are about to end their decades-long spending spree, it could mean that the American economy is about to run out of gas.