Monthly Archives: March 2002

Privatizing Social Security

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Who controls the purse strings? That’s the question at the heart of an ongoing debate over Social Security. The President is pushing a plan to partially privatize the system, to allow citizens a hand in saying how their contribution should be handled. “After all,” says the president, “it’s their money.” The President’s opponents actually agree that in the long view, the nation’s pension plan is in trouble: despite current surpluses, the impending wave of aging, retiring boomers generates images of Gen X’ers shopping for dinner in the dog-food aisle during their dotage.

But still, they say, money from the plan shouldn’t be pushed in the direction of the stock market. After all, just look at what happened to Enron! What to do with the nest egg, Social Security, Lock Box or Pandora’s Box?


Olivia Mitchell, professor of insurance and risk management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and member of President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security

Peter Diamond, Institute Professor at MIT specializing in Social Security

Desmond Tutu

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Amidst the brutality and oppression of a racially divided South Africa, his was a voice strong and clear for justice and democracy. In 1984, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve the “problem of apartheid” in South Africa. A decade later, President Mandela asked him to head the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But now while democracy’s star burns bright in South Africa, it is fading in Zimbabwe.

This weekend’s election was marred by violence and intimidation, and President Mugabe, once hailed as an African hero, appears to have snatched victory from the jaws of democracy, while bringing his country to the brink of economic collapse.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu

One City, One Book

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It was all going so swimmingly. A great literary wave of “one-city, one-book”, rolling east from its inspired beginning in Seattle. Along the way, sweeping cities like Chicago and Milwaulkee up in the communal thrill of a good, shared, book. Then came New York, and this wave of enthusiasm, crashed upon a great seawall of political correctness and committee squabbling.

It was only ever meant to be a good chance to read together, but many people see the “one book” exercise as a chance to correct social ills, settle community controversy and make it all seem like a grade six, slap you on the back of the hand, english class where no one’s having fun. Yuck. So lets talk about it. Together.


Nancy Pearl, director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library

David Guterson, author of “Snow Falling on Cedars”

Heather Hathaway, professor of English and Ethnic Studies at Marquette University, and member of book selection committee in Milwaukee

Harold Bloom, Yale and NYU professor and author, most recently, of “Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.”

Salt:: A World History

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Long before people chased dollars and dinars, and pesos and rupees, people chased salt. It was money. It was “salary.” And it was almost everywhere: deep in Central European mines, and crusting the sea grass in the marshes around Liverpool.

But the chefs and the master salters and priests of the day were very particular. The bay salt from France was acceptable, but nowhere near as fine as salt from the Dutch peat cutters. The original value in salt was as a preservative for aging cheese, keeping meats and vegetables, and, when necessary, mummifying a corpse. But the once noble substance slipped from exalted status. Now much of what is mined is sprinkled abundantly on icy roadways.


Mark Kurlansky, author of “Salt: A World History.”

Something in the Air

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Today is March 11. It was about this time of day, on a morning six months ago, when the world stopped, watched, and listened to the stories of four airplanes and four crashes in Pennsylvania, and Virginia and New York. One image from that morning is the smoke, great brown plumes from the World Trade Center towers. And then, as the buildings collapsed, the roiling cloud of ash, dirt, smoke, and paper that seemed to envelope Manhattan for days and weeks.

Six months later, questions about that cloud are still unanswered. Medical experts are testing the rescue and the cleanup crews, and there’s disagreement over the nature and extent of the hazard; about whether the air inside apartments and schools and homes is clean.


Thomas Cahill, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Atmospheric Science at the University of California at Davis

Hugh Kaufman, chief investigator for the Ombudsman’s office at the Environmental Protection Agency

Scheherazade Goes West

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“Come with me to the casbah.” If the invitation is uttered in just the right Lauren Bacall accent, the imaginations of most Western men perk up. It’s the promise of a visit to the harem, the inner, exotic sanctum, redolent of desert perfume. But the land of make believe has its roots somewhere and that’s the investigative track where we find the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi.

Herself born in a harem, she has stepped from east to west and back again, watching and judging men and their fantasies of women. She’s found the answer in the ultimate Arabian temptress, Scheherazade, the clever story teller whose wit in devising a thousand tales kept her on top. But things change when Scheherazade Goes West.


Fatema Mernissi, author of “Scheherazade Goes West” and sociologist at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco.

The United States of Europe

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They, the people of Europe, in order to form a more perfect union, are convening in Brussels, and the end result may be a European Constitution. The head of the meeting is already calling himself a “Ben Franklin” and comparing the year-long gathering to the Philadelphia Convention. Some people are even testing out a new name: “The United States of Europe.” Ask many Europeans “in the know” and they’ll say non, nein, nay, we’re different, it will be different.

They say that most citizens of EU countries are watching the would-be founding fathers carefully, quite clear about retaining sovereignty, clear about limiting the organization. They say they have no intention of aping the U.S. They want to be better.


Andrew Moravcsik, Professor of Government and Director of the European Union Center, Harvard University

Giles Merrit, director of Forum Europe

Arnand Leparmentier, Brussels Bureau Chief for Le Monde

and Dominique Moisi, co-director of the French Institute of International Relations.

The Realm of Vanishing Cultures

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The anthropologist Margaret Mead’s greatest fear was that culture would become boring. Bland. A homogeneous celebration of a Western ethos that overwhelms ethnicity and squashes imagination. It’s a theme picked up and expanded, like an aboriginal lyric, today by another anthropologist, Wade Davis.

He’s an explorer and ethnobotanist who has lived with indigenous people from the Amazon delta to the Arctic Tundra; the Tibetan plateau and the mountains of Peru, and what he concludes is that the disappearance of diverse cultures is not inevitable, that what’s at stake is not just the preservation of the Penan’s nomadic wanderings or the Warao’s canoe homes, but the vast potential of the human imagination. A journey through, and beyond, the realm of vanishing cultures.


Wade Davis, anthropologist, ethnobotanist, National Geographic Explorer in Residence, and author of the new book “Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures.”

The Politics of Steel

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In the old economy of American Steel, President Bush is forging a compromise. Faced with frantic pleas from the rust belt, from industry, and from unions, he’s imposing new tariffs to make it harder for overseas steel companies to dump steel in the United States. Hot rolled and cold finished, stainless and rebar, prices are set to go up. Already there’s heat from Europe. They say it’s antithetical to the W.T.O., and could mean a trade war.

Here in the United States, the White House is spinning what’s up to a thirty percent levy as a move in the direction of free trade. Steel consumers and manufacturers here say it’s a mistake and the cost will be passed on to you. Big steel, big labor, big business: Recasting protectionism and the cold hard choices over Steel.


Leo W. Gerard, international president, United Steelworkers of America

Anthony Gooch, European Union trade spokesman

Paul Tiffany, author, “The Decline of American Steel”

Shadow Government

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In the “shadow government” of most imaginations, the bunkers are dark, computers are silent, and stockpiled snacks sit fresh in their vac-pacs. Deep in the underground hum of filtered air, everything is ready. Flick a switch, add some bodies, and government’s back, ready to run post-apocalyptic America. But in the latest news, we learn, the bunkers are already staffed, consoles are lit, the backup plan is up and running.

America’s shadow government, six months old and with no expiration date in sight, is troubling news to conspiracy theorists and government experts. “Credible threats,” loose nukes and the like, have the White House spooked enough to sequester bureaucrats in bunkers. But the back-up government consists of only one branch, the Executive. Why? … only the shadow knows.


Barton Gellman, Washington Post reporter

Paul Light, Vice President & Director of Governmental Studies, The Brookings Institution

Steve Dycus, Professor of National Security Law, Vermont Law School

Matthew Bunn, Assistant Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.