Five Best Wednesday Columns
Louis Hyman on Wal-Mart's new credit plan Wal-Mart recently announced the return of its Christmas lay-away plan. "Beginning on Oct. 17, shoppers who buy at least $50 worth of goods, put 10 percent down and pay a $5 fee will be able to pay for their purchases slowly over the next two months, all for the ostensible purpose of avoiding debt." What initially seems like a good idea that will benefit cash-strapped consumers is in fact a signal that we are returning to the hard times of the 1970s, writes Louis Hyman in The New York Times. Other stores are reviving their layaway plans too, which became prominent in the 1930s but declined as credit cards became more common. The plans return as credit for low-income consumers tightens. The plans seem appealing, but by crunching the numbers, Hyman shows the layaway plan would, for a consumer who spends $100 at Wal-Mart, come out to a 44 percent annual percentage rate, "a level most of us would consider predatory." Retailers say their plans give consumers more choices, but in fact, they reflect a lack of choice, "the desperation arising from many Americans' inability to borrow, save and, most important, earn." This return of layaway should remind us that we are still stuck in the 1970s. Since then, median male wage has declined and a rise in household earning is the result of women's entrance into the workplace and the expansion of household credit. With the collapse of that credit, we are left to realize "that in today's cruel economy, there's no choice left."
Fouad Ajami on Steve Jobs, the Arab-American The Arab world was "all too eager" last week to note that Steve Jobs was born to a Sunni Muslim immigrant, writes Fouad Ajami in The Wall Street Journal. Jobs's birth father Abdulfattah "John" Jandali grew up in Homs, Syria, and moved to America for his PhD. He and Jobs's mother, Joanne Schieble, gave Jobs up for adoption when Shieble's father wouldn't allow her to marry Jandali. Jobs and his father never reconciled. "Mr. Jandali said he didn't think of Steve as an Arab-American, and he didn't think his son paid attention to these 'gene-related things,'" Ajami writes. Yet when Elaph, a popular Arab electronic paper, wrote of Jobs's death and Syrian heritage, many linked the news to events in Syria and "the anxiety of many Arabs over their place in the modern world." Homs has been the center of violence in Syria, and some commented that Jobs "was lucky," because "had he been in Homs he would have been one of the protesters in the streets." Others wondered how many geniuses of Jobs's level were being killed in Syria now. "But there were wiser and more honest commentators. It was nurture not nature that decreed Steve Jobs's outcome -- the family that raised him, the open and embracing American society that did not bother with his background or social origins." Above all, the commenters united in admiration for Steve Jobs. In Palo Alto, where Jobs lived and where Ajami writes, many notes sit outside the Apple Store. Three of them are in Arabic. "Simple and unadorned," one of them reads, "three apples changed the world, Adam's apple, Newton's apple, and Steve's apple." These writers were likely drawn to Jobs not because of his Syrian background but because of his accomplishments.
Kenneth Pollack on a more aggressive Iran The U.S. government's revelation that the Iranian regime was trying to kill the Saudi Ambassador to the United States in a planned attack with mass casualties, if true, represents "a major escalation of Iranian terrorist operations against the United States," writes Kenneth Pollack in The Daily Beast. "That said, it would not necessarily represent a radical departure from the trend in recent Iranian foreign policy." In the two years since Iran's own pro-Democracy protests were quashed, the regime has become more aggressive and "risk tolerant," Pollack says. In addition to cracking down on civilian protesters in 2009, the hard-liners also took the opportunity to "purge the government of its more moderate elements." Since then, Iran has increased support for radical Shiites in Iraq, provided help to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and kept its alliance with Syria. Yesterday's news of the planned attack should tell us three things, Pollack says. First, "that the regime believes it is already locked in an undeclared covert war with the United States." Second, "the regime is willing to go way beyond anything it has ever done before to strike blows against the United States in this war," putting civilians on home turf in play rather than servicemen abroad. And third, "that the regime may no longer be concerned about a massive American conventional military retaliation," either because of their faith in their own nuclear program or their belief that America is too preoccupied with domestic concerns. "Nevertheless, even if the claim is shown to be valid, we should not assume that this means that Iran is an irrational nation hell-bent on harming Americans at any cost, as it is sometimes depicted in the Western press." Iran is not Saddam's Iraq, but it is more aggressive than ever before.
Dana Milbank on Washington's unattended protests Only 53 protesters showed up to Washington's Freedom Plaza to participate in an act of civil disobedience on Tuesday, writes Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. Their plan was to "occupy" and "shut down" the Hart Senate Office Building, but with so few protesters, they didn't have a lot of options. Some suggested crowding into the elevators and pressing all the buttons. Some thought that plan "stupid," while others said that strategy would help them achieve their goal. "We're going after the building precisely to inconvenience everybody who works there," he quotes one protester saying. "In the end, they blocked neither elevators nor bathrooms, and inconvenienced nobody but a few Capitol Police officers." The event shows a lot about progressives' so far failed attempt to replicate the populist anger of New York's movement here in the nation's capital. "A revived populist movement could be a crucial counterweight to the Tea Party, restoring some balance to a political system that has tilted heavily to the right," Milbank says, but so far it has only energized the usual suspects of left-wing groups. Despite low numbers, there are "factions" among them, Milbank says. "A few blocks away, in McPherson Square, an outgrowth of Occupy Wall Street had established an encampment of a few dozen sleeping bags." Their crowds came to about 100 people on Tuesday. "By the time they filed into the Hart building, the demonstrators were outnumbered by reporters, photographers and police," Milbank says. "Curious staffers stepped from their offices to check on the protest but found little action. 'That's it?' one asked another. Yep. That's it," Milbank says.
Dan Ashe on a disease threatening bat populations Bats are making their traditional return to prominence with Halloween approaching, but in North America "actual living bats" are not "so abundant," writes Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the Los Angeles Times. Bats are suffering from a disease called white nose syndrome which has spread quickly since it was detected four years ago in New York. Biologists say a fuzzy fungus is infecting the bats causing them to leave hibernation early and die in the cold winter. "Scientists hypothesize that the fungus was accidentally introduced into the New York cave by a human visitor," and unlike European bats which also have the fungus, American ones have no immunity to it. "Global travel has made the introduction of foreign plants, animals and pathogens as easy as dropping anchor or hopping on a plane." As the disease continues, many species face regional extinction. Americans often think of bats as blood-suckers (though vampire bats don't suck human blood and do not live in North America), but rarely do we credit them for their greater service. "The loss of bat populations in the U.S. has serious implications for our economy and environment. A recently published study estimates that bats provide an average of $22 billion a year in pest control services to the nation's agricultural industry." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is leading a campaign to address the disease, but in the meantime, Ashe asks readers not to spread the disease further by entering caves closed by conservation agencies and to report strange bat behavior to wildlife agencies.