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TNR On the Most Overlooked Stories of 2011

Lawrence Kaplan: America’s Silent Withdrawal From Iraq

War is over. 

No, really.  “Permanent” bases?  Absolutely not.  A decades-long partnership between Iraq and the United States?  With the American officials who guide the fortunes of the world’s lone superpower and who, doing violence to their word, ordered the last of U.S. forces out of Iraq without condition and regardless of consequence?  Doubtful.  An “over-the-horizon” residual force in the event of catastrophe?  Not really, given that catastrophe approaches more likely than not. 

“The tide of war is receding,” Vice-President Joe Biden exulted during a less-than-victorious lap around Baghdad earlier this month. A classic Washington slip:  What Biden meant to say was that the tide of Americans was receding. True, sloppy and heedless departures have become an American staple.  Even Biden could never outdo Gerald Ford’s aside, mumbled amidst the havoc of Saigon’s collapse, that the war in Vietnam “is finished as far as America is concerned.” In this, however, Ford had things exactly backward. The war was over for the Vietnamese; as far as America was concerned, it burned on for decades. 

In Iraq, the reverse seems to be true.  To judge by the journalistic coverage of America’s extrication, it is more or less as if the war had never happened. Even at its bloody height in 2006, the television minutes that the networks devoted to the Iraq war amounted to roughly half of what they had broadcast during Vietnam.  Last week, Pew released a study showing that less than 1% of recent news coverage related to America’s departure from Iraq. Exhaustion, revulsion, Justin Bieber—whatever the explanation, this much is evident: as an expression of civic literacy, much less civic vigor or solidarity with those who have endured so very much in our name, the amount of attention that we have expended on the conclusion of war that cost nearly 5000 American lives and many times that number maimed doesn’t even qualify. 

What if they threw a war and nobody came? Fair enough. But what if they ended a war and nobody came? The answer to that question is likely to have profound and lasting consequences for all of us, the Iraq war’s supporters and detractors alike.          

Tim Noah: Declining Illegal Immigration

“Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project at Princeton, an extensive, long-term survey in Mexican emigration hubs, said his research showed that interest in heading to the United States for the first time had fallen to its lowest level since at least the 1950s. ‘No one wants to hear it, but the flow has already stopped,’ Mr. Massey said, referring to illegal traffic. ‘For the first time in 60 years, the net traffic has gone to zero and is probably a little bit negative.’”

On July 6, 2011, even as opposition to illegal immigration to the United States was boiling over at the state level and splitting the Republican party in two, the reporter Damien Cave passed along this data point on Page One of the New York Times (“Better Lives For Mexicans Cut Allure Of Going North”), America’s newspaper of record, where it remained hidden in plain sight.

Most undocumented (i.e., illegal) immigrants come from Mexico. If Mexicans are losing interest in migrating illegally to the United States, that’s a very big deal. But opponents to illegal immigration don’t want to acknowledge that the phenomenon might be ebbing, while defenders of the status quo are too diversity-sensitized to acknowledge that any reduction in undocumented Latino immigration—even one occurring already, independent of U.S. policy—might be worthy of praise.

The number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. peaked in 2007 at 12 million and has since fallen to about 11 million, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The simplest explanation is that there’s been a falloff in economic opportunity in the U.S. due to the recession of 2007-2009; the lingering decline in construction due to the real estate bubble; and a persistently high unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent. If that’s the case, then undocumented immigrants will resume pouring into the U.S. when the economy recovery picks up a bit.

But the percentage of Mexicans who entered the U.S. illegally for the first time has been declining for a decade, according to Massey’s research. It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has experienced three recessions during the past two decades (including an especially brutal 16-month recession in 1981-1982 during which the unemployment rate rose to nearly 11 percent). Yet only during the most recent recession did the flow of undocumented immigrants decline. Moreover, the decline appears to be limited to Mexico; illegal immigration from the rest of Latin America (which has never approached the volume of illegal immigration from Mexico) is pretty much unchanged.

Cave’s Times story suggested that the decline might be due to changes in Mexico itself. The country’s fertility rate has fallen to 2 children per woman. Secondary school attendance is up. Per capita gross domestic product has increased more than 45 percent since 2000. Family income has increased by a comparable amount. During that same period family income in the U.S. declined slightly. Might the North American Free Trade Agreement and other favorable economic developments in Mexico have achieved what decades of U.S. immigration policy could not? It would be premature to conclude this for certain. But it’s telling that in the current political climate no politician, Democrat or Republican, dare raise even the possibility that the only practical long-term solution to the problem of uncontrolled immigration—rising economic prosperity in Mexico—might be at hand.

Walter Shapiro: Obama’s Failed Fireside Chat

Last July 25, on his 916th day in the White House, Barack Obama finally delivered a formal Oval Office address on the issue that will define his presidency—the economy. Obama’s words that night were devoid of Clinton-esque empathy over the plight of the unemployed and Roosevelt-ian attacks on Wall Street power brokers. Instead, playing to the sensible center in the debt-ceiling fight, Obama called for “a balanced approach to reducing the deficit” and urged viewers to send the message to Congress that “we can solve this problem through compromise.” For a president elected because of his eloquence, Obama summoned up all the poetry of the collected workout routines of George W. Bush.

If Obama loses in 2012, which seems an even-money proposition, that little-remembered Oval Office address may well be seen as a turning point. Historians may someday recall that on July 25, 2011, the bulk of the American people stopped listening to Obama when he spoke about the economy. Certainly, the tepid speech, the over-hyped super-committee compromise and the grudging August 2 increase in the debt ceiling undermined Obama’s already weak poll numbers. According to both the Real Clear Politics average and the Gallup Poll, August 2011 was the first month of Obama’s presidency when more than half the voters disapproved on a consistent basis his performance in office.

The point is not to re-argue the wisdom of Obama’s ever-shifting strategy in the debt-ceiling fight or to retroactively reward the Republicans for their dangerous intransigence. Rather, the goal is to highlight one of the central mysteries of Obama’s presidency: Why has his rhetoric about the troubled economy been so consistently turgid? Much of the Oval Office address sounded like it was written by a focus group. At times of trouble, there is nothing so stirring as a president calling for a “balanced approach” and raising the dread specter of “kicking the can further down the road.”

A single off-key speech does not jeopardize a presidency. But Obama resisted an Oval Office address on the economy during all the dark days of double-digit unemployment, preferring speeches to Congress punctuated by partisan cheering sections and prime-time press conferences punctuated by preening reporters. The problem was that neither forum allowed Obama to make a sustained economic argument rather than simply offering applause lines or jousting with journalists. As a result, Obama has never been able to convince voters that increasing the deficit during hard times hastens the speed of an economy recovery. Small wonder Obama is heading into his reelection campaign with Republicans believing that he is a European-style socialist and too many Democrats worrying that he is a trimmer with no more inner convictions than Mitt Romney.

To revive an old joke: On July 25, 2011, Barack Obama gave a fireside address—and the fire went out.

Noam Scheiber: The False Start Recovery

Anyone rooting for Barack Obama, to say nothing of the U.S. economy, probably noticed that the labor market has shown signs of improvement in recent months. In each of the four months between May and August of 2011, the economy netted roughly 100,000 jobs on average, probably not enough to keep up with population growth. In the last three months, by contrast, that number has risen to roughly 160,000, and there are indications that looming data revisions will boost it higher.

Less well understood is whether this recent improvement is the beginning of a genuine jobs recovery or the latest false start since the economy hit bottom in 2008. After all, the past three years have witnessed a disconcerting pattern: In the fall and winter months, employment growth tends to pick up relative to the spring and summer, only to stall out again once the weather warms up. In the six months that followed October 2009, the massive job losses of the recession gradually narrowed and turned into gains, which reached 144,000 in March 2010 and 229,000 that April. But, over the next five months, job growth retreated to an average of 85,000. Between October of 2010 and April of 2011, monthly job growth weighed in at 179,000, then drifted back toward 100,000 through the rest of the spring and summer.

With the exception of one welcome piece in The New York Times, there’s been almost no attempt by the mainstream media to explain the to-ing and fro-ing. But, of course, without an account of the underlying causes—natural economic cycles? a string of bad luck? the lingering effects of the financial crisis?—there’s no way to gauge whether this time really will be different.

David Greenberg: The Decline of Turkish Democracy

A recent Associated Press list of hundreds of major stories in 2011 included the Casey Anthony murder trial and the death of Jack LaLanne, but it mentioned the country of Turkey only in reference to an October earthquake. I’m no expert on Turkey, but from the little I’ve read about developments there, it’s clear to me that the American news media haven’t done justice to the country’s disturbing decline. Under what can only be called the malign leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is turning into a repressive Islamist state.

Erdogan has jailed scores of journalists and political opponents (including leading military officers). According to British reporter Rosemary Righter, one of the few journalists I’ve read who has written critically of Erdogan, Turkey has now jailed more journalists than Iran or China. Just the other day, Erdogan rounded up dozens of Kurds and journalists deemed to be sympathetic to them, including a photographer for Agence France-Presse, on the flimsy pretense of affiliation with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. Although thwarted in some of his power grabs, Erdogan is seeking to redraw Turkey’s secular constitution. He has cozied up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, according to a Palestinian news source, pledged $300 million to Hamas. (It’s commonly said that Turkey’s relations with Israel soured after the 2010 flotilla to Gaza, launched from Turkey against Israel’s wishes. This is false. The two countries’ ties deteriorated long before that incident, which was a symptom more than a cause of their rupture.)

Despite these deeply troubling moves, coverage of Turkey has been intermittent and oddly favorable. The New York Times’s Anthony Shadid, a reporter whose dispatches from elsewhere in the Middle East I once admired, has emerged as a leading Erdogan cheerleader and even sycophant, lavishing praise on Erdogan’s charisma and neglecting his repressive moves. To be sure, Turkey’s military governments over the years engaged in many unconscionable abuses and deserve no romanticization. Yet the grand traditions of Kemal Ataturk—who one hundred years ago made Turkey a modern, democratic, secular country—persevered. It now appears, tragically, that they are coming to an end.

Alec MacGillis: The Higher Ed Bubble and The Survival of Germany’s Welfare State

I’d like to offer two under-covered stories. First, the higher education bubble, which is still expanding. As the rest of the country engages in recession-era belt-tightening, most of America’s colleges and universities are skating blithely along, refusing to acknowledge a new reality. This fall, tuition at public universities rose by an average of more than 8 percent (to $8,244) for in-state students and nearly 6 percent (to $20,770) for out-of-state students, and an average hike of 4.5 percent at private colleges (to $28,500). The class of 2010 graduated with an average debt load of $25,000. The Obama administration is finally jaw-boning university leaders about reining in costs, but the higher ed sector, grown fat on non-faculty administrators and fancy capital projects, is far from its overdue reckoning.

Next, the survival of the German welfare state. Seeking to capitalize on the European financial crisis, American conservatives have held up Germany as a paragon of austerity and free-market principle in contrast with its profligate and coddled Southern European neighbors. Overlooked in this framing, which mainstream coverage of the crisis has only abetted, is that German social democracy remains alive and well. Not only does the country still provide its citizens universal health insurance, but it kept unemployment low during the recession by subsidizing private employers to keep workers on at reduced hours rather than laying them off. If anything, today’s Germany is proof that a strong safety net and economic growth are fully compatible.

William Galston: Obama’s Ambiguous Endgame For Iran

“Enough attention” is by definition a relative concept. A trivial story deserves no more than a mention; a consequential one, continuing focus. By that standard, the most neglected story of 2011 was Iran’s relentless drive to develop nuclear weapons. No other single development could do so much to alter the basic strategic equation, in the Middle East and throughout the world. Many defense and foreign policy experts believe that the Obama administration is not serious about a military option and is hoping against hope that escalating sanctions will persuade the Iranian leadership to stop short of the brink. If not, they are prepared to implement some version of a containment strategy, hoping to replicate our success against the former Soviet Union in very different circumstances.

What is the Obama administration thinking? What are the real costs of an effective containment strategy? Is there a viable military option? If so, how do its costs (which are considerable) compare to those of containment? How prepared is the administration to respond to an Iranian nuclear breakout? These are only some of the questions that journalists who cover the defense/foreign policy beat should be probing every day, because this is the most urgent and consequential international issue of our day. It affects everything from the economic viability of our allies to the future of the non-proliferation regime. It could reconfigure our relations with friend and foe alike. And most of us don’t have a clue what’s going on inside our own government.

John Judis: The Subversion of the Do Not Call Registry

The great under- or, better, un-covered story of the year: Cardholder Services and the Do Not Call Registry. You don’t know what I’m talking about? That’s because you don’t work at home. George W. Bush’s administration invaded Iraq and let Bernie Madoff run wild; but to its credit, it established the Do Not Call Registry to block telemarketers from flooding our telephones with unwanted offers. After I registered my phone number on the Federal Trade Commission’s web site in 2004, the phone calls virtually stopped. But guess what? Under the Obama administration, which claims to understand the power and wisdom of government regulation, they’ve begun again. I get seven or eight a day now (mostly I don’t answer them), including to my cell phone, where I get charged for them. Many of them have been from an outfit called “Cardholder Services.” And it’s not just me. Google “cardholder services” and you’ll find a plethora of complaints. I have already filed complaints with the FTC twice this year, and the second time I asked for an acknowledgement. But I never heard back, and the phone calls continue. A little while ago, I got a call on my cellphone from a number in Salem, Oregon. 503-902-8252. Complaints about this number are all over the web. So the Obama administration has not followed through on the one thing that the Bush administration did right.

Isaac Chotiner: The Return of Blood Diamonds

One story that has gotten insufficient attention in 2011 is the continuing disgrace revolving around the worldwide diamond industry. After a number of African civil wars in the 1990s, international pressure forced the major diamond companies to adopt the so-called Kimberley Process, which was meant to ensure that diamonds sold internationally were conflict free. Although the Kimberley Process involved self-monitoring, it did (together with the end of several civil wars) succeed in producing a market with cleaner diamonds. But this year Global Witness, the leading diamond monitoring group, pulled out of the Kimberley Process, calling it an "accomplice to diamond laundering." Even worse, the industry is allowing sales from a notorious mine in Zimbabwe. This story has been mentioned in the press, but the shame of the major diamond companies continues to be underreported.

Ed Kilgore: The Conservative Assault On the Constitution

The most unreported story of the year, and perhaps of the current decade, is the increasing peril in which “constitutional conservatives” have placed the Constitution as we have known it.  It should be obvious enough that if the next president is a Republican—any Republican—he (or she, in the very unlikely event of Michele Bachmann’s election) will be sworn to take advantage of Supreme Court openings to make possible an all-out assault on reproductive rights.  This could take the form of a widening of the beachhead already established by Gonzales v. Carhart, to validate the “fetal pain” laws working their way through state legislatures to ban all late-term abortions, and the many types of harassment of abortion providers that have become routine.  Or it could involve a more violent and direct repeal of the chain of decisions reaching back to Roe v. Wade and Griswold v. Connecticut that created a constitutional right to choose.  Only God and Anthony Kennedy know how close we already are to these contingencies, and the shaky loyalty of the White House and congressional Democrats to reproductive self-determination for women hardly provides grounds for great optimism even if the president is re-elected. 

Beyond this immediate issue, the media have almost entirely failed to grasp the extent to which the ascendant “movement conservative” wing of the GOP has fallen captive to a more general constitutional radicalism—to a variety of originalism that is almost entirely hostile to the doctrine of stare decisis, and would favor the repudiation of the Supreme Court decisions that made possible the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights movement.  Yes, when Newt Gingrich, seeking to re-establish his legitimacy as the latest “true conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” suggested the overthrow of Marbury v. Madison, alarms were raised.  But it’s cold comfort to know it is considered unacceptably radical to return to the constitutional doctrines of the early nineteenth century even as the most reactionary views of the 1930s are becoming fashionable again.

John McWhorter: The Debunking of the Obesity Epidemic

It is an article of faith that obesity in poor neighborhoods is due to racism. The institutional kind, mind you—supermarkets with low-priced fresh vegetables and fruit moved out of low-income neighborhood, leaving residents stuck with paltry and underpriced selections of the same from bodegas. The result: fast food and junk food as the only viable alternatives. This idea is so deeply entrenched that it is routinely cited everywhere from earnest undergraduate seminars to Blue America dinner parties.

Yet it has never felt quite right to me. Culinary habits are surely as much about cultural predilection as whether you can walk to the nearest Safeway. Sheer observation alone suggests it: Obesity is rampant in West Harlem despite Fairway selling cheap, fresh produce smack in the heart of the neighborhood and even offering a free shuttle service for residents.

Now, a major study, conducted in several cities over 15 years, has shown that proximity of supermarkets does not affect people’s eating habits. I’m inclined to trust Nutrition Transition Program head Dr. Barry Popkin, who headed the study, on this, and I expected it to get major coverage in the media, especially given the obvious implications for implementation of Michelle Obama’s Healthy Food Initiative aimed at bringing nutritious food to inner cities. But when the findings were announced in the Los Angeles Times last July, it received a mere flurry of coverage, mostly in back pages and on lesser-known blogs.

And this hasn’t even been the only unwelcome news of late on this issue. In 2006 there was some sunny coverage of the Healthy Bodegas Initiative, stocking bodegas in Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn with fresh produce and lowfat milk. The actual results as of last year were hardly inspiring—and were as undercovered as Popkin’s study. Is this the media’s lack of interest in a story that goes against received wisdom? Whatever it is, given the national attention currently focused on child obesity in particular, the Popkin study’s results should have gotten much more attention during the second half of 2011.

Jon Cohn: Budget Slashing On the State Level

Home health care services for the elderly and disabled. School buses. Child care for working parents. Funding for these public programs are among the $1 billion in budget cuts California Governor Jerry Brown announced last week. And they are typical of what’s happening in state capitals across the country.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 42 states closed budget shortfalls for the coming fiscal year and in six of those states, California and Texas among them, the shortfall was more than 20 percent. The cause is a steep decline in state revenue, larger than in any recent recession. States are responding with dramatic, and frequently devastating, cuts to public services. 

These cuts have gotten plenty of attention in the local press. And if your local school district has been slashing its budget, like mine has, you may not need the media to tell you about it. But, based on what I've seen, the human impact of these cuts have gotten surprisingly little attention in Washington. The debate about whether to cut the federal budget, including aid to the states, has largely been about how cuts might affect the economy as a whole.

That’s important, obviously, but there's more to the story. I wonder whether public enthusiasm for reduced federal spending might wane if people understood the extent to which those reductions translate into fewer services for people they know and love.