Bombings Jolt Russia, Raising Olympic Fears

The New York Times

December 29, 2013

Bombings Jolt Russia, Raising Olympic Fears

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

MOSCOW — A deadly suicide bombing at a crowded railroad station in southern Russia on Sunday, followed by a blast in a trolley bus on Monday in the same city, raised the specter of a new wave of terrorism just six weeks before the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s government has worked to protect the Olympics with some of the most extensive security measures ever imposed for the Games. But the bombings, in Volgograd, underscored the threat the country faces from a radical Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus that has periodically spilled into the Russian heartland, with deadly results, including several recent attacks.

Security has become a paramount concern at all major international sporting events, especially in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April, but never before has an Olympic host country experienced terrorist violence on this scale soon before the Games. And would-be attackers may have more targets in mind than the Russian state.

Current and former American law enforcement and intelligence officials said Sunday that they were more concerned about security in Russia during the Sochi Games than they have been about any other Olympics since Athens in 2004.

Russian officials attributed the explosion on Sunday to a bomb packed with shrapnel, possibly carried in a bag or backpack. It was detonated in the main railroad station in Volgograd, a city 550 miles south of Moscow and 400 miles northeast of Sochi. The bomb blew out windows in the building’s facade and left a horrific scene of carnage at its main entrance. At least 16 people were killed, and nearly three dozen others were wounded, some of them critically, meaning the death toll could still rise.

On Monday morning a second blast struck a trolley bus in the city, killing at least 10 people, according to preliminary reports. Photographs posted by Russian news organizations showed that the force of the blast tore open the bus and shattered windows nearby. At least 10 others were wounded in what officials immediately described as another suicide bombing.

The Sunday blast, captured on a surveillance video camera from across the central plaza in front of the station, occurred near the station’s metal detectors, which have become a common security fixture at most of Russia’s transportation hubs. That raised the possibility that an attack deeper inside the station or aboard a train had been averted.

Vladimir I. Markin, a spokesman for the main national criminal investigation agency in Russia, called the bombing an act of terror, though the exact motivation, target and perpetrator were not immediately clear.

Within hours of the attack, the authorities blamed a suicide bomber, and cited the gruesome discovery of the severed head of a woman, which they said could aid in identifying her as the suspect. Officials later said they had found a grenade and a pistol, and suggested that the attack might have been carried out by a man and a woman working together.

“Most likely, the victims could have been much higher if the so-called protective system had not stopped the suicide bomber from getting through the metal detectors into the waiting room, where there were passengers,” Mr. Markin said in a statement on the agency’s website.

The attack was the second suicide bombing in Volgograd in recent months. In October, a woman identified as Naida Asiyalovadetonated a vest of explosives aboard a bus in the city, killing herself and six others.

In that case, the authorities said she was linked by marriage to an explosives expert working with an Islamic group in Dagestan, a republic in southern Russia where the police have struggled to suppress a Muslim separatist insurgency. A month later, the authorities announced that they had killed her husband and four others in a raid. But the attack on Sunday indicated that the threat was far from extinguished.

It was not clear why suicide bombers have now twice chosen targets in Volgograd, a city of 1 million that was formerly called Stalingrad, the site of one of the crucial battles of World War II. It is the nearest major Russian city to the Caucasus, and its proximity may play a role.

Roman Lobachov, who was among those injured on Sunday, said he was at the station’s security checkpoint when the blast occurred. “I passed through the metal detector, and at that moment there was an explosion,” he said in remarks on the official Rossiya television network. He said he felt a shock like a blow to the head, “and I kind of dropped to the floor.”

Mr. Putin vowed Sunday to redouble security at Russia’s railway stations and airports, which are especially busy around the New Year’s holiday.

The autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Chechnya, have been roiled for nearly two decades by armed insurgencies — complex, ever-shifting conflicts that the International Crisis Group recently called “the most violent in Europe today.” The violence has claimed hundreds of lives this year, prompting the Russian authorities to make extraordinary efforts to keep it from reaching Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea coast among the foothills of the Caucasus. The city will effectively be locked down starting Jan. 7, with all traffic banned except officially registered vehicles. Visitors to the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 7, will be required to obtain a special pass to enter the region.

With security so tight at the site of the Games, experts have warned that insurgents who want to disrupt the Olympics might turn instead to “softer” targets elsewhere. On Friday, an explosion in a car killed three people in Pyatigorsk, another city in the Caucasus; details of that attack remain sketchy, and it was not clear whether it was related to Sunday’s bombing.

Doku Umarov, the Chechen rebel fighter who now leads a terrorist group known as the Caucasus Emirate, vowed in July to attack in Sochi, calling the Games “satanic.”

“They plan to hold the Olympics on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many dead Muslims, buried on the territory of our land on the Black Sea,” Mr. Umarov said in a video. He emerged from the ruins of Chechnya’s separatist movement, which was largely defeated by the authorities under Mr. Putin; he has claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings in Moscow in 2010 and 2011.

One reason American law enforcement and intelligence officials are concerned about Sochi is that the United States has more of an arms-length relationship with Russia than with most Olympic host countries. The United States provided extensive security resources to the Greek government in 2004, but the Russians have stronger capabilities and almost always refuse American offers of help.

Current and former American officials said they had confidence in the Russians’ ability to protect Sochi and the Olympic venues. “There’s every belief they’ll make it secure and do whatever it takes to do that,” said one senior law enforcement official. “But it is a large country, and these groups can get a lot of bang for their buck if they are able to do something in the country, wherever it is, during the Olympics.”

Another complicating factor is that the United States does not direct a significant portion of its intelligence capabilities toward groups that mount attacks in Russia, because American officials see terrorists in countries like Pakistan and Yemen posing a greater threat to American interests. And even though the Boston Marathon bombers had ties to Dagestan, officials don’t believe the attack was plotted with the help of groups there.

“We share some enemies, but not that many,” Mr. Nelson said. “The U.S. just doesn’t put the resources into those areas like it does elsewhere in the world, and there isn’t a ton of intelligence sharing on these groups.”

Reporting was contributed by Nikolai Khalip and Viktor Klimenko from Moscow, and Michael S. Schmidt from Washington.

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When Demons Are Rea

The New York Times

December 28, 2013

When Demons Are Real

By T. M. LUHRMANN

SOME months ago, on a warm Friday evening in Accra, Ghana, I found myself in an all-night prayer session with a charismatic evangelical church. All-night prayer has become wildly popular in the city, somewhat to the distress of those who object to the late-night noise, which rivals that of an American frat party.

But the people who attend love them, because the long stretch of time allows them to pray more intensely than a mere two-hour Sunday morning service will allow. On this Friday night, the focus of our prayers was a story in the Book of Acts.

The Apostle Paul, arriving at an island on his journey to share the Gospel, picked up some brushwood for a fire, and a startled viper within it leapt out and bit his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they thought that he would die. But Paul shook the viper off and lived. The pastor applied the Scripture to our lives: “Say it out loud!” he shouted. “Every viper sticking to my hands, my marriage, my career, my destiny, I shake it off. I shake it off!” The 200 people around me jumped up and down and shook their hands with fury, hurling invisible and metaphorical vipers into the air.

To be in Africa is to encounter a God different from that of a charismatic church in the United States. People say that the boundary between the supernatural and the natural is thinner there. Certainly religion is everywhere — churches and church billboards seem to be on every street — and atheists are few. American evangelicals often say that faith is more intense in Africa. There is something to this. Compared with Ghanaian charismatic Christianity, American Christianity can seem like soggy toast.

It is not just the intensity that seems different. In these churches, prayer is warfare. The new charismatic Christian churches in Accra imagine a world swarming with evil forces that attack your body, your family and your means of earning a living.

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, a professor at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana, argues that these churches have spread so rapidly because African traditional religion envisions a world dense with dark spirits from which people must protect themselves, and these new churches take this evil seriously in a way that many earlier missionizing Christianities did not. Indeed, I have been at a Christian service in Accra with thousands of people shouting: “The witches will die! They will die! Die! Die!” With the pastor roaring, “This is a war zone!”

While this feels very different from soft-toned American evangelical Christianity, which emphasizes God’s loving mercy rather than God’s judgment, spiritual warfare is deeply embedded in the evangelical tradition. The post-1960s charismatic revival in the United States, sometimes called “Third Wave” Christianity (classical Pentecostalism was the first wave and charismatic Catholicism the second), introduced the idea that all Christians interact with supernatural forces daily. That included demons.

In fact, I found American books on dealing with demons in all the bookstores of the African charismatic churches I visited. In one church where I stood looking at the shelf of demon manuals, a helpful clerk leaned over to fish one off for me. She chose an American one. “Here,” she said as she handed me Larry Huch’s “Free at Last,” “this one is good.”

In many American evangelical churches, people will tell you that demons are real, but they do not treat them as particularly salient. Demons don’t come up in Sunday morning sermons, and for the most part people don’t pray about demonic oppression. Their encounters with supernatural evil were like the ghost stories I heard at summer camp: more exciting than terrifying. One man told me of an angel who’d protected him by driving off the devil: “When I turned completely around, just right there, the woman, the vehicle, the lights shining, they were gone. They were gone. But in my brake lights, I saw the guy running over that hill.”

But not always. A 2012 poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed in demonic possession. It’s unlikely to be entertainment for all of them.

One way to think about demons (if you happen not to believe in supernatural evil) is that they are a way of representing human hatred, rage and failure — the stuff we all set out to exorcize in our New Year’s resolutions. The anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, who grew up in Sri Lanka, got a Ph.D. from the University of Washington and, eventually, a job at Princeton, once remarked that all humans deal with demons. (He was quoting Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” — “In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden.”) The only question, he said, was whether the demons were located in the mind, where Freud placed them, or in the world. It is possible that identifying your envy as external and alien makes it easier to quell.

But it is also true that an external agent gives you something — and often, someone — to identify as nonhuman. In West Africa, witches are people, and sometimes, other people kill them or drive them from their homes. In an April poll conducted by Public Policy Polling, over one in 10 Americans were confident that Barack Obama was the Antichrist — and the Antichrist is, as it happens, associated with war in the Middle East. If those people think that demons are real, they don’t mean that Obama is misguided, confused or mistaken. They mean that he is real, inhuman evil.

That is a terrifying thought.

T. M. Luhrmann is contributing opinion writer, a professor of anthropology at Stanford and the author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God.”

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Vaclav Havel’s Fairy Tale

The New York Times

December 17, 2013

Vaclav Havel’s Fairy Tale

By SLAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI

Against the backdrop of today’s petty politics, the stories of great political leaders like Mohandas K. Gandhi or Nelson Mandela look like fairy tales. Let us recount the adventures of another of these giants, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident and politician, on the second anniversary of his death.

The story does have its fairy-tale elements. Once upon a time, there was a great and ancient city with a great and ancient castle, and in that castle there lived a great philosopher-king. This ruler succeeded where philosophers since Plato had failed — that is, in building a state. His country’s affluence matched that of the industrious nations to the West, the only such country among the otherwise impoverished Slavic lands.

This land, created in 1918, was Czechoslovakia, the city was Prague and its philosopher-king was named Tomas Masaryk. His country was among the very few not to fall under the spell of authoritarianism in the 1930s. His grateful people called him Daddy.

Many years later, this wonderful land would become the subject of yet another fairy tale. After defeating the dark forces of Communism, a humble sage, Vaclav Havel, found himself its leader, ensconced in Hradcany Castle, in 1990.

He described his trajectory from criminal to four-term president in his memoirs, comparing it to the stories of Honza, a character common in many Czech fairy tales: “Little Honza — although everyone tells him it’s hopeless — beats his head against the wall for so long that the wall eventually collapses and he becomes king and rules and rules and rules for 13 long years.”

Though usually very modest, Havel understood what his example meant for others: “Why shouldn’t such a story with such a happy ending be exalted? Might it not be a source of hope for others who have not yet experienced the fall of their wall?” Those watching today’s news will immediately think of the brave Ukrainians in Kiev’s Euromaidan, or of Russian political activists.

The biographies of dissidents offer invaluable solace to current and future nonconformists, who, without much hope of success, follow the path outlined by their convictions. It is different with dissidents’ manifestoes, which, once the fight is over, quickly reach their expiration date and are buried in the historical archive. Havel remains one of the very few exceptions.

As Adam Michnik, the Polish anti-Communist activist, recently admitted, “I think that for my dissident friends — and for me, too — the dissident philosophy of life was enough. It was not enough for Havel.”

Former dissidents entered the new era with the naïveté of children on their first trip to the toy store; out of everything that was Western, the invisible hand of the market proved most alluring. But Havel was different, because he did not simply look at Communism or capitalism from the perspective of the other. He considered both systems to be two versions of the same crisis of civilization.

In what is perhaps the most important manifesto of anti-Communist dissent, his 1978 “Power of the Powerless,” Havel expresses this very clearly. Modern democratic societies offered “no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it.”

These are not the views of a naïve idealist who came to terms with “reality” as soon as he assumed the presidency, something confirmed by Havel’s 2006 autobiography, “Briefly, Please.”

He chose the title as a sign of opposition to the stupidity of the commercialized media, which convert everything into mindless platitudes for rapid transmission. The book’s American publisher inadvertently proved his point by changing its title to something more marketable and banal, while also confirming the fairy-tale nature of his story: “To the Castle and Back.”

In post-Communist countries, newborn capitalists’ faith in capitalism was so ardent that even members of the Chicago school of economics, who came rushing in as advisers on how to move to free markets almost overnight, seemed like careful idealists, while John Maynard Keynes was shunned as practically a Communist.

But Havel saw a new danger. “I am also an opponent of market fundamentalism and dogmatism, for which the snide brigade” — his term for “journalists who sneered ironically at everything they felt was not capitalistic enough” — “have branded me a left winger.”

Havel noted the world’s addiction to the drug of short-term profit, which gives pleasure in the moment, but in the long run becomes a threat to development. He noted the simulated pluralism of both opinions and goods. “The pressure toward soulless uniformity that is perceptible everywhere today — despite the seemingly endless array of choices among a seemingly infinite array of products pretending to be different from one another — poses a great threat to all forms of uniqueness.”

The same can be found in politics, so he postulated seeking an alternative to the shopworn and very technocratic political parties through “an effort to rid them of their hidden, subtle, and omnipresent power, which itself is a denial of the principles of representative democracy.”

Havel took seriously what many veteran dissidents considered a waste of time: the new social movements arising in the post-Communist Eastern Europe, like feminism or the global justice movement. He was taken with environmentalism as early as the 1970s, and he saw urban issues as a political priority long before they became a matter of course for the rest of us.

Every system is based on universal conformism, meaning we are all both victims and agents. We can either remain solitary and accept the imperfect reality that confronts us, or challenge it together. Havel longed for an “existential revolution,” just as Tomas Masaryk before him longed for a “revolution of hearts and minds.” Both were similarly distrustful of institutions and trusting in the power of the powerless. Havel demonstrated that this power no longer exists in fairy tales alone.

Slawomir Sierakowski is a sociologist, a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. This article was translated by Maria Blackwood from the Polish.

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Police Salaries and Pensions Push California City to Brink

The New York Times

December 27, 2013

Police Salaries and Pensions Push California City to Brink

By RICK LYMAN and MARY WILLIAMS WALSH

DESERT HOT SPRINGS, Calif. — Emerging from Los Angeles’s vast eastern sprawl, the freeway glides over a narrow pass and slips gently into the scrubby, palm-flecked Coachella Valley.

Turn south, and you head into Palm Springs with its megaresorts, golf courses and bustling shops. Turn north, and you make your way up an arid stretch of road to a battered city where empty storefronts outnumber shops, the Fire Department has been closed, City Hall is on a four-day week and the dwindling coffers may be empty by spring.

The city, Desert Hot Springs, population 27,000, is slowly edging toward bankruptcy, largely because of police salaries and skyrocketing pension costs, but also because of years of spending and unrealistic revenue estimates. It is mostly the police, though, who have found themselves in the cross hairs recently.

“I would not venture to say they are overpaid,” said Robert Adams, the acting city manager since August. “What I would say is that we can’t pay them.”

Though few elected officials in America want to say it, police officers and other public-safety workers keep turning up at the center of the municipal bankruptcies and budget dramas plaguing many American cities — largely because their pensions tend to be significantly more costly than those of other city workers.

Central Falls, R.I., went bankrupt in 2011 because its police and firefighters’ pension fund ran out of money. Vallejo, Calif., went bankrupt after more than 20 police officers suddenly retired from its force of 145, fearing that if they waited they would lose their contractual right to cash out their unused sick leave and vacation time; the payouts totaled several million dollars, and Vallejo did not have the money. Miami weathered such a run in September 2010, when 154 police and firefighters retired en masse after city commissioners voted to make it harder to retire before age 50, use intensive overtime to raise pensions, and earn cash payouts.

Here, under the budget enacted last spring, about $7 million of the city’s $10.6 million annual payroll went to the 39-member police force. The situation was so dire that an audit, compiled weeks before municipal elections in November but not made public until later, showed that Desert Hot Springs was $4 million short for the year and would run out of money as early as April 2014.

So at a tense meeting last week, the new City Council voted unanimously to slash all city salaries, including those of the police, by at least 22 percent, as well as to cap incentive pay and reduce paid holidays and vacation days. For some officers who took advantage of overtime and the other extra payments, the cut could be as much as 40 percent, the union says. Management had already taken a hit: the former police chief and one of two top commanders retired this month, not to be replaced.

Wendell Phillips, a lawyer for the Desert Hot Springs Police Officers Association, quickly filed a fact-finding request with the state’sPublic Employment Relations Board, calling the cuts illegal and vowing to go to court if they were not overturned.

“All they are going to end up doing is driving away their best, experienced officers and creating a police force made up of people who couldn’t get a job on another force,” Mr. Phillips said.

Even those trims, draconian as they were, will not be enough to close the budget gap, Mr. Adams said. More than $2 million more needs to be found before the end of the fiscal year in June, promising months more of bitter wrangling and cuts.

“My idea is that we put up a thermometer outside City Hall, showing how much progress we are making as we close the budget gap,” said Russell Betts, a city councilman and a supporter of the newly elected mayor, Adam Sanchez, who came into office promising to deal with the chronic budget problems once and for all.

“I think we’re going to turn this crisis into a positive,” Mayor Sanchez said. “We are not going to go into bankruptcy. That is not an option. We stumbled, but we’re going to get back up again.”

Cities have run into fiscal difficulties for many reasons, and few are as all-encompassing as the decades of economic decline and official mismanagement that made Detroit the nation’s largest city ever to enter bankruptcy. California cities have had particular trouble with public-safety pensions, which are among the richest in the nation.

Calpers, the huge and politically powerful state-run pension system that covers Desert Hot Springs’ workers, has steadfastly maintained during California’s recent spate of municipal bankruptcies — Vallejo in 2008, San Bernardino and Stockton in 2012 — that under state law, cities cannot reduce the pensions of public employees. San Jose, the state’s third-largest city, passed a ballot initiative in 2012 that authorized it to lower city workers’ pensions, but a state judge ruled on Monday that this path, too, is illegal.

Police officers here, as in many California cities, can retire as young as 50 with 30 years of service and receive 90 percent of their final salary every year — drawing those pensions for decades. Police unions say the fault lies with state and local politicians who failed to adequately fund the pension system over the years, and inflated benefits during boom years. Others wonder whether such salaries and pensions were ever affordable, particularly in cities as small and struggling as this. In Desert Hot Springs, for example, for every dollar that the city pays its police officers, another 36 cents must be sent to Calpers to fund their pensions.

The average pay and benefits package for a police officer here had been worth $177,203 per year, in a city where the median household income was $31,356 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau. All of this had gone largely unnoticed until becoming the center of debate during the recent municipal election.

“I was in shock, like everybody else was,” said Regina Robinson of the day she learned how much some city workers were earning. She owns Just Gina’s hair salon, one of the few businesses on the downtown stretch of Palm Drive, the main street.

Mr. Adams said that California’s rich police pensions were first offered to prison guards by former Gov. Gray Davis more than a decade ago. The move set off a chain reaction, with the California Highway Patrol soon clamoring for the deal, and then city police officers all over the state.

This is not Desert Hot Springs’ first experience with fiscal problems. In 2001, it went bankrupt after losing a $10 million lawsuit brought by a developer who complained that the city was thwarting his efforts to build affordable housing. The city had to borrow to pay the judgment and is still paying off that debt — a struggle for a working-class town.

A sharp increase in gang and drug crimes in the 1980s led the city to disband its police force and contract with the Riverside County sheriff for law enforcement, but that proved highly unpopular and, in 1997, the city re-established its force.

A sweep by the local police and the county sheriff in 2009 led to dozens of arrests and was credited with easing what had been a growing gang crime problem. This was followed by the hiring of a dozen more officers onto the small force and the overwhelming passage of a new utilities use tax and a public safety tax, both dedicated to the police and other public safety departments.

Now residents are wondering whether the city will be forced to disband its police force a second time.

“Nobody wants to get rid of the police force,” Mr. Betts said. “People just don’t think the county would do as good a job.”

Mr. Phillips, the police union lawyer, said the current crisis had been driven by the new majority on the City Council — including Mayor Sanchez and Mr. Betts — that was philosophically opposed to tax increases. The union’s own proposal to address the budget shortfall — by cutting the size of the force and filling in with overtime work for which the officers would defer payment for 17 months, as well as raising the local sales tax — was rejected by city officials, who said it would only delay the reckoning.

What makes Desert Hot Springs’ troubles so heartbreaking is that a potential solution lies beneath the hard-baked ground. The resort sits atop one of the world’s finest sources of mineral water: piping hot, unusually clear and free of the sulfurous odor that many springs produce.

Small spas have been a part of the landscape here for decades, and there are still 22 of them, though many are struggling and in poor repair.

One of them, however, Two Bunch Palms, became a hot destination for Hollywood celebrities and global wellness tourists until it went into foreclosure in 2010 and briefly closed. Now, a new team of Southern California investors has bought the property with hopes to revive and expand it.

Mayor Sanchez hopes that the revitalized Two Bunch Palms will help spur the growth of other businesses in the city.

“We must get back to marketing and promotion,” he said. “We’ve got to return a sense of pride to Desert Hot Springs.”

Rick Lyman reported from Desert Hot Springs, and Mary Williams Walsh from New York.

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With Shrine Visit, Leader Asserts Japan’s Track From Pacifism

The New York Times

December 26, 2013

With Shrine Visit, Leader Asserts Japan’s Track From Pacifism

By HIROKO TABUCHI

TOKYO — Shinzo Abe’s past year as prime minister has concentrated chiefly on reviving Japan’s long-ailing economy. Yet in Mr. Abe’s mind, the country’s newfound economic prowess is a means to an end: to build a more powerful, assertive Japan, complete with a full-fledged military, as well as pride in its World War II-era past.

That larger agenda, which helped cut short Mr. Abe’s first stint in office in 2006-7, has again come to the forefront in recent weeks, culminating in his year-end visit Thursday to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation’s war dead, including several war criminals who were executed after Japan’s defeat. Past visits by Japanese politicians have angered China and South Korea, both of which suffered greatly under Japan’s empire-building efforts in the 20th century.

The latest visit set off swift rebukes from officials in Beijing and Seoul, who accused Mr. Abe of trying to obscure imperial Japan’s atrocities. And in a rare criticism of a close ally, the new American ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, also expressed disappointment with Mr. Abe’s government.

Mr. Abe has shown, however, that he is willing to take on big political risks to steer the country away from its postwar pacifism. Last month, he ignored blistering criticism from political opponents as well as the news media and steamrollered through Parliament a law that would tighten government control over state secrets. The law was presented by the government as a mechanism to aid in the sharing of military intelligence with allies, and create an American-style National Security Council.

Mr. Abe has also increased military spending for the first time in a decade, and loosened self-imposed restrictions on exporting weapons. A new defense plan calls for the acquisition of drones and amphibious assault vehicles to prepare for the prospect of a prolonged rivalry with China.

And experts say that next year, Mr. Abe could start taking concrete steps to reinterpret, and ultimately revise, Japan’s 1947 pacifist Constitution, something he has described as a life goal. Proposed changes could allow the country to officially maintain a standing army for the first time since the war, and take on a larger global security role.

“The past year has given Mr. Abe confidence to start flying his own colors,” said Koji Murata, president of Doshisha University in Kyoto. “He is signaling to his supporters that he is a politician who will fight for his convictions.”

Mr. Abe’s push is at once timely and risky. Regional anxiety over Beijing’s own rapid military buildup — and the relative decline of American influence here as Washington remains distracted by the Middle East — has seemed to set the stage for a more confident Japan. And tensions with China and South Korea have made a skeptical public more willing to accept Mr. Abe’s rightist agenda, including the establishment of a more robust military.

But territorial disputes, as well as sharp disagreements over the legacy of the war, also make for a dangerous backdrop to Japan’s rise. Japanese and Chinese patrol boats remain in a tense standoff near uninhabited islands in the East China Sea claimed by both countries, prompting concern among some military analysts that a miscalculation or accident could set off an armed confrontation.

Japan’s relations with South Korea are at rock-bottom because of a separate territorial dispute and disagreements over interpretations of history. Raised hopes for a reconciliation after recent reports of a meeting involving vice ministers from the two countries have been dashed by Mr. Abe’s Yasukuni visit.

“Mr. Abe has poured even more fuel on the fire,” said Tetsuya Takahashi, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tokyo and author of a best-selling book on the Yasukuni Shrine’s role in Japanese politics. “That does not bode well for Japan’s relations in Asia at all.”

Mr. Abe walks a fine line in part because the many facets of his agenda do not sit well together. For one, good relations with China — Tokyo’s largest trading partner — are critical to Japan’s ongoing economic recovery. Experts warn that taking a belligerent stance toward Beijing could deal another blow to Japanese business interests in China, and to Mr. Abe’s economic agenda.

Nor do Mr. Abe’s deeply revisionist views of history — which he inherited from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was jailed for war crimes before eventually becoming prime minister — inspire confidence that Tokyo can play a bigger security role in Asia.

Washington has generally been keen for Japan to take on a more active military presence in the region to counterbalance China’s growing might. But rather than become a stable ally, Tokyo has become another Asian problem for American officials because of its quarrels with Beijing.

When Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Japan in October, they paid their respects at a different cemetery for Japan’s unnamed war dead, in an apparent effort to nudge Japanese leaders away from visiting Yasukuni.

“In the end, Mr. Abe’s historical views diverge sharply from America’s,” Mr. Takahashi said. “After all, Mr. Abe does not believe in the postwar order that America established.”

Yet thanks to his early focus on the economy, Mr. Abe’s ratings of around 50 percent are high by recent Japanese standards; he faces no credible opposition and no nationwide elections are scheduled until 2016. His ruling Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in July, giving it control over both chambers of Parliament, and the power to push through legislation.

Mr. Abe has, at times, worked well with the Americans. For example, he was personally involved in a long-stalled plan to move an American Marine base on the island of Okinawa.

“He began by focusing on economic revival, and cementing his support, which was wise,” said Eiji Yoshida, a professor of law at Kansai University in Osaka. “But he’s been waiting and waiting for the moment he can move on to his true agenda, and that moment is now.”

China has little room to maneuver after last month unilaterally declaring a new air defense zone over the East China Sea islands, raising alarm across the region. In a direct challenge to threats by China that it could take military action against foreign aircraft entering the zone, the United States sent two unarmed B-52 bombers through the airspace, after which China appeared to backpedal from its threats.

“China has already played its card. There’s little room for it to escalate matters over Prime Minister Abe’s visit,” Mr. Murata of Doshisha University said.

Some analysts say that Mr. Abe did his best to minimize the fallout from his Yasukuni visit. He avoided worshiping there during the shrine’s seasonal religious festivals, or during politically or historically significant anniversaries.

Many Japanese conservatives say the visit should not be so politically charged, because it was simply meant to honor the 3.1 million military personnel and civilians who perished in World War II.

Mr. Abe himself made that claim, saying he contemplated on the “preciousness of peace” as he paid his respects at Yasukuni.

Few analysts, however, think that he will now turn his full focus back to the economy. Instead, the new year is likely to mark new steps to change the Constitution.

Mr. Abe has said he would first push to reinterpret the Constitution to allow Japan to take action on behalf of allies under attack. But he has made no secret that he would seek a wide-ranging revision of the document itself, allowing Japan a national army.

“Perhaps the most important lesson of Abe’s visit to Yasukuni is that despite claims that Abe is focused on economic recovery above all else, the prime minister does not believe that his mandate is limited to his economic policies,” said Tobias Harris, an expert on Japanese politics at Teneo Intelligence, an advisory firm.

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea. Patrick Zuo contributed research from Beijing, and Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno from Tokyo.

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Vaclav Havel’s Fairy Tale

The New York Times

December 17, 2013

Vaclav Havel’s Fairy Tale

By SLAWOMIR SIERAKOWSKI

Against the backdrop of today’s petty politics, the stories of great political leaders like Mohandas K. Gandhi or Nelson Mandela look like fairy tales. Let us recount the adventures of another of these giants, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident and politician, on the second anniversary of his death.

The story does have its fairy-tale elements. Once upon a time, there was a great and ancient city with a great and ancient castle, and in that castle there lived a great philosopher-king. This ruler succeeded where philosophers since Plato had failed — that is, in building a state. His country’s affluence matched that of the industrious nations to the West, the only such country among the otherwise impoverished Slavic lands.

This land, created in 1918, was Czechoslovakia, the city was Prague and its philosopher-king was named Tomas Masaryk. His country was among the very few not to fall under the spell of authoritarianism in the 1930s. His grateful people called him Daddy.

Many years later, this wonderful land would become the subject of yet another fairy tale. After defeating the dark forces of Communism, a humble sage, Vaclav Havel, found himself its leader, ensconced in Hradcany Castle, in 1990.

He described his trajectory from criminal to four-term president in his memoirs, comparing it to the stories of Honza, a character common in many Czech fairy tales: “Little Honza — although everyone tells him it’s hopeless — beats his head against the wall for so long that the wall eventually collapses and he becomes king and rules and rules and rules for 13 long years.”

Though usually very modest, Havel understood what his example meant for others: “Why shouldn’t such a story with such a happy ending be exalted? Might it not be a source of hope for others who have not yet experienced the fall of their wall?” Those watching today’s news will immediately think of the brave Ukrainians in Kiev’s Euromaidan, or of Russian political activists.

The biographies of dissidents offer invaluable solace to current and future nonconformists, who, without much hope of success, follow the path outlined by their convictions. It is different with dissidents’ manifestoes, which, once the fight is over, quickly reach their expiration date and are buried in the historical archive. Havel remains one of the very few exceptions.

As Adam Michnik, the Polish anti-Communist activist, recently admitted, “I think that for my dissident friends — and for me, too — the dissident philosophy of life was enough. It was not enough for Havel.”

Former dissidents entered the new era with the naïveté of children on their first trip to the toy store; out of everything that was Western, the invisible hand of the market proved most alluring. But Havel was different, because he did not simply look at Communism or capitalism from the perspective of the other. He considered both systems to be two versions of the same crisis of civilization.

In what is perhaps the most important manifesto of anti-Communist dissent, his 1978 “Power of the Powerless,” Havel expresses this very clearly. Modern democratic societies offered “no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it.”

These are not the views of a naïve idealist who came to terms with “reality” as soon as he assumed the presidency, something confirmed by Havel’s 2006 autobiography, “Briefly, Please.”

He chose the title as a sign of opposition to the stupidity of the commercialized media, which convert everything into mindless platitudes for rapid transmission. The book’s American publisher inadvertently proved his point by changing its title to something more marketable and banal, while also confirming the fairy-tale nature of his story: “To the Castle and Back.”

In post-Communist countries, newborn capitalists’ faith in capitalism was so ardent that even members of the Chicago school of economics, who came rushing in as advisers on how to move to free markets almost overnight, seemed like careful idealists, while John Maynard Keynes was shunned as practically a Communist.

But Havel saw a new danger. “I am also an opponent of market fundamentalism and dogmatism, for which the snide brigade” — his term for “journalists who sneered ironically at everything they felt was not capitalistic enough” — “have branded me a left winger.”

Havel noted the world’s addiction to the drug of short-term profit, which gives pleasure in the moment, but in the long run becomes a threat to development. He noted the simulated pluralism of both opinions and goods. “The pressure toward soulless uniformity that is perceptible everywhere today — despite the seemingly endless array of choices among a seemingly infinite array of products pretending to be different from one another — poses a great threat to all forms of uniqueness.”

The same can be found in politics, so he postulated seeking an alternative to the shopworn and very technocratic political parties through “an effort to rid them of their hidden, subtle, and omnipresent power, which itself is a denial of the principles of representative democracy.”

Havel took seriously what many veteran dissidents considered a waste of time: the new social movements arising in the post-Communist Eastern Europe, like feminism or the global justice movement. He was taken with environmentalism as early as the 1970s, and he saw urban issues as a political priority long before they became a matter of course for the rest of us.

Every system is based on universal conformism, meaning we are all both victims and agents. We can either remain solitary and accept the imperfect reality that confronts us, or challenge it together. Havel longed for an “existential revolution,” just as Tomas Masaryk before him longed for a “revolution of hearts and minds.” Both were similarly distrustful of institutions and trusting in the power of the powerless. Havel demonstrated that this power no longer exists in fairy tales alone.

Slawomir Sierakowski is a sociologist, a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. This article was translated by Maria Blackwood from the Polish.

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Silence of the Generals

Silence of the Generals

Posted on December 15, 2013 | 16 Comments

Alone_US_SoldierDuring the Vietnam War, America’s general officers developed a bad reputation for hovering above the fight in helicopters, calling the shots from a safe distance but never truly involved when the chips were down. They may have been calling the shots, but they weren’t leading.

This past week, as veteran pensions have come under assault, many of this generation’s veterans find themselves asking where are the Generals, Admirals, and Secretaries responsible for safeguarding the interests of our nation’s fighting forces? The current budget debacle exposes a dark and — to those who retain a perspective of decency and common sense – a shocking reality of the way our modern system works. In standing silent as the pensions of its own service members are burglarized, senior military leaders believe they’re doing their jobs. Apparently believing that saving a few billion dollars and being rid of the agony of sequestration is worth any price, they’ve sat silent this week as veterans and families have weathered the reality of broken promises. Focusing on their actions rather than their past words about the importance of taking care of people, it becomes clear no one should listen to the current crop of generals on the subject of pension and disability reform, compensation, or any other issue impacting what happens to fighting men and women after they’ve done their duty. These leaders, for whatever reason, don’t seem to care about that. They care about getting operational results, and as their tacit dormancy this week reflects, see personnel compensation as something standing between them and the weapons and programs they deem operationally necessary.

Nothing against them, but just a word to wise: service chiefs and secretaries do not speak for veterans. They are interested in winning the next war, and don’t have any concern or focus beyond that. They might argue — if they spoke freely — that this is appropriate; that it isn’t their job to care about anything else.

But this raises a critical question: whose job is it to ensure promises to our veterans are kept? Who fights for them in the halls of Congress? Whose job is it to speak out when the manifestly wrong thing is about to happen? At the moment, conditions seem to have placed the Joint Chiefs in a dilemma where they have no choice but to see veterans and their pensions as nuisances, given that our system forces them to decide between shiny new weapons (which also have powerful lobbies) and individual people (who have no lobby at all, and don’t even get to speak freely for themselves so long as they wear a uniform). This is a dangerous moment, because no one knows what a series of broken promises will do to the health and future vitality of the All-Volunteer Force, and military senior leaders are not playing their normal role of making sure important questions are entertained before far-reaching, strategically consequential legislation is pushed through.

Make no mistake: many budgeteers inside the pentagon *want* the $6B they stand to get from the House budget provision burglarizing veteran pensions. Perversely, even many mid-level active duty officers want it, to fund the missions they’re charged with carrying out . . . unconcerned in the present moment about the $120k they won’t get in retirement and aloof to how $80k less might feel to a retired enlisted family. They want rid of sequestration at any cost — badly enough to acquiesce to the mangling of promises in order to be delivered from the agony of sequestration and its oppressive impact. But there is no acceptable rationalization for this kind of mentality. It is a reflection of the structural elimination of morality from the way DoD does business . . . it’s always a question of problem-solving, which is concerned with “how” to do a thing rather than “if” doing a thing is right, just, wise, or moral in the first place.

There are many who seek reform of the military pension system, and this is not an invalid objective. But this isn’t real reform. This is fast-buck artistry. Reform means sitting down and deliberately re-drawing the system while keeping covenants with those who already signed on and did their duty. I don’t know of a single active or veteran service member who isn’t open to reform, but not the kind that entails budgeteers walking out the back door with sacks of pension cash.

Today’s lesson: take the perspectives of generals and admirals on the subject of taking care of people with a huge grain of salt. Talk is cheap. But now that the chips are down, these “leaders” are conspicuously absent.

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Budget Battle

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to look tough on budget issues. In aneditorial published in USA Today explaining his decision to lead the passage of a budget that reduced the value of already-earned veteran pensions by an average of $84,000 to $120,000, Mr. Ryan founded his message on the urgent need to “do the right thing.” This is painfully ironic, given that he wants to do exactly the wrong thing by extracting $6B in savings over the next 10 years – equivalent to less than six-tenths of one percent of federal spending over that time — by taking earned compensation away from people who earned it risking their lives.

I’m still struggling to understand what it is about the veteran population that would make Ryan believe we’re dumb enough not to see this for what it is: just the beginning. If he can reduce earned veteran compensation by 1% per year while we still have people dying in combat, there will be nothing to stop him from continually enlarging the legitimacy of promise-breaking until veterans wake up one day and recognize the pension package they’re getting bears no resemblance to what they and their families earned.

Presenting a classic false dilemma by casting the need to pay people as in competition with the need to fund operations, Ryan admonishes us that “since 2001, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost per service member in the active-duty force has risen by 41% in inflation-adjusted dollars.” What he doesn’t mention is that when the $6T eventual price tag of those wars is counted, personnel costs will define a tiny percentage of the total price tag, despite the fact that any success we can count from those conflicts will have been wholly earned not by machines, but by the people who fought and died to carry out America’s will. What Ryan also doesn’t mention is that part of the reason money is running short is that he voted to authorize and expand these wars. Now that their true costs have fallen due, he’s looking for an easy way to ameliorate them. This isn’t the right thing. It’s the wrong thing.

Ryan wants us to trust that because Secretary of Defense Hagel and the generals want reform, his back-door budget trick is a good idea. What he doesn’t mention is that Hagel and his leadership team are struggling to make ends meet because Congress and the President have conspired to under resource the department without granting it any mission relief, leaving them with a problem they can’t legally solve but can’t legally abandon. Hagel, Dempsey and the service chiefs desperately want reform. But this isn’t reform. This is the opposite of reform — it’s theavoidance of reform. This is cheating by saving money without having toengage in reform. This is back-door budgeteering and nothing more. Reform is deliberate, methodical, and transparent. This is an attempted legal heist that Mr. Ryan clearly hoped wouldn’t be noticed. He now laments it only because he got caught red-handed by veterans and their representatives, who now rightly question his motivation and judgment. Has Congress already forgotten what it promised in exchange for a dozen years of voluntary misery? This unease Ryan now senses from among the veteran population should be taken as the warning it is: haphazard cuts that send the wrong kinds of messages to current and past service members could fundamentally disrupt the eagerness of Americans to serve in the future. This is especially true given the dozen years of abusive management practices that have already ground down our all-volunteer force.

Ryan wants to have an economic discussion masquerading as a moral one, but he’s really trying to avoid the real moral question altogether. Even in his economic argument, Ryan admits he seeks to take $100,000 dollars out of the retirement account of someone who earned it. This is a moral violation, but clearly Ryan doesn’t see it that way. Clearly, he thinks veteran pensions are not earned compensation, but a lavish handout. What he’s saying is that working age retirees don’t need all that money, so we should take it away from them and give it to some other budgetary beneficiary who needs it more. That sounds an awful lot like the definition of socialism, something Ryan has made a career railing against but now seems to embrace when it suits his politically expedient purposes.

Paul Ryan says of military members, “[w]e owe them a benefit structure they can count on.” This is the most revealing sentence in his editorial. Benefit. No, you don’t owe them a benefit. This isn’t a social benefit. You owe them the compensation you already promised on behalf of their country. It’s not a benefit. It’s a vested pension. It’s earnings they already paid for. That they earned those benefits in intangible ways Paul Ryan doesn’t understand because he’s never served doesn’t change that fact. He and his colleagues owe those who already acted in reliance on their promised pensions exactly what they were promised, and not a penny less. Tens of thousands made career decisions based on this reliance, and cannot now go back and change those decisions. Ryan understands this on some level, given that he now wants to make suredisabled retirees don’t lose any pension money. I guess what he’s saying is you only really earned your pension if you bled for it enough to be disabled. For those who bled less, and merely risked life and limb for 20 years, they deserve something less. Again we find ourselves talking about who needs or deserves to be paid a pension, rather than starting by viewing an inflation-adjusted pension as the inviolate obligation we all understood it to be at the time it was offered in exchange for service in combat in time of war.

Mr. Ryan, if you’re truly going to speak with veterans, you’ll have to learn to knock off the nonsense and talk straight. Stop playing pretend, admit what you’re doing, and either stand by it or don’t. You were part of the movement that imposed sequestration cuts on the DoD, over the objections of everyone who knows anything about national defense. Now that the generals are telling you they can’t maintain readiness without more funding or fewer missions, you’re looking for the easiest place to grab some quick cash, and have chosen the place where resistance is least likely – a constituency that isn’t allowed to speak out on its own behalf and has been socialized to refrain from complaining even when abused. You figured since the military is an overwhelmingly republican demographic, veterans would all buy in to your notions of deficit reduction without raising any questions.

Well, you were wrong. We noticed. We noticed you didn’t bother forcing DoD to reform itself (or even pass an audit based on current practices) before you allowed it to prop up a narrative of runaway personnel costs – notwithstanding you and others voted for the current levels of compensation in order to carry out the wars you advocated without having advertise their true costs to the American people. We noticed you didn’t ask the President to shut down the war in Afghanistan any quicker, even though doing so just one month earlier than planned would completely finance the budgetary savings you instead chose to embezzle from pensions we earned with mortal risk and one kick in the gut after another over the last dozen years. We noticed most of all that you didn’t bother dialing up the uber rich – those who benefit most from the security veterans provide – and asking them to contribute a little more so we wouldn’t have to give back what we’ve already earned.

Most of all, we noticed you didn’t acknowledge you were breaking a promise. You, the President, previous generals and two previous Secretaries of Defense have reassured veterans time and again that any reform of the pension system would not touch the compensation of those who already paid their dues. You haven’t yet acknowledged that by slipping this back-door provision into the budget, you were the leader of a successful effort to break promises we consider sacred and fundamental. But you underestimated the American veteran. We’re gracious and unselfish, but not stupid. We have families who rely on us to fight for them, so we have no intention of going quietly while you pass off simple larceny as “reform.”

Paul Ryan is a futurist. He’s concerned with what runaway compensation costs might do to the national debt over the course of the next ten years. Not so concerned that he wants to look at reducing Congressional pay or the pay of generals, admirals, and senior executives. Just concerned enough to cut the pensions of the military’s middle class. Those who do the hard fighting for twenty years or so and exhaust themselves and their families in the process before heading out onto the open job market . . . where they find, at a disproportionately high rate, that learning to conduct organized violence isn’t necessarily a boon in the private sector. You see, ten years ago, he wasn’t so concerned. He was busy trying to look tough on national defense by voting to send America’s sons and daughters into Iraq without a clear objective, a proper declaration, or even a legitimate cause . He wasn’t concerned about the future, he was concerned about political expediency. And he got what he wanted. Now he wants to keep the benefits of his decision while disowning the obligations. That is the textbook definition of doing the wrong thing.

The war Ryan supported in 2002 and doubled down upon in 2007 broke the spine of the all-volunteer force, and we’ve spent the next years concealing that fact with personnel abuses, bonuses, and heavy reliance on the sense of duty of our volunteers. In that time, they’ve stayed because they believed in their teammates and knew someone had to help get this country out of the mess it had gotten into. But they relied heavily on the fact they’d be able to rely on their earned compensation when all was said and done. If Ryan is allowed to proceed with taking the easy way out, Americans will regret ten years from now that they allowed his blurry budgetary vision and casual promise-breaking to inflict a slow-bleeding but mortal wound upon the all-volunteer force . . . which depends fundamentally on the reliability of government promises to function properly.

Paul Ryan wants us to do the right thing. I agree with him. Accordingly, I encourage Mr. Ryan and his colleagues to move swiftly in reversing course and grandfathering all currently-serving career military personnel and their predecessors who have already retired in any proposed reforms. Anything less might save a little money, but will do so at the cost of moral bankruptcy.

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More Retailers See Haggling as a Price of Doing Business

The New York Times

December 15, 2013

More Retailers See Haggling as a Price of Doing Business

By HILARY STOUT

Pay no attention to the price on that tag.

Or even the markdown.

This year some shoppers are quietly taking the art of bargaining up the escalator to the floors selling cashmere or over-the-knee leather boots, building on the haggling skills they acquired in the last few years getting big-box store deals on TVs and the like.

Armed with increasingly sophisticated price-tracking tools on their smartphones and other devices, consumers have become bolder, and they know that they often have the upper hand during a tough season for retailers. Recognizing the new reality, some retailers, desperate for sales and customer loyalty, have begun training their employees in the art of bargaining with customers.

Last month, Best Buy essentially invited consumers to bargain when it announced that it would match the prices of any competitor this holiday season if customers showed proof of the lower price.

But other retailers are doing the same with less fanfare, or even making steeper concessions. DealScience, a new website that collects, compares and ranks online deals from thousands of retail brands, discovered that at least 20 percent of big-box retailers had price-matching policies, though many do not advertise them.

The site’s co-founders, Brandon Hunt and Cory O’Daniel, said that they had been surprised to find that at least a half-dozen merchants — including some of the original haggling stages like Best Buy, Home Depot and Lowe’s — now let managers go a step better and offer 10 percent below a competitor’s price.

The bargaining practices are more commonplace for home and sporting goods or electronics, but even higher-end retailers like Nordstrom have price-matching guidelines — though they usually do not broadcast the terms.

Joe Marrapodi, one of the founders and the chief executive of Greentoe.com, a new name-your-own price website, walked into Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s the other day in Santa Monica, Calif., and without identifying himself or his occupation, casually asked employees if they were open to bargaining. Both the sales representatives and the managers said yes without hesitation, he said, and cited specific price-matching policies.

“I think they kind of keep it low key,” he said. “They don’t want it to be a thing.”

A spokeswoman for Nordstrom said in a statement, “For as long as we’ve been in business we’ve been committed to offering our customers the best possible prices, including meeting competitor pricing on similar items.”

There was recognition among guests at a private round-table dinner with retail executives in Dallas that their stores had better accept regular give-and-take with customers, according to Alison Kenny Paul, vice chairwoman and leader of United States retail and distribution at Deloitte. “Some talked about their epiphanies and said the world has changed, we really have to do this,” she said.

As a result, Ms. Paul said, some retailers are training employees on the rules of bargaining. Instead of price discounts, those deals may be add-ons, like an extended warranty, free delivery or free installation.

While it is mainly department or floor managers who are given the authority to make deals, other employees are now being coached to “recognize when a consumer needs to negotiate,” and to “spot the consumer” getting ready to walk out the door, she said.

When a sales clerk at Kohl’s in Kennewick, Wash., recently asked Siobhan Shaw, who was buying an armload of items from the sale rack, if she would like to open a store credit card, Ms. Shaw recalled that she replied firmly: “No.”

“But,” she said she quickly asked, “can I get the same discount she got?” She was referring to the woman ahead of her in line, who had asked for a discount and received 15 percent off. The answer was yes.

Retailers panicked a few years ago when they realized that some consumers were using brick-and-mortar stores to view products, only to walk out and order them at a lower price online. Now, Ms. Paul said, they are trying to “turn lemons into lemonade” by using that model as an opportunity to work with customers and even cement their loyalty.

Marilyn Santiesteban of Newton, Mass., rarely makes a purchase without first asking a manager for a better deal, and as a result, she has won significant discounts on things as diverse as a dishwasher at Sears and boots for her daughter at Macy’s. The other day, she said, she went shopping at a Barnes & Noble outside Boston for a book-with-toy set for her 7-year-old nephew. Her smartphone told her the item was about $6 less at Amazon. She pointed this out politely to the store manager, and he instantly matched the price.

“You think I’m not going to buy everything from Barnes & Noble now?” she said.

Bargaining “is not adversarial,” she said, explaining that she considers it a service to tell a store she can get a better price elsewhere. “We would both like it if I would walk out of this store having purchased an item.”

Mr. Marrapodi’s company, Greentoe.com, which has Silicon Valley venture capital money behind it, opened this year. It lets consumers submit offers on merchandise listed in five categories, including cameras, baby equipment, household appliances and home theater. The company’s software determines whether the offer is reasonable and sends it to a network of retailers that encompasses both big-box stores and small dealers. (All are vendors that are authorized by the brands.) If the merchant accepts the offer, it makes the transaction directly with the consumer.

James Myers of Walton, Ky., went to Greentoe.com to make an offer on a Panasonic 60-inch plasma TV with voice control that was priced at over $2,000 at many retailers. He offered $1,539. After a little haggling, he was able to buy it from one of Greentoe’s retail partners for $1,749 (shipping included).

“I truly feel that the shopping landscape is going to change,” Mr. Marrapodi said. “It’s going to be much more driven by the consumer and ability to negotiate.”

In the coming year, Greentoe, which has more than 50 retail partners and 50,000 registered users, plans to add categories, including possibly exercise equipment, handbags and luggage.

Its ultimate aim is to make a negotiating app, Mr. Marrapodi said, so “you can do all this before you leave the store.”

There are several unwritten rules about negotiating with a retailer.

It has to be “consumer-initiated,” said Virginia Morris, vice president for consumer strategy and insights at Daymon Worldwide, a consulting firm. She said the customer must ask for a deal. Do not, she said, expect the retailer to offer it.

It has to be a reasonable offer, made politely — either a request to match a price or to offer a slim discount.

“The key is to be polite and confident,” said Kyle James of Redding, Calif., who writes a blog about personal finance and frugal living.

Mr. James has even found a way to bargain with e-commerce sites: live chat rooms. He will type a request, as he did recently with a landsend.com employee: Do you have a free-shipping coupon or another discount?

“Nine times out of 10 they have coupons sitting at their desk to give to you,” he said.

“They know you have things sitting in your cart, and they do not want to lose you.”

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Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games


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