Op-Ed: The Problem With Billionaires

My latest op-ed from The Globalist:

In the 1980s, the supply-siders became ascendant in Washington D.C., preaching voodoo economics as “the way, the truth and the life.” Their central claim was that rich people create jobs, while high taxes on the rich leave them with less money to create jobs. Therefore tax cuts for the rich equal job growth.

In reality, this hasn’t borne out. Neither the macroeconomic data nor academic studies have shown much evidence of a direct correlation between rich people having more money and using it to create jobs.

Instead, they mostly just use it to speculate, because it’s essentially extra wealth well above and beyond any other spending or genuine investments they could possibly conceive of.

Read the full op-ed here.

Op-Ed: Rohani’s Presidential Pulpit

This op-ed originally appeared in The Globalist.

Any Iranian president is limited in his capacity to enact reforms. Why? Because all policies are ultimately approved or denied by the country’s religious authorities.

But the presidential bully pulpit is still more powerful than it seems at first glance.

Outgoing conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, no matter how powerless he became at home, proved that a determined Iranian president could still make a splash on the world stage.

While policy is under the purview of the theocrats in Tehran, the power of words, when wielded by a compelling orator, can still outmaneuver the nominal boundary lines of power.

Ahmadinejad was an incompetent leader domestically and given to wildly overblown rhetoric worldwide, but he made a lasting impression. He became the embodiment of the boogeyman that Iran’s biggest enemies had long warned of.

Words have power. Regardless of Iran’s actual military capacities, infamous comments from the president like those about wiping Israel “off the map” were the gift that kept on giving for the Bomb-Iran-Now lobby in Jerusalem and Washington throughout his eight years in office.

In fact, such comments were one reason Ahmadinejad became persona non grata at home with the true power center of the regime. His over-reaching threats went beyond the ruling clerics’ wishes and backed Iran into a corner.

While bombs did not rain down, economic sanctions did. Ahmadinejad was defeating Iran’s regime himself.

These sanctions have brought the Iranian economy to a breaking point.

This has severely undermined the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic in the eyes of its citizens and helped strengthen the reform movement that put Hassan Rohani over the top in this month’s election.

There’s a key disjunction between the reality and Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, of course.

The bravado of Iran’s president painted the nation as a constant, existential threat to its Arab neighbors, to Israel, to southern Europe and even to Iran’s own friends — regardless of real capacity.

We don’t know for sure how close Iran is to being able to make and deploy a nuclear weapon, but for nearly eight years, the advocates of bombing Iran have never really had to make this case. They merely had to point to the fighting words of Iran’s own president.

Clearly, since Iran still doesn’t have the bomb now, it’s not as if Tel Aviv had been just weeks away from a mushroom cloud, say, five years ago. But one would have thought so between the Israeli and U.S. hawks and Ahmadinejad’s bluster.

Which brings us to Iran’s next president, Hassan Rohani.

Aside from his reform leanings on the home front, which may never come to pass, he’s best known for being Iran’s top nuclear program negotiator in the reform administration of Mohammad Khatami.

In that role, he was generally seen as far more conciliatory than the string of negotiators who followed under the Ahmadinejad administration — and certainly more so than the outgoing president himself.

The Iranian people and the hard-line theocrats alike support nuclear development as a matter of sovereignty and independence from Western interference.

But they also recognize that belligerency on the issue has brought only misery and the constant risk of attack.

Now would be a good time for a conciliatory approach and a fresh start in nuclear talks with the West.

Hassan Rohani seems to be the man for the job of resetting Iran’s foreign image and stance.

He can thread the high-stakes needle of being diplomatic and open to compromise while also standing firmly (but not aggressively) behind a civilian nuclear development program.

Rhetoric paired with reality is strongest, but rhetoric alone, even separated from reality, can be powerful too — especially if people still believe the two are linked.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s globetrotting, Holocaust-denying, nihilist ranting proved that. Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council could keep him away from real power at home, but they could never shut him up on the world stage.

Toward the end of his administration, he likely didn’t even have control over any actual strategic or tactical military decisions or other real foreign policy.

The Revolutionary Guard Corps, allied to the Supreme Leader and not the president, saw to that.

But to Iran’s enemies, whatever propaganda came from the president’s lips could be spun as accurate representations of Iran’s plans and capabilities beyond its borders.

This was a particularly easy sell given the murkiness of Iran’s inner workings for non-expert Americans watching Sunday morning news panels on TV.

If Rohani wants to have a big impact as Iran’s president, his best bet is to use the power of rhetoric to re-shape Iran’s global and regional posture. In doing so, he could ease the pressure of sanctions and spare Iran from war. That’s where he can make a big difference.

If a disempowered fanatical blowhard can, with the power of his speeches alone, make Iran appear to be an imminent horseman of the nuclear apocalypse, then a disempowered reformist who wants reconciliation with the West can use friendlier rhetoric to climb Iran back down off the ledge.

In a mosque, the minbar, or pulpit, is generally designed to raise the visibility of the person speaking and naturally amplify his voice for the audience.

Hassan Rohani may never have full policy control over Iran’s international affairs and he will very likely have little policy control at home, but he still has the power of the presidential bully pulpit if he chooses to use it.

Like a minbar, the Iranian presidency raises the holder’s profile and amplifies his message, even if it might have no other inherent authority.

What is done with that limited, but real, rhetorical power is up to the man in office and how good he is with words.

But seizing the metaphorical presidential pulpit to reset diplomatic relations — with or without the Supreme Leader — would be a fitting result from the only candidate in this year’s field who was actually also a cleric and knows his way around a real pulpit.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Globalist. It was moved here in November 2013.

Two-Prong Test for a Syria Intervention

I just quickly wrote this out in the past hour based on a half dozen papers and radio segments I’ve done in the past, but I hope it is illuminating in some way to readers.

When considering a U.S. humanitarian military intervention — i.e. an intervention premised upon the notion that it will stop some atrocity in progress, as opposed to one premised upon a direct national security interest — I have a very simple two-pronged assessment system:

1. Does the United States have the capacity to execute the intervention successfully?
2. Will the intervention create a net positive outcome for the involved civilians while not worsening the position of the United States?

Those two clear points address myriad potential problems. And both must be satisfied to justify intervening.

The first one tells you not to do it if the U.S. can’t militarily execute a strategy successfully (for example if the topography, geography, or type of war prevent the successful use of the primary tactic such as airstrikes — or if a strike/invasion won’t actually stop the atrocity or accomplish its goals). And it tells you not to do it if the U.S. military is stretched too thin for a successful operation at necessary levels due to other engagements. Finally, it tells you not to do it if it brings reasonably likely chance of getting sucked in and failing after an initially successful entrance (a quagmire isn’t a win and avoiding one falls under capacity to succeed).

The second one tells you not to do it if intervening will make the situation worse for the affected civilians (total anarchy and brutal civil war with mass civilian slaughter *resulting from* an intervention is not better than “liberating” an oppressed population — see Iraq). And it also tells you again not to intervene to save a population if the goal is totally open-ended and will make the U.S. more precarious. If the presence of U.S. troops helps stabilize a situation and establish a workable transition to a permanent replacement, that’s fine. If the U.S. troops exacerbate a situation or are the ONLY thing preventing genocide permanently, that doesn’t help either. There has to be a better plan and a way out/forward for both the affected civilians and for the U.S. Why? Because even setting aside U.S. interests and costs, every quagmire intervention makes it less possible to help the next place. Thus it’s against global humanitarian interests to have a failed mess of an intervention in any one place.

I actually highly support the principle of military interventions for humanitarian reasons that don’t directly affect U.S. interests. But only if they satisfy those 2 criteria.

Syria doesn’t meet that 2-pronged test. Due to Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. isn’t prepared for a short or long intervention in a large(ish), mountainous nation like Syria that’s in the middle of a big civil war with no clear end in sight (or even a winner to back that won’t screw over the population later or stab the U.S. in the back). There’s almost not even a concrete goal the United States could successfully “achieve” in such an intervention. No easy way to take out the regime, no plan to deal with the resulting mess if the regime does fall (which won’t end the conflict), and no legitimate group to empower to lead a transition successfully to reunite the nation. So the first one fails. And it’s not at all clear (unlike say Libya or Kosovo) that the U.S. can even actually help the civilian population and could even make it worse. While harming U.S. strength. So the second definitely fails.

Thus, the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in Syria as the situation currently stands. If the scale of chemical weapons attacks — if they are indeed being used on civilians — increases dramatically, the benefits of an intervention may rise above the costs. And if they were being used in a different country even once, that might be another story. But right now, right there, it’s a no go. Everybody would lose.

Why would you be upset about immigrants?

I’m always really bothered by anti-immigration rhetoric and views. I have never understood that. There are quite a few things I’ve evolved/improved my views on, but I don’t remember a time in my life where I ever opposed immigration or easier paths to citizenship. I remember in 4th grade we spent a lot of time discussing genealogy and immigration, including a visit to an immigration-themed museum in Boston. And there were quite a few people in my class who were immigrants themselves and were hoping to become citizens and were still many years away from citizenship despite living here nearly their whole lives. That made no sense to me. I guess maybe that stuck with me. That year, my parents also took me and my sister to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York — where we saw how cramped the Sephardic immigrants had been — as well as the museum at Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The poem at the base has always resonated with me.

My parents both emphasized my multi-ethnic immigrant backgrounds although my mother is 4th generation American and my father is a classic New Englander with multiple Mayflower ancestors (in addition to an American Revolution-era Irish branch). Although my maternal grandfather has become pretty xenophobic and anti-immigrant, he and his extended family also all still identify very heavily with their grandparents’ Azorean Portuguese culture and celebrate that heritage each year. My dad — the old-school Yankee — may still not be as progressive as I would like on some other identity issues, but he certainly backed my 4th grade teacher’s pro-immigration lessons, even if he dismissed some of the other lessons as “politically correct nonsense” or whatever, at the time. That was definitely an influential year for me, and I don’t really remember the subject coming up very much before then.

Honestly, I just don’t know why folks would oppose immigration, generally speaking. It’s what made America the country it became, and it was a major source of our economic strength. It still is today, particularly when we compare our labor markets and entitlement program integrity to those of most of the other industrialized nations — but that’s often due to undocumented immigration resulting from onerous legal immigration paths and unreasonable quotas/caps. Ideally, I would support a much more flexible and welcoming immigration policy with very few limits and a much faster path to citizenship for everyone. Pragmatically, I generally support one of the many “comprehensive immigration reform” plans discussed in Washington over the past decade. I even wrote a summary of one such plan on my first campaign job, so the candidate would be prepared on the off-chance someone asked him what his views were on the subject. It was certainly more moderate than my own views, but I understand that it’s pretty unrealistic to assume we’re going to throw open the gates and welcome all the non-felons of the world with open arms — and it would probably have a deleterious effect on wages and the broader labor market if there were a sudden and uncontrolled, massive influx of immigrant labor of all skill levels after a long period of heavy restrictions. But in general, I see immigration as an economic and cultural positive, and I also (broadly) favor global and transnational integration of societies and the formal or informal elimination of borders wherever possible.

In any case, the knee-jerk reactions, the xenophobia, and the tired lies and exaggerations about immigrants — and particularly undocumented and lower-skilled immigrants always really get under my skin. How does it negatively affect you or any of us, really? We’re the melting pot and we always have been. Let’s keep putting stuff into the stew! We should be welcoming the cultural, economic, and other contributions to American society that immigrants have brought and continue to make, instead of dismissing and insulting them. I think vocal, bitter opposition to immigration says a lot more about the folks saying that stuff than it does about the people coming here.

What should the longer objectives be in Mali?

French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)The Economist ran what I believe to be a fairly reasonable editorial on the French & African-led UN interventions in Mali. They argue that the intervention should be limited to driving the jihadist groups out of the northern cities (but not getting dragged into a quagmire by trying in vain to stomp out an insurgency in the semi-desert “wastelands” through force) and to stabilizing the interim government in the south and freeing it from the shadow of the military officials who overthrew the elected government last spring.

If the Islamist rebels are prevented from seizing the south and forced out of the northern cities, and if serious efforts are made to improve governance (and hopefully provide economic redress to longtime northern grievances that allowed a window for the jihadists to outflank the secular rebels), then Mali will be on a safer footing and the West will be less fearful of it becoming a terrorist safe-haven in West Africa, which in turn means less future interference. The total incompetence and lust for power of the Malian Army is largely to blame for the current situation and the need for an intervention; had the Army not tried to overthrow a twenty-year-old democracy during a tantrum over their own inability to beat back a poorly organized rebellion despite American counterinsurgency training and funding, the northern rebels (first secular, then Islamist) would not have been able to take sweeping control over extensive territory, and the Islamist threat would have been more imagined than real. That said, the United States and the other Western powers should never have let the situation get this far by ignoring the poverty and real tensions that provoked the latest of many northern rebellions, and they should not have relied so heavily on a southern government that was unprepared for any real military response let alone a multifaceted engagement strategy to prevent rebellion at all.

In the future, I hope we consider providing more humanitarian aid to the region, but I fear the rise of the real Islamists there will preclude that even more so now than when the alleged Islamists who were actually secular separatists were the dominant regional faction against the government. During the Cold War, we used the Marshall Plan to rapidly alleviate poverty and strengthen moderate socialist and Social Democratic parties in Western and Central Europe — to prevent the spread of communism — by providing humanitarian aid and institution-building aid in the aftermath of World War II. The Soviets tried to do the same in reverse, but this was trickier for them given their own economic problems. Islamic political parties in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia have built supporter networks rapidly in impoverish regions not with talk of waging war on infidels but by providing humanitarian services, non-governmental shadow institutions, and jobs to people who are ignored, unemployed, and hungry. In Europe, we were willing to buy out reasonable Socialists and their constituents to halt the spread of communism and advertise American/capitalist economic benefits. Instead of replicating this extremely successful policy in the Middle East and Africa, we have opted nine times out of ten to isolate, ignore, or repress political Islam, even when it is relatively moderate, yet we do not offer any comparable alternative humanitarian aid, institutional aid, or employment, let alone offer any loyalty buyouts of these parties.

Ultimately, I suppose the Western powers pay for this strategy choice in lost troops, terrorist attacks, and fighter planes that cost far more (and do so for a longer period) than aid and investments would. It’s also too bad that voters don’t see the merits and payoff of an alternative strategy and keep saying they want to reduce foreign aid even further. But at the end of the day, we need our leaders to lead, advocate, and educate the public. That’s something most of them just aren’t doing.

America As Number Two — We’d Try Harder

In 1962, Avis Rent a Car adopted the slogan “We’re number two. We try harder.” The message of the ad campaign was clear: Avis was not the number one company in the rental car industry, but its underdog status made it better than the top dog, Hertz.

While Hertz was complacent at the top, Avis was trying to climb toward first place by outperforming its chief competitor with superior service. The corporate culture at Avis quickly evolved to match these heightened expectations, as employees did begin to “try harder.”

Fast forward nearly half a century. It is still a core part of the political lexicon of either party in the United States to praise America as “the greatest nation on earth.” President Obama did so in his 2011 State of the Union address, and senators and congressmen certainly are never bested in their reflexive laudatory stance. Amid all this over-the-top self-praise, it’s hard to step back and look critically at things we could do to make the country better.

In 2009 and early 2010, during the U.S. debate on healthcare reform, many reform opponents repeatedly said that America “has the best healthcare system in the world.” There are two problems with this statement.

First, it is not true by any objective standard, except perhaps with regard to specialty care. America spends a larger share of its GDP on health care than any other industrialized nation, yet on broad measures of health, such as life expectancies and mortality rates, the United States falls behind other large rich countries.

Second, even if it were true that the United States has the best healthcare system in the world, there would still be room for improvement. Declaring our healthcare system the world’s best does not tell us anything about whether it is the best it could be.

More broadly, the United States faces serious problems — including poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, an increasing wealth gap, long-term underemployment and unemployment, an obesity epidemic and slipping literacy and numeracy proficiency.

Some of these problems are inter-related and show no signs of improving. Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects unemployment will remain high until at least 2016 if no further government action is taken (which is expected to be the case under the country’s divided Congress).

There is little motivation to solve these chronic societal problems, some of which have been on the back burner for decades now, if the country pats itself on the back in the face of all objective statistics showing an America that is drifting further and further away from first place.

Any constructive answer to this problem requires citizens and political leaders alike to accept that the United States is no longer the leader in many areas. Once the country has accepted this reality, it can take the “Avis approach” and try harder to solve its problems and regain first place on as many fronts as possible.

Most of these problems are not insurmountable or unaffordable, but political will is absent without the push to compete against other nations. Since so many U.S. political leaders in both parties are determined to insist that America is the greatest, most innovative, most productive country on earth right now, the country is not actively trying to compete to make these statements true again.

Democrats and Republicans have cited the economic and military rise of China to rally their bases to support various policies, but in other areas where China is actually ahead of the United States, like the manufacture of clean energy technology, there is generally silence.

It should be troubling to the “America is number one” crowd that China is a leader in solar panel construction and is financing, manufacturing and building wind farms in places like Texas — but the reaction has primarily been indifference.

When China finally surpassed the United States in greenhouse gas emissions, the Chinese government responded last year by announcing plans for a cap-and-trade system, even as plans for an American one stalled in a U.S. Senate committee.

Many political advisers would tell candidates, especially in the race for president, that campaigning on a “we’re number two” message spells automatic political disaster. However, a truly savvy candidate could acknowledge America’s slide from first as fact and propose an ambitious program to regain first place as a matter of restoring national prestige and regaining a competitive edge.

Consider John F. Kennedy’s successful 1960 presidential campaign, in which he claimed that the Soviet Union had surpassed American nuclear missile capacity, and that it was crucial to close “the missile gap” immediately. Not only was Kennedy stating that America had fallen behind, but his claim was, in fact, incorrect. At the time, American voters accepted the claim and elected the candidate who had pledged to put America back on top.

More broadly, during the early stages of the Cold War, fierce competition with the Soviet Union extended far beyond military capabilities and encouraged government investments into diverse civilian areas such as general education, math and science, NASA and even to physical fitness.

These investments paid off immensely over the long term, resulting in an even more economically powerful nation. Although the United States led the Soviet Union in most areas for many years, the fear of sliding backward into second place kept the nation’s leaders focused on national improvement.

Today, the United States lacks a struggle with an equal superpower to promote economic and social development that could alleviate many of America’s chronic problems. The solution in the post-Cold War era is to acknowledge that the country’s problems are real — and that it is not actually leading the world by many indicators.

Only then can the United States build political will to fix the problems. If being in first place is indeed a worthy goal, as the rhetoric would suggest, then Americans must accept that America is not number one — and start trying harder.

This piece first appeared at www.TheGlobalist.com. It was moved here in November 2013.

Wave of terrorism in Nigeria?

A year ago, the world was focused on a young Nigerian man who had packed explosives into his underwear and tried to blow up a transatlantic flight over Michigan on Christmas Day. But as he was not trained in Nigeria (in fact, Yemen, which is much more commonly associated with terrorist threats), and as he was not “typical” of those considered at risk for falling in with terrorists (he was nicknamed the “Trust-Fund Terrorist”) the world’s eye soon turned away from Nigeria as a big terrorism risk. At present, though he may have been an unrelated outlier, this response is starting look have looked premature unfortunately…

October 1, twin car bombs go off in the midst of a re-election rally for President Jonathan:

All that was left of two cars packed with explosives was their smouldering chassis after they had been blown up on October 1st near Eagle Square in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, while surrounded by unsuspecting citizens celebrating the 50th anniversary of their country’s independence. At least 12 people died and dozens were injured in this year’s most worrying act of political violence. A well-known rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which is most active in the oil-producing south, claimed responsibility but blamed the government for the deaths, insisting that it had ignored back-channel warnings given 24 hours before the blasts.

The attacks took place close to President Goodluck Jonathan, as he was reviewing a parade a few hundred yards away in front of invited dignitaries. Shortly before the bombings he had declared: “There is certainly much to celebrate: our freedom, our strength, our unity and our resilience.”
The attack in Abuja is unlikely to be the last act of political violence in Nigeria before the poll. The country’s police say they foiled a similar attack in September.

Christmas Eve bombings spark riots:

Clashes broke out between armed Christian and Muslim groups near the central Nigerian city of Jos on Sunday, a Reuters witness said, after Christmas Eve bombings in the region killed more than 30 people.

Buildings were set ablaze and people were seen running for cover as the police and military arrived on the scene in an effort to disperse crowds. Injured people covered in blood were being dragged by friends and family to hospital.

The unrest was triggered by explosions on Christmas Eve in villages near Jos, capital of Plateau state, that killed at least 32 people and left 74 critically injured.

December 29, Islamist group explodes two bombs in the Delta Region at a political rally:

Bombs hit a political rally in a southern Nigerian city on Wednesday, a day after three people were shot and killed in the north of the country, as tensions rose before a series of elections next year. The two bombs exploded in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa’s largest oil and gas industry, and the police said they caused injuries but no deaths. Boko Haram, a radical Islamist group, was believed to be behind the killing of the three people on Tuesday, the police said. The victims, including a senior police officer, were killed when men fired shots in a teaching hospital in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State.

There are two relatively distinct political problems in Nigeria that could involve terrorism: a north/south geopolitical and cultural divide and the ongoing Niger Delta conflict. While the problem of internecine violence between those identifying with the country’s north and those identifying with the south has been a lengthy one, there is some question as to whether it is taking on a more terroristic edge.

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