Turkey: Unconvincing reasons to riot

I’m sympathetic to the fact that protesters in Turkey got a ridiculously abusive reaction, and I accept that Erdogan is an arrogant jerk.

But if police brutality, consolidation of electoral power by a conservative religiously-oriented party, and attempts to restrict access to abortion were grounds for forcing out or overthrowing a democratically-elected government through non-election means, then we would all be marching on Republican-led state capitols & DC in the United States today.

Plus, restricting the sale of alcohol is par for the course in the U.S. democracy even to present day so that’s also not a real reason to throw a riot. 

Pick your crises

I still don’t understand why people are demanding the United States “do something” about the Syrian Civil War and “show leadership” when there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for our ability to do anything positive (if at all) about the situation.

And as an interventionist in general, I offer this observation:
An America that intervenes everywhere will soon be able to intervene nowhere.

If we go in there, we won’t be able to help anyone else for at least a decade. Or maybe ever. 

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.

US setting up Niger drones base

President Obama is sending 100 US military personnel to Niger, to set up an aerial surveillance drones base at a Nigerien military airfield for the purposes of assisting French operations in northern Mali (as previously announced). The troops will be armed for their own security, but they will not be in a combat zone. Niger, which borders Mali, has faced some of the same issues with its separatist Tuareg population in the Sahel zones of the country. The nation is quite poor and not especially resource-rich, like Mali, with the major exception that it has extensive (if recently dwindling) uranium mines in the north. France recently deployed special forces to protect the Nigerien uranium mines during the intervention in Mali following a retaliatory hostage crisis in Algeria at an oil refinery. 80% of French electricity in nuclear-generated and much of the requisite uranium comes from Niger. Both Niger and Mali are former French colonies.

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.

The Nigerian Republic of Royal Dutch Shell

I didn’t have time write about this when the relevant cable first came out, but I was reminded by a CBS roundup of “How WikiLeaks Enlightened us in 2010” to go back and take a look. It’s disturbing but not particularly surprising to longtime observers and critics. Royal Dutch Shell has essentially become, according to the company itself, the industrial octopus inside Nigeria’s government, even in the “democratic” era:

Cables from Nigeria show how Ann Pickard, then Shell’s vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, sought to share intelligence with the US government on militant activity and business competition in the contested Niger Delta – and how, with some prescience, she seemed reluctant to open up because of a suspicion the US government was “leaky”.

But that did not prevent Pickard disclosing the company’s reach into the Nigerian government when she met US ambassador Robin Renee Sanders, as recorded in a confidential memo from the US embassy in Abuja on 20 October 2009.

At the meeting, Pickard related how the company had obtained a letter showing that the Nigerian government had invited bids for oil concessions from China. She said the minister of state for petroleum resources, Odein Ajumogobia, had denied the letter had been sent but Shell knew similar correspondence had taken place with China and Russia.

The ambassador reported: “She said the GON [government of Nigeria] had forgotten that Shell had seconded people to all the relevant ministries and that Shell consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries.”

 

What are some of the consequences of this level of control in Nigeria by an oil company? Here’s what I looked at back in June, for example:

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

[…]

Caption: An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Above: Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up. | photo & caption by Ed Kashi, via citisven

 
Nigeria is now America’s third-largest oil supplier, even beating Saudi Arabia, from which we get about 40% of our oil. It’s time to do something about this.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Death penalty primarily in cases with white victim

Sociological Images just posted about how the race of the victim determines whether the perpetrator gets the death penalty.

Even though half of all homicide victims are black, 77% of cases that result in the death penalty have a white victim. That’s a pretty clear indicator of what kind of lives we value.

The data is since 1976, and an Amnesty International report from 1990 shows similar patterns. Things might be improving (or they might not; it’s hard to find this kind of information), but they are still pretty bad:

A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.

A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

 
But let’s be cautious in how we handle this information: the solution should not be to give more people the death penalty, but to give fewer people the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.