Normative Narratives

Overcoming Collective Action Problems For Sustainable Human Development


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Conflict Watch: Why Reducing Military Spending Is Not A “Slam Dunk” For Sustainable Human Development

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On The Global Day of Action On Military Spending (4/14), Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas Urged a reduction in military expenditure and greater investment in sustainable development programs (Original Article):

Marking the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the United Nations independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order called on all governments to boost transparency and cuts in military expenditures, and increase investments in nutrition, health, environmental protection and other major sustainable development challenges.

“Every democracy must involve civil society in the process of establishing budgets, and all sectors of society must be consulted to determine what the real priorities of the population are,” Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas said in a statement. “Lobbies, including military contractors and other representatives of the military-industrial complex, must not be allowed to hijack these priorities to the detriment of the population’s real needs.”

“Tax revenue must be reoriented toward the promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, for research into sustainable sources of energy and for the promotion of sustainable development,” Mr. de Zayas stressed.

“In a world where millions of human beings live in extreme poverty, die of malnutrition and lack medical care, where pandemics continue to kill, it is imperative to pursue good faith disarmament negotiations and to shift budgets away from weapons production, war-mongering, and surveillance of private persons, and devote available resources to address global challenges including humanitarian relief, environmental protection, climate change mitigation and adaptation, prevention of pandemics, and the development of a green economy,” he said.

Mr. de Zayas highlighted that such a shift in States’ spending habits is key to achieving the UN post-2015 development agenda.

“I am surprised that in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending. The place to exercise austerity is in wasteful military expenditures, not in social protection,” he insisted.

In theory, I wholeheartedly support Mr. de Zayas’ position. Every dollar of military expenditure is one dollar that cannot go towards public goods and services which are essential for sustainable human development. However, I would question Mr. de Zaya’s assertion that “…in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending.” In America, at least, military spending is a very contentious issues.

Mr. de Zayas’ call for global demilitarization also glosses over two major issues that make slashing military spending much more difficult in reality than in theory:

1) Peace and Security Are Prerequisites For Sustainable Human Development:

If a government cannot defend it’s people from extremists and outside threats, how can people be expected to have the foresight to make investments in their future? Armed conflict can reverse decades of economic development, and results in human rights violations of its own. Insecurity cannot be a shield for military impunity (as it is in places like Egypt), but threats cannot simply be wished away either. Furthermore, the balance between security and freedom is not only a quantitative one, it also depends on the balance of power between peoples rights and the armed forces, which are generally enshrined in a country’s constitution.

The global economy runs on peace and stability; all countries have an obligation to contribute to the global security commons. Based on their current contributions, some countries (such as the U.S.) should reduce their military expenditures, while others (such as Germany and Japan) should increase their contributions. Furthermore, member states fund U.N. peacekeeping operations, which are, if anything, stretched too thin.

2) Not Everybody Believes in Human Rights:

Lets take stock of countries that generally support U.N. concepts of human rights, sustainable human development, and democratic governance, and those that do not. If “outlier countries” (notably Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt) are increasing their military investments, is it at all responsible for countries that champion U.N. concepts to reduce their military expenditure? (again, this is a country by country question, based partially on current levels of military expenditure)

Non-democratic states are naturally more insulated from public pressure, as their leaders do not rely on reelection to remain in power. While standards of living and are almost assuredly higher in effective democracies, undemocratic governments have greater discretion over military spending, as they can more freely disregard the needs of their citizens when a geopolitical opportunity presents itself.

Specifically, democratic revolutions could become even more vulnerable. “Outlier nations” would likely come to the aid of their autocratic allies, while “Western” countries would have less resources to offer (think Russia and Syria, or UAE / Saudi Arabia and Egypt). If a country’s civil society considering a democratic revolution knows that it will not receive much outside support, while the regime in power (which probably already has a military advantage) is poised to receive significant outside support, this may deter said revolution from taking place. Since democratic revolutions result from civil society initiatives, just this knowledge could slow the global democratization movement.

If every nation that cooperates with the U.N. cut military expenditures, and none of that outlier states did (which they wouldn’t, and would likely do the opposite), we could very well end up with a deterioration in the global democratic / human rights landscape.

I am by no means a “war hawk”. I dream of a utopian world where no military spending is necessary; this is not the world we currently live in. While social spending to fulfill domestic human rights obligations must not be compromised (and in many places should be increased), this cannot come at the cost of abandoning extraterritorial human rights concerns. Achieving these two goals may indeed require greater levels of taxation and public spending–sorry small government people.

Some re-balancing of global military expenditure certainly is in order; however, this cannot be a shift in spending from pro-human rights to anti-human rights countries (those are oversimplifications of countries human rights records–the world is not black and white–but certain countries openly oppose human rights rhetoric while others tend to support them).


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Economic Outlook: Free College Education For All (Including Prison Inmates)

Taking the above quote to the extreme, defending something because it is “how we currently do it” is an even more “dangerous” way of thinking.

America’s public college and prison systems are currently flawed. Prison reform has gained traction because it is a cost saving measure. Providing free public higher education, as we used to do in this country, has not gained similar traction, because it would require additional funding.

There is an area where these two issues–prison reform and free higher education–intersect; offering college degree programs to prison inmates (which, again, used to be a much more common practice):

IN February, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced plans to underwrite college classes in 10 state prisons, building on the success of privately funded and widely praised programs like the Bard Prison Initiative. Mr. Cuomo pointed out that inmates who got an education had a much better chance of finding a job and were much less likely to menace their neighbors after release. He noted that the cost — $5,000 per inmate per year — would be a bargain compared with the $60,000 it costs to incarcerate a prisoner for a year. 

The punch lines of the opposing politicians (mostly Republicans, but some Democrats) all struck the same theme: How dare the governor offer taxpayer money to educate convicted criminals when decent citizens skimp and borrow to send their kids to college? “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree,’ ” said George D. Maziarz, a state senator from western New York. “It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost.” In other words, let criminals be criminals.

The bureaucracies that run prisons are called departments of “corrections” for a reason. This is at least as important as the first two purposes, because nearly 95 percent of the incarcerated are eventually released back into society.

Alas, nearly half of those released are returned to prison within three years for committing new crimes. Clearly we are not doing a good job of “correcting.”

This is not a bleeding-heart cause. Leading conservatives and red-state politicians have supported prison college programs as a matter of public safety and fiscal prudence. A RAND meta-analysis of 58 studies concluded that inmates who participated in these programs were 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime; even assuming that the most redeemable inmates are the likeliest to sign up, this is an incredible return on a modest investment.

Experts who have studied the American way of crime and punishment far longer than I have tell me, to quote Michael P. Jacobson, a veteran corrections official who heads a public policy institute for the City University of New York, that they see “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do.”

“The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just,” Mr. Jacobson told me.

America has greatly reduced access to college and graduate degree programs for prison inmates. Coinciding with mass incarceration, this policy change has effectively turned prison into a uniquely American poverty-trap.

Free public education in America has become almost non-existent, and the results are not pretty. There is roughly $900B-$1T dollars in outstanding student loan debt in America. One reason for this is that college tuition increases have far outstripped inflation over the past few decades.

People correctly argue that law abiding citizens should not have to pay exorbitant college tuition rates, while prisoners receive a free college education. However, this argument misses the point; a free public college education should be available to everyone! 

Aside from the obvious socioeconomic benefits associated with greater access to higher education (both in and out of prison), such a policy would also help reign in increasing tuition costs at private Universities. Make these institutions compete with a free alternative, and the price of college tuition should drop for those who still desire a private education.

This “us vs. them” mentality is indicative of public policy discourse in America, and it is a shame. Instead of debating the costs and benefits of policy reforms, we are stuck in a circle of spite; “I didn’t have this benefit, why should someone else!”. 

This “argument” misses the point of policy reform–whether or not people believe they would have been better off with said reform (spiteful responses suggests that people do, on some level, believe that said reform would have helped them)? It precludes truly progressive policy reforms, such as providing everyone with access to free public higher education. Of course this would require a greater public investment (although it doesn’t necessarily have to increase the deficit); the questions are whether the benefits outweigh the costs, and how those costs will be financed.

American politics has become a class battle between those below the poverty line and those barely above it. All the while, inequality increases and the American Dream becomes just that, a dream.


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Transparency Report: Can Social Media Postings Be Considered “Warning Signs”?

According to his army psychiatrist, Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez showed “no sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others.” While it may be possible for someone to “snap” and go on a shooting spree without warning, I have trouble believing this was the case in this incident.

Lopez had a history of depression and anxiety, yet he was still able to purchase a firearm legally (at the same store the 2009 Fort Hood shooter bought his weapon), underscoring the need for stronger background check laws for gun purchases.

“We have very strong evidence that he [Lopez] had a medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition,” Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, said of Lopez. “There was no indication that he was targeting specific people.”

3 people are dead 16 more are wounded. The questions we as a nation now face are:

1) Could this tragedy have been prevented? (were there warning signs?)

2) How can we prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future?

These two questions are obviously related. If there were warning signs, then recognizing these signs can help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The warning signs, beyond Lopez’s mental health record, came in the form of Facebook posts:

1) On March 1, the same day he purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used in the attack, Specialist Lopez wrote an especially angry and vaguely threatening post. “My spiritual peace has all gone away, I am full of hate, I believe now the devil is taking me. I was robbed last night and I’m sure it was two flacos. Green light and thumbs down. It’s just that easy …”

2) In a Facebook post, Specialist Lopez said of the Newtown massacre: “For me, the direct responsibility for this situation is with the psychiatrist, who didn’t uncover Adam’s level of dangerousness so that he could be restricted.”

Read posthumously, these posts depict someone who was unable to grasp the concept of personal accountability. On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20; these posts were separated by over a year, during which time Lopez probably made many posts which are irrelevant to his mental state.

Taken separately, each of these pieces of “evidence”; a questionable mental health history, delusional Facebook posts, and a gun purchase; could not be considered a red flag–it would be impossible to police all social media platforms. But taken together, they form the profile of an individual who is very likely a risk to himself and others.

What someone posts on social media can get them fired or (if a public figure) publicly ridiculed–American’s clearly take social media postings seriously. What can we do when someone writes about hurting themselves or others on social media? At what point does protecting a persons right to privacy prohibit the ability to protect another persons right to life? As a social scientist, I am constantly looking for “information”; is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable source of information in social media posts?

I already alluded to the need for stronger background checks for gun purchases, another preventative measure is greater access to mental healthcare, which I believe should be a human right (it is currently viewed as a luxury for the wealthy). Specialist Lopez was covered as an Army employee; what about people out there without mental health coverage? Obamacare has gone a long way in rewriting insurance guidelines to cover mental healthcare, and subsidizes plans for those who cannot afford insurance on their own, but what about people who are still not covered? Given the various ramifications of untreated mental illness (crime, poverty, etc.), is it time to consider investing more tax dollars into walk-in mental health clinics? 

These issues, privacy and security, lend themselves to heated debates. I leave my readers with these loaded questions to ponder.


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Economic Outlook: High Speed Trading and the Financial Transaction Tax

Micheal Lewis’s new book, “Flash Boys”, (re)focuses the spotlight on the controversial practice of high-frequency trading (HFT) (original article):

Already, officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s New York office are investigating whether such firms traded ahead of other players in the market, in what may amount to insider trading or other fraud, according to an agency spokesman. Regulators in Washington and in New York State have opened their own inquiries.

The worries are hardly new. Over the past five years or so, high-speed computers have increasingly taken over Wall Street, and trading has migrated from raucous trading floors in Lower Manhattan to far-flung electronic platforms.

Critics argue that Mr. Lewis broke no new ground (link inserted, not part of article). And a number of executives at the firms mentioned in the book said that Mr. Lewis did not double-check the facts.

High-frequency trading is almost impossible to avoid today. By some estimates, it accounts for half of all shares traded in the United States. Supporters argue that it has made the markets more efficient by creating a cadre of traders willing to buy or sell at any time.

Others are more skeptical. The New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, has put high-frequency trading on his list of top priorities. He seized the moment on Monday to discuss his yearlong investigation into the practice.

“Look, the problem here is — and I’m a fan of the markets, but I think Michael is right,” Mr. Schneiderman told Bloomberg Television. “We’ve lost a lot of credibility. A lot of investors do not have confidence in the markets and it’s up to those of us who believe in them, who enforce the law and regulate them, to restore that confidence.”

Mr. Narang, the [IEX] high-frequency trading executive, said he hoped the attention surrounding the book would quickly die down. He said that while he had turned down requests to appear on TV, he couldn’t help speaking out against the book.

“There’s no unfair advantage to using your brain, last time I checked, in a capitalist society,” he said.

Before I dive into this subject, what exactly is “high frequency trading“?

A program trading platform that uses powerful computers to transact a large number of orders at very fast speeds. High-frequency trading uses complex algorithms to analyze multiple markets and execute orders based on market conditions. Typically, the traders with the fastest execution speeds will be more profitable than traders with slower execution speeds. As of 2009, it is estimated more than 50% of exchange volume comes from high-frequency trading orders.

I again refer to a favorite source of mine, Keynes General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (Ch 12, Part V, #4):

“But there is one feature in particular which deserves our attention. It might have been supposed that competition between expert professionals, possessing judgment and knowledge beyond that of the average private investor, would correct the vagaries of the ignorant individual left to himself. It happens, however, that the energies and skill of the professional investor and speculator are mainly occupied otherwise. For most of these persons are, in fact, largely concerned, not with making superior long-term forecasts of the probable yield of an investment over its whole life, but with foreseeing changes in the conventional basis of valuation a short time ahead of the general public. They are concerned, not with what an investment is really worth to a man who buys it “for keeps”, but with what the market will value it at, under the influence of mass psychology, three months or a year hence. Moreover, this behaviour is not the outcome of a wrong-headed propensity. It is an inevitable result of an investment market organised along the lines described. For it is not sensible to pay 25 for an investment of which you believe the prospective yield to justify a value of 30, if you also believe that the market will value it at 20 three months hence.

Thus the professional investor is forced to concern himself with the anticipation of impending changes, in the news or in the atmosphere, of the kind by which experience shows that the mass psychology of the market is most influenced. This is the inevitable result of investment markets organised with a view to so-called “liquidity”. Of the maxims of orthodox finance none, surely, is more anti-social than the fetish of liquidity, the doctrine that it is a positive virtue on the part of investment institutions to concentrate their resources upon the holding of “liquid” securities. It forgets that there is no such thing as liquidity of investment for the community as a whole. The social object of skilled investment should be to defeat the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. The actual, private object of the most skilled investment to-day is “to beat the gun”, as the Americans so well express it, to outwit the crowd, and to pass the bad, or depreciating, half-crown to the other fellow.”

Now, take the “professional investor and speculator” out of the equation and replace them with a computer algorithm. Remove many of the financial sector regulations put in place after the Great Depression. Change the hypothetical thee month time horizon to fractions of a second.

In Keynes day, at least there was some work going into speculation (besides creating and refining an algorithm). If traditional investment is speculative, as Keynes suggests, we need a new word for high frequency trading

The indisputable role the financial sector played in the financial crisis has shaken confidence in the financial system. Furthermore, the deregulation of commodities markets and subsequent commoditization of traditionally non-financial assets (food, fuel, housing, etc.) has left the “real economy” much more susceptible to fluctuations in financial markets / high frequency trading.

Therefore, it is not surprising that high frequency trading has garnered the attention of regulators. As New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman correctly states, it is the job of these regulators to restore confidence in a system that many see as a potentially destabilizing tool for the rich. There are undeniably positive aspects of financial services, but these positive aspects have been largely overshadowed by speculative and predatory practices.

We cannot wind back the clock on technology to stop high frequency trading. We can, however, curb the arbitrage / rent-seeking potential of high frequency trading with financial transaction taxation (FTT), reducing its prevalence. A FTT would raise tax revenues while also restoring confidence in financial markets (potentially without any negative impact on overall economic growth).

 


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Conflict Watch: Bizarro Egypt (Part 2)

Supporters of the Morsi regime argue that the “deep state” (security forces, judiciary, business elites) conspired against his administration, resulting in ineffective rule. While this argument is open to debate (although I would say events over the past 7 months have at least partially vindicated this position), there is no question that the Egyptian judicial system is currently an extension of the military backed government:

Trials will be held in Minya province, south of Cairo, where a judge on Monday sentenced 529 defendants to death on charges of killing a police officer during an attack on a police station last summer.

Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of Morsi since the military removed him in July. Around 16,000 people have been arrested over the past months, including most of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

The new trials bring the total number of defendants in Minya along to 2,147 in four trials, including the trial in which the verdicts were issued on Monday.

In one of the new trials, 715 defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader, Mohammed Badie, are charged with killing six people and the attempted murder of 51 others during attacks on state institutions on 14 August in the city of Sallamout. Only 160 defendants in this case are in detention. The prosecutor asked for the arrest of the remainder.

In the second trial, 204 defendants, also including Badie, face charges of inciting violence. Only three are in detention in this case, in which the charges include attacking state institutions and police in al-Adawa town, also in Minya.

A court will set a date for the trials.

A judicial official said the same judge who issued the death sentences on Monday will preside over the two new trials. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press.

There is little reason to believe this same judge will not find all the defendants guilty and sentence them to death without due process, as he already did to 529 people this past Monday after only two days of deliberation.

This ruling juxtaposes an Egyptian government-appointed panel’s findings that no security forces are accountable for the August massacres which resulted in 1,300+ (officially recognized, and therefore likely under-estimated) protester deaths. Instead, the panel blames “extremists” who used civilians as “human shields”.

For those of you “keeping score” at home, that’s 529 sentenced to death for the murder of one police officer (and likely 2,000+ sentenced for a handful of deaths), 0 security forces sentenced for the deaths of 1,300+ protestors.   

This disproportionate justice delivers a message which should outrage even the strongest pro-government Egyptians. In Egypt not everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, security forces can kill with impunity, and the lives of security forces are much more valuable than the lives of civilians. These are not foundations upon which vibrant societies are built.

How many people will actually be executed in these trials is unknown, as the majority of the defendants are fugitives (can you blame them ?), but this is besides the point.

Making matters worse, alongside its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian government has launched a blatant affront against a multitude of “good governance” concepts (soft power, human rights, accountability, judicial independence, pluralism, and democratic governance to name a few). The Egyptian government continues to use Western rhetoric to justify draconian practices. The supposed champions of these ideals (the U.N., U.S.A., E.U., etc) have responded mutedly–a terrible lesson for the people around the world with legitimate democratic aspirations.

For Sisi, who this past week officially announced his candidacy for President, this crackdown has been a calculated move. By driving peaceful Muslims to the extremism, he has created greater support for his strong-handed militaristic approach to governance. Sisi could probably win a fair, free and transparent election right now. But Sisi does not just want to win, he wants a such a lopsided victory that he can claim a popular mandate to continue the crackdown against dissenters.

At the UNDP, we had a philosophy that a society should be judged based on the well-being of it’s most vulnerable people. Egypt’s economy may well flourish under Sisi’s rule, but at what human cost? The only faction of society that can truly call Egypt’s version of “democracy” sustainable are the security forces.


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Conflict Watch: In Effort To Show How “Powerful” He Is, Erdogan Exudes Weakness

Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara March 21, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer

CREDIT: REUTERS/STRINGER

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter, citing bias and vowing to show the world how “powerful” his administration is:

“It is difficult to comprehend Twitter’s indifference, and its biased and prejudiced stance. We believe that this attitude is damaging to the brand image of the company in question and creates an unfair and inaccurate impression of our country,” the statement from Erdogan’s office said.

“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”

“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdogan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdogan said.

The European Union Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes tweeted that the ban in Turkey “is groundless, pointless, cowardly.” She added that the “Turkish people and international community will see this as censorship. It is.”

It is laughable to call Twitter “biased”, as it is a social media platform for people to share what they think. If Twitter is “biased” against Erdogan’s administration, it is because it has lost the support of the Turkish people. If Twitter was creating fake accounts to post anti-Erdogan tweets, or censoring pro-Erdogan followers, that would indeed be biased; this is not the reality of the situation.

On one hand, Erdogan says “Twitter, schmitter”, as if he is indifferent to supposedly falsified accusations against him. On the other hand, he shows himself to be very concerned about what goes up on Twitter, enough so to shut the social media platform down. Erdogan is clearly afraid that Twitter will catalyze a revolution in Turkey, as it did in Egypt.

In an attempt to show his strength, Erdogan has instead shown just how concerned he is about his oppositions social media activities, lending credence to their claims. This action is likely to backfire, adding another grievance (alongside corruption, tightening control over the judicial branch, and firing hundreds of police officers and officials) to the opposition’s arsenal, while moving protest movements from social media back to the streets.

Michelle Obama, on a “non-political trip” to China, had a markedly political message for Chinese citizens; internet freedom is a human right:

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told an audience of college students in the Chinese capital on Saturday that open access to information – especially online – is a universal right.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy,” she added. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Censorship in Chinese news media and online is widespread, and internet users in the country cannot access information about many controversial topics without special software to circumvent restrictions.

Turkey has modernized quickly over the past decades, and currently boasts a much stronger human rights record than China or Egypt. But sometimes taking away freedoms can cause a greater backlash than keeping them from people in the first place. When people have been empowered with certain rights and then see them taken away, it generally does not sit well.

It is not easy to take criticism, but as most people know, addressing a claim only makes it appear legitimate. In the age of social media, any position in the public eye requires “tough skin”.

While Erdogan has presided over a prosperous era in Turkish history, he now seems outdated and unfit to govern a country with “Western” aspirations (such as EU ascension). Erdogan sounds borderline crazy when he calls dissent a “conspiracy” or “bias” from an inherently neutral medium of expression.

In pluralistic democracy, political dissent is part of everyday life. It is up to the politician to make the call as to whether dissent is:

a) uninformed (in which case the government can inform the opposition as to why they should not be concerned), and/or;

b) comes from a vocal minority which can (but not necessarily should) be dismissed, or;

c) a legitimate grievance which must be addressed with policy changes.

When “c” is met with a dismissal (claims of conspiracy, bias, etc.) and tightening of power, it makes the situation worse. Erdogan still remains very popular in Turkey, but one has to question how many missteps his popularity can endure.

(Note: A government will almost always try “a” and claim “b” even if in reality the case is “c”. Furthermore, “b” can turn into “c” if not addressed. This list is supposing these alternatives are mutually exclusive and there is an objective truth, which is often not the case, at least until long after the fact.)


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Transparency Report: Of GM, and Women In Power

Those who follow trends in development have no doubt heard of the myriad benefits associated with empowering women. In theory, women tend to be more socially conscious / accountable, long-term thinkers than men. Many conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs in developing countries give cash exclusively to women, believing they will use the money in more constructive ways.

From the UNDP website:

Equality between men and women is more than a matter of social justice – it’s a fundamental human right. But gender equality also makes good economic sense. When women have equal access to education, and go on to participate fully in business and economic decision-making, they are a key driving force against poverty. Women with equal rights are better educated, healthier, and have greater access to land, jobs and financial resources. Their increased earning power in turn raises household incomes. By enhancing women’s control over decision-making in the household, gender equality also translates into better prospects and greater well-being of children, reducing poverty of future generations.

Some fast facts about women in power (for a more “macro” picture, check out the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index (GII), which weighs traditional Human Development Index (HDI) scores for gender equality, offering a side by side comparison):

Public Sector:

  • 20.9 per cent of national parliamentarians were female as of 1 July 2013, an increase from 11.6 per cent in 1995
  • As of June 2013, 8 women served as Head of State and 13 served as Head of Government.
  • Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of July 2013

“More women in politics does not correlate with lower levels of corruption, as is often assumed. Rather, democratic and transparent politics is correlated with low levels of corruption, and the two create an enabling environment for more women to participate”UN Women

Private Sector:

General Motor’s new CEO Marry Barra has handled GM’s recent safety issues / vehicle recall with the remorse and accountability we should demand from all people in power:

General Motors Co announced new recalls of 1.5 million vehicles on Monday and in a virtually unprecedented public admission by a GM chief executive, Mary Barra acknowledged the company fell short in catching faulty ignition switches linked to 12 deaths.

“Something went wrong with our process in this instance, and terrible things happened,” she told employees in a video message posted online. Barra said the company is changing how it handles defect investigations and recalls.

In the last two months, GM has recalled more than 3.1 million vehicles in the United States and other markets.

Barra previously apologized for GM’s failure to catch the faulty ignition switches sooner. In Monday’s video, she said GM is “conducting an intense review of our internal processes and will have more developments to announce as we move forward.”

GM said the new recalls resulted from Barra’s push for a comprehensive internal safety review following the ignition-switch recall.

“I asked our team to redouble our efforts on our pending product reviews, bring them forward and resolve them quickly,” Barra said in a statement on Monday.

On Friday, the automaker was hit with what appeared to be the first U.S. class action related to the ignition-switch recall, as customers claimed their vehicles lost value because of the ignition switch problems. The proposed class action was filed in a Texas federal court. Other plaintiffs’ lawyers say they are preparing to file similar cases in the coming days.

To be sure, Miss Barra’s admissions of wrongdoing do not come solely out of the kindness of her heart. There has been considerable negative publicity surrounding GM in recent weeks, most notably concerning the 12 people who died due to ignition related issues (another study found that 303 people died due to airbag malfunctions in GM vehicles, which the company has yet to address). In addition to class action lawsuits, GM is facing a criminal investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

There can be no denying that GM was negligent in its internal processes. I think most people expected the typical corporate response: an announcement of “regret”, a recall, and silence until the legal process played out.

However, Miss Barra has gone above and beyond what we have come to expect from people in power; a presentence admission of wrongdoing and pledge to change internal processes is a breath of fresh air. Such accountability requires courage and long-term thinking, but is ultimately much more beneficial for all parties involved.

The cynic could say that GM is simply in damage control mode, or that perhaps they brought in Miss Barra because they saw this oncoming shit-storm. Somehow, despite the issues I cover, I am not a cynic; perhaps I a fool or a Pollyanna. I believe that since the future is yet unwritten, there is a chance for people power and social justice to prevail over the forces of greed. In fact, I see trends in governance and technology making this an inevitable (if not slow moving) shift.

As the UN Women quote above highlights, having women as symbolic placeholders does not itself create change. While high ranking positions are the most visible and make the decisions with the greatest social impact, gender inequality must be addressed from the ground up, starting with the world’s most vulnerable women. Breaking power imbalances is relative; for some it is holding a top position in the public or private sector, for others it is enjoying basic human rights they currently do not enjoy.

The push for greater gender equality should also catalyze self-reflection of future male leaders; if men want to hold positions of power in the future, they would be wise to embrace more long-term, socially conscious / accountable outlooks.


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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)


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Conflict Watch: The Illusion of Self-Determination in Crimea

By now, you have undoubtedly heard about the occupation and possible secession of Crimea from the Ukraine. As an unabashed advocate for democratization and socioeconomic modernization, my readers probably expect me to favor the Western narrative on Crimea (the Russian invasion violated Ukrainian sovereignty, any secession not approved by the Ukrainian central government in Kiev would violate international law and will not be recognized).

However, there is a factor which underpins the democratic principles of human dignity and political rights which cannot be dismissed–self-determination:

“No state has been consistent in its application of this,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. During a trip he took to Moscow last week, Mr. Charap said, Kosovo was the precedent cited repeatedly by Russians defending the Crimea intervention. “It’s like, ‘You guys do the same thing. You’re no better. You’re no different.’ ”

“You can’t ignore the context that this is taking place days after the violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. It’s not a permissive environment for people to make up their own minds.” [said Benjamin J. Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser]

“Self-determination has been a controversial doctrine since [Woodrow] Wilson, and hell to apply,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a former ambassador at large to the Soviet states and the author of a new book, “Maximalist,” on American foreign policy. “One consistent point: It can’t be used as a cudgel by big states to break up their neighbors. Russia’s own record here does not entitle it to the benefit of the doubt.”

Russia’s two ferocious wars in Chechnya since the 1990s were fought to prevent the very strain of separatism it now encourages in Crimea. In backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria in his civil war against rebels, Russia argues that state sovereignty should not be violated, an argument it has turned on its head in Ukraine.

As national security adviser Rhodes pointed out, the environment needed for a fair referendum does not exist in Crimea. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), after being initially turned away, has now rejected an invitation from Crimean authorities to oversee the election:

“For any referendum regarding the degree of autonomy or sovereignty of the Crimea to be legitimate, it would need to be based on the Ukrainian constitution and would have to be in line with international law,” OSCE said.

Both the context of the vote and the wording on the ballot are troubling:

The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.

Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.

There seems little chance that Crimea’s new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich’s overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.

In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city’s electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:

“We’re living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I’m not embarrassed to say that,” he told reporters.

There is little sign of campaigning by those opposed to the government line. Billboards in Sevastopol urge people to vote and offer a choice of two images of Crimea – one in the colors of the Russian flag, the other emblazoned with a swastika.

No offense to Chairman Medvedev, but his preferences should be irrelevant in this matter (past the power his one vote grants him).

In the context of Russian occupation and propaganda against the Ukrainian government, the absence of outside observers, and a ballot rigged in Moscow’s favor, the referendum as it currently stands does not represent Crimean self-determination.  Any referendum / vote / election with a predetermined outcome is a farce.

Below are concessions from both sides that could lead to de-escalation and a referendum that truly represents Crimean self-determination:

  • In return, the government in Kiev validates the Crimean referendum for secession, which would enable;
  • The OSCE to observe the Crimean referendum (which would have to be delayed from this Sunday in order to make ballot changes, allow for public debates on the issues, etc.; this is a long term and for all intents-and-purposes irreversible decision, and therefore not one which should be rushed); the options on the ballot must be changed to include an alternative to remain part of the Ukrainian Republic.  

If we are to uphold the fundamental democratic pillar of self-determination, “the West” has to be prepared to accept the possibility that it is truly the will of the Crimean people to join Russia. Just as a predetermined referendum to join Russia is a farce, so too would be a referendum which decided for the Crimean people that they must stay part of the Ukraine.

The Ukraine just experienced a revolution; when, if not after a revolution, is a legitimate time for an autonomous region to hold a referendum on its future sovereign? Those who favor remaining part of the Ukraine would be wise to point out the irony of a referendum to join Russia; should such a vote passed, it would likely be the last truly meaningful vote any Crimean citizen would ever take part in.


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Conflict Watch: Is History Still “Written by the Victors”?

This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).

The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).

As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:

A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.

The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.

Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.

He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.

But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.

The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.

It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.

Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).

The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.

Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.

We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.

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