Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: China Speaks of Inclusion at UN, Cracks Down on Protestors in Hong Kong

Pro-Democracy Protests in Hong Kong:

During China’s annual address to the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Wang Yi had an interesting message for the international community:

The new sustainable development agenda should advance people’s wellbeing, promote inclusivity and ensure implementation

Inclusive, participatory politics are a foundation of modernization theory / a human rights based approach to development. Coming from a Chinese official these words ring hollow, as they were delivered while the Chinese government cracked down on pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong:

In a significant escalation of their efforts to suppress protests calling for democracy, the authorities in Hong Kong unleashed tear gas and mobilized riot police with long-barreled guns Sunday to disperse crowds that have besieged the city government for three days. But thousands of residents wielding only umbrellas and face masks defied police orders to clear the area.

At the heart of current protests are provincial elections in Hong Kong. The Chinese government is allowing these elections to take place, but will only permit certain candidates to run. To their credit, and against great odds, protestor’s have defied calls from the Communist Party to end their protests.

It has become clear the people of Hong Kong are willing to defy authority in their attempt to secure political rights. The protests have naturally gained much international attention, and have put the usually shrewd Chinese Communist party in a difficult position.

Polyarchy and a Context Sensitive Approach to Development:

Robert Dahl, one of the most influential political scientists of the 21st century, would probably consider Hong Kong an “inclusive hegemony”. Technical terms aside, even the casual observer should realize that, as they stand, Hong Kong’s elections would not represent a real democratic exercise (and hence the protests).

When it comes to human rights and poverty reduction, the Chinese experience is perplexing. Since 1981, the number of people in the world living in “extreme poverty” (less than $1.25 PPP / day) has fallen by 500 million people; excluding China, this reduction turns into an increase of 100 million people. One could certainly argue that the UN is not in a position to lecture China on the finer points of poverty reduction.

But China’s experience with development and poverty reduction cannot easily be replicated. Economic development is always context sensitive, and the least developed regions in the world (specifically Western / Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East) must develop from starkly different contexts than China has.

China is generally a homogenous, stable country with a strong central government that effectively meets peoples basic needs. Generally speaking, modern day Western / Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle-East couldn’t be more different; sectarianism / tribalism run rampant, and governments are corrupt and ineffective at providing even the most basic services. This combination results in instability, insecurity, and high poverty rates.

Any meaningful attempt at “South-South cooperation”–using the experiences of past development efforts when drafting new ones–would quickly identify these difference. While China’s economic development has been a remarkable success story, it would also be impossible to reproduce in today’s least developed countries (LDCs).

Furthermore, there are limits to the growth China’s can realize from it’s political economy model. While extreme poverty has dropped in China, the average Chinese person is by no means “wealthy”. The Chinese government has proven itself to be incredibly adept at picking the “low hanging fruit” of economic development. But it is widely accepted, even by Chinese leadership, that future growth and development requires a shift from export-based / state-sponsored growth to consumer-demand / market based growth.

The question is whether  this type of growth is possible in a quasi-capitalist, authoritarian country. Perhaps China will continue to be the exception to the rule, and become a highly developed nation without extending the political freedoms many of it’s people crave. I have my doubts, and recent slowdowns in China’s economic growth may affirm my beliefs, but admittedly a longer-term perspective is needed to see whether China’s economic slowdown is a symptom of structural flaws in its political economy or not.

Human Rights Records and Rankings:

It is worth noting that China is far from an outlier / renegade nation (such as North Korea). China is not, for instance, Egypt or Syria–countries whose leaders greeted pro-democracy protestors with indiscriminate slaughter. Furthermore, modern day China is not 1989 China; these are not the Tiananmen Square protests, times have changed and I am fairly certain the Chinese central government will not resort to violence in order to break up the protests.

China generally works within the international community, and is sensitive to negative perceptions that may affect its economic growth. The Communist party has proven itself to be in-tune with the needs of it’s people–whether this is out of some sense of good governance or a survival tactic is certainly open to debate.

It is difficult to rank countries based on their human rights records; human rights violations are interconnected and their consequences difficult to quantify. One such organization that attempts to rank countries, the International Human Rights Rank Indicators, has China ranked 48/216. This rank is below most of the world’s wealthiest countries (which has a lot to do with a governments ability to fulfill economic and social rights), but ahead of many of the worlds poorest / most oppressive regimes; I would say this is a reasonable ranking.

Growth and Development:

The ability of the worlds LDCs to develop, and of China to continue to develop, should be of great concern even to those in the “developed” world. If the Great Recession has proven anything, it is that “financial innovation” is not a sustainable path to prosperity. Wealthy countries need new markets to export their goods–they need people in poorer regions to obtain greater purchasing power. This means the international community must be clear-eyed when assessing the merits and limitations of the Chinese growth model.

For the world’s LDC’s, I am fully convinced that a human rights based approach to development is needed. The Post-2015 development agenda–with a human rights and a context sensitive approach to development at its core–is being designed with the world’s most impoverished in mind. I am cautiously optimistic that this second iteration of the MDGs will make a meaningful impact in the battle to end extreme poverty and expand human dignity in the worlds poorest regions.

China will not take outside advice when determining its future policy choices. China does not need international economic assistance, so there is no mechanism for implementing outside advice (regardless of its merits). If democratic gains are to take hold in China, it will require a combination of internal pressure (protests) and a continued slowdown in China’s economic growth.


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Monday Morning QB: Can the NFL Stop Domestic Violence Among Its Players?

Long answer short–it can reduce it, but not definitively stop it.

The NFL has come under fire from fans, politicians, and sponsors over the past two weeks. Since the infamous Ray Rice elevator video was released (which the NFL claims it never saw, a claim I strongly doubt), a parade of disturbing and embarrassing stories have come to the forefront.

Notably, news of Adrian Peterson’s multiple child abuse episodes has (rightfully) resulted in public outcry. As if not to be outdone, soon-to-be-former Arizona RB Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for both beating his wife and throwing a shoe at his 17 month old son. The Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald domestic violence cases have also come under closer scrutiny.

These incidents have led to an independent investigation into the NFL’s conduct during the Ray Rice investigation. Commissioner Roger Goodell has promised that “all options are on the table” in revamping NFL processes and rules. Perhaps most notably, their has been a decisive shift in the balance between legal due process and NFL / team punishment. These are all important steps; in behavioral economics terms, the NFL has increased the “cost” of domestic violence.

Furthermore, the NFL should pursue a preventative campaign against domestic violence through education. The NFL should educate its incoming and current players, as well as league personnel, on domestic violence issues on a regular basis. The NFL should also focus its efforts towards the youth within its influence, utilizing it’s NFL Play60 and Youth Football programs as an already-in-place infrastructure for reaching young people during a period in life when lifelong values are formed. The NFL can also team up with the NCAA to educate young adults at the college level. At all levels, the NFL should partner with experts in the domestic violence, substance abuse, and the behavioral sciences fields to create curricula which effectively address domestic violence and related issues.

I believe the question on many peoples minds is, “Why the sudden increase in domestic violence?” The answer is there has not been an increase in domestic violence, but rather it’s reporting. The 24 hour news cycle and muckraking news outlets like TMZ (I can’t believe I am using such a noble term to describe TMZ, but it has truly evolved into an important news source) have brought previously unreported issues to light. Social media has given fans a direct outlet to voice their displeasure; overwhelming shifts in public opinion can catalyze change in ways that “the facts” alone historically have not. These are positive evolutions–ignorance is not bliss, it is ignorance.

Having said this, we must remember that the court of public opinion often makes up its mind based on imperfect / incomplete information, and demands disproportionate penalties. I am not advocating for relying solely on the legal process–which when popular figures and high-priced lawyers are involved often delivers incomplete justice–but a reasonable middle ground. While players should certainly be held accountable for their actions, they should not suffer enhanced punishments because of their public status; a mistake should not cost someone their career (most of the time).

There is a limit to what the NFL, or any organization, can do to stop domestic violence. Ultimately, the issue of domestic violence comes down to one of personal accountability. The NFL is not beating women or abusing young children, individuals are. The NFL can make counseling, mental healthcare, and anger management services available or even mandatory, but it cannot police it’s almost 1,700 players 24/7.

Players bring their own personal baggage into the NFL. Players drink, do drugs, and make bad decisions; players are people, and will inevitably make mistakes. Even if the NFL was willing to institute a vigorous vetting process, turning away talented players on the grounds of character concerns, it would be impossible to completely stop such occurrences. Everybody make mistakes, and with player’s lives under the microscope, these mistakes will come to light. This fact, in-and-of-itself, should provide a powerful deterrent to would-be offenders.

The NFL has to revamp it’s policies, but it should not have to defend itself every time one of its players makes a poor decision. You don’t see the POTUS apologizing for every personal scandal involving a Congressman, or a CEO addressing the personal issues of their employees; this is an unfair burden that no other organization faces. The NFL probably does not deserve tax-exempt status, but this issue should not be connected to some mystical air of infallibility which never existed in the first place.

Professional sports leagues champion positive values such perseverance, teamwork, and community service, in addition to providing enjoyment to millions of people on a regular basis. No matter what the NFL does, these stories will continue to pop up–they are symptoms of advances in communication technologies, not a signal of deteriorating values.


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Conflict Watch: The Imperfect But Neccesary Fight Against ISIS

 

In the week following the unveiling of the new American-led anti-ISIS plan, one thing has become clear. This plan, while theoretically sound, will be very difficult to implement.

Regional allies have been reluctant to commit to specific responsibilities in the fight against ISIS. This reluctance highlights some American hubris that I failed to account for in my previous post. Even if taking on specific responsibilities is ultimately in these countries best interests, America cannot simply delegate responsibilities to other countries and decide for them that they will accept them. Generally speaking, the dearth of political will, lukewarm attitudes towards American intervention, and protracted grievances between potential allies are to blame for these seemingly irrational responses.

But despite these issues, the American plan is still the best way forward in a less than ideal situation. For sustainable peace and development, what is known in the conflict resolution field as “positive peace”, a pluralistic, inclusive, human rights based approach to development is needed. This is, unfortunately, far from the current reality in the Middle East.

However, in order for development to take hold, there must be “negative peace”–an absence of fighting. And it is fostering negative peace that the American plan is primarily focused on. There are elements of positive peacebuilding–capacity building for allies that share American values of pluralism and human rights–but these are secondary to the goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS”. “Negative peace” is a necessary precondition for “positive peace” to truly take hold. The foundations of “positive” peace can be laid, but in order for it’s benefits to reach people–to begin the process of sustainable human development–an atmosphere of security / “negative peace” must exist.

Ideally, “positive peace” is built preventatively; should conflict erupt, the partnerships and trust needed to negotiate an end to the fighting already exist. There is nothing “ideal” about the fight against ISIS; the group moves with blinding speed, destroying everything that opposes its radical version of Islam. To do nothing would amount to a de-facto death sentence for anyone who dares to oppose ISIS, while enabling the group to cement it’s control in the region. This would make “negative peace” even more difficult to attain.

Unfortunately, it is too late for preventative peacebuilding in the fight against ISIS. The American-led plan must try to simultaneously build “positive” and “negative” peace–admittedly a difficult task. To this end, the plan must be inclusive of all Muslims, Sunni and Shiite (as well as minority groups). Furthermore, it must minimize actions that ISIS can use as anti-Western propaganda–something the group has proved itself adept at.

This fight against ISIS will not be quick or easy. It would be easier if regional allies would take stronger stands and commit to specific responsibilities in the fight against ISIS, but early indications suggest this is currently not the reality. Short of putting boots on the ground, America must make up for the current shortfalls of our regional partners. If we do not, no one else will, and the ISIS threat will become even more difficult to confront.


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Conflict Watch: Meet the New Coalition, (Not the) Same as the Old Coaliton

At the NATO summit in Wales, a strategy for dealing with the growing ISIS threat was unveiled:

In his most expansive comments to date about how the United States and its friends could defeat ISIS, a once-obscure group of Sunni militants that has now upended the Middle East and overshadowed Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against its leaders and positions, strengthen the moderate Syrian rebel groups to reclaim ground lost to ISIS, and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.

Mr. Obama spoke after aides had unveiled what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the “core coalition” to fight the ISIS militants, the outcome of a hastily organized meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit talks. Diplomats and defense officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark huddled to devise a two-pronged strategy: strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while bombing Sunni militants from the air.

“There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the start of the meeting. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”

But he and other officials made clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Iraq, or the moderate Syrian rebels opposed to President Assad in Syria. “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Mr. Kerry said.

For Mr. Obama, assembling a coalition to fight ISIS is particularly important to a president whose initial arrival on the global stage was centered around his opposition to the war in Iraq. He is loath to be viewed as going it alone now that he has been dragged back into a combat role in the same country.

An administration official said the reasons for assembling a coalition went beyond any political cover that such an alliance might provide with a war-weary American public. For one thing, the official said, certain countries bring expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence and Saudi Arabia in financing.  

American officials are hoping to expand the coalition to many countries, particularly in the region. Obama administration officials said privately that in addition to the participants at the meeting Friday, the United States was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan. Its leader, King Abdullah II, was attending the Wales summit meeting.

United States officials said they also expected Saudi Arabia to contribute to funding moderate Syrian rebel groups. In addition, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said in a statement this week that the Emirates stood ready to join the fight against ISIS. “No one has more at stake than the U.A.E. and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path,” the ambassador said.

And like the comprehensive strategy to combat Al Qaeda that has taken years to develop and carry out, Mr. Olsen and other counterterrorism officials said  on Friday that destroying the threat from ISIS could take a long time. Even if successful, they said, such a strategy would require maintaining pressure on any remnants of the group.

This plan is consistent with what I have called “The Obama Doctrine“, also know affectionately as the “don’t do stupid stuff” approach to foreign affairs. America cannot afford to get entangled in costly wars (both in economic and human costs). But the world cannot afford to do nothing while threats like ISIS further cement their control. To do nothing would be both morally unconscionable and tactically ineffective.

There are certain elements of this “Coalition of the Willing” that should make it more effective than it’s predecessor in the previous Iraq War:

1) No Boots on the Ground:

A war weary American public has no appetite for a ground invasion in the Middle East. Putting “boots on the ground” is costly in many different senses. Some costs are impossible to quantify, such as lives lost and the physical and mental ailments affecting surviving soldiers (costs which must be paid for the rest of their lives).

Other candidates to provide troops–“rich” countries–are dealing with recessed economies and difficult budgetary decisions; the resources simply do not exist to provide ground troops, even if the will was there. I have argued that Germany and Japan specifically must step up their global security contributions, bringing them more in line with their prominence in the global economy. But even so, these countries will not place troops on the ground, nor should they.

The new plan, a central tenant of the Obama Doctrine, is to provide support (intelligence, weaponry, training) to friendly and stable forces in the region. In the fight against ISIS, this includes the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels (led by the Free Syrian Army).

The role of the Egyptian Armed Forces will be interesting to monitor. One on hand, the forces are well equipped and have a strong anti-terrorism mandate. On the other hand, human rights concerns have alienated Egypt from many of the members of the Coalition. We will have to wait and see what role the Egyptian Armed Forces play in this coalition. Update: It appears Egypt will not play a prominent role in this coalition; one could argue The Egyptian armed forces do no want to degrade ISIS–extremist groups provide the impetus for strong handed militaristic governance.

2) Enlisting The Help of Allies:

Any coalition, by definition, includes multiple partners. The Coalition of the Willing for the War in Iraq included 48 members. However, simply listing country names does not mean countries play a meaningful role; many of the members of that coalition provided little more than a vote of confidence.

It appears that members of this coalition will have more defined roles. Notably, ground forces will be provided exclusively by regional actors. This “capacity building” approach should lead to a more sustainable security situation in the region, leaving stable armed forces in place once this particular offensive has concluded (of course this is far from a guarantee; it is very difficult to tell how decisions like this will play out down the line, especially in a region as volatile as the ME).

It is important that the coalition do it’s best to function as a cohesive group. While dividing duties allows for specialization based on expertise and cost-sharing, it can also lead to disagreement and paralyze action. For all its many deplorable attributes, ISIS has proven itself to be well organized and capable of moving very quickly. The coalition must put in place representative leadership that allows for quick, reactive decision making.

The dearth of stable and capable regional allies further complicates matters. I already mentioned Egypt’s questionable role; two countries the international community cannot count on at all are Iran and Syria.

Iran provides a counterbalance to Sunni extremists, but fails in terms of the pluralistic, sectarian-blind solutions needed in the region.

Syria has began launching an offensive against ISIS. However, one cannot imagine an instance in which the coalition’s members–many of which have taken strong anti-Assad positions–would accept his regimes support.

Despite all these caveats, this new coalition is an important first step in the long-term fight against ISIS. The coalition has the advantage of resources, legitimate goals, and lessons learned from previous interventions in the region. In time ISIS will be defeated.

Update: The new coalition has gotten off on rocky footing , with many expected allies failing to agree to the strong, specific commitments America was hoping for.


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Economic Outlook: The Flawed Logic Behind New Bank Rules on Liquidity and Municipal Debt

Original article:

Municipal bonds will no longer be part of the easily sellable assets that banks can use to show they are able to survive a credit crunch, Bloomberg reported, citing a person familiar with the matter.

The final liquidity rule will be approved by regulators, including the Federal Reserve, on Sept 3, the news service reported the person as saying.

The most recent draft does not list debt issued by states and municipalities as high-quality assets that could help sustain a bank through a 30-day squeeze, the report said, citing the person.

The regulations could affect the municipal bond market by giving banks less incentive to buy bonds that finance schools, roads and public works, Bloomberg said.

On the surface, this new rule make perfect sense–it is a natural response to the unprecedented explosion of municipal bankruptcies and the economic decision underpinning them (poor investment of public funds, unsustainable public worker benefits, overly generous subsidies to attract private sector jobs, etc.). “Easily sellable assets” are supposed to be liquid and stable in price, in order to assure banks can “wind down” their holdings in the event of a financial crisis.

But upon further consideration, the decision to not include municipal bonds as “easily sellable” assets is representative of a larger [artificial] divide between the “financial” and “real” economies. It is also incredibly shortsighted.

In the aftermath of the “Great Recession”, America realized two economic recoveries. One was a financial recovery which, buoyed by a financial sector bailout, happened very quickly. This recovery resulted in 95% of economic gains between 2009-2013 went to the top 1%–the people who own the vast majority of financial assets. This recovery continues to be marked by record high values for many popular stock indexes.

The second recovery, which 6 years later is only partially complete, is the recovery of the labor market. Unemployment is low (especially compared to levels in certain European countries), but wages remain depressed and many people are still forced to take jobs below their skill level.

In theory, the financial sector should act as a barometer of sorts for the strength of the real economy; when the real economy is doing well, the financial sector should boom. In reality, throughout the past few decades the financial sector has become synonymous with terms like “bubbles”, insider information / fraud, and offshore banking / tax inversion. Financiers, accountants and lawyers are employed to figure out illegal / quasi-legal loopholes to ensure the rich get richer regardless of their productivity or contributions to society as a whole.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the type and amount of “safe” assets banks must hold has to be reexamined. But pricing municipalities out of financial markets is not the answer to this problem.

In the long run, economies do well when we invest in everybody–when no person is left behind. This concept goes by many names; the two most common I have heard are “the human rights based approach to sustainable human development” and “progressive politics”. Regardless of what you call it, this concept is not only ethically and socially just, it is economically viable. Furthermore, we end up paying for those “left behind” in the form of higher police, prison, and welfare expenditures anyways.

The decision to not include municipal debt as “easily sellable” assets will drive up the price municipalities pay for providing essential public services. Of course municipalities must do their best to set economically sustainable policies, perhaps with the assistance / oversight of state and/or federal officials. But America cannot afford to let the current mishandling of municipal policies lead to a further deterioration in local service delivery–it is unfair to the people affected by these policies and the American economy as a whole.

Spending less money on education, social programs, and infrastructure, while perhaps “fiscally responsible” in the eyes of some people, is incredibly harmful to America’s economic prospects in the medium and long runs. Unless this liquidity decision is part of a larger plan for the Federal Reserve to act as a backstop / “lender of last resort” for municipal debt–an idea I have heard nothing about–then it will only further exacerbate the rift between the real and financial economies, setting America up for both future financial crises and a loss of global competitiveness.

During my time interning at the UNDP, there was an organizational slogan I took to heart; judge a society not by the strength of its strongest, but by the strength of its weakest. In America, those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder depend the most on municipal services to realize “the American Dream”. This slogan holds holds as true with regards to the sustainable human development of American’s as it is for people in less developed countries.

America should have the resources and political will to enable everybody to realize their full economic potential. This should be the new American dream.

 


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Conflict Watch: Violent, Unorganized Protest is the Bane of Legitimate Grievances

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Original article:

 The unrest in Ferguson began one week ago, on the quiet side street of Canfield Drive, when residents were startled by a series of gunshots and poured out of their homes. They watched and wept as the police stood guard for hours over the body of 18-year-old Michael Brown, splayed face down in the street.

But over time, the demonstrations have changed to become an amalgam of peaceful protesters — some furious about what they say is endemic abuse of African-Americans by the police — and separate groups that have carried out acts of violence and looting.

Early Saturday morning, the divisions became even more evident during a four-hour standoff with the police. One group, some of its members wearing bandannas, broke into a liquor store and left clutching bottles of alcohol. But at other retail outlets, like a beauty supply store, demonstrators blocked the looters’ way.

Night after night the streets have attracted disparate groups, some from within Ferguson, and some from hundreds of miles away.

Many of those on the street say they have shrugged off guidance from elders in the African-American establishment, and even from the Brown family, which has repeatedly pleaded for calm.

One protester, DeVone Cruesoe, of the St. Louis area, standing on Canfield Drive last week said, “Do we have a leader? No.” Pointing to the spot where Mr. Brown was killed, he said, “You want to know who our leader is? Mike Brown.”

Many African-American civic leaders in St. Louis said they were frustrated by their inability to guide the protesters.

Some people have suggested that there is a generational divide. George Richardson, who works for the building department in East St. Louis, said the younger protesters were acting independently, ignoring advice from their parents.

“There is a gulf between the leadership and the boots on the ground,” Mr. Richardson said. “These kids do not understand why the nonviolence movement is the best way to get done what we need to get done. They don’t really know what to do.”

Violence and destruction lend legitimacy to strong handed responses by the authorities (I am not saying I necessarily agree these actions are just or proportionate, but rather stating the stance many policy makers take). It is extremely unlikely that anything justified the killing of Michael Brown, but more information must be released through independent investigation before anything can be said beyond speculation. Certainly nothing justifies the violence against, and the imprisoning of, peaceful protesters and members of the press.

However, when violent protesters and looters–opportunists who use the legitimate grievances underpinning the Micheal Brown murder and the murder itself for illegitimate ends–become indistinguishable from peaceful protesters, the indefensible becomes defensible. Suddenly, states of emergency and curfews seem not only justifiable, but indeed necessary to protect the general public.

What happened in Ferguson is not a generational issue, but an issue of social justice and accountability for those in power. Getting the protests back on track requires strong youth leadership in Ferguson; only youth leaders who stand for legitimate causes can end the perceived generational rift and expose it for what it truly is.

Young people tend to be passionate, impulsive and impressionable–not a mix of traits naturally lends itself to peaceful protest. However, young people are also likely to be pragmatic, have long term goals, and listen to other young people. Youth leaders must emerge and denounce the violence / destruction, however instantly gratifying it may seem to some misguided youths. Failure to do so risks having legitimate grievances overshadowed by opportunist, and is a betrayal to both the legacy of Michael Brown, as well as broader Civil Rights and social justice movements.

I am sure these youth leaders exist; they must be empowered by those with the resources and desire to see social justice served. There is a reason Martin Luther King is remembered as an American hero, and Malcolm X as a polarizing figure. The argument between whether “hard” and “soft” power is the better avenue for change, at least in America, was decided decades ago.


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Economic Outlook: Rethinking Public Pension Negotiation

Original article:

Bryan Jeffries, the chief of Arizona’s firefighters’ association, has been arguing to anyone who will listen that his members — and the state’s police officers, too — should volunteer to cut their own pension benefits.

Mr. Jeffries, a fourth-generation Arizonan who has been a firefighter and a city councilor, says that emergency workers have a special obligation to protect the public not only from physical peril, but also from financial ruin. Cutting pensions for firefighters and police officers would help save their woefully underfunded retirement plan and bail out towns and cities that are struggling to keep up with their mandated contributions, he says.

“It is critical for our state, for the taxpayers and for the next generation that will be here long after we are gone, that we repair this,” said Mr. Jeffries, whose group, the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, is not a union but works on political issues relevant to its membership. “I know intellectually that with these ballooning payments, I feel a direct conflict with the oath I took to protect the citizens.”

His unusual proposal has been a touchy subject for many of the people whose pensions would be cut, because defined benefit pension plans are viewed as compensation for doing dangerous work and a lure to recruit new public servants. And despite the growing shortfall in the statewide pension plan that has put stress on cities and towns, which must make up the difference, politicians have been nevertheless wary of attacking these benefits, for fear of alienating two powerful constituencies and to sidestep questions about why they lavished such generous pensions on them in the first place.

“When you see policemen and firemen putting their lives on the line, you want to make sure that when they retire, they receive a reasonable retirement,” said Jeff Dial, a Republican state representative from the Phoenix area who supports the firefighters’ initiative.

The growing unfunded liabilities have forced cities and towns to pick up the tab. Tucson, for instance, contributes the equivalent of 51 percent of its emergency workers’ wages, up from about 11 percent a decade ago. That means if a firefighter’s salary is $60,000, Tucson must pay about $30,000 more toward his pension. For most police officers and firefighters, pensions make up the bulk of their retirement income, because they do not collect Social Security.

Joe Clure, the president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents 2,400 police officers, has worked with the firefighters on their initiative, but is wary of moving too hastily. “What you worry about is it opening Pandora’s box and making all sorts of changes,” Mr. Clure said. “We are offering up our own haircut.”

Fueling the resentment are reports of public servants who retire with six-digit pensions by exploiting rules that let them cash in unused vacation and sick days. Sal DiCiccio, a Phoenix councilman who favors giving new city employees 401(k) plans, published a list of the 50 highest pensions for retired city public employees.

“The whole system has been gamed by everyone,” Mr. DiCiccio said. “I’m supportive of pensions for police and fire, but people don’t expect that” kind of abuse.

While the most egregious cases make headlines, most pensions for emergency workers are modest. The average pension for a staff member (not including those on disability or paid to survivors) is $52,600, assuming they worked 23.6 years and were 51.3 years old when they retired, according to the pension fund administrator.

What is the purpose of a public pension? It should, when functioning properly, provide income security to men and women who dedicate their lives to careers in public service. It should not be an avenue to a lavish retirement, but rather a comfortable retirement in line with the spirit of public service. Municipalities should consider a hard ceiling on public pensions, so that those who wish to “game the system” are unable to make the 6 figure pensions that generate ire towards reasonable pensions (note, $100,000 is by no means a magic threshold; it is certainly possible to imagine a future in which a 6 figure pension is perfectly reasonable).

Pensions should also be stable, and should not be subject to “haircuts” every-time funds are invested poorly or government tax revenues fall. This calls into question the pension negotiation process. Generally union leaders try to maximize the benefits their constituents receive. The problem is that often times politicians are all to happy to acquiesce, hoping to garner support by appearing to be pro-public service. Funding shortages likely will not surface for years or decades later, by that time the politician who approved the plan will be long gone.

This time inconsistency is unfortunately inherent in public contracts (for example, subsidizing private corporate operations). Therefore, all proposed public pension plans should be scrutinized by independent commissions and opened for public comment, to ensure that they are reasonable. Similarly, since taxpayer money often acts as a backstop to shortfalls in pension fund, investment decisions should be subject to scrutiny from both independent investment professionals and the general public.

There is also an element of responsibility for union negotiators. It is unfair to ask people to work under certain conditions, only to have those conditions changed after the fact. Union negotiators could try to trade some of the benefits their constituents are due to receive in exchange for iron-clad agreements that agreed upon pensions will, under no circumstances, be reduced. The problem is that such clauses often already exist in many state constitutions, so an even stronger guarantee may be difficult to craft. Perhaps by doubling-up on the issue, having it both in the Union contract as well as the state constitution, such a trade-off can be made in good faith.

As municipal bankruptcies become a more prominent issue in American politics, public pensions will naturally come under closer scrutiny. Future negotiations should bare this in mind, and try to reconcile the legitimate needs of public servants with the larger responsibilities of taxpayer dollars.


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Transparency Report: Is A Peaceful Transfer of Power Possible In Afghanistan?

Photo: S. SABAWOON./ Published: 04/5/2014 12:16:53 NY Daily News

Original article:

The process to check thousands of ballot boxes in the Afghan presidential election run-off is now underway after several delays, the United Nations mission in the country confirmed, calling for local commitment to complete the audit without any more postponements.

In a written statement, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) “urged the full commitment of the parties for the unprecedented and vital endeavour that should be completed without any further delays and interruptions.”

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), under whose authority the audit is being carried out, with international supervision, resumed the process on 3 August, following the Eid holiday, but without the participation of representatives of one of the two candidates, Abdullah Abdullah.

“After today’s consultations, we expected that the process of the audit will continue smoothly and without any interruptions,” Ján Kubiš, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and UNAMA head said on Saturday, in a press conference alongside IEC Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani.

In a statement today, Mr. Kubiš added that he fully understands that Dr. Abdullah, and his opponent, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, would need reassurances concerning the audit process.

“It could not be otherwise given the high stakes and widespread mobilization of supporters they were both able to achieve over two rounds of voting,” he said.

Meanwhile, more than 200 full-time international observers – hailing from the European Union and including its Election Assessment Team and the American non-governmental organizations National Democratic Institute, Democracy International and Creative, as well as Asian Network for Free Elections, are now in auditing warehouses in the capital.

According to a UN proposal, which has been agreed to by both candidates, they joined IEC audit teams to scrutinize some 23,000 boxes of ballots from the 14 June run-off using a 16-point checklist to look for things such as inconsistencies in marking the boxes or obvious patterns.

That information will then be reviewed by the IEC Board of Commissioners in open meetings –in the presence of international and domestic observers, candidate agents, the media and UN advisors – where they will decide to accept, recount or invalidate the results.

UNAMA has said that these “extraordinary international mobilization and transport efforts” are meant to provide Afghans with “unprecedented reassurance that the popular will which they bravely expressed on 5 April and 14 June will be known and respected.”

The proposal for the audit varies from past polls, where election officials relied on sampling and trends to extrapolate the extent of possible fraud.

Auditing every single audit box is a “unique opportunity,” said senior UN international elections expert, Jeff Fischer, who directly advises the IEC Board on international best practices.

“It meets international best practice, is consistent with the Afghan constitution and laws, and will produce a robust, credible and thorough audit that detects and eliminates fraudulent ballots while protecting valid votes,” he said.

The audit is led from the UN side by the UN Development Programme’s Enhancing Legal and Electoral Capacity for Tomorrow (UNDP ELECT II) project, which has spent the last four years promoting the capacity of Afghan electoral institutions.

I do not know enough about the two candidates–Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai–to try to determine whose positions and policies are in the best interests of the Afghan people. This is exactly why we have elections, to let people who will be directly affected decide for themselves. Whoever wins (whether Ahmadzai’s victory is upheld or overturned by the audit process) certainly has their work cut out for them. Afghanistan is one of the poorest, corrupt, insecure and culturally fragmented countries in the world.

Despite all these challenges–despite threats from the Taliban and lacking a history of effective democratic governance–about 40% of eligible voters turned out for the second round “run-off” elections held on June 14th. It is the job of an  independent and international auditing body to determine who will ultimately win the election. An unprecedented full audit of all votes is currently underway–the success or failure of this experiment could resonate in many forthcoming elections in the developing world.

The question remains, however, if either side is willing to accept defeat. Recently, candidate Abdullah’s camp has voiced discontent with the purportedly independent audit process:

The United Nations, which is assisting with the audit, and the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced a decision on the criteria for invalidating votes and tried to resume the audit on Sunday, but Mr. Abdullah’s team refused to participate, citing further objections to the criteria. Mr. Kerry made phone calls to both candidates on Friday, with little apparent progress.

Also on Sunday, Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager released an audiotape on which he said Vice President Karim Khalili could be heard directing his followers to support Mr. Ghani in the runoff. An aide to Mr. Khalili has denounced the tape as fake, according to the independent television news channel Tolo TV.

In the tape the speaker, who sounded like Mr. Khalili but had not been independently verified as such, said that the international community, the election commission and the president all supported Mr. Ghani for president. He even suggested that Afghanistan’s allies would tolerate the use of any means to achieve such a result.

“Our international friends have promised us that by using any means and using any opportunity, the election outcome must turn in favor of this team, even if these opportunities, even if these means are against electoral mechanisms,” the voice said.

Mr. Abdullah’s campaign manager, Baryalai Arsalai, said the tape proved that the election fraud had been planned to return a victory for Mr. Ghani.

“This evidence was released today to inform our countrymen that our president, other government elders and the so-called election commission are instruments,” Mr. Arsalai said. The election was a public process, he said, calling it the right of the Afghan people, not the president or the commission chief. “We have a responsibility to let people know that their rights are being violated,” he said.

After lengthy last-minute negotiations, and clarifications issued by the United Nations on the criteria for disqualifying fraudulent ballots, Mr. Abdullah’s team announced it had provisionally agreed to attend the audit on Monday.

It seems to me (and this is just speculation) that the Abdullah camp, by calling into question not only the technical aspects of the audit process but the legitimacy of the whole operation, is setting itself up for an “out” should the audit results be against his favor. This is to say nothing of Dr. Ahmahdzai, who would surely cry foul play should his “victory” be found to be illegitimate.

Aside from a fully independent and internationally monitored audit of all votes, there is little more that can be done in the name of legitimacy. I fear for the sake of the Afghan people, however, that “legitimacy” in the eyes of the two candidates is tied to their own victory–two positions which are clearly mutually exclusive.

The people of Afghanistan showed great bravery by turning out to vote on two separate occasions, risking their lives in order to enable a system they are unfamiliar with. I hope I am wrong, and that both candidates will respect the results of the audit. If not, it is the duty of the international community to ensure that the legitimate winner takes power in a peaceful manner. The U.S. has a big role to play in this peaceful transfer, as the resources it provides Afghanistan (security, economic development, humanitarian, etc.) should provide considerable leverage.

As I said before, whoever ends up as the President will surely have their hands full; Afghanistan has a long march towards modernization. Transferring power peacefully through legitimate democratic elections is only the beginning of what is sure to be a difficult and nonlinear modernization process.

Update: It appears both candidates have agreed to a “power share” deal, where the losing party in the audit will get substantial positions within the government. It sounds good in theory, I hope they both stick to this plan when the results come in.

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