Normative Narratives


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Its Human Rights, Stupid!

Two weeks ago, the Obama Administration hosted a summit in Washington D.C. on countering violent extremism. With terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Boko Haram massacring people with relative impunity, high ranking government officials from around the world, representatives from the United Nations, and experts in the field came together to discuss how best to counter such groups.

Without trivializing the essential role of military operations, there is a growing consensus that a comprehensive, multi-dimensional approach is needed to effectively counter terrorism. A military response alone does not address the root causes which enable the formation and continued operation of extremist organizations, and can be counter-productive by fueling anti-Western propaganda (drone warfare has been particularly contentious in this regard).

An important component of this multi-dimensional approach is the promotion and protection of human rights. This sentiment was echoed by both President Obama and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Obama:

As he sought to rally the world behind a renewed attack on terrorism, President Obama argued on Thursday that force of arms was not enough and called on all nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue.

But the challenge of his approach was staring him right in the face. His audience of invited guests, putative allies in a fresh international counterterrorism campaign, included representatives from some of the world’s least democratic and most repressive countries.

Critics say the terrorism fight has simply enabled autocratic regimes to go after their political foes without worrying about American disapproval. Egypt’s leaders, for instance, have moved to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition group they deem too radical. “It is futile to distinguish between bad terrorists, which must be defeated, and good terrorists, which can be accommodated,” Mr. Shoukry said.

The White House acknowledged the disconnect between advocating human rights and teaming up with human rights violators. But aides said it was one Mr. Obama had learned to live with, given the importance of maintaining an international coalition to fight the Islamic State and other terror threats.

“It’s a perennial challenge of the U.S. government that some of our partners are much more aggressive than others in how they define their domestic terrorist challenge,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama. That dynamic is “most obvious in Egypt, where essentially there’s been a very broad brush in terms of who represents a terrorist threat.”

“When people spew hatred toward others because of their faith or because they’re immigrants, it feeds into terrorist narratives,” Mr. Obama said. “It feeds a cycle of fear and resentment and a sense of injustice upon which extremists prey. And we can’t allow cycles of suspicion to tear the fabrics of our countries.”

Ban Ki Moon:

“Let there be no doubt,” Mr. Ban proclaimed to a room full of high-level delegates including US Secretary of State John Kerry, “The emergence of a new generation of transnational terrorist groups including Da’esh [or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Boko Haram is a grave threat to international peace and security.”

“These extremists are pursuing a deliberate strategy of shock and awe – beheadings, burnings, and snuff films designed to polarize and terrorize, and provoke and divide us,” the UN chief added, commending UN Member States for their political will to defeat terrorist groups and at the same time, urging them to stay “mindful of the pitfalls.”

“Many years of our experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership and an utter disregard for human dignity and human rights have causes tremendous frustration and anger on the part of people who we serve,” the UN chief said.

…preventing violent extremism requires a multi-pronged approach. While military operations are crucial, they are not the entire solution. “Bullets are not the silver bullet,” Mr. Ban said, emphasizing that while missiles may kill terrorists, good governance kills terrorism.

“Human rights, accountable institutions, the equitable delivery of services, and political participation – these are among our most powerful weapons,” the Secretary-General stressed.

Why Isn’t More Done?

If such a consensus exists around the significant role human rights violations play in a variety of negative outcomes (including violent extremism), why don’t policymakers do more to promote human rights? One explanation is that human rights encompass many issues: economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights. Furthermore, no consensus exists with regards to the hierarchy of human rights. Fulfilling some human rights obligations are inherently expensive (economic and social rights), while others have more to do with those in power loosening their grip (political, civil, and cultural). In other words, human rights include both positive and negative rights. Which rights should be prioritized in a world of finite resources and political capital?

I am of the camp that believes human rights are inter-dependent; one human right violation enables others, culminating in armed conflict and/or “extreme poverty”. Therefore, there really is no hierarchy. The exception to this rule is the right to life / security; a violation of this right (murder) is permanent and obviously must be upheld before other rights can be considered. This reality is often bastardized to justify restricting rights in the name of security, an issue I will address later in more detail.

Another issue is that the “ends” of promoting some human rights are not immediate, which historically has made verifying progress difficult. To this end, the UN’s Post-2015 Task Force has placed an emphasis on developing indicators for previously non-quantifiable aspects of human rights. These indicators can help verify when progress is being made on longer-term goals, and when ineffective programs need to be adjusted or scrapped.

Promoting and protecting human rights, while admittedly an ambitious goal, gives direction to sustainable development agendas (likes the SDGs / post-2015 development agenda) in both “first world” countries and the world’s least developed countries. Specifically which rights should be prioritized is context sensitive and should be identified through the democratic process.

Problems With Partners

Many of America’s partners, particularly in the Middle-East, are authoritarian regimes which do not share our beliefs in pluralism and human rights. These regimes tend to fight extremism by further restricting peoples rights in the name of security, exacerbating a vicious cycle of violence, under-development / poverty, and human rights abuses. They often characterize any dissenters as “terrorists”, even if their actions are entirely peaceful.

But relying solely on “Western” actors is not financial sustainable or effective, as it fuels the “Western Imperialism” terrorist narrative. Regional partners must play a leading role in combating extremist activities and ideologies. Although imperfect, we must work with these partners as they are, while simultaneously cultivating local support for human rights. 

Even our “democratic” allies may find it in their best interest to restrict certain rights. Take Egypt for example, where extremist violence has led to popular support for an unaccountable military regime. One could certainly argue that it is in the Egyptian governments best interest to manage, but not eliminate, violent extremism.

And of course, the American-led coalition has its limits–for example, it refuses to work with the Assad despite the military benefits such a partnership would entail.

The Case for an American National Human Rights Institution:

Human rights accountability outlines the responsibilities of different actors–corporations, the public sector, international development organizations, NGOs, and civil society–in promoting and protecting human rights.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI), which have proliferated over the past two decades, can act as human rights watchdogs. These institutions are most effective when they have a strong mandate, a working relationship with the criminal justice system, and receive their funding independently of federal budgetary decisions.

The unfortunate irony is that in the very places that could benefit the most from effective NHRIs, these conditions are not met. Critics argue NHRIs are ineffective and put in place to create the illusion of promoting and protecting human rights. While this may be true in some cases, it is not in all; ultimately, NHRIs can be as effective or ineffective as their mandates and operating space allow.

The absence of an American NHRI is particularly conspicuous. While America does have strong protections of many rights, it lags in other areas (particularly privacy concerns). A NHRI could provide a forum for people to directly address grievances against the government. Perhaps the whole Snowden debacle could have been averted with a functioning ombudsman system.

An American NHRI could be an political mouthpiece for people, helping to restore faith in the American government (which, sadly, is the lowest amongst the financially insecure–the very people who could benefit from public policy the most). Who knows, an American NHRI institution could play a part in jump-starting stagnant wages and promoting social mobility! While far from a cure-all, an American NHRI could “punch above its weight” in terms of resources required to run it.

Perhaps most importantly, an American NHRI would act as a model for NHRIs in other countries, assisting with financial support, technical knowledge, and capacity building. An American NHRI would unaccountably be a strong voice within the the international coordinating committee (ICC) of NHRIs.

These are hypothetical results, and the presence of effective NHRIs does not mean the realization of human rights would progress in a perfectly linear fashion. The closer people get to acquiring new rights, the harder vested interests dig in against them. This is what is playing out now in the Middle-East and in the Ukrainian Civil War–extremists and authoritarians clinging to the remnants of an old order.

The power of effective democratic governance and a human rights based approach to development is truly awesome. Next time someone asks how America can promote progressive values both at home and abroad, just tell them “it’s human rights, stupid!”

Note: This blog focused exclusively on the relationship between human rights and violent extremism. Click the following links for more information on the linkages between human rights, armed conflict, and economic development (which are themselves related root causes of violent extremism).

In Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen argues promoting human rights is not only a means to an end (“positive peace“, sustainable development, poverty and inequality reduction), but also an important end in itself (empowering people, enabling self-determination)–I fully agree!

Taking a holistic view of the benefits of upholding international human rights norms, an even stronger argument can be made for their promotion and protection.


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Greece, Birthplace of Democracy, Needs A Democratic Lifeline

No More Blood From A Greek Stone:

It appears Greece’s government has come up with a list of reforms it and its creditors can agree upon in return for 4 months of bridge financing to restructure the conditions of a longer-term growth strategy.

By trading structural reforms for fiscal space, each major player (Greece and Germany) is making major concessions in the name of pragmatism. Germany is relaxing its dogmatic belief  in fiscal targets to provide the Greek government with the fiscal space needed to restructure its economy without exacerbating its “humanitarian crisis”. Greece, in return, must officially bring to an end the era of lax tax collection and over-rigidity in the labor market.

Both sides are making major concessions, neither side is 100% happy, and its appears as if middle ground has been found–all signs of a meaningful compromise. One can only hope that when Greece’s list of reforms comes in on Monday, both sides of this debate remain on the same page:

Greece’s list of reforms to be submitted to the euro zone on Monday comprises pledges on structural issues such as tax evasion and corruption over the next four months without specific targets, a government official said on Saturday.

The accord requires Greece to submit by Monday a letter to the Eurogroup listing all the policy measures it plans to take during the remainder of the bailout period.

If the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are satisfied, the Eurogroup is likely to endorse the list in a teleconference without the need for a formal meeting. Then euro zone member states will need to ratify the extension, where necessary through their parliaments.

There will not be specific figures or targets to be achieved tied to the goals, the official said, adding that the two sides had not yet discussed how Greece would be evaluated on the reforms.

EU officials and euro zone ministers said they had no reason to think Greece would not come up with a satisfactory list of measures on Monday night. However, some hawkish countries have insisted that if there are doubts, the Eurogroup would have to reconvene in Brussels.

Structural reforms are inherently difficult to implement. In order to make the difficult task of taking on strong interest groups politically possible, an overwhelming popular mandate is needed. The need for strong public backing becomes even more important during times of high unemployment, when those lucky enough to remain employed are (quite rationally) more afraid of losing their jobs.

According to a recent opinion poll, 68% of Greeks want a “fair compromise” with the EU; even after years of economic suffering, the vast majority of Greeks remain steadfast in their believe in the E.U.. Such support must be seized upon, it will not last forever.

What Greece needs now is a pro-growth, structural reform based bailout plan, not a continuation of its failed blood-from-a-stone internal-devaluation based “recovery”. Reducing it’s primary surplus while collecting greater tax receipts would open up the fiscal space Greece needs to both deal with its humanitarian crisis and create a safety-net for those adversely affected by labor market reforms as the economy readjusts. 

The past 6 years have had a deep psycho-economic effect on the Greek people. With overall unemployment at 26% and youth unemployment at 50%, to go along with a 24% contraction in GDP, the Greek economy has been ravaged. Lack of control over monetary policy (as all members of the Eurozone face) has limited Greece’s policy space, it must be allowed to regain some control over fiscal policy.

Greeks have suffered enough and have learned their lessons–these next four months are an opportunity to prove it. In addition to any external monitoring imposed as part of this deal, the Greek people must prove they can be their own corruption watchdog and can pay their taxes.

Fighting wealthy tax evaders may be a popular political platform and merited on social justice grounds, but in order to pay-down Greek debt without compromising human development, a widespread cultural acceptance towards paying taxes is required. There is no doubt Greece has been too lax in collecting taxes in the past, but this does not need to be an irrevocable problem. Through legislative reform and social accountability, Greece can overcome it’s culture of tax evasion.

Locking in long-term labor market reforms, without driving more people into poverty and exacerbating the “lost generation” of young Greeks, should be the mutual goal between Greece and it’s creditors. In fact, this could be a potential blueprint for other economically depressed European countries to renegotiate their social contracts with the EU. Democratic governance derives its legitimacy from the will of the governed; if peoples basic needs are not met, democratic governance cannot be sustained.

Greece is not in the clear yet. But by finding this acceptable middle ground, the foundations of a sustainable solution for keeping the Eurozone intact may have been laid.

Reversing the Democratic Recession:

Neither side of this debate should have to pretend that keeping the Eurozone unified is an unimportant political, economic, foreign relations and security consideration. Greece staying in the E.U. is important for Greece, Germany, the E.U. and any country with aspirations of democratic governance:

[Stamford University democracy expert] Diamond adds, “perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

If anything, the U.S. has been the poster-child for prosperity through democracy compared to the E.U.. Regardless, twin “democratic recessions” of varying degrees on both sides of the Atlantic have compromised the appeal of democratic governance abroad. Spreading Islamophobia, antisemitism, and xenophobia throughout Europe–side effects of Europe’s failed economic policies–compromise the appeal of Western values and galvanize authoritarian and extremist messages. 

ISIS finds itself at Italy’s back-door geographically in Libya. But ideologically, ISIS could not be further away from European ideals. Ultimately, reversing the democratic recession and countering authoritarian and extremist ideals requires. among other things, proving democracy remains a viable path to widespread freedom and prosperity.

“Western” countries cannot push Greece towards China / Russia for a bailout. We, like Greece, finds ourselves at an inflection point–we must  prove that democracy in a first world country can satisfy peoples basic needs. Failure to do so could lead to a long-term setback in promoting modernization, human rights, and democratic governance in the worlds least developed countries.


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Transparency Report: Debt, Depression, and College Drop-Outs

The graphs in this blog come from a recent report co-authored by the Pell Institute and The University of Pennsylvania:

graduation rates

In addition to the direct (tuition, room and board, cost of living) and “opportunity cost” (foregone wages) of attending college, there is mounting evidence that suggests there is an emotional / psychological cost associated with taking out student loans.

Despite the intense interest in this issue among researchers, this is the first paper that attempts to understand the emotional cost of carrying student loan debt.  This question is, in fact, more fundamental than the others being posed in this genre of research, since it could help to explain the mechanism through which debt may be affecting other outcomes (i.e. emotional health, graduation rates).

Based on their analysis, the authors report, “cumulative student loans were significantly and inversely associated with better psychological functioning.”  In other words, individuals with more student debt reported lower levels of psychological health, when other things are held constant (including occupation, income, education and family wealth).  The effect is statistically significant, but it is quite small.  They also find that “the amount of yearly student loans borrowed was inversely associated with psychological functioning,” which implies that taking on debt is emotionally costly for students.

Unfortunately, this emotional / psychological “cost” seems to be affecting a greater number of incoming college students:

High numbers of students are beginning college having felt depressed and overwhelmed during the previous year, according to an annual survey released on Thursday, reinforcing some experts’ concern about the emotional health of college freshmen.

The survey of more than 150,000 students nationwide, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014,” found that 9.5 percent of respondents had frequently “felt depressed” during the past year, a significant rise over the 6.1 percent reported five years ago. Those who “felt overwhelmed” by schoolwork and other commitments rose to 34.6 percent from 27.1 percent.

Not coincidentally, the frequency and magnitude of student loan debt has increased greatly during this period of increasing student unease and depression, according to data released by the NY Fed:

More U.S. students continued to borrow larger sums for their college education last year, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, while total student loan balances tripled over the last decade.

At 43 million, the number of student borrowers jumped 92 percent from 2004 to 2014, while their average balances climbed 74 percent, according to New York Fed researchers. The average balance was some $27,000.

Obviously correlation does not prove causation. But given the logical link between debt, depression, and dropping-out of school, these trends cannot be purely coincidental–more research on the subject is needed.

“It’s a public health issue,” said Dr. Anthony L. Rostain, a psychiatrist and co-chairman of a University of Pennsylvania task force on students’ emotional health. “We’re expecting more of students: There’s a sense of having to compete in a global economy, and they think they have to be on top of their game all the time. It’s no wonder they feel overwhelmed.”

While I cannot speak personally about the burden of student loan debt, I have experienced depression first hand, and understand how being depressed could make one more likely to drop out of school.

Depression is particularly difficult to battle in a college atmosphere. The pressure to maintain a social life, despite anxiety and financial issues, can reinforce negative feelings associated with depression. The abundance of drugs and alcohol certainly does not help the situation either.

The general pessimism which accompanies depression compromises a person’s ability to clearly assess long term goals, such as completing a degree. Depression also affects ones cognitive abilities, hampering academic outcomes.

I can only imagine the pressure on someone who is both depressed and has student loan debt to consider; some combination of the two surely accounts for more low-income drop-outs than is currently recognized.

I had to take a semester off to get myself back in the proper state of mind to complete my degree; not everyone has this luxury. However, everyone should have the support needed to realize their educational and emotional potential.

Due to my personal experiences and knowledge of economics, I vehemently support President Obama’s proposed Community College plan. Lower income students could learn if pursuing a bachelor’s degree is “for them” without taking out tens of thousands of dollars in loans, likely leading to better emotional, educational, and economic outcomes.

Furthermore, community colleges are more likely to have the the social counseling and financial advising services missing from for-profit universities, which predominantly attract low income students.

collegetypebyincome

The Obama administration is attempting break the vicious cycle of student debt, emotional suffering, and dropping-out of college. Dropping out of college with student loan debt in a competitive global economy is a poverty trap for low income individuals, and has become a drag on economic growth in the macro.

By expanding mental health parity through the ACA, getting treatment for depression is no longer a luxury reserved for the wealthy. If our lawmakers pass a free community college bill, the synergy between these two public policies would go a long way towards bringing equity to America’s higher education system and reinvigorating the American Dream.


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Conflict Watch: The End of Team America World Police (Part 7)

Obama’s Strategic Plan For National Security:

The latest installment of my ongoing series “The End of Team America, World Police” focuses on President Obama’s second and final National Security Strategy (full document can be found here):

“The question is never whether America should lead, but how we should lead,” Mr. Obama writes in an introduction to the document, a report that seems to mix legacy with strategy. In taking on terrorists, he argues that the United States should avoid the deployment of large ground forces like those sent more than a decade ago to Iraq and Afghanistan. In spreading democratic values, he says, America should fight corruption and reach out to young people.

“On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength,” he writes. “But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.”

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

The strategy lists eight top strategic risks to the United States, starting with a catastrophic attack at home but including threats like climate change, disruptions in the energy market and significant problems caused by weak or failing states.

Regardless of your opinion on how effectively the Obama administration has handled foreign affairs, it is hard to argue the United States is not leading from the front on major global issues. Yet it is important that our future leaders recognize, as President Obama has, the limits of both our government’s resources and our ability to sustain democratic revolutions through unilateral military intervention.

In a highly interconnected world, confronting global problems is in America’s economic and security interests (not to mention ethical considerations). This does not mean, however, that we should rush headlong into battle without carefully considering the probability of success and costs of alternative courses of action. There are other tools in America’s foreign policy toolkit–the other components of the D.I.M.E (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) framework–which should be considered before sending our military (and particularly ground troops) to war.

Military interventions are never quick, easy, or cheap. Even when successful, they leave a power void that must be carefully managed, lest that void be filled by ineffective leaders or extremist groups (or, as is often the case, both). When mismanaged, even the most well intended interventions can be counter-productive, fueling anti-Western propaganda and empowering the very ideologies we seek to destroy.

American tax dollars are a precious resource. Every dollar we spend abroad is a dollar we cannot use for nation building at home. The American government is solely responsible for managing America’s domestic affairs, but we have many allies who share the same ideologies and interests as us (and who should therefore more proportionately shoulder the cost of defending them).

A NATO By Any Other Name…:

NATO was established in recognition that global security was part of the “global commons” (and remains even more-so today). This brings us to recent comments on NATO’s future by outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

Hagel, making his final appearance at NATO as U.S. defense chief, said the alliance faced several challenges, including violent extremism on its southern rim, Russian aggression in Ukraine and training security forces in Afghanistan.

“I am very concerned by the suggestion that this alliance can choose to focus on only one of these areas as our top priority,” Hagel told a news conference. “And I worry about the potential for division between our northern and southern allies.”

“The alliance’s ability to meet all these challenges at once, to the east, to the south and out-of-area, is NATO’s charge for the future,” Hagel said.

“This is a time for unity, shared purpose and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability,” he added. “We must address all the challenges to this alliance, all together and all at once.”

Often times, one can speak most candidly when their tenure at a position is coming to an end. Those who oppose the ideals of NATO will not coordinate their attacks one at a time. In fact, knowledge that NATO resources are strained (due to say, simultaneous humanitarian crises, a wear weary American public, or underinvestment in the global security commons by the rest of the international community) is only likely to embolden our enemies. While NATO needs to be able to effectively counter more than one major threat at a time, this does not mean the American army alone needs that capacity.

As the world becomes “smaller”, the exclusively Northern Atlantic nature of NATO should be reconsidered. Two major democracies–India and Japan–are not members of NATO, limiting the groups ability to fulfill its goals. Furthermore, having regional actors involved in security operations helps builds legitimacy, underscoring the strategic importance of greater Indian and Japanese involvement.

President’s Obama and Modi recently met and discussed, among other things, defense cooperation. India must become a major partner in promoting peace and democracy in the Middle-East (particularly in coordinating the fights against the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban) even as it itself modernizes.

More Turkey Please:

An Op-Ed published in the NYT today by two Arab professors teaching at American Universities was very supportive of Turkey’s level of involvement in the Middle East:

There have been sharp disagreements over the 2013 coup in Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for intervention in Syria. Turkey’s critics have called into question its reliability as a NATO ally, including in the fight against the radical Wahhabi group known as the Islamic State.

But much of this concern is misguided. The ongoing crises in the Middle East have only underscored Turkey’s pivotal geostrategic position: It’s no surprise that Pope Francis, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain have visited Ankara in the past few months. And Turkey’s detractors, partly because they do not understand the sources of its new assertiveness, fail to see that its transformation actually serves America’s long-term interests.

The United States has long allowed client states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel to pursue shortsighted goals in the Middle East. This has only brought despotism and strife. Washington’s failure to fully support the democratic government of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt contributed to its collapse, and so to the instability and violence that have occurred there since. And it was President Obama’s cynical abandonment of the Syrian opposition during the first two years of the uprising against Mr. Assad that set the stage for the advent of the Islamic State.

To avoid any more such calamities, policy makers in Washington, and other Western capitals, should abandon their counterproductive approach: They should embrace Turkey’s growing, and positive, engagement in the Middle East.

I could not agree more.

But I do not think America’s leaders are opposed to Turkey asserting itself in the Middle-East. Indeed, as a primarily Muslim democracy and NATO member, it must play a large role in Obama’s plan of relying more heavily on regional partners in curtailing Islamic extremism.

I agree the Obama administration was wrong on Syria and Egypt, I am on the record saying as much. But in this case, two wrongs don’t make a right. Turkey cannot afford to play the moral high ground on these issues while the dogs of war bark at it’s door-step. Furthermore, Erdogan’s delayed and half-hearted support of the Kurdish peshmerga reeks of political calculus, not someone who considers ISIS a serious threat to regional stability.

So I am not exactly sure what these professors are talking about–they appear to be building a straw-man just to knock him down. I think it is pretty clear the Obama administration wants more Turkish involvement, including ground forces, in the fights against Assad and ISIS, not less.

Japan and Germany (Finally) Begin to Shed Their Post-WWII Identities:

Updating a previous blog about Japan and Germany shedding their post-WWII pacifist identities, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing Japan to change it’s pacifist Constitution:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that he wants to start the process of revising Japan’s Constitution as early as next year, a senior lawmaker in his party said Thursday, giving the clearest indication yet that the Japanese leader will seek to change a document that has undergirded the country’s postwar pacifism.

Mr. Abe told Hajime Funada, the leader of a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, on Wednesday that the best time to begin the difficult political task of amending the Constitution would be after elections for the upper house of Parliament, scheduled for the summer of 2016…

The Constitution, which also prohibits Japan from possessing the means of war, was written by American occupiers after World War II to prevent the defeated nation from ever again engaging in militarist expansion. The document proved so popular among Japan’s war-weary people that it has never been amended.

But Mr. Abe has seized on the murders of the Japanese hostages to make some of his strongest appeals yet for unshackling the nation’s military. Saying Japan was unable to save the hostages, he has called for easing restrictions on its purely defensive armed forces to allow them to conduct rescue missions, evacuations and other overseas operations to protect Japanese nationals.

The hostages, Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer, were beheaded a week apart by the Islamic State, a militant group in Syria and Iraq that had demanded a $200 million ransom for their release. The murders outraged and sickened Japan, which had seen itself as largely immune to the sort of violence faced by the United States and other nations that have been involved militarily in the Middle East. Since 1945, Japan has adhered to a peaceful brand of diplomacy that has seen it become a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid to the Middle East and elsewhere.

It remains unclear whether the shock of the killings will swing the Japanese public in favor of Mr. Abe’s harder line. Since the murders, opposition politicians have stepped up attacks on the prime minister, accusing him of provoking the Islamic State by allying Japan more closely with the United States-led efforts to destroy the militant group. Just days before the ransom demand appeared, Mr. Abe pledged $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries in the region confronting the Islamic State.

However, on Thursday, the lower house of Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the killings and calling for increased coordination with the global community to combat terrorism.

Germany to Play a More Active Role in Global Security?:

Germany must ramp up defense spending starting in 2016 to ensure its military is able to take on a bigger role in crisis zones, according to two top lawmakers in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.

Germany spends about 1.3 percent of gross domestic product on the military, short of the 2 percent level pledged informally by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

Merkel’s spokesman has said no additional funding will come in the short term as the government struggles to hold on to its target of balancing the budget next year and with 2015 spending already largely negotiated.

Germany must engage in international missions “earlier, more decisively and more substantially,” Gauck told the Munich Security Conference on Jan. 31.

Fiscal responsibility is usually good, but like anything, overzealous attachment to an ideology can preclude pragmatic policy. Economics is context sensitive, and in the current context, Germany’s dedication to running a balanced budget has left holes in the Eurozone economy and the global security commons.

A large scale increase in German defense spending would bolster global security efforts (particularly in countering Russian aggression in former Soviet Republics), while simultaneously providing a partial answer to Europe’s economic stagnation (by “buying European“).

Please do not confuse my views with war-mongering or advocating for the military-industrial complex, I just recognize that there are bad actors in the world who only understand realpolitik. In order to provide room for the forces of human dignity and freedom to flourish, these bad actors must be marginalized.


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Awareness, Self-Interests, People Power, and The End of Poverty

bmgastes

Inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Visitor Center in Seattle, WA

While finishing up my first business trip in Seattle, WA, I walked by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Due to my studies and interests, I was familiar with the organization’s important work in the related fields of Education, Healthcare, and Poverty Eradication both in the US and abroad. Intrigued, I went in.

While walking around the visitors center, I was struck by something I read. Explaining the origins of the foundation, a plaque stated that Bill and Melinda gates started their mission by providing Internet access to public libraries in America. Then, in the 1990s, Bill and Melinda “learned” of the extreme poverty affecting children around the world (specifically lack of access to medical care), and expanded the scope of their work.

This line took me a while to comprehend. Growing up during the age of globalization and global news coverage, the plight of people in the developing world was something I had always taken as obvious. How could it be that someone, let alone one of the smartest people in the world, would have to “learn” about these injustices later in life?

Then I began to think about what growing up in a hyper-connected world meant. For those who grew-up in previous generations, understanding the plight of people in the developing world required an active and time consuming search for information. Conversely, growing up in generations Y / Z, with globalized news coverage and internet access, not knowing about the existence of extreme poverty requires willful ignorance.

There are many self-interested reasons for wanting to  promote sustainable human development and end poverty, including: stopping violent extremism, stemming the “offshoring” of jobs to lower income countries through economic convergence, and creating new markets for sustainable trade-based growth (the Great Recession was a perfect example of the unsustainability of relying too heavily on financial innovations for growth).

But universal awareness will also play a large role in ending poverty (much like the first step to finding a solution is admitting there is a problem). The “silent majority” of the global community believes in basic rights and human dignity for all. It is in the long run interests of the global community, and resonates with mankind’s central tenets as ethical, social beings. Ultimately, it is this awareness which will galvanize the global effort to end poverty.

The Post 2015 Development Agenda is an important element of the fight to end poverty, as it will help direct trillions of dollars of public and private development resources over the next 15 years. Building on the successes (and learning from the shortcomings) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Post 2015 Development Agenda is being drafted in an inclusive and consultary manner. Incorporating input from the very people it is intended to help, the agenda recognizes the importance of civil / political rights, good governance, multi-sectoral accountability, and self-determination in ending poverty. With human rights and empowering the world’s most vulnerable people at its core, the Post 2015 Development Agenda is poised to make great strides in poverty eradication.

As the world continues to get “smaller” and more interconnected, the costs of environmental degradation, human rights abuses (in relation to terrorism and protracted social conflict / genocide), and economic inequality will more acutely impact not only to the world’s most vulnerable, but also people in first-world countries (who have historically have considered themselves largely immune to such issues).

While it will not be easy, ours is the generation that must make meaningful strides towards ending poverty and promoting sustainable human development in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs). Failure to do so would gravely affect us all, and this (now) common knowledge is (slowly) creating unstoppable momentum towards positive, sustainable change.


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Economic Outlook: Business Tax Reform is a Social Justice Issue

Since President Obama’s SOTU address, the term “middle class economics” has penetrated mainstream political discourse. These were not all new ideas, but rather a catchy phrase to sum up the priorities of the Obama administration and provide direction for the Democratic party going forward.

Of course, in a functioning democracy, broad based growth is not (or should not be) a partisan position. A recent NYT news analysis article highlighted how the G.O.P. has, in recent years, attempted to re-brand itself to be more appealing to low and middle class Americans (i.e. engage in “middle class economics”).

One potential avenue for such re-branding is compromising on a long overdue overhaul of the American tax system (the last major overhaul was in 1986). According to a recent Al Jazeera America poll, a majority of self-proclaimed Democrats (79%) and Republicans (68%) are “somewhat” or “very” willing to have their congressional leaders compromise on taxes.

Fortunately, bipartisan support for tax reform is not limited to the general public. Both the Democratic party and the G.O.P. have powerful voices in the Federal Executive and Legislative branches (respectively) advocating for compromise on tax reform:

G.O.P Stance:

“Though there are disagreements on the details, there is bipartisan support for tax reform in Congress,” said Orrin Hatch, Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, at a conference for tax lawyers, analysts and economists.

“Members of both parties have expressed their support for a tax overhaul. And, I believe there is real momentum to get something done on tax reform this year, if we remain committed. And, believe me, I’m committed,” he said.

The U.S. tax code has not been overhauled thoroughly in 28 years. In that time it has become riddled with loopholes. As a result, tax avoidance is a growing problem.

At the same time, tax experts also generally agree that the system is so complex and often contradictory that compliance costs are excessive and economic productivity is harmed.

Hatch has laid out basic principles for reform. At the conference, he said he has the impression that Democratic President Barack Obama might be willing to do a deal on business tax reform alone, setting aside individual income tax issues.

“We need to lower corporate tax rates and transition toward a territorial tax system,” Hatch said. A territorial system is one that would exempt all or most of the foreign profits of U.S. corporations from the corporate income tax.

Democratic Party Stance:

Let me (Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew) say at the outset that our entire federal tax code needs to be overhauled.  It has been almost 30 years since we last rewrote it, and since then, the tax system has become heavily burdened by loopholes and inefficiencies

I continue to believe that the best way to achieve reform today is to start with pro-growth business tax reform that protects and strengthens the middle class, lowers rates, simplifies the system, levels the playing field, and eliminates unfair and inefficient loopholes.

The fact is, there is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington on how to achieve business tax reform, and we have a unique opportunity now to get this done.

On paper, we have one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world, but in practice, there is a wide disparity in effective corporate tax rates.  Some corporations pay little or no income tax at all, while others pay the highest rate in the developed world.

Moreover, our business tax system is far too complicated — particularly for small businessesOne estimate suggests that a small business, on average, devotes hundreds of hours plus spends thousands of dollars, to comply with the tax code.  We can and must reduce this burden.

Our business tax system actually skews business decisions in ways that make it harder for the economy to grow.  Too many investment decisions are shaped by tax considerations when they should be driven by what will best enhance productivity and growth.  Our tax code should favor the best businesses that create the most economic value — not those that are best at taking advantage of tax deductions.

The international tax system is often looked at in terms of either what is known as a territorial system, in which a company located in a particular country only pays taxes on income earned in that country, or a system like that of the United States, in which that company must pay tax on worldwide income, regardless of the country where it is earned.  The President’s proposal strikes a sensible balance, and would move us towards a more hybrid system.  What that means is we would create a new minimum tax on foreign earnings and make it simpler for a business to bring income back to the United States.  It would also tighten the rules so that companies cannot use accounting techniques to avoid paying taxes, such as shifting profits to low-tax countries (inversions).

Of course, there are tax expenditures that make sense and that need to be protected — like the New Markets Tax Credit, expensing for small businesses, and the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit.  But these tax incentives cost money and need to be paid for to maintain adequate revenue levels.  And we cannot apply a double standard, as some have proposed, where we permanently extend business provisions without paying for them, without permanently extending critical improvements to the EITC, child tax credit, and college credits that help working families at the same time.

Secretary Lew laid out the five pillars of the administration’s proposal for a new business tax system:

1. Lower rates and close wasteful loopholes.
2. Build on the resurgence of manufacturing in the United States.
3. Reform the international tax rules that encourage companies to shift income and investment overseas.
4. Simplify and reduce taxes for small businesses.
5. Fix “our broken tax code and increase investment in a way that maintains current revenues.”

Sounds like both parties want many of the same things.

However, “revenue neutral” business tax reform does not go far enough. Looking at the Federal OMBs Historic Tables (p34-35) tells the story. Since 1934, individual income taxes have consistently made up 40+% of government receipts, while corporate income taxes have varied from as high as 30% to around 10% of receipts in recent years.

True this declining share is partially due to rising Social Security taxes, but since those are split evenly between employers and employees, it is clear that the burden of financing our government has shifted from corporations to people and small businesses. Looking at contributions as a % of GDP (p36-37) further supports this narrative.

These meager contributions by corporations are symptoms of an outdated and unfair tax code, and should not be enshrined in a new one.

Lower tax receipts skew the debate over how to invest in America and her people. Operating from a position of high debt and primary deficit, it is easy to drum up fears that accommodative economic policies will result in rising borrowing costs, ballooning deficits, and [hyper]inflation (despite the fact that America is facing the opposite–historically low borrowing costs, a shrinking deficit, and a very strong dollar).

Implementing business tax reforms would help push America into primary surplus, changing the context of this national debate.

I do not claim to know the exact amount or proper allocation of resources between public goods (education, infrastructure) and welfare programs needed to achieve greater “equality of opportunity” / social mobility. But I can say with confidence that more resources need to go to these causes, as the status-quo has long failed the vast majority of Americans.

The sooner we can have a clear-eyed debate on what policies are needed to promote broad based, sustainable American growth, the better. Holding back this debate, aside from uncompromising politicians, is a failure to overhaul our tax code.

In the interest of balance, work also needs to be done on individual tax reform, to fix high marginal tax rates affecting people who benefit from welfare programs. However, the importance of this issue has been, in my opinion, overblown by those on the political right.

Lastly, the Congressional Budget Office’s use of “dynamic scoring”, as it as been pushed through by the G.O.P. dominated congress (using it for tax proposals but not for spending bills) is another impediment to achieving social justice through tax reform and fiscal policy. 

Van Hollen (D-MD) added that while the bill requires the CBO to run dynamic analyses on major bills, it specifically excludes appropriations bills. He said that exemption shows that Republicans want to downplay how federal spending on education, infrastructure and other areas can also help the economy.

Ryan replied by saying that exemption is there because subjecting all spending bills to dynamic scoring would create significantly more work for the budget office. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) proposed an amendment to include major spending bills, but the House rejected it 182-214.

Ryan’s argument is unfounded and offensive to the talented people employed by the CBO. It is a weak attempt to defend wealthy interests, while downplaying the awesome potential of the American people.

Ideally, this method would be implemented for both tax and spending proposals. If that is not possible, dynamic scoring should not be used at all.


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Transparency Report: The Decline of American Populism Has Been Self-Inflicted

turnout chart

Original Article:

People who feel financially secure vote, people who aren’t secure don’t, according to a Pew Research Center report released this morning. And because financially insecure Americans disproportionately identify with the Democratic Party, Democrats face a structural disadvantage, especially in mid-term elections. In 2014, fully 94% of the most financially secure Americans were registered to vote, compared to only 54% of the least secure; 63% of the most secure were likely voters, versus only 20% of the least secure.

Not surprisingly, financial security is correlated with political knowledge and activism. The most secure Americans are more than twice as likely to know basic facts about the political system, and three times as likely to have contacted an elected official during the past two years.

40% of all Americans think that government does a better job than people give it credit for compared to 56% who believe that it is almost always wasteful and inefficient. Among the least financially secure Americans who would seem to have the most to gain from effective public programs, only 48% adopt the more affirmative stance, while 49% focus on waste and inefficiency. Government’s poor reputation is one of the many obstacles impeding political mobilization along economic lines.

One can only hope that elected officials will focus on this disparity more than they have in recent years. But as the report shows, the people who most need a hand up are those least likely to vote and to make their views known to elected officials. Unless average Americans feel secure enough to afford generosity, leaders who focus on the problems of those at the bottom are likely to reap meager electoral rewards.

People have many excuses for not participating in the political process. The rise of “Super-PACs” / money in politics makes many people feel they have no voice compared to wealthy interests. Gerrymandering can take the “punch” out of an individual’s vote. Whatever the reason, too many people in this country simply feel their vote does not matter, that the “costs” of voting outweigh the benefits (notably this feeling seems to coalesce at the bottom of the economic ladder).

Just 36.4% of eligible voters turned out for the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest level since WWII.  But passive-aggressive resistance (abstaining from voting) is a counter-productive form of protest. Not voting will not make the political system go away, nor will it lead to meaningful changes in the political process. To paraphrase Thomas Picketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century“, everyone should be active participants in the democratic process; the wealthy never fail to promote their interests.

Reducing inequalities requires an active, informed citizenry. To this end, I have identified a few reforms which could have a meaningful impact on voter turnout among the financially insecure (aside from campaign finance reform measures):

1) Make National Election Day a national holiday:

Senator Bernie Sanders (I, VT.) wants to make national election days national holidays. While this is a sentiment I support, and one that should increase overall voter turnout rates, it may not directly address the issue of increasing turnout among the financially insecure.

Most of the poorest people in America are hourly wage earners. Therefore, making election day a federal holiday would not necessarily lead to higher turnout amongst the poor. In fact, since wage earners typically earn “time and a half” for working holidays, making election day a federal holiday could actually create an perverse incentive, keeping hourly wage earners away from the polls.

Perhaps in addition to making election day a national holiday, the government should consider providing businesses with tax credits in exchange for offering hourly wage employees paid leave on election day?

2) Include a political science / economics class as a required part of the high school curriculum:

I understand the federal government generally tries to stay out of educational curriculum issues, which are developed at the state level. But to me, this area seems like it should be an exception to that rule.

A primary goal of schooling is to help children develop into well rounded, successful adults. But regardless of what someone ends up doing for a living, every American citizen has a civic responsibility to be an active, informed voter. We cannot demand every American be a political buff, but we can and should empower every American citizen to make an informed decision at the polls.

Educating young adults about the functions of the different levels (municipal, state, federal) and branches (executive, legislative, judicial) of government, and the basics of economics, economic policy, personal finance, and taxation would go a long way towards producing informed voters.

A bipartisan committee could draft the curriculum, to ensure it is even-handed.

3) Remote Voting via the internet:

Assuming we can ensure security (and I see no reason why we would not be able to), it seems obvious to me that advances in ICTs should translate into greater ease of voting. Voters should be able to register and vote online, ensuring those who are strapped for time–a limited resource regardless of ones level of income / wealth–can vote.

Online voting would require registration based on SSN, allowing one vote per registered voter. Registration would have to take place ahead of time, to provide ample time to verify age, residency, and any other eligibility requirements.

Update: According to PolitifactAt least 20 states currently offer online voter registration for new applicants and a few more are in the works…Experts who study online registration say there have been no reports of actual security breaches or fraud. If designed in a way to account for security, online registration reduces opportunities for fraud and errors.

While this is a promising start, I am advocating for online registration and voting in all 50 states.

Voting is a voluntary activity. In order to increase voter turnout, we have to consider why people do things voluntarily.

Reducing the perceived “opportunity costs” of voting, both foregone wages and the time it takes to vote, is one side of the equation. Convincing people voting is in their best interests by teaching them the basics of political economy (and consequently explaining why the political system may have failed to promote their interest in the past), would increase the perceived benefits of voting.

Perhaps the financially insecure are not as “rational” as I am making them out to be. There is a strong argument that people who live in poverty do not act “rationally” (in the economic sense of long-run “utility” maximization). It may not be enough for voting to be in a financially insecure person’s “best interest”; to increase voter turnout amongst the poor, voting must be made a “no-brainer”.

Politicians come in all shapes, sizes, and ideologies. Some are progressive, some are conservative. Some serve “the people”, while other are beholden to special interests.

One thing that is consistent among all politicians is their desire to be (re)elected. It is the responsibility of voters to make a populist agenda (by whatever name it goes by), a (re)electable platform.


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Conflict Watch: The Syrian Civil War is Deadlier Than Ever

2014 was the deadliest year of the Syrian Civil War–more than 76,000 people died in 2014, including 17,790 civilians (among them 3,501 children) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The injection of ISIL into the hurting stalemate between Assad and Syrian Rebels has further marginalized any peaceful, pluralistic forces that still exist in Syria.

Paradoxically, it seems that the Syrian Civil war has receded from international headlines. Surely the rise of ISIL has diverted both public attention and resources from removing Assad. The absence of a viable alternative to govern Syria has probably also muted calls to remove Assad. It is worth noting that both these phenomenon–the marginalization of the moderate Syrian opposition and the rise of ISIL–are partially the result of Western inaction in Syria.

By itself, lack of media attention is not such a big deal; highlighting the atrocities of war is a means to an end (pressuring parties to conflict and the international community to defend human rights / uphold humanitarian law), not an end itself. But when lack of media attention coincides with inaction by the international community, there is cause for concern:

Western states are focusing too much on tackling Islamic State and are forgetting the daily suffering of ordinary Syrians in areas of the country where the medical situation has become catastrophic, a group of Syrian doctors said.

The situation has been exacerbated since a U.S-led coalition began bombing areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State, which seized swathes of territory in both Syria and Iraq last year.

“Between 30 to 60 people are dying each day since the bombings started,” said Tawfik Shamaa, spokesman for the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a non-governmental association that brings together 14 groups.

“There is only talk of extremism and Islamic State, but not the women and children who are killed, the bodies torn apart, the stomachs blown open, which is what doctors are dealing with each day.”

“There are only 30 doctors of all specialities,” he said adding that people were dying of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, scabies and tuberculosis because there were no treatments or vaccines available.

Talks of “humanitarian corridors“, which less than a year ago received unanimous support from most of the UNSC, have foundered. The introduction of a wildcard “spoiler” group like ISIL have made humanitarian corridors (which we’re difficult enough to negotiate between Assad and rebel forces) logistically impossible in areas under their control.

Support for Syrian refugees has been lacking, as Syria’s neighbors lack the resources and in some cases the desire to handle such a large influx of people.

“The economic, social and human cost of caring for refugees and the internally displaced is being borne mostly by poor communities, those who are least able to afford it.”

Mr. Guterres explained that enhanced international solidarity is a must to avoid the risk of more and more vulnerable people being left without proper support.

Among the report’s main findings are that Syrians, for the first time, have become the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, overtaking Afghans, who had held that position for more than three decades.

As of June 2014, the three million Syrian refugees now account for 23 per cent of all refugees being helped by UNHCR worldwide.

Assad tortures his opponents, he has used chemical weapons, and drops barrel bombs which kill indiscriminately. Diseases which are easily curable or had largely disappeared (polio) claim lives on a daily basis. Compared to ISIL Assad may be the lesser of two evils, but both parties are evils that must be dealt with.

To this end, the U.S. and Turkey are finalizing plans to train moderate Syrian rebels, a condition of Turkey’s in exchange for using its bases to carry out airstrikes against ISIL:

Turkey and the United States aim to finalize an agreement on equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels this month, a senior foreign ministry official said on Monday, part of the U.S.-led campaign to battle Islamic State militants.

The training is expected to start in March, simultaneously with similar programs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the Turkish official said. The aim is to train 15,000 Syrian rebels over three years.

Turkey has by no means been a perfect partner in the fights against Assad and ISIL. Turkey has dragged its feet in the battle against ISIL, fearful that it will empower rival Kurdish factions in the region. But in this case Turkey is right–the rise of ISIL must not detract from the goal of removing Assad from power.

As a regional power and member of NATO, I would like to see Turkey lend use of its air bases, help in training efforts, and contribute ground troops in the fights against Assad and ISIL–I will not hold my breath.

A recent United Nations report found that Syria has lost more than three decades in human development in just three-year old civil war:

The report released by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) shows that almost 45 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared to 12 per cent prior to the war.

The unemployment rate has also drastically increased, from eight to almost 50 per cent.

Abdalla Dardari, a senior economist at ESCWA, says that before the war, Syria was one of the few Arab countries which had surpassed all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, he says Syria is only more advanced in reaching the goals than Somalia.

The report predicts that if the crisis continues until 2015, 90 per cent of Syrians will be considered as poor.

Unfortunately, the ravages of war will not end when the fighting eventually stops. Many Syrian children are dealing with psychological trauma and a lack of schooling which will greatly inhibit their future earning potential. Others are being indoctrinated by ISIL, learning to hate “the West” instead of learning the skills needed to compete in a modern, globalized world.

The road to rebuilding Syria into a modern society will be a long, expensive one. It requires an immediate influx of resources from the international community to support refugees and their host countries, deliver aid to internally displaced peoples (whenever possible), and build the capacity of the moderate Syrian opposition.

The groundwork for slipping back into conflict will exist as soon as the civil war ends. It will require unprecedented political will, a dedication to pluralism and accountable governance, and support from the international community to rebuild a modern, peaceful Syria.

But in order for a future Syrian government to even have a chance to attempt this difficult feat, both Assad and ISIL must be defeated.

 


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Transparency Report: Reconciling The Micro and Macro Narratives on Police Reform

http://thespeaker.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ScreenHunter_1801-Dec.-08-17.59.jpg

http://thespeaker.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/ScreenHunter_1802-Dec.-08-17.59.jpg

Original article:

Statistically, New York police shoot more often at blacks than at whites–by about 700 percent. But, statistically blacks are armed and shoot at police more often than whites–by over 700 percent, according to national statistics and the NYPD’s annual firearms discharge report.

Recently, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani commented on the recent police shooting deaths in New York and referenced the statistic that, “Ninety-three percent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks. We’re talking about the exception here.”

In the past 15 years, NYPD shootings have resulted in 179 deaths. In other words, 179 people were killed by police while on duty out of 75 million calls.

“Again statistically speaking this is not a significant number,” commented [John Jay Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Maria Maki] Haberfeld, “given the fact that many of these shootings were justified because the people who were shot were armed and dangerous.”

Statistically. the main killer of blacks when it comes to violent deaths is other blacks. US-wide, around 8,000 blacks were killed every year between 1976 and 2011, and 94 percent of those were killed by other blacks. Of those 8,000 around 2.8 percent were killed by police.

“The overwhelming majority of black victims are killed by black perpetrators and NOT the police,” noted Haberfeld.

Haberfeld stated that she did not feel that numbers would provide the whole picture, however.

“In general, I believe that police work cannot be simply understood by the analysis of sheer numbers.”

I think this is an instance of two sides shouting past each other, instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue. I cannot say I am surprised, not only is criminal justice reform is an emotional issue, talking past your opponent has become the norm in modern public discourse.

Most officers do the right thing–they are hard working, fair, and just. But those who are not tarnish the badge, undermine efforts to build trust between police and society, and ultimately make an inherently dangerous job even more dangerous–they must be held accountable.

When Dr. Haberfeld callously appeals to the “statistical insignificance” of NYPD shootings, she is missing her own point. “Police work cannot be simply understood by the analysis of sheer numbers”, and neither can police homicide rates–these numbers represent peoples lives.

If even one innocent person is killed by someone whose job description is “to serve and protect”, and that person walks away with impunity, this should be unacceptable to anybody who believes in the notions of justice and rule of law.

I believe most people simply want officers held to the same standards as the law abiding citizens they serve, particularly when it comes to violent crimes. When a police officer commits a violent crime, it would be in everyone’s best interest (except the officer who committed the crime) for that officer to be held accountable. As I said in my last post, officers should not be above or below the law, but equal to ordinary people.

However, by definition society holds all people to a higher standard than violent criminals, and police officers should be no exception. When Rudy Giuliani says something to the effect of “what about all the black on black crime?”, he is making a false equivalence. We do not have to choose between reducing minority crime rates and reforming the criminal justice system (in fact, these issues are often closely related)–it is not an either / or situation.

Yes most homicides of black men are “black on black”. It is not that NYC or America is not addressing the socioeconomic and cultural underpinnings of minority crime. It is that these issues are multifaceted, affected both by policies at different levels of government and by people who are often at odds about how to achieve progress (not to mention spoilers who purposefully undermine progressive policy in order to maintain the status-quo for personal benefit).

It is simply much easier to enact change in the criminal justice system than throughout society as a whole. The former is comprised of a number of small, organized institutions that must adhere to changes mandated by overseeing bodies, while the latter numbers in the hundreds of millions and is as variable as free will itself.

Two reforms, special prosecutors for grand jury proceedings police officers, and lapel cameras, could lead to meaningful improvements in the criminal justice system with marginal investments. Lapel cameras would vindicate the use of necessary force, while providing an important piece of evidence for holding “bad” cops accountable (just because the Eric Garner video did not lead to an indictment does not mean lapel cameras are not an important piece of the criminal justice reform puzzle).

Reconciliation begins with the extension of an olive branch. It is up to police departments to extend this olive branch by deliberating in good faith with community leaders about how to build trust between officers and the communities they serve. The first move falls on police departments, because they are more organized and disciplined than their opposition.

Once this branch (or branches, as it must happen around the country at the municipal level) is extended, it is up to community leaders to rise to the occasion, and take the risk of pursuing reasonable reform rather than making absurd demands / publicly demonizing police officers (and vice-versa).

There is enough blame to go around for the criminal justice reform movement to grind to a halt, resulting in a status-quo that is increasingly dangerous for both police officers and the minority communities they serve.

There is also a vast swath of middle ground between police departments and community leaders–if only we can learn to deliberate instead of shouting past one another. 


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RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

New York City lost two hero’s yesterday. Officers Ramos and Liu were murdered execution style by a mad gunman, whose name I care not to learn. Both of these men are survived by their families, who after mourning must try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I have no doubt that the city of New York will make sure these families are given all the support they need.

After these cold-blooded murders, the gunman took his own life; there will be no trial, no answers. Unsurprisingly, this coward took the cowards way out.

It is natural in times like these to look for scapegoats. I have heard people calling for Mayor De Blasio to step down. I have heard people placing blame on Al Sharpton (a man who I take little pleasure in defending). The “other side” of the argument could place blame on the Staten Island Grand jury which failed to indict Officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

There should not be “sides” to this conflict. Nobody benefits when an innocent person, a police officer or civilian, dies. I often hear people speak of Officers or Army vets as if they should be above the law because of their contributions to society (I am thinking of an often shared video of an army vet saying “my right trumps your dead” in response to the passing of the NY SAFE Act). People volunteer for these jobs, they receive pay and benefits, and are revered as hero’s by the vast majority of society–these are the benefits.

Being considered above the law, or “better” than those you serve and protect, is not part of the job description. No one American’s rights are greater than another, regardless of your sacrifices. Anybody who believes otherwise has a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles which guide this great nation.

Having said that, all rights have limitations. The first amendment, which protects the rights of protestors, is no exception. Free speech cannot come at the expense of public safety–you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, and you should not be able to march down the streets of NYC chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops“. I have no reservations in saying these chants galvanized the murderer of officers Ramos and Liu.

If any third party should shoulder some blame in these senseless murders, it is people who participated in this chant. That “protest” was a bastardization of both first amendment rights generally, and the peaceful social-justice based protest in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown specifically.

Back to my original point on scapegoating; all this finger pointing, while understandable, is destructive. It trivializes the role of the actual culprit–the man who pulled the trigger.

After senseless tragedies like this, the best way forward, in my opinion, is to figure out how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. It has become quite clear that treating social media postings as serious threats could help achieve this goal.

While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from some of the most infamous killings in recent American history: Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, UC Santa Barbara and now the murders of NYPD Officers Ramos and Liu. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need.

Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube. The NYPD cop killer made instragram posts making his intentions publicly known.

We have to ask ourselves, at what point does protecting a persons freedom of expression infringe upon the ability to protect another persons right to life? As an economist, I am constantly looking for “perfect information” to make the best decisions. While we will never have “perfect information”, is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable and readily available source of information in social media posts?

Perhaps police departments could employ social media specialist to identify potential threats without compromising a departments ability to fulfill traditional police duties?

Would monitoring social media produce false positives? Yes. But even so, anybody who threatens to harm someone on social media–whether they intend to make good on that threat or not–is probably in need of mental healthcare (or at very least needs to be made aware how serious their threat was).

Furthermore, by setting the precedent that social media postings are serious threats that can lead to incarceration / institutionalization, we would increase the perceived “cost” of making such threats. This would deter people from making empty threats / “venting”, leaving (for the most part) only serious threats that actually need to be acted on.

The law often lags behind technological advance. Are we, as a country, ready to police social media? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a debate worth having.

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