Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: In the Push for Liberal Democracy in the Middle East, Time May be the Greatest Enemy

Well that might be a bit of an overstatement, but the passage of time continues to undermine the goals of the “Arab Spring”. Protracted Social Conflict theory identifies “grievances” or human rights abuses, as the root cause of social conflicts. Paul Collier takes the theory one step further, arguing that over time legitimate grievances are hijacked by opportunistic forces seeking wealth and/or power.

These theories have almost perfectly explained what has transpired over the past 2+ years in both Syria and Egypt:

Syria:

In Syria, peaceful protests for basic freedoms and liberal democracy (starting in March 2011) were met with violence from the Assad regime, sparking a civil-war. Over time, legitimate grievances were hijacked by opportunistic Islamic extremists who wish to setup an Islamic Syrian state.

Even internationally recognized factions of the Syrian opposition have become fractured. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the political arm of the Syrian opposition, has agreed to attend the “Geneva 2” peace talks, while the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the military arm of the Syrian opposition has refused to attend.

All the while, the moderate opposition has become increasingly marginalized and disillusioned:

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.” 

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

The fracturing of the opposition has played into Assad hands (the regime still enjoys political and military unity). Assad’s narrative of fighting “terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy; as Western aid has lagged, the opposition has become increasingly unorganized and radicalized. Moderate Syrians who favor liberal democracy represent a decreasing proportion of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian humanitarian crisis has become an after-though of the violent civil war.

Egypt:

The Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011 with protests which toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Who you believe “hijacked” the Egyptian revolution depends on your take of what transpired this past July. Was the military takeover a coup or did it represent the will of the people? Are these two answers mutually exclusive, or is there some middle ground in which both arguments have merit? The world many never come to consensus answers to these loaded questions.

One thing, however, is certain; as in Syria, Egyptian moderates who revolted for liberal democracy have become increasingly marginalized. The power players in Egypt are Islamic extremists (who have become more violent since the ouster of Morsi) and Mubarak-era loyalists:

A leading Egyptian social democrat fears the elite that thrived under former President Hosni Mubarak will once again dominate politics in elections promised by the army after it overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

The 2011 popular revolt against Mubarak raised hopes for an end to decades of corruption and nepotism, but political turmoil since then has dimmed aspirations for genuine democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which came out on top in every national vote in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, may yet be allowed to contest next year’s parliamentary election via its Freedom and Justice Party, or by running candidates as individuals.

But even if the Brotherhood chose to take part, its electoral dominance might be over in a reshaped political landscape, where both state and private media condemn it as a terrorist organization – and lionise the police and military.

Liberals have failed to build popular new parties and look ill-placed to exploit the Brotherhood’s plight. This could allow a comeback by the “felool”, or Mubarak-era remnants.

“The terrorist attacks going on make the situation more difficult,” Abul Ghar [Liberal Activist] said, adding that the violence made it easy for any government to take anti-democratic actions.

These anti-democratic actions include a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, restrictions on protests, as well as further entrenching the Egyptian army’s role in politics (which is enshrined in a draft of Egypt’s new constitution).

Both of these situations are eerily similar. In both cases, revolution started as a legitimate push for rights, freedoms, and liberal democracy. In both cases, the party in power (the Assad regime in Syria, the “deep state” in Egypt) have claimed the opposition are “terrorists” (and used this claim as a justification to strengthen their grip on power in the name of security). In both cases, these claims have become self-fulfilling; over time, those favoring liberal democracy have become marginalized as those who seek power dominate the fight over the future of their respective countries.

The implications for global governance are clear. In the future, we cannot afford to allow the combination of the passage of time and power-grabs to marginalize those who seek basic human rights and a dignified life. We must instead–as a global community–muster the political will and economic / military resources to support legitimate factions before it is too late.

Failure to do so entrenches the wrong ideas–that the international community cares more power-politics/national sovereignty than about people/human rights (concerns the R2P was supposed to address), and that democracy simply cannot work in certain regions of the world.    

Hopefully it is not to late to achieve the goals of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria, although admittedly I see no end in sight to these particular conflicts. Going forward, we must do all we can to prevent similar situations from arising in the first place.

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Happy Thanksgiving From Normative Narratives

These words continue to ring truer and truer with each passing day.

Happy Thanksgiving! While considering what you are thankful for–friends, family, and freedoms–remember those less fortunate not only at home but also abroad. People whose friends and family die from easily preventable diseases, starvation, murder and armed conflict. People who fight and die for the rights and freedoms we largely take for granted.

As the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the World, the United States has an obligation to lead by example, upholding the principles of human rights, sustainable human development, and effective liberal democracy. For the thought leaders and social entrepreneurs, take up your cause with conviction and passion–do not take no for an answer. For those who are fortunate enough, donate to a deserving cause. For those who do not have money to donate, volunteer your time.

There is one thing anybody can do to make the world a better place–act altruistically. Change starts with the individual; if nothing else care about those less fortunate, and act in accordance with that belief. With perseverance and patience, what once was considered radically liberal becomes the new norm.

In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

Again, happy Thanksgiving!

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Economic Outlook: Quantitative and Qualitative Differences in Entitlement and Defense Expenditure

There has been lots of talk in recent years about deficit reduction in America. The focus of this post is not to call into question the need for deficit reduction, or to talk about the tax reform side of deficit reduction. This post focuses on where we can most responsibly cut government spending, specifically comparing entitlement and defense spending.

Quantitative Issues:

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gave a speech about foreign policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute Nov. 20. After his speech, a Floridian in the audience asked him a question about how to convince Americans to support consistent defense spending.

“The reason we have a national debt is not because of defense spending. What is driving our long-term debt are Medicare and Social Security programs that are structured in unsustainable ways.”

Rubio didn’t quantify the role of defense in our national debt or specify a timeframe, he simply said that debt isn’t due to defense spending.

But it’s a bit too simplistic to let defense spending entirely off the debt hook.

It is incorrect to say our current debt has nothing to do with defense spending, because we spend a lot of money on national defense every year, and we have large deficits — therefore defense spending is one of the causes of our debt increase,” said Josh Gordon of the centrist Concord Coalition.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that spending as a percentage of gross domestic product for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security will grow much faster than defense. Defense spending will also grow, but at a far slower rate.

By 2023,the share of total spending by the entitlements will be much more than defense, and thus increasingly the entitlements are more drivers of deficits and debt than defense,” Edwards said. While entitlements are more of a problem, “defense and other areas of spending are problems as well.”

Dean Baker, a liberal economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argued that Social Security can’t drive the debt.

“Under the law it can only pay benefits insofar as it has money in the trust fund,” he said. “This means that it cannot possibly spend more than was collected in Social Security taxes.”

(We should note that the questions around the Social Security trust fund are particularly complex. Earlier this year, we rated a claim that the Social Security trust fund is “sound” as Half True.)

So what’s the solution to reducing our debt?

“Reversing the upward trajectory of the debt will require taking a look at ways to control health costs and reform Social Security,” said Jason Peuquet at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “But that doesn’t mean other savings can’t play a vital role. Reforming the tax code to raise more revenue and reducing other spending will be vital elements in actually getting the debt under control.”

Qualitative Issues:

For two decades, the U.S. military has been unable to submit to an audit, flouting federal law and concealing waste and fraud totaling billions of dollars.

The Defense Department’s 2012 budget totaled $565.8 billion, more than the annual defense budgets of the 10 next largest military spenders combined, including Russia and China. How much of that money is spent as intended is impossible to determine.

The consequences aren’t only financial; bad bookkeeping can affect the nation’s defense. In one example of many, the Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies between 2003 and 2011 as it shuffled equipment between reserve and regular units. Affected units “may experience equipment shortages that could hinder their ability to train soldiers and respond to emergencies,” the Pentagon inspector general said in a September 2012 report.

Because of its persistent inability to tally its accounts, the Pentagon is the only federal agency that has not complied with a law that requires annual audits of all government departments. That means that the $8.5 trillion in taxpayer money doled out by Congress to the Pentagon since 1996, the first year it was supposed to be audited, has never been accounted for.

“The Pentagon can’t manage what it can’t measure, and Congress can’t effectively perform its constitutional oversight role if it doesn’t know how the Pentagon is spending taxpayer dollars,” Coburn said in an email response to questions. “Until the Pentagon produces a viable financial audit, it won’t be able to effectively prioritize its spending, and it will continue to violate the Constitution and put our national security at risk.”

No competent economist can, in good faith, argue that we do not need entitlement reform in the long run. However, entitlement spending occurs in the context of increasing inequality, decreasing social mobility, and a divergence of wages from productivity. Furthermore, Social Security has been wildly successful when compared to private retirement plans (which are subject to financial market volatility), prompting politicians and economists such as Paul Krugman to advocate for Social Security expansion.

In terms of counter-factual analysis, one could argue that many of the problems mentioned above would be much worse if opponents to the safety-net had their way. So called “automatic stabilizers” have greatly reduced poverty and human suffering in the wake of the Great Recession. The edict of “expansionary austerity” has failed miserably in Europe. As Keynes theorized, government spending plays a vital role in making up for the aggregate demand shortfall in a recessed economy.  Stimulus spending is important both for the people receiving it as well as for the economy as a whole. As important a goal as entitlement reform is in the long run, it is equally irresponsible to demand it occurs NOW NOW NOW! In the short run we do not need austerity, we need stimulus spending.

Defense expenditure is another story–it takes place largely in the context of a lack of a direct threat to American national security. Al-Qaeda has been able to successfully attack us once, although in fairness a critic could certainly invoke the same counter-factual analysis I mentioned before to explain this. However, Americas military overreach also fuels resentment abroad, with a questionable net effect on our national security. Defense spending also takes place in an unaccountable fashion, as highlighted by the comprehensive Reuters report. You may not agree with safety net spending in principle, but at least the money is accounted for.

America can reduce it’s military expenditure without compromising global security, by re-balancing spending vis-a-vis our allies (a topic I have gone into in depth here at NN in a series called “The End of Team America World Police“). There is no such re-balancing when it comes to American entitlement spending–it is a responsibility that is ours alone to bare.

Not every dollar of government spending is equal–a reason why indiscriminate spending cuts such as the sequester are such a bad idea. America’s defense budget would be bloated even if every dollar was accounted for; in the context of the social issues facing present day America and unaccountable defense spending, it is unconscionable.


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Transparency Report: An Olive Branch Israel is Obligated to Extend

A Palestinian emergency worker holds a boy on a street flooded by sewage water.
(Thanks to Wissam Nassar, NYT)

 

Israel-Palestine peace talks resumed this past July at the behest of Secretary of State John Kerry. These talks have, until this point, failed to yield meaningful results:

A high-level Palestinian source told Al-Monitor that not even one agreement had been achieved in the discussions so far, not even regarding marginal topics that were not defined as core issues. According to the source, not only has there been no progress, but there has been regression: Israel’s announcements about continued construction in the territories caused the Palestinian public to direct harsh criticism against its representatives in the talks, causing them (the negotiators) to harden their positions around the discussion tables. The highly placed source said that when the Palestinian team complained about this to Tzipi Livni, head of the Israeli team, she expressed her understanding of their perspective, but argued that this [the construction] reflected the Israeli political reality and, nonetheless, a way must be found to make progress.

When the talks were renewed, representatives in the prime minister’s environs promised “surprises” and explained that he is ready to make a dramatic diplomatic decision that would avert Israel’s isolation. Netanyahu agreed to release prisoners with blood on their hands, and his associates said that he was willing to discuss all the issues on the table, including Jerusalem’s status and delineation of the borders of the future Palestinian state. The prisoners were, indeed, released but soon afterward provocative statements were released about building in the territories. The negotiators had not managed to touch upon even one critical issue before the negotiations exploded. Simultaneously, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett embarked on a media campaign in the United States where he argued that Israel was not an occupying nation because the entire land of Israel belonged to it.

In protracted conflicts such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is often a deep level of distrust and dislike between the two sides. Marginal steps like releasing Palestinian prisoners cannot realistically be expected to change public opinion. However, circumstances in the Gaza Strip have created an opportunity for the Israeli government to swing public favor in it’s direction, while also living up to its international human rights obligations:

Raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days, threatening a health disaster, after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood.

“Any day that passes without a solution has disastrous effects,” Farid Ashour, director of sanitation at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said Tuesday in an interview. “We haven’t faced a situation as dangerous as this time.”

“You’re asking me why? Ask the world why instead,” Mayor Rafiq Mekki of Gaza City said as he toured sewage-filled streets around the flooded Zeitoun pumping station. “We are under siege, and ask the world which besieges us this question. We called on all international organizations to intervene, but no one cares so far.”

“I blame Israel, the Ramallah government and Hamas for the crisis,” said Mr. Khouli, [a Palestinian baker] referring to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. “They should work together and find a solution for this because it’s the people who are paying the price.” 

“Every day, we call the electricity company and they say, ‘It’s not our responsibility,’ ” complained Thabet Khatab, 56, a grocer, who was busy piling dirt in front of his house to prevent sewage from seeping inside a second time. “We call the municipality, but they say, ‘Bring diesel for us so we can run the generator in the pumping station.’ ”

Amnesty International succinctly explains why Israel is responsible for upholding human rights in Gaza:

Israel maintains effective control over Gaza, controlling all but one of the crossings into the Gaza Strip, the airspace, territorial waters, telecommunications and the population registry which determines who is allowed to leave or enter Gaza. Therefore, Israel is still considered the occupying power and is responsible for the welfare of the inhabitants in the strip under international humanitarian law.

Palestinians in Gaza faces their worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. The Palestinian National Authority lacks the capacity to remedy the problems facing it’s citizens. Inaction fuels public resentment towards the international community in general and Israel specifically. An opportunity has presented itself for Israel to come to the rescue in a time of dire need, while also upholding its obligations under international human rights law.

It would be hard even for the staunchest pessimist / cynic to argue that Israeli humanitarian aid would not improve public perception of the Israeli government, both in Palestine and abroad (where Israel has received much criticism of late due to controversial housing development plans in disputed territory). Palestinians are people just like anyone else, they will not forget who came to their aid in their darkest hour. 

I am Jewish, but I am not observant. However, one aspect of Judaism I have always identified with is the concept of Tzedakah (charity). The Israeli government–in the spirit of Tzedakah, in compliance with international human rights law, and in hopes of reinvigorating stalled peace talks–should come to the aid of Palestinians in Gaza.


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Green News: Access to Energy, Poverty Reduction, and a Reason to be Optimistic About Renewable Energy Use in the Developing World

The image shows projections for COemissions and global temperature changes based on different scenarios. Since we cannot know the future of environmental policies, technological advances, or economic growth, projections based on are the best way to hypothesize about these issues. One thing should become apparent after viewing these graphs–while the future is yet undetermined, failure to take action will have dire consequences.

Economic development is an essential component of poverty reduction in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs). However, economic development /poverty reduction are impossible without increased access to energy. Looking at the UN’s “My World 2015” survey, most of the 16 variables “for a better future” rely, to varying degrees, on energy access.

Original article:

In a speech on Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Godfrey G. Gomwe, chairman of the World Coal Association’s energy and climate committee, responded in a speech that, with “1.3 billion people in the world who live without access to electricity,” the questions of climate change and poverty reduction could not be separated.

“A life lived without access to modern energy is a life lived in poverty,” said Mr. Gomwe, who is also chief executive of the mining company Anglo American’s thermal coal business. “As much as some may wish it, coal is not going away.”

Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, said at a news conference in Warsaw that the world’s reliance on coal is “not going to change overnight.” But, “high efficiency coal is certainly better than low efficiency coal,” he added, noting that carbon capture and storage technology was “the most important hope” for coal’s future.

Does this mean that the goals of (extreme) poverty reduction and environmental sustainability are incomparable? No, international efforts for poverty reduction have taken place in the context of “Sustainable Development“. While coal will not “go away”, the chief executive of a coal business is hardly an unbiased agent–he is likely to overstate coals importance in the global energy portfolio. In order to reconcile these two goals, LDCs must meet growing energy demands primarily with zero / low emissions renewable energy sources.

I, for one, am optimistic that LDCs will pursue sustainable development. This is not blind optimism, it is based on political and economic realities.

In the U.S., renewable energy industries face the impediment of strong, established “traditional” energy industries (such as coal power). These industries have billion dollar profit margins and employ large numbers of people. Furthermore, infrastructure or “energy grids” already exist which may not be able to distribute renewable energy, representing large “sunk costs” to switching to renewable energy. In sum, these factors lead to strong local level support and national lobbying efforts for traditional electric. The benefits of renewable energy are realized in the future, while the costs (higher energy prices) and resistance from special interests occur in the present.

In LDCs, where many people are “off the grid”, these “incumbency” obstacles do not exist. In LDCs, people rely primarily on the agrarian economy, and are therefore more likely to support environmentally sustainable energy sources. Furthermore, “off-the-grid-renewable energy” represents a way of bypassing the large fixed costs associated with building traditional energy grids–something that is extremely important in the context of the world’s poorest countries:

Sub-Saharan Africa is also seen as a promising context for renewables. An analogy with the region’s adoption of mobile phones suggests sub-Saharan Africa could dispense with polluting, grid-connected power plants – just as it skipped landline telephones — and move straight into distributed generation from renewables.

Yet a note of caution enters any forecast for any region that so consistently outwits the sharpest analysts. Bhattacharyya tallies up several points for optimism but, while sharing Cohen’s enthusiasm, expresses doubt about the scale of development.

‘The market-driven approach’ has started to ‘flourish’ in areas such as Kenya, he says. He also sees grounds for optimism in how global attention on the lack of access to clean energies by agencies such as the UN, IEA and World Bank has also raised local recognition and awareness of the issue.

In ‘an optimistic case’ he forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa could add a few gigawatts through off-grid technologies, bringing electricity to millions of its people.

‘There is surely huge potential for off-grid options but it is difficult to tell how much is really likely to materialise,’ he says.

The issue with financing renewable energy projects was supposed to be addressed by the UN Green Climate Fund; developed countries promised $100 billion a year to the developed world by 2020 to help cope with and reverse climate change. Issues over “common but differentiated responsibilities“, as well as austerity measures in response to the Great recession, call the availability of these resources into question.

One potential means of making up this funding gap is through a so-called “feed in tariff“:

The report by the World Future Council says providing feed-in tariffs for developing countries so that they can finance setting up large-scale renewable systems and feed electricity to their grids is the best way forward for the fund.

Feed-in tariffs provide the owners of small or large-scale wind and solar arrays with a guaranteed price for electricity over 20 years, so the investor is certain to get a return on their capital. The scheme has worked in developed countries like Germany and Italy to rapidly boost renewable output.

An added problem in developing countries is making sure that the national or local grid can take up and use the electricity generated. Some developed countries have already had difficulties with this, so sorting out the grid must be part of any financing package, the report says.

The report envisages 100 gigawatts of electricity being funded in this way by 2020 – the equivalent of the output of 100 large-scale coal-fired power plants. This would cost 1.3 billion euros a year to fund, sustained over two decades. 

Feed-in tariffs require energy grids to feed-into, and for that reason are not a viable option for the most impoverished / remote areas in the world which do not currently have traditional energy grids. For areas in the developing countries with traditional grids, this is a viable solution. For other areas, financing for off-the-grid renewable energy must be made available. The ability to reconcile economic development, environmental sustainability, and poverty reduction–sustainable development–depends on it.

Update: Alternatively, perhaps off the grid renewable energy can be stored in batteries and sold as part of a feed-in tariff. I know advances are being made in large scale renewable storage in large batteries, I wonder if there is a way to make this work on a small scale as well. Just a though…


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Green News: Walmart, Wages, Emissions, and Personal Accountability in a Democracy

Original Article:

Walmart is one of the biggest and fastest-growing polluters in the nation, despite the company’s 2005 pledge to become an environmental leader, according to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

The retail giant emits 45 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), slightly more than Target, at 42 million metric tons, and significantly more than Costco, at 16 million metric tons, according to the report.

“The scale of Walmart’s energy efficiency and renewable power measures is not up to the scale of their business or their growth,” Stacy Mitchell, the author of the report, told Al Jazeera. “They been placing solar powers on the rooftops and getting some wind power and so on, but Walmart only derives 4 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources.”

“This is a business model that is built on these far-flung distributors and goods that are trucked all over the country [and shipped all over the world],” Mitchell said. “There are fundamental aspects of Walmart’s business model that are at odds with sustainability.”

Walmart spokesperson Christopher Schraeder told Al Jazeera that the company is “working hard every day to find solutions to the most pressing sustainability issues,” and that has “ambitious sustainability goals to improve our operations, increase fleet efficiency, source locally and sell more sustainable products.

Mitchell acknowledged that significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’

But with Congress more divided than ever, that’s not likely to happen soon, especially when companies use their financial resources and lobby members of Congress to block environmental protection measures.

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy. In the 2012 elections, 70 percent of donations went to people who supported the Keystone XL pipeline

Walmart has gotten a bad rap over a number of issues, and in the past I have been critical of Walmart’s business model as well. But I was still fair in my analysis back then; the two main issues Walmart receives flack for–employee compensation and emissions–need to be addressed by government policy:

 

1) Employee Compensation: This is as clear cut an example of policy failure there can be. Walmart, by paying its sales associates an average of $8.81 cents / hr, is not breaking any laws. This comes out to a yearly income of a little over $15,000, placing a large burden on the social safety net:

On the flip side of this, it costs the nation an estimated $1 billion a year in social safety net use. Essentially, the U.S. taxpayer is subsidizing Walmart’s  low wages, which systematically produce full-time workers living below the poverty line.

It should raise a red flag that the same ideology opposed to safety net policies also tends to be against higher minimum wage legislation as well. It used to be that if you worked hard you could live a comfortable middle-class life and have enough to invest in a better future for your children. With the current minimum wage, the American Dream is no longer a reality for a large number of hard working but less-skilled Americans.

The plan to increase the federal minimum wage to $10/hr  (and thereafter tying it to a cost of living metric such as the CPI) beginning in 2014 (I believe the plan is to phase it in over three years) is a good start. This could also have the effect of pushing up non-minimum wage compensation as well, as employers looking for more skilled labor will have to compete with higher minimum wage employers. Such changes are all the more important in the context of rising inequality and falling median incomes (which are at their lowest level since 1995).

2) Emissions: 

As the report states, “significant change in emissions will have to come through legislation, not just from companies becoming more ‘green.’”. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nice idea, but it only changes things at the margin. As with employee compensation, the real driver of change must come from carbon tax / cap-and-trade legislation. With proper legislation in place, CSR gives way to more enforceable corporate accountability.

Another important element of environmental sustainability should come from tax incentives for using local producers. This legislation would be less politically contentious than carbon taxation, but would have a huge impact on emissions. According to the ILSR report, Walmart’s carbon emissions disclosure does not include emissions from international shipping. However, this is a large component of Walmart’s competitive advantage, finding the lowest cost producers, which are always in developing countries due to lower labor costs. Since there is no taxation on emissions, as long as the price of production + transporting from the developing world is lower than the price of producing domestically, retailers such as Walmart have little incentive to choose the later.

By evening the playing field through tax incentives, the benefits would be twofold: 1) stimulating the U.S. economy through more local production and 2) lower emissions due to less transportation from production site to the store. These tax incentives could be paired with carbon tax / cap-and-trade revenue (to fulfill the revenue-neutrality legislative condition the G.O.P. lives by), further tilting the playing field towards lower emission  American production.

Walmart’s own CSR initiatives have led to an increase in American production, appropriate legislation can (literally and figuratively) bring these changes home.

I would like to take this opportunity to also highlight an example of the political economy definition of a “collective action problem”:

Through the Walmart Stores Inc. PAC for Responsible Government, Walmart has given more than $22 million to politicians who are opposed to legislation that would regulate emissions and promote climate change.

In the 2008 elections, 80 percent of Walmart’s senate campaign contributions went to people who blocked the “cap-and-trade” bill, which would have reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emmissions across the U.S. economy.

A collective action problems occurs when a large group of people would be better off with a change, but that change does not occur because the gains to each individual in that large group are small, while the losses imposed by the change on a small group are large. In this case, the American public would be better off with regulations on GHG emissions, but these improvements in environmental quality are hard to quantify and will occur only in the future. In contrast, the cost to the small group (Walmart) is large and immediate–having to pay for emissions. Therefore, it is rational for Walmart to use it’s resources ($22 million in this case) to lobby against these changes.

But there is strength in numbers and in public opinion, particularly in a democracy. While civil society may not be able to raise money to counter Walmart’s lobby, it need not do so to overcome the collective action problem. This comes down to an issue of social accountability. In a democracy, we can vote for lawmakers who will stand up to lobbies for the greater public good.

The fact that these politicians are rare-to-non-existent is partially due to legislation (lobbying money is allowed to influence lawmakers), but mainly it is due to a failure of social accountability. People are either too busy or too cynical to vote, with the aggregate outcome of a legislature that represents the interests of it donors rather than its constituents.

Democracy is powerful, voting is powerful. It is why we see wars fought in the name of democracy; people are willing to die for the rights we as a nation largely take for granted. Our ability to move forward as a nation whose laws represents the interest of the general public hinges on overcoming cynicism in the democratic process.

Finger-pointing and playing the blame game are not the answers. Education / information dissemination is an important element of overcoming collective action problems, and is largely why I do what I do here at NN. But ultimately the responsibility lies with each and every U.S. citizen. Belief in the power of the democratic process is the only way to return to the more egalitarian America of yesteryear.


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Normative Narratives Turns 1 Year Old!

Typhoon Haiyan has caused devastation throughout The Philippines. The Huffington Post has done a great job compiling a list of relief services for those interested in donating.

Today Normative Narratives turned one year old. My experiences in academia, interning at the UNDP, and doing news-analysis this past year have focused my normative vision  for a better tomorrow. I have put these ideas down in a manifesto for all who are interested.


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Economic Outlook: Bill De Blasio, Stop-and-Frisk, and “A Tale of Two Cities”

Large cities present unique security environments, perhaps none more-so than New York City.  It is therefore unsurprising that the future of “stop-and-frisk” was the focus of much debate during the recent NYC mayoral election. In order to give police officers a tool to proactively prevent crime, “stop-and-frisk” was deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1968 case of Terry v. Ohio:

The court agreed with the police that officers face uncertain and dangerous situations on the streets—circumstances that can potentially threaten both law enforcement officers and the public. For this reason, police officers need a set of flexible responses that allow them to react based on the information they possess.

Under the Terry ruling, a police officer may stop and detain a person based on reasonable suspicion. And, if the police reasonably suspect the person is armed and dangerous, they may also frisk him or her for weapons.

What exactly is Reasonable Suspicion?

Reasonable suspicion is defined by a set of factual circumstances that would lead a reasonable police officer to believe criminal activity is occurring. This is different from the probable cause (what a reasonable person would believe) required for an arrest, search, and seizure. If the stop and frisk gives rise to probable cause to believe the detainee has committed a crime, then the police officer should have the power to make a formal arrest and conduct a search of the person.

A Justified Stop

A stop is justified if the suspect is exhibiting any combination of the following behaviors:

  1. Appears not to fit the time or place.
  2. Matches the description on a “Wanted” flyer.
  3. Acts strangely, or is emotional, angry, fearful, or intoxicated.
  4. Loitering, or looking for something.
  5. Running away or engaging in furtive movements.
  6. Present in a crime scene area.
  7. Present in a high-crime area (not sufficient by itself or with loitering).

A frisk is justified under the following circumstances:

  1. Concern for the safety of the officer or of others.
  2. Suspicion the suspect is armed and dangerous.
  3. Suspicion the suspect is about to commit a crime where a weapon is commonly used.
  4. Officer is alone and backup has not arrived.
  5. Number of suspects and their physical size.
  6. Behavior, emotional state, and/or look of suspects.
  7. Suspect gave evasive answers during the initial stop.
  8. Time of day and/or geographical surroundings (not sufficient by themselves to justify frisk).        

 

Does the ability to stop and frisk go too far? Many police departments are at odds with the public in certain neighborhoods concerning what some people deem unwarranted stops. People in high crime areas and in areas with high minority populations often complain they are stopped and questioned at a disproportionately higher rate than their counterparts in other areas of the city.

When used correctly, the stop and frisk tool benefits the police and average citizens. Curbing crime and ensuring the safety of our on-the-beat public servants, stop and frisk can help us all sleep a little more soundly – a good step in the all-American pursuit of happiness.

At the center of the NYC stop-and-frisk debate is racial discrimination. It was argued that stop-and-frisk unfairly targets minorities, and therefore must be reformed. With the legal appeals process currently ongoing, it is helpful to have a parallel public debate on the matter. First, some statistics:

In 2012, New Yorkers were stopped by the police 532,911 times:
473,644 were totally innocent (89 percent).
284,229 were black (55 percent).
165,140 were Latino (32 percent).
50,366 were white (10 percent).

Demographics of NYC
White: 33.3%
Black: 22.5%
Latino: 28.6%

Based on these numbers, it would appear that the police are unfairly targeting minorities (at least black people), while letting white people go. However, these are not the correct numbers to compare. Remember stop-and-frisk occurs within the context of a particular crime. Police officers are responding to a specific crime, in a specific area, with a description of a suspect which is almost exclusively on physical attributes (including race). To strip police of the power to pursue suspects based on the best information and their knowledge as law enforcement officials puts everybody at risk (including minorities, which the data shows are disproportionately the victims of minority violence).

There should be safeguards put in place to protect minorities, particularly when there is no specific crime / suspect description a police officer is going on, but is rather “racially profiling” an individual. The program itself, however, should not be outlawed. In fact, the data (p. 21) suggests that, if anything, minorities are under-targeted for stop-and-frisks based on how often the suspect matches their race:

The most frequently occurring race/ethnic group within the Violent Felony suspects is Black, accounting for (65.3%). Hispanic suspects account for an additional (26.6%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (6.1%) and (1.9%) respectively. The most frequent race/ethnic group within the Stop Question and Frisk subject population is Black, accounting for (54.2%). Hispanic subjects account for an additional (32.5%) while White and Asian/Pacific Islanders account for (9.6%) and (3.2%) of total Stops respectively.

There will always be anecdotal examples of racist cops racially profiling. For the most part, however, police officers are brave men and women who do their job with the greatest integrity they can. They are simply using the information available and their technical knowledge to make the best decisions they can, just like any other professional does. Considering the balanced racial breakdown of NYC police force, one must wonder how anybody could accuse the force of being “systematically racist” to begin with.

Proper safeguards must be put in place to protect minorities from unwarranted stop-and-frisks, and those who are found guilty of racial profiling must be held accountable. However, police officers should not have to consider the race of a person when assessing whether they are “eligible” for stop-and-frisk–“eligibility” should be based only on information available about the crime in question. Race is simply one of the many pieces of information an officer has when considering whether to stop-and-frisk an individual.

Mr. De Blasio ran for mayor on a ticket of progressive values. Behind these progressive values is the true key to reducing the number of minorities targeted by stop and frisk; by reducing the number of minorities suspected of violent crimes.

Throughout our criminal justice process–from arrest to conviction to incarceration–minorities are disproportionately represented. Is this due to racial undertones? Probably to a certain extent, based on how we categories and punish different offenses. Violent crimes are disproportionately committed by minorities, while “white-collar”crimes often go unpunished and are never the subject of “stop-and-frisk”. But stop-and-frisk is about safety and immediate physical harm, not about longer term financial type crimes. While I certainly believe white-collar criminals should be held accountable, this has nothing to do with the issues of violent crime and stop-and-frisk.

The socioeconomic roots of violent crime are the true culprit behind the apparent “racial profiling” in stop-and-frisk, and therein lie the solutions. When Mayor De Blasio talks about progressive taxation, social programs, equality of opportunity, social mobility, he is talking about creating new opportunities for everyone on the bottom wrung of the socioeconomic ladder (which recent evidence suggests is not as minority-dominated as some might believe). These opportunities, in time, present an alternative to violent crime. Given the option, the overwhelming majority of people of all races would choose a life of rewarding work, comfort, and security over a life of crime (if it was a true possibility and not some unattainable goal).

So mayor De Blasio, while I am eager to see your liberal vision for NYC unfold, and hope it offers a model for the rest of the country, I urge you not to take your racial equality crusade to far. There are deep rooted socioeconomic issues behind the racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk numbers; to gut the program would be a mistake. Instead, allow your vision for NYC to change the statistics “organically”, without putting innocent people and police officers in danger. In the meantime, reforms can make stop-and-frisk a more transparent and accountable process (however this is true of all public programs, they are hardly issue unique to stop-and-frisk).


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Transparency Report: The ACA, Mental Healthcare, and Mass Shootings

Despite reassurances by President Obama that “if you like your health insurance, you will not have to change it”, many people have been receiving letters notifying them that their current plans are being discontinued and they will be required to buy new ones. Perhaps Obama should have clarified his statement as follows; “if you like your health insurance, and it meets certain minimum requirements, you will be able to keep it.”

Why might a health insurance plan fail to meet these minimum standards? There are 10 “essential health benefits” that new policies must satisfy. The following analysis focuses on one essential service, mental health coverage, and its relationship to mass shootings:

The Obama administration issued a final rule on Wednesday defining “essential health benefits” that must be offered by most health insurance plans next year, and it said that 32 million people would gain access to coverage of mental health care as a result.

Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that in addition to the millions who would gain access to mental health care, 30 million people who already have some mental health coverage will see improvements in benefits.

White House officials described the rule as a major expansion of coverage. In the past, they said, nearly 20 percent of people buying insurance on their own did not have coverage for mental health services, and nearly one-third had no coverage for treatment of substance abuse.

Can we ever fully prevent mass shootings? No, there are elements of human will, technology, and finite security resources that make complete prevention impossible. However, there are steps that can be taken to drastically reduce the prevalence of such atrocities. One preventative measure would be to impose stricter gun control laws, which brings about the usual pro and con arguments. Less contentious ideas involve broader background checks (91% support) and increased government spending on youth mental healthcare (82% support).

One would be hard pressed to find an example of a mass-shooter who did not suffer from a mental illness. In fact, 48% of Americans think “failure of the mental health system to identify individuals who are dangers to others” shoulders a “great deal” of the blame for mass shootings (80% of people think this factor deserves a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of the blame). This is the number one factor Americans blame for mass shootings.

We often hear people say things such as “children are our most precious resource” or “I would give anything to protect my child”. The question I pose to my audience, and hopefully to the American public, is this. Do we want to be a country that makes a big deal about tragedies, a country that makes grand statements and then lets those statements fall to the wayside once the story isn’t recent news? Or do we want to be the country that puts its money where its mouth is, and actually implements the reforms we overwhelmingly believe in? One things is certain, mass shootings cannot be reduced by concentrated short term efforts directly after the fact followed by long periods of inaction.

True the survey says “increased government spending on mental healthcare”; however a great deal of people in the individual / uninsured market will receive free or subsidized healthcare, which is the equivalent of greater government spending on mental healthcare. Can we, as a nation, recognize this impact of expanded mental healthcare (not to mention the multitude of socioeconomic benefits associated with expanding healthcare coverage)? Are we truly willing to do anything to keep our children safe, or are we unwilling to even make the most basic investments to achieve this goal?

Update: Legislation is being finalized requiring equal coverage of mental healthcare by all health insurance. This is an important step in American healthcare reform, with untold socioeconomic and security benefits.