Normative Narratives


1 Comment

Conflict Watch: How “Starve-the-Beast” Failed The Most Vulnerable at Home and Abroad

In consecutive Op-Ed articles, NYT writer Thomas Friedman considers how unscrupulous leaders and U.S. foreign policy have failed those dedicated to pluralism and democracy in the Middle East:

What to do With the Twins?:

Iraq and Syria are twins: multiethnic and multisectarian societies that have been governed, like other Arab states, from the top-down. First, it was by soft-fisted Ottomans who ruled through local notables in a decentralized fashion, then by iron-fisted British and French colonial powers and later by iron-fisted nationalist kings and dictators.

Today, the Ottomans are gone, the British and French are gone and now many of the kings and dictators are gone. We removed Iraq’s dictator; NATO and tribal rebels removed Libya’s; the people of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen got rid of theirs; and some people in Syria have tried to topple theirs. Each country is now faced with the challenge of trying to govern itself horizontally by having the different sects, parties and tribes agree on social contracts for how to live together as equal citizens who rotate power.

In Iraq, the Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki — who had the best chance, the most oil money and the most help from the U.S. in writing a social contract for how to govern Iraq horizontally — chose instead, from the moment the Americans left, to empower Iraqi Shiites and disempower Iraqi Sunnis. It’s no surprise that Iraqi Sunnis decided to grab their own sectarian chunk of the country.

So today, it seems, a unified Iraq and a unified Syria can no longer be governed vertically or horizontally. The leaders no longer have the power to extend their iron fists to every border, and the people no longer have the trust to extend their hands to one another. It would appear that the only way they can remain united is if an international force comes in, evicts the dictators, uproots the extremists and builds consensual politics from the ground up — a generational project for which there are no volunteers.

I could say that before President Obama drops even an empty Coke can from a U.S. fighter jet on the Sunni militias in Iraq we need to insist that Maliki resign and a national unity cabinet be created that is made up of inclusive Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. I could say that that is the necessary condition for reunification of Iraq. And I could say that it is absolutely not in our interest or the world’s to see Iraq break apart and one segment be ruled by murderous Sunni militias.

ISIS / SISI:

ISIS and Sisi, argues Perlov, a researcher on Middle East social networks at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, are just flip sides of the same coin: one elevates “god” as the arbiter of all political life and the other “the national state.”

Both have failed and will continue to fail — and require coercion to stay in power — because they cannot deliver for young Arabs and Muslims what they need most: the education, freedom and jobs to realize their full potential and the ability to participate as equal citizens in their political life.

We are going to have to wait for a new generation that “puts society in the center,” argues Perlov, a new Arab/Muslim generation that asks not “how can we serve god or how can we serve the state but how can they serve us.”

Perlov argues that these governing models — hyper-Islamism (ISIS) driven by a war against “takfiris,” or apostates, which is how Sunni Muslim extremists refer to Shiite Muslims; and hyper-nationalism (SISI) driven by a war against Islamist “terrorists,” which is what the Egyptian state calls the Muslim Brotherhood — need to be exhausted to make room for a third option built on pluralism in society, religion and thought.

The Arab world needs to finally puncture the twin myths of the military state (SISI) or the Islamic state (ISIS) that will bring prosperity, stability and dignity. Only when the general populations “finally admit that they are both failed and unworkable models,” argues Perlov, might there be “a chance to see this region move to the 21st century.”

“Both the secular authoritarian model — most recently represented by Sisi — and the radical religious model — represented now by ISIS — have failed,” adds Marwan Muasher, the former foreign minister of Jordan and author of “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.” “They did because they have not addressed peoples’ real needs: improving the quality of their life, both in economic and development terms, and also in feeling they are part of the decision-making process.  Both models have been exclusionist, presenting themselves as the holders of absolute truth and of the solution to all society’s problems.”

We tend to make every story about us. But this is not all about us. To be sure, we’ve done plenty of ignorant things in Iraq and Egypt. But we also helped open their doors to a different future, which their leaders have slammed shut for now. Going forward, where we see people truly committed to pluralism, we should help support them. And where we see islands of decency threatened, we should help protect them. But this is primarily about them, about their need to learn to live together without an iron fist from the top, and it will happen only when and if they want it to happen.

Essentially, the twin cases of Iraq and Syria have been a crash course in what not to do. The U.S. invaded Iraq without an established partner ready and willing to defend a pluralistic democratic society. We ended up spending trillions of dollars, found no “weapons of mass destruction”, and, given recent developments in the region, have left Iraq in worse shape than under Saddam (and by no means do I believe Saddam was a viable long term solution either, stick with me here).

In Syria, Iraq’s twin state, essentially the exact opposite situation played out. A war weary American public held the belief it was best to not intervene militarily in Syria in the early stages of the uprising. But Syria was not Iraq; there was an organic, grass roots, civil society movement based on modern pluralistic democratic governance ready to fill the power void. Assad was and continues to butcher his own people openly and indiscriminately, and the pluralistic movement based on soft power has ceded ground to vicious extremist groups and government bombardment. This story has many parallels to what has transpired in Egypt over the past few years.

We must assist legitimate, pluralistic, democratic movements in the developing world, as they are the key to sustainable human development. Going to war without such an ally is a fools errand, as The Iraq War has shown. Abandoning such an ally (as we have done in Egypt and Syria) results in the slaughter of innocents, reverses in economic development and human rights, and presents opportunities for the rise of extremism / authoritarianism. When such an ally presents itself, we must be ready to assist them, before it is too late and that ally is marginalized / defeated.

US Domestic Fiscal Policy:

The Iraq War highlights the greater folly of “starve-the-beast” economic policy. The central tenet of starve-the-beast is that government is just that, a beast, whose role must be minimalized. Notably, President W. Bush went to war in Iraq and gave large tax cuts during his presidency–he starved the beast. The U.S. government was therefore in a poor position to weather the Great Recession, creating somewhat artificial budget debates (even though for the U.S. Federal government, borrowing money was and remains little more expensive that spending from surplus).

Had Bush not given his tax breaks, and the U.S. was determining policy from the prospect of a huge federal surplus, one could argue that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act would have been substantially larger (and therefore substantially more effective). President Obama deserves some of the blame for the inadequacies of the ARRA; he was a new president, very idealistic, and tried to make everyone in Washington happy instead of getting the best deal for the American people. Perhaps he wrongfully believed he could go back for more stimulus money later if needed–if so, this was a costly miscalculation. Nevertheless, the fiscal context against which the ARRA was drafted naturally played a role in its composition.

As the economic recovery drudges on for the vast majority of Americans (low growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages), one cannot help but wonder how different things may have been had the U.S. Federal government instead pursued somewhat counter-cyclical fiscal policies.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Getting the U.S. tied up in a decade of war sapped resources and public will to defend pluralism, human rights, and democracy abroad (understandably so; when they’re threatening to cancel your food stamps / unemployment insurance / pension, who cares whats going on in Syria?).

The U.S. fought a war we had no business fighting in Iraq, leaving ourselves unwilling to assist legitimate democratic movements in Egypt and Syria. This is the major consequence of starve the beast philosophy–when we waist money on things we don’t need now, we cannot afford the things we do need later (at least without relying on deficit spending). Domestically, unneeded tax cuts meant there was not enough stimulus money to jump-start the U.S. economy. Abroad, the will to intervene in situations where we should have intervened did not exist because of an unnecessary war.

Of all the costs of the Iraq War, our inability to assist our allies abroad in their time of need may indeed turn out to be our greatest failure.

It is up to civil societies to determine for themselves when to cast off the shackles of authoritarianism and demand modern and pluralistic democratic governance. It is the role of the U.S. and our allies to defend and nurture those movements whenever they present themselves.

(Earlier this week President Obama called for $500 million to train and assist the moderate Syrian opposition; file that one under too little too late category.)

The U.S. government is not a beast, it is a force for progress and socioeconomic justice both at home and abroad, and the leader of the “international community”. Have their been policy failures, both home and abroad, in recent history? Of course. This is no reason to dismiss the many positive outcomes stemming from American domestic and foreign policies.

Starving the beast has real costs for both America and the world’s most vulnerable people; it is mind boggling that it has been the rallying cry of a major American political party for decades.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: The Supply Of and Demand For Mental Healthcare

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/01ada-supplyside.jpg

Original article:

Shootings in places like Isla Vista, Calif., and Newtown, Conn., have turned a spotlight on the mental health system, and particularly how it handles young, troubled males with an aggressive streak. About one in 100 teenagers fits this category, according to E. Jane Costello, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Duke University School of Medicine, and they often have multiple diagnoses and are resistant to treatment.

Most of these young men will never commit a violent crime, much less an atrocity. But the questions of how best to help them and how to pay for it are among the most intractable problems hanging over the system.

Thousands of families know this experience too well: No single diagnosis fits, no drug brings real relief, and if the teenager rejects the very idea of psychotherapy, there is little chance of lasting improvement.

Congress has taken steps to bring about so-called parity for mental health, requiring insurers to cover treatments for mental illnesses as they do those for diseases like cancer and diabetes. But parents like the Serpicos have found that, even with good insurance, they often cannot get the expensive, long-term residential treatment they believe their child needs.

And it is not clear how effective intensive residential treatment is for teenagers. Some improve, experts say, but they are usually discharged to the same environment in which they got into trouble, and precious few studies follow them for longer than several months.

“The problem is that, while some kids may benefit from these extremely costly services, we don’t know which ones they are, and we don’t have a good model for distributing those services, no matter who’s paying,” said Sherry A. Glied, dean of the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

Lena and Robert Serpico knew something was not right before their son was in kindergarten. They had taken him and his younger brother in as foster children from a mother who used drugs, and they later adopted both.

As the teenager became increasingly indifferent to school and defiant, the family got him into a highly recommended day therapy program. He was thrown out for bringing a razor blade to a session. The family tried again, at another day program, and this time the program kicked him out for refusing to participate.

It’s useless, all this stuff,” he said in a brief interview. “It’s a waste of my time.”

He entered an alternative school last fall, and his parents, who both work outside the house, decided they had only one option left, recommended by their son’s doctor and therapist: long-term residential care. Costs ranged from $10,000 to $60,000 a month.

“No way we could afford that,” Ms. Serpico said.

Out of options, the Serpicos did what many affluent families do: They hired a lawyer. In January, they petitioned the school district to pay for their son’s education at a therapeutic school. A consulting psychologist hired by the district concluded that their son needed “a 24-hour-a-day therapeutic milieu over an extended period of time, i.e., longer than two months, in order to keep him safe and gain the skills necessary to function post-high-school.”

Last month, they learned that the suit had been successful. The Geneva School District will pay for the young man to attend a therapeutic school in Montana for one academic year. There will be horses, physical labor, and group and one-on-one talk therapy. Ms. Serpico and her husband broke the news to their son this month.

When asked about going to the new school, he shrugged and looked away.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably useless, too.”

Economics traditionally treats people as rational actors seeking to maximize their “utility”. While this idea is contentious even in “normal cases”, when considering those suffering from mental illnesses, the rational maximizer model becomes almost completely irrelevant. Despite the obvious benefits for those who need mental healthcare, potential patients (particularly young men) often reject the idea of therapy because of the stigma of “weakness” or embarrassment associated with it–I know this because I was once one of these young men.

Health care reform–so called insurance “parity” for mental healthcare–has gone a long way in making treatment affordable to those who need it. This was a fix to the “supply side” of the equation. However, it is very clear that there are “demand side” issues related to mental healthcare that are leading to under-treatment.

Demand traditionally focuses on the willingness of a person to pay for a particular good or service. However, young people are almost never expected to pay the cost of their own mental healthcare–those who need treatment the most often reject it even if it is being paid for by their parents or the state (or some combination of the two). To get these people the help they need, we must address the non-monetary concerns–the stigma–associated with mental healthcare.

This is a difficult task, but it can be aided by cultural and technological progress. Culturally, those in the public spotlight (movie stars, musicians, athletes, etc.) who are comfortable with their mental health issues should open up about them. It is amazing how someone who is perceived as “cool” can get through to people and change public perceptions. To this end I would like to commend All-Pro Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall, who has become a poster-boy for mental health awareness, to the benefit of both the general public and, according to him, himself; we need more role models like Mr. Marshall. Of course, these public figures can always utilize social media to amplify the effect of their message.

Another cultural shift which makes sense would be changing how we educate kids about mental healthcare. My first semester in college, we had something called “University 101”, where students where prepped and talked about the challenges and opportunities present during college life. It seems to me like there should be a similar class required during ones first semester in high school–a common time for mental health issues to arise–with a greater focus on mental health awareness. I also took a a health class in high school, but it focused much more on drug use and safe sex, and not nearly enough about mental health issues.

Often times young people are not comfortable talking to their problems with peers, for fear that news of their issues will become public knowledge before they are ready to be open about them, or used against them by bullies. In such an instance, virtually connecting with groups dedicated to peer-to-peer dialogue via social media (Facebook, Skype, etc.) could offer a way for children to start opening up about their issues to people they can relate too (other kids), without having to worry about those issues coming out in their immediate social circles.

As someone who went from rejecting the very idea of therapy to realizing its incredible benefits, this issue is deeply personal to me. I can say one thing–seeking mental healthcare is by no means a sign of weakness, or something one should be embarrassed about. The open, self-reflecting, honest approach needed for therapy to be effective requires incredible strength of character. This is the lesson we should be teaching our kids–pursuing mental healthcare is a sign of strength, not weakness.

For those who think Mental health issues are only a “rich country problem”, think again. According to a recently release United Nations report, depression is the number one cause of illness and disability globally among adolescents (10-19 yrs old).

In an increasingly complex and global world, it is only natural for new sources of anxiety to affect current and future generations of children. These new sources of anxiety will be reinforced by old social and cultural stigmas related to mental illness / healthcare. In the coming decades youth populations are expected to grow in developing countries, where youth unemployment tends to be highest and (relatedly) conditions are very conducive to mental health problems. The problem will only become more pronounced, unless we use all the tools we have to address adolescent mental health issues in a holistic and inclusive manner.

In a political / media landscape dominated by debates over fiscal responsibility and climate change, the potential of looming global mental health epidemic is not discussed. You want to talk about a “Great Depression”? Aggregate all the lost output that will systematically come out of the global economy if the proper resources are not dedicated to youth employment, mental healthcare and awareness programs. And then there are the linkages to poverty, insecurity, human suffering…


Leave a comment

Economic Outlook: “NanoDegrees”

https://i2.wp.com/gifrific.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/What-is-this-A-Center-For-Ants-Zoolander.gif

This past week there has been much media coverage of a new program, launched by Starbucks and Arizona State University, aimed at offering Starbuck’s employees a free online college education. While this attention is well deserved, I believe another emerging trend pioneered by AT&T and Udacity–“NanoDegrees”–may have an even greater transformative effect on U.S. labor markets (original article):

Could an online degree earned in six to 12 months bring a revolution to higher education?

This week, AT&T and Udacity, the online education company founded by the Stanford professor and former Google engineering whiz Sebastian Thrun, announced something meant to be very small: the “NanoDegree.”

At first blush, it doesn’t appear like much. For $200 a month, it is intended to teach anyone with a mastery of high school math the kind of basic programming skills needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T as a data analyst, iOS applications designer or the like.

Yet this most basic of efforts may offer more than simply adding an online twist to vocational training. It may finally offer a reasonable shot at harnessing the web to provide effective schooling to the many young Americans for whom college has become a distant, unaffordable dream.

Intriguingly, it suggests that the best route to democratizing higher education may require taking it out of college.

“We are trying to widen the pipeline,” said Charlene Lake, an AT&T spokeswoman. “This is designed by business for the specific skills that are needed in business.”

Employers have been complaining for years about a lack of skilled workers to fill available jobs. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the skill level of the American work force is slipping dangerously behind other nations.

The evidence so far suggests that online education may do better in giving low-income students a leg up if it is directly tied to work. And companies, rather than colleges, may be best suited to shape the curriculum.

The “NanoDegree” is a step in a similar direction: offering a narrow set of skills that can be clearly applied to a job, providing learners with a bite-size chunk of knowledge and an immediate motivation to acquire it.

It may not offer all the advantages of a liberal arts education, but it could offer a plausible path to young men and women who may not have the time, money or skill to make it through a four-year or even a two-year degree.

AT&T will accept the NanoDegree as a credential for entry-level jobs (and is hoping to persuade other companies to accept it, too) and has reserved 100 internship slots for its graduates. Udacity is also creating NanoDegrees with other companies.

If all goes according to plan, Mr. Thrun says, Udacity will ultimately create an alternative approach to the “four years and done” model of higher education, splitting it into chunks that students can take throughout their lives.

“It’s a more focused education with less time wasted,” Mr. Thrun told me. “They can get a degree quickly, get a job and then maybe do it again.”

This isn’t the kind of educational pathway that encourages much smelling of the roses. The live college experience is probably better at providing noncognitive skills.

For many young Americans, though, the alternative to the traditional path may well be no useful degree at all.

“We still need rounded people, which you can’t get through mini-certificate courses,” Professor Hollands said. “But we also have an economy to run here.”

It seems to me that this “NanoDegree” model is a response to a problem that does not exist– an under-skilled American workforce. Large corporations, which have thrived on a shift from labor to capital / technology, are able to be more selective in their employment choices. Furthermore, more specialized capital requires more specialized laborers to utilize said capital. Further reinforcing this trend is downward pressure on labor markets due to the recession; people with years of experience are willing to take essentially entry level positions.

Due to these factors, companies are basically unwilling to hire people who need on the job training. A 4 or 2 year degree may help develop social and cognitive skills, but is unlikely to result in experience with specific software / technology / capital used by specific companies (a problem I believe must be addressed by greater coordination between businesses and traditional education institutions).

This has been particularly concerning to young adults trying to start their careers, who all to often lack both the experience and specific skills required for many “entry level” jobs, resulting in high levels of youth unemployment and related socioeconomic issue. NanoDegree’s offer an opportunity for people to gain the training they needed for a specific job, at virtually no cost to the company. In addition to their stated purpose of offering an avenue to employment for less skilled / affluent job seekers, I can easily see “NanoDegrees” becoming complimentary to traditional college (either directly implemented in curricula, or pursued post graduation like a Masters degree) for those who can afford such luxuries.

I can see both potential benefits and drawbacks to NanoDegrees, which I will summarize as follows:

Potential Adverse Effect: greater job specialization –> less labor mobility –> power imbalance shifts further in favor of management and away from labor.

Potential Benefits**: greater investment by company in workers* –> more value from labor  / employees more valuable to company’s competitors–> greater bargaining power for labor.

* this would require the company footing the bill for a “NanoDegree”, which is not how the programs are currently modeled

** longer-term trends, the immediate benefit would be employment

There is simply no way to “force” businesses to hire more workers, especially when they have been able to maximize profits with less employees. Short of drastic redistribution through corporate taxation (which aside from being politically difficult would require tackling global tax avoidance issues) and social spending, there are few ways to ensure economic gains are somewhat evenly distributed.

While the “under-skilled workers” argument may be an artificial problem created by an unwillingness of companies to offer on-the-job training (due to a confluence of factors: a partial switch from labor to capital production, globalization, mechanization, the decline of unions, downward pressure on the job market, etc.) the “NanoDegree” model could prove to be an attainable avenue to gainful employment, particularly for young people / long-term unemployed.

Any program benefiting these groups (young people and the long-term unemployed) should have particularly stimulative effects on overall economic growth. Furthermore, if this program is proven effective, there will be a strong argument for expanded access through needs and merit based subsidies. Investing in “quality” jobs yields strong returns; “NanoDegrees”, in combination with other policies such as the EITC, minimum wage increases, etc., could become an essential component of poverty / inequality reduction initiatives.

 


Leave a comment

Transparency Report: When it Comes to Privacy, People More Concerned With Big Business Than “Big Brother”

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/5ab92-aa111bb.jpg

Original article:

People around the world are thrilled by the ease and convenience of their smartphones and Internet services, but they aren’t willing to trade their privacy to get more of it.

That is the top-line finding of a new study of 15,000 consumers in 15 countries…The study, conducted by Edelman Berland, a market research firm, and sponsored by EMC, the data storage giant, has some other intriguing results with implications for business. Consumers worldwide seem to strongly agree with the notion that there should be laws “to prohibit businesses from buying an selling data without my opt-in consent” — 87 percent.

When asked to name the leading threats to online privacy in the future, 51 percent of the global panel of consumers picked “businesses using, trading or selling my personal data for financial gain without my knowledge or benefit.” That was well ahead of the 35 percent who selected “lone/crazy hackers, hacker groups or anarchist types.” The prying eyes of government — “my government spying on me” — was cited as a serious privacy threat by only 21 percent, even in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks that showed the sweeping surveillance programs of American and British intelligence agencies.

It is worth noting that among countries surveyed, those with a higher standard of living where generally less willing to trade privacy for “convenience”. In countries where people are less well off, they are more willing to trade some of their privacy for conveniences (saving time / money)–lending credence to the idea that privacy is, to a certain extent, a luxury.

In the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, it is a bit surprising to see people around the globe so much more concerned with businesses selling their data (51%) than government “spying” (21%). I have maintained that I do not believe government “spying” is a serious threat to personal privacy, (so long as the government in question is an accountable, transparent, and democratic government) and it seems that most people around the world generally agree that private businesses trading our information is a greater threat to privacy than government surveillance.

There is also a qualitative difference between private data collection and government surveillance. Private companies trade data for money, while the government collects information for security reasons. The government is directly accountable to people and is supposed to have societies best interests at heart, as opposed private businesses, which are accountable to markets and are motivated by profit maximization.

Despite outrage drummed up by civil rights and privacy activists, people seem to understand the different functions of these two forms of data collection. According to respondents, people were most willing to trade privacy for “being protected from terrorist and/or criminal activity” (54%) than any other reason offered (the next highest answer, for comparison, was a tie between better access to information / knowledge and easier access to healthcare information, at 45%).

There are notable limitations to determining global preferences from a 15,000 person sample that covers only 15 countries. However, the surveys results do suggest that globally people are not as concerned with government spying as one may expect.

Perhaps as governments such as the U.S. have become more willing to engage in public discourse about surveillance and offer reforms, people have had their fears assuaged. Or perhaps people, not seeing government surveillance negatively affecting their lives, are willing to trust their government in the name of security and crime prevention (especially governments that have earned that trust through a history of good governance).

I get annoying telemarketers, spam emails, and advertisement text messages from companies that have bought my personal information on a daily basis. Private companies are much more willing to use (and therefore likely to abuse) personal data. Furthermore, the conveniences this information supplies are extremely trivial when compared with security / crime protection.


Leave a comment

Conflict Watch: A Modern UN Peacekeeping For Modern Threats

As the first and sometimes only line of defense for people in conflict zones, it is difficult to understand why UN Peacekeeping constitutes only 0.5% of global military expenditure (around $8 billion out of a $1.75 trillion). In a recent speech to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary General Ban told member countries that they must be ready to dedicate more resources to UN peacekeeping and peacebuilding initiatives, in order to better respond to 21st century threats:

“The continued use of UN peacekeeping by the Security Council testifies to its continued relevance and its unique universality and legitimacy. The demand for peacekeeping will remain,” Mr. Ban told the 15-member Council at the opening of a debate on trends in UN peacekeeping.

Peacekeepers are also increasingly operating in more complex environments with asymmetric and unconventional threats.

He added that the international community needs to build on what he sees as “the renewed commitment of the Security Council to respond to our changing world,” but to also recognize the limitations of UN peacekeeping and ask whether it is always the right tool.

More than 116,000 UN personnel from more than 120 countries serve in 16 peacekeeping operations. Since the beginning of peacekeeping in 1948, over one million “blue helmets” have participated in more than 70 operations on four continents.

One specific area SG Ban advocated for expanding UN Peacekeeping’s mandate is combating terrorism (“asymmetrical and unconventional threats”), a call echoed by Acting General Assembly President Michel Tommo Monthe, of Cameroon:

As the United Nations General Assembly today began a review of its overall counter-terrorism strategy, a senior official urged Member States to take advantage of the opportunity “to make the UN more relevant” in the international effort to fight what he called “a destructive and deplorable malady.”

This review…provides an opportunity to take stock of emerging issues and challenges that have grown in relevance over the recent years and to identify the areas where we need to do things differently, or adopt different lines of action,” said Acting Assembly President Michel Tommo Monthe, of Cameroon, opening the Fourth Review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

The Strategy, adopted by consensus in 2006, is a comprehensive policy framework to combat terrorism, signifying, said Mr. Monthe, universal condemnation of terrorist violence and providing guidance to Member States.

The strategy consists of four pillars: measures to address conditions conducive to terrorism’s spread; measures to prevent and combat terrorism; measures to build States’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the UN system; measures to ensure respect for human rights and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism.

“It further observes that longer-term success in the global counter-terrorism strategy will depend on fuller implementation of Pillars 1 and 4,” said Mr. Monthe, referring to measures to address conditions conducive to terrorism and measures to ensure respect for human rights as a basis for the fights against the scourge.

Monthe also highlighted the work of the UN Counter-terrorism Centre (UNCCT), which “offers unique opportunities to seek synergies and leverage resources for the UN’s counter-terrorism work around the world and make a significant contribution to national and regional efforts.”

UN Peacekeeping must rise to the challenges of meeting an increasing demand for it’s services and more effectively leveraging UN expertise in identifying the conditions conducive to armed conflict and terrorism. While by no means an easy task, these mandates are closely related; weak governments fail to fulfill their human rights obligations, fueling armed conflict (protracted social conflict), these conflicts then lead to further human rights abuses and open power voids which are often filled by extremist groups.

To combat armed conflict and terrorism, the international community must have the capacity to identify and react to gross human rights abuses, preventatively when possible. General Assembly President Monthe talks of seeking synergies and leveraging resources, this should include an in depth review of preventative peacebuilding / early stage UN Peacekeeping operations. To this end, the UN may also have to revisit it’s policy of not having a ready-to-deploy standing peacekeeping force.

In the post-Osama world of splintered terrorist groups (ISIS, Al Nursa, AQAP, Boko Haram), a legitimate, effective, efficient, and responsive global security force  with preventative peacebuilding, peacekeeping, anti-terrorism and human rights mandates is needed. Combined with a shift towards local capacity building and regional responses in combating terrorism, a new global framework for dealing with “modern threats” (protracted social conflicts and terrorism) emerges.

Bringing Democracy UNSC:

Any plan by the international community to invest more resources into UN Peacekeeping and expand its mandate must address the issue of Security Council gridlock. The ability of any permanent UNSC member to veto UN Peacekeeping operations hinders the ability of this force to fulfill the aforementioned expanded mandates.

I recently advocated for a UN General Assembly mechanism to overrule a UNSC veto. After doing a bit of research, it seems there is precedent for the General Assembly overturning a UNSC veto:

Under the UN Charter, however, the General Assembly cannot discuss and make recommendations on peace and security matters which are at that time being addressed by the Security Council.

Despite the UN Charter’s provision limiting the General Assembly’s powers with regard to peace and security matters, there may be cases when the Assembly can take action.

In accordance with the General Assembly’s “Uniting for Peace” resolution of November 1950 [resolution 377 (V)] PDF Document, if the Security Council fails to act, owing to the negative vote of a permanent member, then the General Assembly may act. This would happen in the case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The General Assembly can consider the matter with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.

This resolution was invoked only once in UN peacekeeping history, when in 1956 the General Assembly established the First UN Emergency Force (UNEF I) in the Middle East.

This is, however, admittedly a weak precedent; the resolution is over 60 years old and has only been invoked once in UN history. The UN General Assembly must reaffirm its commitment to and willingness to invoke resolution 377 (V) “Uniting For Peace”, perhaps as part of the UN’s “Responsibility To Protect”.


Leave a comment

Economic Outlook: Shortsighted Austerity

https://i1.wp.com/img375.imageshack.us/img375/6475/cartoondeficits.gif

In the aftermath of the global economic crisis, more than 70 per cent of the world population is without proper social protections, the United Nations labour agency today reported, urging governments to scale up investment in child and family benefits, pensions and other public expenditures.

“The global community agreed in 1948 that social security and health care for children, working age people who face unemployment or injury and older persons are a universal human right,” said Sandra Polaski, Deputy Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“And yet in 2014 the promise of universal social protection remains unfilled for the large majority of the world’s population.”

As many as 122 governments are contracting public expenditures in 2014, of which 82 are developing countries, according to the findings of the World Social Protection Report 2014/15: Building economic recovery, inclusive development and social justice.

“The case for social protection is even more compelling in these times of economic uncertainty, low growth and increased inequality,” Ms. Polaski added, noting that it is also an issue that the international community should embrace prominently in the development agenda following the Millennium Development Goals deadline in 2015.

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, at least 48 high- and middle-income countries put in place stimulus packages totalling $2.4 trillion that devoted roughly a quarter to social protection measures.

But from 2010 onwards, many governments reversed course and embarked prematurely on fiscal consolidation, despite the urgent need to continue supporting vulnerable populations and stabilizing consumption.

In the European Union, cuts in social protection have already contributed to increases in poverty which now affect 123 million people or 24 per cent of the population, many of whom are children, women, older persons and persons with disabilities, the ILO reported.

The report also shows that about 39 per cent of the world population lacks any affiliation to a health system or scheme. The number reaches more than 90 per cent in low-income countries.

The report also highlights the cases of Thailand and South Africa, which have achieved universal health coverage in just a few years, showing that it can be done.

“It is now a matter of political will to make it a reality. Modern society can afford to provide social protection,” Ms. Polaski stated.

Macroeconomic Implications:

The Macroeconomic implications of premature austerity are fairly straightforward. Keynesian national income accounting tells us that insufficient private demand can be compensated for with increased public spending (Y = C + I + G + M-X). For the world as a whole, net exports (X-M) are, by definition, 0. Therefore, when global private demand (consumption, “C”) goes down, it can be compensated for by only be increasing stimulus spending (or cutting taxes, but the economic multiplier of tax cuts is lower than for stimulus spending, especially in a liquidity trap when even near zero interest rates are insufficient to stimulate private demand to full employment levels).

If C and G are both insufficiently low, we get dangerously close to deflation–something almost every modernized economy is aggressively trying to avoid at the moment. High levels of debt and deflation causes a vicious economic cycle, where government spending cuts results in a higher level of “real” debt (even though the gross number associated with debt is reduced, the real value of that debt–what it can buy–goes up). This is one of the things that made the Great Depression so painful for so many people; as the programs that would have helped them were cut, the countries fiscal position worsened, leading to further cuts.

Microeconomic Implications:

It is the effect on people, on human development, that we truly care about here at Normative Narratives. In the context of high unemployment, one could see how cutting welfare programs, government jobs, etc. could be particularly painful on already vulnerable groups. I would need to conduct more in depth analysis of specific cuts in specific countries to speak on exactly how these cuts have negatively impacted people. The report highlights high unemployment and lack of access to healthcare as specific impacts of premature austerity movements.

One human rights violation opens the way for others, often resulting in [extreme] poverty. For example, without access to safe drinking water or sanitation services, people become sick. Lack of access to healthcare can cause a person to lose their job. Lack of access to a quality job means a person is reliant on personal savings (which poor people tend not to have) and welfare programs (which, remember, are being cut). A shock or crisis that may result in a minor inconvenience for someone whose human rights are fulfilled can be catastrophic for those less fortunate. In Europe, the combination of high unemployment and austerity is resulting in a “lost generation” of potential, and that’s Europe! In places with extreme poverty, weak financial institutions, and unresponsive governance, the human costs of premature austerity are naturally greater.

While I think a basic income guarantee is probably fiscally unsustainable (and in a country like the U.S., politically impossible), I do strongly believe in government job guarantee programs. Anyone who is willing to work hard to make their community / city / state / country a better place should be able to make an honest living doing so (just as anybody who is willing to defend U.S. national security can get a job in the military). Of course this would require greater levels of taxation and public spending, not less.

The combination of corporate income tax minimization (from “inversion“, off-shore tax dodging, and government subsidies / tax breaks / and other loopholes in tax codes) and companies forgoing workers for capital is unsustainable–companies are reaping record after tax profits while people suffer without having their basic rights fulfilled. As a result, tax reform and guaranteed public employment must figure more prominently in future political economy debates and policies.


11 Comments

Economic Outlook: A Living Minimum Wage in Seattle

https://normativenarratives.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/91ea7-minimumwagecartoon.jpg

The Seattle City Council has unanimously approved an ordinance Monday to phase in a $15 hourly minimum wage — the highest in the nation.

Drafted by an advisory group of labor, business and nonprofit representatives convened by Mayor Ed Murray, the ordinance phases in wage increases over three to seven years, depending on the size of the business and employee benefits.

The issue has dominated politics in the liberal municipality for months. Murray, who was elected last year, had promised in his campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. A newly elected socialist City Council member, Kshama Sawant, had pushed the idea as well.

“This legislation sends a message heard around the world: Seattle wants to stop the race to the bottom in wages and that we deplore the growth in income inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the poor,” Councilmember Tom Rasmussen said.

The increase in minimum wage comes amid a national movement from low-wage workers for higher pay, and a more livable minimum wage.

An individual working full time–$40 hours a week for 52 weeks at $15/hr–would earn a pretax income over $31,000 (or $62,000, for a two minimum wage income family) enough to put most U.S. families over the official poverty line. Furthermore, such an income level would lead to substantial savings on welfare programs, pushing many households into positive net tax brackets (taxes owed minus transfer payments) while unlocking public resources for other deserving causes (investments in human capital, infrastructure, R & D, etc). One would also expect a drop in crime rates (and perhaps the ability to save money throughout the law enforcement and criminal justice systems), as it becomes easier for people to earn a comfortable living legitimately.

A $15 minimum wage is an ambitious plan, as a proponent of economic populism I hope it is a resounding success. People from both sides of the political divide will be paying close attention to Seattle’s socioeconomic indicators–specifically, poverty rates, unemployment rates, crime rates and economic growth rates–in order to support their position on minimum wage laws. It is notable that businesses will have a period of between 3-7 years to phase in higher wages, which should temper any potential adverse economic shocks resulting from this policy.

When it comes to socioeconomic outcomes, there are too many variables to come to definitive conclusions by running experiments; even sophisticated randomized control trials and cohort studies have their limitations. Economics is always context sensitive, and while it may not be fair to extrapolate lessons learned from Seattle across the country, this will inevitably occur. And in these extrapolater’s defense, the only way to see how a living minimum wage works is to test it out on a sufficiently large scale. Seattle has become this testing grounds, and based councilman Rasmussen’s comments, the city welcomes this distinction.

Proponents of this minimum wage hike will likely frame it as the harbinger of a golden age of shared prosperity, while its critics will foretell of rampant unemployment and economic decline; the truth invariably lies somewhere in the middle. For what it’s worth, in the context of the modern American economy, I believe the results will be much closer to the former rather than the latter.


2 Comments

Green News: The Roles of “Rich” and “Poor” Countries in Combating Climate Change

Major Polluters: 

A rule proposed by the Enivironmental Protection Agency would cut carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 – the equivalent, according to the agency, of taking two-thirds of all cars and trucks in America off the road. Here are some things to know about the rule:

• The E.P.A. expects that under the regulation, 30 percent of electricity in the United States will still come from coal by 2030, down from about 40 percent today.

• The rule is not an executive order. Under the Clean Air Act, the E.P.A. is required to regulate any substance defined as a pollutant, which the law defined as substances that endanger human life and health. A 2007 Supreme Court decision led to an E.P.A. determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant, thus requiring that the agency regulate it or be in violation of the law.

• The rule will not, on its own, lower greenhouse gas pollution enough to prevent catastrophic effects of climate change. But, in combination with other regulations, it would allow the United States to meet its commitment to the United Nations to cut carbon pollution 17 percent by 2020 and press other major polluting countries, particularly China and India, to follow suit.

Energy production accounted for 26% of global GHG emissions in 2008, the largest source by sector. If the United States can cut its own emissions from energy production by shifting towards renewable energies and natural gas, and pressure other leading emitters to follow suit, this could significantly mitigate the environmental damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Countries such as China and India will point to comparatively high levels of U.S. per capita emissions to counter pressure from the U.S. to reduce their emissions.

Least Developing Countries (LDCs):

Access to energy is an essential component of modernization, poverty alleviation, and economic development. According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3 billion people (18% of the global population) live without access to electricity, 95% of which live in Sub Saharan Africa or developing Asia. In order to reconcile two fundamental components of sustainable human development–environmental sustainability and [extreme] poverty alleviation–the worlds least developed countries will need to satisfy their energy needs from low / zero emission sources.

There are a number of reasons to believe LDCs will rise to this challenge. As largely agrarian economies, LDCs face the negative impacts of climate change directly; food / water insecurity and communicable disease patterns are directly affected by changing climate patterns. Furthermore, because traditional energy infrastructure by definition does not exist in places without access to energy, the perceived “sunk costs” associated with renewable energy are largely non-existent.

However, LDCs face one large impediment to clean energy production–cost. As refined production techniques, market penetration, and creative financing drive down the price of renewable energy in the developed world, it is imperative that the technology gap be bridged to include LDCs in the renewable energy revolution. If the 18% of the global population without access to energy instead gain access to dirtier forms of energy, the actions of developed countries to combat climate change could be almost entirely negated.   

Despite this cost gap and shortfalls in pledged financing from developed countries, developing nations accounted for 43% of new renewable energy investment in 2013 ($93 billion out of a global total of $214 billion). However, only $9 billion of this investment came from Sub-Saharan Africa. Efforts to provide financing for renewable energy to those who currently lack access to any form of energy are at crux of sustainable human development, and must be scaled up immediately.

To this end, developed countries have pledged $100 billion per year in “climate aid” by 2020–if realized this would more than double investment in renewable energy in LDCs. Developing a global network of carbon taxation / cap and trade policies (or even a less ambitious patchwork of policies by the worlds largest emitters) can provide a steady revenue stream to ensure such aid is delivered.

Which countries are considered “rich” (and therefore are donor countries), and which countries are considered “poor” (and therefor aid recipients)? Once consensus is reached on this contentious issue, the question of how much aid each specific donor country should contribute remains (between historically high emitters / high per capita emitting “rich” countries, and current high emitting “emerging economies” such as China and India). These are the  challenges world leaders must work together to overcome while drafting the Post-2015 Climate Agreement / Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Neither “rich” nor “poor” countries can adequately address global environmental risks alone–concerted action is needed.  


3 Comments

Transparency Report: Preventing Tragedy Revisited

https://i2.wp.com/cdn2-b.examiner.com/sites/default/files/styles/image_content_width/hash/9f/9f/9f9f57ee51a978328aebec391596e333.jpg

In the wake of Ivan Lopez’s Ft. Hood rampage, I posed a question to my readers; “can social media posts be considered ‘warning signs’ for violent / deadly behavior”? After another mass killing Isla Vista, Calif. a little more than a month later, the issue is again thrust back into the spotlight, this time calling police protocol into question:

A week after Elliot O. Rodger’s violent rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., that left six college students dead and 13 other people wounded, state lawmakers are now calling for an investigation of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office’s previous contact with Mr. Rodger. Some are calling for wholesale changes to how law enforcement officers respond to calls that someone could be a threat to himself or to others.

Sheriff’s deputies visited Mr. Rodger on April 30, just three weeks before his rampage, after receiving a call from his mother, who had been concerned by videos he posted online.

At the time, Mr. Rodger had already bought at least two firearms, which were both registered in his name. But sheriff’s deputies were unaware of that when they visited Mr. Rodger, because they had not checked the statewide gun ownership database. They also had not watched the videos Mr. Rodger had posted.

Law enforcement agencies across California have said that it is not necessarily standard practice to check the state gun registry before any check by officers on someone’s well-being. And the sheriff’s office has defended the six deputies who visited Mr. Rodger in April.

“When questioned by the deputies about reported disturbing videos he had posted online, Rodger told them he was having trouble fitting in socially in Isla Vista and the videos were merely a way of expressing himself,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement.

“Sheriff’s deputies concluded that Rodger was not an immediate threat to himself or others, and that they did not have cause to place him on an involuntary mental health hold, or to enter or search his residence. Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger.”

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, would not elaborate on why no weapons check was done, and declined to confirm whether there would be an internal investigation of the visit.

Based on the information reviewed thus far, the sheriff’s office has determined that the deputies who responded handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy,” Ms. Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in an email on Saturday.

After Mr. Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, Ms. Jackson co-wrote legislation that would create a “gun-violence restraining order.” If family members or friends alert law enforcement that someone poses a threat to themselves or to others, law enforcement would then be able to petition a judge to prohibit the person from purchasing firearms.

Ms. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the state senator who represents Santa Barbara, said she planned to introduce further legislation designed to keep guns from people who could become violent, including a major overhaul in protocol for how the authorities follow up on calls from family members expressing worry that someone could hurt himself or others. She said a mental health professional, who is trained to identify mental illness, should accompany law enforcement.

We need to completely re-evaluate protocols that are used when law enforcement is given info that someone potentially is a danger to themselves or to others,” Ms. Jackson said. “I think we need to check the gun registry. And then we have to find a balance for when it is appropriate for police to remove those firearms, and when it is not.”

My intention is not to place blame on the Santa Barbara police officers who initially responded to Mr. Rodger’s mother’s call; I am sure they followed procedure for such incidents. However, the procedure they where following certainly needs to be revisited. While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from the three most notorious mass killings in recent American history; Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, and now UC Santa Barbara. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need:

Step 1) Identifying a Potential Threat: In each of these incidences there was someone–either a parent, confidant, or mental health worker–who had reason to believe the future shooter was mentally unstable. These people either notified the police, or should have.

In a recent NYT “Room For Debate”, 6 experts weighed in on the question “Can Therapists Prevent Violence?”; notably, each expert agreed to varying degrees that red flags should be acted on, and there should be greater coordination between law enforcement and mental health professionals–a rare consensus for a feature which typically, as its name suggests, presents a number of differing views.

Step 2/3) Access to Weapons: Adam Lanza, Ivan Lopez, and Elliot Rodger’s all had access to weapons; Lanza from his parents, while Lopez and Rodgers had legally bought guns prior to their rampages. If somebody is deemed a threat to themselves or others, the next question should be “do they have access to guns?” (beyond the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, direct access to a gun already purchased).

I applaud Senator Jackson’s proposed “gun-violence restraining order” plan to keep potentially dangerous people from buying guns. However, in a country where gun ownership is so pervasive, we must also consider whether these people already have direct access to a weapon.

 Step 3/2) Social Media Postings: 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.

After a potential threat is referred to the police, an investigation of that person should begin immediately. If that person is known to have access to firearms, or has a social media footprint suggesting mental instability, this is pertinent information that police should be aware of before responding to a call (and not only for public safety, but also for the safety of the responding officers). The police should also be accompanied by a mental health professional, preferably one who has experience identifying someone who is trying to mislead investigators.

I am not talking about an in depth investigation, but rather a cursory search of weapons databases and social media outlets. This can all be done digitally and should not significantly delay police response times.

Preemptively identifying potential mass murders and placing them involuntarily under mental health surveillance based on the factors above is sure to be a contentious issue. Upon developing a new draft protocol, an open comment period including people suffering from mental illnesses, mental health experts, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials, and anybody else interested, should be initiated. Doing so would help develop a more effective police protocol that balances public safety and civil liberties (specifically for people with mental health issues).

Such a protocol would not prevent all mass murders–nothing can. Notably, it ignores those who obtain guns illegally (which if you ask a gun activist, 100% of criminals do, despite evidence to the contrary). It would also not help in the instance of an imminent threat. But it may have helped prevented any of the three tragedies mentioned in this post from occurring, and on that merit alone is worthy of serious consideration.