Normative Narratives


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New Job

Hello all,

I started a new job this week and therefore have less time to write. I will resume blogging ASAP, and plan on putting out at least 1 blog per week starting.

Best,

BZ

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

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Original article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Economic Outlook: Rethinking Public Pension Negotiation

Original article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Original article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Conflict Watch: The Most Protracted Of Conflicts; Isreal and Palestine

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I have, to this point, refrained from commenting on the current war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. As both a Jewish American and a development economist / human rights activist, it has been hard for me to separate my feelings from my objective beliefs. But I did not get into blogging about normative responses to various crises in order to shy away from difficult subjects.

The following is my attempt to lay out the grievances of both sides of the conflict, and separate them into their legitimate and illegitimate / hypocritical components.

Israel’s Stance:

Legitimate:

The Jewish people have been historically persecuted, culminating in the worst genocide in human history, the Holocaust. An estimated 6 million Jews we’re killed during The Holocaust; about 1/3 of the global Jewish population at the time.

In order to preserve the Jewish race, and as a “reparation” of sorts, after WWII global powers granted the Jewish people a state–Israel. Directly following this announcement, the Arab League rejected Israel’s existence and invaded the newly formed country. While certain Arab nations have become more accepting of Israel’s existence over time, a strong anti-Zionist movement remains today. Many countries and factions openly call for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people.

Against this backdrop of historic persecution and current anti-Semitic/Zionist sentiment, it is not surprising that Israel feels the need to defend itself with extreme and what at times may appear to be disproportionate force.

Illegitimate:

History and geopolitics do not justify all Israeli actions in the name of self defense. Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense system has largely neutralized the threat of rocket fire from Gaza. While Israel cannot tolerate regular rocket fire from the Gaza strip, it must do it’s best to respond proportionally to the results of Hamas rocket fire, not the intention / potential damage they represent. Failure to do so is not only deplorable on humanitarian grounds (the killing of innocent civilians), it also plays into Hamas’s hands (or handbook, if recent reports are substantiated) by fueling anti-Israeli sentiment both in Gaza / West Bank, in the Middle East, and throughout the world.

I would go so far as to say that the intention of Hamas rocket fire is not civilian casualties (thousands of rockets fired, single digit Israeli civilian deaths), but rather drawing return fire. Hamas and associated groups regularly fire from highly populated areas in Gaza, and the resulting return fire leads to high civilian casualties. Civilian deaths are part of a military calculus, and, as  deplorable as it sounds, these lives are worth very little compared to anti-Israeli backlash in the eyes of Hamas leadership. It is frustrating to watch the land of my ancestors and sole representative of human rights / democracy in the Middle-East be so obviously and damagingly duped.  

A common response by pro-Israeli factions is that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. While this may be true, it does not absolve Israel of responsibility for civilian deaths. Israel says it has taken unprecedented steps, informing Gaza civilians of areas where it will strike and urging they go to safe zone’s–the issue is where?

Israel currently does not allowing Palestinians to come into Israel for “security reasons” (and has severely restricted movement since 2000). Interestingly enough, the number of Palestinian suicide bombings seems to be inversely related to the ease of crossing from Gaza into Israel. While correlation does not prove causation, there is every reason to believe treating the people of Gaza like prisoners has resulted in a general radicalization of otherwise peaceful people (the situation represents a macro-scale Stamford Prison Experiment is many ways; Israeli’s have become callous to Palestinian suffering, while Palestinians become desperate and more accepting of extremist views).

Furthermore, Israel has allegedly shelled UN compounds thought to be safe on two occasions, which is totally indefensible even to the staunchest Zionist.

If Israel want’s to retain any moral high ground, it must–after careful security considerations–allow Gaza’s citizens into Israel. If Israeli’s are concerned for their wellbeing, the government can setup “Safe Camps”; areas protected by the Iron Dome defense system where the Israeli government provides basic needs (food, shelter, healthcare, schooling, etc.). Separate Gaza’s civilians from Hamas and other Jihad groups, and then continue to dismantle their military infrastructure and tunnels.

Palestinian Stance:

Legitimate:

In 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, prompting an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of goods and further restricting the movement of people out of the Gaza strip. This has resulted in economic recession, compromising the standard of living of people in Gaza (which, according the protracted social conflict theory and common sense, only makes armed conflict more likely). Any long term peace deal must end this blockade in way that is sensitive to the security concerns of the Israeli and Egyptian people.

The blockade created a legitimate use for a series of tunnels–smuggling goods to enable the people of Gaza to bypass the blockade and realize decent livelihoods. However, these tunnels are also used for military purposes, and their destruction has become one of the main focuses of Israel’s current military campaign.

Illegitimate:

The Palestinian Authority spends almost 1/3 of it’s budget on security personnel. One has to question what this is for, as Israel historically has not attacked Gaza without being attacked first. For all the talk about Israeli occupation making it impossible for Palestinians to reach their economic potential, the Palestinian Authority clearly has other priorities as well (to say nothing of Hamas, whose use of  the human dignity argument is as hollow as can be).

This money should be spent on schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure–all of which would be secure in the absence of Palestinian provocation. Israel could commit to a window of non-retaliation, in order to assure the PA that it’s investments in it’s people and country would be safe so long it internally addressed hostile actions from rouge Jihadi groups in a timely manner.

The only legitimate reason for having such a large security force would be to counter Jihad groups, to ensure that Israel has no reason to launch counter-attacks–this is clearly not the case. After the breakdown of the most recent U.S. backed peace talks, the Palestinian Authority created a unity government with Hamas. The PA encourages attacks on Israel by paying monthly stipends to convicted prisoners in Israeli jails; these are not the actions of a party interested in peace.

Hamas is an internationally recognized terrorist organization. It routinely violates cease-fires, and is directly responsible for the current war with Israel by provoking Israel with indiscriminate rocket fire. The role of and blame for Hamas in this conflict cannot be understated.

Israel should make it possible for Gaza’s civilians to separate themselves from fighters, instead of making empty gestures about finding non-existent “safe-zones” within the strip . Once fighting has stopped, Israel should figure a way to end the blockade, leaving no legitimate use for the Gaza tunnel system. 

Muhammed Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, should renounce Hamas, which has proven to be an untenable and uncontrollable partner. Prime Minister Netanyahu must address the socioeconomic needs of Palestinian’s living in Gaza, and own up to / end Israel’s humanitarian failures.

In protracted conflicts, there are always legitimate grievances on both sides. Peacekeeping, however, is primarily about addressing current issues (there is notably a “truth and reconciliation” component of peacebuilding, once both “positive” and “negative” peace already exists, but this step is further down the road). The solutions prescribed here are aimed at decoupling legitimate grievances from the excuses warmongers on both side of the conflict use to perpetuate their agendas.

Notably, these steps require trust which does not currently exist between the two sides of the conflict. Small steps, utilizing all avenues of “multitrack diplomacy” (especially civilian “track 3 diplomacy”), must therefore be taken to build the trust needed for a more comprehensive solution.