Normative Narratives


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Transparency Report: Stress–America’s Inter-Generational Poverty Trap

The High Costs of Being Poor in America: Stress, Pain, and Worry:

Reported stress levels are higher on average in the U.S. than in Latin America. Importantly, the gap between the levels of the rich and poor is also much greater, with the U.S. poor reporting the highest levels of stress of all cohorts.

Pain, worry, sadness, and anger (reported as experienced the day before or not) are also all significantly higher among low income cohorts than among wealthy ones, while reported satisfaction with life as a whole is significantly lower, according to our analysis of Gallup data:

The cost and pain of poverty in the U.S. less about basic goods like water and electricity than nonmaterial factors: insecurity, stress, lack of opportunity and discrimination.

Stress impacts cognitive ability. Not only do poorer people have less resources to invest in human capital, due to higher levels of stress they may benefit less from every dollar they do invest. This is the stress-based poverty trap.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that this stress-based poverty trap may be inter-generational:

Stressful experiences for expectant mothers can have detrimental effects on their unborn children:

  1. “Prenatal insults,” such as harassment and discrimination, to pregnant Californian women with Arabic names after 9/11 resulted in higher rates of low birth weight babies, according to research by epidemiologist Diane Lauderdale. Babies who gestated in the weeks after 9/11 and who were given distinctive, Arabic names experienced a two-fold increase in underweight births compared to those who gestated before. Babies born to mothers with non-Arabic names experienced no such effect.
  2. Children in utero during a 40-day ice storm crisis in Québec  had lower scores on tests of vocabulary and psychological measures at age 5.
  3. Using the timing of Ramadan as a natural experiment, economists Douglas Almond and Bhashkar Mazumder find persistent effects of prenatal fasting on disability outcomes as an adult.


Why? One strong possibility is that mothers send biological signals to their fetuses, providing information about the outside world and thereby helping prioritize different aspects of fetal development. Some scientists now believe this process actually alters which genes get “switched on” in newborns.


Are We All “Born Equal”?

Ideally, people would only have children when they are financially secure and emotionally ready. In reality this is not the case, and I for one cannot think of a way of achieving this ideal without grossly invading peoples privacy. Given this reality, how can we reduce stress levels in pregnant women?

One obvious past-due reform is legislating paid maternity leave. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Considering the potential link between maternal and fetal stress levels, perhaps maternity leave should begin earlier in pregnancy. This is not only a women’s rights issue, it is a social mobility issue as well.

Other avenues for progress could be informational. Poorer women are less likely to use contraception or have abortions. Abortions are also less common among poorer women, reflecting both the cost and perhaps the percieved stigma surrounding the practice (a source of stress itself). In  “Freakonomics” Steve Dubner and Steve Levner attribute dropping crime rates in the 90s primarily to the legalization of abortions in the 70s (Roe v. Wade). While abortion may be controvertial, the effects of having unwanted children are far more costly to society.   

When considering intentional pregnancy, it is common knowledge that women take great care concerning what they ingest during pregnancy. However, notably less attention is paid to stress levels. Should doctors be informing women about the impact of stress on their unborn children? Should they be promoting stress reducing activities like prenatal yoga / meditation?

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility requires support at all points in life. Some people need support from birth throughout young-adulthood, others need retraining later in life, while others at certain intervals in-between. This is why we see so many different programs and proposals targeting different age cohorts: universal pre-K, subsidized meals / greater school choice in primary and secondary schools, free community college / Pell Grants / “student bill of rights“.

While it may be ideal to promote policies that reduce everyone’s insecurity, early intervention is less politically contentious. A growing body of evidence suggests the earlier the intervention, the greater the “return on investment”. Furthermore, one cannot reasonably appeal to the  “personal accountability” argument when opposing welfare programs targeting unborn / young children.

Promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility are undoubtedly difficult and expensive, but they are at the root of the American Dream. Furthermore, enabling everyone to realize their full potential spurs innovation and economic growth, and would save money later in life on welfare and criminal justice spending.

As the natural and social sciences advance and become more cooperative, insights such as this will continue to present themselves. As Americans, it is up to us to reject anti-intellectualism and false budgetary restraints, and elect leaders who will turn these insights into effective public policies.

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Conflict Watch: In Negotiations With Iran, Nuclear Rights and Nuclear Wrongs

I don’t even want to acknowledge hopefully-soon-to-be-former Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Thomas Friedman sums up my feelings on the situation nicely:

I think such a deal would be in America’s interest if — if — it includes Iran agreeing to constant, intrusive and unannounced inspections of, and limits on, all bomb-making capacities and if, even after the specified 10 years, there are more-than-the-usual inspections. I would also welcome Congress accompanying the deal by granting the president formal authorization — right now — to use “any means necessary” to respond should Iran try to break out of the deal.

I still don’t know if I will support this Iran deal, but I also have a problem with my own Congress howling in support of a flawed foreign leader trying to scuttle the negotiations by my own government before they’re done. Rubs me the wrong way.

Letting the Israeli Prime Minister use Capitol Hill as the backdrop for a speech meant to undermine active negotiations involving not only our government, but the governments of the worlds most powerful countries, is indefensible.

The P5+1 Iran negotiations are an example of the international community working together towards a common goal. Inviting Netanyahu to Capitol Hill did not promote American values, it undermined the very Post-WWII international order America helped build.

Update: As if inviting Netanyahu to speak was not enough, today 47 GOP senators wrote a note to Iran’s leaders in another attempt to undermine negotiations.

The end of March deadline for a framework agreement is approaching, the sides are familiar with their counterparts interests and red-lines, and potential bargaining space has become clearly defined–we will know soon whether or not an agreement can been reached.

A few key issues remain in the negotiations:

  • Nuclear rights of Iran (number of centrifuges)
  • Preventing a “sneakout” / lengthening “breakout” time (international monitoring rights / acceptable levels of uranium enrichment)
  • Easing sanctions as slowly as possible / longest possible duration of the deal
  • How to manage Iran’s nuclear activities after the “sunset” period

“Break-Out” Time and “Sneak-Out” Capacity:

The efforts focus on the fate of Iran’s three major “declared” nuclear facilities, and on lengthening the “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a single bomb. But those declared facilities are crawling with inspectors and cameras.

Unstated is the fear of a more problematic issue, referred to as “sneakout.” That describes the risk of a bomb being produced at an undetected facility deep in the Iranian mountains, or built from fuel and components obtained from one of the few trading partners happy to do business with Tehran, like North Korea.

The goal is to “make as airtight as possible” the language that would allow highly intrusive inspections to track the precursors and parts that feed Iran’s uranium complex, according to one participant in the negotiations.

The American officials are highly attuned to the findings of a once-classified 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran ended its headlong race for a bomb in late 2003. But it also concluded that smaller-scale activity continued, and warned that “Iran probably would use covert facilities — rather than its declared nuclear sites — for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon.”

Behind the efforts to close a nuclear deal with Iran this weekend lies a delicate question that has been little discussed in public: how to design an agreement to maximize the chances that Western intelligence agencies would catch any effort to develop an atomic bomb at a covert site.

During his interview with Charlie Rose, Morell warned that the focus on declared centrifuges is misplaced, because he expects that if Iran were to try to build a bomb, it would do so in secret. The only protection against that, Morell said, is unannounced inspections at any place in the country at any time.

“If you are going to have a nuclear weapons program, 5,000 is pretty much the number you need,” Morell, now a CBS analyst, said on Charlie Rose. “If you have a power program, you need a lot more. By limiting them to a small number of centrifuges, we are limiting them to the number you need for a weapon.”

This fact that bombs require fewer centrifuges than power is a source of frustration for Albright, a physicist with the Institute for Science and International Security.

“I wish it were reversed,” he told us. “Then we could easily tell if the program was for weapons.”

A bomb requires about 25 kilograms of U-235 enriched to the 90 percent level. If an agreement limits Iran to about 9,000 centrifuges, that would be sufficient to produce enough bomb-grade material but would leave Iran well short of the capacity to generate fuel to power nuclear power plants.

The “Sunset” Problem:

One major issue is the “sunset” problem — that is, what happens after the accord, which would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions, expires. The length of the accord has not been decided, but it could be 15 years or less.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel expressed alarm in his Tuesday address before Congress that Iran would be free to vastly expand its network of centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, after the accord ends. That, Israeli officials have argued, would greatly compress the time that Iran would need to develop nuclear weapons and would encourage Arab nations in the region to follow suit.

Administration officials assert that that criticism is off base. But they have yet to detail what combination of verification measures and possible constraints on Iran’s nuclear activities would remain in place.

This has become the main sticking point. I have heard ideas floated of pre-authtorizing U.S. military / UNSC response as a deterrent. The international community needs an effective and possibly automatic mechanism in place should Iran decide to pursue nuclear weapons during / after any potential agreement.

Deal or No-Deal?:

As a Jewish-American, I am as apprehensive as anyone about the idea of a nuclear Iran. But in order to move forward we must recognize the nuclear rights of the Iranian people, while addressing the legitimate security concerns a nuclear Iran would cause.

I have heard people argue that Iran does not need nuclear power because it is an oil producer. But from the perspective of sustainable development, building a nuclear power industry would help Iran diversify it’s economy and produce zero emission energy.

While the P5+1 nations are clearly negotiating from stronger economic ground, it could be argued that Iran is negotiating from a stronger geopolitical position. The Iranian government, while lacking in may human rights aspects, does a decent job of meeting the economic and security needs of its people. Furthermore, Iran is contributing significant ground troops in the fight against ISIL, something that is in short-supply in the American led coalition.

Given the current security context in the Middle-East, a challenge to the Khamenei regime is unlikely. The Iranian leadership knows the international community needs as many stable parties in the region as possible. The narrative of a power asymmetry between the two sides–that Iran needs a deal more–has been overblown.

It has been acknowledged by all sides that negotiations are a long-shot. President Obama recently said any agreement would have to include at least a 10 year freeze of sensitive nuclear activities, an idea the Iranian camp quickly stated was “unacceptable But the two sides continue to talk, showing that despite harsh rhetoric bargaining space still exists. Progress continues to be made, and all evidence suggests Iran is not using negotiations to stall while developing a nuclear bomb:

“Over the last year and a half, since we began negotiations with them, that’s probably the first year and a half in which Iran has not advanced its nuclear program in the last decade,” Obama said in a December 2014 conversation with CNN’s Candy Crowley.

Obama’s comments were largely accurate, according to experts. The agreement signed in November 2013 has made it harder for Iran to produce weapons-grade nuclear material, we found. International observers report that Iran complied with the terms of the temporary agreement. The amount of enriched uranium is less, and the country’s facilities to produce weapons-grade material has been curtailed.

Getting a deal done is not determinant of success. A bad deal is not better than no deal, it is just a bad deal; coming away with an agreement just to claim a diplomatic success would be catastrophic. But, contrary to what Bibi would have you believe, a deal with Iran need not be inherently “bad”.

In my opinion, a failure of the negotiation process would not be failing to reach a deal. A failure would be letting prejudices and distrust undermine the possibility, however remote, of reaching a “good deal”.

Regardless of the outcome, these negotiations have brought to the forefront certain issues Ayatollah Khamenei can no longer hide from. Is Iran’s nuclear program for peaceful or military purposes? Whats more important, Iranian national sovereignty or the standard of living of Iranian people? These questions will be answered by actions, not words, for the whole world to see. 

In the event of no-deal, it will be important that the international community can credibly claim they did everything they could, and that Iran was an unreasonable negotiating partner. In order to meet this criteria, we must ask for meaningful concessions from Iran (long-term unfettered access by inspectors, slow easing of sanctions) and making meaningful concessions ourselves (recognizing Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights).

Despite efforts from all sides to derail the negotiations, it appears all diplomatic avenues are thankfully being exhausted.


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Its Human Rights, Stupid!

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

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

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

Obama:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ban Ki Moon:

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

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

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

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

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

Why Isn’t More Done?

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

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

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

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

Problems With Partners

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

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

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

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

The Case for an American National Human Rights Institution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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