Normative Narratives


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Save the EU, (So it Can Help) Save the World

Two Birds, One Stone

The first round of the French Presidential Election saw anti-EU Marine Le Pen advance to the second round runoff. Her defeat there is not the foregone conclusion many think it is–we have all seen this movie before.

Regardless of the outcome of the election or any future “Frexit” vote, European geography won’t change; Russia will still be an aggressor, and the Middle East will remain a volatile neighboring region. Countries on the European continent need a viable joint security plan. For countries that remain in the EU, a new economic plan is needed to stop these exit movements from gaining popular support.

Three interconnected problems seriously undermine the future of the EU–economic, security, and cultural. Economic contraction from the Great Recession / European Debt Crisis, met with austerity policies, has led to high unemployment and stretched social services. A weak military (partially caused by austerity but primarily the result of historic over-reliance on the US) has left Europe unable to act decisively on regional security issues, resulting in an influx of refugees. The arrival of refugees coincided with an increase in terrorist attacks and exacerbated economic insecurity, fueling strong anti-refugee sentiments across the continent. Given the long-term inability of mainstream politicians to remedy these problems, it is not surprising that once fringe populists offering simple solutions have emerged as a real threat to the future of the EU.

One would think the success of anti-EU movements would prompt a strong response from the block. Unfortunately, it seems like business as usual in Brussels. EU negotiators just demanded a huge 3.5% primary surplus of Greece for an indefinite period of time in exchange for bailout funds, even as it grapples with 23.5% unemployment (almost 50% for young people).

The solution to these interconnected problems, although not pretty, is clear–exempt defense and security spending increases from Greece’s budget surplus target. In general, exempt defense and security spending increases from EU budget rules. These rules are often disregarded anyways, but bailout countries like Greece do not have this flexibility. The result is the poorest countries are forced to accept the most growth-constricting policies.

For Euro countries, make cheap ECB funds available to finance such spending. Security provides a common benefit, so its only fair that the costs be reduced by the common strength of the European economy.

The old saying “war is a rich man’s game but a poor mans fight” is an unfortunate economic reality. US servicemen and women come primarily from lower income families, and this plan would appeal most to the poorest Europeans. But there are, however, benefits to both society and individuals to having stronger armies in the EU. A stronger force can act as a deterrent, discouraging bad actors from, well, acting badly. When preventative peacebuilding, diplomacy, and deterrence fail, a strong army can act decisively in a “just war”. The economic benefits realized by military families are real, and can contribute to economic growth and opportunity.

It is not my intention to glorify war, there are many downsides to it; using force should always be the last option, but for global powers it must be an option. I also want to be very clear, this is not a call for conscription. Those who do not wish to serve in their country’s armed or homeland security forces will of course be free to pursue other options.

Not Ideal, But a Chance to be Real

Ideally, fiscally conservative EU countries would just allow poorer countries to engage in stimulus spending attuned to their specific needs. But almost 10 years after the Great Recession, there is little reason to believe this is the case. In fact, Greece’s recent bailout terms are evidence to the contrary.

Ideally, EU defense and security spending would align with the risks facing its members. But despite terrorist attacks at home, Russian aggression at it’s doorstep, and regional instability in the neighboring Middle East, only marginal steps have been taken on this front.

Eventually “ideally” no longer works. Within the complex bureaucratic framework of the EU, pursuing the ideal has resulted in inaction, which has proven to be the worst course of action of them all. Everything is pointing towards inadequate defense and security spending by EU countries. Europe’s security blanket (the U.S.) is now taking a harder line on defense contributions. It is past time for EU leaders to act decisively before the block becomes irreversibly damaged.

As with any major program there are many specifics to be worked out. For instance, how to maximize the resources that go to “labor” (troops, homeland security forces, intelligence officials) as opposed to large “capital” items (aerial bombers and drones for example), without compromising the objective of improved military and security capabilities.

The proposed solution is a just starting point. But it is the starting point for an idea that can solve multiple problems, and should have support from a wide range of politicians–anti-austerity liberals, populists, and neoconservatives. It is also a relatively simple solution itself, so it should play well with blue-collar voters who are fed up with ineffective technocratic solutions.

I am not calling for a global military buildup. Increased military spending by the EU should be met with decreasing military spending in the US. As I have consistently said, Trump’s pressure on EU countries to increase defense spending has been a rare positive for his administration, but would be a wasted opportunity if coupled with the huge increase in defense spending in his proposed budget.

 

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Understanding Conservative Ideology on Economic Opportunity–“I Didn’t Need It” & “I Didn’t Get It”

I was blessed with an incredibly supportive family, in both emotional and financial terms–I was and still am very lucky. Still I faced many obstacles growing up, so I can only imagine the difficulties faced by others. To err is human, particularly for young people without positive role models. Those less fortunate have much less margin for error, meaning one screw-up (of which I had many) can derail their lives.

Both political parties claim they want to promote economic opportunity. Where the parties diverge, and understandably so considering how open the concept is to interpretation, is how to achieve “equality of opportunity”.

To progressive liberals, there can never be enough investment in economic opportunity. The lifecycle approach to human development stipulates that for one to reach their full potential, investments need to be made at every stage of life: nutritional food early in life to support physical and cognitive development, universal pre-K and good public schooling through high school, affordable college options and job (re)training programs into adulthood. All the while, affordable healthcare is needed to guard against the unforeseen and get people back on their feet.

All else equal, I think most people would agree these things are important–they certainly were in my life. Look at any well-to-do family and regardless of their political leanings, you will see parents making these investments to ensure their kids have the best shot at succeeding in life (nepotism aside).

Where many conservatives claim they draw the line is how these programs will be paid for. But it is not only in the name of fiscal responsibility that conservatives balk at such programs. If that was the case, they would not have elected a President whose policies are expected to increase government debt by trillions of dollars over the next decade.

Some conservatives may actually fear more competition, and therefore actively resist policies that promote equality of opportunity. But such people, I think, represent a small minority of conservatives.

Many conservatives I know are good, hard working people. They believe they are promoting the best interests of the poor, and that liberal policies are creating a sort of poverty trap by encouraging laziness and discouraging hard work. All the aforementioned investments in young people are nice to have, so long as people have worked hard and are able to afford them. But how can we demand that something that is outside a child’s control–their parent’s economic situation–determine their access to the tools to success?

My understanding of conservative ideology on economic opportunity, beyond the veneer of fiscal responsibility, has been forming for some time. But it truly crystallized when I read about Dr. Ben Carson’s Secretary of HUD confirmation hearing:

…if confirmed by the Senate, he would enter public service with a background like few other cabinet officials in history, shaped profoundly by a childhood when public assistance meant survival and public housing was all around him.

Rather than embrace the programs that once sustained his family and the families around him, he has resolutely rejected them, adopting standard Republican beliefs that welfare fosters dependency.

The idea that social safety net programs foster dependency can be broken down into two arguments–“I didn’t need it” and “I didn’t get it”.

“I Didn’t Need It”

With a population well over 300 million people, America has people all along the “capacity to overcome hardship” spectrum.

At one extreme there are people who have resigned themselves to a life of antisocial behavior, and no amount of intervention can change that. Liberals have to come to terms with the fact that even well developed, well intended government programs have their limitations. It is also unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay for the raft of programs needed to replicate the safety net my family provided me.

At the other extreme there are people like Dr. Carson, who can overcome any obstacle and reach extraordinary heights (often conveniently forgetting the role government programs played in their success). It is, however, unrealistic to expect everyone to have Ben Carson’s intellectual capacity and resilience. Conservatives must place the bar at a realistic level, or else the “equality” in “equality of opportunity” will never become a reality.

The extremes at either end of the spectrum represent a small portion of the population–think normal distribution on a bell curve (see below). The policies that promote equality of opportunity should not be tailored to either of these extremes, but rather towards a hypothetical “reasonable” person–one who wants to succeed, is receptive to and grateful for help, and can progress through life with minimal setbacks (keeping in mind that no one is perfect).

normadist

It is also important to understand that inadequate investment is not necessarily money saved. There are costs associated with underinvestment, mainly:

  • Lower future earnings.According to one [UNICEF] study conducted over a 20-year period, disadvantaged children who participated in quality early development programmes as toddlers later went on to make up to 25 per cent more as adults than their peers who did not receive the same support.” This also means less tax revenue and higher spending on welfare programs in the future.
  • Higher future spending on our criminal justice system. In other words, higher crime and a less safe country for all Americans. While I am in no way condoning a life of crime in the face of poverty, that does not stop it from being the life some lead.

These negative consequences should factor into how much we, as a country, are willing to invest in promoting equality of opportunity. Isn’t a dollar spent enabling one to realize their potential better than a dollar spent dealing with the negative consequences of systematic underinvestment?

Social immobility in America shows that more work remains to be done. Recognizing that anecdotal stories of rags-to-riches does not mean that we have achieved “equality of opportunity” is a good starting point. After all, accepting there is a problem is the first step towards finding a solution.

“I Didn’t Get It”

This is, in my opinion, a less defensible position. At least those in the “I didn’t need it” camp can claim that further investment is not needed. The “I didn’t get it” camp is just bitter; instead of asking themselves “would this be a good program?”, they are just sour because it didn’t exist for them.

But shaming these people does no good, it only drives them further into their intransigence. Therefore, it is up to progressive politicians to sell programs that promote equality of opportunity as something that benefits everyone, not just direct recipients.

People must be made to understand that proposed policies will help people of all races who have fallen behind in the modern economy. To this end policies and programs that promote opportunity should be race-blind and socioeconomic based, to counter the “us versus them” mentality behind much conservative opposition.

Progressive politicians must also learn to bridge generational divides. One way to do this is to frame adequate investments in today’s youth as a means of paying for the Social Security and Medicare benefits that many upcoming retirees are depending on.

Understanding as an Avenue Towards Progress

It is frustratingly difficult to prioritize between programs that promote opportunity at different stages of life. On one hand it is more politically viable and cost-effective to invest in programs that target young children. On the other hand it takes longer for these investments to pay off, and politics is inherently shortsighted. While investments should probably be skewed towards early-life interventions, they cannot fully substitute for programs targeting older groups (such as affordable college and job retraining).

There are elements of truth in both liberal and conservative ideologies. Hopefully through greater understanding we can stop talking past each other, and start talking to and working with one another. I know this may sound sound like hippy-dippy kumbaya bullshit, but it is really an appeal to pragmatism and foresight. Over the past 8 years hyperpartisanship has led to ineffective governance. As the government failed to respond to people’s needs, people lost faith in the government. This paved the way for a regressive and ineffectual demagogue to take power, which ultimately benefits no one.

I understand that one party–the G.O.P–was a much larger culprit in creating this hyperpartisan environment. As the new minority party the Democrats have to decide whether they will continue driving our government down this dangerous path, or try rise above it. The G.O.P. went low, will the Democrats go high? Do they even want to? I sure hope they do; politics should be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

I leave you with this Franklin Delano Roosevelt quote from a speech delivered in 1932, whose words still ring as true today as the day they were spoken:

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it; if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.

This is not to say the Democratic party should be anti-intellectual, or willfully ignore historic experience and scientific consensus. It does not mean it should not stick to its principles and have red-lines. If Trump’s first week in office is any indication, there will be plenty to oppose without being blindly obstructionist. By carefully picking its battles, the Democratic party will have more political capital and public support when there is a core issue it really must fight for.


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Obama’s Final UN General Assembly Address and the Next President’s Foreign Policy

Preventative Peacebuilding and U.N. Security Council Reform

Original article:

“Just as we benefit by combatting inequality within our countries, I believe advanced economies still need to do more to close the gap between rich and poor nations around the globe. This is difficult politically. It’s difficult to spend on foreign assistance. But I do not believe this is charity,” he [Obama] stressed.

“For the small fraction of what we spent at war in Iraq, we could support institutions so that fragile States don’t collapse in the first place; and invest in emerging economies that become markets for our goods. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do,” said Mr. Obama.

“We can only realize the promise of this institution’s founding – to replace the ravages of war with cooperation – if powerful nations like my own accept constraints,” Mr. Obama declared “Sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions.

“But I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action – not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term – enhances our security. And I think that’s not just true for us,” he added.

Obama’s final UN General Assembly address included a strong endorsement of preventative peacebuilding. This endorsement is the result of a hard-learned lesson–that investing in conflict prevention is much cheaper than fighting wars and/or paying for humanitarian aid to deal with the spillover of conflicts.

But Obama’s address also included a lukewarm-at-best embrace of UN Security Council reform. America need not worry about “giving up our ability to protect ourselves”–our military supremacy will continue to keep us safe from “traditional threats” (an invasion by an enemy army).

Security Council reform would address the source of the real threats facing America today–failed states and their resulting power vacuums. Failed states allow terrorist groups to take root, and either carry out their own attacks or inspire lone-wolf terrorists remotely.

The current UN Security Council structure shields oppressive dictators from accountability, allowing them to hold onto power as they lose control of their countries. By providing an avenue to override a UN Security council veto, the international community would be much more responsive in addressing failing states. Greater protection of democratic aspirations and human rights, through UN Security Council reform, should be how we “pursue our core interest”–peace and prosperity through economic interdependence.

The Future of American Foreign Policy

If Hilary Clinton is truly the heir apparent to Obama, hopefully she shares his views on preventative peacebuilding. Hillary has taken some flack from the left for being more of a neocon (interventionist) than Obama, but under the right conditions this is actually a good thing. Allow me to explain.

Preventative peacebuilding is a very important element of foreign policy–as previously mentioned it saves on future military and humanitarian spending, not to mention the lives saved and economic damage prevented in the host-countries. However, once a conflict is already underway (prevention is never foolproof), it must be addressed before it become intractable (a la Syria, the issue Obama say’s he has second-guessed the most of any during his presidency and for good reason, because his approach has failed spectacularly).

Trump is right about one (I stress, ONE) thing–our allies need to start paying their share to uphold global security. Furthermore, there must be repercussions for them not doing so, otherwise the status-quo of America footing the bill will persist (Obama’s denunciation of  “free-rider” allies is just rhetoric, it won’t accomplish anything).

This in NO WAY means I support Trump’s overall outlook on international affairs, which includes: praising strongmen like Putin and Saddam Hussein who undermine global security, alienating Muslim allies and providing fodder for terrorist propaganda with blanket statements about Islam, and pledging to dump more money into the military without any coherent plan of how to use it (which could actually harm servicemen and women, vets, and their families).

This last point means that Trump’s plan is not the rebalancing of global defense spending America so sorely needs, but rather a global military build-up. This stance counters the ultimate purpose–American lives and tax dollars saved–of his ONE good idea…

America’s future President should adopt a foreign policy that is a large part Obama (preventative peacebuilding), part Hillary Clinton (willingness to intervene before it is too late), and a little bit Trump (willingness to exert pressure on our allies to pay their fair share for global security). UN Security Council reform would bolster each of these pillars of American foreign policy.

No element of this foreign policy equation can be foregone if global security is to be upheld in a way that promotes sustainable development in the world’s poorest regions, while leaving America with enough resources to adequately and responsibly invest in its own future (its citizenry’s human capital and physical infrastructure).


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China’s Model of Economic Development Cannot be Exported to Africa

Cartoon: Panda Games (medium) by karlwimer tagged china,olympics,panda,bear,growth,progress,darfur,tibet,pollution,karl,wimer

Original article:

However, with China’s more recent rise, what has emerged instead is the so-called “China model” featuring authoritarian capitalism. China is actively promoting this new model of China’s political and economic development in Africa through political party training programs, which constitute a key component of Chinese foreign policy toward Africa.

China has seen remarkable economic growth in the past few decades. About 3/4 of the global  reduction in extreme poverty since the end of the Cold War can be attributed to China. But as impressive as its experience has been, China’s growth model cannot be exported to Africa.

Why not? China has a strong, stable central government and a huge population. Despite the inevitable levels of corruption resulting from an economy dominated by government investment and a civil society which is subservient to the government (lack of transparency, accountability / judicial independence / checks-and-balances, no freedom of press/assembly), the Communist Party is somewhat uniquely dedicated to investing in the human capital of its people and providing some semblance of a welfare system

These positive features that have fueled China’s growth are generally missing in African countries. African economies tend to be natural resource-based, which do not require investment in people for growth but rather patronage politics to keep ruling regimes in power. As a result, the African continent is dominated by poor governance, corruption, poverty and conflict.

China also happens to be reaching the limits of its government-investment and export fueled economic growth model. Because of the Communist Party’s unwillingness to expand civil liberties, China’s greatest avenue for sustainable growth –it’s people’s innovative potential (really the only avenue for long-term sustainable growth for any country, but especially China due to it’s huge population)–remains underutilized. In short, while China’s model can (in the best case scenario) bring a country from low to middle income, it cannot bridge the gap between middle and high income (and as previously stated, the conditions needed for the Chinese model to bring Africa into middle income-dom simply do not exist).

The Communist Party is facing resistance at home, due to the twin forces of increasing demands for political rights (an inevitable result of advances in communication technologies and globalization) and slowing economic growth. Instead of loosening its grip at home to promote economic growth, the Chinese government is tightening its grip abroad. It is effectively trying to buy more time at the expense of regular African people–this is neo-colonialism.

But isn’t this the same as America’s goal of promoting democracy abroad? Perhaps ostensibly, but not functionally. Democracy is based on the concept of self-determination–of people determining their own future and having a government that carries out that vision. Decades of failures and hard-learned lessons in development reinforce the idea that effective democratic governance is the path to peace, stability, and sustainable growth. This is why the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are based on accountable, inclusive governance and the protection of human rights–i.e. effective democratic governance.

The Chinese model of political economy, on the other hand, places little to no emphasis on the African people.  It will enrich Africa’s autocratic leaders and Chinese businessmen in the short-run, leaving the host countries with rising inequality, continued extreme poverty, human rights violations, and conflict. 

The only thing the Chinese and American visions for governance and development have in common, aside from being based on capitalism, are that they are visions being offered by outside powers. Other than this, they could not be more different.

China states that the training programs are strictly exchanges of opinions rather than an imposition of the China model on African countries. In other words, China invites African political party cadres to China to study the Chinese way of governance on issues they are interested in, but whether they eventually adopt the Chinese way is purely at their own discretion.

The original article suggests that perhaps China is just offering best practices, take ’em or leave ’em, but other recent actions compound the idea this is part of a larger play. Considering increased military assertiveness by China (South China Sea) and Russia (Crimea, Syria), combined with the economic backing of new Sino-Russo-centric development institutions (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB)), and China’s sharing of “best practices” (best for China, anyhow) look like the “soft power” component of a larger “hard power” play to actively and aggressively promote its interests.  

Contrast this with likely European (Brexit and other internal EU concerns) and potential American retrenchment (who knows what a Trump presidency could mean for our foreign policy), and an even more concerning picture emerges.

Western backed international organizations, though still the dominant players for now, will face increased competition from organizations (AIIB, NDB) that have lower standards for governance and human rights, potentially compromising what is already a lukewarm embrace of the human rights based approach to development (the IMF, still trying to shake the legacy of failed “Washington Consensus” policies, has embraced more pro-poor, context-sensitive, flexible, ex-ante conditionality; the World Bank, on the other hand, is dragging its feet on mainstreaming human rights into its operations).

Global democratization–which has the benefit of near universal popularity among the civil societies of nations–is facing authoritarian headwinds. Overcoming these authoritarian forces requires strong, principled, long-sighted leadership. Lets hope said leadership is somewhere on the horizon.

 


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Of Brexit and Democracy

In terms of British internal affairs, I find it difficult to take a stance on the outcome of the Brexit vote. Britain may be poorer in the short run, but capital and trade will return to normal as markets self-correct, so I do not foresee a prolonged economic slump. I also do not foresee a further unraveling of the E.U., as there are really no other countries like Britain in the E.U. (or more accurately, if other countries do leave, it will be because of structural issues facing the E.U. that predated Brexit). Of course many will disagree, and much more can be said on either of these claims, but I am glossing over them to get to my main point.

There is nothing to be gained by stomping your feet because the referendum’s outcome is not what you may have liked. In fact, in some ways it was refreshing to see a referendum whose outcome was genuinely up-in-the-air. This is how democracy works–if you wish you could impose a result on this referendum, you are missing the point (or maybe I am–counter-point).

Where I believe Brexit can do its worst long-term damage is not to Britain, or the U.K., or even to the E.U. as a whole. Britain and the E.U. at large are modern, democratic, capitalist countries, and as such will prove resilient. It is the world’s developing regions where Brexit will have its greatest impact. These regions need greater contributions in terms of economic aid, democratic capacity building, and conflict prevention / resolution. In terms of conflict prevention / resolution, even before Brexit the E.U. was already punching below its weight, and Britain was one of the few active European armed forces. I cannot see how Brexit will not compromise European contributions on these important fronts: 

Britain’s decision to quit the European Union could send damaging shockwaves through the bedrock Anglo-American “special relationship,” raising questions about London’s willingness and ability to back U.S.-led efforts in global crises ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine.

The loss of the strongest pro-U.S. voice within the 28-nation bloc, as a result of the “Brexit” referendum, threatens to weaken Washington’s influence in European policymaking and embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin to further challenge the West, analysts and former diplomats say.

Phil Gordon, a former senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, expressed concern that Europe will become inwardly focused on Britain’s departure and independence movements on the continent, leaving the United States to shoulder more of the international burden.

Cameron has cooperated closely with Obama in the security sphere. Britain has been a major military player in U.S.-led campaigns against Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, an active ally on the ground in Afghanistan and a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia over its role in Ukraine’s separatist conflict.

While “state-building” may be a fools errand, failing to nurture budding democratic movements, particularly in authoritarian countries, risks losing genuine opportunities for development, the slaughter of innocent people, and the setback of these movements for decades.

The global march towards democratization has naturally slowed down post Cold-War as the “low hanging fruit” of democratization realized their democratic aspirations. But with Brexit (coupled with an increasingly assertive Russia and China), the inevitability of eventual global democratization for the first time comes into question.     

The U.S. has more than carried its share of the load in promoting a democratic international order as Europe built itself back up from the ashes of WWII and further modernized following the Cold War. Now, when domestic considerations are forcing the U.S. to at very least not increase its role in the world, Brexit has compromised the capacity of the only partner that could realistically pick up some of the slack.

Perhaps a pan-European army was never going to be a reality, but Brexit likely made it harder to coordinate the build-ups of individual European armed forces in a synergistic way. 

Britain is a valued member of NATO, but if it is weakened economically by its decision to leave the European Union, its leaders might come under public pressure to pare back military spending — even as the United States is pressuring NATO members to spend more on defense.

The European Union often frustrates American presidents, yet the disintegration of the bloc would be a geopolitical disaster for Washington. Even before Britain’s exit, Germany was Europe’s dominant power, andChancellor Angela Merkel was Europe’s dominant leader.

“Britain leaving the E.U. now poses a challenge for Germany,” said Nicholas Burns, a former top American diplomat who now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School. “It will need to provide even greater leadership to keep Europe united and moving forward.”

What the Brits decide to do within their own country is their own decision. However, the role Britain plays in international affairs has massive global implications. Hopefully Britain’s new leadership understands this, and acts accordingly. 


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Transparency Report: Closing the Rift Between What the UN Knows and What the UN Does

fdrquote

Quote, FDR Memorial, Washington D.C.

Original article:

He [Current General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft] also touched on the issue of Security Council reform, saying the subject was “of central importance to a large majority of the Membership” of the UN, and that the General Assembly had decided to immediately continue the intergovernmental negotiations on Security Council reform in its 70th session.

Mr. Jürgenson [Vice President of ECOSOC] said that the relationship between the Charter bodies of the UN should be revitalized.

“The changing nature of conflict, from inter-State wars to complex civil conflicts that are intractable and reoccurring, highlights the fundamental link between sustainable development and lasting peace,” he said.

ECOSOC and the Security Council, he said, can interact on a regular basis on issues of concern to them both, from the promotion of institution building and improved governance to the consequences of economic and financial crises on global stability and the impact of environmental degradation on weakened societies.

“On each dimension of sustainable development, economic, social or environmental and on their contribution to the overall objective of peace, the UN development system, under the oversight of ECOSOC, has a lot to contribute,” he said. “The Economic and Social Council can be the counterpart of the Security Council to embrace a truly holistic approach to peace and security, an approach that world leaders have recognized as the only one which can lead to sustainable results.”

Human rights theory recognizes the broad array of human rights (economic, social, cultural, political and civil) are mutually dependent. Furthermore, certain rights, such as civil and political rights, create the enabling environment needed for people to claim other rights / hold violators accountable.

Any society that prioritizes the human rights of all its citizens will, in time, experience a virtuous cycle of sustainable human development and “positive peace“. In contrast, a society that “tolerates” certain human rights abuses in the name of security / stability greatly risks further restrictions of other rights; one rights violation invites others, and the vicious cycle of repression, poverty, and conflict emerges.

The human rights based approach to development therefore recognizes the interdependence of ostensibly separate U.N. operations. Specifically, preventative action–natural disaster preparedness and conflict prevention–feature prominently in development efforts.

The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UNs primary development policy body, uses the slogan “Empowered Lives, Resilient Nations”. “Empowered lives” refers to upholding human rights obligations and consultative policy-making–enabling people in the developing world to be active participants in their country’s modernization. “Resilient nations” refers to conflict prevention and natural disaster mitigation, reasonable welfare programs, and the social cohesion and institutions needed to resolve internal grievances peacefully.

Of course, prevention and preparation only work at certain points during disaster response. Conflicts in full swing must be addressed decisively or they will fester and devolve. Countries that do not amply invest in natural disaster preparedness must bare huge rebuilding costs (this is not just a poor country problem, think about the devastation caused in the U.S. by Hurricane Katrina and Super-Storm Sandy).

Addressing issues once they have reached catastrophic levels is much more expensive than investment in prevention / mitigation. The current model–ignoring warning signs followed by a too-little-too-late response–strains humanitarian aid budgets, resulting in the need to make untenable, short-sighted decisions that perpetuate future crises.

Whenever a capable, trustworthy partner exists on the ground, the international community should not be constrained by short-term financial considerations. The world’s poorest countries should not be consigned to larger futures bills, social problems and insecurity because of a failure of leadership in global governance.

The international community’s inability to adequately address today’s problems stems primarily from two sources. One is short-sighted decision making due to financial constraints. The second is the ineffective structure of the U.N.S.C.

Here are a few suggestions to make the U.N. more responsive.

1) UNSC Reform:

The inability of the U.N.S.C. to preventatively defuse conflicts, due to concerns over “national sovereignty”, condemns large groups of people to a future of conflict and economic decline. Conflict does not know national borders, leading to spillover conflicts that affect whole regions. Even once resolved, post-conflict countries are susceptible to sliding back into conflict. Taken together, these factors show why an inability to deal with one problem proactively can result in long-term instability for a whole region.

This issue gets to the root of the power struggle between the permanent members of the U.N.S.C. that champion human rights / democracy (U.S., Britain, France) and those champion national sovereignty (or more specifically, the ultimate supremacy of national sovereignty, even in instances where the Responsibility to Protect should clearly be invoked)–China and Russia.

Those opposed to “Western” values believe promoting “human rights” is just a way for America to impose its values abroad. I would contend human rights represent values that all people desire, by virtue of being human. Reforming the U.N.S.C. to give a General Assembly super-majority the power to overrule a U.N.S.C. veto would reveal which side of the argument is correct. I would bet the global majority would almost always land on the side of taking action to defend human dignity against any who would challenge it–terrorist or authoritarian ruler.

As the world’s largest military and a veto-possessing permanent member of the Security Council, America on the surface has the most to lose from such a reform. This is precisely why America must lead this push; if we champion this brave and uncertain approach, it would ultimately lead to a much more effective and timely defense of the very principles we hold dear. By loosening our grip on power, we would actually achieve our desired aims through a democratic process–what could be more American than that? 

Human rights violations lead to revolution and conflict, during which legitimate opposition is branded “terrorism”. Inaction by the international community leads to “hurting stalemates” and power vacuums that are filled by opportunistic extremist groups. Authoritarian governments then become the more tenable option, and their “fighting terrorism” narrative becomes self-fulfilling (despite the fact that often their abusive actions led to the uprisings in the first place). Failure to reform means we are OK with this status-quo–we should not be.

During the 70th session of the UN General Assembly, many countries called for U.N.S.C. reform. When such disparate countries with differing needs use their moment in the global spotlight to promote this common cause, it is a message that should be taken very seriously.

2) Development Aid Smoothing

This is admittedly a less developed plan, as I am no financial economist. But it remains clear to me that the world needs some sort of mechanism to smooth development aid for the world’s Least Developed Countries.

We see it time and time again–poor countries slowly slide into worsening conflict or are devastated by predictable natural disasters because:

a) The LDCs do not have the resources or capacity to address these issues preventatively;

b)  The international community cannot muster the funds, as they are all tied up in long-term humanitarian missions (likely because not enough resources were invested preventatively elsewhere–you can see why there is never a shortage of disasters, we ignore budding issues to address full blown ones. By the time those full-blown issues are under control, the ignored budding issues have festered into the new issue de jour).

The continued inability of the international community to address problems before they get worse is not only financially short-sighted, it is a failure of the U.N’s mandates and fuels the perception (and increasingly the reality) that international community is incapable of addressing the problems of the 21st century. 


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Transparency Report: Parenting, Emotional Development, and Social Mobility

SGM benchmarks

Benchmarks for Success from the Social Genome Model

According to the Brookings Institute’s Social Genome Model Benchmarks for Success, the route to a successful life begins with a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Whether it is due to a lack of financial resources, time, or parental ability (or some function of the three), success in life is strongly influenced by the one stage a person has absolutely no control over–family formation.

As Brooking Institute’s Hugh B Price concludes in his recent paper “Social and Emotional Development: The Next School Reform Frontier”:

Of course parents, churches and communities bear primary responsibility for socializing children, but if in reality they are not up to it, what then? Consigning these youngsters to academic purgatory or, worse still, the criminal justice system serves neither society’s interests nor, obviously, theirs. Research and real-world experience demonstrate convincingly that investing in the academic and social development of youngsters left way behind pays welcome dividends. SEL deserves, at long last, a prominent place in school reform policy and practice.”

It is impossible to determine what single element holds back social mobility efforts, whether it is time, money, “values”, or some other variable. This is because the missing element is dependent upon the strengths and weaknesses of parents, which vary from couple to couple.

A multi-dimensional approach to social mobility, including paid maternity leave, universal pre-K, and investing in K-12 social and emotional learning (SEL) is needed to mitigate the effects of inadequate parenting (regardless of its cause). A child born to a wealthy family with strong values will always be at an advantage; this reality does not mean we cannot or should not ensure there is a developmental “floor” that supports all children.

America cannot afford a future where only children born to the wealthiest parents receive the attention and resources that nurture both cognitive and emotional development. One of the key factors that has sustained American exceptionalism over the course of our history has been our talented, innovative, and hard working labor force.

America’s historic commitment to freedom and human rights manifests itself in a creative and innovative spirit that has made American inventions and culture dominant on the global stage (even as our “Superpower” status wanes in other respects). But maintaining a large, skilled labor pool–the workers needed to bring great visions to reality–requires investments that promote a meritocratic society, one in which true equality of opportunity results in broad based economic growth and social mobility.   

Innovation is the ultimate engine of sustainable growth–not financial engineering or mining finite resources in ways that do not even pay lip service to the public costs resulting from their production. We cannot know who the next great innovators are, the ones who’s inventions will create new industries that employ future generations, contribute to solving the global issues of the 21st century, and develop medical breakthroughs that change peoples lives. Every child must be enabled to reach these heights if they are talented enough to do so.

Investing in people pays dividends, particularly during the early developmental stages of life. Furthermore, we cannot just wish away societies most vulnerable (try as we might). When one considers the increased welfare and criminal justice costs, as well as the general insecurity associated with systematically underinvesting in societies most vulnerable groups, the arguments for greater investment in SEL programs are bolstered.

Considering how low long-term borrowing rates are for the U.S and many foreign governments, these are certainly investments we can afford to make (and I would argue cannot afford not to make). But what about poorer countries with less resources and higher borrowing costs? In these cases, SEL targeted Flexible Credit Lines (FCLs) should be extended to low and middle income countries that are willing to adhere to certain oversight mechanisms.

Unfortunately, it appears that national policymakers are leading their citizens in the wrong direction when it comes to funding programs that promote human development. Even in wealthy places like America and Europe, politicians claim we cannot afford to make these investments, despite their alignment with our purported values, high long-run returns on investment, and low long-term borrowing costs.

Investing adequately in childhood development is a question of both social justice and long-term economic growth. Governments around the world must stop viewing impoverished youth as a liability and start embracing them as the future asset they are.


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Aftermath of The Baltimore Riots: Justice is Blind, Economics is Not

RIP Freddy Gray. Just 25 years old, a young man’s life was tragically cut short. We cannot let the ensuing chaos detract from this ultimate injustice.

I have seen people on social media try to justify what happened to Mr. Gray by bringing up his criminal history. Not only is his rap-sheet immaterial to his death, but it is despicable that people would drag a dead man’s name through the mud to make their politically / racially charged points. This man is dead, he cannot defend himself.

Furthermore, Mr. Gray’s criminal history of non-violent drug use / distribution is a common product of his environment. Not to make excuses for his past crimes, but his environment does offer some insight and context into his questionable choices.

Another meritless claim is that Mr. Gray’s spinal surgery led to his death. Mr. Gray did not die on the operating table, and without some outside trauma to his spine he would still be alive today.

Equally disgraceful to these meritless justifications of alleged officer misconduct are opportunists using Mr. Gray’s death to loot and riot. Mr. Gray’s family, for their part, has condemned the riots. Nothing fuels a counter-narrative like unlawful behavior; as the saying goes, with friends like these who needs enemies.

A Department of Justice investigation is ongoing, and I fully expect that after a transparent investigation those responsible for Mr. Gray’s death will be held accountable.

Yes America’s criminal justice system is flawed, particularly with respect to African American communities, but to assume that it is never capable of delivering justice belittles its many unsung successes. As of this posting, the 6 officers involved in Mr. Gray’s death have been charged with various crimes, including second degree murder and manslaughter, by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.

I can understand rioting after an unfair ruling, but not before a ruling even takes place. Some will argue that as a white man it is not my place to understand, and while I like to think I am generally pretty good considering things objectively, they may have a point. I do however know this; when comparing the track records of violent and non-violent protests in achieving meaningful reform in America, the more effective approach has unquestionably been non-violent.

Those sympathetic to the rioters may argue that every successful non-violent protest was buoyed by a parallel violent movement. While it is impossible to completely decouple the effects of parallel violent and non-violent movements, I find this argument flawed. What positive role could violent protest possibly play in political decision-making when violent protests detract from public sympathy, and the state always has the overwhelming advantage in shows of force?

To the contrary, in my opinion meaningful change results from strong leaders utilizing their rights to publicly frame issues in ways that even those who may, in their private thoughts, be ideologically opposed cannot as publicly elected officials reasonably challenge.     

Regardless of my understanding, the riots have, in the words of Baltimore’s African-American Police Comissioner Anthony Batts, embarrassed Baltimore as a city. Fortunately the negative actions of a few misguided Baltimoreans should have no impact on either the Baltimore Country or DoJ investigations.

But ultimately it is not the short-term embarrassment or immediate economic consequences that should most worry those who wish to see Baltimore thrive. It is the long-term impact on investment that is most troubling, as the riots will likely exacerbate the very socioeconomic conditions which indirectly led to Mr. Gray’s death and the ensuing riots in the first place.

While properly served justice is “blind”, economic decision making considers every iota of information available:

The looting and burning of a CVS pharmacy and general store, which has been shown on just about every newscast in the past 24 hours, as well as the destruction of other shops, will tend to deter retailers from making new investments, economists warned.

“One of the things that’s been growing in the area has been the tourism aspect and nothing puts off tourists more than riots and curfews,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist at the Regional Economic and Studies Institute of Towson University in Baltimore.

“One of Baltimore’s credit strengths is it has a sizeable and diverse tax base,” said Moody’s analyst Jennifer Diercksen, noting the city’s universities, which provide thousands of very safe jobs – creating a stable base for Baltimore.

Still, the city lags the rest of the nation on a per capita income basis. Its per capita income was $24,155 for 2012, representing only 86.1 percent of the national median, according to Moody’s.

Its unemployment rate is higher than the U.S. average – according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Baltimore city’s unemployment rate in February was 8.4 percent versus the U.S. rate of 5.8 percent in that month.

Still, economists said one of Baltimore’s problems is the sharp demographic split between the successful elite and an underprivileged population.

“There is the vibrant, beautiful, urban community that is characterized by ongoing renaissance, and the poor, less educated, less visited, which faces more challenges,” said Basu. “Both Baltimores have been making progress in recent years.

“Despite the fact the destruction was in the other Baltimore, not the one visited by tourists, the damage economically in the near and mid term will affect both.”

When private investment lags, jobs and tax revenue for social programs and public goods take a hit. Regardless of your political affiliation or personal beliefs, one or more of these things are needed to promote social mobility and social justice.   

Baltimore’s leaders must now prove their mettle by utilizing the city’s strong fiscal position to attract investors. The city’s leaders must leverage both public money and the public relations boost private companies would realize by helping “rebuilding Baltimore” towards securing public-private partnerships that benefit Baltimore’s poorest areas.

The only silver-lining of these riots is that America is paying attention to Baltimore. While I think peaceful protests would have achieved this same outcome without the negative media coverage and economic backlash, the riots are now (hopefully) a matter of history. Moving forward, the attention Baltimore is currently receiving must be utilized as a positive.  

Another potential avenue for recovery runs through Federal government, which being within a stones-throw of Baltimore may be compelled to invest significantly in revitalizing the city. Of course these two sources of public funding–municipal and federal–should be carefully coordinated to ensure that maximum social benefits are realized.

It is exactly trying times like these when strong leadership is most needed. Let us hope elected officials in Baltimore and Washington D.C. are up to the challenge. Community and religious leaders also have an role to play, both immediately in catalyzing anger into a sustainable political movement, and in the long run by promoting the roles of strong social values, resilience, and personal and social accountability in poverty reduction.

I am confident that criminal justice will be served in the Freddy Gray case, and that this case will help spur more widespread criminal justice reform across America.

Unfortunately, I fear the riots may have exacerbated the very problems that need to be addressed for more comprehensive progress on the social justice front.


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The Evolution of the Post-WWII International Order

As representatives from the IMF, World Bank, and the G20 converged on Washington last week, there was a sense that America may be losing its position as the main guarantor of international order:

As world leaders converge here for their semiannual trek to the capital of what is still the world’s most powerful economy, concern is rising in many quarters that the United States is retreating from global economic leadership just when it is needed most.

Washington’s retreat is not so much by intent, Mr. Subramanian said, but a result of dysfunction and a lack of resources to project economic power the way it once did. Because of tight budgets and competing financial demands, the United States is less able to maintain its economic power, and because of political infighting, it has been unable to formally share it either.

Other experts and historians, however, say too much can be made of the moment. Walter Russell Mead, a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College, noted that the rise of China as an economic force was inevitable, and that its establishment of a rival lending institution was far different from the international behavior of the Soviet Union and communist Chinese during the Cold War.

Then, he said, America’s rivals were trying to destroy and replace the economic order established by the United States and Britain after World War II. Now, emerging powers are emulating it, however imperfectly.

Sure other countries have risen in prominence since America stood as the lone super-power after the Cold War, but has this really resulted in America’s decline? I would argue that building up strong allies to help promote America’s vision of international order–one based on democracy, human rights, economic and defensive interdependence, and more recently environmentally sustainable economic development–was exactly why the U.S. took the lead in setting up the United Nations and the Brenton Woods Institutions (the World Bank, IMF, and GATT).

Therefore, in assessing America’s influence over international order, we should consider how these institutions have evolved. While they were all conceived with the best of intentions, good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Have these institutions been able to learn from their mistakes and make meaningful contributions to maintaining international order? Lets consider them on a case by case basis:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF):

The IMF was originally conceived to promote currency stability and help countries overcome short-term balance of payments issues. But as technological advances made the world smaller, the IMF took on a much larger mandate, and began extending loans to help developing countries modernize. The so called “Washington Consensus” linked development loans to “ex-post” (after the fact) conditions such as hitting fiscal targets (reducing the size of government) and liberalizing trade.

While these policies by and large do promote growth in already developed countries, they ignored the historic lessons of the world’s developed countries. Every advanced country relied on some degree of protectionism to cultivate its own industries and government spending to build both physical infrastructure and a skilled workforce as it modernized.

The “Washington Consensus” programs did not allow for policy space based on the historical experiences and current realities in the countries they intended to help. As I have often written, economics–particularly development economics–is highly context-sensitive; the “Washington Consensus” was simply to rigid and narrow-sighted to work.

The “Washington Consensus” was a consensus failure, and left many countries worse off than before they accepted this “help” (see “the lost decade” in Latin America). Thankfully the IMF abandoned this flawed set of policies.

The failure of the Washington Consensus led to IMF to reconsider how it does business–the “conditionality” attached to its loans. Instead of relying on a rigid set of targets a country must meet in order to continue to receive support, the IMF now focuses on pre-set “ex ante” conditionality. If a country has a sound macroeconomic position, it can tap into IMF financing while maintaining the policy space needed to address the needs of its citizens (and ultimately maintain its legitimacy).

The IMF will have to deal with the specter of the Washington Consensus for some time, but going forward it has evolved in meaningful ways.

The World Trade Organization (WTO):

The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) officially became the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. The WTO sets rules for global trade and provides a forum for airing grievances. With membership covering 96.4% of global trade and 96.7% of global GDP, the WTO is unquestionably an important institution.

Critics often argue the WTO is ineffective, but any organization whose stated goal is the resolve international trade disputes is by definition going to be contentious. I would argue that the WTO has helped keep trade disputes trade disputes, and that without it many of these disputes could have ended in armed conflict.

In recent years, international trade news has been dominated by two proposed regional agreements, the trans-pacific partnership (TPP) between the U.S. and Asian economies, and the trans-atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) between the U.S. and Europe.

There is no consensus as to whether regional free trade agreements (FTA) such as these undermine the global free trade movement, or if they are building blocks towards this goal. But one thing is for certain–free trade agreements create winners and losers. The winners tend to be the wealthy who are positioned to benefit from greater market access; the losers tend to be wage earners.

In the context of political dysfunction and simmering class-warfare in America and beyond, it is necessary that policies to transfer some of the gains from the “winners” to protect the “losers” of any FTA are baked into the agreements themselves. The ability of governments to address the inequality and environmental impacts of any FTA will greatly affect its historical legacy.

The United Nations (UN):

The United Nations is arguably the most important of the international institutions. In addition to providing a forum for countries to address one another, the UN also serves a global policy adviser, giving it the strongest normative mandate of any of these organizations.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are 8 specific goals whose intent is to guide the trajectory of the developing world. The successes of these goals has been uneven–some countries have a great record, while others not so much. As these goals are set to expire at the end of 2015, they are commonly viewed as beneficial but imperfect. Their successors, the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aim to build on their successes while learning from their short-comings.

There are a number of ways the SDGs deviate from the MDGs. For one, they are much more inclusive and consultative. Seen as being drafted behind closed doors by the global elite, the MDGs were hampered from the start. Conversely, the SDGs are being drafted with input from numerous thematic and national consultations with the very people they are intended to benefit.

There is also greater emphasis on the roles of various stakeholders (governments, private sector, NGOs, civil society, and international organizations) with regards to both financing the agenda and being accountable for their operations in the developing world. “Who Will Be Accountable?” highlights these common but differentiated responsibilities, providing general guidelines for holding those who violate the SDGs accountable.

Between the launch of the Post-2015 Development Agenda (the SDGs) and the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris (which is expected to result in the first universal global climate treaty), 2015 will prove to be a pivotal year for sustainable human development initiatives.

One area the U.N. has not reformed sufficiently is in promoting global security. Given that security is a necessary precondition for sustainable human development, the significance of this shortcoming cannot be understated.

Nowhere has this problem been more acute than in the Middle East, where armed conflict has left 1 in 4 children out of school, led to immeasurable economic, physical, and psychological damage, and has completely overwhelmed the international humanitarian assistance network. The inability to protect children is especially alarming, as it plants the seeds for future conflicts.

The United Nations needs to respond more decisively against regimes that commit gross human rights violations. The concept of national sovereignty is meant to protect a country from outside invasion, not act as a shield for human rights abusers.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) was supposed to put peoples rights before national sovereignty, but it has proven to lack the teeth needed to provide meaningful protection. The need is clear, as I have called for in the past, for the UN General Assembly to have a mechanism for overruling UN Security Council vetoes. Such a reform would give the R2P the power it needs to fulfill its important mandate to prevent / end gross human rights violations.

The World Bank Group (WB):

The World Bank Group is responsible for financing development projects in the developing world. While its existence has been a “net benefit” for developing countries, the World Bank has had issues enforcing “good governance” standards on its projects, often resulting in adverse consequences for the worlds most vulnerable people:

The World Bank regularly fails to enforce its own rules protecting people in the path of the projects it bankrolls, with devastating consequences for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet, a new investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Huffington Post and more than 20 other media partners have found.

The investigation’s key findings include:

  • Over the last decade, projects funded by the World Bank have physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people, forcing them from their homes, taking their land or damaging their livelihoods.
  • The World Bank has regularly failed to live up to its own policies for protecting people harmed by projects it finances.
  • The World Bank and its private-sector lending arm, the International Finance Corp., have financed governments and companies accused of human rights violations such as rape, murder and torture. In some cases the lenders have continued to bankroll these borrowers after evidence of abuses emerged.
  • Ethiopian authorities diverted millions of dollars from a World Bank-supported project to fund a violent campaign of mass evictions, according to former officials who carried out the forced resettlement program.
  • From 2009 to 2013, World Bank Group lenders pumped $50 billion into projects graded the highest risk for “irreversible or unprecedented” social or environmental impacts — more than twice as much as the previous five-year span.

Days after ICIJ informed the World Bank that the team’s investigation had found “systemic gaps” in the bank’s enforcement of its “social safeguard” rules, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim acknowledged “major problems” with the bank’s resettlement policies and vowed to seek reforms.

Being a “net benefit” for the developing world is not a high enough standard for the World Bank, it must adopt a “do no harm” principle in all its projects. To achieve this goal, the World Bank should emulate the UN in consulting with those who will be affected by their projects.

The World Bank has an important role to play in promoting the SDGs, but first it must get its own house in order.

Some may point to the recent rise of parallel international organizations such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) as further signs of the deterioration of an American led international order. Indeed, there are serious governance questions these institutions must address, lest they be counter-productive in the pursuits of promoting peace and eradicating extreme poverty.

It would be most constructive to have the UN promote these values (accountability, good governance, etc.) to emerging international institutions, not the US. The UN has international legitimacy; the same message coming from the UN would likely be much more well received.

US-centric international organizations are free to work with these parallel institutions or not, and their positions can evolve as these new institutions reveal their values through their actions. But as professor Walter Mead aptly points out, these institutions are not challenging America’s Post WWII vision of international order, they are doubling-down on it. As the saying goes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery.


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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.