Normative Narratives


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Righteous Indignation Towards Trump Supporters is Self-Defeating

A lot of passionate, smart people I know are rightfully concerned about Trump’s impending presidency. I find the man’s words to be disgraceful and divisive, and his proposed policies (both at home and abroad) wrong-minded and regressive. It seems like the more issues one cares about, the more there is to be concerned about regarding Trump’s presidency.

I also want to make it abundantly clear that, on a personal level, I think that anyone who voted for “change” while overlooking these serious shortcomings made the wrong choice. But in America, any one person’s views are worth exactly one vote (kinda, RE: electoral college). Me, and the many people who share my views, lost in this election.

However, with every loss there is a lesson to be learned (and that lesson is not just that the electoral college, at least as it currently stands, is an outdated institution). There is a saying in economics that “all economics is local”. Quoting national unemployment and growth numbers in the face of people who feel they have been left behind is not only demeaning, it misses the very real point that many people are experiencing a different reality.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders so popular is that he understands “populism” is inherently a good thing, even if it has been co-opted by bad actors in recent years. It is certainly not a concept liberals should allow ultra-conservatives to monopolize. In fact, it is much more congruent with the Democratic party’s ideology, should the party embrace it.

My point is not to try to change the strongly entrenched racist thoughts of the worst fringes of Trump’s supporters–these people truly are “deplorable”, and will never represent America or its values regardless of the outcome of any election. I have no interest in engaging these people–the G.O.P. can keep their votes. But I do know that not all Trump supporters are racist / sexist / bigoted. I know this not only because common sense tells me so, but also because I have known some Trump supporters for years, and I know they are not this way.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it is impossible to decipher between the true “deplorables” (yes, they do exist, get over it) and the economically disadvantaged, politically frustrated Trump supporters simply by looking at them. Therefore, the reasonable Trump supporters must be teased-out (no, not that tease, stay with me here) by creating a stronger, more inclusive Democratic party platform.

If you, like me, believe that a Trump presidency will likely be very damaging in a number of ways, the best way to limit that damage is have the Democrats retake Congress in two years. And that cannot be done without reaching out to some people who voted for Trump, and showing them that the Democratic party does represent them. 

This is an understandably frustrating lesson because rhetorically and policy-wise, the Democratic party already does represent the interests of the disadvantaged (including disadvantaged white people) much more so than the G.O.P. does. But in that frustration lies a silver-lining–the Democratic party does not need to engage in a wholesale ideological overhaul (something the G.O.P., regardless of the results of this election, ultimately does). Rather, the Democratic party needs a change in leadership and the way it conveys its message–a more manageable task that, if focused on, can be accomplished in time to impact the 2018 midterm elections.

This is not a message of unity for the sake of unity. It is a message of introspection in the name of political viability. To react to Trump’s election with righteous indignation towards his supporters, to dig further into the liberal “smarter-than-thou” mindset, only exacerbates the very divisions that enabled Trump’s rise to power in the first place. 

UPDATE (11/17):

The Democratic party is leveraging Bernie Sanders popularity and populist bend by making him outreach chair on the Senate Democrats leadership team. This is a good start!

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Transparency Report: Europe’s Predictable and (Partly) Self-Inflicted Refugee Crisis

THOUSANDS SYRIAN REFUGEE

The European Refugee Crisis did not come out of nowhere. In fact, for anybody who follows international affairs, it is an inevitable result of a failure of leadership, shared responsibility, and vision in global security. For the past 70 years, America has been the guarantor of global security for countries seeking to promote democracy and human rights. For many decades this strategy either worked, or we lacked the communications technologies to know that it did not.

However, the decline of the inter-state war (thanks in large part to the economic interdependence and institutions engineered by America post-WWII) and rise of civil wars / non-state (terrorist) actors have led to much more protracted conflicts. The costs of modern warfare, exemplified by America’s “War on Terror”, have left America war-weary and financially strained–the era of “Team America, World Police” is over. This does not mean America should pull back from its extra-territorial human rights obligations, it means that countries that share our values must begin to pull their weight.

These sentiments were recently shared in a statement by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon:

“Let us also remember: the high number of refugees and migrants are a symptom of deeper problems – endless conflict, grave violations of human rights, tangible governance failures and harsh repression. The Syrian war, for example, has just been manifested on a roadside in the heart of Europe.”

Mr. Ban said that in addition to upholding responsibilities, the international community must also show greater determination in resolving conflicts and other problems that leave people little choice but to flee. Failing that, the numbers of those displaced – more than 40,000 per day – will only rise.

“This is a human tragedy that requires a determined collective political response. It is a crisis of solidarity, not a crisis of numbers,” the Secretary-General declared.

Thomas Friedman, who is by no means a war hawk, had a surprisingly hawkish outlook on the wars of the Middle East and their subsequent refugee crises in his most recent NYT Op-Ed:

Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has focused on integrating more countries into a democratic, free-market world community built on the rule of law while seeking to deter those states that resist from destabilizing the rest. This is what we know how to do.

But, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of the forthcoming “Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era”: “There is nothing in our experience that has prepared us for what is going on now: the meltdown of an increasing number of states all at the same time in a globalized world

Your heart aches for the Syrian refugees flocking to Europe. And Germany’s generosity in absorbing so many is amazing. We have a special obligation to Libyan and Iraqi refugees. But, with so many countries melting down, just absorbing more and more refugees is not sustainable.

If we’re honest, we have only two ways to halt this refugee flood, and we don’t want to choose either: build a wall and isolate these regions of disorder, or occupy them with boots on the ground, crush the bad guys and build a new order based on real citizenship, a vast project that would take two generations. We fool ourselves that there is a sustainable, easy third way: just keep taking more refugees or create “no-fly zones” here or there.

Will the ends, will the means. And right now no one wants to will the means, because all you win is a bill. So the world of disorder keeps spilling over into the world of order. And beware: The market, Mother Nature and Moore’s law are just revving their engines. You haven’t seen this play before, which is why we have some hard new thinking and hard choices ahead.

Obviously the first option–isolating these regions of disorder–is not really an option at all. Pursuing this option would lead to untold human suffering and stifle innovation, trade, and economic growth. Furthermore, these regions of disorder will not simply leave us alone, as evidenced by 9/11, the 2004 Madrid Train bombings, and more recent “lone wolf” terrorist attacks around the world.

One of the great challenges of the 21st century for the global community, therefore, is to establish a fair, equitable, and financially sustainable system for promoting economic development, “positive peace“, and conflict prevention. The UN Security Council must be reformed, in order to allow the “Responsibility to Protect” to fulfill it’s promise and respond to conflicts in a decisive and timely manner.

The Syrian civil war is a case-in-point of what happens when the international community is unwilling to dedicate the necessary resources to stemming a conflict before it gets out of control.

There are many considerations when assessing the true cost of war, aside from the obvious financial cost of intervention and casualties. Other less obvious costs include damage to the “host” country (physical damage, lost economic output, the cost of post-conflict reconstruction) and psychological and human development costs to civilians in the “host” country–surely war is not to be rushed into or taken lightly.

But despite all these costs, the use of force must remain as a deterrent; war might be costly for society as a whole, but it can still be very profitable for authoritarian governments and terrorist groups. Given Europe’s relative wealth and proximity to the Middle East / North Africa, it’s role in global security and defending human rights abroad has been feeble. Germany is leading the European campaign to house refugees, but as Friedman and Ban point out, treating the symptom and not the cause is not a sustainable solution.

The U.S. more than does it’s part in fighting these wars, but despite good intentions our track record is far from perfect–both intervention and non-intervention in past decades have had disastrous effects. When the U.S. military is the only show in town, “debates” on the proper course of action devolve into an echo-chamber of American ideas, and any ensuing missteps–be they to act or not to act–are amplified. 

Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia will not defend democratic principles. India, while democratic, is inherently non-interventionist. Japan, for it’s part, is beginning to pivot towards playing a greater role in global security. However, when examining countries military capabilities and their ideologies, it is obvious that there is no substitute for Europe (led by Germany) playing a larger role in promoting democracy and human rights abroad, including through the use of force when necessary. 

One would hope that the daily influx of thousands of conflict-driven refugees, in addition to a resurgent Russian military, would kick the Europe military machine into gear. Failure to do so does not promote peace or fiscal responsibility, it is a short-sighted and cowardly approach to governance, and one the world cannot afford. 


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Economic Outlook: Fiscal Policy, Equality of Opportunity, and Social Mobility

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“Your chances of achieving the American Dream are almost two times higher … if you are growing up in Canada than in the United States,” said Harvard’s Raj Chetty at a Center on Children and Families (CCF) event held on Monday. Chetty, the Bloomberg Professor of Economics and a leading scholar on opportunity and intergenerational mobility, presented his latest research on how where one grows up has a huge impact on success later in life.

Chetty and colleagues calculated upward mobility for every metro and rural area in the United States. 

The heat map below shows the chances that a child born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution in that particular place will reach the top fifth later in life.

My more perceptive readers may be thinking, “Ben, you usually advocate for equality of opportunity, not outcomes, what gives?”

This is a fair observation. Generally speaking, I do believe more in equality of opportunity than equality in outcomes. But these two concepts cannot be fully separated. In fact, they intersect at what has become an important issue for politicians, academics, and social scientists alike–social mobility.

Observing social mobility outcomes at the macro level provides insight into opportunity (or lack thereof) at the micro level. At more macro levels (neighborhood, city, county, etc), the differences in individuals’ development experiences (wealth, culture, parental values, personal ability, luck, etc.) are naturally smoothed out. Taking into consideration every possible permutation of personal development, these forces offset one another. What we are left with is the “average” (for lack of a better word) personal development experience.  

This “average” experience leaves a common factor–public goods and services–as the variable explaining why certain areas recognize greater social mobility than others (as shown on Mr. Chetty’s map). The fact that the administration of many important public services is carried out at these same levels reinforces the idea that social mobility outcomes are the result of policy choice(s).

Once we get past the question of “if” government programs can impact people’s opportunities, we can focus on which programs are most effective in promoting social mobility. Data mapping serves an important role here, highlighting areas that may have a working policy mix (although since economic development is context sensitive, even the seemingly best policy mix must be adapted to local realities to be effective).

The question then becomes how to pay for the programs which enable equality of opportunity. Fiscal debates are always implicitly an often explicitly shaped by underlying budgetary positions. The unwillingness of governments around the world to engage in stimulus spending despite low interest rates and high un(der)employment (a liquidity trap) is case-in-point.

In order to pay for the services needed to enhance social mobility in poorer neighborhoods, significant investments are needed. This necessitates higher effective tax rates on the ultra-wealthy (which in turn requires a multi-faceted approach, closing loopholes in capital gains, income, and inheritance/gift taxes to name a few); people whose wealth is often unrelated to productivity.

The economic outcomes of the wealthiest ultimately must be impacted in order to finance programs that promote equality of opportunity. This fact, however, does not necessitate class warfare between the lower, middle, and upper-middle classes–the vast majority of the America’s citizenry.

The American economy must work for everybody who is willing to work hard to succeed, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Once this condition is met, inequality is not only defensible, it actually spurs hard work and innovation. Unfortunately, contemporary America is nowhere near this “good inequality”; our inequality is not the result of meritocracy, but primarily the result a political process / tax code beholden to wealthy interests and an outdated criminal justice system.


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Transaprency Report: The Real “Bridgegate” Scandal

Original article:

More than 63,000 bridges across the United States are in urgent need of repair, with most of the aging, structurally compromised structures part of the interstate highway system, an analysis of recent federal data has found.

The report, released on Thursday by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned that the dangerous bridges are used some 250 million times a day by trucks, school buses, passenger cars and other vehicles.

Overall, there are more than 607,000 bridges in the United States, according to the DOT’s Federal Highway Administration, and most are more than 40 years old.

The Transportation Department routinely inspects bridges and rates them on a scale of zero to nine. Bridges receiving a grade of four or below are considered structurally deficient, and now account for more than 10 percent of all bridges.

“The bridge problem sits squarely on the backs of our elected officials,” [chief economist at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association Alison Premo] Black said. “The state transportation departments can’t just wave a magic wand and make the problem go away.”

The American Society of Civil Engineers, which separately produces a report card on U.S. infrastructure every four years, gave it an overall “D,” or poor, grade. Bridges received a “C+” grade for mediocre.

The U.S. needs to invest $20.5 billion annually to clear the bridge repair backlog, up from the current $12.8 billion spent annually, the ACSE has said.

The civil engineers’ group estimates that the U.S. will need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 to keep its transportation infrastructure in a good state of repair.

America the short-sighted, America the reactionary.

In Washington’s Snohomish County, local governments OK the building of houses in areas where mudslides are inevitable, resulting in 41 deaths. Why? because bringing in taxpayer dollars and jobs looks good now, forget the potential negative consequences, those will be someone else’s problems.

We squabble over small (if existent) healthcare premium increases associated with Obamacare, unmindful of expanded access to mental healthcare and subsidies to the poor; at the same time we bounce from avoidable tragedy to avoidable tragedy, shaking our heads and asking “what could we have done differently?”

And we let our infrastructure fall into disrepair, setting ourselves up for who knows how many avoidable deaths (not to mention the economic arguments: high unemployment and low borrowing costs beg for stimulus spending, the long term economic costs of failing infrastructure). Nobody wants to be remembered as the person who “wasted” money on a bridge, and there is no accountability for allowing avoidable incidents to occur due to political inaction.

Subsidize for-profit corporations for doing what they would need to do anyways to maximize profits? Sure that brings in jobs. Prevent a bridge from collapsing? Ehhhhh let that be the next guys problem.

It is telling that investors around the globe seemingly believe in America’s growth and ability to repay our debts more than our own lawmakers do. America’s strength is derived from it’s people, our ingenuity and work ethic. If we continue to under-invest in our people and our infrastructure, we are undermining the very things which made America a global superpower (and “safe haven” for investment) in the first place.

This is not to say that we should not pursue tax reform, and demand oversight / review to ensure programs run efficiently and effectively. But America must more fully embrace the concepts of fiat money and Modern Monetary Theory; past debt cannot be a reason to forgo our current needs, or in the future we will not even have the option of affordable deficit spending. The U.S. Federal government has, in essence, a “blank check”, so long as it is used responsibly; systematic under-investment in the American people and infrastructure is irresponsible and shortsighted.

Issues like this remind me of a favorite Abaraham Lincoln quote: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Of course Lincoln was referring to Civil War, a more immediate threat. America seems to be able to deal with immediate/obvious threats. It is responses to impending threats to American prosperity that remain elusive, which is at the same time understandable and infuriating.

We wait for tragedy to strike, lament the dead and point fingers, instead of acting preventatively. Some tragedies are truly unavoidable; this truth should not be used as a free pass for saying all tragedies are unavoidable.

 


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Conflict Watch: Secretary of State Kerry Visits Sub-Saharan Africa; Talks Human Rights

Two days ago President Obama made a speech envisioning a new direction for American foreign policy. Unsuprisingly, Secretary of State John Kerry is doubling down on Obama’s vision (NYT article):

“Making his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state, John Kerry urged Nigeria on Saturday to uphold human rights as it steps up its fight against Islamic extremists.”

“…reports that Nigerian forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, including against civilians, have become a problem for the United States, which provides law enforcement assistance and has cooperated with Nigeria, a major oil supplier, on counterterrorism issues.”

“‘We defend the right completely of the government of Nigeria to defend itself and to fight back against terrorists,’ he added. ‘That said, I have raised the issue of human rights with the government.’”

“Earlier this month, Mr. Kerry, in a statement, noted ‘credible allegations’ that Nigerian forces had been engaged in ‘gross human rights violations.’”

“Asked about reports of human rights violations — there have been reports of large-scale civilian killings by the army and police in Nigeria — Mr. Kerry said the Nigerian government had acknowledged that abuses had occurred.”

“‘One’s person’s atrocity does not excuse another’s,’ Mr. Kerry said, when asked about reports of serious human rights violations by Nigerian forces.

“What is needed ‘is good governance,’ Mr. Kerry said. ‘It’s ridding yourself of a terrorist organization so that you can establish a standard of law that people can respect. And that’s what needs to happen in Nigeria.’”

Secretary of State Kerry also met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in attempts to support Egypt’s rocky transition towards effective democracy:

“Mr. Kerry was scheduled to meet with the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, later on Saturday. At a March meeting in Cairo, Mr. Morsi promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and Mr. Kerry announced that the United States would provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt. But concerns have mounted since that Egypt is not prepared to undertake serious economic reforms.

The African Union, the organization that Mr. Kerry is in Ethiopia to celebrate, remains, half a century in, a work in progress. First molded by the Pan-African ideals of Kwame Nkrumah, who led Ghana in the 1950s and 60s when it became the first African state to break its colonial bonds, the union, then known as the Organization for African Unity, emphasized African self-reliance and independence.

But those notions quickly curdled into a doctrine that led African leaders to believe that they were above reproach. Autocratic, corrupt leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo; Idi Amin of Uganda; and Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Ivory Coast earned the organization the nickname “dictator’s club.”

Many dictators have fallen in the “Arab Spring” revolutions. The article also discusses the Syrian civil war, frayed relations with Pakistan, terrorist networks in Yemen, pulling out of Afghanistan, and sectarian conflicts in Iraq and between Sudan and South Sudan. As far as extreme poverty and human rights violations are concerned, there is a very strong argument that these issues are becoming more and more exclusive to the African continent. While this is a disturbing if not suprising trend, it also provides a strong mandate for where the vast majority of future humanitarian aid, assistance, and debt forgiveness should be focused (not that there was really much of a question on this to begin with).

Obama and Kerry continue to be a sort of super-team on foreign affairs; their pragmatic and diplomatic approach towards foreign economic and security issues have the potential to bolster America’s standing in foreign affairs while simultaneously spending fewer resources on military endeavors.

I hope my readers realize that by writing about “The End of Team America World Police” that I am in now trying to belittle the efforts of our brave men and women who serve in the armed forces. You can support the troops without supporting some of the Wars they are told to fight in (which the troops themselves have very little no say over). You can support the U.S. D.o.D. While believing that a more even distribution of resources between itself and the D.o.S. would allow America to have a more meaningful impact in global affairs. And you can certainly give military personnel training in human rights, so that our normative vision for this nations role in global affairs can be practiced in the field, instead of our military presence inciting anti-American prejudices.

Another article in the Times today picks apart Obama’s speech. And while I cannot argue with the issues raised in this article, I can question the overall point of the article. The the basis of the argument is that it will not be easy to accomplish what Obama has set out to do, and he did not offer many concrete examples of military action in his public address.

Of course it will not be easy to accomplish the global vision President Obama set out. As I said before, the transition will be neither quick nor linear, there are many obstacles in the way and many more unforseen obstacles will present themselves as vested interests struggle against the forces of modernization. And of course President Obama did not lay out the specifics of his national security agenda; only this nations top security advisors will ever be privy to that information.

After over a decade being engaged in a costly “War on Terror”, America has an administration who is willing to work with the global community to achieve real results on issues that we require coordination to be adequately addressed, instead of ineffective and inefficient unilateral action. This approach will unlock resources that can be spent at home, and raise America’s standing abroad by creating more lasting alliances.

One indisputable fact remains, and that is that America cannot continue its military operations indefinitely as it has since 9/11/01–this is not a sustainable position fiscally or theoretically. The changes Obama has laid out are something Americans should embrace–nobody should ever want us to have to use our armed forces.

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