Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Monday, October 28, 2013

USA Today Op-Ed (Print)

If you're A) Walking past a news stand, B) See a USA Today... then check out my opinion piece on page A10. Or... read the online version here. I explain why 'South Park' and 'Grand Theft Auto 5' provide models for fixing ObamaCare. 

Discussing US Intelligence Operations in Europe

On Sunday, I offered my thoughts on US Intelligence operations in Europe. Video below!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Merkel and the NSA - Analysis

Accusations that the NSA has listened in on Chancellor Merkel's conversations are not conducive to positive German-US relations. Interestingly, the fact that the White House is saying that they 'are not' monitoring and 'will not' monitor Merkel, suggests that 'they have' monitored her in the past. To be sure, as I noted yesterday, there are worthwhile reasons behind US intelligence collection operations in Europe. Still, targeting the phone of a close ally (especially a head of state and especially one as friendly as Merkel) is a dangerous gamble. It risks significant blowback in terms of personally alienating a valued American friend. The NSA will have known this. Correspondingly, I assume that Merkel was targeted for a short time and in pursuit of specific information. Perhaps in regards to her position during a conference/financial negotiations (international meetings are a playground for intelligence officers).

There's another point here; as Marc Ambinder (a top journalist on the NSA) notes, if Merkel was indeed targeted, then why wasn't her position as an intelligence source more highly classified? Ambinder hints at the larger truth. If she was monitored, Merkel was effectively a deep cover source. In that regard, it's truly ridiculous that Snowden was able to gain access to such an operation. He was a contractor, not the Director of the NSA. As I've argued before, the US Government has a serious problem with its protection of its highly classified sources.

Of course, all of this raises the broader question as to what other information Snowden might have given Greenwald. Does he have agents/officers details? The British certainly think so. Based on what's happening at the moment, we must assume that Greenwald is upping the ante. This may signal how he'll conduct himself at Omidyar's new media endeavor. Ultimately, this is what will most concern the US Government - signal intelligence programs can be reconstructed. Humans cannot.

Related links.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A delicate dance: France responds to the NSA

Following their earlier reporting, Le Monde is now claiming that the NSA targeted French diplomats at the UN and at the French Embassy in Washington (the BBC has a de-emotionalized summary).

Are we supposed to be shocked?

Look, I get that the French Government is angry. As a result of Snowden's leaks, President Hollande is being forced to navigate a tripartite political minefield - expressing dissatisfaction to sate populist anger, but doing so in a way that averts damage to the US relationship and avoids undesired attention from flowing towards DGSE SIGINT programs. This last point is of critical importance. French Intelligence doesn't simply collect on security/foreign policy related targets, they attempt to siphon data from US Intelligence platforms and they aggressively target private companies - engaging in industrial espionage of the type that characterized the KGB. They also monitor French citizens with zealous alacrity. In short, their behavior is far from sanctified.

But let's be clear, the NSA related accusations are far from surprising. Informational awareness is a cornerstone of international diplomacy. It makes sense and it's nothing new. As Susan Rice (apparently) put it, ''[NSA activities at the UN] helped me know... the truth, and reveal other [countries'] positions on sanctions, allowing us to keep one step ahead in the negotiations.'' As I've noted before, the US has understandable reasons to spy on European allies - interests align at certain junctures and separate at others.

All of this speaks to a broader point. No alliance is perfect. The US-Israeli intelligence relationship provides one such example of this truth. Ultimately, deep trust is contingent upon a long term, proven relationship. Like that of the 'five eyes' community (and specifically the US-UK intelligence alliance). Even then, complications are still present.

In the end however, defining interests define a relationship. As was the case with Brazil, this minor scandal will die down. Its perpetuation serves neither France nor the United States.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

GUEST POST: A cordial challenge to conservatives- Some misunderstandings on Income Inequality

This is a guest post from Alex Lenchner aka 'Curious Leftist'. He's an Economics specialist with a keen mind and a fine pedigree for analysis and debate - make sure you check out his excellent blog /s. I'm excited to host this post - while I disagree with some of his opinions, Alex reminds me that left-right political engagement is crucial. In the end, whatever our political colors, the vast majority of us seek a just, prosperous American future. I digress... Over to you, Alex!

One of the things I've noticed in politics is the way Republicans misunderstand or ignore liberal arguments against inequality. And to to be fair, income inequality is a tricky subject to talk about. Even the very best of economists struggle to find the best way to measure inequality. There are different types of compensation, e.g. labor income (wages), benefits, and transfers. There are different ways to measure income inequality, e.g. at the individual, family, or household level. There are also things that we should consider like hours worked. And don't forget that pesky thing called inflation. Trying to put all of these factors into an empirical paper can be a real mess, so on some level, I understand the lackluster debate over income inequality. But despite these complications, two things are clear when looking at the data, decoupling and income growth divergence are real and sizable (1). These are two incredibly important problems that show how income inequality has been growing the past few decades.

More often than not, most people can't even get past step one. The conventional debate on the subject is rife with political rhetoric that obscures the issue and gets us nowhere. Don't get me wrong, there are some right leaning economists and academics that cut right through the talking points and get straight to the heart of the problem. The points they bring up and issues they raise are good for the political debate and they help bridge both political parties to a sort of mutual understanding. But these people are often in the minority and there voices aren't heard all that often. The people I'm primarily talking about are Republican politicians, members of the GOP, right leaning journalists, and plenty of others. Even many on the left are bad about this. So with this in mind, it would be beneficial to some clarity on the issue.

There are 4 main issues I have with Republican arguments on inequality:
  1. The false dichotomy between growth and distribution
  2. While too much government regulation may be a problem, it isn't the problem
  3. Income inequality is not purely due to individual initiative. Instead, it is mostly an institutional phenomenon
  4. Liberals are not against income inequality per se
The False Dichotomy between growth and distribution

This I see all the time, especially from Paul Ryan, a GOP favorite. Take this quote: “Are we interested in treating the symptoms of poverty and economic stagnation through income redistribution and class warfare, or do we ant to go at the root causes of poverty and economic stagnation by promoting pro-policies that promote prosperity?”

This is a classic example of a false dichotomy. We can either redistribute income or promote economic growth, but not both. But liberals often talk about inequality because it can hamper growth. The fact is, high levels of inequality can lead to a less efficient and productive economy. Cutting public investment leads to under-investment in infrastructure, R&D, and education at multiple levels (2). The ways firms treat their workers and the amount workers are paid all factor that go into worker productivity. In fact, fairness is a very important factor that goes into worker productivity and motivation (3). Although the idea of “fairness” is rarely clear and has a heavy degree of subjectivity, there is a growing sense that the present disparity in wages is unfair. And there is some date to back this up, as the wedge between wages and worker productivity has risen considerably since the 1970s:

Factor this with the rapid rise in executive pay (4), then there will be a feeling of unfairness throughout the economy. So with this in mind, redistribution, i.e. changing marginal tax rates on the 1 percent (or through some other method of taxation) to help increase public investment and lower the gap between worker and executive pay could increase productivity and efficiency in the economy. We can redistribute wealth, thereby reducing income inequality, and make the economic pie bigger.

While too much government regulation may be a problem, it isn't the problem

Many Republicans and Conservatives like to make the claim that government regulation is primarily to blame for income inequality, In just about every speech they give examples of small businesses trying to do something and being blocked by government regulations. The Republicans are not whistling Dixie here – they are sinking their teeth into very public angst about government being too large.”

All of these stories amount to mere anecdotes. While government regulation is certainly a problem for our economy, it isn't the problem. No political institution is perfect. Interest groups are going to have some influence on the political process and there is bound to be excessive regulation over some sectors in the economy. But to say that regulation is the primary reason for our present state of inequality just ignores history. The fact is, inequality has been rising since the 1970s. Over this period we've had a number of presidents with various economic policies and doctrines. Yet despite the continuous dynamic shift between more and less regulation over several administrations, inequality has continued to increase. What the right seems to underestimate is the importance of monopoly rents and the increased monopolization of markets as a result of imperfect information, network externalities, and anti-competitive practices. Other factors like regulatory chapter and inadequate enforcement of laws also play a role, but that's different from regulatory burden.

Income inequality is not purely due to individual initiative.

You don't normally see this claim from the right, that inequality is purely due to differences in individual initiative, but it sometimes pops ups (5). Inequality is shaped by individual and market forces, but individuals and markets don't exist in a vacuum. They are constantly being shaped by thing like the government, social rules, institutions, and other structural forces. Skilled manufacturing jobs are being replaced by unskilled service sector jobs. Skill biased technological change has replaced many unskilled workers with machines. Financial liberalization and free capital movements have resulted in global financial stability, causing unemployment on a large scale. Even things like racial and gender discrimination are still alive and well (6). And this just scratches the surface. Looking at this from a common sense approach and blaming inequality on laziness and lack of effort might seem practice, but it ignores decades, if not centuries of research and theorizing. With this in mind, it would be absurd to attribute inequality solely on individual initiative.

Liberals are not against income inequality per se

Many on the right have perceived the liberal crusade against inequality as a desire for “equality of outcomes”. And you see this claim a lot (7). But it's nothing but a strawman and shows the true extent of how many Republicans and GOP members misunderstand the liberal position on inequality. Inequality is going to happen in a market economy. The desire for profits and gain is a vital component in the capitalist system and it's bound to lead to inequality of varying degrees. And, for the most part, capitalism is a great system, and I've seen very few liberals attack the institution outright. What liberals emphasize are the things that constantly influence markets, e.g. institutions, social rules, norms, habits, and a ton of other factors. Some of these structures and constraints are good, some bad, and some negligible. But many of these factors lead to imperfections in the market system and cause differences in well being across the board. Often, these differences in outcomes aren't due to individual actions. It things like this that liberals are concerned about, and believe that a number of institutions, like the government and unions, can help fix. Will the process be perfect? No, and it would na├»ve to think otherwise. But it's better than ignoring the problem.

While you might see some liberals make very dumb comments, you shouldn't extrapolate those examples to all liberals. The fact is, liberals and many on the left are primarily concerned with equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.

Conclusion

Now, none of these arguments I made are original in any sense, but I hope they provided some clarity on an issue that is often obscured by political games. I definitely used vague phrases like “the right” and perhaps I generalized too much. But with that aside, the only way to make any real headway on the problem of inequality is to find a common ground between both political parties. And the only way for that to happen is for those on the right to better understand the arguments those on the left and vice versa.

Footnotes:

  1. As Ben Bernanke notes: “First, since the 1970s, R&D spending by the federal government has trended down as a share of GDP, while the share of R&D done by the private sector has correspondingly increased. Second, the share of R&D spending targeted to basic research, as opposed to more applied R&D activities, has also been declining. These two trends--the declines in the share of basic research and in the federal share of R&D spending--are related, as government R&D spending tends to be more heavily weighted toward basic research and science. The declining emphasis on basic research is somewhat concerning because fundamental research is ultimately the source of most innovation, albeit often with long lags. Indeed, some economists have argued that, because of the potentially high social return to basic research, expanded government support for R&D could, over time, significantly boost economic growth.” (http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20110516a.htm)

  2. Joseph Stiglitz highlights an important case study that demonstrates these effects: “A detailed case study by Krueger and Mas of the plants that manufacture Bridge/Firestone tires provides a particularly chilling illustration. After a profitable year management demanded moving from an eight-hour to a twelve-hour shift, which would rotate between days and nights, and cutting pay for new hires by 30 percent. The demand created the conditions that led to the production of many defective tires. Defective tires were related to over one thousand fatalities and injuries until the recall of Firestone tires in 2000”.

  3. Lucian Bebchuk and Yaniv Grinstein concluded in their empirical study on the growth in executive pay, “the analysis indicates that the growth in pay levels has gone far beyond what could be explained by the changes in market cap and industry mix during the examined period. The growth of pay involved a substantial rise in the compensation paid to the executives of firms of a given market cap and industry classification. Although equity-based compensation has grown the most, its growth has not been accompanied by a reduction in cash compensation.” (http://www.law.harvard.edu/faculty/bebchuk/pdfs/Bebchuk-Grinstein.Growth-of-Pay.pdf)

  4. Bill O'Reilly tends to makes this claim: “Nobody gives you anything. You earn it.” (http://nation.foxnews.com/income-inequality/2012/05/14/oreilly-fire-income-inequality-bull)

  5. See the classic study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination,” American Economic Review 94, no. 4 (September 2004): 991–1013






Friday, October 18, 2013

Conservatives must learn from the shutdown

Speaker Boehner: ‘’We just didn’t win’’

16 days overdue, thus ends an American take on Monty Python. Without the satire.

The White House has preserved ObamaCare, Democrats have won clean resolutions and the GOP has been humbled into a very public and very bloody retreat.

For Republicans, there are only two positives.

First, with this deal, the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has probably saved the GOP from being vanquished in next year’s Mid-Terms. Second, McConnell has challenged the President to live up to his word and engage in serious negotiations (my take on 'serious') before next January. In short, McConnell has given CPR to a party drowning in emotion.

For leading the GOP off its Maginot Line, McConnell deserves the gratitude of all conservatives.

Unfortunately, he won’t get it. 

Instead, the very opposite is likely to occur. Conservative firebrands will rage against his ‘betrayal of conservative values’. McConnell’s primary challenger, Matt Bevin, can expect his campaign coffers to brim. After all, for a loud but vocal conservative minority, compromise is treason. A capital crime. 

This insipid absolutism can’t continue. It’s time for us, the majority of conservatives; the ‘quiet conservatives’, to bring reason back to Republican politics.

For a start, we need to recognize what we’re up against - that there are those in our movement who see ‘purity’ as their defining cause. That for these conservatives, politics isn’t about asserting an agenda, it’s about purging the ‘ideologically impure’. We need to recognize that these partisans see themselves as the modern incarnations of John Stark’s heroic toast, - ‘’Live free or die; death is not the worst of evils.’’ That for these men and women, political death is preferable to compromise.

Next, we need to point out the fallacy of their argument.

Let’s cut the faux patriotism, ObamaCare is not the British Army and this isn’t the Revolutionary War. In their struggle, Stark and his comrades were fighting for an ideal that was both pure and possible – freedom and independence.

Neither was true with regards to the GOP strategy on ObamaCare. As I argued earlier this week, demanding that Obama sacrifice his landmark law was always implausible. Democrats control the Senate and the Executive. The Judiciary has rendered its decision- the law conforms with the Constitution. The polls were also clear- Americans might dislike ObamaCare, but they disliked the GOP’s brinkmanship even more. On top of it all, Obama had a post-Syria necessity to project clear leadership.

Unsurprisingly, the news coverage has reflected this understanding. Instead of focusing on the absurd incompetence of the ObamaCare rollout, the media set up camp on a different story – one centered in a Republican celebration of rudderless obstructionism. A political opposition marching in perfect step with Democratic propaganda. A modern tea party… without the tea.

For conservatives, this strategic delusion speaks to our burgeoning fetish - self-immolation at the shrine of partisan resistance.

Over the last two weeks, the House GOP has rendered itself the governing equivalent of a skydiving team without parachutes- for two minutes, soaring ecstasy as the jumpers sail through the clouds. Until terminal velocity meets certain gravity. Then truth renders its judgment – the illusion of omnipotence at an awful price. Self-destruction is the nemesis of political reason.

If we’re serious about preventing an American welfare state, we conservatives need to get serious.

We need to grasp the virtuous truth- that Political leadership demands both courage and rationality. That in a democracy, believing alone isn’t enough. In the end as with all arguments, political success requires presenting a case, persuading voters and pursuing change.

The alternative is what we’ve seen today. A gleeful Democratic party, a preaching President and a Republican brand that’s bobbing in the sewer.

Please watch video below for my thoughts on broader issues involved.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Westgate Mall attack - CCTV footage

My piece on the shutdown will now be out tomorrow. 

Regarding the newly released CCTV footage from the Westgate Mall attack (see video below), please consider my thoughts for the National Review

Let's be clear, violent Sunni Salafist extremists are exceptionally foul individuals. Theirs is an unrepentant blood lust pursuant to a brutally uncompromising ideology. Where other terrorists seek to force their adversaries to the negotiating table, groups like Al-Shabab seek to 'purify' the world. They are the enemies of everything that modernity holds dear - democracy, minority/women's rights and secular governance... They want to destroy it all.


Shutdown Ends

The shutdown is over. I'll have a piece out later today. In the interim, check out my video post from yesterday.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Shutdown, ObamaCare and what it all means

Interviewed by AJ Delgado (video below), I offer my thoughts on the shutdown, ObamaCare and the broader ideological disagreements sustaining the discord.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Sunday, October 13, 2013

5 articles with new relevance

Five of my older articles that have renewed relevance.

1) Relevant to the shutdown:

        From July... How Republicans could blow their 2016 chances... in 2014

2) Relevant to the debt negotiations:


3) Relevant to the suspension of US aid to Egypt:

        From August... Five observations on Egypt Chaos

4) Relevant to the catastrophic violence in Iraq: 


5)  Relevant to the Red Cross kidnapping in Syria:

         From August... Flow Chart - Actors in the Syrian Civil War


Friday, October 11, 2013

3 lessons American public schools can learn from British private schools

As we learned this week, adult Americans are struggling to grapple with the globalized world. If we don’t address this challenge soon, a day will come when American competitiveness is a dream of the past.

It's time for new thinking.

For my two cents, beyond the 
five suggestions I offered yesterday, I also believe three further solutions can be found in the UK private school system. 

First though, a caveat. UK private schools (known as independent or public schools) are imperfect - pervasive 'old boys networks' are negative for society. This being said, in terms of character development and educational orientation, the British private school system has much to offer America.

1) Enforcing Discipline - The reinforced expectation of good conduct is paramount to a successful schooling environment. This is true for individuals and for a schooling group more generally. Absent discipline, teachers waste time managing the ringleaders of disruption rather than teaching those who want to learn. Many American children suffer the consequences of this dynamic. But in the UK private system, it’s different.

In British private schools, unmistakable authority garners effective learning. Under this system, escalating punishments flow with a culture of expectation. Students understand that their personal reputation is contingent upon their positive behavior. When students face serious consequences for ignoring that understanding, discipline flourishes without the need for regular remedial action. 

Ultimately, this structure cultivates a sub-conscious appreciation for good conduct - students behave because behaving is the norm - 'it's what's done'.

2) Finding Individual Purpose - Rather than considering sporting excellence as the defining tenet of institutional esteem, in the UK private system, students are recognized under a broader orbit of consideration. Further, by injecting varied student pursuits into an intra-school competitive environment (the 'House System'), students gain peer support for their individual endeavors. In turn, this builds a notion of unified purpose. This 'identity' is accentuated by school uniforms - impressing the understanding that all students start from an equal foundation.

3) Building a Tradition - This is critically important. By attaching students to a historic legacy that reaches across generations, British private schools inspire successive year groups to strive for excellence. At a basic level, students are made to feel that they belong to an identity of timeless value. This is important for two reasons. First, it inspires integrity whilst at school. Second, it encourages former students to honorably 'represent' their establishment long after they've graduated. This 'tradition' is most evident in the many students who elect to pursue careers in the British Government/Armed Forces.

Practicality of US application
Implementing these lessons would require strong leadership from local school boards and principals. It would also demand flexible commitment on the part of the teachers who would lead the reforms. Nevertheless, the key tenets of this approach - fostering a unity of purpose, inspiring an ethic of hard work and attaching students to a lifelong institution, would find a strong base in American culture. They would not be cost prohibitive.

America needs to be bold. Our current education system is a bad joke.
Photo credit: Rasmussen

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Skills Race: 5 problems with America's education system

The chart says it all. When it comes to literacy and numeracy, Americans are far from exceptional.

The OECD’s report into adult skills is a much needed wake-up call. In our age; the age of the globalized economy, a cavalier attitude to education won’t cut it any longer. Here are five specific inadequacies that we need to address.

1) Educational Management
Ultimately, education is about fostering intellectually curious citizens. ‘Fostered curiosity’ is critically important. After all, mandatory schooling ends at age 18. When we graduate from High School, it’s up to us to decide whether we pursue greater knowledge or skills. However, unless our preceding educational background is positive – unless we see value in knowing more, our interest in learning will atrophy. This is a basic fact of pivotal importance; as the OECD report notes, facilitating lifelong learning is paramount. Yet, instead of embracing the facts, schools across America are hampered by an excessive bureaucracy that punishes learning. Take the SAT. With its multiple-choice fetishism and its defining influence in college admissions, the SAT is both intellectually retrograde and omnipotent in its shaping impact. In forcing teachers to ‘teach the test’ rather than spark knowledge, the SAT teaches students to regard their education in a perniciously one dimensional manner. In doing so, it fails to encourage exceptional students and it fails to support struggling students. It defers developmental curiosity to college. In the end, the costs are clear. Those students who don’t go to college? They’re left behind. Those who do go to college? They have to learn how to learn.

In America today, true learning is a privilege for the few rather than a right for all. We need an education system that enshrines testing in creative thought as well as retention of facts.

2) Educational Culture
As in South Korea and Japan, we must come to realize that the responsibility for an education does not end at the school gate. That in fact, parents have a central role in helping their children learn. Our national ‘blame the teacher’ syndrome is an indictment on our burgeoning spoon fed society – expectation without endeavor. From both the left and the right, we need to empower parents with the tools to know if they’re children are being well served. The George W Bush Center's Global Report Card is a good example of one such tool. At the same time, while our teachers deserve respect, teachers unions deserve scrutiny. Children are the future of American, they’re not political pawns.
Let’s be clear, until we get real about our educational culture, we’ll be unable to win the skilled, well-paying jobs of the future.

3) Costs v Outcomes
America spends a great deal on education. Yet, as the OECD study and countless others prove, skill based outcomes do not correlate with our investments. One major problem is the scarcity of merit based reward systems. When the best teachers have two choices – to either to take employment at private schools which offer the best income, or serve in poorer school districts that cannot afford to reward their talents, the consequence is a growing equality-opportunity gap. Equally crucial, we must break education funding away from hypothecated county taxes – educational opportunity must not be shaped by the wealth of one’s locality. We also need to empower Principals with far greater control over their budgets - both in terms of hiring/firing and setting individual compensation levels. Indeed, in appointing principals, we should look beyond the education sector for leaders in business and other public policy areas.

Of course, even as we address middle-high school education, we must also face up to the reality that American colleges are simply too expensive for too many who leave school to continue their studies. A skills based future demands more than chucking Federal grants and hoping for the best. We need to pressure higher education facilities to bring down their price tags.

4) Discipline
Speak to a teacher and they’ll likely tell you that they spend nearly as much time dealing with disruptive students as they do teaching. That has to change. Linking with parental responsibility, we should consider extending truancy fine into the classroom. Sustained poor behavior = parents get an invoice. It’s true, many will howl at the very notion of such a proposal. Regardless, we can no longer allow a few individuals to damage the futures of their peers. That approach is morally unjust and in societal terms, it’s also profoundly idiotic.

5) Sport
America is obsessed with high school sports. In one sense this is good – our celebration of shared athletic excellence is an intrinsic part of our American community spirit. Still, though sporting success may help students gain admission into college, few such students will become professional athletes. In this vein, academics must come first. We have to ensure that students possess the basic skills that they’ll need to succeed outside the major leagues. Additionally, we need to do more to recognize those students who excel in fields beyond sports. Whether art, math, debating or football, individual excellence should be judged on merits rather than form. As George Gershwin, Mark Twain and Steve Jobs attest, individual excellence isn't predicated in the movement of a ball.
             
               In the end, we must take heed of the modern age. As a people, our relentless ‘can do’ attitude has always been our greatest ally. It’s what the world most respects in us. Yet divorced from skill, hard work alone is no longer enough. Ultimately, America’s limitless potential has always taken root in our binding of social aspiration to individual ability.

Until we right our education system to that proven course, America’s better future will meet an unyielding wall.

Also, please check out my piece on 3 lessons American public schools can learn from British private schools.
Photo: University of Detroit Mercy