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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Tuesday, 7 November 2006
Pipe Dreams
Topic: Policy

            Today is election day. The Democrats will possibly take both houses of Congress for the first time since 1994. I should be really excited about this, but I'm not. I haven't been particularly impressed with Congressional Democrats in recent years, and there don't seem to be a whole lot of smart, forward-thinking candidates this time around (though I admit that I haven't been following the races in other states very closely). So many of the candidates seem to have simplistic views on the Iraq War (I'm not happy about it either, but to just say "it was a mistake" isn't helpful), and it's becoming increasingly hard to find an openly pro-trade Democrat. Jim Webb, in my opinion, is a pretty crappy candidate, but George Allen is such an eight-cylinder douchebag that I have to vote for Webb anyway.

 

            Still, if the Democrats take Congress, things should get marginally better (in my opinion). But there are a lot of things that I'd like to see happen that probably never will (at least not in the near future). Here is a list of those things, in no particular order:

 

  1. Get rid of the electoral college. It's undemocratic and puts fewer people in touch with the candidates.
  2. Publicly finance Presidential, Senate, and House campaigns. Not only is money a corrupting influence, but candidates have to spend inordinate amounts of time raising money. No, this won't do anything about 527s, but there's probably not anything that can be done about 527s.
  3. Tradable patent years for life-saving drugs. Patents last for 20 years, and they are extremely important to the pharmaceutical industry, because new drugs cost a lot of money to develop and virtually nothing to manufacture. This creates a problem when it comes to life-saving drugs, most notably AIDS drugs; we want them to be cheap, but companies won't rush to manufacture them if they can't make a profit. We've got tons of allergy, anit-impotence, and hair-growth drugs because there are a ton of rich people who will pay big money for those drugs. We need to make AIDS drugs (and other life-saving medicines) into moneymakers, both in the US and abroad. I'd like to see this: if you create a drug that is determined to be a life-saving drug (you'd have to decide on some body to make that determination, probably the World Health Organization), you can have your 20 patent years on SOME OTHER DRUG. So, if you invent an AIDS drug, there is no patent protection on that, but you can extend the patent on, say, Viagra (which is a cash cow) for 20 more years. This would work because there are a small number of pharmaceutical companies that manufacture a wide variety of drugs.
  4. Dedicate 0.7 percent of our GDP to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. It's an investment worth making in the short run for ethical reasons, and it's an investment worth making in the long-run for practical reasons (it's in our interest to help promote stability and economic growth). Let me add that I have no problem at all with withholding money from countries with bad governance; just give that much more to countries with good governance.
  5. Start sending signals to China that we would acquiesce to a Japanese bomb if China doesn't get serious about North Korea. It's time that everybody involved start thinking about what the consequences will be if we let North Korea's nuclear program go completely unmonitored.
  6. Begin nudging Israel towards military self-sufficiency. They have the technology and capacity to maintain a military vastly superior to every other one in the Middle East, so tell them to make their own planes instead of buying ours.
  7. Expand the NATO concept beyond Europe. There is no reason that geography should dictate the limits of this alliance now that the Cold War is over. The prospect of NATO membership encourages good governance and peaceful behavior; it seems to have had a stabilizing effect on much of Eastern Europe in the last ten years.
  8. Have the tax burden be shouldered more by income taxes and less by taxes on business. This sounds counterintuitive, but it would actually create an incentive for wages to be more widely distributed. Furthermore, it would reward people for work and make our businesses more competitive internationally.
  9. Create a federal fund that low-income communities can use to attract business investment. Currently, these communities use tax breaks to do this, but these tax breaks are usually woefully inefficient and are often something that the community can't afford. We should also expand programs that do things similar to this, such as HUD zones.
  10. More free trade agreements, especially with the developing world.
  11. Encourage the development of genetically modified crops. Fuck you, hippies; it's revolutionary technology.
  12. While I'm on the topic of things hippies hate: encourage nuclear power. Advances in technology have made it significantly safer, and it's presently the greenest power source that we have.
  13. A federal gasoline tax that keeps the price around $3.00 a gallon. I'm with you, Tom Friedman and Danny Rouhier: increased energy independence is both and environmental and a national security issue, and people won't get serious about it until they know that gas prices are going to go high and stay high. Provide subsidies for low-income people who are dependent on their cars to get to work.
  14. Shift more funding of public schools to the federal level; decision-making can remain at the local level. Though some people debate the effectiveness of increased spending on the quality of schools, the debate is really only about the strength of the correlation; there is no doubt that more money usually means better schools. There is a significant disparity in the per-capita GDP of the 50 states, and it shouldn't be surprising that the schools in Mississippi aren't as good as schools in Connecticut. The gap between good schools and bad schools is especially problematic because graduates of those schools usually end up competing in the same college and job markets. Shifting more funding to the federal level would promote more equal spending levels, and also likely increase overall funding levels in poorer states (because richer states wouldn't be willing to see their funding levels drop).
  15. Get rid of farm subsidies. They're a waste of money, they're frequently abused, they go to the wrong people, and they hurt farmers from developing countries. It's not 1933 anymore.
  16. Reform the Presidential caucus system (this is for the parties, not the government). Have them go in four groups, smallest states first, largest states last. This means that one state won't have an inordinate amount of influence in choosing the nominee (as Iowa and New Hampshire currently do), you won't have states competing to see who can go the earliest, you'll have a decent amount of diversity in each round (you could wedge at least one state from each region into each round), and far more people will get to vote when the race is still competitive.
  17. Reform affirmative action so that it grants preference based on economic status, not race.
  18. Abolish the death penalty. If I thought it was a deterrent, this would be a tricky issue to me, but the fact that statistics suggest that it has no deterrent effect at all makes it pretty simple.
  19. Means-test Social Security (actually, this might happen). Also, if we were ever to get into the kind of fiscal shape that would allow us to create private investment accounts without taking out a huge loan (and we probably never will), go ahead and create private accounts with limited investment options. One option must be to keep your Social Security just as it would have been without private accounts.
  20. Re-instate the estate tax at progressively increasing rates, starting at, say, $700,000, reaching 100 percent taxation at around 2 million dollars.
  21. More subsidies (or tax breaks – same thing) for mixed-income housing.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:37 PM EST
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Friday, 8 September 2006
Wayne Rooney: Vanguard of Racial Understanding
Topic: News

  Even people who love sports also love to complain about how spoiled and bratty many professional atheletes are. We complain that they're selfish, egomaniacal, that they're only interested in money, and sometimes that they're just generally piece-of-shit human beings. And, often, they are.


  At times, this complaining carries racial undertones, even if those undertones are only presumed or unintentional. For example, it's hard to complain about the U.S. Men's Basketball team's lack of work ethic without wandering into an area where it can be perceived that you're actually complaining about African-Americans' work ethic. And, of course, sometimes this criticism will be born of genuine racism. Legitimate criticism of individuals and bigoted criticism of an individual because of his race are often difficult to separate.


  The racism issue here stems from two parallel facts: 1) We frequently witness atheletes exhibiting selfishness, greed, and criminal behavior, and it certainly seems that they exhibit these traits more than the general population, and 2) Atheletes are disproportionately African-American. When people witness these two things at the same time, they sometimes assume that one caused the other.


  That erroneous leap of logic is the problem; in fact, correlation does not prove causation. This is, I believe, the source of most modern racism: we witness a behavior correlating with a race, and we assume that the race caused the behavior (I'll leave the fallacy of "races" for another blog). In this case, we see that atheletes are greedy, spoiled and egoistic, we see that most of them are black, and some of us assume that they are greedy, spoiled and egoistic because they are black. Wrong.


  Supporting my case is this article: Rooney and Grey in Restaraunt Scuffle. It's about two English soccer players getting in a fight in a restaraunt. This isn't an isolated incident; this is pretty typical of the type of thing that English soccer players (especially Wayne Rooney) do all the time. Since I've been following the English Premiere League, I've learned that the traits we see in the big American sports leagues - selfishness, whining, money-grubbing, and general thuggishness - are present in the EPL as well. And this is a league in which the majority of the players are white.


  So, in this instance, we see a behavior that correlates with race, but it also seems clear that race isn't the cause. What is the cause? No one knows for sure, but I feel pretty confident in guessing that atheletes (like everyone else) are shaped by the world around them. Specifically, my thesis is this: People surrounded by fame, money, and adulation at an early age stand an excellent chance of becoming complete assholes.


  Of course, the point I'm trying to make isn't about what turns atheletes into assholes, it's about what causes racism and why it's a bad way of viewing the world. I'm trying to make this more than an anti-racism blog (it doesn't take much to come out and say "hey, racism is bad"); I'm trying to point out that racism is sometimes (usually, I would argue) the outcome of making casual, often subconscious, links between observed phenomena. Drawing these connections is a natural (though flawed) process, and it happens to all of us.


  I think that this is an important distinction. Often, the argument against stereotyping is that the stereotype isn't true. Sometimes that's correct, but sometimes it's not. African-American men do, for example, commit more violent crimes per capita than white American men. That's hard to hear, and it's a fact that most of us don't like, but it's simply a fact; there's no getting around it. To try to deny that that fact exists would be ridiculous, but it's often where people go when arguing against the "black men are criminals" stereotype. The correct argument against the "black men are criminals" stereotype is this: Though it is true that African-American men commit more violent crimes per capita than white American men, they don't commit those crimes because they are African-American. The cause of the action lies somewhere else. Specifically, a person is more likely to commit a violent crime if they are from a broken home, if they are poor, or if they live in an area with a high crime rate, and African-Americans are more likely to live in those circumstances than white Americans (this is also a verifiable fact). And African-Americans are more likely to live in those circumstances because of this counrty's history of slavery and discrimination, especially discrimination in education and housing (that's not a fact, but it's a point that I doubt most people would argue).


  I think that this understanding helps us get away from the idea of race as an explanatory variable; I personally believe that race can never be an explanatory variable. It also helps us understand where racism comes from and how we can best go about getting rid of it. I often feel that many of the anti-racism sentiments you encounter are well-meaning, but also simplistic and incorrect. In this instance, it does matter what logic you use to reach the correct conclusion.

On another topic: I am the worst comedian-blogger ever. Roughly 80 percent of my blogs are not funny at all, and at least 50 percent (including this one) are dense and sober. I am essentially trying to publish lightweight academic papers on MySpace. I'm sorry.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:38 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 8 August 2006
Dishonesty in Politics
Topic: Policy

            One of my frustrations with politics is that it often rewards people for being stupid or dishonest. For example, if you promise voters that you will cut taxes, increase spending, and balance the budget, then you are either incredibly stupid or incredibly dishonest. But you will also be one other thing: popular. Voters will love you.

 

            This dishonesty and/or stupidity is usually present first and foremost on economic issues, and perhaps no issue more so than the issue of the estate tax. Currently, Congressional Republicans have tied an increase in the minimum wage to a permanent repeal of the estate tax, hoping to complete a demolition of the tax that they began in 2001.

 

The outright dishonest and/or stupidity of the argument against the estate tax was crystallized in an editorial written by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions that appeared in the June 5 edition of the Washington Post. Id like to review that article now, not so much to debate the estate tax, but more to highlight the way in which extreme stupidity and/or blatant dishonesty can be used in politics to take advantage of voters naivety and polish up even the smelliest turd of an argument. Senator Sessions' article is in bold, and my comments are in italics.

 

This week the Senate is expected to vote on permanent repeal of the estate tax. With this vote, Congress will have an opportunity to finish the job it started five years ago.

The estate tax -- or, as many of us prefer to call it, the death tax -- is a tax imposed on the transfer of assets or property from a deceased person to his or her heirs. This is one of the IRS's most painful taxes, as it hits families at the worst possible time, when they are dealing with the death of a loved one.

 

            First, if the estate tax's opponents insist on calling it the death tax (and he calls it the death tax for the rest of this article), then perhaps I should invent my own euphemism that appeals to sentiment more than reason. I think we should start calling it the Paris Hilton tax.

Second, notice the way he employs a technical description to avoid using the word inheritance. As someone who writes for a living, its obvious that this phrasing was chosen because the word inheritance invokes images of spoiled, idle brats, such as Paris Hilton.

Third, the tax occurs after a death because inheritance occurs after a death; that's just kind of how it works. He makes it sound as if the IRS shows up at the funeral and tries to repo the casket. In reality, nobody's losing money; the bereaved are actually receiving money (that's also how inheritance works), and that windfall is taxed.


Congress passed a gradual phaseout of this tax at the urging of President Bush in 2001, and it was scheduled to disappear in 2010.

 

That tax cut was never intended to disappear in 2010. 2010 was cynically chosen as the sunset date precisely because doing so would reduce the apparent cost of the tax cut in the 10 year budget projection. This was just one of the ways that the President and Congress cooked the books to disguise the actual cost of the 2001 tax cut. Everyone knew that Republicans werent going to let the estate tax repeal expire. And - surprise! - here we are in 2006, and the Republicans arent going to let the estate tax repeal expire.

 

But because of the peculiarities of the lawmaking process, the death tax will return in 2011 -- at the same high rates that existed before -- unless Congress enacts new legislation.

 

Here, he conveniently forgets to mention that the overwhelming majority of Americans don't ever pay a penny of those high rates. Historically, only the richest 2 percent of households have ever paid the estate tax. The key to the Republican strategy on this issue is to convince ordinary Americans that they're going to pay this tax, which is one thousand percent untrue.

 

In April 2005 the House passed a permanent repeal of the death tax by a vote of 272 to 162. Over a year has passed since; it is time for the Senate to act.

The list of reasons for eliminating the death tax is long. To begin with, this tax punishes thrift and saving. It tells people that it's better to spend freely during their lifetimes than to leave assets for their children and grandchildren, which will be taxed heavily by the federal government.

 

If you want to increase the savings rate (i.e., reward saving), there are roughly a bajillion ways to do that, most of which wont punch a huge hole in the budget. But encouraging saving is, in itself, not necessarily a good thing; a healthy economy needs a balance between saving and investment. You need people to spend because that's what makes the economy go; if you encourage too much saving, you get slow growth and deflation (ask the Japanese about this). So the effects of an increase in savings are ambiguous, and at any rate they are easily countered by a small shift in monetary policy.

Furthermore, if Senator Sessions wants to talk about tangential effects of the tax, then perhaps he should mention that the estate tax increases charitable giving. In addition, though this effect is unprovable, the estate tax is the only tax I can think of that actually INCREASES the production incentive, a fact that you'd think would be relevant to Republicans who constantly complain about the negative effect that income taxes have on production.

The death tax hits hardest at heirs of small-business owners and family farmers. In many cases, the heirs cannot afford to pay the tax and are forced to downsize, lay off employees or even sell their business or farm.

 

This small business/family farm lie is probably the biggest lie in the whole steaming pile of lies that is the argument against the estate tax. Point #1: There are - and have long been - exemptions in the estate tax that allow family farms (and many small businesses) to be passed down without being subject to the tax. Point #2: Hardly anybody even uses these exemptions anymore. The reality is, most children of farmers choose not to be farmers. Point #3: You don't even need the exemption if you are truly a SMALL business or farm. Under current provisions, the estate tax doesn't apply to assets worth less than four million dollars. If your assets are greater than $4 million, by what measure is your farm or business considered small? Point #4: As far as we can tell, nobody has EVER lost a farm to the estate tax EVER EVER EVER. Neil Harl, an economist at Iowa State University, has made a career of giving tax advice to Midwest farmers, and he claims to have never encountered a case in which a farm was lost to the estate tax. In 2002, he was quoted in the New York Times calling the idea that families lose farms to the estate tax a myth. In that same 2002 article, the American Farm Bureau Association could not cite a single example of a farm being lost to estate taxes. To argue that the estate tax is the scourge of family farms and small business is blatantly dishonest.

There can be no doubt that closely held family businesses that are growing and beginning to compete with the big guys are often devastated by the tax.

 

As you can see by my previous paragraph, there can be lots of doubt. He's trying to be adamant so as to put his point beyond debate.

 

I believe the death tax is a major factor in business consolidation and loss of competition.

You can believe whatever you want, but I'm not going to believe you until you actually provide some evidence. Also, is the Republican Party now suddenly against business consolidation? Where has THAT sentiment been hiding?


This tax hurts the growth of minority-owned businesses. As the first generation of African American millionaires begins to die, many of the companies they founded will have to be sold to pay the estate taxes.

 

Again, just complete bullshit. And this facet of this argument is a lame attempt for Republicans to score some points with black voters on one of the few issues where they think they have that opportunity.

 

For example, the tax almost forced the oldest African American-owned newspaper -- the Chicago Daily Defender -- out of business.

 

No, the Chicago Daily Defender nearly went out of business because the best black reporters in Chicago now work for the Tribune and the Sun Times. Furthermore, the issues on which the Defender made its name - Jim Crow, lynchings, Jack Johnson - aren't exactly hot topics in 2006. And can you name a third paper in any city that isn't in a tough financial spot?

According to Heritage Foundation economists

 

"Heritage Foundation economists" hits my ear like "Vatican scientists."

 

the death tax also costs the American economy 170,000 to 250,000 potential jobs each year. These jobs are never created because the investments that would have financed them are not made, as these resources are diverted to pay for complex trusts and insurance policies to avoid the tax.

 

First of all, I'm sure that they calculated that number by taking the amount of revenue generated by the estate tax and estimating how many jobs would be produced by an investment of that size. There are loads of problems with that - so many, in fact, that it would almost lead one to believe that the Heritage Foundation economists have an agenda. The first problem is that this calculation doesn't take into account the investing habits of individuals who actually pay the tax, the same individuals whose proclivity for saving was praised by Senator Sessions in this very article. Second, I seriously doubt that this number takes into account the negative economic effects caused by a repeal of the estate tax, which would come in the form of either a budget deficit or an increase in other taxes. Third - and I love this - he's actually arguing that we should abolish the tax so that we can save the money THAT PEOPLE SPEND TRYING TO CHEAT THEIR WAY OUT OF THE TAX! Using that logic, maybe we should legalize heroin so that drug barons don't have to spend so much on lawyers and drug mules. How many jobs would that create, Heritage Foundation? It takes a lot of chutzpah to make that argument.

The death tax is double taxation. Most of the assets taxed at death have already been taxed throughout an individual's lifetime.

 

Double taxation is a concept that doesn't exist in economics; it was invented by politicians. Depending on how you want to look at it, any tax could be considered double taxation. You pay federal and state taxes on the same income, right? Well, using Senator Sessions' logic, that's double taxation. When you buy something, you pay sales tax...that's triple taxation! Maybe you bought cigarettes...quadruple taxation! It could go on and on.

The death tax accounts for a small portion of federal government revenue, an expected $28 billion in 2006, or only 1.2 percent of federal receipts.

 

Blatant dishonesty here; that figure is so small BECAUSE OF THE CUT IN 2001! Furthermore, isn't the issue here what percentage of the tax burden SHOULD be shouldered by the estate tax, not what percentage currently IS? Finally, that money needs to come from somewhere; what tax increase or spending cut does Senator Sessions propose to cover the gap? 

Many argue that repealing the death tax would decrease charitable giving, as this tax allows individuals to deduct gifts to charitable organizations. Yet, even though the phasing out of the death tax began in 2001, charitable contributions in the United States reached a record high in 2004.

 

Inflation, you fucking idiot, inflation! How can you trust anyone who compares 2004 dollars to 2001 dollars without factoring in inflation? Furthermore, can anyone think of a major event that caused a spike in charitable giving in 2004, maybe something involving Asia and tsunamis? The fact that he doesn't mention the tsunami, then sites 2004 instead of 2005, indicates that he is being intentionally dishonest.

The death tax even has a negative effect on the environment, as heirs are often forced to develop environmentally sensitive land to pay the tax. According to a study by researchers from Mississippi State University and the U.S. Forest Service, about 2.5 million acres of forest land were harvested and 1.3 million acres were sold each year from 1987 through 1997 to pay the estate tax.

 

We know that this isn't true because the idea that the estate tax devastates family farms is a fallacy. Furthermore, did researchers at Mississippi State really find a record of every family farm subject to the estate tax between 1987-1997, calculate those farms' liability under the tax, track those farms' land use patterns over the next several years, and then somehow determine what percentage of those land use patterns was attributable to the estate tax? I seriously doubt it.

Finally, the American people already understand the unfairness of the death tax and support its repeal. Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed in a recent poll commissioned by the Tax Foundation supported repeal of the estate tax. Moreover, the death tax was rated by Americans in the same survey as the least fair tax.

 

Americans oppose the estate tax because of all the lies they've been told. I find this poll number more telling: According to a 2002 Gallup poll, 17 percent of Americans think that they will owe estate taxes, when, in fact, only the richest 2 percent will.

As a vote approaches, it is essential that constituents let their representatives hear now how unfair they believe this tax is. The death tax is almost dead. Let's put the stake in its heart.

 

 

 

Maybe you read Senator Sessions editorial and saw through the bullshit. If so, good for you. But it's depressing to know that a lot of people read this editorial and didn't. Due to malice or ignorance, he produced a blatantly dishonest article that effectively throws sand in peoples eyes on this issue. And I'll bet it won't cost him a thing when he's up for re-election in 2008.

 



Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:39 PM EDT
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Friday, 28 July 2006
Eight Outcomes that will Determine the Outcomes
Topic: News

  On the front page of today's Washington Post is an article entitled Eight Issues that Will Shape the 2006 Elections. The eight issues are: Bush, the economy, corruption, immigration, Iraq, turnout, the Northeast, and Red States. I'd like to point out that the last three of these are not issues. They are outcomes. That's like a football coach telling his team that the keys to winning are touchdowns, points, and winning.


  This is emblematic of one of my greatest frustrations with modern politics: the focus is almost entirely on the "horserace," not the issues. Watch any cable news network (check that: don't watch Fox News for any reason) and they won't be debating, say, the pros and cons of various immigration reform proposals; they'll be debating the political implications of those proposals. It's as if the deliberative process behind all issues has reached a finite conclusion, and the only question remaining is which policy voters will think is better. We expend almost no effort trying to determine which policy is actually better. This encourages the polarization of politics, as the only thing that differentiates one party's followers from the other's is their chosen group identity.


  Though I'm interested in politics, I hate the horserace element of politics with every bone in my body. Yes, I pay attention to it a bit, because I have to, but that element of politics is so Machiavellian and ethics-averse that I can't pay attention to it for long without wanting to blow my brains out. I know it's a necessary evil, but if a candidate wins by adopting positions that he or she believes to be suboptimal and panders to voters' sentiments no matter how selfish or backwards those sentiments might be, is that really a victory? Of course, the counterargument is a good one: how could losing to someone making even worse promises and being even more of a panderer be considered a victory? Its a maddening, maddening thing. I just wish that we could focus on issues more and the "game" of politics less.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:41 PM EDT
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Tuesday, 11 July 2006
The UN
Topic: Foreign Policy

  It pains me to say this, but I feel it needs to be said: the U.N. Security Council is almost worthless.


  The eighteen-year-old me would have been furious with this statement. "Don't you think there should be an international body to promote and protect world peace?" I would have asked. To which the twenty-six-year-old me responds: Yes, I do. But the UN Security Council is simply not that body. And get a haircut, hippie.


  The basic problem is this, Eighteen-Year-Old Me: the UN Security Council is not a noble body inhabited by governments dedicated to protecting world peace. The nations that comprise the UNSC don't act as impartial observers; they don't objectively examine pressing issues and determine the most effective course of action. Many true believers in the UNSC badly want this to be true, so they simply imagine it to be true. But, in reality, it is not. And hereâs what it is: a body that the powerful nations of the world use to promote their self-interests.


  Before I go any further, I want to make a clarification: I am writing about the UN Security Council. Frequently, I hear people say "the UN" when they mean to refer to a specific UN body. This confuses the issue; the UN has multiple parts that do different things. There is the Secretariat, which is essentially Kofi Annan's office. There is the Economic and Social Council, which does some tremendous aid work; the World Food Program and UNICEF, for example, are organized here. There is a Trusteeship Council, which takes the word "irrelevance" to a new level, as it is charged with overseeing decolonization. Then there is the General Assembly, which consists of every U.N. member nation and specializes in passing non-binding resolutions about how horrible
Israel is. And, finally, there is the Security Council, which is the present manifestation of the Wilsonian ideal of collective security.


  The first manifestation of collective security - the
League of Nations - is widely recognized as a failure. And two reasons are commonly cited as the sources of the League of Nations' failure: 1) The U.S. did not participate, and 2) Unanimity was required to authorize military action. Together, these two characteristics made the LON wholly incapable of dealing with the issues of its time. And, unfortunately, the descendents of these characteristics are present in the descendant body of the LON. Like it's predecessor, the UNSC: 1) Is crippled by the unwillingness of the world's powers to provide for world peace, and 2) Suffers from a voting system that makes it extremely difficult to take action.


  To prove that characteristic number one is true, let me ask you this: what is your opinion of the Chinese government? Do you see them as stalwart defenders of human rights? Would you feel comfortable with your human rights in their hands? No? Well, the Chinese government is part of the UNSC. A major part. Which brings us to the second reason why the UNSC is incapable of protecting world peace.


  The UNSC can't act unless all five permanent members are in agreement. And, as you might guess, instances in which the Big Five are in agreement are few and far between. In fact, the UNSC has authorized the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter only three times. The first time was the Korean War, which was possible because mainland
China wasn't represented (they were represented by the exiled government in Taiwan) and the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN to protest Chinas absence. The second time was the first Gulf War, at which point the disintegrating Soviet Union wasn't really participating, and China fresh off of Tiananmen Square didn't really feel like drawing attention to itself over an issue that didn't closely affect Chinese interests. The third time was the Afghan War of 2001. So, two flukes, one act against a country that had alienated everybody, and that's it. The Cambodian genocide? Nothing. The Indonesian invasion of East Timor? Nothing. The Rwandan genocide? Nothing. Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo? Nothing, again. Darfur. Nothing meaningful. Presently, the UNSC is having extreme difficulty handling two frighteningly obvious threats to world peace: Iran and North Koreas respective pursuit of nuclear weapons. How can anyone possibly think of this body as an effective protector of world peace?


  The reality is, the structure of the UNSC means that, until its member countries firmly commit themselves to promoting world peace regardless of their self-interests, it will never be an effective or even kinda good protector of world peace. I applaud people who try to push their government in that direction, but letâs face reality: that isn't happening now and isn't going to start happening any time soon. And adding more permanent Security Council members (as some have proposed) is only going to make things more difficult.


  In the meantime, the Big Five can use their seat on the Security Council to practice old-fashioned, Bismarkian, realpolitik. Because the Security Council can still play a role in validating (or invalidating) various actions, countries can (and often do) use their votes as leverage.
Russia, for example, has made it very clear that no action will be taken with regards to Iran unless the Kremlin is somehow compensated for its pre-existing nuclear energy sales to Tehran. Deliberations within the UNSC during the run-up to the Iraq war were a classic demonstration of realist politics, with each member country (Britain possibly excepted) trying to use its position within the organization to negotiate a resolution that would validate its pre-existing, self-interested position. The US, one might remember, was quite blatantly trying to buy Chile
's vote. This sad display was all too typical of the Security Council's general pattern of behavior. The reality is light years away from the image in many people's minds.


  I am not saying that the UNSC is useless. Not entirely. It can be used to give international actions especially contentious ones, such as the use of force a sense of legitimacy. That's precisely what it did during the First Gulf War and the Afghan War. Furthermore, the Security Council does sometimes act more or less as intended when issues arise that don't threaten any of the Big Fives vital interests and require little significant action. So, I don't think that it should be abolished. However, it has to be noted: the role that I just described is a role entirely different than the role imagined for the UNSC by Wilsonian idealism. The role that I see for the UNSC is practical, not ideological.


  I am writing all of this to explain why, when someone says: "The UN Security Council found that..." I begin to tune out. When I think about international relations - especially the use of force - I try to classify actions as either just or unjust, and the Security Council's opinion is one that I simply no longer care about. The fact that the UNSC has authorized an action does not make that action just, and the inverse is true as well. The irony is that idealists tend to love the UNSC, whereas realists generally hate it; it should be exactly the other way around. I wish that idealists would stop pretending that the UNSC is what they would like it to be and start recognizing it for what it is: a well-disguised bastion of realism in foreign policy.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:42 PM EDT
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Friday, 7 April 2006
Immigration
Topic: Policy
  There's been a lot of discussion about immigration lately, and lots of legislation floating around Congress reflecting the different viewpoints.  My views on immigration are pretty complex, so before reaching a conclusion I'd like to cover my thoughts on the issue point-by-point.

1.  There is a difference between immigration and illegal immigration.  When the topic of immigration comes up, people often begin talking about illegal immigration.  I find that frustrating; let's be more careful with our language.

2.  The U.S. has a special obligation to welcome immigrants.  Ours is a country where more than 99 percent of the population are immigrants or descended from immigrants.  Immigration is a vital part of the American culture, and our relative openness to immigration has yielded considerable benefits over the course of our history.  There are some out there who would be perfectly happy to see the U.S. never absorb another immigrant - legal or otherwise - ever again.  In my opinion, those people are amoral extremists and morons.

3.  It is in our best interest to admit large numbers of immigrants.  If you're not convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for ethical reasons, perhaps you'll be convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for practical reasons.  Immigrants have been a driving force in numerous sectors of the American economy for hundreds of years.  Many of the smartest, most creative, most ambitious people in other countries want to emigrate to the U.S.; what the rest of the world calls "brain drain", we call "a significant portion of our entrepreneurial capital".  Furthermore, low-skilled immigrants also play an important role in the economy; their willingness to work for low wages makes many services more affordable to other Americans, and - it's true - they are willing to take jobs that most Americans won't.

4.  Illegal immigrants are not bad people.  Yes, they broke the law, and that's bad.  But, I've often thought that if I was in their situation, I probably would have done the exact same thing.  Most illegal immigrants come from abject poverty and are seeking an economic opportunity that will create a better life for themselves and their family.  If they could have that opportunity without breaking the law (and without enduring a risky journey across the border), I'm sure that most illegal immigrants would do so.  But, since that's not an option for most, they break the law and come into this country, which is a decision that I can picture a lot of decent, otherwise law-abiding people making.

5.  Illegal immigration is a problem.  Immigration laws exist for a reason.  Any country has the right to pick and choose which people get to enter the country.  It is entirely reasonable for a country to seek an immigrant population that contains no criminals (including terrorists), has a diverse skill set (read: contains a lot of skilled, educated people), and doesn't contain numbers that will overwhelm infrastructure or government services.  Furthermore, illegal immigrants' illegitimate status creates some problems; they often don't have drivers' licenses or insurance (auto liability or health), it is extremely difficult to get them to testify in court, and they make labor laws difficult to enforce.  Finally, ineffective enforcement of immigration laws sets a bad precedent; if the U.S. were to abandon all attempts to enforce our immigration laws, a couple billion people from the developing world would be in this country by the end of the week.

6.  Illegal immigration is not that big of a problem.  For all the concerns I expressed in the previous paragraph, many of those concerns are relatively minor.  Most illegal immigrants are not criminals (and ordinary immigration laws aren't likely to be the biggest impediment to a terrorist attack), their skill sets generally match the areas in which we need workers (they wouldn't come if they couldn't find a job once they got here), and situations in which they have significantly increased the burden on government services are limited.  Illegal immigrants pay most taxes, and their use of social services isn't nearly as large as many would have you believe (think about it: if you're an illegal immigrant, how much interaction with the government do you really want to have?).  The U.S. has had large numbers of illegal immigrants for decades now, and major problems have not developed.  Any adjustments to immigration policy need to be done with the realization that our current immigration policy, while imperfect, has not created an intolerable situation.

7.  The U.S. doesn't owe illegal immigrants anything.  To hear some illegal immigrant advocates talk, you'd think that illegal immigrants have been horribly wronged.  That's ridiculous; nobody has a right to immigrate to another country.  Illegal immigrants have human rights; they do not have, nor do they necessarily deserve, the full slate of rights enjoyed by American citizens.

8.  We should definitely not engage in any large-scale effort to deport illegal immigrants.  This is true for two reasons.  First, the draconian measure of actually rounding people up, charging them with a felony, and shipping them out (as the bill passed by the House in December would do) is way too harsh and not the kind of thing that civilized societies do.  Second, segments of our economy have adjusted to the presence of these immigrants, and deporting them all would produce an enormous shock (imagine what would happen to the hotel industry if all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. suddenly disappeared).  Reducing the presence of illegal immigrants needs to be done by stemming the flow of new illegal immigrants and, possibly, either: 1) Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants presently in the country, or 2) Gradually deporting those that get caught over a long period of time.

9.  The negative effects of immigration on wages don't seem to be as large as you might expect.  It seems obvious that increasing the supply of workers in a particular sector would have a depressing effect (in the economic sense) on wages.  However, several recent studies suggest that that effect is not as large as you might think.  Employers in generally immigrant-dependent industries located in areas without many immigrants seem to invest in technology instead of offering higher wages (the Washington Post had an editorial recently explaining all of this).  So arguments that immigration drives down wages for low-skilled workers don't seem to be as powerful as they might first appear.

10.  The effects of immigration on unemployment don't seem to be very large, either.  It's surely true that immigrants - including illegal immigrants - do take some jobs that would otherwise be filled by American citizens.  But those job losses need to be put in perspective by this fact: unemployment in the U.S., in historical and international perspective, is ridiculously low.  Right now unemployment in the U.S. is just over 5 percent.  No advanced economy (nor any undeveloped economy, as far as I know) has an unemployment rate that low, and most European countries would love to get their unemployment rate as low as even 10 percent.  In the late 1990s, when immigration (legal and illegal) was going every bit as strong as it is now, U.S. unemployment hit the ridiculously low number of 3.8 percent.  Now, I know that unemployment statistics generally understate the actual level of unemployment (as they don't account for "discouraged workers" or the underemployed), and that nationwide unemployment figures don't matter much to someone who's just lost their job; those are both good points.  But the fact remains that if immigration was causing large numbers of Americans to be unemployed, it would be reflected in our unemployment statistics.

11.  Any measure to prevent illegal immigration needs to be considered with its effectiveness in mind.  Many proposals to limit illegal immigration seem good at first, but, in reality, wouldn't be very effective (of course, that won't prevent many politicians from advocating them, as much of the politics of immigration involves pandering to a xenophobic base instead of crafting good policy).  Many people say that we should step up border controls, but previous efforts to step up border controls have had little impact.  I was optimistic about the effectiveness of a proposal to require employers to run new employees' information through a national database, but now questions are being raised about that program's burden and effectiveness; those concerns are articulated well in this editorial in the Post.  That same article, fortunately, provides some hope that requiring employers to follow up on Social Security "non-matches" might yield some results.  Building a wall would probably be effective, but would cost around $2 billion (not counting the border guards that would still need to patrol it), and has an undeniably negative appearance (though people who compare such a wall to the Berlin Wall are, in my opinion, idiots).  I am willing to consider practically any proposal to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, but I am going to weigh the benefits of that proposal against its costs.

12.  Granting amnesty is not desirable, but it might be a sensible policy anyway.  Granting amnesty (whether you call it that or not) to illegal immigrants does reward people for illegal behavior, and it does set a bad precedent, but it might be the most sensible way of dealing with the illegal immigrants who are already here.  As I said, we shouldn't engage in a large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants, and many of the problems posed by illegal immigration could be solved if those immigrants were simply documented.  If we can develop effective measures to prevent future waves of illegal immigrants, then the best method of dealing with immigrants who are already here might be to grant them amnesty on the condition that they do things such as pay back-taxes and submit to a background check.

13.  Programs allowing immigrants into this country should promise the prospect of full citizenship.  My main problem with Bush's guest worker proposal is that it provides no path for those guest workers to eventually become citizens.  Not only will this result in many guest workers eventually becoming illegal immigrants, but it creates a powerful disincentive for guest workers to assimilate.  If a guest worker knows that he or she will eventually be deported (or become an illegal immigrant), that person will never fully adopt the mindset that he or she is an American.  This discourages immigrants from learning English or participating in American civic life.  And, perhaps most importantly, it sends a signal to immigrants that they are not really wanted here and they will never be real Americans.  That, in my opinion, is much more unfriendly than a wall. 

  Now to connect all these dots.  Given the opinions I've expressed above, my ideal immigration policy would:
1.  Use effective but proportionate measures to prevent illegal immigration.
2.  Increase the number of green cards issued so that our total immigrant inflow is similar to (or possibly slightly below) the current aggregate level of legal and illegal immigrants.
3.  Issue those green cards with an emphasis on skilled and educated workers (like we do now), though large numbers of green cards would also be available for low-skilled workers.
4.  Offer amnesty with the prospect of citizenship to illegal immigrants presently in the country on the condition that they pay back taxes and submit to a background check.

  Of the proposals currently floating around Capitol Hill, the closest to the plan above would probably be the compromise that just fell apart in the Senate.  I would give that proposal a "B", with it missing an "A" because it is not comprehensive and I don't fully understand why a person's length of illegal stay in this country would affect their prospects for citizenship.  I would give the bill passed by the House in December an "F"; it is all draconian enforcement and does nothing to address the fact that we should be welcoming large numbers of legal immigrants into this country.  I would give President Bush's guest worker proposal a "C", as it is a half-measure that recognizes the need for legal immigrants but doesn't address the issue in a manner that is sustainable in the long term. 

  One final note: I think that issuing large numbers of green cards to countries with whom we have friendly relations should be a major component of our foreign policy.   This would likely result in immigrants coming to this country in greater numbers than they presently do, though they would come from different places (think more Ghanaians and fewer Venezuelans).  We already do this to a certain extent, but it's a strategy that I think should be ramped up, as it is a carrot that we're not fully utilizing.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:44 PM EDT
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Sunday, 12 March 2006
Inside the Head of Saddam Hussein
Topic: Foreign Policy

  Slobodan Milosevic has died.  I guess the fact that he - unlike Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot - died in prison counts as something of a victory.  I was hoping for a conviction so as to at least introduce the possibility that perpetrators of genocide would be held responsible for their crimes.  But word from his trial was that an acquittal was a real possibility, so I guess it's good that he died before the world was forced to swallow that monstrous verdict.

  There was also an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about how Saddam Hussein was more worried about the threats posed by the Shiites and Iran than by the threat posed by the U.S.  This was still true even as the U.S. invasion was beginning.  There are a thousand interesting things about this article, but I think the most interesting things relate to the implications that this information has for how we should think about nuclear proliferation.

  There's an ongoing debate in International Relations about whether nuclear weapons make the world more or less stable.  Most people reflexively assume that nuclear weapons make things less stable, and that seems intuitive.  But the argument that nuclear weapons promote stability has some powerful evidence supporting it, namely that there has never been a war (not just a nuclear exchange, but even a war) between two nuclear powers.  Furthermore, the logic behind the argument makes sense; nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, and rational actors recognize that it is in their interest to avoid escalating a conflict with a nuclear power.  To get both sides of this argument in a nutshell, I recommend reading this book.

  While I understand and respect the "nukes = stability" argument (i.e., nuclear proliferation is not so bad and possibly even good), I generally fall on the "nukes = instability" (i.e., nuclear proliferation is generally bad and possibly disastrous) side of the argument.  The reason is this: we cannot assume that those who possess nukes will act rationally.  Now, IR nerds will want to drag me into a debate about the meaning of the word "rational" and attempt to demonstrate how instrumental rationality can explain actions including and beyond the ones that Hussein took in the run-up to the war, but I'm going to cut that debate off by saying that a liberal definition of rationality makes it possible to categorize any action as rational.  When I use the phrase "rational actor", I mean that that actor is not only pursuing their own interests, but also that that actor is at least minimally competent at recognizing which actions will and will not help him or her achieve those interests.  And what I take away from the NY Times article is this: Saddam Hussein was not a rational actor.

  It's hard to imagine things working out much worse for Hussein; he was ousted from power, went into hiding, was caught, is now on trial, and will almost certainly be executed or permanently jailed.  I've often though that if he had played his cards differently - if he had publicly abandoned his WMD programs and played ball with the UN - Bush wouldn't have had significant public or congressional support for the war, and Hussein might still be in power today.  But, as it happened, Hussein - who already had a reputation as a chronic miscalculator (see: invasion of Kuwait) - miscalculated so badly that his worst-case scenario ultimately came to pass.  Which I find very disturbing: here we have actual evidence of the way in which a head of state might have such a distorted view of reality that he vastly underestimates a very real threat to his security, thus rendering the assumed deterrent effect ineffective.

  Without a deterrent effect, nuclear stability theory breaks down.  More disturbing still, the two states we worry about most when discussing nuclear proliferation (North Korea and Iran) are both led by guys who have a propensity for the same sort of paranoid delusion that led to Hussein's downfall.  North Korea is already nuclear, and it seems that we might not be able to stop Iran from someday going nuclear.  I worry that the people who shape our foreign policy often don't take paranoid delusion - by not only the leaders of states but by general populations as well - into account as much as they sometimes should.  People who identify themselves a "realists" often claim that constructivists and liberal institutionalists see the world as they would like it to be, not as it is.  That might be a fair criticism, but it should also be recognized that the assumption that the world is comprised of rational actors is likely as fanciful as any of the assumptions made by other schools of thought.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:45 PM EST
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Tuesday, 28 February 2006
More Principled/Unprincipled
Topic: News
  More commentators have fallen on one side or the other of the principled/unprincipled divide created by the ports deal that I mentioned two posts back:

Principled: Richard Cohen, David Ignatius, Nicholas D. Kristof, Thomas L. Friedman, Jon Stewart (with a small caveat: on Larry King last night, he agreed with the basic principle of the deal, saying "the more you look into it the more you realize there's no story there," but then digressed into criticizing Bush on tangentially related issues)

Unprincipled (liberal) or xenophobic (conservative): Harold Meyerson, Paul Krugman, Charles Krauthammer

  In my opinion, there aren't any surprises on these lists, though it breaks my heart to place Paul Krugman on the "unprincipled" list.  Krugman is a brilliant economist, and I'm saddened by the fact that he has largely abandoned his insightful, pointed, intellectually honest economic analysis for the scatterbrained Bush-bashing that has become his trademark.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:46 PM EST
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Friday, 24 February 2006
More on Ports
Topic: News
In yesterday's blog I mentioned that it would be interesting to see which commentators (especially liberal commentators) would stand by the principle that you shouldn't assume things about people because of their ethnicity/nationality, and which would abandon that principle in order to seize an opportunity to bash Bush.  Some early results are in.  Michael Moore is unprincipled, but that's not news.  The New York Times ran a very strange editorial (sorry, I can't link to it) that supported the basic concept of the deal but criticized Bush for his previous dealings with Congress.  Most of those criticisms are valid, but irrelevant; I'll call their response "ambiguous".  The Washington Times has joined the chorus of conservative commentators whose fear of A-rabs has proved greater than their sycophantic hero worship of President Bush.  It's always dodgy trying to discern political views from a comedy show (sometimes jokes are just jokes), but last night's Colbert Report interview made it pretty clear that Stephen Colbert agrees with the policy, as does his guest, charmingly-old-school-conservative and internally-conflicted-on-a-Shakespearean-level New York Times Columnist David Brooks.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:46 PM EST
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Thursday, 23 February 2006
Bigotry Disguised as Responsibility
Topic: News

  Congress is in an uproar over a company from the United Arab Emirates assuming management of six U.S. ports.  This story has been around for about a week now, so I've had plenty of time to think about it.  And I've come to this conclusion: this uproar is nothing but naked xenophobia mixed with political pandering.


  Security is a bipartisan issue; it's a priority for everybody.  And, at first glance, this development appears to raise some legitimate security concerns.  After all, ports are a vulnerable point of entry into this country, and UAE citizens have committed acts of terrorism in the past.  But a closer look reveals that there are no real security concerns associated with this issue.


  First of all, the company was never going to be in charge of port security; the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Service control the security of our ports.  Second, these ports are currently managed by a British firm, so it can't credibly be argued that it is truly foreign - as opposed to Arab - control of our ports to which people are opposed.  Third, this transaction completed a review process that included members of the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security.  Fourth, the fact that terrorists have come from and operated within the UAE is irrelevant; terrorists have come from and operated within practically every country in the world, including this one, and the UAE's government has been a reliable ally in our anti-terrorism operations (I refuse to use the phrase "War on Terror").  So, upon closer inspection, there appear to be no tangible security concerns raised by this issue.  Why, then, are people so incensed by this buyout?  I think the answer is obvious: they associate Arabs with terrorism.


  President Bush has aggressively defended his approval of this transaction.  You won't hear me say this too often, but I agree with the President 100 percent.  It is embarrassing that some in this country would view this as giving "them" control of our ports, as if terrorists are an ethnic group or a country.   It is the same (if decidedly less fervent) mentality that ultimately led to Japanese internment during World War II - that is, there's a "they", and we don't need evidence to know that they can't be trusted.  Americans are ashamed of the way we treated Japanese-Americans during World War II, and while denying a port contract is nowhere near the equivalent of internment, I have to think that we'll look back at a lot of the rhetoric surrounding this development with embarrassment.


  Though this is pure conjecture, it's almost certainly true that Members of Congress are actively opposing the president on this because they have to run for re-election.  No politician wants to have an add run against them saying: "He gave control of our ports to a company from the United Arab Emirates!"  That's a killer.  Any politician supporting this deal either 1) Isn't up for re-election, or 2) Is demonstrating incredible commitment to principle (though the principle itself may or may not be an admirable one).  The rest are almost definitely pandering to the uninformed and/or blatantly xenophobic segment of our (disproportionately elderly) electorate.


  Most politicians' first priority is to get re-elected; that's old news.  What will be interesting to see is which non-politicians - especially liberal activists - support the deal and which oppose it.  It should be a telling separation: most of those who support it are dedicated to principle (in this case, the principle that we shouldn't make assumptions based on ethnicity or national origin), and most of those who oppose it are dedicated to bashing Bush with whatever stick they can find.  The Washington Post has already got it right; chalk one up for principle.


  I also think that it's ironic that Bush is now being bitten by the anti-intellectualism that he has done so much to create.  Everyone knows: Bush doesn't do nuance.  This was never more evident than during the 2004 election, in which John Kerry was mocked for holding a complicated position on the very complicated issue of Iraq.  This port security issue is also complicated, and the decision to approve the transaction really only makes sense if given time to explain.  The sound bite, however, is devastating: "He gave control of our ports to a company from the United Arab Emirates!"  Most people won't even hear the "a company from" in that sentence, and fewer still will do the research necessary to determine whether or not that statement is actually true.  Modern American politics provides no opportunity to effectively refute that sound bite, and there's some unfortunate justice in the fact that a man who did so much to create that reality is now its victim.  The penultimate realization of this irony: people are stating that the UAE is now "linked" to Al Qaeda, just as Bush claimed that Al Qaeda was "linked" to Iraq.


Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:47 PM EST
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