Sunday, December 2, 2012

@FutureChallenges: Diplomacy, Liberalism, and Democracy

Here's a discussion of the Bush era policy (which has been carried over by the current administration in some forms) of transformational diplomacy—or democracy promotion and how it is really liberalism not democracy that is valuable. The full articles, Transformational Diplomacy: Liberalism, not democracy is available at Futurechallenges.

On January 18, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a new foreign policy called transformational diplomacy. Challenging old assumptions that the domestic character of other countries did not matter for foreign affairs or American security, Rice argued that:

[The United States must] work with our many partners around the world, to build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system. Let me be clear, transformational diplomacy is rooted in partnership; not in paternalism. In doing things with people, not for them; we seek to use America’s diplomatic power to help foreign citizens better their own lives and to build their own nations and to transform their own futures.

A new era had begun, where threats to national security were not defined by competition between national governments but by newly empowered sub- and trans-national actors. Accordingly, new theories, which rejected the old orthodoxy, were needed. In practice, this meant realigning the State Department’s overseas operations to emphasize on-the-ground diplomacy and develop technological and regional acumen that could foster greater democratization. The logic rested on a fundamental assumption that democracies would prove to be better allies to the United States, be more globally responsible, and be more responsive to the needs of their citizenry. This would help solve a number of crucial threats to US national security, including terrorism, failed-states, and humanitarian crises.

To see the rest of the article check it out at FutureChallenges.

Friday, November 2, 2012

@Future Challenges: Conflict is Here to Stay

My newest article at FutureChallenges, Conflict is Here to Stay, is now published. It explores the question of whether conflict and war can ever be eradicated. An excerpt:

On September 30, 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain triumphantly returned home to tumultuous praise, having signed the Munich Agreement with Germany’s Adolf Hitler. The accord, which acknowledged Hitler’s territorial demands in German Czechoslovakia, was, in Chamberlain’s words, “a symbol of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again… to ensure the peace of Europe.” Six years later, as World War Two drew to a close, 40-60 million people were dead—approximately 2.5% of the global population. Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement, which many historians argue gave Hitler carte blanche to launch total war, became synonyms for ill-considered appeasement and timid passivity.
Chamberlain’s folly—easily apparent in retrospect—was that he believed that conflict could be avoided. In a parliamentary debate before the war he espoused that the accord “averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilization as we have known it.” Almost a year later, a bitter Chamberlain realized that not all conflict is avoidable. As Great Britain prepared for the second massive war in two decades, the British prime minister extolled, “[Hitler’s invasion of Poland] shows convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.”
The rest of the article can be found here.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Much Needed Win

It seems that we suddenly have a presidential campaign. Only a few days ago, the media was preparing Governor Romney's obituary, concluding that his thus far moribund campaign was essentially over. However, Romney's performance in last night's presidential debate exceeded all expectations and, for his supporters,
their wildest hopes. He managed to dominate the discussion, putting a befuddled President Obama on the defensive, while presenting himself as well-informed, presidential, and likable.

One of the most telling signs of Romney's successes was Obama's body language throughout the debate. The president was consistently scowling, grimacing and shaking his head in disagreement. He looked confused, unprepared and ill-at-ease. At one point, a camera shot of the backs of the two candidates revealed that while Romney was standing straight and tall, Obama had nervously bent his knee and was rolling his foot behind the podium.

Obama's jittery-ness was in stark contrast to Romney's poise—both in his body language and his speech. The governor was clearly well-prepared and not only defined the scope of the discussion but had reasonable and succinct responses to every attack from the president. This left Obama with little choice but to continuously harp on tired and refuted talking points; for instance, the ineffectual attack on corporate jet owners and constant reiteration of a bogus $5 trillion tax-break.

Yet what was most interesting about Romney's performance was that he displayed a couple of characteristics, previously absent from his campaign, in the most flattering manner. First, he had a clear and convincing message. He carefully outlined his thoughts and principles on a wide-array of issues and policies. While the president claimed Romney did not offer specifics, this charge fell rather flat. In contrast to his campaign so far, Romney was a man of ideas and solutions. He offered a vision for the country, which displayed that he could succeed as a leader.

Up until the debate, this has been a horrendous failure of the Republican campaign, which has largely focused on attacking the president without offering much in the way of alternatives. There was some hope that by bringing the wonky Paul Ryan onto the ticket, that Romney would delve into policy. However, the opposite seemed to happen, with Ryan's intellectualism being silenced in favor of Romney-esque stoicism. This, as the campaign's poll numbers showed and the pundits screamed, was a foolish tactic.

However, last night's volte-face appears to have moved the campaign in the needed direction. CNN's live tracker, which followed the real-time sentiments of undecided Colorado voters, confirmed the merits of offering arguments about policy and principles. When either candidate spoke about his ideas the voters responded favorably, when they attacked their counterpart the voters soured. It seems that despite the accepted "wisdom" that negative campaigns work, voters want to hear proposals.

Second, Romney finally shed the defensive stance he has held throughout the campaign. Previously, Romney frequently looked like he was trying to back away from an issue or deny responsibility. This made him appear to be weak and indecisive and allowed Obama's attacks to stick. However, last night he was a different man. He owned his record and beliefs and explained why they are right. He fought back against the president's distortions and explained nuances in a clear and reasonable manner. This made Obama look petty and dissimulative, while giving the viewer a logical argument about the veracity of the Romney-way.

This simple tactic of owning and then explaining his principles and beliefs was an enormous step toward strengthening Romney's campaign. Voters want a leader who is confident, who has ideas, and who is able to explain his policies in a nuanced but understandable manner. The Romney who was on display last night succeeded at all of this.

Hopefully, he will maintain this momentum. Obama will undoubtedly come to the next debate more prepared. Romney has to continue to shine, turning his campaign into an expression of his vision for the country, while defending his principles and policies with poise and candor. While the election is quite near, Romney still has time to make his case. A Romney in this mold will be hard to beat.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Benghazi

It seems the hordes of Muslim extremists are at it again. This time they have supposedly responded to an inconspicuous movie, which mocked the prophet Mohammed, by violently protesting outside of U.S. embassies and murdering the U.S. ambassador to Libya. However, as recent reports indicate, the film was not the real cause of the violence. Instead, the attacks were a well-planned terrorist plot, aimed at humiliating the United States on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, responding to the killing of terrorist leaders by U.S. drone attacks, and securing key documents from within the Benghazi embassy.

The violence has sparked a domestic row between the two U.S. presidential candidates. Governor Romney was criticized the administration's response, which initially apologized for the film for offending Muslim sensibilities. He said "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." This was in response to the first statement from the U.S. government which stated that:
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
The administration subsequently and sharply criticized the violence. In Secretary of State Clinton's words: "I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today."

Nevertheless, judging by recent reports, it is apparent that the administration focused on the wrong aspect at the outset, validating Romney's criticisms. By portraying the event as an overly violent response to an offensive video, rather than a planned terrorist attack, the administration's goal was (wrongly) to assuage anger, not thwart enemies of the United States.

While there is an argument to be made about using carefully worded platitudes to calm a potential diplomatic debacle (success in international relations often comes to those who can artfully use words to avoid using action), there are proper and improper ways to wield diplomatic finesse. The Obama administration's initial response made a number of crucial mistakes that, in combination with past errors, display a profound and naive understanding of the Middle East and public diplomacy, shed insight into the president's misguided worldview, and lay a framework for further attacks on U.S. interests and personnel.

The administration's first error is that they seemingly believe that this sort of Muslim violence is a direct response to a Western provocation. Whether it is the recent film, cartoons printed by a Dutch newspaper, or  a Florida pastor burning copies of the Qu'ran, the administration presupposes that the response in the Middle East is understandable, even if its inexcusable (to be fair, the administration repeatedly and publicly condemns the violence as unjustifiable). The logic stems from a belief that if foolish Americans would just avoid such hateful acts, the Arabs now rioting in the streets would have little reason to resort to violence or detest America.

But as the unfolding story indicates, this logic is far from true. There are much deeper animosities, angers, and conflicting worldviews at work in the Middle East. The American condemnation of the film, alongside verbal, diplomatic, and coercive action against the perpetrators of the violence, did nothing to assuage Muslim angst. In fact, riots and protests broke out in Muslim capitals across the globe, directing Islamic wrath at U.S. embassies in a number of countries. Protests were even staged outside the Swiss embassy in Iran (the Swiss represent U.S. interests there) and in Israel. Jews and the "Zionist-American conspiracy" became instant rhetorical targets and some Arabs celebrated the September 11th attacks.

What is truly at work in the Middle East is an intricate and complex set of ideologies and emotionsa respect for and jealousy of the successes of the West combined with a distaste, even hatred, of Western values. These are often coupled with domestic woesfrustration with economic conditions and poor leadership. Finally and most significantly, there is the role of the jihadists, who exploited the film to further their goal of armed jihad against the West. Anti-Islamic films or cartoons are at most a trigger that set these forces in motion.

Obama's advisers presumably understand the complexities of the Middle East, which is why the president's responses are so befuddling. Apologies will not address the real tension between Islam and the West. Nor will they solve the domestic woes in the Middle East or dissuade fundamentalist terrorists. If anything apologies reinforce, to those Muslims who are so imbibed in societies where dictators can control such expression, the image of a malignant West. For those Muslims who understand that the U.S. government has little control, and thus little responsibility, for such publications (however offensive), apologies are simply condescending.

So then why apologize? It seems that the only reasonable explanation lies in Obama's faulty worldview. As has been argued before, Obama sees the world through a lens that can be aptly described as the "problem of the underdog." In a trend that dominates both his domestic and foreign policies, Obama places an emphasis on castigating those in power and bolstering the supposedly weak. The successful, the powerful, the rich, the former imperialist, the banker, Wall Street, the business owner or anyone else "on top" got there by pushing someone else down. All, by the virtue of their position, have a moral inferiority to those who occupy the concomitant underdog position.

As a representative of the most powerful nation, Obama thus has a responsibility to apologize for our supposed sins. His immediate reaction was to address the slight that allegedly sent the Arab street into an angst-ridden, violent frenzy. The gut reaction of the administration was to publicly atone, in the naive belief that self-castigation would dissipate the violence.

But such a worldview is naive. It, as the administration is now admitting, has failed to address the realities of the situation. It treated a terrorist attack like a PR matter, solidifying in many's minds, both in the West and throughout the Muslim world, that it was cruel and provocative Americans who's blasphemy against the prophet instigated the violence.

This weakens the United States' global stature. It gives credence to the argument that the United States is the crux of the world's problems. It creates and reinforces a false linkage between the individual acts of American citizens and the positions, influence and control of the U.S. government. But most importantly, it fails to address the real issues at workthe political, social, and economic plight of the Middle East, the ideological incompatibilities between political Islam and liberal democracy, and a passionate fundamentalist force that wants to overturn the West's dominance.

While the Romney camp has certainly oversimplified the issue in order to score political points, the administration clearly mishandled the situation at the outset. It is certainly courageous and noble to apologize when our country does something wrongsuch is an act of diplomacy that is unfortunately underusedyet it is quite another to apologize for or even condemn the acts of one's own citizens, particularly when the government has little control over their behaviors.

The administration would do better to hold a posture that does not apologize for who we are as a nation nor fail to defend the values and principles that have made this country great. Instead the president should use the opportunities to not only condemn the violence against Americans but to educate the Muslim world, in its inchoate struggle for democracy, that the principles of America, such freedom of speech and expression, have tremendous value, even if they do come with costs.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ship the Outsource Debate Overseas

Outsourcing (or offshoring) seems to be the political battleground of the week. Both presidential campaigns have launched into a finger-pointing offensive of claiming their opponent has contributed to the shipment of American jobs overseas. The outsourcing debate was sparked by an investigation into and a series of poltical attacks at Romney's activities at Bain. The Republican campaign retorted with recriminations regarding the handling of stimulus money.

While we'll leave the fact-checking to the newspapers, the entire debate is somewhat ridiculous, particularly from Romney's perspective—the supposed voice of economic reason during this electoral season. It is based on the ludicrous proposition that outsourcing jobs is an absolute negative for the U.S. economy. In simplistic political-speech, which assumes Americans are just too stupid to understand basic economics, the argument holds that when a company either hires a foreign company to perform a specific task or moves operations abroad that it is a unilateral loss for the domestic economy.

The first time I saw this "negative" ad from the Obama campaign, I could not help but think that the gist of the comments was true and Romney should proudly own it.

But such arguments ignore basic economic truisms that are taught in any introductory economics course. Trade, whether domestically or internationally, benefits everyone. The simple concept of comparative advantage—the situation in which one producer can produce a good relatively cheaper than its competitors—underpins this logic. By definition, every producer will have a comparative advantage, thus yielding an economic logic for specialization and trade.

In simple language, this is precisely what motivates outsourcing and offshoring. Other countries have a comparative advantage in labor. It is thus relatively cheaper for them to "produce" labor. Since they are comparatively better at labor, trade frees up American resources to do what we are better at (such as research and development). We can then, for instance, trade our research for their labor, creating products that benefit both sides of the transaction at a cheaper price. This specialization and trade helps both economies grow.

The real world is naturally more complicated (short-run costs of reallocating resources are very real), but the essence of the argument holds. Outsourcing and offshoring are good for the U.S. economy (if they are done without distorting effects of government meddling). But one must look at the entire effect, not just the outsourced job to appreciate this dynamic.

So how does outsourcing help? An outsourced job means that a domestic company can now get the work done for a cheaper price (it would not outsource the job if it was more expensive to do so). This frees up resources (money) to put to other uses. A company can either cut costs, passing along savings to consumers (maybe in an attempt to increase market share) who can then save or purchase more, or reinvest the saved money into expanding the business. In truth, both probably occur and both help grow the economy. As is usually the case, a growing economy creates new jobs, most likely in sectors in which the country has a comparative advantage.

If one thus looks at the economy on a holistic level, a cheaper input to production (cheaper labor abroad) will generally help an economy grow and create more jobs. A smart business leader, economist, or president will acknowledge that it is best to have the most efficient producer or worker do the job, regardless of national borders or any other consideration. Outsourcing is thus one piece of a broader economic puzzle, which allows an economy to operate at its highest and most efficient level.

But our politicians never try to explain this basic economic fact. Whether they think Americans are unable to comprehend such simple economics or are they beholden to special interests, both the left and the right seem to be stuck to a pseudo-protectionist argument. Arguably, much of this tenacity to the outsourcing-is-evil argument is due to political expediency. It is much easier, in a world of sound-bites, to make a a simple accusation of sending jobs to India, than explain an economic principle. But such expediency is damaging, not only by dumbing-down political discourse but by empowering certain groups to take-advantage of such language to further their own narrow desires (think unions and noncompetitive industries who want protection).

The Romney campaign would be wise to take a new angle in this debate. Much as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie does, Romney need to take an approach of separate, own, and educate. He needs to separate the fact from fiction, dismissing Obama's ridiculous conclusions about outsourcing, proudly own what he has done, and educate the people on why such actions are good. In other words, Romney has to stop looking like he is running from some greedy business transactions and start explaining how a smart economy works.

Such a change in tactic would not only benefit the United States by pushing our economic policy toward sound principles, but greatly help the Romney campaign. He'll regain the image of a responsible and educated economic steward, earn respect for standing up to smear campaigns and distortions of economic facts, make Obama look like the economic lightweight he is, and rise to a presidential level. It is a novel political strategy, but one that if properly employed will reap tremendous rewards for a candidate who is too often criticized for lacking a backbone.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Principles of the Past

In celebrating Independence Day, E.J. Dionne questions the desire of many to base their policy choices on some notion of the "'original' intentions of the Founders." Writing in the Washington Post, he argues that too many people (presumably conservatives) rely upon their modern understanding of history, as a snapshot, to argue for certain policies, rather than acting as "we the people" best see fit today. He criticizes American historicism by writing:
[I]t is dangerous to turn the Founders into quasi-religious prophets who produced a text more like the Bible or the Talmud. It’s neither. It is a governing document that was the product of compromises and arguments....

We do a disservice to ourselves and the Founders alike if we take them out of history and demand that they settle arguments that we ought to settle on our own.

The Founders, after all, were not timid men bound by the past. They did something bold and adventurous. In creating a novel form of government, they were thinking and acting anew.

While Dionne eventually goes too far by essentially stripping the Constitution of any real meaning and advocating for an expansive government than can do anything the people (one can only assume he means a crude mass of majoritarian democracy) want, he does raise a valid point about the Right's overemphasis of a historical moment and the great men that shaped the country at that time. Indeed, while it is necessary to learn from history, it is not the past but the principles of the proper role of government that we must rely upon to shape policy.

The problems with an overly heavy reliance on the Founders' "vision" are manifold. First, it is unthinking. On a basic level, it ignores the nuances of policy debates and circumstances during the founding of our country. As any basic reading of the founding of the United States will reveal, many of the Founders had different beliefs. However, on a deeper level, such backward-looking reliance creates a situation where blanket ideas are deified without any understanding of why they are appropriate or how they properly function. This leaves proponents of constitutionalism stultified, unable to defend their perspectives with anything but the simplistic, "This is what the Founders established for us."

A related problem, is that this perspective handicaps the propagation of a constitutionalist ideology. There is minimal debate in public circles about the proper role of government. The Left has defined, as Dionne unquestionably advocates, a activist model of government as the solution-finder extraordinaire. Many on the Right have an enfeebled response of "small government because the Founders said so"—an argument that, as popular discourse shows, carries little sway.

Furthermore, the reliance on the historical argument for limited government has crowded-out the intellectual and philosophical one. Not only does a historical justification fly against the impetus behind the founding of this country, which was forward looking, but it severely encumbers the more proper, strong, and justifiable arguments. This often prevents the Right from meaningfully presenting solutions to very modern problems (whether in the government or within other, often waning, institutions), a situation that diminishes the force of the Right's arguments.

This can lead to a number of dead ends for proponents of limited government. In one regard it can devolve into a fight, relegated to the historians and irrelevant to most Americans, over history. Worse it can create a perception of a divide between the "thinking intellectuals" who are forward-looking and the reactionaries who do not want to address modern problems. Whether this classification is fair or not is irrelevant—it is unfortunately a powerful mainstream belief. (Why are the halls of higher learning, media, and many youth so pulled by the progressive ideology?) By de-intellectualizing the founding principles of the United States, the Right has allowed the progressive ideology, with its concomitant view of an expansive role of government, to dominate the realm of solutions.

Such an argument does mean dismissing the past. There are many lessons to be learned from history. The Founders clearly designed a great system and helped elucidate a number of profound principles that form the basis of our government. But they, knowingly, were unable to foresee everything that the future could hold. Instead, as the Founders themselves did, the Right must guide its policies on principles. It must reinvigorate the intellectual arguments that underpin classical liberalism (eg. the political philosophy of modern conservatives). While these principles may have historical roots, they are not themselves history but are timeless. The forward-looking application of the principles of limited constitutional government can serve as a worthy challenge to the progressive ideology that has become dominant, thus not only helping to shape the form and nature of our government but winning support from swathes of society that have been deemed lost.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Language of the Left

Congratulations is due to Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker for not only becoming the first governor to ever survive a recall election but also by doing so in an overwhelming manner. Contrary to expectations and exit polls, Walker trounced Democrat rival Tom Barrett 53% to 46%. The recall election, which was the third in United States history, was prompted by Democratic and union angst over Walker's reforms that limited collective bargaining for public unions. But while the Republicans clearly won the political battle yesterday, they are slowly losing a broader war.

Republicans have been allowing the left to set the terms and terrain for debate over a wide array of issues. The right has continually failed to challenge underlying assumptions and language used by the media, pundits, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. This has allowed, even helped, the left to determine a battleground that is less defensible for the right by presupposing certain facts and language that should be readily open to challenge. The right, for the most part, seems to be oblivious to this fact—an effect that is slowly undermining the philosophy of the right, their political goals, and eventually support for a conservative agenda.

This issue has been painfully present throughout the Wisconsin recall election. Specifically, the debate has been framed as an issue of collective bargaining rights. The Washington Post stated, "The passions that fueled a long fight over union rights and Wisconsin’s cash-strapped budget brought voters out in strong numbers Tuesday to decide whether to recall Gov. Scott Walker [emphasis added]." The New York Times used similar language, "[V]oters began streaming into polling places on Tuesday to decide whether to remove Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican whose decision to cut collective bargaining rights for most public workers set off the fight [emphasis added]." CNN parroted, "Gov. Scott Walker [is] a Republican hero for pushing austerity measures that stripped collective bargaining rights from most public unions [emphasis added]." The supposedly right-leaning Wall Street Journal fell into the same trap: "The recall was triggered by a backlash to a law Mr. Walker signed in March 2011, two months after taking office, that forced government workers to pay for more of their pension and health-care benefits while also cutting most of their collective-bargaining rights [emphasis added]." Even the hated "right-wing propaganda" from Fox News used rights language: "The effort to recall Walker began shortly after he was elected in 2010 and began cutting the state’s huge budget shortfall by holding down taxes and removing collective-bargaining rights for unions representing state employees [emphasis added]."

While at first glance this may seem trivial, the nearly complete use of rights language is packed with assumptions—assumptions that validate the left's political philosophy and make it exceedingly difficult for Republicans to reorient the country's drift. Walker's win was aided by a number of factors—unmanageable state fiscal conditions, distaste with the concept of recall elections, and the poor economy—that may not exist in the future. However, without the presence of these factors, the underlying problem—the pernicious effect of collective bargaining by public sector unions—arguably may not hold electoral sway in future political climates, particularly if the right is unable able to correctly elucidate the issue.

The pervasive use of "rights" language is the crux of the problem. By labeling collective bargaining a right, the left is able to incorrectly frame the debate and mop-up voters who are offered a false understanding of the issues. It leaves the right with a reduced tool-kit to persuade voters, thus handicapping their arguments and their efforts. Republicans have only been able to go after the pernicious effects of public unions during an economic downturn because the employment of rights language has prevented them from successfully arguing against the innate demerits of public sector unions. They have thus been unable to illuminate the problems of collective bargaining absent economic woes, preventing the advancement of a just policy that should be easily supportable even during economic booms. By using the language of the left, the right is providing the unions and the Democrats with a subtle but lasting win. They are allowing collective bargaining to be incorrectly defined in leftist terms, as a right—a concept that is held to be sacred to most Americans and something that people have been striving to protect for generations.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy right are defined in the following manner:
Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.

Rights dominate modern understandings of what actions are permissible and which institutions are just. Rights structure the form of governments, the content of laws, and the shape of morality as it is currently perceived. To accept a set of rights is to approve a distribution of freedom and authority, and so to endorse a certain view of what may, must, and must not be done.
In other words, rights are entitlements that individuals can justly make a claim on. A government that strips its citizens of their rights is unjust and has exceeded its authority. This is a fact that is recognized by most Americans. The United States has a long history of promoting and defending rights. Even if most Americans agree with Governor Walker's policies, by labeling them an attack on collective bargaining rights, many Americans are left with a level of discomfort, an internal cognitive dissonance between a policy that innately feels correct and an attack on an institution that has high value.

Such internal dissonance, even if subconscious, yields a substantial win for the left, especially among younger, more idealistic voters. It not only compels some to vote with their "hearts," but generates a space for political arguments that misconstrue the facts. Political battles can be won and lost, but by defining the framework in which battle is conducted, the left wins the long-term war. Through this process the left is able to successfully define how future generations will think.

The problem is fortunately easy to rectify. Republican politicians and pundits must be aware of the language they use and they need to clarify the (often unthinking) misuse of language by the media and other public figures. Collective bargaining rights need to be re-framed as what they truly are: collective bargaining privileges (or more benignly collective bargaining). This will, at minimum move the debate from one over whether it is acceptable to strip certain rights from public sector union members to one over whether these powers are rights or privileges. At best, a complete swing in language will move the battleground to more friendly terrain (and correct terrain in the eyes of this blog) where collective bargaining powers will be justly classified as undue privileges and thus much easier to curtail.[1] (who would stand for giving a special interest privileges at taxpayer expense?)

By changing the framework of debate, Republicans will have an easier time presenting their arguments, putting the Democrats on the defensive, and undercutting the ability for the left to portray such sensible reforms as undermining anyone but a narrow special interest. But if the right is not careful, as has unfortunately been true for decades, the left will continue to win the war of language, thereby slowly undermining the principles of this country.

[1]Collective bargaining, especially by public sector unions, is unquestionably not a right. Collective or group rights in general are hardly defensible. An understanding of the proper role of government does not leave any space or philosophical justification for such a right. While arguments may be made for the utility of collective bargaining in some instances and at some times (possibly, more so in the private sector with truly commoditized services that lack adequate government protections for labor), they cannot be made in rights language. Other justifications must be employed to defend collective bargaining, which is exceedingly difficult. This is why the left has successfully fought to define many of its political goals over the past decades, in terms of rights language. It is much easier to defend a right (and some in the Civil Rights era were clearly violated) than rely upon another less potent and universal defense. But the abuse of the concept of right has gone too far, and is (and has been) undermining  the fabric of the American political system.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

@ FutureChallenges: The American Way and Healthcare

My newest article at Future Challenges, "The American Way and Healthcare," explores political economy in light of the health insurance debate in the United States. Arguing that an improper understanding of the proper role of government is at the root of the health insurance debate, the article briefly outlines the current, generally false, understanding of a government's role and what it should be instead. It then explores a number of pernicious effects that such misapplication of government has. While not offering a third solution (which I have done elsewhere), the article argues that by failing to explore the proper role of government, American society has been left with two poor choices: the status quo or a "big government" solution. A reevaluation of the true purpose of government will go a long way toward not only allowing government to flourish in its proper place but also freeing-up creative impulses to solve many real problems (such as the dismal American health system) in more appropriate forums.

The article states:
Healthcare, or more aptly the provision of health insurance, has been an increasingly contentious issue in American politics, particularly over the past three years. Since the passage of Obamacare in 2010 to its potential repudiation by the Supreme Court following the forthcoming judgment this summer, American politics have become infused with this intractable problem.

There is little doubt that the current American system—a bastardized semi-competitive private monstrosity that is enfeebled by regulations, restrictions, and complications—is a disaster. It is expensive, inefficient, and unable to provide reasonable access to many Americans.[1] This has lead many on the American left, and observers from across the Atlantic, to advocate for a government solution.

However, while some champion Obamacare—the current administration’s healthcare reform bill—as a step in the right direction, many across the political spectrum find it has failed to provide an ideal solution, albeit for different reasons. Many on the left feel it does not go far enough, pining for the type of public system that exists in numerous European countries. In contrast, the right has castigated it as a tremendous overreach of government authority and responsibility, but has, as a whole, offered few alternate solutions.

That a revamping of the system is needed seems to be beyond question; however, very little thought has been given to what is the proper forum for such change. The knee-jerk reaction, as is unfortunately all too common in American society, is to turn to the biggest and most powerful institution—the federal government—to solve such intricate problems. This has left Americans, at least in the popular media, with two choices: massive government involvement or the status quo.

The remainder of the article can be accessed at Future Challenges.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

There Is No 1%

In a recent interview, the New York Times sat down with businessman Edward Conrad to discuss the merits of the American economic system. Conrad, a former employee at Bain Capital, friend of Mitt Romney, and author of the upcoming book "Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong," came out swinging with a powerful defense of the United States' capitalist economy and the so-called 1%.

Conrad must be given credit for both a sound economic defense of the American system and for unabashedly standing up to the onslaught against the core economic principles that have defined the United States for generations. In a financial and economic discussion that is defended as "genuinely fantastic" even by prestigious leftist economists, Conrad outlines how the accumulation of wealth allows investment that proportionally helps everyone.

Conard understands that many believe that the U.S. economy currently serves the rich at the expense of everyone else. He contends that this is largely because most Americans don’t know how the economy really works — that the superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone....Conard concludes that for every dollar an investor gets, the public reaps up to $20 in value. This is crucial to his argument: he thinks it proves that we should all appreciate the vast wealth of others more, because we’re benefiting, proportionally, from it.

Essentially, he argues that, despite much opposing popular sentiment, there is not anything wrong with the perceived wealth gap in the United States. In fact, it seems he argues the opposite.

A central problem with the U.S. economy, he [argues], is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite these terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money.

While to the interviewer's chagrin, Conrad does not delve into some serious counterarguments, such as rent-seeking, his economic arguments are sound and convincing. If one buys his logic, as is hard not to do, the Occupy Wall Street crowd are simply fools who are naively injuring themselves.

Nevertheless, Conrad's argument implicitly accepts leftist (socialistic) assumptions through his defense of the so-called 1% by highlighting their provision of a social good. He attempts to refute the charge that the high income and wealth of the rich is somehow denying the poor of what they are due. However, despite the clearness of this analysis, he is making the wrong argument. He is battling the left (and the populist right) on their battleground—generally a woeful proposition—by accepting two significant, albeit it wrong, assumptions.

First, his argument accepts that the divide between the 99% and 1% is real, that there is some fundamental gap that separates the two groups. But such a contention is insupportable. What separates, for instance, the 2% from the 1%? Is everyone in the 99% in the same position? How about the 1%? The truth is that this divide is arbitrary, as any sensible person would acknowledge. It ignores myriad nuances—costs-of-living, family-size, personal goals, type of career, and others.

But the divide has powerful political ramifications, which is precisely why promoters of class warfare have seized upon it. It mobilizes people into an us versus them mentality, attempting to create an artificial camaraderie between the vast majority of Americans—an in-group—against some undeserving out-group. Worst of all, it ignores one of the founding principles of this country that all Americans are equal under the law. There is no 1% or 99%, but simply 100%, each trying to live their own life according to their own abilities, goals, and luck.

Second, by expounding these economic benefits Conrad is accepting the argument that in order for certain members of society to be able to justify high incomes or accumulated wealth, they need to be providing a social benefit. In other words, Conrad's formulation is identical to that of the far-left—individual success, at least for the wealthy, is only justified if the rest of society gains from their behavior. The flip-side implies that if high-income earners cannot convincingly highlight a social good, then their income is somehow illegitimate and possibly forfeit. Conrad only differs from the OWS thugs insofar as he believes that high-income provides such a social good, while those in Zuccotti Park do not.

But this argument is untrue and unjust. Individuals are entitled to the rewards of their work simply because they have been deemed valuable enough by the efforts and their employers to be compensated accordingly. No one, whether wealthy, poor, or middle-class, has to justify their compensation in any social context. Society seems to accept this logic for all but the rich. Very few people feel the need to justify their salary by citing a greater social good. Most feel entitled (and rightly so) to their income based on the hard work they put into their jobs. However, at some arbitrary point a sort of jealousy kicks in creating a scenario where certain Americans have to justify their incomes according to different standards.

This is profoundly un-American. A banker has no greater moral responsibility to justify a social benefit of his salary than a shopkeeper or mechanic. Every American is entitled to reap the rewards that come his way, in whatever form he desires. No one else has a claim to his income and no one else should arbitrarily define criteria to judge whether such wealth is deserved or not. To do otherwise opens a dangerous arena for improper abuse by the majority against the minority.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

@FutureChallenges: The Annual Bertelsmann Conference: Making a Comeback

I attended the annual Bertelsmann Foundation conference—Making a Comeback: A Return to Jobs and Growth—which discussed the economy, jobs, and the political state of Washington, D.C. and Europe. Check the following links for my coverage, all posted at FutureChallenges.

Here's a link to a general review of the event, including descriptions of some of the more interesting discussions and panelists.

One of the panels had a lengthy discussion on risks to the international system. This interesting conversation featured panelists Ian Bremmer, from Eurasia Group, and Anne Krueger, from SAIS.

At the conference, Bertelsmann Foundation and the Kiel Institute proposed a new international, non-profit, credit rating agency (INCRA), to address some of the short comings and possible conflicts of interest in the current for-profit model.

In one of the more interesting panels, Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) provided a discussion on the Democrat's take on the debt and tax issues. Fiscal Consolidation: A Technical Term for Partisan Quarrels.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski

I chatted with former National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, about his new book, Strategic Vision, and the state of the international system, Iran, China, and America's leadership role. For a full text of the conversation, the full interview can be found at the SAIS Review blog.
SAIS Review: What do you envision will be the impact of the domestic political partisanship in the United States on U.S. foreign policy over the next decade? 
Zbigniew Brzezinski: Unless we overcome the currently paralyzing divisions within our own society, regarding both domestic as well as foreign policy, the United States will find it difficult to set its house in order and to play a constructive world role. It’s as basic as that. 
SR: There has been a lot of rhetoric about the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. What is your opinion on the actual implications of a nuclear-armed Iran? How should the United States, in your opinion, deal with this? 
ZB: I think that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would be a destabilizing and serious challenge. At the same, one must not over-dramatize it. There is nothing in Iranian conduct, to suggest that Iran would immediately attempt to commit suicide by launching a nuclear attack on Israel or some other Middle Eastern state. Moreover, experience teaches us that we can deter effectively by making our own position crystal clear....
The rest of the interview can be found here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mandate This Too!

The Wall Street Journal offers a brilliant, satirical letter to the Obama administration on other healthcare essentials that the government ought to mandate coverage for. Here's a sampling of the letter:
Dear President Obama,
Can you believe the nerve of employers? Many of them still seem to think that they should be allowed to determine the benefits they offer. I guess they haven't read your 2,000-page health law. It's the government's job now. 
That's a good thing, too. Employers for too long have been able to restrict our access to essential health services like contraception by making us pay some of the bill. Really, it's amazing that we aren't all dead. Now, thanks to you, we'll enjoy free and universal access to preventative care just like workers do in Cuba. Even so, there are still many essential benefits that the government must mandate to make the U.S. the freest country in the world. 
• Fitness club memberships. Most doctors agree that exercising is one of the best ways to prevent disease. However, gym memberships can run between $240 and $1,800 per year. Such high prices force us to choose between exercising and buying groceries. While we could walk or jog outside, many of us prefer not to. Therefore, employers should be required to pay for workers' gym memberships. Doing so might even reduce employers' health costs, which is why many companies already subsidize memberships. Those that don't are limiting our freedom to exercise. 
If only people would understand how un-hyperbolic and similarly defended these proposals really are to the underpinning logic of the current contraception issue. For the remainder of the letter, see the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Representing All Americans

A unfortunate tenet on the left and on some segments of the right, is to accept that the government can justly represent just a small slice of the electorate; one's supporters, or base, interest groups, and political allies. But the reality is that for there to be any true level of justice in our political system, our leaders must truly represent all Americans. They must design policies and laws with this fundamental principle at the forefront of their minds; because, while as a political system we believe in majority rule, we also have a strong commitment to minority rights. No in-group or out-group should be offered special privileges or unfair treatment. Every American should be treated equally under the law.

It seems like a relatively simple principle when stated in a succinct manner, yet unfortunately it is frequently and readily ignored by America's politicians. It is a staple of the Obama administration's political ideology. For those on the left it is more than simply appealing to their base or providing pork to associated special interests, but a deeply enmeshed belief that the government has a responsibility to treat individuals differently in certain circumstances. Government, from this perspective, serves to ensure specific outcomes, or at least push the outcome in the desired direction. Explicitly, it accepts the notion that a just government should focus on the end result, aiming to create some arbitrary notion of equality—an impossible and unjust task.

When Obama lauds his success, as he recently did at a United Auto Workers' conference, of "saving" the auto industry, this ideology is displayed in its most unflattering light. If one was the chairman (or czar) of the auto industry, he would surely applaud the preservation of his interests. An individual, in the role of autoworker or auto company owner, may be ecstatic at receiving special dispensation, tacitly ignoring both those that paid for their rescue and those who were not rescued. But receiving such perks of money, influence, or connection, however historically common it may be, does not make it the proper way our system should be run.

However the argument here is not about the economic efficacy of such policies—there are plenty of economic rejoinders that would challenge those that tout such bailouts as fiscally sane, which can be addressed elsewhere.[1] What is at question is the ideology that the government has the right to treat one group differently than another. These type of policies support the incorrect belief that the government can (justly) protect or injure certain segments of society using arbitrary criteria (and yes, regardless of how logical such criteria may be to one or another, they are arbitrary when they discriminate between different individuals). 

The problem, to be fair, is not singularly one of the left, but also unfortunately present on the right. When Rick Santorum stands on the podium arguing for special treatment for manufacturers through tax incentives, he concedes reliance on the same backward philosophy. When congressmen from agricultural red states fight for special subsidies to farmers, they too erode the just role of government. When oilmen or bankers (or union-members) are given carve-outs, the same philosophy is at work.

This is an issue that goes beyond the charges, often correctly made, of "picking winners and losers," which is certainly problematic. The problem is the vision of government that does not consider all Americans as equal before the law. That is an ideology that, for whatever electoral or political reasons, believes that a politician can treat different Americans in different ways. 

While the political roots of this problem are understandable, the long-term consequences are potentially disastrous. Our system has moved a long way from its foundations, where the government was supposed to serve as an impartial arbitrator, as an entity that facilitated the common space but did not try to fill that space, to a near feudal model of patronage and special privileges. The system, historically speaking, may never have worked as philosophically as it strove to—there are certainly too many examples of its failure—but historically (or maybe its simply an effect of rose-tinted lenses) the philosophy seems to have greater popular currency. Today, it appears to be rarely thought of or discussed. 

American politicians need to strive to represent all Americans and the electorate should hold them to that standard. If the people eschew demands for special treatment, the politicians will have to change their electoral strategy. If privilege to the few at the expense of the many becomes anathema in the American political system (right now it is only anathema if the "few" are not you), it will help rebirth the idea that the government needs to represent all Americans, providing a system that is nimble, light, and does not impede the individual. The alternative is a bloated, heavy, and cumbersome system (daresay European) that struggles under the weight of entitlements and carve-outs. The latter is a system that not only veers away from the correct formulation of a just government but will crush the unique spirit that has made America great.

[1]Did an investment in the auto industry reap the best return for the government's investment when compared to other options? Could that money have been used to create or save even more jobs in other sectors or been better used by the taxpayers? Is having a large auto industry really in the best long-term interest of our economy? Would it have been smarter to facilitate structural changes in the economy rather than prop up a failing industry? Certainly, demonstrating that the auto industry is alive today and that jobs have been "saved" in isolation, as proponents are wont to do, does little to answer if the bailout was a smart financial decision.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rush Limbaugh Proves Why the Government Should Leave Us Alone

Rush Limbaugh has provided us with yet another reason why government should stay out of making decisions for individuals. In a recent flap over contraception, Limbaugh referred to Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke as a "slut" because of her desire to speak to a congressional committee on the merits of contraception (she was not allowed to). Limbaugh crossed a line—thankfully, after demurring, he apologized.

But the problem is not so much what he said—although shameful is the only way to describe it—but the firestorm and divisiveness that resulted. Limbaugh gave Fluke a national platform. Obama, in his usual arrogant way, thought that somehow his presence in the fiasco was warranted and jumped into the middle of a public fight between two private citizens. (The story of the "beer summit" between Henry Louis Gates and the Boston police officer, James Crowley, comes to mind, but Obama's swagger is another topic.) GOP presidential candidates had to distance themselves from his remarks. Organizations and legislatures changed their policies. The right marshaled or had to play defense. Suddenly, society is divided, screaming at each other over personal decisions.

And what is the cause of all this? Well the government of course. Its desire to meddle in the private decisions of individuals creates huge incentives for individuals to battle each other over how these top-down regulations are determined. It is divisive. While there are many problems with government meddling in the private sector, the one most evident in this fiasco is that government control prompts individuals and interest groups to struggle over the content of government decisions. By creating and controlling a monopoly power over a decision that will affect everyone—in this case, every American will have to pay or not pay for contraception—the government establishes an immediate battleground for unlike-minded individuals to struggle in favor of their perspective.

Suddenly, private decisions become very public ones, where advocates are either talking about their propensity to need birth control or how heinous and cruel contraception is. But the truth is, that in the public sector, this debate should not matter. One need not care or be bothered by his neighbor's decision to use or abstain from contraception.

One need not agree with the Catholic Church's stance on birth control to be in accord with the argument that the government should not interfere in individual's decisions on whether to pay for it or not. Americans should be as opposed to the government forcing individuals or private institutions into paying for contraception, as they should be opposed to the government prohibiting the sale of such devices. The point is: individuals should  have the right to make these decisions on their own, without having to justify their reasons, logic, or beliefs.

By interfering in these private decisions, the government only creates new sources of tension in society. It tries to force a disparate and diverse nation to hold one set of values or one set of beliefs. That is not only not achievable but pulls at the very fabric of social cohesion. We need not agree with our neighbors, but we also need not try to force them to conform to our beliefs. The less the government tries to push Americans into a one-size-fits-all mold, the fewer issues we will have to fight each other for control over. Congressmen should not be hearing testimony about a law student's beliefs on contraception. Pundits should not be calling people uncouth names. Presidents should not be meddling in private scuffles. And the government should not be deciding what is "right" or "wrong" for the individual.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Privilege of Being American

In today's Wall Street Journal, Lawrence Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve governor and adviser to George W. Bush, wrote an interesting op-ed, refuting Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner's argument that it is a privilege to be an American and thus, by extension, the richest should pay more taxes. Lindsey's argument is worthy of reprinting in-part.
Last week Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said that the "most fortunate Americans" should pay more in taxes for the "privilege of being an American." One can debate different ways of balancing the budget. But Mr. Geithner's argument highlights an unfortunate and very destructive instinct that seems to permeate the Obama administration about the respective roles of citizens and their government. His position has three problems: one philosophical, one empirical, and one logical.

Philosophically, the concept that being an American is a "privilege" upends the whole basis on which America was founded. Privileges are things granted to one individual by another, higher-ranking, individual. For example, in my house my children's use of the family car is a privilege. One presumes Mr. Geithner believes that the "privilege" of being an American is granted by the presumably higher-ranking, governing powers that be.

This is an age-old view that our Founding Fathers rejected. First, they argued that the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (i.e., economic liberty) were natural rights, endowed by our Creator, not by government. Second, the governing powers do not out-rank the citizens. Rather it is the citizens who grant government officials their "just powers." As Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, governments are instituted among men based on their consent in order to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The notion that a governing authority grants privileges to those it governs directly contradicts Jefferson's declaration.


This philosophical point is fundamental. But even if you accept Mr. Geithner's case that the well-to-do must pay more for their presumed "privilege" of being governed, his story ignores the empirical fact that they already do pay a record share of income taxes, even relative to their share of income. According to the Census Bureau, the share of income received by the top 5% of American households is now 21.5%, up from 21.4% in the 1990s. Their share of income taxes has risen to 59% under President Obama from 52% under President Clinton. This despite the fact that the top tax rate was five points higher in the Clinton years.

If you go further back to the pre-Reagan days, when the top tax rate was 70%, the story becomes even more dramatic. Under the four presidents of that era, the income share of the top 5% was 16.8% and their share of the income tax was 36%. In other words, the share of income received by the top 5% has risen 28% and their share of income taxes has risen 64%.

Stated differently, based on the data provided by the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service, the relative tax burden of the top 5% of American earners compared with the remaining 95% has grown from roughly three-to-one prior to 1980 to almost six-to-one today.

One can always argue that this ratio should be 10-to-1, that the "privilege" of being governed is worth 10 times as much per dollar of income to someone who is rich than to someone who is middle-class. Once we give up our moral compass of government deriving its powers from the people. we must also give up any empirical compass of how much we must surrender to government. When you begin the argument that being a citizen is a "privilege" for which one should pay ever more, you very quickly find yourself on Friedrich Hayek's "Road to Serfdom."

This brings us to the third problem with Mr. Geithner's argument, a fundamental logical inconsistency. If being governed, or over-governed, is a privilege for America's citizens, shouldn't everyone pay for the privilege? Why are more than half of all American workers paying nothing at all in income taxes? And if the issue is the need to "pay more" for our privilege, why should only those making over $250,000 be the ones who pay more? If being an American really is a privilege, then certainly all who are thus privileged should pay something.

Still, the real problem with this whole privilege argument goes back to what the Founding Fathers were thinking. Being an American is a right, not a privilege. The privilege belongs to those who are temporarily allowed to serve this great nation in a decision-making capacity. When they turn this privilege into a right to distribute government largess in ever larger quantities—and in ways, to use Jefferson's phrase, a "wise and frugal government" would not—it is those in government, and not the governed, who bear the responsibility for our budgetary problems.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Fair Compromise?

The Obama administration seems to think it has a winning formula in its ill-handled contraception fiasco. Having previously refused to exempt religiously-affiliated organizations from providing contraception through their insurance programs, Obama claims to have accommodated these organizations with a new ruling. The new compromise purportedly exempts religiously-affiliated organizations, but not their insurance providers. Specifically, these institutions no longer need to provide healthcare plans that contradict their beliefs; however, the insurance provider is required to offer supplemental riders, free-of-charge, to any insured policyholders who want to have these services.

The "compromise" is, bluntly, asinine and economic nonsense. It is a political dressing-up of the same program, meant to confuse opponents through a veil of economic subterfuge. The Wall Street Journal outlined the argument well:
...[Y]ou almost have to admire the absurdity of the new plan President Obama floated yesterday: The government will now write a rule that says the best things in life are "free," including contraception. Thus a political mandate will be compounded by an uneconomic one—in other words, behold the soul of ObamaCare.
Insurance companies won't be making donations. Drug makers will still charge for the pill. Doctors will still bill for reproductive treatment. The reality, as with all mandated benefits, is that these costs will be borne eventually via higher premiums. The balloon may be squeezed differently over time, and insurers may amortize the cost differently over time, but eventually prices will find an equilibrium. Notre Dame will still pay for birth control, even if it is nominally carried by a third-party corporation.
Fortunately, many opponents of this ruling have not been duped by President Obama's and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius's twisted logic. They correctly stand firm against the attempted gross encroachment into the private lives of individuals. GOP Presidential candidate Rick Santorum summed it up best, "It’s not about contraception.... It’s about economic liberty."

Monday, February 6, 2012

He "Deserves" a Second Term?

If Obama's arrogance and sense of entitlement have not yet come through in his policies and his speeches, he has made it abundantly clear, in a recent interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, that he deserves a second term. When questioned yesterday by Lauer regarding Obama's 2009 statement, "“If I don’t have this done [the economy fixed] in three years, than this is going to be a one-term proposition,” the president responded by stating “I deserve a second term but we're not done.”

Regardless of what one thinks about his policies, the hubris that emanates from such comments is revealing. As he has repeatedly demonstrated, Obama's leadership is steeped in a worldview that consistently demands and expects some to provide for others. His mentality and his policies are one of entitlement and obligation, unfortunately in direct contrast to an ethos of individual responsibility and self-reliance. This view is apparent whether the state is obliged to provide health insurance for all, bankers or the rich owe their money and wealth to others, or, now, the American people owe Obama a second term, presumably for his "well-deserved" hard work.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

@ FutureChallenges: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: It's the Fundamentals

My newest article at FutureChallenges has just been published. Linked to the content package, Work in the Developing World, the article, Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: It's the Fundamentals, explores the current economic issues faced by the United States and offers a discussion on a possible way to attack the jobs problem.
It is clear, to even the most casual observers of American politics, that one of the most pressing problems of the past several years and a poignant issue in the 2012 election cycle is jobs. With unemployment rates at dismal levels—8.5% as of December 2011—and not having fallen below 8.0% since January 2009, Democrats and Republicans have been slogging it out over who is to blame and what steps need to be taken to ameliorate the situation.

This marks a significant change in the focus of the American electorate. Following 9/11, security and terrorism were, for at least a decade, the primary issues on most Americans’ minds. However, as Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, argues, the 9/11 era is over. Over the next few years, economics—especially jobs—will be the driving force behind politics, both in the United States and abroad.

But while politics shift to an economic focus and politicians and pundits began to scrutinize, bolster, and tear-down each others’ and their own job-creating records, many gloss over the fact that governments are rarely directly responsible for creating actual jobs. This is particularly true in free-market systems with relatively small public sectors such as the United States. Instead, governments can indirectly facilitate job creation by generating a favorable economic environment, thus establishing the foundational prerequisites needed for the private sector to flourish.
To see the remainder of the article, please click here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of Class Warfare

Last night's State of the Union Address was rather dull. The President offered little in the way of anything new. He continued to spin his usual bombast and, while trying to portray himself as a cross-aisle conciliator, continued his divisive rhetoric and class warfare. He even went as far as to acknowledge (and failed to deny) that many might perceive his proposals and language from a polarizing perspective.

As the State of the Union Address and Obama's past record both indicate, class warfare is a key ingredient in the Left's worldview. It is a perspective that relies upon separating Americans into groups—classes—where the supposedly more fortunate have certain responsibilities to members of other classes. The Left tries to portray itself as the defender of the lower- and middle-classes, against the excesses of the uppermost classes. Accordingly, the Democrats attempt to cast the Republicans as defenders of the rich. Naturally, a dynamic develops, a divisiveness and a sort of warfare, of two-sides where the Democrats, from their perspective, try to claim the mantle of defending the average American against Republican-backed elite.

Unfortunately, this plot line is often successfully bought by the media and many in the electorate. But it unfairly distorts the Republican position. The Republicans (at least most) are not defending the rich, but are defending every American's right to own and keep their property.

This is an inclusive agenda. All Americans should be treated the same, regardless of one's income level. Each has the same claim to the product of his work or investment, whether labeled low-income, middle-class, or rich. In fact, the Republican ideology, if allowed, could completely do away with all of these labels. From the perspective of the government and its laws, there should be no class separations. All Americans should be afforded the same rights and should be treated equally under the law.

This stands in direct contrast to the Democratic worldview, which relies upon labels and divisiveness. The Left loves to classify and categorize individuals, grouping them by economic background, race, or other arbitrary division. Each group is then offered unique treatment, privileges, or responsibilities. This separates Americans and creates undue tensions between truly artificial groups.

Grievously, many accept this portrayal of American society. They cannot help but view America through this lens of autonomous and distinct groups, even though there are far more cross-cutting similarities among Americans than there are Balkanized group identities.

Nevertheless, many other Americans see through this distorted worldview. The low-income Republicans that many academics and pundits like to claim consistently vote against their economic interest are a prime example. It is not necessarily true that the so-called rural social conservatives choose social policy over economic interest. Instead many see the Republican economic position for what it is meant to be—a defense of every American's economic interests.

Whether one is rich or poor, it is in one's interest to have a system that believes that the product of each American's work is his or her own property. The government does not, as the Left likes to believe, have an a priori claim on one's income, thus graciously allowing individuals to keep the residual amount after "proper" [arbitrary] redistribution has occurred. Instead, our income and wealth are our own property and we have the right to do with it as we please. Taxes are to be paid to support the essential services that a government must provide, but these should be based on the proper needs of the system and our responsibilities as citizens to meet these needs, not on some arbitrary definition of "having too much."

Obama and the Democrats continue to distort this message, attempting to confuse Americans into believing that somehow some Americans owe something to others. This is simply not true, yet deeply divisive. Americans are in this together. We have one country in which we must share responsibilities and we should have one set of laws that treats everyone the same.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

No Black Eyes

The Republican primaries are getting ugly. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have been attacking each other with venom in their quest to secure the GOP's nomination. And while last night's debate in Florida had quite a few moments of real issue-based discussion—NBC's moderator, Brian Williams, should be commended for running a respectable and informative debate—a large portion of the debate descended into ad hominem attacks between the two front runners.

The termination of all personal attacks in election campaigns would be a noble and significant goal, however, it is probably unrealistic. The electorate too often jumps on juicy and vitriolic stories and character assassinations, even if voters simultaneously claim to abhor such behavior. The truth is that such tactics unfortunately work and candidates know this.

However, if running only issue-based campaigns is too lofty of a goal in general election campaigns, it is indubitably wise to terminate these tactics in party primaries. While primary candidates are rivals they are also allies in a broader conflict. By relying on tactics that may further their immediate goal, they often simultaneously undermine the longer-term goal. In the interest of winning the metaphorical war, not just the battle, Republican presidential candidates would be sagacious to change their tactics quickly.

By attacking each other in such personal ways, whether drawing out Herman Cain's infidelity, portraying Mitt Romney as a rich, out-of-touch, low-tax-paying elite, or labeling Newt Gingrich an "influence peddler," Republican candidates are only doing the Democrats' dirty-work. The GOP campaigns are unearthing truths and partial-truths that the Obama campaign may never have seized upon and will certainly use in the general election. This has gone a long way towards facilitating the reelection of Obama, particularly as the primaries head towards the spring.

Even more damning is the fact that the Republican candidates are systematically tearing each other down. These candidates seem to be forgetting that while they are currently competing for the votes of Republican primary voters, they are also being watched by the independent and liberal voters that they need to sway the general election towards the right. The things they say now will stick; if, for instance, Romney is successfully portrayed as an elitist, it will be hard for him to shake that image over the summer and fall.

Whether Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich ultimately wins, the loser will inevitably endorse the nominee. Neither prefers Obama over his Republican rival. Yet after such a brutal campaign it is hard to see either able to successfully stump for the other, particularly when there are hours of footage personally castigating the former rival. Instead, the ultimate winner runs the risk of  Pyrrhic victory, defeating his Republican rival only to face Obama in a beauty contest with two black eyes and a chipped front tooth.

The primary campaign should be a time of sincere and honest discussion over issues. Candidates should attempt to distinguish themselves on the subtleties of their positions and the nuances of their beliefs. It is okay, even necessary, to indicate how one candidate differs from his opponents. Republican voters should know which type of conservative candidate they are selecting. Ron Paul's interactions with the other candidates are usually exemplary in this regard. Paul, for example, outlines significant differences in his foreign policy beliefs. He will criticize the mainstream Republican foreign policy, but rarely descends into personal attacks. This behavior is generally reciprocated by Romney and Gingrich, who may call Paul's foreign policy dangerous [it is] but do not attack the congressman personally. As a result, Republican and non-primary voters are informed and learn a bit more about their prospective presidents.

This is how a primary campaign should be run. It should be about the issues, not about deconstructing an opponent's character or personal life. Lively disagreement and debate is a must, but ultimately the GOP is a team. The candidates should compete vigorously, but not in a way that undermines the ultimate goal. They should fight on the issues not on the alleged personal failures of their Republican rivals.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Government Healthcare Interferes in Private Lives

Many are outraged at the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) recent decision to force religiously-affiliated organizations to provide reproductive and preventative services without co-pay or deductible, as required under the new Obamacare law. HHS Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius announced that while synagogues and churches would be exempt from the rule, other religiously-affiliated organizations, including non-profits would not be. Religiously-affiliated organizations, however, were provided an extra year to prepare for implementation.

This decision has highlighted the excessive overreach of Obamacare into the private sector. The law is facilitating gross interference in the private lives of individuals beyond what is appropriate for government involvement. It not only gives the government an undue amount of arbitrary coercive power, but greatly impedes the ability of the individual (person and organization) to choose their own way of life and even make their own mistakes.

Many religious leaders have spoken out quickly and decisively on the ruling, arguing that it forces them to provide for services, such as the morning-after pill, that challenge their personal and religious beliefs. The archbishop of New York, Timothy M. Dolan said "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences...."

This is not a commentary on the wisdom of providing or not providing contraception. The issue at stake here is not whether these religious groups and leaders are right about the provision of these servicesif one can even make the claim that there is a "right." Instead, it is about whether individuals and private organizations should have the right to choose the services they provide to their employees and the manner in which they conduct their operations.

Private bodies should not be forced, by the government, to behave in certain ways because some, who happen to be in power, believe that one way or another is a better way to conduct one's live. The wielding of such power by the government moves far beyond the pale of the proper role of government and descends towards a dangerous tyranny. While the government certainly has to make laws and use coercive power to alter the individual's behavior in some instances, there is a wide gap between, for instance, preventing murder or theft, which essentially protects one citizen from another, and forcing citizens to provide services or goods to others when the provider (and possibly the recipient) objects and the recipient can obtain these services elsewhere if they so desire.

By allowing the government to inflict such arbitrary and minute decisions on the lives of private organizations, Obamacare has ventured too far into the realm of totalitarian control. The rule has offered no clear delimitation of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate intervention in the private sector, relying upon a perspective of government that essentially allows any meddling if some policymaker believes the outcome would be "better." An argument that science or policy deems such practices better (even if true) is not sufficient to warrant government control.

The proposed alternative, exemptions, as provided to houses of worship, are not a fair or appropriate remedy. Everyone must be treated the same under the law. Allowing some to avoid following a law because of personal reasons relies upon the same arbitrariness that should not be present in legislating and government rule-making. Why, one must readily ask, should religious objections be acknowledged but not other personal or economic ones?

The truth is that the government has no business in deciding what employers should provide in terms of healthcare and reproductive services. There is certainly a worthy debate to have over merits of providing birth control—a debate that would most likely be lively and impassioned. But it is a debate that should happen in the social sphere not in the government. It is a debate that will ebb and flow as social values and mores change, as people, for instance, choose to associate and work for organizations that provide or refuse to provide benefits that coincide with their personal beliefs. But it is not just for coercion to be used to force some to adhere to the beliefs of others.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Policymaker in Chief

The media has been abuzz with Newt Gingrich's push-back against inappropriate questions asked by CNN's John King during last night's Republican primary debate in South Carolina. Responding to opening questions about allegations, made by Gingrich's ex-wife, of a request for an "open relationship," Gingrich refused to play by the standard rules of the game and fired back at the "despicable" line of questioning.

Gingrich's response is refreshing. Far too often politicians play by the media's rules, failing to push back against unwarranted assumptions, questions, and rules that have come to govern America's political process. This has unfortunately made too many good politicians look bad and has distracted the electorate from substantive issues (the Lewinsky scandal is a prime example). Gingrich said it well, "I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run of for public office and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."

In truth, far too much emphasis is placed, in political campaigns, on what should remain strictly personal. Accordingly, candidates often fail to draw a clear line emphasizing what is relevant and what is off limits. Instead, they act guilty and try to avoid direct answers, implicitly accepting underlying assumptions that reside within a question. This not only leads to discussion about issues that are irrelevant to an office-holder's job responsibilities, but also develops a culture that unquestionably accepts certain behaviors, even if they are unjustifiable. [This same failure to challenge implicit assumptions has lead, as argued elsewhere, to additional problems.] Instead, what should be relevant is the candidate's ideas, policy prescriptions, and how he will act as an office-holder.

Other candidates would be wise to follow Gingrich's lead. Romney, for instance, should make a similar argument regarding calls for the release of his tax returns. His past income, he should argue, has no bearing on his ideas and ability to be a successful president. He could easily link this to Gingrich's argument, defending a separation between the public (job-related) and private realms of a candidate's life.

Critics, of course, love to argue that these personal issues are somehow relevant to understanding a candidate. But such arguments fall flat. It is not relevant what income your attorney, accountant, or grocery-store bagger makers, nor does it matter what your gardener, professor, or firefighter does in his free time or in his personal relationships. What matters is if the individual has the required talents, ideas, and ability to execute the responsibilities of his job. America would find that it attracts more talented, intelligent, and more capable candidates, if it focused on the policies not the politics of their officials. The rest is just a distraction.