Tuesday, October 29, 2013

@FutureChallenges: It's not easy being green

Here is an excerpt from my most recent article on Future Challenges, "It's not easy being green," where I discuss how environmentalism must be thought of as a luxury.

“It’s not that easy being green.” America’s favorite frog first made this profound statement in 1970, right as the green movement got its first legs. Although Kermit may have recanted somewhat for a recent Ford Escape Hybrid commercial (some say sold out), the wisdom behind his oft-repeated observation still remains true today. Living a green lifestyle is not that easy. In fact it can be quite expensive—a luxury difficult for many but the richest individuals, companies, and countries to afford.
Luxuries, by definition, are items that are much more easily available to those with expanded means. The rich can obviously afford more luxuries than the poor. Such a statement is so evident it would be almost silly were it not for the fact that far too many people fail to acknowledge that environmentalism is indeed a luxury. A green lifestyle is only possible when individuals, companies, and countries can afford it. In other words, to be green, one needs to be (relatively) well-off.
It's not that easy being green
It’s not that easy being green / CC Stephen Michael Barnett
Accordingly, economic growth is necessary to provide the extra income to afford greener practices. While higher incomes do not ensure a more sustainable lifestyle—since there are whole galaxies of luxuries for the rich to spend their money on—economic growth is the cornerstone upon which environmentalism must rest. Emerging economies, like China and India, and poor individuals struggling to make ends meet will never be able to afford a green lifestyle unless they are first able to pay for their basic needs.
In the US, for instance, a 2013 Ford Fusion SE (a mid-sized family sedan) has a base price of $23,800. The comparable hybrid edition starts at $27,200—over a 14% increase in price. At a large grocer in Princeton, NJ (a suburb of New York City) a dozen store-brand eggs cost $1.79. At $3.79,  comparable organic eggs are 112% more expensive, . Likewise, the cost of constructing green buildings according to LEED standards (a construction certification system) is $7.50 to $12.50 extra per square foot, an increase of 3%-8% of total construction costs. According to a recent study, the annual economic cost of environmental regulations on manufacturing plants was US$21bn over a recent 20 year period. This does not include direct costs of nearly US$8.5bn to the federal government in 2012 for running its chief environmental regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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.