Sanction Your Friends, Not Your Enemies

 Posted by  Foreign Policy, Foreign Trade  Comments Off on Sanction Your Friends, Not Your Enemies
Nov 202013

There’s  a very interesting “Room for Debate” section on on the efficacy of economic sanctions.  I encourage you all to read it, but let me add my own take.

There are three pieces of “common knowledge” in the wider debate about sanctions:

  1. Economic Sanctions are a valuable and useful tool for encouraging good behavior or penalizing bad behavior.
  2. Economic Sanctions work better when they are multilateral; that is, the more countries that agree to the sanctions, the more powerful they will be.
  3. Economic Sanctions, if not implemented properly, harm the wrong people.

It turns out that none of these assertions are nearly as simple as they first appear. Continue reading »


I was thinking about privacy recently. The NSA has been reading a lot more than they let on. And there are starting to be organized responses and protests as many people are angered and concerned over the invasion of the government into our privacy. It is troubling to think that everything you do is being observed and monitored and evaluated. But some people aren’t troubled at all by this. And I started to speculate as to what leads people to be differentially concerned. I don’t think it easily splits down partisan lines – the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement are both equally disturbed by government invasion of privacy. There are probably individual personality differences in desire for privacy, or paranoia, that influence people’s responses.

But it also occurred to me that- many people who believe in an omniscient deity believe that they are always being watched and evaluated by a higher power. That higher power is perceived to be benevolent, which is possibly but not necessarily true of the government. Nonetheless the feeling of chronic surveillance may be less disturbing to people who are religious and are used to feeling as though their actions are always noted, than to folks who are used to believing that actions taken in private are in fact private. This possibility is entirely speculative with no data whatsoever to back it up, but it would have interesting political ramifications were it true.


So there were all along three possible ways out of the Government Shutdown and Debt Ceiling Crises, at least from a legislative standpoint.  (After all, remember that any bill would actually have to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the President.)

  1. The Senate Bipartisan Plan.  This is what happened.  The Senate Leadership from both sides gets together, makes a deal that funds the government and extends the debt ceiling, and includes very little concessions to the GOP (because they have little influence in the Senate).  This is what Obama wanted all along.  It gets through the House with all the Democrats and a minority of the most moderate Republicans.
  2. The Tea Party Pipe Dream.  Obama agrees to sign a bill with large concessions on the Affordable Health Care Act and/or an array of other conservative priorities.  This passes the House with a unified GOP caucus, and squeaks through the Senate because there is enough popular pressure on moderate Democrats to force them to vote for it.
  3. Conference Committee.  The Senate passes their plan.  The unified GOP caucus passes their unified pipe dream.  It goes to conference committee, and something comes out that is palatable enough that it can pass both Houses of Congress and be signed by the President.  No one is happy.
We’ve spent the last 16 days… well, really the last month… with a huge portion of the Right convinced that the #2 was a viable legislative strategy.  Of course, most people with any Washington acumen at all–including such liberals as Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, and the Wall St. Journal Opinion Page–thought that it was a dumb idea.  After all, you have to be pretty delusional to believe that President Obama and something like 10 Senate Democrats are going to agree to renegotiate their signature policy victory of the last decade when poll after poll told them that if they held firm, the GOP would take the brunt of the blame.
But it wasn’t actually that particular delusion that did in the plan.  It was a much more subtle, but insidious delusion that ultimately caused the GOP to cave in.  After all, notice that both #2 and #3 require a unified GOP caucus.  In other words, all of the House Republicans have to agree on a single bill that would reopen the federal government, extend the debt ceiling, and otherwise be better than the status quo.  This is why the House GOP caucus met two days ago; to come up with such a plan.
And they failed.  They failed spectacularly.  It turns out that the House GOP caucus can’t even agree on whether or not we ought to extend the debt ceiling or reopen government.
Which means that Plans #2 and #3 were non-starters.  The only viable plan left was the one that could have been implemented a month ago.
In other words, hundreds of thousands of people were out of a job for 16 days because the GOP leadership couldn’t admit to the world three weeks ago that the House GOP caucus was too fractured to agree on a compromise with Obama, even if by some miracle he did actually agree to one.
That’s truly amazing.

The harm of the shutdown

 Posted by  Uncategorized  Comments Off on The harm of the shutdown
Oct 102013

I oppose Obamacare.

It shifts the cost burden of medicine towards the demographic with the lowest disposable income (the young). Despite the fact that it increases coverage, it does little to control costs. There are serious questions about its effect on small business, and the individual mandate runs counter to American ideals of liberty. There are people who will be helped by Obamacare, but on the whole, I believe it does more harm than good for this country.

But the harm that Obamacare might do pales in comparison to the harm the Republicans in the House are inflicting upon this country with their current obstinacy tactics. I’m not talking about the harm they’re doing to the 800,000 government workers who are currently without pay, or the millions of Americans who are not able to receive government services. I’m not talking about the harm they are doing to our international reputation. I’m not even talking about the 2 billion dollars that it will cost to close government offices and then (hopefully soon) open them again.

I’m talking about the fundamental harm to the institution of American Democracy. Lets take a moment and think about why democracy works. On average, democracies outperform other forms of government on every measure of well-being that has ever been measured: crime rates, education, health outcomes, sanitation, wealth, and so on. Why is it that Democracies are so much more effective than it’s rivals?

There are many reasons, but one of the primary ones is that in Democracy, when a faction loses, they have ways of expressing their displeasure and working to affect their desired changes on society that don’t involve harming the country. In Syria, people unhappy with the Assad regime take to the streets, shut down the economy, burn down hospitals, and cause the country to erupt into civil war. In the U.K., people unhappy with the Cameron administration raise money, make speeches, and prepare to vote him out of office when the next election comes about. The former destroys infrastructure and prevents growth and progress, harming the country immensely. The latter does not. This allows democracies to function even in times of stress and turmoil. In other words: the effectiveness of democracy is partly due to the incentives for the opposition party to work towards achieving power in ways that don’t cripple the country.

The House Republicans are undermining this principle. They lost a battle, and they seem intent on taking the country down with them.

Note that this doesn’t have to be the case. When the Supreme Court ruled against the Democrats in the 2000 Florida election, the democrats complained about the unfairness of the decision (and continue to do so to this day) but they didn’t shut down the government by refusing to pass a budget until Gore was instated as president. And in the past, the GOP has lost battles on abortion, on unions, and on environmental protection without shutting down the government. The current extremist wing of the GOP is holding the country hostage, and in doing so is destroying one of the pillars that holds up American Democracy. They are not only hurting the country now, but they’re setting a precedent that this is acceptable as a means of expressing your displeasure with electoral outcomes. If people out of power start undermining society to try and get their way, then one of he primary reasons that democracies are so successful will no longer be operating.

I share the GOP’s distaste for Obamacare – but the tactics that they are engaging in to combat it are causing exponentially more harm than the bill itself will.

(And lets not even start on self-fulfilling prophecies and the notion of legitimacy.)

The Good and Bad of Leaks

 Posted by  Disasters and Tragedies, Terrorism, The Media  Comments Off on The Good and Bad of Leaks
Oct 092013

Anonymous sources keep the government honest.

One of my favorite West Wing quotes is when CJ Craig, the fictional White House Press Secretary, discusses how leaks are a necessary part of governing:   “There is no group of people this large in the world that can keep a secret. I find it comforting. It’s how I know for sure the government isn’t covering up aliens in New Mexico.”  Leaks keep the government honest.  Without Deep Throat, we wouldn’t have known that Richard Nixon attempted election fraud.  (Which was the point of the Watergate break-in; to steal campaign documents from the DNC.)  Without the Pentagon Papers, it might have taken years to uncover the incompetence within the Pentagon, and dishonesty from the White House, that undercut our efforts in Vietnam.  Anonymous sources give the public necessary information about corruption and incompetence, and are the ultimate defense against the creation of secret conspiracies that would be against the public’s best interest.

But anonymous sources also ruin lives.

A classic-but-modern example of this is Richard Jewell.  Mr. Jewell was working as a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  He spotted a suspicious bag, called it in, and started moving people away from it.  It turned out, that bag contained a bomb.  Mr. Jewell saved lives that day.

But then the FBI began to suspect that maybe he was involved in planting the bag in the first place, so that he could play the part of hero.  They never had any hard evidence of this–only a general profile gathered from Mr. Jewell’s work history that was similar to people who had done this in the past.  He was the FBI’s primary suspect for almost three months before he was officially cleared.  (The bomber turned out to be a right-wing anti-abortion activist; he was caught about a decade later.)

All of that would have been fine–except for that someone in the FBI leaked the fact that Mr. Jewell was a suspect to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  That anonymous source triggered every major news paper in the country–and many internationally–to dig into his past.  He received death threats, he became unemployable, he had the media stalk him and his family.  The FBI had absolutely no evidence linking Mr. Jewell to the bomb, and yet it destroyed his life in a very real way.  (Eventually he received an apology from the FBI, he settled a liable suit against several major news outlets, got a job as a Sheriff’s Deputy in Georgia, and died of diabetes a few years ago.)

So I like leaks.  I want people who work in government to tell dirty secrets to reporters.  But I also want those reporters to exercise restraint in what they publish.  The people do not have a “right” to know every last detail.  Reporters who fail to understand that have no place in the business.

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