Monday, November 30, 2015

Breaking Down Anti-Muslim Prejudices on the Left

One of the most destructive effects of Barack Obama's Presidency has been the decimation of the antiwar movement on the left. To be sure, there are still many brave, liberal journalists and activists that are promoting nonintervention. But since 2008, we haven't seen the same kind of widespread popular sentiment against the wars in the Middle East. One compelling explanation for this may be that many of the people that claimed to be antiwar in 2007 and 2008 were really just anti-Republican war. And so once President Obama took office, a substantial component of the movement against war seemed to fall silent.

Progressives, who may have been generally predisposed to favor peaceful solutions before Obama were put in a tough spot after 2008. As President Obama continued to push hawkish policies of various sorts (stepping up drone assassinations, failing to act on Guantanamo, pushing intervention in Libya, and so on), they could either continue to oppose war and oppose their President, or they could change their position on war to be in line with the leader of the Democratic party. The lack of meaningful opposition to many of Obama's foreign policy suggests that many acquiesced.

Fortunately, there was a rising intellectual force to help the new, more bellicose left get over their cognitive dissonance. Prominent atheists began to focus much of their ire against Islam specifically rather than religion in general. And as the left is less religious in general, this was a very significant development. Anti-Muslim remarks and policies used to be routinely and correctly dismissed as racist on the left. But with the rise of the atheist critique on Islam, this bigotry gained credibility. As author Sam Harris once said on Bill Maher's show, Islam is a "motherload of bad ideas". In that same episode, when a guest asked if Islamophobia is a real thing, Maher literally said "It's not a real thing when we do it." (It's at around 1:40 in the embedded clip.)

The point is that generalized anti-Muslim beliefs have started to gain traction among people who really ought to know better. And that is what brings us to our recommended story today. In a new op-ed at The Guardian, Jeff Sparrow takes on the bigotry that has come to prominence among what are sometimes called the "New Atheists". Regardless of whether you identify as atheist, this article is certainly worth your time. It concisely explains how quickly otherwise unrelated ideas can be twisted to serve the interests of the powerful at the expense of the weak. As Sparrow writes:
In the name of enlightened atheism, you thus arrive at an old-fashioned imperialism: the people we just happen to be bombing are simple-minded savages, impervious to reason and civilisation.

Indeed. Here's the link:

We can save atheism from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Applying Counterterrorism Consistently

Last Friday, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs was attacked by a gunman who proceeded to barricade himself inside the building for a number of hours. Ultimately, the gunman surrendered to police, but three people were killed between the initial assault and the standoff that followed. Several others were also wounded. This story from CNN provides a reasonable summary of the attack and what we know about it so far:

Obviously, details from this case are still emerging, but early indications suggest that the shooter was motivated in part by the Planned Parenthood baby parts scandal* based on comments he allegedly made to police. This, combined with the fact that the target was Planned Parenthood, suggest that the shooter's motivations were pro-life beliefs. To be fair, it's entirely possible that this may have been a random attack and have nothing to do with abortion. But the popular assumption at this point is that it is related to abortion. And our focus for this story is on the popular response.

The suspect in this case is a white man, not an Arab. And there is no indication that he was influenced by Islam nor connected to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. I would like to suggest that these facts alone explain the response.

President Obama issued a statement on the attack, framing it as another instance of gun violence. Acknowledging that the motive for the attack was uncertain, Obama did not label this as terrorism. The Presidential candidates have also followed suit, with the exception of Republican Mike Huckabee who did describe it as "domestic terrorism".

By now, it is probably well-established that the term "terrorism" is not consistently applied. When Arabs or self-professed Muslims commit atrocities, it is terrorism; when individuals with other attributes do it, it usually isn't. This case appears to be another data point in support of that notion.

Another important observation here is how the proposed solutions vary depending on the demographic of the suspect.

In this case, Obama's initial remarks are essentially suggesting gun control could have helped prevent this problem. This was also his response to the Charleston church massacre that was committed by a white supremacist earlier this year. But in response to the Paris attacks, the immediate Western response was an increase in airstrikes. To his credit, Obama was less enthusiastic about increasing airstrikes, but the fact remains that our fundamental strategy for combating that form of terrorism is airstrikes and drone strikes in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, etc.

Of course, the analogy between the Paris attacks and the Charleston or Planned Parenthood shootings is an imperfect one. In the case of Paris, there are identified groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and a few others) that overtly aspire to commit more such acts. In the other cases, the individual suspects seem to be one-offs. But the analogy is still relevant because the most hawkish among us are keen to suggest that in fact it's not ISIS or Al-Qaeda that should be blamed but the general ideology of Islam.

Thus, for the sake of consistency I would like to propose a thought experiment. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the root problem is the Islamic worldview. From this, we could justify tailoring our counterterrorism efforts to focus on Muslims, and we would continue to justify preemptive drone assassinations against them. So what about the white supremacist in Charleston? He may not have been a part of an organization, but clearly he's not the only white supremacist. Should we therefore engage in a policy of drone striking anyone with a Confederate flag on their truck because they might share the same extremist white supremacist views and might be plotting to shoot up a church? What about the pro-life activists? Surely, the Colorado Springs shooter is not the only one that harbors those views. Should we have a predator drone hovering over the next Republican convention because it might have a lot of pro-life folks inside?

Unless you believe in totalitarianism, I suspect the answer to the above hypotheticals was a resounding no. And the reason we should have revulsion to these ideas is precisely because a few violent crazies on the fringe do not justify discrimination or assassination against the broader group they identify with. Terrorists identifying with Muslims is not the same as Muslims identifying with terrorists.

But if you do still want to continue the policy of preemptive assassination based on suspicion in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, please be consistent and call for drone strikes on Colorado and South Carolina as well. You never can be too careful.

*Incidentally, I personally find it rather confusing why conservatives were so up in arms about the baby parts scandal to begin with. It appears that Planned Parenthood was only ever reimbursed for minor expenses, and they weren't really selling baby parts. But what if they were? I don't think anyone is under the illusion that cost is a deciding factor when one is debating whether to have an abortion. Therefore, even if Planned Parenthood was subsidizing abortions 100% to augment their booming baby organ business (which no one alleges), it seems unlikely that it would actually increase the number of abortions. And of course, though it may be a bit crass to say, we should note that the aborted fetus doesn't have much use for the organs. But if Planned Parenthood made enough money on selling baby organs for research, then they could potentially become self-sustaining and would no longer require federal funding. And isn't that the perennial uproar that we have when it's time to pass the budget --that conservatives don't want the federal government to subsidize Planned Parenthood? Now, this shouldn't be interpreted as advocacy for the sale of baby parts, but the economic implications summarized above seem to reflect an odd contradiction in the conservative position.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Turkey Shoots Down a Russian Plane Along Syrian Border

Yesterday, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane that allegedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The Turkish story on this incident is more than a bit doubtful (for instance, it alleges that 10 warnings were given and ignored by the Russians, but also maintains its airspace was violated for 17 seconds). But whatever the truth of the allegations, it cannot be disputed that the Russian plane did not pose a threat to Turkey. Russia has been flying sorties over targets in Syria for some time now and still has not struck any targets in Turkey. Thus, it is worth wondering why the Turks were so trigger-happy to shoot down a Russian plane, based on what is, at worst, a technicality.

For more insights on this question, I recommend the analysis of Philip Giraldi at The American Conservative. He discusses the circumstances surrounding this event in more detail and speculates on the likely rationale of the Turkish government:

Why did Turkey attack a Russian plane?

Ultimately, this event appears to be a manifestation of some of our worst fears about the convoluted Syrian policy. America and its allies have effectively prioritized unseating President Assad over fighting ISIS. Thus, they have been indirectly or directly backing "moderate" rebels in Syria, many of whom ironically share virtually the same ideology and anti-Western sentiments as ISIS. However, this backing of the "moderates" puts the US and NATO at odds with Russia, who is supporting Assad and quite reasonably considers many of the "moderates" to actually be Islamic terrorists. This all has led to unnecessary tensions between Russia and the Western countries, who all share the goal of defeating ISIS.

Given all the complexities that unfold in a war, a direct incident between Russia and the US or its allies was virtually inevitable. This event is fulfilling that inevitability.

Now we must also consider what happens next? Will this escalate into a pointless and destructive conflict along the lines of World War I, since Turkey is, after all, a NATO member? Or will cooler heads prevail?

Thus far, Putin has condemned Turkey and (justifiably) accused them of being "accomplices of terrorists", but has not made any serious moves towards further escalation. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration appears committed to blaming the victims and playing stupid--claiming this is the result of a flaw in the Russian strategy of targeting the moderate opposition. On the plus side, even Obama is not overtly calling for an escalation with Russia at this point. We should be grateful the situation has not spiraled out of control yet, but we are from in the clear.

As a practical matter, we should also be very relieved that it was a Russian plane that got shot down by NATO instead of the other way around. Thus far, Putin's response has been admirably restrained on this issue. If it was a US fighter pilot that got killed because of deliberate fire from the Russians, I posit that American politicians would already be talking openly (and excitedly) about World War III.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Overreaction in Paris Curtails Basic Liberties

The series of events taking place in Paris right now is entirely predictable, but it is still frightening. In response to the coordinated attacks on Paris a week and a half ago, the French government has declared a temporary state of emergency and suspended many basic liberties. This write-up at Yahoo news offers a good summary of the situation so far:

Few Dissenting Voices as France Curbs Rights After Massacre

The French government has essentially assumed very broad policing powers. The net result appears to be that they can seize property and restrict freedom based on mere suspicion rather than proof. Additionally, the evidentiary standard for conducting searches appears to have been reduced considerably. Some of the highlights of the anti-terror activity so far include the following:

  • Raiding 793 residences and arresting 90 people
  • Placing 164 people under house arrest
  • Seizing weapons, money, and drugs from some of the above suspects
Asking what drugs have to do with combating terrorism is an obvious question. And the most likely answer is that these extraordinary additional powers are already being used for general law enforcement activities. But perhaps more important, is the virtual certainty that some of the people targeted by these raids and/or placed under house arrest are innocent. Either France is swarming with terrorists, or this is a frantic crackdown that is casting a broad net out of fear. The latter is clearly more likely. But of course, this is why we have standards and due process before depriving people of their liberty, to avoid unduly affecting innocent people. But under a state of emergency, such considerations are null and void.

Perhaps most alarming of all is that French officials are citing their equivalent of the bill of rights--namely the Declaration of the Rights of Man--to justify depriving people of those very rights. In the words of Prime Minister Manuel Valls, "Security is the first of all freedoms." And it therefore would appear to follow that actions done to protect that alleged first freedom, and inherently justified. The French government is suspending the people's rights to save them. How very noble.

As for what this looks like in practice, French police recently violently suppressed a pro-refugee protest. The State of Emergency instituted a suspension on freedom of assembly, and the police were enforcing it.

The crackdown on civil liberties in France is a real world example of the age-old debate between liberty and security. Most of the French people and the French government certainly seem willing to make the trade for increased security. But the long-term consequences are unclear. If you prevent people from going about their daily life, as occurred recently in Brussels, you can probably prevent them from experiencing a terror attack. But would that mean that we should stay in our homes at all time. What is the appropriate trade-off and who should decide that balance? These are the questions raised by the Paris attacks. And the trend so far appears to have a significant bias towards security.

Ultimately, ISIS is not nearly strong enough to pose a meaningful threat to the French people. They may be able to inspire one-off atrocities, but that is it. A few murderous people on a rampage cannot possibly destroy a society. But a government that is completely willing to suspend the most basic liberties in response, well, that is a threat that merits far more attention.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Stop the Bipartisan Grandstanding on Refugees

Lately, a heated debate has broken out over the question of admitting Syrian refugees. On the Republican side, Donald Trump's previously hyperbolic suggestions of an ISIS "Trojan horse" have essentially become mainstreamed. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side of the aisle, President Obama has criticized the Republicans for demonizing Muslims and has argued that accepting Syrian refugees is required based on our American values. Many media outlets were also quick to highlight the very thorough vetting process refugees go through. Thus, the net narratives that have emerged on each side look something like this (and as will be clear from the rest of this post, I am definitely not endorsing either of these views, but merely attempting to summarize them):

Republicans: Obama's commitment to admit new refugees is opening the US to new terrorist threats and is completely irresponsible. We're totally fine with profiling Muslims because they're the only ones that commit terrorism these days, and we should be honest about that. The First Amendment can go jump in a lake; we need security before we can consider rights.

Democrats: The Republicans are just being racist fear-mongers. There's no credible terrorist threat from the refugee population because of our vetting process; the refugees have been victims of terrorism themselves. We have a responsibility to help those in need, and "we don't have religious tests to our compassion," in the words of Obama.

And while the Democratic position appears to have more traction in the media, a recent opinion poll shows that a majority of Americans (56%) appear to be leaning towards the Republican line.

Popular opinion aside, I would like to suggest that the core arguments put forth by both camps miss the point. There are grains of truth in each, but most of this debate amounts to just so much political grandstanding. The Democrats don't give a damn about the Syrian people; the Republicans aren't really afraid of them; and both of them need to be called out as such.

Let us begin with the Republicans. In fairness, we should start by pointing out that it's not completely absurd to suggest that ISIS would like to infiltrate the refugee population for the purpose of committing attacks. Last week, we noted that the strategic purpose of ISIS attacks against Western targets is to provoke a harsh reaction by the people and governments of Western nations. If they can provoke extreme oppression against Muslims, then their narrative of a war against Islam gains credibility and they may be able to recruit more members to their cause. In other words, they need the West to behave like monsters. Few things would be more beneficial to this cause than inspiring a Western crackdown on Muslim refugees, a crackdown on the most vulnerable people in the world. And you don't just have to take my word for this. One of the ISIS attackers in Paris was found with a Syrian passport that appears to have been fabricated or stolen. But all of the attackers were European citizens that would have no need for such a passport--it would obviously be easier for them to travel using their legitimate European nationality than faking refugee status. And accordingly, we must conclude that the Syrian passport served one purpose--to implicate refugees in the attacks and provoke a reaction against them.

The reality noted above could be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, we know ISIS would love to inspire the "refugees are terrorists" narrative. On the other, we realize that in France, they ultimately did not get into the country as refugees. Thus, one might conclude they feared the refugee vetting process would thwart their plans and won't try to take the risk accordingly. But a more modest conclusion might just be that since the attackers really were European citizens, there was no reason to feign refugee status. Whatever the calculation may be, we still know that ISIS wants the West to fear refugees. It is therefore sad and ironic that the same Republicans who claim to know how to defeat ISIS are also the most eager to fulfill the ISIS strategy to a T.

And it's worth noting all the ways that (mostly) Republicans are currently toiling to make the ISIS narrative a reality. At least two Republican presidential candidates, Cruz and Bush, are openly suggesting a religious test for the Syrian refugees--if they're Christian, we'll take them. If they're Muslim--eh, maybe not so much. Donald Trump has said he would "strongly consider" shutting down some mosques amongst other absurdities (he's moved on to discriminate against Muslims in General rather than just the refugees). Several Republican governors have vowed to challenge the refugee resettlement program. And this past week, the House passed a bill that would effectively stop the admission of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

Any one of these developments would be remarkable and appalling by itself. The accumulation of them is incredible in the extreme. While all of these proposals play on the fears of the American people, the ideas floated by the Presidential candidates strike me as the most dangerous of all. From Bush to Trump, these ideas directly and openly contradict the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. The fact that these ideas are resonating with a segment of the American population is a truly alarming development. Desiring strong border security and a strict immigration policy is one thing; overt disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law itself is quite another. And for this reason, Obama is certainly right to denounce the Republicans for acting contrary to American values. Indeed, one struggles to find strong enough language for the task.

But then we must turn our attention to the Democrats and precisely what American values we are discussing here. At least on the surface, the argument presented by President Obama and his defenders is a persuasive one. But if the Obama Administration has taught us anything, it is that one must always look beneath the rhetoric.

At a recent press conference after the G20 Summit in Turkey, Obama called on more nations to contribute resources to the refugee crisis, noting that the US has donated the most thus far at $4.5 billion. Obama also said that we must accept more refugees, but ensure our own security in the process. Obama's present plan calls for accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees by next year, and Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the US would be increasing acceptance of all refugees (from Syria and elsewhere) to 85,000 per year by 2016, rising to 100,000 per year by 2017. This compares with just 70,000 per year right now.

The trouble is that, given the vast scope of the crisis sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, this effort all but meaningless. To see this, let's run down the numbers. And to keep it conservative, we'll restrict our focus to those countries in which the US and its allies have militarily intervened in one way or another:

Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website, All except two of the figures come from detailed country pages and were stated as of December 2014, the most recent date for which comprehensive data were available. As Syrian and Yemeni refugee-only figures are updated more frequently, those figures are current as of mid-November 2015.

So in the table above, IDP refers to internally displaced persons. These are essentially people who were forced to flee their homes, but until they actually leave the country, they're not technically refugees. In terms of desperation though, there isn't much difference. Meanwhile, the refugees column includes a small number of asylum-seekers, which are defined slightly differently. But again, when we're talking about suffering and risk, it's kind of a distinction without a difference. All of these individuals in the table above were identified by UNHCR as part of the "population of concern".

So what this table tells us is that nearly 25 million people have been displaced in countries that have been destabilized, at least in part, by US intervention over the past decade and a half. And while it is true that some European countries are working to permanently resettle them, the vast majority of these people, whether IDPs or refugees, remain in deeply desperate conditions.

If the US does manage to accept the planned figure of 85,000 next year, it's clear that this amounts to little more than a rounding error in the face of the current need. As a percentage of total refugees, it comes to 1%. As a percentage of the total population at risk, in the countries we've directly affected, it literally rounds to 0%.

But if that was not depressing enough, let us now dive in to the much-discussed vetting process advocated by the President. According to a summary offered by The Wall Street Journal, the total vetting process is estimated to take between 18 months to 24 months for each applicant. Mostly, I've seen this presented as a virtue of the program. If it takes that long, it must be thorough. And it also would likely serve as a deterrent to an ISIS infiltration in the refugee stream precisely because of the time lag. These are both reasonable conclusions to draw, and it does make the notion of a legitimate refugee terror plot seem even less probable.

The problem is that the purpose of the program is not just to vet people; it's to help people who are in immediate need. And while this vetting process is taking place, the refugees remain stuck in whatever terrible living conditions they're already enduring. That is, they don't come to the US until the process is completed. All of this means that in the very best case scenario, Obama's policies won't help any of the Syrian refugees for a year and a half. Thus, based on the professed Republican fears, they should still love this program. Chances are, we may not have to admit anyone because by the time they get approved, they will already be dead from starvation.

And herein lies the truly appalling reality of the refugee debate. President Obama is arguing for a policy that does almost nothing for refugees, and not until a year and a half from now. Meanwhile, the Republicans are advocating doing literally nothing for refugees, and using blatant fear-mongering to do so. Ultimately, this debate isn't about helping the Syrians, and it isn't about protecting the Americans. It's just about electoral politics--the only American value that matters.

If the politicians really wanted to address the refugee crisis, they could start by stopping the intervention. But somehow, that option isn't up for debate.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Terrorist Suspects Are Known to Authorities before Their Attacks

Authorities are currently working hard to get more surveillance powers in the wake of the attacks in Paris. This response is entirely predictable, and it seems to rest on the premise that if we had access to more data, these attacks could be prevented. But this obviously begs the question--is this premise even true? Would greater surveillance powers provide greater security? There are many compelling reasons to oppose increased surveillance based on constitutional or civil liberties considerations, but is it possible to oppose it on purely pragmatic grounds as well?

Writing at The Intercept, Ryan Gallagher has an important story out today that helps inform this debate. His story looks at ten of the last major terrorist attacks against Western targets. For each attack, he summarizes the relevant details about the perpetrators and also discusses what the authorities knew about these suspects in advance of the attacks. His conclusion is striking. In every case considered, authorities were aware of the extremist tendencies of at least one of the perpetrators in each attack:

From Paris to Boston, Terrorists Were Already Known to Authorities

How they came to know these details varies in each case. But the point is that they knew of the potential suspects, and failed to properly investigate. And there's no indication that the failure stemmed from a lack of access or encryption or stringent civil liberties rulings. Rather, in most cases it appears the authorities just didn't have the adequate resources to properly investigate the leads. Ultimately, the problem wasn't a lack of data, it was a lack of focus.

This is important context as the surveillance debate begins anew. One of the goals of increased surveillance is that the government would be better able to identify real threats. But if you're conducting surveillance against everyone and running the data through an algorithm to generate new leads--you're certain to get at least a few false positives, leads that are really just a waste of time. The program is only as good as the programmers can make it, and it's probably going to err on the side of caution. On the other hand, if you have someone explicitly tell police that they think their roommate is going to do something crazy, as allegedly happened for one of the Paris attackers, well, it's probably safe to assume that's worth following up on. In other words, to the extent that the surveillance powers generate even more leads, they could further dilute law enforcement's efforts to pursue the most dangerous threats. And in this way, they may ultimately prove counterproductive, even on purely pragmatic grounds.

Advocates of the surveillance state are fond of saying that they are looking for a needle in the haystack. So in order to find the needle, they need to collect the whole haystack. What Gallagher's research suggests, however, is that they already know where a lot of those needles are and should focus on picking those up first.

The Biggest Problem with the Syrian Peace Process Is US

After the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there is renewed focus on the struggling Syrian peace process. All sides seem to finally agree that the Syria problem is an urgent one, and they are eager to make progress. Thus, we heard an optimistic announcement from Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week that the Syrian transition could be just "weeks away", but the roadmap to get there remains very unclear. This piece at The Guardian does a reasonably good job of summing the situation up from the perspective of the Western nations.

Basically, everyone is at least nominally on board for a transition, including countries as diametrically opposed as Iran and Saudi Arabia. But significant disagreement remains on the details. And these remaining areas of disagreement have the potential to delay or derail the peace process, prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and increasing the threat of foreign terrorism. It's therefore important to understand what these differences are.

One issue on the table is exactly who comprises the "moderate" opposition in Syria. You'll recall that President Obama once called the idea of an armed "moderate" opposition in Syria a "fantasy"--by which, he meant that most of the people fighting against President Assad in Syria were extremists. But one of the key goals of this transition process is to broker a ceasefire between that same opposition and the Syrian government. Thus, the question is Who qualifies as part of the legitimate "moderate" Syrian opposition and gets a seat at the negotiating table? According to The Guardian article, the Jordanians have been tasked with sorting out the extremists from the moderates, but the opposition members quoted in the article are already concerned that Jordan will be too picky. From the article:
Opposition sources say they also fear that the Jordanian vetting process will exclude the majority of armed rebel groups and certainly important non-jihadi Islamist ones such as Ahrar al-Sham, and thus play into Assad’s hands.
Coincidentally, the Ahrar al-Sham group mentioned here--yeah, they're actually quite extreme. For instance, they also believe in the Salafi version of Islam (i.e. the same sect of Islam as Al-Qaeda and ISIS), and they have openly worked with Al-Qaeda in Syria in the past. They also aren't big fans of Shiites or democracy, and they want to impose pure Islamic law.  According to this thorough analysis at the Middle East Eye, Ahrar al-Sham shares most of the same goals as ISIS and Al-Qaeda; they just disagree on tactics. Thus, it should go without saying that they don't fit any reasonable definition of moderate.

As a more general consideration, if you're worried that your friends are going to be considered terrorists, you might want to consider getting new friends. Should we really be splitting hairs here? Of course it's true that governments are usually very eager to accuse innocent people of terrorism because it serves their interests (usually, because they can claim an attack was thwarted by their heroism). But in this case, the incentives are reversed. The US is on the side of maybe-terrorists and thus they have an incentive to insist on a very lenient vetting process. Otherwise, consider how bad would it look if none of the opposition passed the non-terrorist test, and the Assad regime was left negotiating a ceasefire all by itself. Obviously, the US is not going to let that happen. They can't let the Syrian government narrative that it's fighting against terrorism be proven correct, regardless of what the facts may be.

And while I have not seen the US publicly comment on whether it supports including individual groups, the PR incentives outlined above will prove a significant obstacle for this process to overcome.

The second major hurdle is the question of Bashar Al-Assad. All sides agree in principle that Assad can probably stay to help manage the transition that ultimately culminates in free elections. The Western nations are insisting that Assad should not be allowed to participate in those elections. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are suggesting that free elections should really be free elections, including the possibility of Assad being a candidate. Although it is not actually unique, this does seem to be an extraordinary situation on its face. Here we have the storied authoritarian regime of Russia and the theocracy of Iran advocating for truly free and fair elections, while the West wants to dictate some of the terms.

And of course, it may be tempting to note that Assad is Russia's and Iran's ally, and that's why they're taking this stance. That may be the case. But it doesn't change the fact that it's the right decision. If you want the free elections to have legitimacy, you can't impose preconditions on it saying the people can't vote for the incumbent. And it doesn't matter if he's a horrible bastard and a war criminal. Free elections mean free elections, and the Syrian people should be allowed to choose for themselves.

As Americans, we may be used to the idea that our government can dictate electoral conditions to other countries. But the absurdity of this cannot be understated. Imagine if Russia or the UN came in and said we couldn't vote for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had violated the American people's rights (the PATRIOT Act), tortured people (which had happened), and committed war crimes (namely, launching an aggressive war against Iraq). And I realize the analogy between Bush and Assad is imperfect, but the thought experiment is still a useful one. No American would tolerate that--probably not even the Democrats who hated Bush the most. And similarly, we cannot expect Syrians to accept us further meddling in their future, especially after everything we've already done in that region.

These two issues are going to be a challenge for the Syrian peace process to overcome. The US and its Western allies appear willing to seat questionable opposition groups at the negotiating table and are trying to ban Assad from the ultimate elections. And it must be recognized that both of these decisions are for domestic politics. We said the rebels are moderate and that Assad must go, and now we're trying to will these statements into existence. But as we jostle for a hollow PR victory against Russia and Iran, one thing is certain: the Syrian people will continue to lose.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fox News: The Problem with the War in Syria Is We're Not Killing Enough Civilians

I confess, that was a slight paraphrase. But I suggest to you that it was very slight indeed. Here's the headline that was at the top of Fox News yesterday:

France, Russia pummel ISIS stronghold as critics blast US rules of engagement
And in case that wasn't quite blatant enough for you, the opening two paragraphs will give you a pretty good sense of the thrust of this article. Enjoy:
In the wake of Friday's deadly terror attack in Paris and the confirmed bombing of a Russian airliner, Russia and France are pounding the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as, while the number of U.S. airstrikes against ISIS still dwarves all others combined, America appears to be in a slap fight while others are punching hard, say military experts.
U.S. rules of engagement and the overarching desire to minimize collateral damage are holding back the true force of U.S. air power, while Paris and Moscow have taken off the gloves following the bombing of a Russian airliner and Friday's horrific attacks in the French capital, according to one retired four-star general.
Great fun. They even threw in a misspelling of the verb "dwarfs" for good measure. Nice.

It turns out that this is actually a common grievance that Fox and other hardcore right-wingers like to dust off from time to time. The idea is that if only the US wasn't so careful about avoiding civilian casualties, we could win all the wars we fight. The argument often also involves a vague reference to the good ole days when the US military had virtually unlimited tolerance for civilian casualties to "get the job done"--maybe the carpet bombing of Germany in WWII, maybe the Total War policy of Williams Tecumseh Sherman during the Civil War, or maybe the best (and thus worst) example of all, nuking Japan. For proponents of this argument, these historical episodes are models to be emulated, not tragedies to be avoided.

But as you might expect, there are significant problems with this line of reasoning.

First, it's simply not true. I don't have military experience, but the results of the modern wars in the Obama era have yielded a very high number of civilian casualties. One recent report on a 5-month period of drone strikes (often referred to as precision strikes) revealed that 90% of the casualties were not the intended targets. That is, for every 1 alleged terrorist that was killed, 9 civilians were also killed on average. And this was according to classified government documents released by a whistleblower, so there is every reason to believe those figures. Meanwhile, reporting on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq suggest far better results thus far, with the ratio essentially being flipped. Specifically, an estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed in the coalition campaign to date with up to 2,000 civilians killed. But while these seem better on their face, we must note they are necessarily conservative because it's difficult to get reliable reports out of ISIS-controlled areas.

In addition to the above statistics, we also have numerous anecdotal examples of the US bombing civilians, ranging from the recent and notorious hospital bombing in Kunduz, Afghanistan (30 dead) to the drone strike that hit a random wedding party in Yemen (12 dead) to a cruise missile strike on a school in Yemen (45 dead). In all but the most extreme cases, the US denies that any civilians are killed or just refuses to discuss the issue. But while the US government is not transparent enough for us to know the exact number or percentage of civilians killed, we can say with certainty that it is significantly above zero.

Perhaps the rules of engagement really are onerous, and are just routinely ignored. Or perhaps the rules were lax to begin with. But either way, the notion that the US is exercising massive restraint to avoid civilian casualties does not stand up to scrutiny.

Having said that, I don't doubt that our bombing campaigns could be even less discriminating than they are at present. Indeed, the Fox News article cites a former military officer who suggests that we should "flatten Raqqa [ISIS's capital]". But herein lies the second fundamentally flawed assumption underlying this argument--that a massive bombing campaign would work.

Though the idea is repugnant on its face, it may be conceivable that the US could destroy all cities and infrastructure that is currently under ISIS control--which would entail massive bombing of parts of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, and possibly Nigeria. Assuming we have the firepower to actually pull that off, what would it accomplish? Well, it might make us feel good for awhile. But it's impossible that it would kill all ISIS members and sympathizers--particularly since a good number of these appear to be in Western countries at this point. Most ISIS members in the affected areas would just go back into the shadows until the onslaught subsided. Or in other words, we would just turn ISIS back into an insurgency. They wouldn't be able to hold territory, but they would still be able to carry out guerrilla warfare from time to time. We've seen this happen before. When the US surged in Afghanistan, for example, violence eventually subsided because the Taliban were simply waiting it out.

More importantly, an indiscriminate bombing campaign would simultaneously be the most effective recruiting tool imaginable for ISIS and other extremists. Indeed, it is precisely that kind of overreaction that ISIS needs to bolster its support. Killing civilians creates terrorism; after 14 years of the formal War on Terror, this should be obvious to everyone. And it bears repeating that ISIS is trying to paint a narrative of a war between the Western countries (and their allies) against Islam generally. Nothing could be more conducive to that end than aggressively bombing more Muslim countries than we already do.

The problem isn't the rules of the engagement in the War on Terror; it's the War on Terror itself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Crisis Playbook - Paris Edition

In the aftermath of the tragic Paris Attacks last Friday, Western governments are responding with the typical crisis playbook:
  • Cast blame elsewhere (ideally scapegoats or political enemies)
  • Respond rapidly (even if ineffectively)
  • Most importantly, ask for more powers.
This script is not unique to terror attacks, but they seem to bring it out in its purest form.

The Paris Attacks have followed this rule quite well. Early on, in the effort to put the blame on something besides the incompetence of the government itself, many were highlighting the fact that that a Syrian passport had been found on just the attackers. The implication would be that refugees carried out the attack, and since France's security services could not have possibly screened all of those individuals, they would be partially exonerated. And France would have been victimized essentially for its humanitarian impulse. It would have been a great narrative from a political standpoint. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fake passport, and it appears that all of the attackers were European nationals, at least so far.

As for a response, France has already stepped up its bombing campaign in Syria and carried out over 150 counterterrorism raids, in concert with the Belgian authorities.

And then there's the request for more powers. France has extended its state of emergency to three months and is currently asking for a variety of new measures:
  • The ability to remove French citizenship if someone is convicted of particular crimes
  • Increasing the police force by 5,000
  • Giving police officers more leniency to use lethal force
Of course, Hollande says he is doing this only to protect the freedoms already enshrined in the French constitution, but then, politicians always say something to that effect -- we must violate the Constitution to save it. Yeah, that makes sense. It's like how parents say sometimes you have to punch your baby in the face to save him. Wait, no one says that.

In this context, we're seeing a new and particularly dangerous variant of the playbook. Many are trying to attribute part of the responsibility to whistleblower Edward Snowden. This truly bizarre line of reasoning suggests that terrorists are able to perform more sophisticated attacks now, because Snowden told them the US is spying on them. And for good measure, the argument also gets to cast part of the blame on the makers of encryption software. In other words, this one is a two-in-one - they get to attack people they want to attack anyway (Snowden, privacy advocates, etc.) and roll in a request for more powers at the same time (if only you let us have access to all your data, then we could have nice things).

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent summary and debunking of this latest blame Snowden initiative, and that's our lead story. It turns out we shouldn't blame Snowden--we should blame the government officials who are currently asking for even more power.

Exploiting Emotions About Paris to Blame Snowden, Distract from Actual Culprits Who Empowered ISIS

Monday, November 16, 2015

Action and Reaction on the Paris Attacks

The recent string of bombings and mass shootings in Paris are a tragedy of the first order. The most recent reports suggest upwards of 129 people killed in seven separate incidents, with many more wounded. Taken together, it is the most severe attack in France's modern history, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. France remains in a state of emergency as the authorities try to identify the remaining perpetrators.

No doubt, the gruesome details of the attacks themselves will continue to emerge in the coming days as well as stories about the individual victims. All of that is important, and I do not wish to discount it. But in this post, we shall take a different approach and make a few observations that are unlikely to appear in most coverage of these events. These attacks were politically-motivated and they should be analyzed in that light.

All Human Suffering Is Not Created Equal
Perhaps this is an obvious point, but the reaction to the civilian deaths in France and other Western countries is very different than the reaction to deaths of civilians from other countries. A good rule of thumb appears to be that the farther east and south one goes, the value of human suffering declines precipitously. The Paris Attacks will certainly and rightly dominate the news cycle for the next few days. President Obama already gave remarks condemning the attacks (more on these later), as did many other leaders. On Twitter, many offered messages of support and condolences for the victims of the #ParisAttacks, and I've noticed a preponderance of profile pictures on social media overlaid with the colors of the French flag (no judgment if you did this, just noting). The message is clear: solidarity with the French. It's a message we can all agree on.

But the point is that this response is not universal. Two weeks ago, an ISIS-affiliate appears to have planted a bomb on a Russian civilian airplane, ultimately killing all 224 people aboard. Although Russia hasn't formally concluded its investigation, everyone basically agreed early on that this was indeed a terrorist attack, with senior US officials telling CNN they were "99.9% certain". Yet, the first instance I can find of the US publicly expressing condolences or concern for the Russian people appears to have been yesterday, when Obama saw Putin at the G20 Summit. It's possible that this delay was out of respect for Russia's ongoing investigation. But given that doing anything out of respect for Russia is not really our thing, I'm going to assume that's not the real reason. More likely, the Obama administration is beginning to wake up to the true degree of the Syrian catastrophe right now and recognizing that Russia's actions are broadly in line with the US's own efforts.

Earlier this week, ISIS claimed responsibility for another suicide bombing, this time in Beirut, Lebanon, killing 43 and injuring 239 people. The attack took place in a Shiite neighborhood known to have strong support for the Hezbollah group, which is fighting against ISIS in Syria. The local US Embassy released a statement expressing its condolences, but it was not a major news story. In the New York Times' rendition, the story focused mostly on how the Lebanese group Hezbollah is supporting the Syrian government.

And of course, who could forget one of the wedding bombings in Yemen committed by Saudi Arabia, which killed 131 people and wounded countless others. The mere fact that I had to introduce this story as "one of" the wedding bombings is telling--indeed another one happened a week later killing at least 30 more people. While Saudi Arabia was widely condemned in the aftermath of those strikes, no real action came from it. And of course, no US official called for solidarity with the Yemeni people or the Houthi rebels as a result of this onslaught. I suspect few Americans even heard about it in the first place.

There is a way in which the string of terror attacks in Paris are qualitatively more significant than any of the individual incidents noted above. There were more attackers involved, the attack occurred in a relatively secure European city, and the coordination of the attacks suggests a more sophisticated threat than previously expected. These factors certainly add to the shock factor and explain some of the disparity in reaction.

But the point here is not to devalue the very real suffering occurring in France; it is to elevate the like experiences of people in other countries. It is entirely human to identify and sympathize more with victims and circumstances that are closer to our own. I have friends from France and it's easy to imagine being in the places where these attacks occurred--a concert hall, a restaurant, a soccer stadium... But the fact that it's easier to identify with these victims does not make the other victims any less important. Indeed, because the US government is entirely complicit with the many civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc. arguably makes them the most important of all. Because those are the ones we can clearly prevent.

The Goal of Terrorism is Extremism
Now and always, terrorism is politically motivated. Murdering French civilians does not achieve anything for ISIS in and of itself. Rather, it is designed to provoke a reaction. This was true for Al-Qaeda on 9/11, when they sought to provoke a military response to bleed America to bankruptcy. And it is true of ISIS today. ISIS's desired result is to inspire more persecution and fear of Muslims by Western governments and by ordinary people. ISIS needs to create a more compelling narrative of a war against Islam generally, in which they can present themselves as the defenders of the faith being attacked by modern-day crusaders.

Dan Sanchez at noted that ISIS has even explicitly stated this as their goal in an article called the "Extinction of the Grayzone". Incredibly, the ISIS article cites George W. Bush approvingly when he said, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." That's the kind of duality ISIS wants to create. This kind of mentality worked for Bush to justify an unnecessary war against the Taliban (which didn't do 9/11), and ISIS is hoping it will help bolster their support as well.

It turns out the most significant threat to ISIS isn't the War on Terror, it's the absence of it.

Why France?
French President Hollande has promised to wage a "pitiless war" in response to the attacks, and indeed a new round of airstrikes were already launched on Sunday. This seems like an ominous development, but we must recognize that France has already been a very active military participant in the Middle East and northern Africa in recent years. The French participated in the disastrous war in Libya in 2011invaded Mali in 2012, and were already participating in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq before the attacks. None of these endeavors have turned out very well for the countries involved, and they inspire blowback against France itself. Indeed, one of the gunmen from Friday is reported to have said "This is for Syria" during the attacks. France's military involvement in the region, along with its significant Muslim minority population and proximity to the Middle East, appear to be the main reasons it was targeted.

That said, don't expect the US to present this in terms of cause-and-effect. In President Obama's remarks, he implied that the people of France were being terrorized for "the values they stand for." This is implausible. The correlation between military involvement in foreign countries and terrorism at home is not a coincidence. Sweden and Switzerland share France's values too, but somehow they do not experience major attacks like this.

Though unsurprising, this framing of the issue is interesting in part because US officials and media have been warning Russia about the possible terrorism consequences of their intervention in Syria. It appears that when Russia experiences terrorism, it's because they bomb Syria. When Western nations experience it, it's because of their values.

Summing Up
Nothing can undo the tragedy experienced in Paris. But we should ask ourselves why we give a collective shrug when this happens to civilians in other nations. The attacks in Paris are thankfully over for now, but the chaos in Yemen, Afghanistan, and elsewhere continue. And as politicians continue to devise a response to these attacks, we should ask if they are giving ISIS the exact reaction it wanted, by further ratcheting up a failed War on Terror.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Depressing Update on Guantanamo Bay

The Guardian has a new piece out this week that offers a helpful update on the status of Guantanamo Bay. If you've followed this issue closely, you will be not be surprised to learn that the news is not good. Yes, there have been a few welcome transfers during Obama's tenure, including the recent release of the last British citizen held there, Shaker Aamer. But many more people remain trapped, and nearly half of them have already been cleared for release. Now Congress has passed a law to ban transfers of detainees to the US, which would directly obstruct the latest plans from the White House to close the facility.

In other words, it looks like we're still a long way off from closing this institution.

Many liberal commentators on this subject are inclined to give Obama the benefit of the doubt and blame the failure to close Guantanamo on obstruction efforts by the Republicans. But as this article points out, this is fundamentally wrong for two key reasons:

  • Obama's upcoming plan to close Guantanamo is largely a symbolic gesture. It will transfer the detainees to a maximum security prison in the US, but many of them will still not be released. They still won't be charged with a crime; they just won't be released. But the main problem with Guantanamo Bay was never Guantanamo itself--it was precisely this practice of indefinite detention, which is an overt violation of the Fifth Amendment. Transferring the practice to US soil would potentially allow Obama to make a victory lap on one of his campaign promises, but it does little to remedy the real issue. And indeed, it seems like this was the plan all along. 
  • Obama has consistently ignored Constitutional limits on his power throughout his Presidency on numerous issues. So the idea that his hands are really tied here is not credible. And since he clearly doesn't believe in defending the Constitution's limits on Presidential powers in principle, his failure to act on Guantanamo is not a matter of law but a matter of politics. And indeed, Obama has already explicitly violated the law by releasing Guantanamo detainees when he found it politically expedient to do so in the past. Nothing happened to him then, and nothing would happen now.
So Guantanamo remains open. And although we should rightly blame George W. Bush for starting the practice of indefinite detention, President Obama deserves full credit for perpetuating it.

For the rest of the current details, check out Trevor Timm's full piece at The Guardian:

Making Nuclear Weapons Usable?

Our story today is about the US's ongoing efforts to develop a nuclear weapon that could be "usable". If this sounds a bit odd to you, it might be for any number of the following reasons:
  • The Cold War ended 26 years ago.
  • We already have enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world multiple times.
  • The only threats to US national security are non-state actors, against which nukes are not helpful. 
  • President Obama gave a big speech near the beginning of his presidency, ostensibly in support of nuclear disarmament near the beginning of his presidency.
  • Wait--what the hell is a "usable" nuclear weapon?
All compelling points, and all of them make today's topic a bit confusing. You see, the fact is that the US actually still spends a lot of money on developing nuclear weapons. Of course, we don't call it that. We're not developing nuclear weapons, we're just "modernizing" our existing stockpile. That sounds innocent enough, right? And wouldn't it be embarrassing if we destroyed the whole damn world with nukes that were out-of-style? No, we can't have that.

Okay, so it's not quite that absurd, but it's pretty close. It turns out some maintenance is required on nuclear weapons to help prevent issues. Essentially, someone needs to check the circuitry and components periodically to ensure nothing's going to accidentally explode. But our "modernization" program goes much further than that. And this explains why it costs so much. The current program is estimated to cost approximately $1 trillion over the 30-year period from 2014 to 2043. Obviously, this involves more than just re-soldering a few fraying wires.

And today, our story relates to one terrifying example of what this modernization means in practice. They are taking a very old "dumb" nuclear weapon, the B61, and working to add new features that would make it easier to target and even allow generals to customize the blast size. These new features led one general to remark that it might be usable. And with that, we'll let Julian Borger at The Guardian pick up the story. His article is a quick read and has just the right level of contempt and snark to properly discuss the subject:

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Free Speech and Intolerance at Yale

Two resident faculty members at Yale University, Erika and Nicholas Christakis, are currently facing aggressive denunciations and calls to resign after challenging their students to think critically on a controversial subject. The incident occurred in the run up to Halloween, that great holiday that allows college students to wear outfits that would be entirely too offensive or revealing if worn in any other setting. Students at Yale were admonished by administrators to avoid wearing costumes that might be offensive to others. And in response to this advice, Erika Christakis, wrote an email asking her students to think about this issue from a intellectual perspective. In particular, she questioned whether Yale administrators should be involved in preventing or judging offensive costumes on Halloween, or whether it might be better for the students to decide for themselves what is appropriate and engage with each other to figure that out. A few choice quotes from her email to give you a sense of the content:
Have we lost faith in young people's capacity—in your capacity ­ to exercise self­censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?...
Nicholas says, if you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.
In other words: Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people? It’s not mine, I know that.
The tone is thoughtful and nuanced throughout. And other than suggesting Yale administrators should not be so heavily involved, it really doesn't take a position. It certainly doesn't suggest that people should dress up in blackface, a member of the SS, a stylized version of a Native American, or any of the other various things that could obviously be offensive. It merely asks students to think about the issue intellectually and question their own assumptions--which, it seems to me, is exactly what college should do. This is what prompted a massive backlash.

To learn more about this story, two pieces are worth considering. The first is by Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic and offers a comprehensive breakdown of this episode. Friedersdorf also provides an excellent analysis of the mindset of students who are protesting. Here's the link to that piece:

The New Intolerance of Student Activism

The second piece strikes a slightly comic tone and is written by Bill Barlow at the Harvard Law Record. Barlow stresses the key difference between condemning someone for their views and wanting them to be punished for expressing them.

Fascism at Yale

Whether you agree with the "fascism" label or not, this episode highlights a common contradiction on the question of tolerance. Namely, many of the people that preach the virtues of tolerance are simultaneously very intolerant of ideas they dislike. Maybe the ideas they dislike are racist, anti-semitic, pro-life, homophobic, militarist, or conservative, or whatever. And we probably share their distaste for some of those things. But if tolerance means anything at all--it must include tolerating things you disagree with.

Idaho Rancher Killed by Police

This past week in the rural town of Council, Idaho, police shot and killed 62-year-old Jack Yantis, who was apparently following their instructions. The horrible incident was witnessed by friends and family, and his wife actually experienced a heart attack after seeing her husband die. (Thankfully, she is recovering from it.) These they recently gave an in-depth account of the story to The Idaho Statesman, Idaho's main newspaper, and that's our main story today. It's a depressing read, but a necessary one to understand the full shock and grief the family is going through.

There are a lot of things that can be said about this incident. In one way this can be seen as just another unnecessary death at the hands of police. There is a completely innocent reason to explain the victim's behavior (needing to put down the bull). The situation escalated out of control for no reason (approaching a man who is aiming a gun, from behind). Police did not give medical attention to the victim after they shot him. And when onlookers tried to check on the victim, they were tackled and/or threatened.

In this way, you could change just a couple variables and tell the same story of the late Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old kid in Cleveland who was killed by police last year. There was a completely innocent explanation for his behavior too (he was 12 and had an airsoft gun). The situation escalated out of control for no reason (because the cops nearly ran him over with their vehicle and fired shots before speaking with him). Tamir also did not receive medical attention from the police that shot him, and his sister was tackled when she tried to come check on him. It's kind of like police brutality mad libs.

But it's also important to recognize what is different. At least in Idaho, this story is getting mainstream coverage, including this long article above from the victim's perspective. And the circumstances are even more absurd than normal because the police called the victim, and he had to bring a weapon to solve the problem. It's entirely inconceivable to think either that he was a threat to police or that he escalated the situation by not complying. Indeed, it's nearly impossible to find any way to vilify this victim at all. He's a 62-year-old white American farmer who lives in a place that's so rural that it's only known for a token obscure event (the World Championship Porcupine Races, if you're wondering). Thus, people who are inclined to give the cops the benefit of the doubt in every situation must be left scratching their head here. If this can happen to a man like Jack Yantis, then it isn't possible some of the other victims were just as blameless? Let's hope this may finally be the story that breaks the false narratives that many conventional conservatives have been sold on this subject.

Monday, November 9, 2015

How a Higher Minimum Wage Actually Hurts Poor People

Recently, we have seen renewed calls for an increase in the minimum wage. For instance, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, recently introduced a bill in the Senate to raise the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, to what he called a living wage. And along with Bernie's candidacy more generally, this policy has been gaining traction. On its face, this seems like a good idea. After all, I have had a minimum wage job before, and it's difficult to imagine living independently off such an income, let alone supporting a family. The reasoning follows that increasing the minimum wage would obviously help people in this situation and should thus be supported. But economics and common sense tell us that this assumed positive effect is not the only one. In this article, I aim to show that the overall consequences of the minimum wage will likely exacerbate the very problems it seeks to address.

Before we get started, I should note that most opponents of the minimum wage are viewed as greedy capitalists or disconnected elites that just don't care about the suffering of the poor. And unfortunately, these stereotypes are not entirely unwarranted. For example, many critics like to point out that the American poor just aren't that poor anymore. And in a way, this is true. Poor people in America today have a much higher standard of living than they would have had 30 years ago. That's a good thing, and we should celebrate it. But it doesn't therefore excuse us from acknowledging or caring about the suffering that still does exist--and that's where these commentators go astray. At its most ridiculous pitch, I recently heard Bill O'Reilly challenge a guest to find a single person in New York City that was going hungry for lack of resources. This was not sarcasm. He genuinely believed that it would be impossible to find that level of destitution in the largest city in America. That's absurd, and it gives credence to the idea that opponents of the minimum wage, etc. should just be roundly dismissed as greedy jerks.

I raise this point to stress that I am not approaching this from that perspective. I think most supporters of a higher minimum wage are motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering for those that are less fortunate, and I agree that this is a worthy cause. I just do not believe the minimum wage is a good way to achieve it. This isn't a question of priorities; it's a question of effectiveness.

Having established common cause, let us proceed to consider the effects of a minimum wage increase. Here we'll be looking primarily at the textbook microeconomics framework for understanding this question, and we will assume that our audience does not have much of a background in economics to start with.

We begin by considering a hypothetical fast-food restaurant--Bill's Tofu Shack. Naturally, Bill is the owner of this restaurant, and he makes the personnel decisions. Like most businessmen, Bill decides how many people he was going to hire based on how much work there was, and how much he needed to pay them. Assuming the amount of work stayed the same, Bill would be willing to hire fewer people at higher wages and more people at lower wages. Thus, we could graph a functional relationship between the price of wages and the number of humans Bill wants to hire. We'd call it Bill's demand for labor, or demand curve, in economist speak. (We call straight-lines curves too--don't stress about it.) And it might look something like this.

So we see here that at lower wages, Bill is willing to hire lots of people and it goes down as the hypothetical wage rises. We notice that it goes vertical at 5 employees--this is because Bill has determined this is the bare minimum he can operate with, so he can't cut beyond that. But if the wage goes too much higher than that, Bill's decided he's going to close down his restaurant and open a one-man food cart instead. The reason for this is that he knows he'd have to raise prices too much to accommodate a certain wage, and he thinks his customers wouldn't tolerate it. But at the food cart, he wouldn't have to worry about paying himself a wage, so he'd be in the clear to set prices much lower.

You might also be asking why the discrepancy between the minimum and maximum number of people he'd want to hire is so big. There are two major reasons that could help explain this. First, if labor was really cheap, Bill might experiment with offering more of a full-service set up for his restaurant (bring the meals out, bus tables, refill drinks, etc.). Meanwhile, if the wage is higher, he might prefer a more bare-bones operation. The second and more important reason is that the cost of labor determines the value of efficient technologies. For instance, if labor is really cheap, Bill might be willing to just have 4 people manually doing dishes. If the cost of labor is high though, investing in a time-saving dishwasher might make sense. Perhaps 1 person with a fancy dishwasher, could replace the work of the 4 manual dishwashers. As the wage goes up, investments like this become more economical.

I realize the above (as well as this general exercise) may seem very abstract, but we really do see this technology replacement phenomenon in the real world. For instance, in developing countries, you will still see people manually picking through waste dumps to pick out recycling; it's how some people make a sparse living there. By contrast, that same function in a developed country like the US is carried out on an industrial scale by a massive sorting apparatus, with relatively few humans to help out with the process. Of course, there are a lot of factors at play here, but the point is that when wages are low, companies can generally find ways to use more manual labor to achieve the same thing that could be performed by a more automated process.

Alright, back to Bill's restaurant. For the sake of our example, let's assume there's no minimum wage that applies to Bill restaurant. What would the going wage rate in the market be in that case? To answer this, we have to determine the supply of labor.

In the neighborhood near Bill's restaurant, certain people would be willing to work at virtually any wage (say, high school students just wanting some spending money) while others would only be willing to work at a higher wage. Others might be already employed at a higher rate than anything Bill could offer and thus be unwilling to work there altogether. When we accumulate the preferences of everyone possibly interested in fast-food job at the Tofu Shack, we could graph the supply of labor (or supply curve) to look something like this--again, more people interested in the job at a higher wage.

Where the two curves meet, economists say that's where the market would be in equilibrium. In our example, market forces will set the wage at $9 per hour and 10 employees. Because at $9, 10 people are willing to work and Bill wants to hire 10 people. (Obviously, I don't know what the "market" wage would be in the real world since there really are minimum wages in effect. But that's how we're making the numbers work out for this example.)

We're about ready to introduce a minimum wage here. But before we do, note that there are really just two key principles that are driving our understanding. Namely,

  • Businesses want to hire fewer people as the required wage rate goes up, and vice versa.
  • More people are willing to work as wages go up, and vice versa.
As long as you're on board with those two ideas, the next part should be intuitive.

Results of a Minimum Wage Increase

Next, Bernie wins the Presidency and implements a $15 minimum wage. Since we're assuming nothing else has happened to Bill or the people in his neighborhood (aside from Feeling the Bern, of course), we'll just add this minimum wage to the chart and leave everything else alone.

Now, we see that at this new higher rate, a lot more people are interested in working (16 on the orange line on the chart), but unfortunately, Bill only wants 7 employees now. Assuming he's able to cut the workforce back to 7, the new unemployment figure (in terms of heads) would be 16 - 7 = 9 (the yellow bit). This is part of what economists mean when they say that the minimum wage increases unemployment--it does so both because it would increase the number of people looking for work and reduce the likely number of jobs available. That said, we might not care too much about those 6 extra people who decided just now that they wanted to work at the $15 wage, when they were too good for the $9 wage. But based on how the statistics work, those 6 people would be included in what we typically call unemployment.

The nuances of unemployment statistics aren't that important though. What we really care about is what happened to the people that were already working. Does the minimum wage improve their lives? In our example, the answer is... it depends. Again, let's assume Bill is able to lay off 3 people to get down to 7. (We'll come back to justify this later.) Now, 7 people would be working at $15 an hour for a total of $105 an hour in aggregate, whereas before 10 people were getting paid $9 an hour for an aggregate of $90 an hour. In this way, the total money being paid to the workers has increased. Of course, that's only how it worked out in our example because we designed it that way--whether the aggregate impact would be positive or negative in real life depends on how sensitive the business owners are to wage increases and the amount of the wage increase. When you hear economists suggest that the impact of a minimum wage increase depends on the "elasticity of demand", this is what they're talking about--how sensitive the employers are to wage increases. The result we saw above of a net increase in wages paid out is what some economists mean when they say that increasing the minimum wage would be beneficial.

Having said that, I would like to suggest that this kind of standard analysis totally misses the point. So what if the aggregate amount paid out by the employer went up? If you're one of the 3 people that lost their jobs, I think you would say that the minimum wage was decidedly unhelpful. Indeed, it essentially becomes a kind of income redistribution program from one set of poor people (those who lose their jobs) to another set of poor people (those who kept their jobs). And so, what this means in practical terms is that you would take people who are probably hanging on to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and step on their fingers till they get let go. Already desperate people will get more desperate. If you care about alleviating suffering and reducing poverty, it's hard to see how this is a good outcome. Indeed, it seems to me that this actually makes things worse--regardless of whether the net wages of "the workers" went up.

Would businesses really lay people off?

Now, let's return to the question of whether the business would really lay people off in response to the minimum wage. Obviously, there's no way to know this for sure. They've probably adapted to running their business at a certain staffing level, so it's unlikely that people would be fired immediately. In the very short-term, businesses would probably try to adapt by raising prices on their customers as much as possible. Then in the long-run, they might develop a plan to run their business with fewer people / more advanced technology, etc. We can't know exactly what this would look like. But our basic understanding of economics tells us that companies hire fewer people when wages are higher. It thus follows that if wages are suddenly increased, companies will find a way to cut staffing, either in the short-run or in the future.

Some people are inclined to vilify companies for this behavior. The argument goes that if these companies weren't so bloody greedy, they would already pay their employees a living wage and none of this would be necessary. Thus, I think the idea is that the minimum wage could force them to share some of their massive profits with the employees. The trouble is that there's a big internal contradiction here. If you believe that companies are run by greedy jerks, then you should also acknowledge that they are accustomed to earning a certain level of profits. And since they are so greedy, you should believe that they would like to continue earning this much or more in the future. Thus, if the government raises the minimum wage, they aren't just going to sit back and deal with life with lower profits. They're greedy, remember? No, they're going to try to get back to the same level of profits as before, and if that means laying a few people off, don't you think they'd do it? You can't have it both ways. Either they're greedy and underpaying their employees right now--in which case they'd probably try to lay people off after a wage increase--or they're reasonable people who are already trying to do what they think is fair. In either case, it's not clear how the minimum wage is supposed to be helpful.

Couldn't they just raise prices?

For the sake of being thorough, let's assume that our businesspeople are deeply loyal to their employees and want to do everything they can to avoid laying people off. Most likely, this will involve raising prices as much as is needed to cover the new costs. But this has problems of its own. Are the customers going to be completely unaffected by those increases? No. More likely, since the general population isn't getting a salary increase, they will adjust their preferences in response to price increases. Maybe that means eating at different restaurants that managed to keep prices down, or maybe it means eating out just a little bit less. But if the price increases are at all noticeable, it will change their behavior in some way--almost certainly leading to less business for Bill in total. What then? Well, presumably some of the businesses that tried to raise prices will ultimately fail in response to reduced customer demand. Maybe Bill's would survive, maybe not. But in aggregate, we would still expect a reduction of jobs in the minimum wage-affected sector as a result.

To counter this analysis, some people will say that consumers will just adjust to the higher prices in food-service and other minimum wage-affected industries. If so, the additional cost of the wages would be borne by the general consumer. The end result would be a wealth redistribution effect from everybody to the poor people in these jobs. That could be a desirable result, but it rests on the very questionable assumption that an overwhelming majority of consumers would be unaffected by a price increase. And given that there's really no reason to think this is true, it would be irresponsible to implement a policy based on it.

Weren't there some studies that proved everything you just said wrong?

There have been a series of econometric studies in recent years purporting to show that the conventional economic wisdom laid out above is wrong. This research actually led to a group of economists penning an open letter endorsing a minimum wage increase (to around $10 in that case). Unfortunately, there are two issues with this research:

  • First, they appear to rely on a pretty sketchy statistics trick to get the result. The details are here if you're interested, but the short version is they manipulated variables in such a way as to almost guarantee the result they got.
  • Second, the economic theory presented above tells us that the minimum wage will make unemployment higher than it otherwise would be. Since we can't really know what it otherwise would be, you can't test this conclusion directly. The studies just found that the adverse effect of the minimum wage was far smaller than might have been predicted, but they do not deny the linkage in principle. Further, the data they used reflect far smaller wage fluctuations than the jump from $7.25 to $15 that is currently being promoted.
I should also note that more conventional analyses of the minimum wage still expect it to cause job losses. For instance, a 2014 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) considered the impact of raising the minimum wage to just $10.10 from the current rate of $7.25. It found that many people would benefit and a projected 1,000,000 would be lifted out of poverty. But it also projected that 500,000 people would still lose their jobs. This article from the progressive website Think Progress summarizes the results of this analysis and similar studies. And even though Think Progress concedes that most of the evidence points to people losing their jobs, they still focus on the silver lining of a projected "net gain" to the economy. This is a real world example of the standard economic approach mentioned previously. And again, it assumes that a lot of people losing their jobs--and presumably falling into deeper poverty--is an acceptable outcome as long as enough other people benefited. This is a very aggressive and alarming degree of utilitarian thinking, and, as before, I submit that it would do very little to console the people that do lose their jobs.

What about internships?

Another topic worth considering in the context of the minimum wage debate is the question of unpaid internships. I haven't heard of anyone calling for the prohibition of such internships. But why not? Surely, if getting paid $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage, getting $0.00 an hour is even more abominable. But of course it isn't. People are willing to take unpaid internships because they need to get their foot in the door and get experience. They see it as the best option available to them, and no one objects to it because it's obviously voluntary. They're taking the internship because they see it as the best option available to them. The trouble is that the same logic should apply to a job in the $0.01 to the $7.25 range.

Summing Up

Ultimately, the case for a higher minimum wage does not stand up to close analysis. There are winners and losers in this policy, and the people who are likely to lose the most are the very people the policy is trying to help--the people who can least afford it. Poverty remains a real problem in the US, and it's a good thing that so many people want to address it. But good intentions cannot be used as an excuse for bad policy. And if you really care about helping people in poverty, you should oppose raising the minimum wage.

Friday, November 6, 2015

November 6, 2015 - The Boredom of Peacetime

A new biography of George H.W. Bush just came out and it offers unique look into the mindset of the politically powerful when it comes to matters of war and peace. And as the title might suggest, the upshot is that peace is boring. And unfortunately, Bush Sr.'s sentiments on this subject appear to have been shared by others.

Jon Schwarz at The Intercept has a great write-up on the subject that highlights the comments of a few Western leaders who dreaded peacetime. And it's worth reading to remember just how truly disconnected and desensitized these people from the suffering their policies induce. In the end, Schwarz's conclusion is a perfect summary:
Regular people hate war, because they pay the price. But powerful people love it. That’s why there’s so much.
Here's the link:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

November 5, 2015 - Russian Plane Crashes Over Sinai

This weekend, a Russian passenger jet flying Egypt to Russia crashed over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 passengers aboard. Immediately after the news broke, the local ISIS affiliate in the peninsula claimed responsibility for bringing it down. Initially, this claim was largely written off for two reasons: First, ISIS has tried to take credit for other incidents in the past that it clearly had nothing to do with. And second, this plane was flying at a high altitude that's out of range for the anti-aircraft weapons believed to be in ISIS's possession in Sinai.

However, evidence is beginning to mount that could point to a bomb on the plane or a sabotage operation. That is, it looks like it might have been an ISIS operation after all. Here's a story that provides a decent summary of this evidence. (You just have to disregard the information toward the end about how much of a threat terrorists are and some of the commentary on Russia.)

We probably won't have conclusive evidence one way or another for some time on this, but I think it's plausible that ISIS was responsible. Of course, the US has an incentive to lie about this because it inflates the ISIS threat and could make Russia look weak. But on the other hand, plane accidents are incredibly rare, so there's inherently a chance that foul play was involved.

In any case, the US appears to be convinced that ISIS terrorism was the culprit here. And accordingly, there is one morbid silver lining that could emerge here.

When the US says this is a terrorist attack, they will also note that the reason for the attack is the recent Russian airstrikes in Syria. Indeed, the ISIS affiliate explicitly cited Russian action as their motivation in their claim of responsibility. The fact that US officials are acknowledging this causal relationship is important for two reasons.

First, it partially dispels the notion that Russia has just been attacking the moderates in Syria. Moderates, pretty much by definition, aren't interested in blowing up passenger jets. You can see the CNN piece try to deal with this cognitive dissonance by saying that very few of Russian attacks have been against ISIS. This is probably true--Russia appears to have been more focused on Al-Qaeda thus far because they are closer to areas held by the Syrian government. But at least, the US is finally acknowledging that Russia is attacking ISIS too. This may be helpful in avoiding heightened conflict with Russia since the US and Russia actually are on the same side against ISIS.

Second, in a more general way, it's important that the US is making a link between airstrikes by Russia and terrorist attacks against Russia. In fact, when the airstrikes began, many US commentators were suggesting this outcome as a possibility (for example, here). Again, they're probably right that Russia will experience more terrorism as a result of their policies. But it matters because when terrorist attacks happens against the US, it's completely taboo to even mention the possibility that there's a cause-and-effect link between US military actions and terrorism attacks. When it happens to Russia, it's because of their bombs. When it happens to the US, it's just because Islam made them do it. Obviously, this is ridiculous. But maybe, the prominence of this story about the plane crash and the media's strong desire to make Russia look bad at this juncture, may accidentally combine to help regular Americans realize that terrorists have a reason when they attack us too. And it's not Islam. It's intervention.