Tuesday, May 31, 2016

US Circuit Court Deals a Major Blow to Civil Liberties

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the government can ask a company for a user's location data without getting a warrant in a 12-3 decision. More specifically, they decided that asking for such information doesn't qualify as a search under the Fourth Amendment, and therefore doesn't require any protection.

If this sounds crazy, it should. If I keep a detailed journal of my whereabouts and travels each day and write it down in a notebook, that would be information that would require a warrant. If I use an app that records and stores the same information, it would not require a warrant, under this ruling.

Why it Matters
It's not difficult to see how this might help law enforcement--readily knowing a suspect's whereabouts would be quite useful indeed. And if they can get it without even demonstrating probable cause to a (likely compliant) judge, that makes it even easier by eliminating some of the bureaucracy. But this is one area where bureaucracy should be celebrated. The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and the due process guarantees in the Constitution exist for precisely this purpose: to limit law enforcement powers. This is essential not only for protecting basic privacy but also protecting political freedom.

The standard line of argument in favor of expanded law enforcement powers, whether we're talking about the local police or the National Security Agency, is that you shouldn't care if you don't have anything to hide. However, the problem with this is that there are so many laws in existence, so many in fact, that no one knows the exact number, that we're all bound to violate some of them from time-to-time. And if a law enforcement agency has access to intimate data about your life--like location data or even just metadata showing who you call on your cell phone--it would be easy to eventually find some transgression, given enough time and desire.

The above should not come off as conspiratorial. There are actually high profile cases in the past where law enforcement has attempted to intimidate political activists by investigating them to find unrelated issues. Perhaps the most famous case was that of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom the FBI unconstitutionally spied on. The FBI found nothing criminal to charge him, but did uncover evidence of adultery and tried to blackmail King with it.

Third Party Doctrine
Back to the story at hand, the court's ruling relied on a precedent known as the "Third Party Doctrine". Basically, this is the idea that if you willingly share information with a private third-party (say Google, your cell phone provider, an app maker, etc.), you no longer have any expectation of privacy with respect to that information and the government can access it without a warrant. This doesn't really make sense. If I willfully share my information with Google and the contract terms say Google won't share it with third-parties, I should logically expect that information to remain unknown to everyone except Google. However, the courts tend to land on the side of increasing government power, and so things like the Third Party Doctrine come into being.

There's a chance this case, or another that deals with this issue, will ultimately rise to the Supreme Court for a final ruling. But since the Supreme Court itself tends to have a pro-government power bias, it's not clear this would improve things. The more likely path to a positive outcome would involve state level legislation that could at least prohibit state agencies this power. It'd be great if it happened on the federal level also, but expanding civil liberties is never high on Congress's agenda.

For more on this story, you can check out the full write-up at The Intercept.

How Does Anyone Still Defend the Bombing of Hiroshima?

As you likely heard, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, Japan last week, and laid a wreath at the atomic bombing memorial. Predictably, this brought on a wave of discussion of the subject, most of which was bad. Conservatives saw it as a continuation of Obama's mythical apology tour, which never has and never will occur, no matter how justified it might be at this point. In reality, Obama's speech employed the passive voice "death fell from the sky" with no apparent perpetrator, and no apology was to be found. Given by most other people--those that do not have vast amounts of blood on their hands from the wars and assassinations they are actively overseeing--it would have been a beautiful speech. As it happened, with Obama as the messenger, it comes off mostly as a kind of cruel sarcasm. Some examples:
Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. -- [er, like the US drone assassination program?]

But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them. 
We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles... -- [Yes, we can. Unfortunately, President Obama has committed $1 trillion to modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal instead of reducing it. ]
I suspect you get the idea.

My deep frustrations with President Obama aside, he should be commended for at least making the trip. And it's returned the spotlight to a question that, frankly, should be rhetorical by now. Was the US justified in bombing Hiroshima?

And to answer this question, there are two dimensions to consider: moral and strategic.

Moral Considerations
On this count, the issue is rather straightforward. The prevailing justification is, as we all learned growing up, that the atomic bombing was necessary to shorten the war and prevent a bloody invasion that would have cost thousands of American soldiers' lives in the process. There's good reason to doubt that narrative, as we'll see shortly. But for now, let's grant the assumption.

Now, it's important to note that Hiroshima (and Nagasaki, for that matter), were not militarized cities for the Japanese. The US was not bombing the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or West Point; it was bombing a city that had relatively little significance to the Japanese military effort. Indeed, that's why the city hadn't been bombed before then; it was far down on the priority list. As such, the overwhelming majority of victims in the strike were civilians, and this reality was known in advance.

Thus, the question is whether it is justified to intentionally kill civilians (nuking a population center) in pursuit of political ends (unconditional Japanese surrender)? And before we answer, it's worth considering the definition of terrorism. According to the FBI, one essential characteristic of terrorist activities is that they:
Appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Or stated more simply, terrorism is intentionally harming, intimidating a civilian population for the purpose of achieving a political end. And we should note that saving American lives or revenge for Pearl Harbor can't be a valid justification either. If it were, consistency would demand that we also endorse the rationale adopted by most of the terrorists that have attacked (or tried to attack) American and Western civilians in recent years--namely to try to stop military intervention in their home countries (save lives) or avenge fallen victims in the Middle East. The details and magnitudes of the attacks are different; the predominant justification underlying them is not. I don't know about you, but I'm not about to justify those other acts of terrorism.

It may be uncomfortable to think about the issue in those terms, but it should not be. Relatively few of us were even alive when the Hiroshima occurred; fewer still were old enough to vote for the Roosevelt-Truman ticket that carried it out; and virtually no one at all directly influenced Truman's decision to use the bomb, or even knew of the possibility in advance. So why should any of us feel a reflexive need to justify that barbarous action our government undertook over 70 years ago? We should not. War crimes are still war crimes, no matter how sophisticated the justification or the colors of the flag that sponsored them. And if American Exceptionalism is to ever mean anything worth a damn, it should be more than pretending the US government has never done anything wrong.*

Strategic Considerations
Above, we took for granted that the US had a choice between a brutal invasion of Japan or dropping atomic bombs to end the war effort. And it is in the context of this choice that many will defend the bombings as necessary. However, there's actually good reason to doubt this conventional narrative. And for the details, we recommend this excellent piece at Harper's, which addresses the most important historical questions on the subject with the person who wrote the book on them. And you can probably tell from the title which side of the issue they come out on. Here's the link:

Unjust Cause

*For more on this line of argument, also check out this article at the Independent Institute.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Libertarian Party Nominates Johnson and Weld for President, Failure Imminent

The Libertarian Party convention occurred this weekend and the delegates selected Gary Johnson and William Weld to be the party's nominees for President and Vice President. Johnson and Weld are both former Republican governors in New Mexico and Massachusetts, respectively, and the case for their nomination was made almost exclusively in terms of electability--which is something of an odd criterion for a party that has never garnered above 1% of the vote in any previous presidential race.

Of course, this year is going to be different. Never in recent memory has the American electorate been this dissatisfied with their two primary choices. Indeed, in acknowledgement of this fact, the party actually awarded Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump a Liberty Outreach award for helping the American people search for political alternatives. Further confirmation comes from recent polls that featured Gary Johnson gaining at least 10% support in a hypothetical election contest among him, Trump, and Clinton. If this support rises to 15%, Gov. Johnson would likely be featured in the Presidential debates, which would be a major coup for the Libertarian Party. Moreover, there have even been unconfirmed whispers that Johnson's campaign could be the beneficiaries of millions of dollars of campaign contributions from disenfranchised wealthy Republican donors.

Anyway, this is the context in which the nomination decision was made. And in this context, one can almost understand the desire to choose the compromise candidacy that Gary Johnson and especially William Weld represent, over a more consistently libertarian choice like Austin Petersen or Darryl Perry. Johnson and Weld were viewed as the pragmatic choice, and both managed to win on the second ballot of their respective races (the LP holds separate votes for the VP and President).

I don't think it's all that debatable that the Johnson and Weld ticket will get more media coverage than the libertarian alternatives. Even before their nomination, they gained significant coverage and it's likely to continue. But having a platform to deliver the message is only part of the battle. It also matters what that message is. In the case of Johnson and Weld, the message is going to be many things; confusing is probably going to be near the top of the list.

Before we go further, it should go without saying that Johnson is preferable to Trump or Clinton (or Sanders) on basically every issue. That said, he and his running mate have been sufficiently bad on foreign policy at this point that my vote is likely to go elsewhere.

The Candidates
The former New Mexico governor comes off as eminently likable and real. He was also the first sitting governor to call for legalization of marijuana, way back in 1999, before it was trendy. And to his credit, he takes the libertarian stand on most issues.

The trouble with Gary, however, is that his positions seem to be driven more by instinct than by a set of consistent principles or study on any subject. While this may not seem like a huge deal, it becomes apparent in debates and interviews on a regular basis. The end result is missteps that are likely to turn off disenfranchised Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike. Some choice examples:

  • On the minimum wage in an interview with the Huffington Post:
    • Here, he's making the economic argument in a general way, which is fine. But then he literally says, "nobody works for minimum wage." This is obviously incorrect, and certain to be insulting to a left-leaning audience. On the contrary, the correct argument on this, to such an audience, is to emphasize that this policy is likely to make many poor worse off by reducing their employment opportunities and eliminating their ability to gain experience in the workforce. Meanwhile, if the same argument needs to be framed for a more conservative audience, the key is to emphasize freedom of contract and protecting the free market.
  • On the issue of climate change and whether government should do more about it, in the debate Saturday night (start at 41:00):
    • Here, Johnson ends up taking the correct libertarian position (that government shouldn't do anything else), but unfortunately his justification is factually and obviously incorrect. He claims that the free market shifted away from coal naturally as people voluntarily opt for less carbon-intensive fuels. While it's true that there has been a shift, it's wrong to claim the free market was a driver. In reality, increased regulations on the coal industry (and the threat of more in the future), in addition to incredibly low natural gas prices produced by the fracking boom, drove the shift away from coal. One of these is a market force, but the other is decidedly not. Here, by taking what might be seen as a middle ground (care about the issue but don't want government to fix it), he actually alienates both sides of the political spectrum. (His former competitor Austin Petersen, corrected the record immediately when it was his turn to answer the question in the debate.)
  • Worst of all, on the question of the Iran Deal, again in Saturday's debate (start at 1:07:00):
    • Here, Johnson starts out by saying he was initially for the deal, but then came to oppose it because he didn't want the US to give money to Iran, because the country finances terrorism. Of course, the money belongs to Iran already and relates to assets that were frozen (that is, confiscated) as a part of sanctions. Johnson's reply implied that he understood this fact, but he opposed it anyway. This is tantamount to believing the US should be able to steal from other countries if we dislike their foreign policy choices.

      Additionally, while it's true that Iran sponsors organizations that the US has labeled terrorist groups, it's also true that the main such group, Hezbollah, has also been one of the principal enemies of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. If standard Washington "enemy of my enemy is my friend" logic were to prevail on this subject, Iran, would actually be a natural ally in the current scenario. Obviously, I don't endorse any such alliance, but it just goes to show how shallow and misleading Johnson's characterization is. Furthermore, if financing terrorism were sufficient to justify abolishing trade with other countries, most of the US allies in the Middle East would be off-limits. Just as important, Iran's president ran on a platform of normalizing relations with the West precisely so he could improve Iran's domestic situation--so it's not at all clear how much of Iran's money will ultimately be spent on military efforts / terrorism anyway.

      Another problem here is how this contradicts Johnson's professed support for diplomacy and his skepticism of military intervention. Above everything else, the Iran Deal mattered because it moved the US further away from war with that country and was a step toward freer trade. The details make it even easier to support from an American perspective, but even just that broad outline should make it readily supportable from a libertarian, noninterventionist perspective. Thus, getting this issue wrong is likely to be a bridge too far for antiwar voters on the left and among libertarians (quite likely including yours truly). Yet because he wasn't hawkish enough, it's also unlikely to do him any favors among more conventional conservatives.
In short, the pattern is clear and depressing. Gary Johnson's left-leaning social tendencies make him most suited to appeal to Democrats that can't stand Hillary. But his free market leanings and gaffes could easily turn them off. On foreign policy, he's likely to more peaceful than Trump and Hillary because the bar is so low, but his principles can be abandoned on core issues, making him a no-go for antiwar voters. And then on economic issues, he will occasionally take the right position for the wrong reason.

Regrettably, Gary's running mate, Governor Bill Weld, is likely to make matters far worse. To prove this point, all one needs to do is survey the list of endorsements Weld has made over the past few cycles: George W. Bush in 2004 (for foreign policy, of all things), Barack Obama in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 (that is, neither Ron Paul nor Gary Johnson), and initially John Kasich in 2016 until switching to become a libertarian. And to top it all off, Weld is known for being bad on gun control. Thus, as a practical matter, what this means is that any conservative that wasn't already alienated by Gary Johnson himself, will be successfully enraged by his vice president.

The end result is a ticket that finds a way to disappoint just about everyone in one way or another, without inspiring many in the process. This is seen as a pragmatic choice, but in reality, it's anything but. Johnson and Weld will likely manage to get in the debates, but as a libertarian myself, I'm deeply concerned how they will represent the ideas once they're there. The most probable outcome seems to be that the American people will be more familiar that libertarians exist, and more confused than ever about what they stand for.

Ultimately, the Libertarian Party has elected two compromise candidates, both of which are former politicians, in a year when much of the electorate despises compromise and politicians with equal fervor. And just as Rand Paul failed to garner sufficient support when he attempted to dilute the message of libertarianism, it is likely that Johnson and Weld will meet the same fate.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Federal Reserve's War on Retirement and Pensions

In spite of the minor interest rate hike last December, interest rates in the US remain at historically low levels. This is not a natural phenomenon, and it is not caused by the "free market". Rather, it's a direct and deliberate result of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, and its effects on the broader economy are rarely appreciated. It's bad for banks, which few people are likely to have sympathy for. It encourages government deficits by lowering the costs of government borrowing. And similarly, it encourages everyone else in the economy, from corporations to students, to take on more debt than they otherwise would.

But while all these things are important, the most destructive impact of artificially low interest rates is that it destroys the ability to save and invest. And, like most central planning policies that are designed to stimulate the economy, the people hit hardest by low interest rates are invariably the people who can least afford it--in this case, the middle class, the working class, and the elderly. Many pensions around the country are deep underwater on the verge of bankruptcy in the coming years, and elderly income insecurity and poverty are on the rise. These are real problems, and they are likely to come to a boiling point soon. But to address them, we need to first understand how they came to be. And the answer isn't greed or unbridled capitalism; it's one of the most significant distortions of the market system that exists in the economy today--artificially low interest rates.

How It Works
When the Federal Reserve decides to lower interest rates, it has the effect of shifting all interest rates down across the board. This occurs because all US banks have to be part of the Federal Reserve System. If the Fed lowers the main interest rate they control by 1%, we can expect other interest rates in the economy to shift down by about the same amount.

Banks will be willing to offer corporations loans at lower rates, and this in turn means that corporate bonds offered to the public will go for lower rates. Similarly, as banks start offering lower interest rates to borrowers (the banks' source of income), they will also shift down the already low rates they pay their depositors on savings (the banks' expense), to preserve a consistent spread. And generally, the Federal Reserve will also make purchases of the US Treasury Bonds (loans to the Government) to help drive down rates there as well. All of this has the practical effect of depressing interest rates across the whole economy for borrowers and savers alike, in bonds, loans, and deposits.

Source: Multpl.com
In this low-interest rate environment, however, individuals are still going to want to save about the same amount of money for retirement. Or if they're already retired, they need to continue making a decent return on their existing savings to maintain their standard of living. Prior to interest rates being cut, this might have been possible with a high-yield certificate of deposit, a basic savings account, or investments in government or corporate bonds. But as interest rates shift down, all of these options become less attractive. For example, consider how much lower 10-year Treasury yields have become over time, falling from over 6% at the turn of the millennium, to a mere 1.8% today. While it may seem small, that's a massive difference. At 6%, investors could earn a respectable return that was all-but risk-free. Today, the same security would barely outpace official inflation (and would be unlikely to keep up with real inflation if rent, healthcare were tossed into the mix).

The end result, then, is that individuals can no longer afford to keep their investments in safe assets, because they don't earn enough to be worthwhile. Now they have to look for riskier assets that have a chance to generate higher returns. (Riskier investments always tend to carry the promise of higher returns, because they have to compensate investors for the risk. This is why poor people or those with bad credit will generally have to borrow money at higher interest rates--to compensate the bank for taking a risk on them.)

At first, the riskier investments may be stocks. But then, as everybody pours into stocks, the earning potential here falls as well--the price of stocks will be driven up (for example, from $20 to $40 per share) even though the underlying profits will remain the same (say, $1.00 per share). In this example, that would mean the effective yield for anyone that buys at $40 would be $1 / $40 = 2.5%, where as it used to be $1 / $20 = 5%.* As more people pour into stocks, which are already somewhat risky, the return is driven down. This necessarily causes people to find the next, even riskier asset to continue trying to get a higher return. And the cycle repeats itself, with people becoming more and more exposed to risk as it progresses, while still struggling to earn a decent return. This process is referred to as chasing yield, and it only gets triggered in a down interest rate environment.

It's worth noting here that nothing I've suggested so far is controversial. Different economists disagree whether low-interest rates are a good thing (with most mainstream / Keynesian types generally believing they are indeed), but the yield-chasing behavior follows naturally from the incentives it creates.

And this is why the Fed's low-interest policies are effectively a war on retirement and the elderly. People plan to save a certain amount of money in order to live comfortably in retirement--but this plan necessarily assumes they will be able to earn a decent return. The low-interest rate policies diminishes the prospect for earning a healthy return and thereby plunges numerous elderly people into an income insecure situation.

A Practical Example
To see exactly how much more difficult it would be to retire under this low-interest rate environment, it's useful to see some real numbers. Back when I was in high school, I was obsessed with money to a completely absurd degree (circa 2006-2007 especially). And in particular, I was really focused on being able to have enough money to retire early. At the time, you could get an online savings account that paid 5% interest. And since I lived in the fantastically affordable city of Boise, Idaho, I figured I could live quite comfortably off of just $50k a year. To do that, I needed to save about $1,000,000. It's a big number of course, but it's not an insurmountable one. And then I could live off basically risk-free interest income forever.

Fast forward to today, and I'm not nearly as obsessed. That's a good thing for many reasons, but one of them is that being focused on money or retiring today would be incredibly depressing. If you're lucky, and willing to lock your money away for some time, you might be able to get a certificate of deposit around 2%. Assuming costs of living are the same, that means I'd now have to save 250% as much as before ($2.5 million) to achieve the same standard of living I had planned on.

For me, that's not a big deal. I'm in my twenties, and it's easy for me to adapt to that new reality (and eventually, interest rates will go back up). But imagine how hard this would be if you were nearing retirement age around the time of the financial crisis, when interest rates officially fell off a cliff. People could have already met their goals, only to see the goalposts get abruptly moved out beyond their worst fears. Then they might gamble on high-risk investments to try to catch up, and the end result may be that they fall even more behind.

Pensions As Collateral Damage
In many ways, pension funds, public or private, face a lot of the same challenges as the average saver does in a low-rate environment. They likely have more robust resources to research markets and find decent investments. But at the end of the day, they're still stuck chasing yield like everyone else. They're also likely to be based on somewhat aggressive return assumptions to begin with.

You needn't know the nuances of pension accounting to understand this discussion, but the basic idea is this. Employers contribute money to pension plans and bake in certain assumptions about how much that money will grow over time. Meanwhile, employees are earning more pension benefits over time, and if those benefits include medical coverage, the cost of their lifetime benefits will rise over time. By comparing projected lifetime expenses of the pension (based on how much people are expected to earn, how long they'll live, etc.) and lifetime assets / returns of the pension, we can determine whether a pension is adequately funded or not. If the pension is not adequately funded (projected expenses exceed projected revenues), we would say it's underwater. For instance, using this calculation, the Social Security system is deeply underwater currently. That doesn't mean it will go broke tomorrow, but it means, if nothing changes, things will break down eventually.

Right now, many US pension funds find themselves in an underwater position. Indeed, the pension for the Teamsters Union is so underfunded that it recently filed for de facto bankruptcy protection (to try to cut the benefits it's supposed to pay to its members), though its petition was denied. These trends are also a direct result of low-interest rate policy. Pensions take money from employers on the assumption they'll make (for example) 6% a year. Then if they only make 2% a year, the fund becomes underfunded until they manage to catch up. So they chase yields and expose all of their pensioners to more risk and uncertainty in the process. But they have no other options.

We can actually see this chasing yield phenomenon emerge over time. A recent piece at Zero Hedge, shows how the pension of the International Red Cross, has gradually shifted to more and more risky and uncertain assets as the years have rolled by in a historically low rate environment.** Where they once owned mostly standard, well-understood securities like stocks, bonds, and US Treasuries, now their portfolio has shifted toward more complicated, illiquid investments to try to increase returns. They don't really have a choice, but the consequences for their pensioners could be substantial.

In the face of these looming disasters, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, proposed a bill that would apparently require the federal government to provide more assistance (that is, bailout) to underfunded pension funds to protect the workers. But a more pragmatic and sustainable solution is to begin by asking why so many pension funds are failing in the first place. And the answer is that the Federal Reserve's interest rate policies made it so.

Why Keep Interest Rates Low?
Given all the calamities associated with artificially low interest rates, you might be wondering exactly why they've become the dominant policy. The best answer seems to lie in economists' and politicians' unholy focus on gross domestic product (GDP) as a metric of overall economic health. To you and me, GDP is completely meaningless. Other than academic curiosity, it obviously doesn't matter to me what the total net value of all goods and products produced in the US was over a given year. I care whether I have a good job, whether my company still has customers, and whether I can still buy the things I need at reasonable prices. But to economists that love statistical aggregates, GDP is the gold standard, if you'll pardon the expression.

The trouble is that it's really easy to mess with. To be counted in GDP, goods and services basically have to be sold to an end-user, and government spending counts as part of that. Thus, in some ways, it's basically a measure of total spending. And if all we're measuring is spending, it's easy to see how low-interest rates help that goal. Low-interest rates decrease incentives to save money (as discussed) and make it easier for me to borrow extra money and spend that. It also makes it easier for the government to borrow and spend more money. Therefore, it should be no surprise at all that lowering interest rates can have the effect of increasing GDP. However, it should be equally obvious that this is not an automatic social good.

To see this, we just need to ask the following question. Which is likely to be more important for economic health: The amount of money spent in any given year or quarter (i.e. GDP) in total, or whether people have a reasonable ability to save and invest for their future? That is not a hard question. But unfortunately, most economists and politicians have agreed on the wrong answer for years.

Summing Up
It's entirely appropriate for people to be concerned about the plight of the working class and the elderly as the economy continues to struggle along. Many people see expanding the role of government as a means to help address these problems, while people like me would be deeply skeptical of the incentives for government to do things correctly. But before we debate the potential for government to do more to help these people, we should begin by considering the ways that current policies are actively sabotaging them. Artificially low interest rates should be near the top of that list. It's also a great example of an issue where partisanship can be cast aside. Whether you lean left, right, or libertarian, the case against manipulated interest rates, as outlined here, should be compelling.

*In effect, this model assumes that the company pays out all its profits as dividends. That's unlikely to be the case in reality. But since theoretically, the value of a stock is really based on its underlying earnings and earnings potential, this is a good enough calculation for our present purposes.

**Not at all important, but I can't stand when people put an "an" before a word beginning in "hi-". Anyway, I'm aware that this is not technically correct, and I've decided prevailing grammar rules just got this one wrong, and I don't abide by it.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Syrian Islamists Fight for Practical Reasons, Not Ideological Ones

Our main story today is a new study which involved personal interviews with over 300 Syrians to understand why so many have joined the ongoing civil war. Interviews were conducted with people who have already participated in the war and those actively considering it, as well as family and community members.

The study found that an overwhelming majority of Syrians were motivated to join the civil war (against President Assad) based on pragmatic and political reasons, not religious ones. Even those Syrians who have joined the radical Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra, still cited very practical reasons for their decisions. Some of them join because all other economic opportunities have been decimated as a result of war. Others joined out of desire for revenge, gravitating toward extreme groups like Al-Nusra because they've proven to be among the most effective fighting forces against the Syrian government.

All of this matters because it goes against the prevailing understanding that is taken for granted in the West. It's true that the situation in Syria is somewhat different than the one that currently prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamic movements that rise up against the central government (which is backed by the US in both countries) are automatically considered militants and/or terrorists by default. But in Syria, many in the West look favorably upon the rebellion, as a kind of grassroots push for democracy or self-governance. And initially, that may have been the dominant drive. But today in Syria, the most extreme groups, like Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, and ISIS, are also the most significant forces combating the Syrian government. If these same forces were fighting against the government of Saudi Arabia or Qatar, they would be uniformly denounced as terrorists. But since they're fighting a government we oppose, members and allies of Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham often get referred by the more favorable term of "rebels" instead. It's more a function of semantics than any meaningful difference between the prevailing ideology of each group's leadership. All these groups, from ISIS to Ahrar Al-Sham share a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, use suicide terrorism as a tactic, and have no qualms about attacking civilians.

Thus, this new study is really telling us what causes people to join extreme militant or terrorist groups. And the  answer is not religion. For many Syrians, even the path to joining Al-Nusra (again, a group that celebrates 9/11), is not about religion. It's about practical desperation, survival, and, in some cases, vengeance. Islam is the banner these groups often fall under, but it is not the main source for its members.

This in turn, should have major implications for US policy. If the source of terrorism / extremism is primarily about practical and political considerations (economic desperation, family members killed, etc.) rather than ideological ones (they hate us because we're free, seriously?), obviously the solution required is rather different. Expanded bombing campaigns is unlikely to do the trick, and neither is funding moderate Islamic preachers. Instead, we should simply try to stop the actions that helped cause these grievances in the first place--stop supporting brutal dictatorships in the Middle East, stop constant drone attacks and their inevitable collateral damage, and stop engaging in regime change operations, that almost always produce a more desperate and dire situation in their wake. It won't solve the problem of terrorism overnight, but it could stop a lot of the recruiting in the future. It's certainly better than our current approach, which amounts to trying to put out a fire with gasoline.

For more, check out The Intercept's write-up on this study. And note that the piece is so critical of the Syrian government that it almost seems to be calling for the US to do more to overthrow the government. (I don't think the author actually holds that view, but it'd be easy to interpret that from this piece.) While it's unquestionable that President Assad is a terrible human being, it's not at all clear how regime change would be helpful for the people of Syria. Obviously, Libya was not improved by the overthrow of Qaddafi, even though he was a similarly brutal dictator. Anyways, with that disclaimer, here's the link:

Trauma and Deprivation Lead Syrian Youths to Extremist Groups, Says New Report

Other News of Note
Hillary Email Scandal Update
A new inspector general report from the State Department has concluded that Hillary did indeed violate department procedures and guidelines with her private email set up. However, the report also indicated prior Secretaries of State also violated the rules, if in less severe ways. Naturally, the Hillary camp is emphasizing that she just did what everyone else did. It's unclear whether the new report will actually lead to any legal proceedings--but given that Hillary is still an incredibly powerful politician, the smart money says it will not.