Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Palestine, the UN, the International Criminal Court, and Susan Rice

Palestine will be seeking to upgrade its status in the UN to "non-member observer state." The upgrade is that it will implicitly be recognized as a "state" and will suddenly be granted rights not previously afforded.

Previous attempts to gain official member state status has been thwarted because such efforts must pass the security council. Any permanent member can veto any proposal, a long-standing conflict that blocked any UN Security Council progress during the Cold War, since either the US or SU could halt anything, and neither agreed on anything. In this case the US is the primary state objecting to Palestine's recognition of member status as a state, despite the fact that most of the rest of the world affirms their status. Such a measure would undoubtedly pass in the General Assembly, but fail in the Security Council because of the U.S.

However, non-member status can be granted solely by a vote in the General Assembly. France has recently confirmed it will vote in favor. The UK is confirming that it might vote in favor *if* they promise not to seek standing in the International Criminal Court. This deeply troubles me. It is as if the U.K. has announced to the world--"we know that your people have been suffering grave human rights abuses, and that if you are able, you will engage the international criminal justice system to enforce protections for your people. We can't allow that, so we will only vote for your state's recognition if you promise not to avail yourself of protection from human rights abuses."

Palestine likely doesn't need the UK vote to pass the General Assembly, but having it, now that France publicly supports them, is a critical symbolic step in creating a politically stable environment for the Palestinians.

Further complicating this issue, especially for those opposed to Palestinian statehood (primarily the U.S. and Israel), the dominant voice at the table is going to be the US ambassador, Susan Rice. She is currently under severe attack from Republicans for mistaken comments she made about the recent terrorist attack on Benghazi. Ironically, just at the moment that Republicans need her most--to voice opposition to official recognition of Palestine--they are undermining her capacity to argue for the unwelcome U.S. anti-Palestine position (framed synonymously as "pro-Israel", as if these positions were mutually exclusive).

Monday, November 26, 2012

Benghazi and Rice: Taste of Washington

The most recent politicizing of tragedy, Sandy not-withstanding, has been the scapegoating of UN Ambassador Susan Rice on her Sept 16th appearances on multiple political news shows, answering questions about whether the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and several other U.S. citizens, was a pre-planned terrorist attack, or a spontaneous demonstration in response to an offensive youtube video, The Innocence of Muslims.

The early responose to Rice's claims, first political, then public, had twitter and facebook feeds chattering about an Obama conspiracy, and if nothing else, Rice's incompetence and complicity with some kind of conspiracy. The motivation? Who knows, but a certainly a conspiracy none-the-less. Senators McCain and Graham spearheaded the rhetorical campaigns, first accusing Rice of a lead role in the cover-up, and then agreeing that they would not support her nomination to replace Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State. The fervor whipped up by the anti-Rice/pro-conspiracy theorist dogmatists, created both a media and political glut that continues only slighty abated today. McCain has finally relented and says he would consider Rice, arguably, once he realized that his position was losing factual credibility.

Indeed, the issues involved are of fact, and not opinion, presumably facts that can be determined, despite being complex. Part of the complexity is the failure of many in the U.S. to recognize that "Muslim" is not a single group of clone-minded people, that "al Qaeda" is not a single group of clone-minded people, and that "terrorists" are not a single group of clone-minded people. While most reasonable people recognize that neither all Muslims are terrorists, nor all terrorists are Muslim, there seems to be some confusion that, similarly, not all terrorists are al Qaeda. In this case, the propensity to hear "Muslim terrorist" automatically as "al Qaeda" creates a cognitive stumbling block that has made the Benghazi attack more difficult to frame than is necessary. In this case, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attack is not al Qaeda "proper", but Ansar al Sharia.

While the differences may seem trivial, it becomes fundamentally important to understand the them. Take the distinction bewteen Sunni and Shia--while both groups are Muslim, one cannot understand the Arab-Persian conflicts without grasping this fundamental distinction. Take a U.S. example. Let's say that the primary religious affiliation of individuals who attempt to murder abortion providers is Southern Baptist. First, the investigator must be able to grasp that there are many "kinds" of Southern Baptists--those that self-label as such, but only consider a handful of congregations as God's chosen people, on the most extreme side, and on the other, the denomination that comprises all congregations who are members in good standing of the nationwide organization. There are profound differences between the former and the latter. So to claim that any Southern Baptist should be profiled as a potential abortion provider murderer would be an inefficient profile, because of the differences between sub-identity and larger group. Second, the investigator must also recognize the distinction between various types of Baptists. For example, American Baptists are far more likely to affirm same-sex relationships, while Southern Baptists are not. Third the investigator would need to recognize the distinction between various Protestant groups--Baptists tend to be far different from Lutherans, although both are within the larger group of Protestants. Fourth, the investigator would need to distinguish the sub-types of Christian--for example, Protestant vs. Catholic--very different types of Christian and important belief/behavior differences can be expected. To put the shoe on the other foot, if an African journalist or politician were to claim that "Christians have a propensity to muder abortion providers" or "Protestants have a propensity to murder abortion providers" or, etc, none of those statements would be entirely accurate, since they gloss over a fundamental definitional problem--the minority of "crazies" that one may find in certain sectarian Southern Baptist congregations are not by any means representative of Southern Baptists as a whole, of Protestants, or of Christians, but represent a very specific and unique sub-type of religous adherent.

Back to Benghazi--the question asked of Rice, is whether al Qaeda attacked Benghazi. The answer is likely no. We don't have the full transcript from Petraeus' Friday testimony to Congress. But we know that he gave an answer that contained complexity--the intitial reports indicated anger about the video, and spontaneous demonstrations, but that other early reports indicated planned terrorist activity. We know from other sources that the al Quada-"ish" group, Ansar al Sharia, claimed responsibility for the attack--within hours e-mails surfaced identifying this group. Was this al Qaeda, and was it a planned attack? Maybe, sort-of, kinda.

Scenario one. If the Westboro Baptist Church pickets the funeral of a miltary service person, is it accurate to say that "Baptists picket military funerals?" Only if you really dislike all Baptists and don't mind bearing false witness about them.

Scenario two. If you have weapons in your house, somebody breaks into your house, and you shoot him dead, is it accurate to say that you planned to kill the intruder? Well, you had weapons, and you presumably planned to use them, and you presumably didn't morally object to the use of lethal force--but it would likely be a stretch to say that you actually "planned" to kill the individual.

Scenario three. If the Westboro Baptist Church protests the clinic of an abortion provider, you, a non-Westboro affiliated Baptist, see that there is no police protection at the clinic, and that the scene is in complete disarray, so you go home to get your weapons, return and kill the abortion provider, would it be accurate to say that 1) the Westboro Baptist Church killed the abortion provider, or that 2) the Southern Baptist Church killed the abortion provider, or that 3) the murder represented a pre-planned attack? In the first two cases, likely not, despite there being some loose religious and political affiliation. In the third case, also probably not--the individual likely had wanted to commit the murder, and already had weapons available, and simply opportunistically took advantage of the situation for his own benefit of something he had, in the abstract, wanted to do at some point in the future. That represents a different frame than if the individual had made a specific, coordinated plan to kill the abortion provider on this given date, using this specific procedure.

In the case of Benghazi, the unfolding narrative, seems to be that there were both anti-video demonstrations, *and* the availability of opportunity for an al Qaeda-"ish" group, Ansar al Sharia, to wreak some havoc. Joe Klein reports this narrative based on his interviews, defended it this morning on Morning Joe, and while ridiculed by Scarborough, seems to be the narrative of the administration. The Navy Times reports extensively on Petraeus' testimony to congress, as well as the evidence to date, which seems to support Klein's narrative. Similarly, regarding the charges of "conspiracy," the New York Magazine says that, yes, a conspiracy existed, but a conspiracy to catch terrorists, which is what the Petraeus testimony supports. From the beginning of the evolving situation, even Fox News reported that Ansar al Sharia was behind the attack, affirming some of the early intelligence, as well as its status as a local, isolated "militia," not al Qaeda proper, and not part of a "pre-planned" orchestrated action. The chronology seems to have been, that the anti-video demonstrations created a situation that was rife with possibility for Ansar al Sharia, and the multiple-waves of activity reports support the narrative that Ansar al Sharia returned in the subsequent waves to perpetrate the attack, once they realized that security was lax.

So the larger question, as Klein emphasizes, is not whether there was an Obama-led conspiracy, but why was there lax security for the diplomat. On the one hand, he argues that Stevens wanted it that way, because of his opinion that the effective diplomat had to be out and among the people. On the other hand, is that a reasonable strategy in a country like Libya. In the end, Klein's question is about the kinds of conversations we need to be having in Congress and the State Department about diplomat security. On the one hand, our military budget is 20% of the federal budget, while the State Department budget is 1%. In addition to paying the diplomats themselves, security for diplomats also comes out of the State Department budget. Even the conservative Christian Science Monitor reports that the same Republicans who were attempting to blame the Obama administration for failed security at Benghazi, are the ones who have been lobbying to "aggressively cut spending ... for embassy security in particular." Not to be partisan (I didn't vote for Obama), but it seems that there may be a conspiracy after all, but on the part of Republicans attempting to wield rhetorical swords to incite public wrath against an opponent, not on the part of the Obama administration. But, that's just the taste of Washington. Nov 29 Update: In a meeting with McCain, Graham and Ayotte, Amb. Rice stated that the early intelligence was incorrect, that there was no protest in Benghazi the day of the attack. Acting CIA director Morell confirmed the incorrect early intelligence, and is similar to Petraeus' testimony (linked above, and again here) stating that "initially was unclear whether militants infiltrated a demonstration to cover their attack." After the hearing, McCain and Graham renewed their early opposition to Rice's unsubmitted nomination for Secretary of State. On the contrary, Sen Inhofe, GOP reprentative of the Foreign Relations Committee, an early critic of Rice, has shifted his views in the opposite direct after Rice's testimony, who now believes she was told an incomplete version of events, and bears no responsibility for the mistaken early comments. Sen Collins, soon to be GOP head of the Foreign Relations Committee, currently on the Homeland Security Committee will have a meeting later this week with Rice. Unlike Graham and McCain, she and Lieberman have not been willing to make public statements against Rice.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Men Who Built America (History Channel Documentary Series)

The History Channel aired a 6-part series called "The Men Who Built America," creating a compelling narrative about the mid-1800s capitalists, emphasizing the importance of entrepreneurialism in the development of the modern United States, in addition to how those early businesses succombed to power and wealth to create destructive monopolies. Below is a summary of the show, based not on the linear chronology of episodes, but by the men the show highlights. Vanderbilt Ferries to railroads. Built the only railroad bridge into NYC. For revenge, he shut down the bridge, choking off the only way from NYC to the rest of the country. The competing RRs began to collapse, selling their stocks for almost nothing, Vanderbuilt bought them all, controlling 40% of the existing RR. He continued to build, creating 180k jobs and allowed the industrial revolution to distribute their goods. The process of buying a controlling amount of stock is Vanderbilt’s idea, called the hostile takeover. Rockefeller Paired with Vanderbilt to have the exclusive transportation of refined kerosene, calling it Standard Oil. Kerosine was the method of lighting homes, and Rockefeller refined it. Having made a deal with Vanderbilt’s competitor to create a corner on the oil transportation business, he bought out other refineries, to control 90% of US oil at 33 yrs, creating a monopoly. This also allows him to manipulate the prices he pays for transporting the oil. Vanderbilt creates alliances with the other railroads to try to force Rockefeller to pay market rates. This forces Rockefeller to innovate, developing overland oil pipelines. In 1873, this forced 1/3 of RRs into bankruptcy, the worst stock exchange crash in history, closing for 10 days, putting the US into a depression and major unemployment. Rockefeller takes advantage of this by buying the bankrupt companies. After electricity eliminates the need for kerosene, he funds the research to discover a use for a former waste product, gasoline, to produce the internal combustion engine for factories, and then for cars. After his empire is broken apart by federal anti-trust lawsuits, he became the wealthiest man in the world from being a shareholder in each of the subsequently derived companies. Carnegie His mentor, Scott, was the rival RR owner to Vanderbilt, who allied with him to bring down Rockefeller. However, Rockefeller cut off Scott’s supply of oil, bankrupting his company, and leading him to poor health, then death. Scott originally contracted Carnegie to build a bridge across the Mississippi to St. Louis, leading Scott to the discovery that steel would be the only way to do it, and pioneering ways of mass manufacturing of steel, previously limited to small items like silverware. With the success of the bridge, demand skyrocketed until the RRs failed, the main purchaser of steel. Carnegie had huge supplies, but falling demand, so found a new use for steel as unemployed flocked to cities to find work—building structures, and thus the skyscrapers were born. When JP Morgan bought his steel company, it made him the wealthiest man in the world. JP Morgan Morgan took industries that were market failures, like RR, and brokered deals between the failing competitors to buy their shares and lease them to a single RR owner-Morganization, or the restructuring of companies to eliminate waste, minimize competition and workforce, and maximize profits. He discovered Edison’s genius, and financed his research, wiring his house for electricity to use some of the first light bulbs, creating a “display house” for electricity—the first in the world. Edison becomes busy electrifying the homes of the elites, like Vanderbilt—but not Rockefeller. Morgan and Edison together form the Edison Electric Light Company, and Morgan funds the infrastructure to electrify of Manhattan using DC. Rockefeller wages an anti-electricity publicity campaign of fear. Tesla, a jr employee of Edison, invents AC and finds an investor in Westinghouse, since Edison refuses to acknowledge the innovation. Westinghouse wins the contract to power the Niagara Falls power plant, which intended to power the entire northeast. Morgan acquires Tesla’s patent rights, and buys all the stocks in Edison’s company, changing the name to General Electric, converting it to AC. Morgan twice bailed out the US government, saving it from financial collapse. Morgan bought Carnegie’s steel company for a price larger than the US federal budget, renaming it U.S. Steel, the monopoly for steel for 100 years. He later helped finance the Panama Canal. The Progressive Movement The monopolies/trusts were taking over. Public opinion and politicians, such as William Jennings Bryan, moved to legislate against the monopolies and prosecute them. The average worker earns around $1/day, 1/11 steel workers die on the job, the average family lives on <$100/mo. The threat brings Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan into an alliance to get McKinley, also an industrialist, elected instead of Bryan for the 1896 presidential campaign. Industrialists threaten workers with layoffs if Bryan won—90% of eligible voters turned out—McKinley won, leading to 36 years of Republican control (except for Woodrow Wilson). McKinley rolls back regulations and corporate profits again skyrocket. With the vice-presidential role historically being quite powerless, McKinley is convinced to put Teddy Roosevelt, a great enemy to big business, as VP, but the plan backfires when an anarchist assassinates McKinley shortly after he won his 2nd term. Roosevelt sued Morgan, the 1st federal anti-trust case, winning, breaking apart the RR monopoly, followed by a similarly successful anti-trust suit against Rockefeller’s Standard Oil based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. Ford Ford wanted to extend cars to the population, at the time under control of ALAM, the “auto cartel.” He continues produce cars, facing a lawsuit by ALAM, while positioning himself as anti-trust and pro-competition. He paid his workers a $5/day, gave them an 8-hr day, 5-days a week, in a safe working environment, as well as creating the assembly line to produce cars 8x faster than the next leading car manufacturer. As Rockefeller’s empire is broken apart by the anti-trust lawsuit, Ford wins his case against ALAM.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is the "Debt Crisis" a "Crisis" (Part 2)

Last year as the Tea Party blocked the congress from submitting a budget because of their belief in the dangers of an impending debt crisis, I posted several charts that I use in my Intro Class, in "Is the 'Debt Crisis' a 'Crisis' Part 1. Now that we are again approaching budget talks, with the narrative of the "fiscal cliff" and "overwhelming debt that turn the U.S. to Greece," I am posting a second analysis of the non-crisis of the "debt-crisis."

There are several assumptions in the "debt-crisis" narrative that create a viable story, all of which are faulty, most of which are beyond the scope of this post. For example, the idea that we have a spending crisis, because of the belief that Obama has dramatically raised spending, when in fact, as I have shown in an earlier post, federal consumption+investment spending has, for the last 20 years, been consistently at its lowest rates since WWII. This is the "flexible" spending that presidents get to do, and is more technically the "size of government," since it pays for road repair, other immediate infrastructure, federal bureaucrats, federal buildings, etc.

Another common misconception is that the "entitlement" programs are on a clearly unsustainable trajectory, whether you are talking about safety net support for the poor (food security is consistently 2-3% of the federal budget), or Social Security+Medicare+Medicaid, which, as a % of GDP, has indeed doubled since 1970 and is only expected to increase. However, medical economists have shown that half of the rise in Medicare+Medicaid costs are from poorly controlled healthcare costs, not simply a dramatic rise in coverage. Several studies (summarized last month in this PBS report) have shown that we pay twice as much per capita for healthcare than our nearest price-neighbors (Japan and the UK), and our health outcomes are worse. A large chunk of the rise in these federal health programs can be fixed by getting our healthcare costs to expected market levels. Similarly, the Social Security Trustees have reported that with no changes, the fund is solvent until 2033, and by uncapping the $108k current tax limit, the program would be solvent until 2050. There are several other very easy fixes for Social Security's long-term solvency.

A more "wonkish" question is whether the "debt crisis" is, from an economics perspective, a crisis. I address this in several ways from the "Part 1" essay. I have done some more work on the problem, still using the cross-country analysis. The International Monetary Fund has recently compiled a very cool database ("cool" to the nerds among us) that lists the debt to GDP ratio of every IMF member state much farther back than other databases list. For example, the database lists the UK's ratio back to the 1600s!

I used this database, along with the OECD GDP Growth rate data for the top 30 countries to look for a relationship. Using "R" and the "PLM" package for analyzing cross-sectional time-series (panel) data, I looked at the years available from the OECD, 1993-2011. Using a 2-year lag for each individual country (i.e, to see if, for example, the Australian 1993 debt:GDP impacted the 1995 growth rate for Australia) and a fixed-effects (within) model, I found a small, but significant positive relationship between debt and growth. This is counter to the claims made by the fiscal-terror narrative. Specifically, I found an estimate of +0.025 (p=0.009), implying that for every percent the debt:GDP ratio increases, growth tends to increase by 0.025 the 2 years after.

Intuitively, there is bound to be a limit. However, consider Japan, which has had, for several years, by far the highest debt:GDP of all the top economies, averaging 192% over 2005-2009!! In 2009 their growth rate plummeted to -5.5%, but the following year bounded back up to 4.4%, with their debt:GDP ratio only continuing to increase during that time. Poland's growth over the last 5 years has been the strongest of the 30 countries, averaging 4.3%, while its debt:GDP is 17th of 30, averaging 48%. Isreal's growth rate is ranked 3rd for that time period, at 3.8%, while its debt:GDP places it in the bottom 5, averaging 82.6%. In contrast, Denmark's growth is near the bottom, averaging -0.5, while its debt:GDP is among the best, averaging 41%. The relationships are undoubtedly complex, and likely are influenced by regional and local effects. However, if the presumption by the Tea Partiers is that high debt:GDP means economic disaster, there is no evidence for that at all, and in fact, my time-series analysis seems to indicate the opposite.

Below I have included a chart that demonstrates some of the complexity. I have chosen several of the top and bottom GDP growth countries. For the 17-year period in question I have plotted their debt:GDP (y-axis) against their GDP growth (x-axis). The closer the dots to the top of the plot, such as Japan, have the highest debt:GDP ratio, and near the bottom, such as Australia, are the lowest ratios. The dots closer to the left of the graph have negative growth rates, and moving right means higher growth. The trend-lines for each country indicate the relationship between debt:GDP and growth. Take Japan's line, near the top--it has a slightly negative slope, indicating that the higher its debt:GDP ratio, the slower the growth. On the other hand, take Australia's line near the bottom-right. The positive slope indicates that higher debt:GDP is followed by higher growth. For clarity's sake, I did not plot all 30 countries, but the majority have positive slopes. In fact, a simple correlation supports both of these findings, with the average correlation being positive (r=0.22), again, indicating that higher debt:GDP tends to be followed 2 years later by GDP growth.

Friday, November 2, 2012

US Party vs Economics Stats

A quick data post. The following charts have a lot of information in them (they are identical, except the top has been Hodrick-Prescott smoothed; the 2nd is the raw data graph)--3 economic plots, and the background colors represent party majorities. Dark red means Republicans in the presidency, house and senate. Dark blue means Democrats in the presidency, house and senate. Light red mean Republicans held 2 of the 3, light blue means Democrats held 2 of the 3. GDP Growth is '% change from previous quarter' (each quarter plotted as 3 months with the same number), Employment Growth is '% change from the previous month' and Unemployment is total unemployment rate. I only took the data back to 1990. The period from 2001-2002 when there was a tie in the senate, I count that as a Republican hold, since the Republican VP could break a tie. The period where Independents tend to caucas with Democrats, giving them the majority, I count as a Democrat hold.