Texas Needs UN Observers
A newly released UN report expresses concern over the high number of executions being carried out in Iraq. The report found implementation of the death penalty in Iraq to be particularly problematic because “many… convictions are based on questionable evidence and systemic failures in the administration of justice.”
You must be thinking – wow, the Iraqi Government must be offing folks left and right to be the target of this kind of UN criticism. After all, conditions in Iraq are dire. There’s a civil war, headed by an armed insurgency, now ongoing across much of the country. Terrorist bombings in Baghdad have become so commonplace that they frequently go unreported. So how many people has Iraq put to death so far in 2014? Answer: 60.
Hmmm. Iraq has a population of 33 million. Assuming Iraq continues on its execution-rampage, they will have put 80 people to death by year’s end, making for an execution rate of 2.4 per million. Texas, by comparison, has a population of 26 million, and has put 39 people to death so far this year, putting them on track for about 42 by year’s end. That gives Texas an execution rate of 1.6 per million. Not sure whether congratulations are due – Texas has managed to be only two-thirds as brutal to its peacetime population compared to wartime Iraq.
Iraq may be bad now, but it’s much improved much since when Saddam Hussein was in power. However you can say the same about Texas, which has also come a long way since the dark days of Governor Bush Duh, who in 1999 oversaw 98 executions for a population of 20 million, for an execution rate of nearly 5 per million, double that of present day Iraq. Bush Duh’s Texas had no civil war and no terrorist bombings – it was just folks killin’ folks, Texas style – with nary a UN monitor in sight.
As the UN report points out, the problem in Iraq isnt just the sheer number of executions – it’s the shoddy system of justice that produces them. The Texas comparison is here, again, unavoidable, where people are put to death without competent legal representation, and where many have been found to be innocent while on death row – others, after their execution has been carried out.
All modern, civilized people should oppose the death penalty under all circumstances. In fact, the reason why it’s virtually disappeared in the West is that it is inconsistent with all modern political ideologies – except fascism. The comparison with war-torn Iraq serves to show just how backwards are certain parts of the US, where an extraordinary degree of barbarism is brought into higher relief when it occurs in a relatively affluent, peacetime population – without enough of an outcry from human rights organizations, foreign or domestic.
Ukraine, Perspectivized II
In November 2013, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was weighing competing aid and affiliation packages from the EU and Russia. The total value of the Russian package was over 20 times more generous: $15 to 20 billion in loans, aid, and discounted fuel, all largely unconditional. The EU package contained fewer than $1 billion in loans, conditioned on extraordinary government reforms and, onerously, a promise to reject a partnership with Russia.
Yanukovych’s decision to choose the Russian deal and spurn the EU – which set off the Euromaidan protests, and led ultimately to his ouster – was entirely reasonable. The EU has been miserly in its policies toward poorer member countries, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal. It’s lack of generosity toward Ukraine was typical. And countries like Ukraine – lacking established state or private institutions, and with economies rife with corruption and inefficiency – would do better over the short- and medium-term with closer economic ties to Russia instead. (Ukrainian exports are not likely to thrive on EU markets compared to the Russian market; EU capital is less likely to be invested in Ukraine than is Russian capital.)
The legality of Yanukovych’s removal from office is also fairly questioned. At a minimum, Russia’s refusal to recognize the newly constituted Ukrainian government is reasonable, self-serving though it may be. And compared to 20th century US dealings in Latin America, Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine has been restrained. Within its own hemisphere, the US has overthrown numerous governments – directly or through proxies – simply because the “wrong” leadership came to power. The US only came to tolerate the likes of Chavez after the USSR was vanquished. Recent US restraint is not well attributed to a newfound pluralism – rather, antagonistic governments in the Americas no longer threaten US security. Russia, by comparison, fairly perceives its own security to be worse now than it has been for more than 20 years.
These observations are not offered to justify Russian aggression in Ukraine, but rather to show how it fits into a larger pattern, common to both Russia and the US. During the Cold War, the US was careful not to push its sphere too far east – Austria and Finland didnt even join the EU until after the USSR broke up; and neither have joined NATO. Undeniably, the Cold War reduced Russia to a regional power – however Russia and the US differ on the extent of Russia’s sphere today. The US, by its actions, would seem to regard Russia’s sphere as extending no farther than its own borders – particularly after Russia remained (weirdly) quiet through the accession into NATO of the Baltics, which were once part of the USSR.
There is, however, a big difference between the Baltics and Ukraine, and the conflict today is in part attributable to a US failure to recognize as much. Not only is Ukraine seven times more populous, but its economy is far more integrated with Russia’s, and their histories are much more closely intertwined.
From the standpoint of liberalism, people have a right to choose their government, and so Russia can fairly question the legality of Yanukyovich’s removal from office, and the legitimacy of his successor. However borders must be respected, and thus Russia’s incursion into Ukraine cannot be tolerated by the West, particularly under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum (excerpted below). Unfortunately, the US lacks the moral standing to make this argument, because, by its own actions, it has legitimized subversion and outright invasion of nearby states to advance its own security.
After the USSR broke up, its nuclear weapons apparatus was strewn across several of the newly independent states that emerged. Ukraine, which declared independence in 1989, “inherited” perhaps one-third of the arsenal, including warheads and ICBMs, as well as development and assembly plants. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine agreed to transfer all nuclear weapons and technology to Russia, and joined the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, in exchange for the certain security assurances. Here’s an excerpt from that agreement (emphasis supplied):
1. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine;
2. The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in self-defence or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations;
Israel’s Land Grab Continues
A nation’s genesis is rarely pretty. Nations commonly emerge through violence, and the establishment of Israel has all the usual ugliness, protracted now over 75 years, heightened beneath the lens of modern media, amidst modern sensibilities. And it is ongoing. Just before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Barack Obama, and his speech before the UN, Israel released plans for it’s latest land-grab: a brand new 2600 unit housing development in East Jerusalem, part of the occupied West Bank.
We at the Field Guide beat up on Israel quite often, and for good reason. They are an exemplar of a democracy gone so horribly wrong that it is as tyrannically illiberal as any dictatorship to many of its subjects. The fact that we have to use the term subjects says it all. Millions of Arabs – across several generations and almost half a century – have been living subject to Israeli authority without ever having been granted citizenship, nor even a modicum of civil or political liberties. Israel has literally made them foreigners in their own land.
Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank in 1967, and has been colonizing it ever since, stealing land from Arabs a little bit at a time. The pace of their theft has only accelerated, despite Israel’s supposed participation in the “peace process.” Since the Oslo Accords 20 years ago, when Israel ostensibly agreed with the Palestinian Authority on a framework to resolve their differences, Israel’s colonial population in the West Bank has tripled. This latest housing development is yet another Israeli betrayal of that framework, lending support to the belief that Israelis cannot be negotiated with – that they only respond to violence.
At the UN last week, Netanyahu took aim at Hamas, and one can readily see why. Hamas helped make Gaza an exceptionally unpleasant place to colonize. Among the nastier groups in restive Gaza, Hamas was a factor in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of its colonies and army in 2005. It is all but irresistible to compare Gaza’s success in driving out their colonizers with the West Bank’s failure – leaving one to wonder at the efficacy of the peaceful tactics of the Palestinian Authority.
One recalls Bush Duh’s analogous blunders with his proclaimed axis-of-evil. In the inimitable Bush Duh style, he managed to invade the one country out of three that did not have a WMD program! The lesson North Korea and Iran must surely have learned is the great value of having a nuclear arsenal – specifically to prevent a US invasion. Arabs in the West Bank cannot but wonder whether, analogously, Hamas’ rockets and mortars are a viable formula; and may yet recognize that Israelis have rewarded the West Bank’s pacifism as richly as Saddam Hussein was rewarded for cooperating with UN weapons inspectors.
Hamas and Netanyahu are both enemies of peace. It’s not merely the case that they deserve one another – they mutually reinforce one another. If Israel insists on demonstrating at every opportunity its unwillingness to work peaceably and in good faith toward bestowing human, civil and political rights on more than 2 million Arabs living subject to their rule in the West Bank, they succeed only in validating groups inclined to seize those rights by any and all means necessary. Despite Netanyahu’s condemnations, he remains Hamas’ unwitting advocate and ally.
Hong Kong Rising
As a population grows in affluence, it tends naturally toward democracy. This has been true the world over, and China is no exception. That’s why China’s ruling Communist Party suspended economic reforms in the wake of 1989’s Tiananmen Square Massacre, which communist hardliners considered to be the consequence of increasing wealth, which was in turn attributed to Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. China’s oligarchs saw a wealthier population as a threat to their hold on power – and it took several years for Deng to get his pro-market movement back on track, facilitating China’s extraordinary economic development over the past twenty years.
Not two months ago, the Field Guide observed that
…liberalism begets wealth, and a wealthy populace comes naturally to demand a political voice commensurate with its material well-being. This is the dynamic that brought democracy to much of Europe, and to countries all along the Pacific Rim – and, of course, to the US as well. One hopes the same will happen in China, where an increasingly wealthy class of industrialists should – if history teaches us – also come to demand a role in their own governance.
It took no great prescience to grasp that the time is ripe for democracy in Hong Kong. If indeed the forces that move a polity toward democracy become more and more acute as a population grows wealthier, then in no place in the world is democracy more overdue than Hong Kong, by far the richest undemocratic place in the world.* By comparison, Beijing in 1989 was a poor backwater. Though Beijing’s per capita GDP has since increased by a factor of 10, it remains a relatively poor city, with incomes comparable to those of Rio. Meanwhile Hong Kong today is similar in size, population and per capita income to New York City – seven times wealthier than Beijing.
In recent years, American neo-cons learned (painfully) that democracy cant be installed on a whim like a dishwasher. As the Field Guide noted back in August, “it seems constructive for liberalism to precede democracy – for a population to first learn respect for procedural fairness, before taking on self-governance.” It takes decades for many other institutions, public and private, to mature; and, above all, for liberal principles to become embedded in courts and property rights regimes. Once this foundation is laid, the transition to democracy occurs far more readily, and the government that results is far more stable. And by this measure, also, is Hong Kong’s democratic movement long overdue.
While one would be foolish to underestimate the brutality of China’s ruling party, especially on what they would be willing to do to hold onto power, now is a time for optimism. Protestors in Hong Kong have a real chance to succeed in wringing pro-democratic concessions from Beijing; and the scenes we see there today may unfold one day soon in Macao or Shanghai – and in coming years, in Beijing as well.
* While Qatar and Brunei have higher per capita income than Hong Kong, and are even less democratic, their wealth is derived from oil – neither have anything like the diverse, modern economy of Hong Kong. As has been previously observed, dictatorships with mineral wealth can persist far longer before democratic pressures build.
The Blockade is Hamas’ Best Friend
Hamas, it would appear, has little to offer young people. And yet it has only grown in popularity since its founding during the 1st intifada in 1987, beating its rival Fatah in Gaza’s 2006 elections. Observers fail to appreciate that young Gazans rationally join Hamas because they lack better options. Hamas affiliation promises power, money and status, which, because of the Israeli blockade, are not readily had through education and employment.
The blockade is Hamas’ best friend. It all but destroys Gaza’s economy, making it impossible for people to support themselves through ordinary work. Gazans used to be able to cross into Israel to get better paying jobs. They used to be able to work in Gaza and export goods to foreign markets. The blockade destroys both of those options. If you are a Gazan and want to get ahead, work and school wont help much. Acquiring better job skills is only useful if you can sell those skills. Joining Hamas simply pays better.
Perversely, the more the blockade constricts the supply of everyday items – food, fuel, water, medicine – the more it enriches Hamas, because they control the little that gets in. Imagine if, in the US, organized crime didnt just control the supply of illegal drugs – imagine they imported and distributed everything from Pepsi to Tylenol to gasoline. That’s what the blockade does for Hamas – it turns Gaza’s Islamist ruling party into Gaza’s wholesaler for everything. And the worse things get for ordinary Gazans – the pricier that drinking water, wheat flour and medicine become – the more money goes to Hamas, and the more reason people have to join them. This is on top of the aid funneled through Hamas by the UN and other international organizations, to keep Hamas awash in cash, and thus more attractive to join – not to mention better armed. (Foreign aid, despite its good intentions, often serves to sustain bad governments, by giving them a ready source of income, and making them less answerable to their beleaguered population.)
Take away the blockade and let goods and people move unfettered into and out of Gaza, and Hamas loses big. Yes, thousands of rockets will enter Gaza and be fired into Israel. Newsflash: they already are! In the last year of Israel’s physical occupation of Gaza, Hamas (and others) fired more than 1000 rockets and RPGs into Israel. After the blockade in 2007, the total number of attacks continued to climb: more than 2800 in 2007, and more than 3700 in 2008. Attacks dropped off after Israel (and Egypt) tightened the borders even more – but they rebounded soon after, exceeding 2200 in 2012. The first 8 months of 2014 have already seen more than 4000 such attacks.
To gain some perspective on these numbers, consider that since 2001, Israel has been subject to about 19,000 rocket and mortar attacks – but only 28 Israelis have been killed. Gazans who have died in Israeli retaliation number in the thousands – most of whom are innocent, and many of whom are children.
Keeping weapons out by occupation or blockade has been tried and failed. The blockade actually makes things worse because it gives Hamas that much more cash to buy weapons. This is why ending the blockade is Israel’s best long-term bet for peace and political change.
Not only should Israel end the blockade, it should also rebuild Gaza’s airport and seaport, allow an unlimited number of workers in and out to work in Israel, and invest in rebuilding schools and hospitals. Doing this will make it profitable for Gazans to live their lives in the ordinary way: acquire skills, and sell one’s labor, or the fruit thereof, to the highest bidder. Present Israeli policy only guarantees a future of yet more violence.
N.b. While Hamas is a serious nuisance for Israel, it poses an existential threat to Egypt’s government, which only recently deposed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a natural ally of Hamas. Most of the above arguments apply equally to Egypt, whose long-term security would be enhanced by open borders and free trade with Gaza. However the blockade of Gaza is entirely the work of Israel. Any country can, legally, close its borders to another country. Egypt and Israel have both done so with respect to Gaza. Israel however goes the extra mile by blockading Gaza’s Mediterranean coast, and keeping Gaza’s airport inoperative. While the border closures are legal (if poorly considered), the air and sea blockade is not.
In Scotland, Process is King
Whether Scots choose to go it alone or remain in the UK, Thursday’s vote will serve as an exemplar of liberalism and civility. Never mind what voters actually choose – the process here is what matters most: this is the right way to do things. Irish independence, by comparison, was won through war, and fighting over Northern Ireland persisted for decades. Scotland seems poised to stay or go without a shot fired or a life lost – and that is spectacular progress. The outcome – yea or nay – will be no big deal.
Europe used to be a dangerous place. Just looking at the two most populous countries in Western Europe, Germany invaded France 3 times in 70 years. Areas with distinct languages, cultures and-or histories used to band together for their collective security. This logic factored into England and Scotland’s 1707 union, and has since produced such amalgams as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Austria-Hungary, and indeed even the European Coal and Steel Community (predecessor to the EU).
But the facts on the ground have changed, and it would be surprising if the lines on the map did not shift to reflect that change. Europe is now a far safer place than it has been in centuries. Tiny countries are no longer threatened by larger ones. Policy is no longer set by inbred land-grabbing hereditary dictators, but by middle class voters, who have a far greater affinity for peace and freedom.
One must also acknowledge the omnipresence of NATO, and fairly wonder whether this trend would hold in the absence of a massive military force safeguarding security, backed by the world’s sole superpower. The US, ranked first in military spending worldwide, presently outspends the countries ranked second through tenth combined.
The expansion of the European Union and the concomitant rise of smaller states is no contradiction – the two movements are driven by the same forces. There is more comity among states and peoples in Europe than ever before, and this bonhomie allows states to split amicably, but also facilitates their banding together on the supra-national level. Common defense is simply not an EU priority.
Impressive hay bales are being made over the potential repercussions of Scottish independence. They should be politely ignored. Scotland comprises barely 8% of the UK’s total population; and Scots pay a bit more into London’s treasury than they receive back in expenditures. Scotland and England’s economies are deeply integrated – and will continue to be. The UK will find another place to park its nuclear submarines, or will simply lease a harbor, as the US does all around the world.
That this referendum may fuel independence movements elsewhere should only be of concern to the illiberal. If the Catalan desire their own independent state, they should have it – as should Corsicans, Flemish, and any other group within a discrete, identifiable geographic space, that wants to go it alone. The existence of San Marino, Andorra, Monaco, the Vatican, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg is hardly troublesome to their larger neighbors.
The notion that India will take the diminution of the UK – from 0.83% of world population to 0.76% – as a pretext to more forcefully demand a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is, frankly, silly. India, home to 17% of the world’s population, should have a permanent seat, whether Scotland and England are united or not. The anachronistic fictions that secure to the UK and France (0.9%) their permanent seats can be discussed at any time.
There are several wealthy, successful countries of comparable size to Scotland: Finland, Denmark, Ireland and Norway – the latter of which is ranked first in the world in living standards. There is every reason to believe that an independent Scotland would be as prosperous as these countries. The issue of greatest importance facing an independent Scotland will be its choice of currency. While Scots favor sticking with the British Pound, creating its own currency would be a better bet. (The Euro, under the hegemony of Germany, is not a good option.) But even this is an issue upon which rational minds can differ – it will not be a disaster in any case.
And so we wait – not holding our collective breath, nor ready to gasp at the result – but rather, marveling that western civilization has come so far, that two nations could so painlessly dissolve their centuries-old political union, via a process so eminently reasonable and liberal, that, no matter what the Scots choose to do, we will all be better off for their example.
The Fight for Liberalism in Syria
The US may have been tempted to support Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s nominal head of state, in his fight against Islamic State (IS). His army remains the best trained and best equipped of the many belligerents fighting for control of Syria. If the US had the single goal of wiping out IS, then backing Assad would be a good strategy. But the US, prudently, is not fighting militant Islam at any cost – surely not at the cost of aiding a secular authoritarian who has himself demonstrated exceptional brutality. The Obama administration and a majority in Congress are wise to eschew that unsavory liaison, and to support the Free Syria Army (FSA) instead.
There are many factions competing for control of Syria. But the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) stands out as by far the best bet for the cause of liberalism and democracy. Not coincidentally, a growing number of countries have recognized the SNC as Syria’s government, and have been arming their fighting force, the FSA. By denying aid to Assad, and instead favoring the weaker SNC/FSA as part of its newly elaborated campaign against IS, the US affirms that the era of convenient dictators is over.
While grappling with the USSR during the Cold War, the US faced the threat of total annihilation: of civilization, the species, the planet’s ability to support life. And so from Batista to Somoza to Trujillo to Pinochet to the Shah to Hussein to Mubarek, no dictator was too brutal – so long as a regime opposed the USSR and opened its markets to US firms, it could count on unfettered US support. Thus it was that US foreign policy during the Cold War frequently served to subvert democracy and liberalism abroad, as winning the Cold War took precedence. Liberalism within the US took a beating too, with the McCarthy era’s war on free speech and assembly, and the lingering scar that is the phrase “under god” inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 – ostensibly to distinguish the US from “godless communists.”
Today the stakes are different. While the rise of theocracy in the Middle East – and the ability of terrorists to project power out of that region – are real and serious threats, they are not existential threats; and they therefore cannot justify the abandonment of what must be the US’s long-term interest in the worldwide proliferation of liberalism and democracy.
It’s for this reason that the Obama administration’s newly devised policy – aiding the FSA in its ground war against IS, Assad, and others (such as the Islamic Front, another nasty Islamist faction fighting in Syria); while itself prosecuting an air campaign against IS across Syria and Iraq – is a good one, and deserving of support.
Like the Cold War, the “War on Terror” has also taken a toll on American liberty, with Americans, under the auspices of the Patriot Act, subject to an outrageous degree of electronic surveillance. One hopes that that ill-considered law will be allowed to lapse next year. As for the Pledge of Allegiance, Americans may have to endure its bastardized form for another 60 years, albeit while (cynically) savoring the irony that religious zealots have replaced godless communists as America’s enemy du jour.
Militant Islam, like communism, shall also pass – as will the next affront to liberalism, whatever form it takes. But our commitment to liberalism must not be compromised along the way.
The story on Ukraine, as most commonly told, has Vladimir Putin, calculating autocrat, out to gobble up a weak neighbor – while the US and EU watch helplessly. But the evolving geopolitical map of eastern and central Europe tells a different story.
It will be 25 years this November since the Berlin Wall fell. In 1989, West Berlin (with Norway, Italy, Greece and Turkey) marked the easternmost extent of the US sphere of influence, in the form of its military alliance, NATO; and-or its economic partner, the EC (now the EU). Berlin is about 600 miles east of Paris and 1100 miles west of Moscow.
Since the Wall fell, every former member or the Warsaw Pact – NATO’s one-time rival – has joined NATO, or is applying to join, including former constituents of the USSR itself. The list is impressive: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia and Croatia have all joined NATO.
Imagine an alternate history in which the US lost the Cold War, and over the past 25 years saw one former ally after another – France, Germany, Italy, the UK – leave NATO to join the Warsaw Pact and the Russian sphere. Imagine Canada wobbling in its allegiance: protestors on the streets of Ottawa, Russian politicians with them, expressing support for efforts to depose Canada’s pro-US president. Then comes the revolution, and installation of a pro-Russian president in Canada, who Russia immediately recognizes, legitimizes, and begins to aid.
“Kiev” in a Russian ear has the warm familiarity that “Toronto” has for an American – but more so, because Russia and Ukraine have for centuries been much more closely tied than have been the US and Canada. Ukraine’s defection to the US sphere is terrifying to Russians – as well it should be. Kiev is 500 miles from Moscow – about the same distance as Toronto to New York, and a bit closer than Ottawa to Washington.
It isnt that Russia lost the Cold War. Russia has been losing ever since the Cold War ended. The past 25 years have seen the US sphere expand more than 1000 miles eastward. And it’s still expanding: when 2014 began, the line between east and west ran through Kiev, where an embattled pro-Russian president struggled with a legislature and local population that favored the EU. Now Kiev is firmly in the US sphere. In just the past few months, the line has moved 500 miles farther east – to Donetsk and Luhansk, which is actually east of Moscow!
To fully appreciate the events in Ukraine, one looks even farther east – to Georgia, another former constituent of the USSR, which for centuries had also been part of the Russian sphere. Georgian relations with Russia have been strained since it gained independence. Crimea might be said to have first played out in Georgian Abkhazia; while war in Eastern Ukraine has its precursor in the Georgian region of South Ossetia. No less a leader than Eduard Shevardnadze – Gorbachev’s Foreign Affairs Minister – put Georgia on track for both EU and NATO membership during his tenure as Georgian president. While Georgia is a long way from Moscow, it shares a border with Russia’s restive Chechnya region – and Russia has often accused Georgia of lending aid and support to Chechen rebels.
Until his death this past July, Shevardnadze denied that the US promised Gorbachev that NATO would never expand east of Berlin – much less east of Germany. His counterpart, former US secretary of state James Baker, also denies that such a promise was made. However Gorbachev maintains that he received explicit assurances, and recently declassified documents suggest that Shevardnadze was lying all along, likely to aid Georgia’s own NATO aspirations.
Our purpose is to put current events in Ukraine in perspective – not to excuse Russia’s practice of old-fashioned European land-grabbery: its 2008 seizure and ongoing occupation of South Ossetia, its recent annexation of Crimea, and its sponsorship of rebellion in Eastern Ukraine today.
But we must acknowledge the US’s own aggression, though it differs in its manifestation. John Quincy Adams authored the Monroe Doctrine and, with it, the geopolitical strategy that the US has followed for two centuries. Eschewing colonialism, and restricting land grabs to contiguous North America, the US seeks to expand its sphere of influence, not its nominal land holdings. The US has always been extremely aggressive about bringing countries into its sphere – and keeping them there. Toward that end, the list of foreign governments that the US has overthrown or helped to overthrow is impressive, and may yet include that of Viktor Yanukovych.
what the US may (or may not) have promised Gorbachev:
war in Georgia:
a very different take on Russia:
and a rebuttal:
How Israel Sustains Hamas
About 10 years ago, Senator Barack Obama gained national attention when he talked about the social stigma young blacks acquire when they “act white” by devoting too much time to schoolwork. Around the same time a young academic was making a name for himself with his work on the economics of “acting white” versus “acting black.” One of the questions his research addressed was why, given that “acting black” is associated with poor socio-economic outcomes, do so many urban youths nonetheless neglect their studies.
Among his findings, economist Roland Fryer demonstrated that in certain circumstances people rationally choose to strive for popularity within a community by conforming to local cultural norms – instead of seeking to escape that community via good grades and mainstream cultural norms. Or as one commentator put it, “some individuals can receive social benefits large enough to outweigh benefits they might otherwise receive via education and wages. In a purely rational sense, these individuals prefer peer acceptance to the benefits of education.”
In a certain environment, the long-term promise of college and a career dont outweigh the short-term social cost of “acting white.” Reciprocally, the short-term rewards for “acting black” are not easily sacrificed for the long-term gains potentially realized by being a more conscientious student. Fryer’s research has yielded great insights on the persistence of American urban subcultures associated with poverty, violence, drug abuse, low educational attainment, and poor long-term life outcomes. And it is no less powerful in helping to understand the popularity of Hamas in Gaza.
One begins by asking why Hamas is so successful at recruiting young men to its cause. Assuming that young men everywhere have similar interests – power, popularity, money, women, etc. – the obvious answer is that Hamas offers young men a shorter path toward their goals than other options. The big problem, common also to America’s poorest urban areas, is that in Gaza there’s scant opportunity to improve one’s life via education and hard work. People rationally choose to go about improving their lot through undesirable means, such as affiliation with Hamas.
The good news from Fryer’s research is that people are sensitive to their options – one might therefore be able to steer them away from making bad choices simply by providing them with superior alternatives. (There’s an analogous line of research in the social sciences showing that, across the globe, women with more education tend to have fewer children – that if you give women the option of choosing school and career, fertility drops like a rock.)
Israeli policies toward Gaza created and now unwittingly sustain Hamas. The blockade leaves young Gazans with few possibilities for work or commerce. It used to be one could acquire skills and sell one’s labor in Israel, or produce goods for export to Israel or elsewhere. But the blockade forecloses either of those two ordinary avenues, leaving individuals with few options to obtain the things they want, literally driving the population into the arms of Hamas.
It’s better to be lucky than to be good – as any card player will tell you. Of course, over the long haul, talent wins out – but in any given shuffle, the outcome is largely determined by the cards. And the central fact of life is that it’s a one-shot deal. (We hope that top people are working on this problem.) Over many iterations, one would expect talent to dominate other factors. But there are no iterations – how your one passage through life works out is much more about the circumstances you are born into than your individual skills.
Cross-country comparisons vividly illustrate how vast differences in quality of life are primarily attributable to dumb luck, good and bad – to facts completely beyond an individual’s control. Taken at random, a human being is 40% likely to be in India or China, and 5% likely to be in the US (the three most populous nations). American incomes, on average, are about five times greater than Chinese incomes and ten times greater than Indian incomes. The minimum wage in America – about $15,000 per year for a 40 hour work week – is 50% greater than the average Chinese income, and triple the average Indian income. Being born in America is a far better boon to lifetime earnings than being born brilliant or hardworking.
People born into affluence in the West have no more innate talent than the majority of humanity that’s born into grinding poverty – 50% of whom live on less than $2.50 per day; 80% of whom live on less than $10. In fact, people in modern-day stone-age cultures, often surviving on incomes of less than $1 per day, probably have greater innate intelligence than the typical resident of a modern, affluent western city. As Jared Diamond sagely observed, the greatest evolutionary hurdle faced by urban Westerners has, for centuries, been infectious disease. Stone-age cultures are much more violent, putting evolutionary pressure on individuals to be socially and politically adept. Thus it is that Westerners of today descend from ancestors blessed with strong immune systems; while the Pume and Guaja of the Amazon, e.g., descend from ancestors clever enough to survive the machinations of others.
At the margins, individual talent counts for something. In Papua New Guinea, for example, a better gatherer might come home with a larger coconut – but she’s not likely to score a cushy corporate board seat or test into an elite prep school. Millions born in rural India and China have practically zero chance of achieving the living standard of an American stocking shelves at Walmart. If material comfort and length of life are your wishes, it is far better to be born with an ordinary mind in Alabama than to be an Einstein born in Calcutta. Even one’s individual talents are tellingly called “gifts:” what you get – or dont get – is, alas, beyond your control too.
Within individual countries, one finds the same patterns on a more compressed scale. Among Americans, individual incomes are largely predicted by race, gender and parental income. Education is predictive too – but the quantity and quality of an individual’s education are significantly determined by socioeconomic factors – like race and parental income. Education seems to be the consequence of more basic inputs
Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds are not very likely to rise to the highest income levels. Contrary to the myth of “the American Dream,” in no developed country does your parents’ income determine your own income more than it does in the US. The entire world is a luckocracy – but the American luckocracy is absolutely the least meritocratic in the western world. And not only are poor American children much less likely to grow rich – they’re far more likely to suffer such pitfalls as drug abuse, incarceration and teen parenthood, while enduring poorer health and shorter lives. An American child of a low-level Walmart employee is surely far better off than a typical child in the developing world – but he has a much smaller chance of growing rich than a similarly situated person in another western country.
The Field Guide returns on Wednesday, to consider how our knowledge of the luckocracy should inform public policy.