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.



Ukraine, Perspectivized

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:

bonus material:










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.







Inequality’s Cure is Good for All

Inequality’s myriad problems dont end with justice and politics – it’s bad for the economy too. Everyone, rich and poor, does worse over the long haul when the distribution of wealth and-or income is too extreme.

The empirics behind this assertion are solid. Economies with extreme inequality grow more slowly and are more prone to recession. To understand why this is so, consider an economy with twenty families, each with an annual income of $50,000. They are likely to spend every last dollar they have – and maybe borrow and spend a few dollars they dont have too. By comparison, consider two families, each with $500,000 in annual income. Total income is the same – but those two families are likely to spend much less, and save a significant fraction of their income.

In the aggregate, when a huge share of national wealth and income are sucked up by a handful of wealthy families, you get a very high savings rate, and relatively low spending. And that’s exactly what the US economy looks like today. And too much saving is a problem because my spending is your income; therefore my savings is your lost income. One reason the US economy has expanded so anemically following the Great Recession (one-half the ordinary rate) is the enormous concentration of wealth and income in the hands of the rich, who are not inclined to spend it – their high savings rate is killing everyone else’s income. Corporations – perceiving, correctly, that people of ordinary means lack the income to buy more – are sitting on a mountain of cash, unwilling to invest.

So we know that inequality is bad for growth, and we’ve even identified the mechanism that holds growth back. But the remaining issue is whether we can get from here to there – from an unproductive distribution of wealth to one that’s more growth-friendly – without damaging the economy with our redistributive efforts. And the latest research shows that we can.

Classical economists – AKA conservatives – believe that the economy runs like a Swiss watch: its every operation self-correcting and self-sustaining. In the way that the universe weirdly bestowed just the right physical forces in just the right strengths to make life possible (if not probable!), classical economists believe human nature is somehow weirdly wired to facilitate an economy like a grand perpetual motion machine, without centralized governing agencies. According to classical theory, anything a central planner tries to do to “improve” an economy will necessarily do more harm than good. Analogous to the second law of thermodynamics, their effort to enhance one aspect of an economy will result in degrading the system as a whole to an even greater degree.

For good reason, no one fully subscribes to classical economics. Anyone who did would have to oppose public education as a grand waste of resources – since the education of children might as well be left to private markets, as is baking, brewing and butchering.

Conservatives like to claim that there’s nothing to be done about inequality – because any attempt to fix it will do more harm than good. But like the rest of classical economics, this assertion’s relationship with reality is growing ever more tenuous. The latest research shows that we can, in fact, take positive steps to reduce inequality without harming the economy as a whole. Classical economics is wrong here too.

The upshot is that the government should not be timid about tackling inequality head-on – by increasing marginal tax rates on the wealthy, big estates, and investment income; and by reducing taxes on working people, whose incomes have been stagnant for decades. In the long run, everyone comes out ahead. This is consonant with the Liberal Field Guide’s concept of Self-Interested Liberalism. Modern liberalism, after all, is not about selfless generosity. Inequality is bad for everyone. Combating it through fiscal policy is good for all of us. Liberal policies like educating poor children, guaranteeing healthcare to everyone, and combating inequality make us all better off – rich, poor and in between.



inequality bad for growth:

fixing inequality will not do more harm than good:





Platinum Plus Citizenship

It’s been nearly 17 years since the Onion ran its epic, “US Offers PlatinumPlus Preferred Citizenship.” It was biting at the time – and like many a good Onion satire, it’s only become more ironic.

Money buys influence, and always has – and thus as the wealth distribution becomes more unequal, influence becomes more unequal. The US Supreme Court, in cases such as Citizens United, has only made things worse by opening up more conduits through which money can buy influence.

Take two rather well-conceived TSA programs that allow travelers to escape long lines at US entry points and airport security. TSA’s Global Entry and PreCheck programs are available to just about everyone, subject to commonsense restrictions. If you undergo a background check, and satisfy TSA officials that you’re not a risk, you can cruise through airport security before the gate; and when returning from abroad, you can sail through US customs and immigration. It’s a win-win: TSA gets to focus its limited resources on catching bad guys, not wasting time and money harassing ordinary travelers; travelers save time and skip the extra hassles.

But Global Entry and PreCheck arent free – 5 year passes cost $100 and $85, respectively. That isnt a lot of money to frequent travelers, especially as a function of sky-high airfares; and it’s literally nothing to business travelers and-or carriers of pricey premium credit cards, who will have their fees paid for them. But to an ordinary American family that takes one vacation per year, it means shelling out $350-500, or waiting in line like everyone else.

Express toll lanes on highways are similarly efficient, in that they allow people who value their time more to buy a faster trip. We could apply the same logic to courts, the post office and DMV. And if you can pay a fee to get through airport security faster – why cant you pay to have the police or fire department respond more quickly to a distress call? (There’s evidence this is already happening, in effect – police respond faster to calls in more affluent neighborhoods.) Why not have a paid express lane at the ER of public hospitals?

Economics supports all of these measures because they make for a more efficient allocation of resources. But in the aggregate, they erode our civil society, because rich and poor cease to meaningfully share in the same public institutions. When it comes time to vote, they will naturally have different positions, because each has a radically different experience of government. And when it comes time to talk to one’s elected representatives, one must furthermore recognize that the same economic logic applies to political access. It is indeed economically efficient for politicians to listen to the highest bidders for their attention – because the person who is willing to pay most for a thing, ipso facto, values it most.

These programs – real and hypothetical – are all highly efficient uses of resources. And it’s a bit of a stretch to assert that our common experience of getting stuck in traffic, enduring the tedium of airport security, and waiting on line in DMV is what unites us as a people. But auctioning public services to the highest bidder – including face time with elected representatives – destroys our common experience of government, and as such undermines the basis we might have to agree on public policy. Within the same national boundaries, we see the emergence of two nations governed by two distinct governments: an affluent nation with a dutifully attentive government; and a second-class nation, with an indifferent one. PlatinumPlus citizenship for the few, and plain-vanilla citizenship for the rest.





The Look and Feel of Inequality

Ten years ago, John Edwards’ stump speech described “two Americas” – one for the wealthy, and one for ordinary working people. It had enough resonance to secure the freshman senator his party’s nomination for VP. Those two Americas have only since diverged further, and the division is increasingly visible in everyday life.

Recently, in New York City, there was an uproar over a new residential skyscraper. In order to obtain lucrative tax breaks and zoning variances, the builder set aside a number of units for middle-income residents – a commonplace in New York. However the builder took the unusual step of creating entirely separate entrances: one for the rich and a “poor door” for the rest. The rich might suffer having the same address as commoners – but they neednt be subject to the indignity of riding in the same elevator.

In the gilded age, the rich built fabulous townhouses in American cities – splendid three- and four-story, single-family residences. Then came the Great Depression and World War II, which wiped out much of the wealth and income inequality in America. And a funny thing happened: as the economic facts shifted beneath those single-family townhouses, many were broken up into apartments and condos – reflecting the postwar demographic shift in America toward the rise of the middle class.

Over the past 25 years, that trend has been reversing, and townhouses in cities like New York and Chicago are being consolidated back into single-family residences. Meanwhile, “modest” million-dollar single-family homes in LA’s most desirable neighborhoods are being torn down for multimillion dollar McMansions. Consonant with the demographic changes in the US, the middle-class are literally being pushed out of town by the growing wealth concentration of the rich and super-rich.

One natural consequence of rising inequality is increased demand for private security. Unsatisfied with the protection offered by public police departments, as the rich get richer, they increasingly have the means and desire to procure their own police force. The number of private security workers in a given nation is roughly predicted by income inequality, and the US is indeed a world leader, with more than 1 million guards-for-hire – opposite fewer than 800,000 police officers. US private security workers have doubled in number since 1980, and have quintupled as a fraction of the workforce since the 19th century.

One of the most insidious manifestations of inequality is the tax code’s bias against work. Despite conservatives’ pretended esteem for “hardworking Americans”, their tax policies discriminate against workers, by shifting the tax burden onto them and off of investors. A hardworking American earning the minimum wage is subject to a flat 15.3% FICA tax on income – no exceptions, no deductions. Mitt Romney – poster-child for the rich who dont pay their fair share – paid a 14% tax rate on his $13.7 million income – less than that of any burger-flipper or supermarket stockboy, or indeed Romney’s own personal secretary. A worker making $100,000 per year will typically pay federal taxes on top of FICA, bringing his total federal tax burden north of 30%. But a wealthy heir living on portfolio earnings of up to $400,000 would pay less than 15%.

No one questions that wealth should be allowed to fetch what it can on the private markets – but we can fairly ask whether it should also buy preferential access to public services – on Monday, when the Field Guide returns.



Thanks to LFG faithful Mary and Chuck for their input and inspiration on this series on inequality.

Ruth Didnt Build This House For You

Wealth and income inequality in the US are now at their most extreme since the 1920s, in the last years of the gilded age. Their best and simplest measure – the Gini curve – graphically reveals the wide and burgeoning spread between winners and losers in the US economy, which suffers from much worse inequality than most other developed countries. However the Field Guide is stepping back from its usual quantitative treatment of the issues, to take a look at one way in which inequality physically manifests itself. Numbers are great, but sometimes nothing quite tells the story like… a story.

The New York Islanders are about to begin their final season in the Nassau Coliseum – the venue that’s been the team’s home since its 1972 inception. The Coliseum is the NHL’s second-oldest venue, and indeed it’s lacking the whistles and bells of a modern facility. But the beauty of the Coliseum is that there isnt a bad seat in the house – because it was built before the term “luxury box” was even a part of the lexicon.

It used to be that people with cash to burn would buy the expensive seats down close to the ice, while working people could afford the cheap seats all the way at the top – which in the Coliseum are decent seats. Ordinary middle class people would, not surprisingly, sit in great seats wrapping around the middle.

Like a metaphor for the country as a whole, that middle band of seats has disappeared from the modern sports arena. In its place are luxury boxes. The seats down low for the rich are still there – but middle class seating is drastically reduced, if it still exists at all; and the nose-bleed seats are now much higher up and farther away. Middle class people are forced to choose between paying exorbitant sums for the seats down close, or sitting in crappy seats under the rafters, 150 feet above the game. The worst arenas include LA’s Staples Center (home to the Kings, Clippers and Lakers) and Dallas’ American Airlines Center (home to the Mavs and Stars), each with multiple tiers of luxury boxes that have entirely eliminated the best, moderately priced seats, and pushed the upper tier into the stratosphere.

This phenomenon isnt specific to hockey and basketball. Take a look at the space occupied by luxury boxes in any modern stadium: that’s middle-class real estate usurped by the wealthy. In baseball, the Yankees tore down the house that Ruth built, to build the new Yankee Stadium. What did $1.89 billion buy? 10% fewer seats – but twice as many luxury boxes as the old, iconic park. Plus there are now “club seats” near the field, available for a cool $1 million, on a five year lease. To add injury to injury, taxpayers will be picking up 60% of the total cost. Across town, the Mets reduced seating capacity by 20% when they moved from Shea to Citifield – to gain more, better luxury boxes and “club seats.” Taxpayers will again take a big hit on a venue that clearly wasnt built for their enjoyment.

Things look even worse in the NFL. Because income from luxury boxes is exempted from revenue sharing, big market NFL teams now have an even bigger incentive to build more of them, eliminating ordinary seats as they go. While the new Yankee Stadium has a conspicuous 68 luxury boxes, MetLife, home to the Jets and Giants, has 218;  and the Cowboys’ new home has 300! One glance at designs for new stadiums in the works reveals that the worst is yet to come.

In the end, we couldnt resist throwing a few numbers out there. More images of American inequality on Friday, when the Field Guide returns.