Addressing Syria in 2014

Independent observers and analysts from the OPCW (Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Warfare) predict that Syria will likely miss its New Year’s deadline for destroying and moving its chemical weapons. The deadline came from an agreement between Russia and the United States earlier this year that prevented military intervention in Syria while demanding that Syria move towards disarming its chemical weapons stockpiles.


Clearly, the time for diplomacy and cooperation with Russia is over. Though the deal for Syrian chemical weapon disarmament with Russia seemed promising, the reality is now setting in that it is difficult for the United States to meet its goals when it is forced to compromise with nations with completely different objectives.


Unfortunately, Washington often views negotiating with Russia as the only solution to resolving the conflict in Syria because of Russia’s power to veto any UN proposal regarding Syria.


This has left the United States with two equally poor options: circumventing the United Nations or giving in to negotiations with Russia that will necessarily fail due to both sides’ conflicting aims in Syria. Circumventing the United Nations has also failed because there is no other international body powerful enough to create enough pressure in Syria to outmatch al-Assad supporting Iran and Russia. U.S. unilateral action is also a no-go because the United States lacks adequate support from its citizens for an expensive and drawn out intervention in Syria.


The requirements are clear; the means of attaining them are less so. The United States needs a way to impose its will in the UN Security Council by means of a resolution- without Russia vetoing it.


The solution may lie in a Uniting for Peace resolution- a contrivance of sorts that allows resolutions usually voted upon by the Security Council (such as a resolution calling for intervention in Syria) to bypass the Security Council and be voted upon by the United Nations house.


In other words, instead of being confined to the 15 member Security Council where 5 nations- U.S., China, Russia, U.K. and France- have the power to veto, the bill would appear for a majority vote before the entire UN body.


Justifying a Uniting for Peace Resolution will be tricky. The resolution has been used only a handful of times in UN history- always on time sensitive emergencies. There is no doubt that the situation in Syria is an emergency, but it will be difficult to justify it as time sensitive.


In fact, the UN Security Council has had more than enough time to deliberate the Syrian conflict. Using a Uniting for Peace resolution would therefore be little more than a way to bypass the authority of Security Council Members, especially the veto-wielding P5 nations. But that is exactly the point.


Hopefully UN Member States can recognize the gravity of the situation in Syria and put pressure to pass a Uniting for Peace Resolution to prevent Russia from continuing to veto all resolutions working towards resolving the deadly conflict. 

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A Grand Proposal for Unemployment Insurance Reform

 As of January 1, over 1 million Americans will lose access to the 47 week supplemental unemployment insurance. Republicans and Democrats have been unable to work out an extension of this program which began in 2008 amidst the recession.


Debate over the extension of this program has been too polarizing to yield any results. 


Republicans warn of creating a dependence on government welfare while Democrats say that the job market is so bad that even those who actively search cannot find a new job within 26 weeks. Both sides are correct; abuse and insufficient funding are two competing forces in any government welfare program.


As such, this issue cannot be solved by simply extending deadlines. Heeding the Democrats proposal to extend this deadline up to 99 weeks (as some Democrat Congressmen are proposing) will only tip this delicate balance closer to abuse than insufficient funding. Reducing it to 26 weeks, the Republican proposal that will almost certainly occur next year given an inability to extend the deadline, will likewise simply tip the balance towards insufficient funding (even if it does prevent abuse).


Rather than constantly shifting this scale based on which party has greater Congressional power, Washington needs a new system of unemployment benefits that is both difficult to abuse and also lasts long enough to save those who are unemployed and seeking work from extreme poverty and homelessness.


The solution: an unemployment program which citizens can draw on for up to  2 years (102 weeks) after losing a job. The catch: benefits decrease each subsequent week. By allowing benefits to decrease by up to, say, 1% each week, those on unemployment insurance will receive more aid for longer periods of time, but they will also have an increased incentive to look for work. Unlike the status quo, in which those who are unemployed have an incentive to stay out of work until their benefits run out and try to find a job immediately afterwards, such a system would give those on unemployment insurance an incentive to try to find work as soon as possible since their unemployment benefits would be constantly decreasing.


Such a solution is imperative. It will end, once and for all, the budget deals and negotiations involving unemployment benefits that twist both parties arms into accepting proposals unfavorable to them and the American people. It will save taxpayers’ money in the long run by ending the abuse problem in the current unemployment insurance system and will ensure that those who really need unemployment benefits have access to sufficient funds.  

The Free Choice Tax Model

With the year drawing to a close and the Christmas season just passed, many Americans this week have been donating huge lump sum amounts. Many of them are trying to capitalize on tax cuts for charity donations by the end of the year.


Though commonplace in the United States, offering tax breaks for charity donations is actually a rather strange system. The program hurts the federal government since most of the charity money actually funds programs overseas. In essence, potential revenue is lost to programs that provide no tangible benefit to the federal government.


This aside, the premise of the system is a solid one- that giving people choices of where to allocate their money (instead of powerlessly relinquishing it lump sum to the federal government) could make them more invested in a cause and less likely to try to skimp on taxes.


Nonetheless, for such a system to be successful, it must provide greater benefit to the federal government.


The solution: setting a certain defined percentage of one’s income tax that they can choose how to allocate to some government program.


If they want to allocate it to healthcare, so be it. If they want to allocate it to the military, so be it. The important thing is that they are in control of where the money is going.


The main benefit of giving citizens a say in the direction of their tax dollars is to give them a greater sense of accountability to taxes. The majority of those who skim on taxes claim that the tax system works to their disadvantage. By placing funds in areas of critical importance to them, taxpayers will be less likely to try to evade taxes.


Of course, there is one major flaw in allowing people to choose where to allocate their money. Certain programs which are necessary to the functioning of society would not receive ample funds because they are viewed as unpopular while popular programs who do not require extensive funding may become overfunded. Popularly supported programs like the military and food stamps would likely be overfunded while intangible or unpopular programs such as research and innovation spending might decrease.


Thus, it is important that this percentage of income tax which citizens can choose to spend as they choose be limited. In this way, all programs will get sufficient funding while citizens will be more inclined to pay their taxes due to their belief that their tax dollars (or some of them at least) are going to programs they support. 

Reflecting on Mao’s Birthday: Getting Westerners to Understand Mao

Generally, the birth dates and death dates of famous historical figures do not interest me. Writing and remarking on them is difficult to do meaningfully precisely because everyone wants to show that they love/ respect/ care most about the said figure.


Mao’s birthday on December 26 was an altogether different story. The controversy still surrounding Mao, now dead for over three decades, makes it imperative to review his life.


A poll conducted soon before Mao’s birthday found that 85% of Chinese citizens view Mao as a net positive force in Chinese history. Granted, some may question the polling methods themselves but all other evidence seems to support the fact that Chinese overwhelmingly support Mao till date. And why shouldn’t they?


Mao is the father of modern China- the equivalent of George Washington to the United States. Americans would not need polls to prove to them that fellow citizens viewed George Washington positively, yet they seem overly skeptical that Chinese could view their nation’s father in a positive light. 


How can Americans misunderstand Mao so much? It is not just that Americans dislike him- they seem to think that ordinary Chinese dislike him to as great or a greater extent.


This is largely due to sensationalized coverage of Mao in Western sources. Western media make it seem that Mao accomplished little noteworthy- aside from killing 30 million people of course.


In fact, Mao did not kill 30 million people. Up to 30 million people may have died due to his Great Leap Forward program- but Mao did not kill his people in the same way that Hitler ordered killing the Jews or Stalin sent his armies to round up and execute his rivals. In the same way that Obama cannot be blamed for every death that may result from faults in the Affordable Care Act, Mao too cannot be held to check for every death that resulted from a failed policy.


Mao deserves to be remembered for far more than his failed Great Leap Forward. First and foremost, he should be remembered for what he is- the father of modern China. Beyond that, he should be remembered for devising agricultural reform policies that allowed production to skyrocket and for setting into motion China’s Industrial Revolution, for establishing China’s bureaucracy and introducing Socialism to China. Only with this more complete view of Mao can Americans come to understand, appreciate, and- hopefully- come to respect Mao. 

Resolving the Voter ID Debate

The debate over voter registration laws has sprung up once again, this time in Texas.


This ongoing debate in American politics is quite frankly ridiculous. Both parties try to base their positions on moral grounds- Republicans argue that tightening ID requirements helps to maintain  the sanctity of elections while Democrats argue that loosening these requirements expands the scope of democracy by making voting easier. Ultimately, though, Democrats and Republicans’ stances on this issue are partisan. Republicans want tighter requirements to make it harder for minorities and underprivileged to vote while Democrats loosen requirements precisely to enable these groups to vote in larger numbers (since these groups tend to be overwhelmingly Democrat).   


In this regard, the Republican Party must take much of the blame. Voter fraud incidents are extremely rare in United States local and federal elections. In fact, fraudulent votes almost always add up to less than 0.1% of total votes cast. This is negligible and has never had any visible impact on election results.


Yet, the Republican Party continues to claim that voter fraud is a problem and tries to impose stricter and stricter voter ID laws (laws that are harder to meet for low-income people and minorities, groups more likely to vote Democrat).


The ideal scenario is obviously for the Republican Party to realize that their demands are absurd and accept more lax voter ID laws in order to let true democracy flourish. Obviously, though, this is not bound to happen any time soon. Republicans have a vested interest in making voter ID laws more difficult to obtain to make American democracy more elitist and afford their party a better chance of winning subsequent elections.


Therefore, I would propose a compromise- creating a standardized, national ID for all Americans that they must use as a voter ID. This would quell Democrats’ fear of minorities and the poor being underrepresented and would also help the Republican Party remain rest assured that voter fraud would not be carried out.


Such a proposal may seem extremely difficult in the United States of today where only ¼ of citizens have passports and even ID’s as common as drivers’ licenses vary from state to state. However, it is entirely possible. In fact, many European countries already have this model so it’s proven that it can work well.


Today, it is more possible than ever to create standardized national voter ID’s because of the proliferation of the Internet. Virtually all Americans have access to it in their homes or in public libraries. If the federal government is able to create an easy to understand online registration system and local governments at the state or county level can mail information on registration for ID registration, the implementation of this proposal could work well.


Such a proposal, if well implemented, will end once and for all the senseless debates on Voter IDs and will allow future elections to be more democratic by affording all equal ability to have a registered ID. 

A Proposal for a Bureaucratic Legislature: Specialized Posts for Policy-making Success

The recent bipartisan budget deal, one that seeks to prevent another government shutdown once the fiscal cliff arrives early next year, is little more than a contrivance. It merely pushes back sequester and sets no sustainable policies on how to limit  debt by either raising more revenue or spending less.


To be fair, we cannot expect any better from Congressmen precisely because the American voters put such heavy and often contradictory demands on them that it is hard for them to keep up. How can they effectively represent the people and their wishes for sound economic policies and low debt when the people refuse to pay higher taxes or cut funding for entitlement programs?


In part, American politicians have realized this flaw in American democracy, the need of politicians to respond to unsound constituent demands, and hence, bureaucratic agencies such as the Council for Economic Advisers (CEA) have grown exponentially in recent decades.


The problem lies, though, in that such bureaucratic agencies have no legislative power. Their sole power is in shaping the minds of Congressmen. Of course, though, Congressmen seeking re-election will be more easily persuaded by voters’ demands than recommendations of such agencies.


The solution, then, lies in empowering these bureaucrats to gain legislative authority. This shift should not just be limited to economic affairs but rather all areas of government influence.


The concept of a single Congressman, after all, is quite absurd. Voters elect Congressmen usually based on a single policy or view the Congressman has that they support- whether this be lowering taxes, increasing welfare payments, or other similar single-policy focuses. Once these Congressmen are in office, though, they are forced to legislate on a host of other issues that they often are inexperienced in.


Therefore, instead of electing a single Congressmen in a given district, voters should elect multiple legislators to tackle different issues. Each state should have not 2 senators but 2 senators focused on welfare policy, 2 senators focused on infrastructure and urban planning etc.


The fact of the matter is that the bureaucratic model, where experts are able to decide courses of policy in a narrow field that they specialize in, is far more conducive to good policy making than a system where candidates are chosen for broad offices that they have little specialty in.


Allowing bureaucrats to be voted in rather than appointed will make the bureaucracy more democratic. Moreover, given bureaucrats legislative authority will enable their policy expertise to translate into sound policies for Americans. 

Execution of Kim Jong-un’s Uncle Indicates Weak North Korean Leadership

Kim Jong-un’s Korean Worker’s Party has executed Kim’s uncle Chang Song-thaek. Although most observers claim that the execution was a move specially planned by Kim Jong-un himself, the evidence would suggest otherwise. In fact, it appears likey that Kim’s Korean Workers’ Party ordered the execution against Kim’s wishes. 


After all, contrary to common wisdom, Kim Jong-un is not a humanity-hating, evil madman. He (and his predecessors) do have a conscious just like all other human beings. Their seemingly erratic and detrimental policies are more a result of ineptitude, recovery from decades of humiliation from Japanese and Soviet control, and maintenance of the wall of lies that the party has constructed.


Kim Jong-un would almost certainly not order the execution of the uncle who groomed him for leadership and who he was quite close to.


Instead, the execution is most likely part of a North Korean Worker’s Party objective to get the Chang out of power. It is difficult to guess why this might be the case simply because Korean Workers’ Party officials have kept the event quiet.  


Most likely, though, the KWP would have ordered the execution because it feared that Chang threatened Kim Jong-un’s power as North Korean leader. This does not mean that those high up in the party are allegiant to Kim; on the contrary, their execution of Kim’s uncle over Kim’s head shows that they have an agenda of their own.


My guess: the KWP fears that Chang will reduce the party’s power. Chang groomed his nephew Kim Jong-un for leadership for years and now appears to be running the show with Kim as his figurehead. The party assumes that with the uncle gone, Kim will rely on them instead for support and guidance- essentially allowing them to have more sway over the direction of the country.


The KWP’s reasons for ordering the execution, though, are relatively unimportant. What is important is the fact that this event demonstrates that Kim Jong-un is extremely weak. His party is able to order actions without Kim’s consent (on the scale of a killing of a party mentor) and, if my assumption about the party’s reason for the execution is correct, Kim till date served as little more than a figurehead for his uncle and will, in the future, serve as a figurehead for his party still more allegiant to Kim Jong-il than Kim Jong-un.


The United States and other Western powers should take note of this weakness and act upon it. Sanctions and other political pressure tactics will be all the more successful at a time when Kim Jong-un has little power and a split between himself and the party will almost certainly lead to instability. 

Japan Shows Promise of Non-Individualistic Democracy

The issue of state versus individual has been a constant feature of most Western democracies; the government can only take so many rights away from the people before they protest and vote in a smaller government.


Japan, though, has the potential to make the system work. Within the past three weeks, Japan has taken steps to both restrict leaks from government members and also restrict journalist coverage of the Fukushima plant leaks.


In Japan, these proposals that would seem absurd in other countries, are actually taking shape because Japan’s  Confucian culture stresses individuals to voluntarily give up their own rights, their own benefit for the good of society. And if the individuals are giving up their freedoms on their own accord, the government can never be viewed as infringing on these rights.


It’s a win-win in other words. The government can better achieve its goals when it can focus on effectiveness as opposed to protecting rights and the people take an unselfish, long-term view of society which ends up helping all.


Obviously, there are some bumps in the road. Shinzo Abe’s approval ratings have dipped a bit, but they are recovering and the drop in approval was minimal. As with any transition, it will take the Japanese people time to get used to the idea of having less individual freedoms than before.


This transition time is unimportant; what is far more important is the fact that Japan has a chance of defying the normal standards of liberal democracy to make a groundbreaking new change in the relationship of individual to society.


If Japan is successful, it will give credence to this precedent of restricting individual liberties in non-Confucian Western countries. Countries such as the United States and the UK whose citizens have protested at every minor incursion into their lives on the basis of their rights may be able to take more power from the people.  


Above that, though, Western democracies would be forced to redefine their concept of universal human rights. If even Western-allied democracies such as Japan, after all, have weaker interpretations of human rights, the United States and other Western countries will be forced to be more lenient to human rights curtailments in non-democracies in the rest of the world.


No longer would the United States be able to wave its flag of superiority over such human rights violators as Russia because it would be forced to finally recognize that there are no innate human rights. That societies define the rights of their people and that the Western way of defining these rights is not the only legitimate one. In such a way, Western judgment and cultural and political imperialism would end. All thanks to Japan. 

Progressive Steps for a Progressive Deal with Iran: Cut the Sanctions

On Thursday, two members of Obama’s White House Staff will speak in front of the Senate Banking Committee proposing a temporary reduction in sanctions on Iran. The proposal comes in the midst of a recent negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and senior Iranian leaders to end Iran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for trade agreements and sanctions cuts with Washington.


Far from being partisan, most American citizens and politicians alike, Republican or Democrat, have come together on this issue.


Against the White House decision.


Nearly all have criticized the White House for being too bold, too radical, too enemy-loving for proposing to cut sanctions on Iran at this time.


From a logical point of view, this makes absolutely no sense.  Diplomacy works like this: apply pressure until the opposing party is ready to compromise, then compromise.  It does not, however, work like this: apply pressure until the opposing party wants to compromise, then apply more pressure while compromising. Iran’s leader Rouhani and his various foreign ministers’ have already reaffirmed their commitment to cutting the nuclear enrichment programs in exchange for cutting U.S. sanctions on Iran. The U.S. has therefore achieved the original goal behind the sanctions; it would be unnecessary and ruthless to the Iranian people suffering through these sanctions to continue their implementation when doing so when Iran has already agreed to come to the negotiation table.


Moreover, increasing sanctions at this point will only be counter-productive. Doing so, after all, will increase instability in Iran, making it harder for those under Rouhani’s regime to negotiate effectively. It may also reduce Iran’s motivation to negotiate; after all, Ayatollah Khamenei has proven suspicious of Rouhani’s decision to pursue engagement with the United States. Further provocations towards Iran make lead the Ayatollah to forbid further negotiations and proceed with nuclear enrichment plans. 


Negotiating a treaty that can be enforced and that serves both sides interests will naturally take time and the U.S. should let this process run its due process. If anything, the United States should aim to further cut sanctions on Iran to create a more amiable environment for negotiations. Increasing the current level of sanctions or maintaining it would be a drastic mistake, making a deal more difficult to realize and leaving the United States, Iran, and the rest of the world to suffer with the prospect of increased permanent sanctions on Iran concurrent to continued Iranian nuclear enrichment goals that could soon yield nuclear weapons.


The American people and the American politicians must forget the heavy rhetoric with Iran and their deep-seated hatred against the country to take the logical step of supporting a temporary cut in sanctions on Iran.



Obama’s Popularity Woes: The Problem with a Temperamental Electorate

 Gallup Polls indicate that Obama’s current approval rating is 42%, a far cry from his 47-48% approval ratings prior to the rollout of the site, the online marketplace for Affordable Care Act coverage, on October 1. Much of the discontent that prompted his popularity drop circled around the site’s glitches. Roughly 25% of those who have attempted to purchase coverage from the site have experienced one glitch or the other which prevented them from making their purchase. Worse still in the eyes of many Americans is the fact that the site cost $174 million to create (reflecting bureaucratic failures in the eyes of many Americans).


What difference does $174 million truly make though? That cost reflects, on average, a 50 cent contribution from every American citizen. It should be noted of course, that this is the initial investment value and the cost to maintain the site will be substantially less. Considering that the Affordable Care Act will have tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in annual funding and that it is predicted to cut Medicare Costs by at least half a billion dollars per year, this one-time $174 million value is quite small; therefore, the costs of the website should play absolutely no rule in determining whether or not Obama has been successful in the Affordable Care Act.


Moreover, the glitches themselves should not be a deciding factor amongst Americans evaluating Obama’s presidency. The glitches are on the decline and have thus far lasted just two months, a small scope of time considering that this program will likely be in place for decades. Also, Obama cannot be held entirely responsible for the failures of the site; Republicans have blocked access to increased funding to tackle the difficulties, forcing quick fixes instead of actually correcting the site’s flaws.


This is not to say that President Obama ought to be very popular right now. There are many who are ideologically opposed to Democrat principles and who may have grievances with some of his bigger programs. For example, there may be some who disagree with his principle of introducing government into healthcare and who oppose the Affordable Care Act. There may be others who support or are ambivalent about the Affordable Care Act but who disagree with Obama’s bailout in 2009, his handling of the economic recession as a whole, or his decisions to end the War on Terror in the Middle East.  These challenges to his popularity would be legitimate.


Unfortunately, though, these are not the reasons why his popularity is falling. After all, such a rapid decline in popularity is possible only though a short-term fiasco, something that the Affordable Care Act’s online marketplace has been dubbed as.  


Obama today should be just as popular as he was before the Affordable Care Act site launch, just as popular as he was after re-election. The American people should evaluate him fairly and reasonably based on his largest efforts as president, rather than constantly changing their opinion of him and placing undue pressure at the tiniest downfalls. 


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