Entrepreneurship Out of Control

I recently came across an article by Dan Lyons titled “Let’s All Shed Tears for the Crappy Startups that Can’t Raise Any More Money” and I found his argument really compelling. In it, he rips into the startup culture and specifically how entrepreneurship has divulged from building world changing  for the better solutions to todays problems, and towards simple gimmick products that are trying to get flipped for a quick buck. More critically, Lyons makes a great point about education and what this euphoria about entrepreneurship has done to the talent pool for research & development for real world problems;


“In my dreams I imagine them leaving the Valley and going off to accomplish something meaningful. Using those brains to do medical research, develop new drugs or eradicate poverty. I imagine them teaching in public schools, providing health care to poor kids. Joining Tesla or SpaceX. Pushing AI a few steps forward. Solving big problems, the kind that can’t get solved in three days on a StartupBus.”


For those who don’t know, StartUp bus is a 72 hour bus trip that challenges a group of strangers to conceive, build, and launch a startup en route to SXSW. In my opinion, this mentality is exactly what’s wrong with entrepreneurship / startups today. It’s the idea that being a part of a startup is a quick, easy, and fun experience with a pot of gold at the end. While being a part of a startup is a lot of fun, it isn’t for everyone. The hours are long, it can be turbulent, and the reward isn’t always in sight. The true handwork and commitment of real entrepreneurs has been somewhat undermined by these gimmicks, and it’s causing a brain drain of smart and talented individuals from science and engineering fields leaving what I fear could be a sizable research and development gap during these years of startup craze. I highly recommend reading Mr. Lyons article and thinking about the implications of the current startup culture and perhaps consider doing your / our part to curb this startup euphoria and turn the focus back to studying science and engineering as well as undertaking real research and development to create real solutions to real problems.

Here is a link to the article: http://readwrite.com/2012/12/03/lets-all-shed-tears-for-the-crappy-startups-that-cant-raise-any-more-money

Change We Can Believe In

After having some time to digest the so called ‘solution’ reached by Congress regarding the fiscal cliff impasse, it’s really disappointing to see how much bipartisanship has broken down in Congress, and now the Executive Branch. It goes without saying that the friction between the Republican party establishment and the Tea Party Republicans created a huge problem not only for Obama but also House Speaker Boehner, but what transpired is just absurd. Just hours before the deal was to be done, President Obama came out in a Pelosi-like finger pointing / grave dancing campaign stop complete with middle class working props, and almost derailed the deal that the people needed to avoid these sudden austerity measures.

While what has happened to the Republican Party is upsetting as far as this rebellious corp of Tea Partiers who seek obstruction and a “My Way or No Way” mentality, the entire culture in Washington is depressing at the moment. Both Parties and many levels of government seem more interested in assigning blame before even getting a deal done in the first place. I wrote a post earlier about the need to elect doers instead of idealists. Well as this Congress has shown us, perhaps we should add maturity to our consideration of our candidates and reward those who exhibit maturity and leadership instead and punish those who don’t (And many Congressional members haven’t), instead of not being involved in these Congressional elections / straight ticket voting down the line on either side. We give Congress a deservingly poor approval rating, yet the re-election rate of Congress is north of 90%. It’s time for change, and it starts with a more involved electorate.

Comment About Politicians Inactivity

A poster on Gawker had a great comment about the fact that this Congress is the least productive as far as passed bills since records were started in 1947;

“They did their jobs, actually. The American people sent politicians to Congress in 2010 and 2012 that expressly stated that they don’t believe in government as an institution and believe it should act as little as possible. They went to Washington and governed in exactly that way. If you believe blame should be assigned for this, it should go to the American people NOT the politicians.

Actually, this Congress should be APPLAUDED for doing EXACTLY what they said they would while campaigning. They said they’d get government out of the lives of the people in this country and did exactly that. Aren’t Americans always complaining about broken campaign promises? You got what you voted for.”

Sadly true, you get what you vote for.

Elect Doers, Not Idealists.

The last four years have been especially insignificant in a legislative sense for the United States. While there has always been a perceived gamesmanship in politics between the two parties, the fact that a Republican controlled house butted heads with a Democrat controlled Senate compounded this gamesmanship and, after the 2010 midterms, produced gridlock in which we all lose. Why is Washington especially contentious now and where do we go from here?

Aside from the Affordable Care Act, the centerpiece of Barack Obamas first term, there has been little legislative progress over the course of the past four years. Unhappy with the method used by the President and both Democrat controlled chambers of Congress, a new faction of ultra-conservatives who had reservations about the size of government, perceived the Democrat advancement as threats to liberty, and were riled up by fear mongering and misinformation campaigns from conservative outlets, emerged to challenge the status quo. This new group called themselves the ‘Tea Party,’ and promised a new breed of conservatism to push back against the socialists from the Left, and caused the Republican Party to move further to the right. In the 2010 midterm elections, this new breed of conservatives won large chunks of seats in Congress, taking back the House majority and making significant gains in the Senate. The characteristics represented by these new Congressmen and women were limited government, reduced entitlements, less debt, free markets, and no compromise.

A major crossing of the rubicon on the last point about compromise was the Republican race for Senator in Indiana, where Richard Mourdock defeated long time Senator Richard Lugar. Mourdock represented this new breed of tea party conservatives, and Mourdock famously said that compromise in the US Senate would only happen if Democrats joined the GOP. Lugar had long been known as a Republican Senator capable of getting through partisan standoffs and finding bipartisan agreements that ultimately get things done. He was branded as not conservative enough and paired with Obama, something that immediately vilifies a politician in Tea Party circles, and Lugar was defeated.

The first major coup of the Tea Party was to use the debt ceiling issue as leverage for significant austerity to government programs, a move that is unparalleled in American history. For decades, the debt ceiling has been raised without question or comment, yet this new brand of conservatives saw holding hostage Americas good faith and credit as an opportunity to get concessions from the Obama administration. As we face the fiscal cliff, the Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is having trouble uniting both the establishment Republicans and these Tea Party conservatives behind a single message, a spectacular failure that was shown by Boehners own Plan B failing in the Republican controlled House. The Republicans aren’t alone in this shameful behavior. In the face of this fiscal cliff, both sides of resorted to finger pointing publicly so that, instead of finding a solution, we know who to blame after these austerity measures are triggered.

Where do we go from here? First, we mustn’t concede that this conservative movement is a rubicon. There is a point of return from this, it just takes an investment of effort from the electorate. It’s time for the Republican party to come back to the center and reinvent itself, and I’m not alone in this thought. Mark McKinnon, a former Bush and McCain aide stated;

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the party is against everything and for nothing.

Nothing on taxes. Nothing on gun control. Nothing on climate change. Nothing on gay marriage. Nothing on immigration reform (or an incremental, piece-by-piece approach, which will result in nothing). It’s a very odd situation when the losing party is the party refusing to negotiate. It may be how you disrupt, but it is not how you govern, or how you ever hope to regain a majority.

And so, we have a Republican Party today willing to eliminate any prospect for a decent future for anyone, including itself, if it cannot be a future that is 100 percent in accordance with its core beliefs and principles. That’s not governing. That’s just lobbing hand grenades. If you’re only standing on principle to appear taller, then you appear smaller. And the GOP is shrinking daily before our eyes.

I couldn’t agree more. Until this extreme, no compromise form of conservatism is suppressed and real conservatives with real ideas and real intent to create policy for the entire United States and not just their specific constituents emerge, we are going to face more gridlock and ultimately inaction. With the next series of midterms slated for 2014, think twice before skipping midterm voting. We need doers, not idealists.

Covert Power

Who do you think is the most powerful man in the world? Many would argue the president of the United States, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, or maybe the head of the EU. While these are very public powerful figures, the real power I believe lies covertly and behind the scenes, and I believe the man who is most positioned to have that influence is Rupert Murdoch.

Starting with an inherited newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, Rupert Murdoch has built his empire into a multinational media conglomerate that is second only to The Walt Disney Company. Murdoch is known to have invented the modern day tabloid, where quick sound bites and shock headlines outweigh objective reporting. Today, Murdoch’s News Corp owns nine satellite television networks, 100 cable channels, 175 newspapers, 40 book imprints, 40 television stations, and a multi-billion dollar movie studio. This incredible breadth of media reaches 280 million by television in the United States, 300 million by satellite in Asia, 300 million people through cable, and 28 million through newspapers. There has been strong criticism of the practices used by News Corp. to get information by stories, with the pinnacle of this criticism being the criminal behavior exhibited by Murdoch’s ***News of the World newspaper/tabloid when they hacked the phone of numerous celebrities and victims, even going so far as to hack the phone of a missing girl – giving her parents false hope that since it was evident her voicemail has been accessed, maybe she was still alive. What does this mean and why is it important?

Media is the nervous system of a democracy. If it isn’t functioning properly or is functioning with an inherent bias, then ultimately democracy is undermined by this misinformation. With Murdoch’s empire, a strong and focused conservative narrative is relayed throughout, which is significant because firstly, his reach is unparalleled across the globe, and secondly, there is no counter weight to what Murdoch’s empire does. Sure, MSNBC and ABC have bias. However, their bias isn’t a planned and orchestrated agenda reverberated across a global media conglomerate. This role as “communication arm” for the conservative agenda is most evident back in February when The Daily Show busted Fox & Friends reading directly from a Republican National Committee memo about talking points against the president. Essentially, this means that Murdoch has the capacity to create and push whatever story or facts that they want; this is a dangerous power to have when there is no counter-weight to what they’re doing. However, why does this matter?

The reason this matters is because a powerful and unparalleled media is a threat to discourse and democracy. The Venezuelan coup of 2002 was largely sponsored by the media, and would have been successful if the truth hadn’t leaked out. Murdoch’s brash and baited headlines from his first tabloids to get viewers is a strategy still used today through his television and online media presences, and it all comes under the greatest marketing slogan ever created in its context – “Fair and Balanced.” Murdoch’s empire is neither fair nor balanced, and maybe it doesn’t have to be. Should a single individual and company have this much influence? That is something for you to decide. While Murdoch has worked hard to build a conglomerate through less than ethical practices, as long as the public is content with shocking headlines and out of context sound bites crowding out objective journalism, Murdoch will continue to gain power and influence across the globe.

Peace through Mutually Assured Destruction

Much of the interest of the foreign policy focus today lies in the nuclear proliferation of the Middle East; namely the conflict between Israel and Iran with the latter currently pursuing nuclear capability. In a world where controlling the proliferation has proved to be increasingly difficult, time intensive, and costly, it’s time to consider a new approach to combating the nuclear threat. By examining the proliferation policy as it stands today and peering into where this policy is headed, we can conclude that this model is not sustainable and that we much encourage proliferation if we hope to attain a lasting peace.

Nuclear proliferation today is governed by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was signed by forty-eight nations in 1968. The stated objective of the treaty according to the United Nations is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and ultimately complete disarmament. While the treaty was well intentioned, the status of nuclear proliferation in the world today is a bit of a deliberate ambiguity ploy. While forty-eight nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, some states have developed their nuclear technology outside of the Treaty thus undermining its effectiveness in governing proliferation. Countries such as South Africa, Pakistan, India and, if rumors are correct, Iran are examples of countries who pursued nuclear weapon capability outside of the boundaries of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. One of these reasons these countries have been able to get away with this is a result of a loophole in Article IV. Article IV of the Treaty gives non-nuclear states the ‘inalienable right’ to pursue nuclear energy to create an energy source, and as we have seen with Iran, this is a common scapegoat for any nuclear development activity.

In July of 1996, the International Court of Justice responded to a request from the United Nations General Assembly to answer the question, “Is the threat or use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances permitted under international law?” The Courts gave one of the few authoritative judicial decisions that exist in regards to nuclear weapon use, and the response is quite telling of the status of nuclear proliferation. The Court ruled in a split decision that, “… There is in neither customary nor conventional international law any comprehensive and universal prohibition of the threat or use of nuclear weapons as such.” However, the court also stated that the use of nuclear weaponry would violate existing international law applicable in armed conflict and various humanitarian laws but ultimately, the Court wouldn’t conclusively state whether nuclear weapon use would be lawful or unlawful. Crucially, the Court ruled that deterrence under certain circumstances towards a potential enemy wasn’t illegal as well as possession of nuclear weapons, although heavily condemned by United Nation resolutions, aren’t regarded universally as illegal. These two facts will form the cornerstone of the argument for my prescription to be stated in the third section.

In addition to legality, the Non-Proliferation Treaty faces an issue of enforcement. As it is currently set up, the International Atomic Energy Agency is in charge of monitoring various states for compliance with the treaty. Firstly, the International Atomic Energy Agency lacks powers to enforce the treaty and has to approach the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions for any violations that they might find. In addition, a loophole exists for states to withdraw suddenly from the treaty if they believe something has violated the interests of their country. As Professor Shimko points out, North Korea used this out a few years before testing its nuclear weapons program. What does this mean? Essentially, the group that is tasked with enforcing the non-proliferation of these nuclear weapons doesn’t have the power to actually do this and can only report violations back to the UN Security Council. Pair this with the shaky legal ground that nuclear weapon possession already sits on and it becomes clear that Nuclear Non-Proliferation may not only just be illegal, but also next to impossible to effectively and consistently enforce. A closer look at a few case studies further emphasizes this point.

The case of South Africa is an interesting one as they managed to internally develop it’s own nuclear reactor and weapon technology outside of the international eye until it voluntarily decided to dismantle its program. Furthermore, evidence has emerged in recent years that implicates that Israel was involved in either assisting with technology or perhaps selling nuclear weapons whole to South Africa. This is interesting as both of these countries were not signees of the Non-Proliferation agreement and thus were not subject to any oversight. While there was some diplomatic pressure from the United States to stop development of their nuclear capability, South Africa was able to build and test their weaponry without too much interference and they remain a concerning example of nuclear development going on within a state without anyone noticing.

One of the more recent examples of nuclear proliferation working for peace through deterrence is the case of Pakistan versus India. Similar to South Africa, neither of these countries signed the Non Proliferation agreement but managed to both develop nuclear technology and deliverability capability. This development took place during a time of intense conflict between the two sides during the Kargil War after Pakistani soldiers infiltrated and took Indian bases. With the development of nuclear weapons for both sides however, neither side launched a full-scale attack on the other and the once sour relationship between the two has began to thaw. Along the same lines, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a period of great tension but also peace between the two nuclear super powers. The term ‘Mutual Assured Destruction’ was coined to describe the implications of a nuclear attack by one of the two on the other, as both had the capability to counterstrike regardless of where the other targeted. The gravity of the outcome of a serious conflict between these two superpowers gave way to an understanding of the seriousness and implications of their actions, and the ‘Cold War’ experienced a forty-four year peace that lasted until the metaphorical collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

The final deterrence example that is revealing of the current status of proliferation in the world today is that of the case of Israel. Israel did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but is widely believed to be a nuclear power. Furthermore, there are documents that have emerged within the last few years that seem to indicate Israel did or was willing to supply South Africa with nuclear technology and material. If not for their relative proximity to their interests, this would most certainly be a serious violation in the eyes of the International community and be punished with condemnation and sanctions. However, as stated in Professor Beres’ article for Our Jerusalem concerning nuclear weapons as a guarantor of world peace, Israel maintains a status of deliberate ambiguity regarding their program, which has created an interesting situation in the Middle East for Israel. Israel has been able to have several years of mostly peace as a direct result of the fact they’re the singular nuclear state in the region. While Iran is seeking to challenge this, and Israel is doing just about everything it can to stop it, perhaps as in the case of the United States there will be a chance for adult discourse over solving the Palestinian crisis if there is the possibility of mutual assured destruction.

What does continuing this pursuit of non-proliferation look like down the road? The North Korea example is a perfect example of why this policy isn’t sustainable. While North Korea hasn’t officially been confirmed to have nuclear weapons, it is widely believed that they have the technology to make a reactor and the material to make a few bombs. North Koreas intentions seem to be two-fold however. While there is the deterrence angle, or as it would claim a response to unconfirmed American warheads positioned to the South, there is also a brinksmanship argument with the end goal being economic aid for the country. North Korea has starved for the last two decades or so, and much of the energy and food it consumes comes from international aid, with their nuclear program being the primary bargaining chip. This has led to over a decade of back and forth on the issue with no real non-proliferation by the North, but millions of dollars of aid shipments by the international community. The North Koreans have used our obsession with Nuclear Non-Proliferation to bargain a deal with us to get much needed aid in exchange for small, and hardly permanent, concession in regards to their nuclear program.

As states such as South Africa, Israel, Pakistan, and India have done before, future countries will ultimately be able to develop nuclear technology regardless of what efforts we take to stop them. The only tool that has been proven to work on a global scale in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as a regional scale, in the case of India and Pakistan, is deterrence through proliferation.

The solution for this issue of containing proliferation is to simply not contain it.  As Kenneth Waltz said in his paper titled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better,” hypothesizes that the ultimate price of using nuclear weapons will deter a state from using them against another state. Two prominent examples of this are the India versus Pakistan example I cited earlier, and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Especially in the Soviet/ United States example, the threat of mutual assured destruction deterred either country from starting a war, resulting in a forty-four year icy peace between the two. Arguably, one of Israel’s strongest assets is the fact that it has nuclear capability which has deterred and will continue to deter it’s adversaries from contemplating and substantial military action against them.

With states deciding to move towards nuclear status outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, there is also a lack of oversight into the nuclear functions of these newer emerging states. As it exists now, the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t have any means to force itself in a state to inspect its nuclear facilities. Rather, it can only inspect those who have signed on which could ultimately further undermine the treaty down the road. The future looks poorly regulated but more worryingly, it looks to be a period where there is limited understanding to the actual capabilities of various countries who decide not to sign on to the treaty. This is really compounded when these states outside of the treaty attempt to share technology with other non treaty member states, such as the Israel and South Africa example mentioned earlier or the attempt by Iran to buy technology from Pakistan in the early 1990’s. It’s just further evidence that the effectiveness of the Non-Proliferation Treaty has declined considerably in recent years and it’s time to look at an alternative solution to the threat of nuclear weaponry.

While current US policy as well as a major part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty center on the idea of reducing nuclear stockpiles to ultimately get to a point of complete disarmament, Professor Beres rightly brought up the question; ‘Is this feasible or even desirable?’ The answer to both is absolutely not. It will be impossible to completely rid the world of nuclear weapons, and such a world without nuclear weapons would remove the threat of destruction to an attacking state and therefore make the nuclear strategic option a very likely and decisive one. Looking back to the cases cited previously where deterrence played a major role in preventing catastrophic war both globally and regionally, the evidence exists to support a wide spread proliferation of nuclear technology and weaponry. Ideally, the weaponry could be available for purchase through the United Nations with the proceeds going to the humanitarian arm of the UN. With each warhead parsed through this system, location services and serial tracking would be utilized to keep track of where and how many nuclear weapons are in a region. This solution is both desirable in that it promotes peace through deterrence as well as feasible, as by using the existing infrastructure that focuses on non-proliferation to instead promote the spread of nuclear technology as well as actual warheads themselves we, could reroute our non-proliferation efforts to meet this new policy of encouraged proliferation.

One argument against such a system is the idea that crazed dictators such as Ahmadinejad would be eligible to receive this weaponry and then use it to go on a military offensive. However Shimko rightly pointed out that both Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin were the radical hardline dictators of their day, and when their respective countries became nuclear, both were perfectly understanding of the gravity of their decisions and were able to exhibit a level of rationality to understand the harsh consequences to their actions. In the case of Mao, Shimko’s description of him as a ‘rouge leader’ followed by adjectives such as ‘unpredictable,’ ‘ideological,’ and ‘fanatical’ is certainly familiar in rhetoric. Many would be eager to point out that this description draws many parallels to the current President of Iran Ahmadinejad, whose country currently poses the greatest threat to non-proliferation. When you look at the threats posed by and the rationality found by those who have come before him however, remembering that the likes of Mao and Stalin also had the ability to deliver these warheads, the threat of Ahmadinejad’s actions becomes much less of an issue.

The other prominent counter argument to encouraging nuclear proliferation is the concern that terrorist organizations or rogue states could acquire them. While the possibility certainly exists, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be working to monitor the proliferation of these nuclear weapons to maintain a profile on their distribution instead of their current function as sort-of watchdogs. The idea that these nuclear weapons will automatically fall into the hands of terrorists is misplaced, as the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 received huge amounts of nuclear weapons into the region as well as the black market.

The issue of how to handle the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one that has been debated heavily since the United States exercised the first, and so far only, use of a nuclear weapon during the final days of World War Two against Japan. Throughout this paper, I have worked to describe how the main governing treaty for nuclear proliferation works today, what direction we are headed in if we continue with the status quo, as well as provide an alternative solution to this never ending cycle that we deal with when we try and contain nuclear proliferation without any real tools to actually do so. Nuclear deterrence has created environments that allowed discourse where non would otherwise be possible, and is a very real and proven tool to prevent conflict in general out of the aforementioned fear of destruction. While many would argue that it isn’t the ideal solution and that a world of full nuclear disarmament would be more attractive, it simply isn’t feasible. Once the crossing of the Rubicon happened with the atomic bomb, there simply isn’t any going back. It is for that reason that we need to implement a policy that creates perspective by promoting nuclear proliferation to perhaps give rationality and an understanding of the fragility of ourselves as a species so we can move forward together.

Descent to Plutocracy

The economic conditions the United States has been through over the course of the past three decades are interesting and, in my opinion at least, reveal a disturbing trend. Just in the last decade we have seen middle class income fall 7%, relentless tax cuts and breaks for millionaires, billionaires, and corporations, all while the top 1% of income earners have captured a level of wealth not seen since the 1920’s. Friction has begun to appear between these different groups of income earners and, while many don’t like the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street Protesters, many share the opinion that the economy and opportunity have become titled in favor of the wealthier. Additionally, emerging research about the relationship of socioeconomic mobility and a families wealth paints a picture where the United States is becoming less a land of opportunity as our intensely patriotic rhetoric would tell us and more of a country where wealthy families are entrenched at the top of the income distribution. What does the research say about upward mobility in the United States and why does this matter?

University of Michigan research Fabian Pfeffer is an organizer of a conference that analyzes on an international scale the income inequality over generations for different parts of the world. In a press release with his researches findings, Pfeffer stated;

“Wealth not only fulfills a purchasing function, allowing families to buy homes in good neighborhoods and send their children to costly schools and colleges, for example, but it also has an insurance function, offering a sort of private safety net that gives children a very different set of choices as they enter the adult world. Despite the widespread belief that the U.S. provides exceptional opportunities for upward mobility, these data show that parental wealth has an important role in shielding offspring from downward mobility and sustaining their upward mobility in the U.S. no less than in countries like Germany and Sweden, where parental wealth also serves as a private safety net that not even the more generous European public programs and social services seem to provide.”

Essentially, the United States lacks the public infrastructure to provide an equivalent opportunity to those who come from privileged roots on the same scale as other industrialized countries. Why does this matter to you?

This reason this matters is that this growing wealth of these few Americans has managed to wield political power that has served to push policies that serve their interests and not necessarily the interests of the shrinking middle and growing lower class. While many of these wealthy individuals enjoy a myriad of tax breaks that push their actual tax rates below 10% (which is much less than a typical middle income family), the government faces the choice between steep cuts to federal spending on military, research and development, and education or to cut some of these tax breaks that generally benefit our legislators largest political contributors. The most frustrating thing about some of these tax breaks such as carried interest is that to qualify, you have to start with a considerable amount of wealth to have the opportunity to invest at a lower tax rate. While the counterargument is that cutting taxes for the wealthy spurs economic growth and job creation, a look at the decline in middle class income compared with the steep climb in wealth for America’s top income bracket rubbishes that. If any group should have tax relief, it should be the largest volume with the largest propensity to consume and therefore create economic growth; the middle and lower classes. Until movements like Occupy Wall Street can gain a more mainstream audience, politics will continue to be molded by and give benefit to the top income earners in this country while constraining the very ideal that has brought millions of immigrants to the United States; a fair shot at the American dream.

For more information on Fabian Pfeffers research,  check out his work at the University of Michigans Institute for Social Research at http://www.sampler.isr.umich.edu/

Obama and the Deficit

During this election cycle, much has been made of Obama and the Democrats fiscal irresponsibility when it comes to the budget and deficit. However, when you look at recent data it is apparent that the numbers don’t necessarily agree and the pot seems to be calling the kettle black.

— National debt increase during Republican administrations since 1980: Reagan, 189%; George H. W. Bush, 54%; George W. Bush, 86%.

— National debt increase during Democratic administrations: Clinton, 37%. Obama (as of September 30, 2012), 51%.

Perhaps the first year of each administration’s debt increase should be attributed to the prior administration, after all the budget for a new Presidents first year is passed by the previous administration. If so, then Republicans as a whole performed even worse compared to Democrats.

— Republicans: Mr. Reagan 186%, George H.W. Bush 72%, George W. Bush 107%.

— Democrats: Mr. Clinton 31% and Mr. Obama 31% so far.

Under the latter scenario — attributing each president’s first year of deficits to the prior administration — Republican administrations since 1981 have racked up $9.8 trillion in debt — 89% more debt than the $5.2 trillion racked up by Democrats. And the Republicans’ record would probably be even worse if their deficits were adjusted for inflation.

You can verify these fiures at the Treasury Department’s web site,http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/mspd/mspd.htm.

With a track record like that, how can Republicans accuse Democrats of fiscal irresponsibility?

Democracy for Sale

The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the Supreme Court in 2010 is starting to have a profound effect on politics and, more specifically, the ability for individuals to have an impact. The Citizens United case has expanded the rights of corporate personhood to allow corporations, unions, as well as wealthy individuals to contribute unlimited amounts to candidate elections, essentially flooding campaigns with money. This graph below from the Center for Responsive Politics shows the immense shift that outside money has seen since this decision.


Furthermore, a Republican party that has positioned itself as a party that will cut through regulations, lower taxes for the wealthy, and make cuts to many social programs (thus making it attractive for high-income individuals and corporations), has managed to have unparalleled success leveraging this new era of campaign spending. The immense disproportion in spending is shown below.


Why does all this matter? There is a legal movement that has been ongoing over the last few decades in the United States to grant corporations the rights of personhood. The whole Citizens United decision is based on an idea that by limiting the contributions that individuals, corporations, and labor unions can make, you are also limited their access to free speech. In the Citizens United case, the Court, with  a conservative lean that shouldn’t be ignored, interpreted this as a principal violation of the First Amendment and significantly weakened the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that sought to limit contributions to $5,000 while preventing corporations from airing adverts in the 60 days up until a Presidential election.

The results have been incredible. In the first two weeks of October these outside groups on the election have spent a total of $180 million, with spending in favor of Romney outpacing that of Obama by over a 3:1 margin. Wealthy individuals such as Sheldon Anderson have threatened to spend as much as $100 million on these shadowy outside groups to defeat President Obama. Super PACs and welfare non-profit groups, neither of which were able to spend money on elections before the Citizens United decision, have spent a combined $113.6 million this election while unions, a long time enemy of the increasingly corporation funded right, have managed to spend only $3.1 million. To make matters worse, these contributions are allowed to remain anonymous by some shift accounting so that we never actually know who is contributing what.

In the end, campaign finance has turned into an arms race among the elite and corporations and is a situation in which we all lose. As if the plight of everyday Americans was already largely ignored, this new era of campaign finance now forces candidates to court the support of these wealthy individuals and corporations in order to have any chance at becoming elected. A Constitutional amendment has been put forth by Bernie Sanders of Vermont that would seek to state that;

  • Corporations are not persons with constitutional rights equal to real people.
  • Corporations are subject to regulation by the people.
  • Corporations may not make campaign contributions or any election expenditures.
  • Congress and states have the power to regulate campaign finances.

Unfortunately, such an amendment will receive heavy opposition by the very groups it seeks to limit and as we saw with lobbying in regards to climate change and healthcare reform, what’s best for the citizenry is hardly in the interests of these well funded and powerful groups.

International Law Injustice

The state of international law is largely a tangled web of treaties and agreements between different states that often contradict various other agreements and representing a converging cesspool of confusion and, ultimately, inaction and non-compliance. The fact that the findings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) become optional through the ‘optional clause’ further illustrates just how little opportunity for enforcement exists by the international community. A prominent example mentioned is the United States v. Nicaragua court case tried by the ICJ. The Reagan policy of containing and preventing the spread of communism was to aid anticommunist rebels in various countries, and this battlefield reached Nicaragua in the early 1980’s. The ICJ rejected an onslaught of US jurisdiction inquiries regarding the ICJ’s right to hear the case and issued a preliminary opinion ordering the United States to stop mining the harbors of Nicaragua. However, due to the optional clause, the United States completely ignored the ruling. Two years later in 1986, the ICJ ruled that the United States had in fact violated international law. However, the United States again ignored the ruling. Finally, the matter was brought before the United Nations Security Council as to whether to impose sanctions on the United States for its explicit and complete ignorance of both the rulings of the ICJ as well as practices in Nicaragua and of course, the United States exercised it’s veto power and the matter was ended right there. There are other examples of this kind of behavior by the permanent members of the United Nations who have this veto power, but the point isn’t the infraction. The point is the attitude and power attributed to and wielded by these select five nations that is causing this imbalance in international law implementation.

How is this causing an imbalance in the implementation of international law? The answer is two-fold. First, there is no organization or body that can actually enforce what the ICJ decides in these cases. Secondly, as a result of the immense power the permanent members have on the Security Council, it has created a system in which these five significant members are the arbiters of not only if international law is to be followed, but also how it is going to be enforced. These five members have no greater power to check them than themselves, and even if a few of these five members want to act against another of the permanent members, the latter can always use the veto power given to it to end any inquiry or attempt at action. To go a step further, as a result of this model, there isn’t a group that can legally do anything about any international law violations by this group of five because any judgment or enforcement on international law is directly required to be confirmed by the potential aggressor. For example, US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan are surely a violation of a states sovereignty as well as arguably being a tool for civilian murder, yet besides a hollow condemnation or two, there is no remedial action taken and these drone strikes continue unabridged. The United States has a foreign policy in Latin America of shipping arms, supporting illegitimate and oppressive coups, as well as squeezing smaller Latin American economies all of which had a devastating affects on a humanitarian level for millions of people in the region. Yet there is no check or balance to this abusive exercise of power and frankly from the Gulf of Tonkin incident to Iraq, there hasn’t been one.