Category Archives: International Politics

Crises, Economic and Political

In a recent post, “Cosmopolitanism and the State,” I used my research on Cataluña to argue that cosmopolitanism may invite more effective governance if people can “switch allegiance” between governments (e.g. between a regional and a Federal government). Spikes in Catalán nationalism often occur when economic activity is depressed, and the most recent push for independence is no exception,

Support for Catalan Indeendence 2012

From “Is Catalonia Heading Towards Independence” (HT Tyler Cowen).

Democratic Complexity

A lesson in the difficulty of [centrally] planning democratic institutions,

The Afghan government collects an extremely low level of revenue (less than ten percent of GDP), and a large share of this comes from customs rather than taxation. In effect, Afghans are not really charged by their government for the services they are provided. Moreover, for the most part, the Afghan government neither funds nor delivers the key public services offered in the country. According to estimates by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in recent years, the United States and other donors paid for about 90 percent of Afghanistan’s total public expenditures, including funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. In addition, the provision of may key services remains highly dependent on foreign advisers and experts.

In their 1967 book, The United States in Vietnam, George Kahin and John Lewis wrote that “U.S. aid thus provided [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem with a degree of financial independence that isolated him from basic economic and political realities and reduced his need to appreciate or respond to his people’s wants and expectations.” Like Diem, Karzai has little reason to improve his state’s effectiveness or accountability.

— Karl W. Eikenberry, “The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” Foreign Affairs 92, 5 (2013), p. 67.

When foreign aid is used to maintain extractive political regimes, the root problem is institutional weakness. When a country like the U.S. invades another one with the intent of reorganizing government along democratic lines, they set themselves the task of planning out the set of institutions that constrain governance. This goes beyond the organizations of government — i.e. congress, parliament, the executive, judicial, et cetera —, and includes the various rules and customs that develop over time, from local branches of authority to national governments. These type of issues make humanitarian wars, with the intention of introducing democracy, less predictable, and therefore more costly — not just to the invader, but to the country being invaded, as well.

I selectively quote Eikenberry. In the preceding paragraph, he argues that what keeps democratic executives in check are taxes. If the level of public goods and taxes are not set to the taxpayers’ preferences, citizens will vote for another party. Since most of Afghanistan’s income is made up of tariff revenue and foreign aid, the implication is that Afghans are not paying the majority of the costs of public mal-expenditure. As a result, the ruling party doesn’t really face a political constraint in that direction; since the people aren’t paying for it, the people don’t care what the government is buying. But, tariff income probable made up the bulk of U.S. revenue during the late 18th and early to mid- 19th centuries, yet the U.S. didn’t suffer from the same degree of corruption.

Expatriate Venezolanos and Maduro

Yoani Sánchez, author of one of my favorite books on Cuba, linked to a picture (below) of protesting Venezuelans in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon. They are demanding a recount of votes, in reference to the recent Venezuelan elections where Chávez’ hand picked successor Nicolás Maduro narrowly defeated Henrique Radonski. Maduro received 50.6 percent of the vote, compared to Radonski’s 49.1 percent. There’s a lot of talk of fraud and many people are asking for a recount,

Venezuela Recount Madrid

I understand, and sympathize with, the motivation to accuse Maduro’s campaign of fraud. There are a lot of reasons to oppose a candidate who so far promises only to continue Hugo Chávez’, in my opinion disastrous, policies. But there are many people with many reasons to support these policies, and therefore both Chávez and Maduro. Sánchez posts a picture of anti-Maduro protests in Madrid, and I’ve heard stories of similar things occurring in the United States. But, are these really representative of Venezuelan voters? Expatriats are people who tend to leave Venezuela because they disagree with the policies there, so are they really a random sample? I doubt it.

I think we should push for political honesty, especially in countries with crippled political institutions. At the same time, we should admit that not everyone shares our worldview, and that there are plenty of Venezuelans who do support Maduro. In fact, there are plenty of Venezuelans who may feel better off thanks to Chávez’ policies. The following point is important for U.S. politicians and our foreign policy. What do we gain from being antagonistic? Why alienate Maduro and defeat any opportunity for compromise, that may even lead to better policies by part of his government?

Besides, given Venezuela’s political institutions, there’s some probability that Radonski also practiced unfair campaigning. If we’re going to accuse Maduro, we should be equally critical of Radonski (who also has an incentive to accuse his opponent of fraud, since the vote was so close and he’s just as interested in the position as Maduro) — it’s amazing that Randoski doesn’t seem equally as shady to people asking for a recount. This seems to me to be a case of ideology goggles.

Let’s Talk Probability

My first bachelors degree was in political science, so I’m familiar with international relations theory. Before my obsession with economics, I was also intensely interested in military history, which includes the politics that drive belligerence. What I know can be encapsulated in a simple rule of thumb: the simpler the theory of motivation is, the more critical of it you should be. War, and the factors which motivate it, is a complex phenomenon, and simple theories tend to abstract from factors which can be equally important in deciding the outcome of some event. With this in mind, I want to play armchair strategist. Just remember that whatever I write in this post is likely to be oversimplified. But, it’s okay to have fun.

What do you think the probability of a renewed Korean War is? (Maybe I read too much Larry Bond as a teenager.) Consider the following,

  1. North Korean instability: Around 2009–10 I began researching on North Korea (although, my first real foray into North Korea was when I wrote the Wikipedia article on the Ch’onma-ho — it may have been changed since I last edited it, in 2006), mostly interested in a rising middle class and the regime’s response to a changing distribution of wealth and power. From what I know, there is substantial evidence that suggests of significant instability within the regime, which began under Kim Jong-il’s regime. Kim Jong-un has inherited these problems. This may be one reason that he has taken such a bellicose position, trying to consolidate his power by creating an issue of contention bigger than himself;
  2. Park Geun-hye: She seems to be her father’s daughter. He father was Park Chung-hee, dictator of South Korea between 1963–79. She has made it clear that the ball is in North Korea’s court, and from what I’ve read she has given orders to the South Korean military general staff to pursue a full-scale conflict if the North commits even a small military provocation (e.g. should it decide to launch a small raid, or sink a South Korean boat, et cetera). She is not interested in being the bigger woman, because it would mean a loss of face for her — someone identified, probably through her father, as an ardent believer in reunification;
  3. North Korean nuclear weapons: There seems to be some disagreement over the status of North Korea’s nuclear program, but there is a general consensus that at some point they will dispose of the technology. This means that North Korea is currently relatively close to it, or has some primitive nuclear technology that may or may not be a potential threat in the case of war. But, if war is postponed, this threat will become clearer and more concerning over time, and it may make reunification impossible until the regime collapses and is replaced by a somewhat more pluralistic form of government;
  4. China: China has historically been an important force in limiting South Korean ambitions. However, the world has changed since 1953. China has much more to lose and much less to gain by supporting North Korea. If S. Korea were to launch an invasion, I don’t think China would do much about it, except maybe pout. In fact, we could sway China to “look the other way” by making some concessions, namely in the area of our Pacific deployments and our foreign policy concerning Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. Besides, China’s relationship with N. Korea is straining;
  5. N. Korean resistance: What would a war look like? I don’t think it would last very long, and I don’t think it would be too costly. From what I understand, N. Korea does not have the fuel to conduct major war games. I’ve heard stories of tanks abandoned on the side of the road, because of a lack of fuel. Any war would be fought in their territory, even if they were to launch some kind of offensive at the start. The terrain there makes mechanized warfare more difficult, and it makes it easier to defend through the use of fixed artillery and cannon emplacements, but if S. Korea (with the help of the United States and, probably, the rest of NATO) has air superiority then I’m not sure what kind of resistance the N. Korean military could really pull off. Its mobility would be restricted by fuel shortages and, maybe more important, American and S. Korean air power. The biggest threat of the war, apart from a hypothetical nuclear warhead, is Seoul’s proximity to the border. Seoul, I believe, is within range of N. Korean heavy artillery batteries. These will probably be mostly destroyed or forced north, but they can still do quite a bit of damage in civilians areas of high density (although, artillery attacks on big cities have, historically, not been too successful);
  6. War-weary U.S.: I don’t think the Obama administration is interested in fighting a major war. He has been intent on ending our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — however slowly (which is not necessarily his fault) —, and despite his support of NATO intervention in Libya, it’s clear that the U.S.’ support of S. Korea runs a bit shy from a full-scale conflict. On the other hand, a reunification of the peninsula, I think, would look good for him. Further, most people, except libertarians and pacifists, would probably, more-or-less, support the war. He could restrict American involvement to a ground defense of S. Korea (not following the S. Korean army into N. Korea), a systemic bombing campaign and other forms of air and naval support — this would limit U.S. losses in the war (and force S. Korea to take the brunt of the human loss, aside from N. Korea).

I don’t know much about Russia’ relationship with N. Korea, especially now. This is one factor, out of probably dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of others, that I can’t really internalize in my analysis. Of course, war isn’t the only option. Some other options,

  1. Status quo: Either S. Korea and the U.S. lead some kind of cooling down process, where they make concessions to N. Korea or devise some kind of barter package, or N. Korea backs down and agrees to some barter packages;
  2. Chinese led regime change: The N. Korean government goes through some kind of restructuring, probably led and influenced by the Chinese government. This might not be as great as a reunification, but I think it’s still an improvement over the status quo. It might also help avoid war, not just now but in the future. A more stable N. Korean regime will probably be more willing to cooperate with international authorities and might, in the far future, be more willing to discuss a peaceful reunification.

The only other thing about war that I’ll say is that there’s some probability attached to it occurring, and I think current conditions suggest that this probability is higher than usual. What do you think?

Edit: And just a few days later, we can see just how low a probability these types of discussions actually lead to accurate conclusions.

Kuehn the Warmonger

aaadrones

[N.B.: (i) the topic title is meant in jest; (ii) I realize I just entered into a hornet's nest, but I welcome dissenting opinion.]

Brian Doherty, at Reason’s Hit and Run blog, catches Daniel Kuehn criticizing the analogies between Sandy Hook and U.S. drone attacks. Doherty’s initial criticism may not directly address Kuehn’s point, but the critique is sophisticated. I more-or-less agree with it, although I sympathize with Daniel, as well. One of the main factors is that I oppose the war in Afghanistan, and more generally think that much of U.S. foreign policy towards terrorism is misguided — it stopped being a defensive war when Bush targeted the Taliban, and Afghanistan as a whole.

But, these kinds of statements by Doherty miss the mark,

Indeed, the very reason why those opposed to U.S. drone strikes might feel it necessary to make that analogy that horrified Kuehn (and as I noted would undoubtedly horrify most Americans, if they’d heard it) is the very reason that it horrifies him: that people opposed to drone strikes find it very difficult to get their fellow Americans to understand that there might be something horrific and evil about a policy that murders children with bombs from the air, and that a moment where they are mourning and hating a crime involving someone murdering well over a dozen children with guns might be a moment they are open to understanding this; perhaps more so when they consider that unlike the one-time horror of Sandy Hook, with a dead perpetrator, this policy and practice is ongoing and may well result in more dead children.

The intention and purpose behind drone strikes isn’t to kill children. Dead children represent collateral damage. I’m not claiming that this collateral damage is necessary, or that certain drone attacks should have occurred, but I can think of a hypothetical situation where Doherty’s position wouldn’t be so clear.

Suppose that we live a stateless society, and that part of a small communal defense force we have a number of heavy weapons, be them drones, artillery pieces, et cetera. One day, we’re attacked and we repel the attack and take it to the rival territory as a means of eliminating their capacity to strike again. However, when we use our artillery and drones, there is unfortunate collateral damage, including children. But, in a war, it’d be difficult to avoid collateral damage — indeed, not just civilians on rival territory, but those in yours who are caught in the battling. As unfortunate as the collateral damage may be, it’d be difficult to argue that it shouldn’t have happened: that would essentially mean not being able to defend ourselves.

Of course, we can decrease the probability and extent of collateral damage. We do this by developing weapons with better precision: drones are an example.

The “morality” of collateral damage depends on the legitimacy of the war being fought. I don’t consider the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) legitimate, but others do. You can’t persuade these people that drone attacks are bad on the basis that children are dying, because: (a) it’s a legitimate war, and collateral damage is an unfortunate consequence of war; (b) we have developed weapons to lower the probability of collateral damage. You have to persuade them on why these attacks are unjustified to begin with; i.e., why the attacks are unjustified given their intentions.

P.S. While there are some sophisticated arguments out there, and those are by no means included in the following caricature, I can’t help but feel that some of the cases against drones resemble the liberal case for gun control.

Secession Inducing Redistributionism

I’m writing my literature review on “something” — I’ll have to decide the exact theme first, to tie in all I’ve been reading — to do with Cataluña and presenting it, so I’m making sure I’m up to date with the ongoing drama between the Generalitat and the central government. This NYT op-ed has a good introduction to current events (although the history is a little off). Discussing motivations, the authors write,

The immediate cause of Catalonia’s sudden outbreak of secessionist fever is so-called fiscal looting. The region accounts for about one-fourth of Spain’s exports. But for every euro Catalans pay in taxes, only 57 cents is spent in the region. Before taxes, Catalonia is the fourth richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. After taxes, it drops to ninth — a form of forced redistribution unparalleled in contemporary Europe.

Three questions,

  1. Is there any U.S. state which fits this description? What’s the most outrageous figure for net contributors to federal redistribution (or, net benefactors)?
  2. One of the common reasons given for why the Eurozone has failed as an optimal currency area is that it lacks a system of inter-member redistribution, so the European government can’t apply counter-cyclical fiscal policy to cushion crisis states. Given experiences in Spain, would that ever be possible in Europe?
  3. What has avoided tension between states in the U.S. in the context of inter-state redistribution? (This is a conditional question depending on your answer to #1.)

Edit

I followed Peter’s advice below and the first link was this Wikipedia page: Federal Taxation and Spending by State. What’s interesting is that net contributors seem more likely to vote for a Democrat president, who tend to be more associated with redistribution (although, this isn’t necessarily true). I wonder if, in the case of Spain, the main issue is the size of the fiscal shock; I don’t know Spain’s economic history well enough, but this must be the first major depression since the 20s and 30s, and it has come after a period of intense economic growth.

Someone might be tempted to blame a general culture of independence in Cataluña, but I’m not so sure. From what I’ve been reading, sentiment in the region is heterogeneous, and I get the sense that when sentiment becomes more homogenous it’s because they use it as a rallying flag, covering up the actual (oftentimes economic) motivations. But, most of the literature I’ve read deals with secession advocacy in Cataluña up to the late 1990s, so I don’t know how much sentiment has changed since then. It might be a product of the mixture between economics and nationalism.

Mas-Collel: Independentista

Andreu Mas-Colell, one of the most well-known living microeconomists and current “counselor” to the Generalitat (Catalán parliament), recently advocated Catalán secession from Spain. His argument is that an independent Cataluña would see higher economic growth than otherwise, not just during depressed economic conditions, but generally. I don’t think it’d be farfetched to claim that Mas-Colell has other ideological concerns, as well.

I’m writing a short literature review on something to do with Catalán nationalism — I haven’t decided exactly what yet, because I’m not that familiar with the literature (which is pretty large, and I’m only looking at English-language academic journals). Are there any studies on the economic impact of secession?

I’m no expert on either Spanish or Catalán politics, but most of the costs and/or benefits are going to revolve around differences in economic policy. Spain suffers from great regulatory burden — I’m not sure if this is something Mas-Colell has in mind —, but would an independent Cataluña do much better? I think that, from the perspective of a free market advocate, Catalán economic policy is much more likely to burden the private sector. Cataluña has been facing a declining economic performance, and I think it’s a stretch to blame Spanish policy on it. Regions like the Basque Country, the Balearic Islands, and Madrid have been doing comparatively well, where if Mas-Colell were right then you’d expect Spain in her entirety to suffer somewhat proportionally (of course, this is before the crisis).

Tyler Cowen comments and asks a series of questions. Something that stands out is that people still think about the politics of secession as if the same actions that were permissible 60+ years ago are likely to occur today. He mentions Spain’s historical propensity to “send the troops.” When was the last time this occurred? (I’d say the 1936–39 civil war, but the war wasn’t fought over Cataluña) It’s true that, as usual, some media sources have forwarded the notion that the Spanish military has threatened to intervene, but how likely is this to really occur? The last time the military tried to intervene with Spanish democracy, in February 1981, the coup was over virtually hours after it was launched. Around 5–6 years ago, some might recall J.L. Zapatero sacking the chief of staff (of the Ejército, I believe) for making similar threats.

These are new days. Unless economic conditions deteriorate to the point where democracy only exists in name (not likely), the military dilemma is unlikely to be an issue at all.

Is secession likely? It’s unconstitutional, and the central government will continue to vehemently oppose it. Most people I’ve talked to see it as unlikely, but I really don’t know. This is one of those situations that, as a Spaniard, I’m embarrassed to acknowledge that my knowledge is pretty limited. But, this situation, as far as I know, is unprecedented in Spain’s post-war history. My guess is that if “worse comes to worse,” the Spanish government will formulate some type of political deal to (at least, temporarily) reduce income transfers from high-GDP to low-GDP communities and halfheartedly meet “autonomy” pleas.

What will be most interesting, I think, is how central fiscal policy will respond to these political pressures. “Austerity” is probably somewhat at fault, since the country has been subjected to a pretty gruesome economic contraction; tax increases are usually more acute, and the government hasn’t really taken strong steps towards real market reforms. Maybe most importantly, there hasn’t been much progress in improving the balance sheets of Spanish banks. If things continue like this, the dramatic change in Spain won’t revolve around sovereignty issues, but around changes in fiscal policy.