Opinion

The Great Debate

The religion-fueled fight in Syria

The second round of peace talks in Geneva between representatives of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria and rebel forces has ended with both sides blaming each other for the lack of progress. Beyond the finger-pointing, however, lies a growing danger to the goal of a negotiated settlement. The civil war’s religious divides are widening, making compromise unthinkable.

Representatives of the Syrian regime went to Geneva solely with the hope of convincing the opposition to let President Bashar al-Assad stay in power so he can forge an alliance against jihadist forces fighting in Syria, most notably the al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Their argument — one that many, including former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have made — was that Assad is better than any likely alternative.

But the Syrian National Coalition, representing opposition forces, rejected the proposal outright. The coalition, which purports to be a post-Assad transitional government in waiting, has decided, along with Secretary of State John Kerry, that al Qaeda will be dealt with after Assad is gone. Its standing, however, is severely constrained by its lack of political credibility on the ground. It has become little more than a vehicle for Qatar and Saudi Arabia to vie for control of Syrian politics.

The problems in Syria, however, are far greater than the shortcomings of each side’s negotiating teams in Geneva. When the civil war began in 201l, it was a fight between Syrians demanding greater civil rights and a government that ultimately provoked them into violent confrontation through its own brutality. That political struggle quickly morphed into a wider sectarian war between Sunni and Shia, flaring up across the Middle East.

Shia Iran was an early — and vital — financial and military supporter of Assad. It is intent on make sure he does not fall. Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters into Syria last year, at Iran’s command, to strengthen Assad’s hand made the region’s Sunni giant, Saudi Arabia, even more fearful of creeping Shia hegemony.

from Bethany McLean:

How Ralph Nader learned to love Fannie and Freddie

Corrects story issued February 18 in third-to-last paragraph regarding efforts to contact Ralph  Nader.

“It is time for [government-sponsored enterprises] to give up ties to the federal government that have made them poster children for corporate welfare. Most of all, Congress needs to look more to the protection of the taxpayers and less to the hyperbole of the GSE lobbyists. –Ralph Nader, testimony before the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services, June 15, 2000

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be relisted on the NYSE and their conservatorships should, over time, be terminated. –Ralph Nader, letter to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, May 23, 2013

from Nicholas Wapshott:

Comcast: How to win at monopoly

The proposed merger between the cable television interests of Time Warner Cable and its principal rival, Comcast, demonstrates a neat example of how the theory of the free market differs so radically from the marketplace in practice.

In the storybook version of how business works, companies compete for customers by offering rival services and the company with the best products and prices wins. In this fairytale, everyone wins. Customers benefit from competition through a better choice of products and cheaper prices, the good companies take a handsome profit and prosper, and the bad companies go to the wall.

In real life, this heroic version of how the world spins is far less noble. In the mythical version of the free market, companies fiercely compete with each other for market share by trying to outdo each other in pleasing customers. In reality, companies tend to forego the difficult and expensive art of wooing customers from a rival and resort to buying the competition. Buying business is far easier than earning it.

from Stories I’d like to see:

Cigarette companies’ final days, high-speed trading, and how rich is Ringo?

1. Cigarette companies’ final days:

This article last week from the Associated Press, “U.S. health experts predict…a cigarette-free America,” highlighted the release of a 900-page report on smoking from the U.S. surgeon general. “Though the goal of a cigarette-free America has long seemed like a pipe dream,” the AP noted, “public-health leaders have started throwing around phrases like ‘endgame’ and ‘tobacco-free generation.’”

Smoking has declined significantly in the United States in the five decades since the surgeon general’s first report pinpointing the dangers of cigarettes. It is still a multibillion-dollar industry, however, that sells more than 300 billion cigarettes a year here.

Yet smoking rates continue to decline as the evidence of tobacco’s lethal effects becomes accepted wisdom. At the same time, venues forbidding smoking have become nearly universal, even as the sale of smoking products becomes more constricted. CVS’s decision two weeks ago to stop selling tobacco is the latest example. (I wrote about that here.) Several states are now considering raising the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21.

What America’s leftward shift means for elections

With each new poll, it’s becoming clear that the United States is shifting to the left. A majority of Americans now supports same-sex marriage.  And legalization of marijuana.  And normalization of relations with Cuba.

Gallup reports that, in 2013, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as liberals reached its highest level since 1992. True, it’s only 23 percent. Conservatives, at 38 percent, still outnumber liberals. But the trend has been slowly and steadily upward for liberals since 1996, when it was 16 percent.

This shift is due entirely to Democrats becoming more liberal — 29 percent of Democrats in 2000, 43 percent in 2013. At the same time, Democrats have won the national popular vote in five out of the six presidential elections since 1992 (all but 2004). Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote twice — something Bill Clinton couldn’t do.

from Lawrence Summers:

On inequality

Inequality has emerged as a major economic issue in the United States and beyond.

Sharp increases in the share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners, a rising share of income going to profits, stagnant real wages, and a rising gap between productivity growth and growth in median family income are all valid causes for concern. A generation ago, it could have been plausibly asserted that the economy’s overall growth rate was the dominant determinant of growth in middle-class incomes and progress in reducing poverty. This is no longer plausible. The United States may well be on the way to becoming a Downton Abbey economy.

So concern about inequality and its concomitants is warranted. Issues associated with an increasingly unequal distribution of economic rewards will likely be with us long after the cyclical conditions have normalized and budget deficits finally addressed.

Despite stimulus, middle class still struggles

Five years ago Monday, President Barack Obama signed the signature economic proposal of his presidency, saying that the passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus package heralded the “the beginning of the end” of the Great Recession.

The president told a Denver audience that he was “keeping the American Dream alive in our time.” But for millions of Americans, he made things worse.

It is now clear that bold White House predictions about stimulus jobs “saved and created” were just a prelude to later pledges about keeping your doctors and falling premiums.

Why Michael Sam’s future may be tougher than we think

University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam stands to make history as the first openly gay athlete in the National Football League. The league, sports media, and armchair commentators are now scrambling to predict how the All American’s disclosure of his sexual orientation may affect his future team members.

Though the public response to Sam’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, social psychology and organizational behavior research suggest he may have a struggle ahead. His success or failure in the NFL will largely depend on the leadership of his prospective team.

Sam’s Mizzou family supported him as an openly gay player, and he had an odds-defying season. But he began his career with the Tigers as a closeted gay man. That distinction is key. Anti-gay attitudes decrease when individuals have close gay friends, University of California, Davis psychologist Gregory Herek has found. Compared to other stigmatized groups, gay men and women have the advantage of concealing their stigmatized identity in new relationships — coming out once they’ve established trust. Because Sam’s sexual orientation will be known before he ever signs to a team, this opportunity to “win hearts, then change minds” may be lost.

The deadly consequences of ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws

The trial of Michael Dunn in Florida has again raised questions about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Dunn, 47, is charged with fatally shooting Jordan Davis, an unarmed 17-year-old, in the parking lot of a Jacksonville convenience store, over loud music. Many questions swirl around whether Dunn was legally justified under current Florida law, as he insists he was, to fire into the car where Davis sat listening to music. As the jury deliberates, there will be many more discussions about how factors like race and the jury’s interpretation of Stand Your Ground determine the verdict.

This misses the bigger question, however, which is whether this lethal confrontation would have happened without the law. If Florida had not passed its law so that a person has no “duty to retreat” before using lethal force, how would Dunn have responded? Would he still have gotten his gun from his car and fired repeatedly into Davis’s vehicle? Would he have even had a gun with him?

These same questions can be asked of the other cases that have received so much media attention. Would George Zimmerman have followed Trayvon Martin, with a gun, and confronted the teenager if Florida law had not offered him these additional self-defense protections? Would Raul Rodriguez, convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years for the murder of his Houston neighbor, have confronted his neighbor over loud music and killed him, if not for Texas’s similar law?

Servicing the underbanked

A new report from the United States Postal Service inspector general proposes that the agency offer non-bank financial services, including payday loans. Opinion pieces and blog posts praised this idea as a way for the post office to solve its fiscal woes while reaching a portion of Americans outside the traditional banking system. A Reuters “Great Debate” piece, “Transforming Post Offices into banks”), called the proposal a “win-win.”

These pieces overlook some practical problems, however, and leave numerous questions unanswered about implementation. While government and charitable-sponsored financial services should play a role in consumer lending, they cannot replace market-based solutions.

Notably, the USPS proposal underestimates the challenge of offering consumer financial services in an increasingly competitive marketplace regulated by complex federal and state laws. Without a sizable government subsidy, the report’s suggested interest rate for small-dollar loans would not even cover basic operating expenses.

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