Reihan Salam

What Syria’s fall means for Turkey’s rise

Reihan Salam
Aug 30, 2013 16:57 UTC

ISTANBUL — It’s rare that I enjoy being stuck in traffic, but the slow ride from Istanbul’s main international airport to its central business district is a feast for the eyes. New shopping malls, apartment blocks, and office parks seem to stretch out in every direction, up and down the city’s formidable hills. But this week has served as a reminder that Turkey’s prosperity rests on a fragile foundation.

After over a decade in office, many Turks believe that the ruling AK Party has grown arrogant and unaccountable, and its brutal response to recent political protests has laid bare Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unmistakable authoritarian streak. One nevertheless gets the impression that for most Turks, the fact that Erdogan has presided over the longest, most robust economic expansion since the golden age that stretched from 1960 to 1978 is reason enough to support him. From 2002 to 2012, inflation-adjusted GDP per capita increased by 43 percent, or an average of 3.6 percent per year. This is not quite as fast as some other middle-income countries, like Poland. But it has been fast enough to leave a deep imprint on Turkish society, and to give Turks, almost half of whom are under the age of 25, a new sense of what their country can accomplish.

A week from now, on September 7th, the International Olympic Committee will vote to determine which city will host the 2020 Olympics, and Istanbul is, along with Madrid and Tokyo, a finalist. There are a variety of reasons one might prefer Istanbul over its rivals. While Spain and Japan have both hosted the Olympics in recent decades, no city in Turkey, the Near East or a Muslim-majority country has ever done so. Just as the selection of Seoul and Beijing and Rio de Janeiro celebrated the rise of various rising economic powers, the selection of Turkey would send the signal that the country once derided as “the sick man of Europe” had finally arrived.

And so it is poignant that instead of Olympic fever, Turkey is transfixed by talk of an armed intervention by the United States and its allies in Syria. The armed opposition groups, some of them backed by various Arab states, have been fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s Iran- and Hezbollah-backed government for two years now. The United States has appeared disengaged at best and hapless at worst as the death toll in Syria has risen and as refugee outflows have destabilized neighboring countries. In Turkey, the crisis in Syria is much more than an embarrassment. It is a threat to Turkish prosperity, and quite possibly to Turkey’s territorial integrity. Turkey’s border with Syria has historically been porous, and Turkish border towns are absorbing large numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing violence and persecution. One town, Reyhanli, was the site of a terrorist atrocity in May, a vivid indication that the violence in Syria has the potential to spread to Turkish soil.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that Turkey is on roughly the same page as the United States. President Obama seems to have reluctantly concluded that since the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its enemies, the U.S. is obligated to do something about it — something short of a full-scale military campaign designed to end the civil war, but forceful enough to send a message and perhaps to shift the balance of power. Though Turkey and the U.S. are NATO allies, they have had an at times tense relationship since at least 2003, when Turkey’s AK Party government refused to allow U.S. ground forces to enter Iraq via Turkish territory. So it comes as something of a relief that Turkey, which has been urging its NATO partners to devote more time and attention to the Syrian crisis, is amenable to the idea of a limited U.S.-led intervention.

In New York, the rent doesn’t have to be ‘too damn high’

Reihan Salam
Aug 23, 2013 15:35 UTC

The house in which I grew up was built in 1913. It was part of a building boom in New York City’s outer boroughs fueled by the rising incomes, and rising aspirations, of erstwhile tenement-dwellers. As jam-packed Manhattan neighborhoods like the Lower East Side emptied out, once-bucolic stretches of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were transformed with dizzying speed.

A century later, neighborhoods like the one I grew up in seem frozen in amber. The faces are different, to be sure, and so are the languages spoken by the locals. Crime has gone down and property values have gone up, and New York City is as desirable as it’s ever been. Yet we’ve had nothing like the building boom of the 1910s and 1920s that transformed the face of the city. Millions of low- and middle-income New Yorkers thus find themselves squeezed by skyrocketing rents, and hundreds of thousands of others who want to make their home in New York can’t afford to do so. 

In fairness, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has presided over the revitalization of the city’s waterfront, where new buildings really are sprouting up. Brooklyn’s Barclays Center will eventually be surrounded by new housing units, and an ambitious new mixed-use neighborhood is planned for Manhattan’s West Side.

The sober way to legalize marijuana

Reihan Salam
Aug 16, 2013 16:21 UTC

As a general rule, Americans don’t give much thought to Uruguay, a small South American republic with a population of 3.3 million. But Uruguay has embarked on a new experiment with marijuana legalization that merits close attention. As Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, new Uruguayan legislation will allow individuals to grow as much as 480 grams of marijuana for personal consumption, and marijuana cooperatives with no more than 45 members will be permitted to grow just over two plants per member. The government will also allow for limited commercial production, but Uruguayan lawmakers have made it clear that they don’t want a domestic marijuana market dominated by large for-profit firms.

Might the United States follow in Uruguay’s footsteps? Marijuana legalization seems inevitable—but we’d be wise to follow Uruguay’s lead and carefully regulate the kinds of legal marijuana operations that will follow. 

Marijuana advocates have successfully pressed for the legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215. And efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as in Uruguay’s new legislation, are gaining ground. In November, three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — had marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, two of which passed. Though Oregon voters chose not to legalize marijuana last fall, they will likely get another chance to do so in 2014. Alaska and Arizona could be the next states to follow suit.

The geography of opportunity

Reihan Salam
Aug 1, 2013 20:40 UTC

Something extraordinary is happening in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Pittsburgh and in the suburbs surrounding them, and if we’re going to overcome entrenched poverty in America as a whole, we have to pay close attention to what these communities are getting right. To understand why, consider the findings of an important new study.

According to new findings from the Equality of Opportunity Project, an ambitious venture led by the economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, there are dramatic differences in economic outcomes for children raised in different U.S. cities. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as economic conditions vary considerably from region to region and so does the quality of K-12 schools and other institutions that contribute to success later in life. Yet Chetty et al have now put the consequences of these differences in sharp relief.

The team divided the United States into 741 commuting zones, most of which are named after the biggest city in the zone. Though these zones are conceptually similar to the metropolitan and micropolitan areas used by the Census Bureau, they’re not quite the same. Drawing on anonymized earnings records, the team then sought to track economic outcomes for individuals raised in various commuting zones, including where these individuals wound up in the national income distribution as adults.