Israel the reckless driver.

Reports this morning are that Israel directly attacked Iran in Syria.

Here is reporting from the WaPo.

Confrontation between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria sharply escalated early Thursday morning as Israel said Iran launched a barrage of 20 missiles toward its positions in the Golan Heights.

Heavy military jet activity, explosions and air-defense fire could be heard throughout the night in the area. An Israeli military spokesman said the rockets were fired by Iran’s Quds Force, a special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, marking the first time Iranian forces have ever fired directly on Israeli troops.

This is typical reckless driving by our ally Israel and I suspect a consequence of pulling out the Iran deal. Reckless driving is the unintended consequence of America assuming the defense responsibility of a foreign country. States that receive American defense guarantees will have an incentive to be more aggressive in their foreign policy had they no such assumption that America would step in if they got themselves into serious trouble.

Because these states do not burden all of the costs of their actions, they act more aggressively.

We saw this in Yemen with Saudi Arabia.

We are now seeing it with Iran in Syria.

Short primer on Chinese debt

Is provided by Bloomberg.

Here is one angle on its debt problem.

In 2008, China’s total debt was about 141 percent of its gross domestic product. By mid-2017 that number had risen to 256 percent. Countries that take on such a large amount of debt in such a short period typically face a hard landing. That’s why everyone—academics, private banks, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the Bank for International Settlements, and People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan—is sounding the alarm.

The biggest problem of Chinese debt is that it is allocated by the party and not the markets. They could get away with this because of how lopsided their capital to labor ratio was, but that has largely leveled off and the CCP no longer has such a large margin of error when determining how debt is distributed.

This is the single biggest problem facing the Chinese economy in my opinion.

The rest can be found here.

Bibi’s role

“His worldview is very clear,” said Ari Shavit, an Israeli journalist who has long covered Mr. Netanyahu. “Iran is Nazi Germany. Israel is England. He is Churchill and America is America. His main goal has been to persuade Roosevelt to get into a conflict that will crush Iran. It didn’t work with Obama. But with President Trump he sees a golden opportunity.”


Mr. Shavit added that Mr. Netanyahu sees Iran as both dangerous and fragile, like the weakening Soviet Union that Ronald Reagan confronted, and wishes for a similar American approach to it: very assertive American diplomacy and sanctions that exploit Iran’s weakness to eliminate its danger.

The rest can be read at the NYT.

Why Trump supports diplomacy with North Korea but not Iran.

In the case of North Korea, the hurdles preventing the United States from pursuing its own best national interests and engaging with Iran do not pop up. There is no equivalent of MEK or AIPAC lobbying the White House on behalf of North Korea; there is no North Korean version of Sheldon Adelson to obstruct a push for peace with Pyongyang. North Korea presents President Trump with the opportunity to achieve success where his predecessors could not; a possible motivating factor for the president. When discussing North Korea, the president often throws the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations under the bus by voicing that the issue should have been handled long ago. Unlike Iran, the issue of North Korea has not galvanized a large and well-funded institutionalized policy sector devoted to curtailing engagement with Pyongyang. This provides room for US policy on North Korea to more accurately reflect US interests. For the Trump administration, this means that beyond the president’s showmanship and impulse to meet with Kim Jong-un, diplomacy can be given a chance with the hermit kingdom.

I do not understand the argument here.

  1. Trump is trying diplomacy with both Iran and NK. Pulling out of the Iran deal is still a form of diplomacy, albeit not smart in my opinion.
  2. These groups usually lobby congress, not the President.
  3. Why is their anti-Iran lobbying effective post 2016 but not prior?

The obvious reason Trump doesn’t like the deal is because it’s flawed and it was not negotiated by Trump but inherited. If we had an Asian JCPOA I suspect that he would be doing the same thing.

If the author is convinced that it is local politics and interest groups which explain Iran and not Korea, the more interesting question would be why there is no significant South Korean interest groups lobbying for/against a deal.

You can read the article in its entirety here.

Boris Johnson on the Iran deal

Do not forget how this agreement has helped to avoid a possible catastrophe. In his address to the United Nations in September 2012, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, rightly warned of the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. At that moment, Iran’s nuclear plants held an estimated 11,500 centrifuges and nearly seven tons of low-enriched uranium — totals that would rise to nearly 20,000 centrifugesand eight tons of uranium.


Had the leaders of the Islamic Republic decided to go for a nuclear arsenal, they would have needed only a few months to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for their first bomb.


The situation was even more worrying because, month by month, Iran was installing more centrifuges and building up its uranium stockpile. But under the deal, Iran has placed two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage and relinquished about 95 percent of its uranium stockpile. The “break out” time has been extended to at least a year — and the agreement is designed to keep it above that minimum threshold.


Moreover, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been given extra powers to monitor Iran’s nuclear facilities, increasing the likelihood that they would spot any attempt to build a weapon.


Now that these handcuffs are in place, I see no possible advantage in casting them aside. Only Iran would gain from abandoning the restrictions on its nuclear program.

It is a good piece and essentially argues that should build off of JCPOA and not “tear it up.”

It was printed in the NYT which can be read here.

China and AI

Below is an excerpt of a short piece by Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard.

The possibility that China might never supplant the US as the world’s economic hegemon is the flip side of the technology and inequality problem. Everyone in the West is worrying about the future of work, but in many ways it is a bigger problem for the Chinese development model than for the American one. The US needs to struggle with the problem of how to redistribute income internally, especially given highly concentrated ownership of new ideas and technology. But for China, there is the additional problem of how to extend its franchise as export superpower into the machine age.

You can read the rest here.

Why Men Love War

I last saw Hiers in a rice paddy in Vietnam. He was nineteen then–my wonderfully skilled and maddeningly insubordinate radio operator. For months we were seldom more than three feet apart. Then one day he went home, and fifteen years passed before we met by accident last winter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. A few months later I visited Hiers and his wife. Susan, in Vermont, where they run a bed-and -breakfast place. The first morning we were up at dawn trying to save five newborn rabbits. Hiers built a nest of rabbit fur and straw in his barn and positioned a lamp to provide warmth against the bitter cold.


What people can’t understand,” Hiers said, gently picking up each tiny rabbit and placing it in the nest, “is how much fun Vietnam was. I loved it. I loved it, and I can’t tell anybody.”


Hiers loved war. And as I drove back from Vermont in a blizzard, my children asleep in the back of the car, I had to admit that for all these years I also had loved it, and more than I knew. I hated war, too. Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it–implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that. But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?

That is the opening of a very interesting piece in Esquire.

Similar to the topics of sex and race, Americans have a difficult time talking about war as grownups.

The author is William Broyles, JR and you can read the rest here.


“Why the Arab Spring turned Islamic: the political economy of Islam.”

The author is Mario Ferrero and you can find the source here.

Here is the paper’s introduction.

The Arab Spring started at the beginning of 2011 as a movement aiming at the overthrow of authoritarian rule in a number of countries. While it failed to remove traditional autocracies such as Bahrain’s monarchy, it did succeed against secular, post-colonial dictatorships including Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia. Although initially the stated goal of many participants and leaders of the movement was ‘‘democracy’’, more than 6 years on Islamist parties and groups of various descriptions, supported by majorities or pluralities of voters, have either taken control or established themselves as critical players in the aforementioned countries (and increased their influence in still others such as Morocco). Even though a partial backlash from turned-off citizens has belatedly been observed in places like Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamists’ position is firmly entrenched in parts of the society; it is remarkable that in Egypt it took a military coup, cheered by disappointed erstwhile supporters, to boot them out of government. While the outcome of the fighting in Syria is still undecided at the time of this writing, many observers fear that there too the Islamists may eventually gain the upper hand—which is itself one big reason why the Assad regime still enjoys substantial support, domestic and international.

Of course Islamic fundamentalism and Islamist politics had been on the rise throughout the Muslim world for several decades prior to the Arab Spring—the Iranian theocratic revolution of 1979 may be seen as an early warning. Usually, however, it was fuelled by repression: the dictatorships cracked down on Islamic movements, which turned them more radical (Algeria, Egypt, and Chechnya are good examples). So, in many a Western observer’s reasoning, once repression is replaced by toleration and freedom, popular support for the radicals will subside and the radicals themselves will turn moderate and ‘‘reasonable’’. This expectation has been contradicted by post-revolutionary developments. In part, the Islamists’ initial ascendancy must be put down to the fact that because all of the regimes in question were authoritarian, Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda in Tunisia were among the few ready to take over power after the revolution; but their endurance through time suggests that this cannot be the whole explanation. While these Islamist parties may be expected to undergo further change in their ideology and agenda under the challenge posed by their hold on power and by the competition from other parties, it seems clear that their central position in the new Arab political landscape in one form or another is here to stay, as is their radical confrontation with non-Islamic parties. Hence the central question that motivates this paper: why is political Islam on the rise in the wake of the Arab revolutions?

For perspective, consider the post-communist transition. After the collapse of communism in 1989–1991, most of the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union turned democratic and established full freedom of religion, thereby overturning the communist system of religious repression and state-sponsored atheism. This is a good benchmark for comparison because it bears a superficial resemblance to the position of religion in the Arab Spring, which emerged from marginalization or repression into political freedom. Yet in none of the traditionally Christian countries of Europe did a party with an explicitly religious agenda manage to acquire lasting prominence (Grzymala-Busse 2013). In striking contrast to Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring, militant Christian politics has not been an important factor in the European democratic transition.

This paper disregards the specifics of each particular country’s history and politics and tries to get at the root of the problem: it will argue that the fundamental reason is the uncompetitive nature of the Islamic religion as it has historically evolved, when coupled with the disarray of political alignments left by the power vacuum. We will examine the contrast between Islam and Christianity in terms of their different propensity to sectarianism and sectarian competition, or lack thereof, and their different nexus between church, state and individual; in this connection, special attention will be devoted to Islamic Law and the law schools that define it. Finally, we will weave all this together and outline an explanation of the rise of political Islam based on political economy.

This paper provides a cultural explanation for differences in the nature of constitutional or law-bound governance. It differs from the cultural explanation suggested in de Montesquieu (1989), which stresses differences in civic norms and climate, and instead focuses on religion as an ideological foundation of legitimate governance and dissent. The main focus is on Islam, but some analysis of Catholicism and its effect on medieval governance is also outlined. The idea that religious grounding may amount to a quasi-constitutional constraint on government, however, is not new. In his masterful history of government, Finer (1997) suggests that the kingdoms of ancient Israel before the Babylonian captivity were the first historical instance of limited government, in which the laws of God as enshrined in the Torah and interpreted by the priestly class functioned as bounds on monarchical absolutism. This paper probes into the Islamic counterpart of such a religious ‘‘constitution’’.

In seeking to establish a link between the (un)competitiveness of a religious tradition and that religion’s political prominence, this papers breaks new ground. There is a rich political-economy literature on the compatibility of Islam and democracy (Paldam 2009; Rowley and Smith 2009; Maseland and van Hoorn 2011; Potrafke 2012). On the other hand, there is a literature, pioneered by the work of Timur Kuran (summarized in Kuran 2010), that probes the effects of key economic institutions and legal rules of Islam on long-run economic development in the Middle East. But there is as yet no study of the structure of the religion as such as it impacts contemporary political developments. This paper takes a step towards filling this gap.


Is China a Colonial Power?

That is the title of a NYT opinion piece.

Here is one bit.

But the historical echoes are worrisome. Already, Sri Lanka, unable to pay back the $8 billion it owes Chinese state-owned enterprises for building major infrastructure on its territory, has agreed to lease its port in Hambantota to China for 99 years. That is precisely the term for which another strategic port, Hong Kong, was leased by the Qing to the British in circumstances that epitomize colonialism.


So one wonders: Is China presenting a new model of development to a world that could use one, or is One Belt, One Road itself the new colonialism?


Because these rail and other projects require security, they extend the Chinese government’s political reach into Central Asia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And as Beijing turns the South China Sea into a vast game of Go, its new ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and, potentially, the Maldives start to look like still more playing tokens.

The author is James A. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, and you can read the rest of the article here.

The battles of political ideology have not ended.

After the Cold War, the West had assumed the contest of ideologies had been settled and that the last man had emerged. Political liberalism was victorious and non-democratic regimes were on “the wrong side of history,” as President Bill Clinton told the Chinese. The world seemed to agree as it experienced the third democratic wave. It was expected that alternatives to open markets, democracy, and individual human rights would not be welcomed but imposed.

Yet, in 2018, this is no longer true as both China and Russia offer alternative political models which are both gaining appeal around of the world.

What does Russia offer? Mostly a response to the social costs of liberalism. The cultural consequences of open markets and respecting civil liberties are not welcomed by all of society. The multiculturalism which results from respecting individual rights often challenges the traditional foundations of society. What Russia offers is a model to confronts these trends. Under Putin, Russia  is the defender of “the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life” against those that “revise their moral values and ethical norms.” To pursue these goals, Russia offers a semi-autocratic state with leadership not subject to the rule of law or a critical press. In place of a rule bound, consensus driven executive, Russia offers a democratically elected leader yet one not obligated to respect individual rights. Once in power, the majority can impose what it wants on the non-majority. Such a model is usually referred to as illiberal democracy and is arguably the most powerful political trend in the Western world at the moment, recently planting roots in Poland and Hungary.

What China offers is something similar in spirit but with different motives. While Russia promotes a democratically elected head of state tasked to combat the erosion of traditional values, China offers an authoritarian political model responsible for economic growth. The common narrative that emerged after 1989 was that economic development was only possible when state interference was minimal. Free trade, private property, and democratic participation were all thought to be essential ingredients for a healthy economy. China demonstrated that this isn’t entirely true and that an alternative path exists, consisting of state own industries, politically controlled capital, and deep participation in the global supply chain. The political component of this model is an autocratic state with strict one-party political rule. Human rights are not respected nor is public criticism tolerated, and democracy is out of the question.

And the China model has its fans. Before his death in 2012, Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi routinely lauded the Chinese growth model and stated he sought to imitate it in Ethiopia. It is obvious why the ruling elites in Africa and Central America find such a model appealing. They get the economic growth but are also allowed to retain their positions of power. But there is a good amount of admiration for the China model among the governed as well. In 2017, Canadians viewed China more favorable than the United States by 5 percentage points. While it does not offer human rights or political participation, the China model is appealing because experiments with democracy and free markets have failed in other parts of the world. According to the World Bank, in 1980, the gdp per person in the worlds largest democracy (India) was 263 dollars. China’s was 194. In 2016, India has a gdp per person of 1,709 and China 8,123. You can see why there is no “India model.” Many view free markets as chaotic and the democratic process slow and inept. Such beliefs were confirmed by the financial crisis of 2007 and chronic political gridlock in America. Not only did China’s economy grow during the great recession, but they have maintained a relatively high degree of social and class cohesion in the process (albeit with a steep cost to human freedom).

What are China and Russia motivated by? They want deference from their neighbors and it is expected that states that share their politics will be more likely to do this. Some of the desire for deference is security driven and some by prestige, but either way, the West should allow it to occur. The principal reason why the Putin model is so popular is because of liberalism overextending itself. The more that Brussels and D.C. pushed their politics into Eastern Europe the more appealing the Putin model became. While not ideal from a human rights perspective, it would be better to find a compromise with the reactionary elements than stubbornly impose on them values they do not want. In regard to the China model, the United States should want to know if alternatives to the Washington Consensus are available. The traditional path to growth has not worked everywhere, as observed with Argentina in the 2000s. Unlike the Western model which is highly ideological, the China model is flexible and pragmatic, and could perhaps better suit the needs of a developing country than Western orthodoxy. Frankly, what the West should do is act more Western, and allow the market place of ideas to determine which model is more suitable for developing countries.