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Useless Nations & the Insecurity Council

At the end of World War II, the international community was tired of war – five powerful nations; France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States; were declared the victors, and decided to take steps towards encouraging peace so another brutal conflict would be less likely to take place. Thus was the birth of the United Nations – a new international body with the aim of keeping the peace. Our five victorious nations were, naturally, given the prime spots: to this day, each holds a “veto power”: when the Security Council of the UN passes resolutions, the five permanent members all must agree on it in order for it to pass. There are, of course, varying opinions on the United Nations and its effectiveness (a friend of mine calls it “Useless Nations”), but one thing is certain: the veto power makes it more difficult for the United Nations to get things done. In response, many sources, including Al Jazeera have suggested getting rid of the veto power of the security council. Would that really be such a good idea?

First of all, we need to see the issue with the five countries on the council. Three of the five are European; all are nuclear states. The fact that so many are European promotes a sort of cultural dominance which is unrepresentative of the population of the world. When 60% of the nations with veto power and permanent positions are primarily white, liberal democracies, this means the UN’s decisions will likely reflect this value set, rather than other value sets. The fact that all are nuclear powers is also significant: it sends the message that in order to be recognized as a powerful nation, you must have nuclear weapons. Though this assumption is based on other factors, its symbolic significance within the United Nations furthers this belief, which has been detrimental in the cases of Iran and North Korea. Furthermore, the countries that originally joined the security council are quite unlike those that exist today; China, for example, had not yet come under Communist rule. Some argue that India should also be given a permanent spot, as it is rising in global power, but due to the volatile nature of international politics and the sudden changes that can happen to markets and power dynamics, it is difficult to award these permanent spots, or even justify some current permanent members’ spots. One assumption that is made regarding the permanent members is that they have earned this spot by being powerful, major players in the international arena, but we must realize there are errors in that assumption in order to correctly gauge whether or not the veto power is proper.

Second is effectiveness: in the debate about the security council veto, we see similar arguments to those about parliamentary and presidential systems. In America, as in the UN, when resolutions are voted on there can be quite a bit of gridlock and disagreement. There have been 199 vetoes in the UN between 1946 and 1989, and another 17 between 1990 and 2004. Recently, veto power has become an issue because China and Russia have opposed intervention in Syria (including ordering Bashar al-Assad to step down) and China especially has opposed sanctions on North Korea (though they eventually conceded). If other countries on the Security Council vote for something, and one country votes against it, it seems unfair that the resolution won’t pass due to the will of one member. Looking at this from a western perspective, given recent events with vetoes by China and Russia, it is easy to see this power as a flawed thing, but we must look at it with a more open mind. China and Russia do have entirely different beliefs and cultures, and their input could be valuable. A Security Council that ascribed completely to western ideals would fail as an international body as it would not reflect the will of the world. Having to persuade countries like China and Russia may encourage international cooperation and compromise, which is a good thing… but it can also serve to aggravate disputes. The argument about effectiveness of the UN, therefore, comes to what is essentially a draw.

One of the veto power’s more sinister capabilities is to further the interests of a permanent member, against the will of others. The United States, for example, has used a number of vetoes to protect Israel from UN admonishment; though the majority of the world is against the United States in this case, as it is a permanent member, it has veto power. Fifty-nine vetoes have been cast to block the admission of member states to the UN, an action that can be considered similar to not granting an individual the ability to vote. Many permanent members are already significantly more powerful than other states, and giving them more of a voice in the United Nations and allowing them to utilize its powers to their own benefit rather than to international benefit does seem unfair, especially when we consider the argument made in the second paragraph. This concept undermines the entire legitimacy of the UN as a place for international cooperation. Legitimacy is important, as the belief that a body is effective and legitimate by its constituents is key to its success. The UN has many affiliated groups, like the World Trade Organization and the International Crime Court that serve important functions; when people do not have faith in the UN itself, it hurts the efficacy of these groups as well. (It is also interesting to note that the permanent members, even if they commit a crime and another group wants to try them in international court, in many cases they can actually veto this decision and avoid the court.)

After weighing both sides, it does seem to show that the veto power of the Security Council is unfair and undermines the United Nations… but it does have some benefits to it as well, and it is impossible to know what would happen if the veto power was abolished (not to mention if there were no more permanent members). It does make sense to think that the United States and other powerful countries, like China, should be represented more heavily than some other countries, as not only do they have bigger populations but their actions affect more of the world. In order to satisfy both sides of this argument, there is a fairly simple solution that is implemented successfully in democracies around the world: the power to override a veto. If other Security Council members could still pass a resolution with 2/3 majority of the Security Council, for example, it would make the powers of the permanent members less tyrannical and allow for better decisionmaking that is more reflective of all members’ beliefs. It may be a long time before people stop seeing the United Nations as the “Useless Nations”, but evening out the playing field in this way would certainly be a good start.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2013 in Current Events

 

Mind-Reading Helmets for Bomb-Sniffing Dogs

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, many blamed the country’s failure to detect these threats on a “lack of imagination.” In response, the government did the logical thing: hired a group of science fiction writers to brainstorm potential ways to protect the country from national security breaches.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the logical thing. The committee was called Sigma, and Christopher Kelly, a member of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology division, justified their hiring by saying that “Fifty years ago, science-fiction writers told us about flying cars and a wireless handheld communicator. Although flying cars haven’t evolved, cellphones today are a way of life…. science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate.” While Sigma hasn’t come up with anything ground-breaking yet (among their ideas were “material that becomes armor when struck with a bullet; an antibiotic that cures martyrdom; a satellite that beams solar energy to earth; and mind-reading helmets for bomb-sniffing dogs”), perhaps the government was on to something when they decided to look towards a more futuristic angle for defense. Fast forward to the present day, and we’ve seen that cyberwarfare, a decidedly 21st century method of attack, has come to the forefront of national security concerns.

So what is cyberwarfare? The definition given by Wikipedia is “politically motivated hacking to conduct sabotage and espionage.” Now how is that applicable or dangerous to our lives?
At this point, almost everything is run on a computer grid; government functions, defense operations, companies, etc. Cyberwarfare has the potential to destroy several vital functions; while it hasn’t happened yet, many worry that cyberattacks could be use to crash the stock market and stop it from operating, take down major water lines, even seize control of air or railroad traffic or cause a nuclear meltdown. In an article by the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Flynn from Northeastern University described this potential disastrous situation: “When transformers fail, so too will water distribution, waste management, transportation, communications and many emergency and government services. Giving the average of twelve month lead that is required to replace a damaged transformer… if we had a mass damage of that scale… the economic and society disruption would be enormous.” In 2009, the Air Traffic Control system was hacked and personal information was stolen; while the attackers did not gain control of the planes themselves, penetrating the servers is still something to be worried about. Hackers in 2012 attacked a company that deals with over 60% of the oil and gas pipelines in North America. The hackers managed to steal several program files.
Outside of America, the problem is just as serious; a firm in South Korea called SK Communications was targeted, and the private information of almost 35 million people may have been stolen. An al Qaeda operative ominously proclaimed that America and its allies should be subjected to “electronic jihad” and compared the weaknesses in America’s technological infrastructure as similar to those in America’s security before the 9/11 attacks.
Certainly, America is not blameless for these attacks; we have used cyberwarfare and cyberattacks before, for example, in the case of Iran’s Stuxnet virus. Stuxnet was a virus created by the United States and Israel that infiltrated Iran’s nuclear program in 2010 and targeted Siemens equipment, which was what uranium was being enriched with in Iran. The virus, depending on the estimate, delayed Iran’s nuclear program by a few weeks to a few years.

So the question is: What can we do about it?
This is a rather complex question, especially as I have no background in creating code or hacking. But there are a few steps America should attempt to take to strengthen its defenses.
1. Hire hackers.
This may seem counterintuitive; why hire hackers if that’s exactly what you want to avoid? In order to protect us from cyberattacks, the government and businesses need to find out where their weaknesses are, and there is no better way to do this than to get hackers to find them. Google has used this approach to make its Google Chrome browser more secure, and it was relatively cheap; all they had to do was offer a moderate cash prize for anyone who could detect a major flaw or get through Chrome’s defenses.
2. Expand the STEM (science/technology/engineering/mathematics) fields.
The best way to make sure we are secure in the cyber realm is by making sure there are enough people educated in the fields that would primarily contribute to this security. Many schemes have been proposed, including incentives for people to get STEM education in college rather than humanities, or even granting visas to any immigrants who agree to get an education in the STEM field and then either start a business or get a job in it.
3. Improve our relationship with China.
This is definitely easier said than done! It is estimated in a report by Mandiant, a US cybersecurity firm, published in February 2013, that China is the source of almost 90% of cyberattacks against America. A group based in China called Ghostnet has been conducting attacks against many countries, including the United States. It’s difficult to say how we can really improve relationships with the country, but we should certainly focus on it. The Obama administration has decided to do this through the “Asia pivot”, which may actually be a bad idea as it could potentially aggravate China even further. The Asia pivot and its components could definitely use at least a thorough re analyzation before being carried out, just to ensure they don’t aggravate the possibility of even more cyberwarfare.
A number of other steps must be taken, including stricter measures taken by companies and more money directed to building up cybersecurity measures, but they would all take too long to discuss; we do need to be careful though, as the protection from cyberwarfare could potentially lead to internet censorship (Senator Joe Lieberman has proposed a bill called “Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act of 2010,” also known as “kill switch bill” which would give the president emergency power over parts of the internet). We may not need any mind-reading helmets for bomb-sniffing dogs anytime soon – but we do need to make sure the internet, and ultimately the entire country, is safe and secure.

Countries Preparing for Cyberwarfare

Countries Preparing for Cyberwarfare

 

Seeing the World Through RedWhite&Blue Tinted Glasses

Not to sound blunt or un-American, but… Americans tend to be rather self centered. Not in a personal or moral way, but in the way that America as a whole tends to be somewhat dismissive and ignorant towards the affairs and needs of other countries. I didn’t really realize the full extent of this until I tried out for Team USA, an American debate team that participates in international tournaments against teams from all around the world. After every round, all of us got the same comment: stop talking so much about the United States and focus more on the world! I then realized how little I actually knew about what was going on in the world, and, more importantly, how little media coverage we really get about international affairs. News overwhelmingly covers domestic issues; international issues are almost exclusively covered if and only if they affect America, whether it be that China’s malicious currency manipulation is hurting our businesses or whether or not we should militarily intervene in a Middle Eastern country and force our form of democracy and free market upon them. In a poll done by the Economist and YouGov only 15% of respondents placed foreign policy as one of their top three priorities. Perhaps it is selfish… but is America unnaturally so?
One thing I’ve found interesting throughout the course of the election and discussions about the state of the economy is that no one ever discusses the state of the global economy. Is it really possible for America to perform well if the rest of the world is collapsing? The Eurozone is obviously having its own problems, with economies like Greece and Spain doing so poorly. China’s and Japan’s growth rates are slowing and India’s faulty infrastructure is becoming increasingly more obvious. South Africa’s economy is sliding backwards and even Sweden, widely considered the most economically equal country in the world, is beginning to shift. I tried to search how the world economy affects America’s, but the only results I got were about how America affects the rest of the world, not the other way around. This perhaps proves my point further.
In America, we tend to see outsourcing of jobs as a bad thing. Companies send their labor elsewhere, and so there are fewer jobs for Americans. Companies do not contribute as much to America’s economy as they should be, and that is seen as negative. Regardless of the fact that outsourcing of jobs helps us since we get goods for cheaper if they are not made in the United States, the outsourcing of companies is actually very beneficial to the countries they go to. When so many American companies outsource to China, migrant Chinese workers are given jobs and opportunities they would not have had otherwise. In my eyes at least, these people are important too, and shouldn’t necessarily be seen as so much less important than American workers. China’s success helps us, too. According to a study by Nicholas Bloom, Paul Romer, and John Van Reenen, increased competition with China can actually boost innovation, and innovation really is one of the most valuable things we can have. They showed that direct competition from China has already generated faster technical change in firms in Europe and the United States through both reallocation and firm innovation, something that is definitely valuable to the United States, which is a country itself built on innovation and ideas.
Then there’s the issue of terrorism. The American government has made it a priority to stomp out terrorism and assure the safety of its citizens… but perhaps the way we go about it is actually more harmful than helpful to our foreign relations: for example, the drone strikes in many areas in the Middle East. Many support drone strikes on the basis that it will make America safer, and often such displays of military prowess are seen as very effective and as a way of asserting America’s power. But is such violence really the best way to accomplish this? From an American perspective, economically it seems to be the best option, and it brings the most immediate gratification. But from a foreign perspective, it is not necessarily the best thing to do. When we use drone strikes, it is inevitable at this point that we will kill civilians. (Keep in mind that while the site I linked makes it appear that many more militants than civilians are killed, militants are often just classified as men over fighting age. There are also many conflicting sources, some even claiming that drones only have a 2% sucess rate. More graphs and statistics can be seen in the slideshow at the bottom of this post.) Aside from the fact that killing civilians is a bad thing in general, it also ignites even more anti-American sentiment. In many areas of the Middle East, though the people hate the Taliban, they hate America even more. This breeds more and more terrorism as the desperate and impoverished turn to extremist beliefs and begin to blame their problems on America. Drone strikes and other such violent attacks on the Middle East may even serve to anger Middle Easterners already in the United States further, who certainly cannot be targeted by drones. Perhaps it would help to address the more structural problems in these countries, such as poverty, or even something more drastic like government reformation, but the approach most cost effective and easy for the United States is certainly not always the one best for the rest of the world or even for itself.
I could go on with more examples, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Aside from potential benefits to other countries, their economies, their governments, and their citizens, there are potential benefits to America for having a more global perspective. It would likely help us with diplomacy – when countries understand that we have their interests in mind at least to some extent, they are more willing to negotiate with us. I’m not asking for America to completely set aside its own interest, for obviously the wellbeing of its own citizens as well as its own success is very important to the people and to the global market – I only hope that America can become more global in its perspective and factor the rest of the world into its decisions and outlooks more. Next time you hear a politician talk about how we must maintain our position as the most powerful country in the world, or how we must make sure we stay ahead of other economies, or how dreadful it is that American jobs are being outsourced and the income that should be going to us is going elsewhere… I encourage you to question why that’s so important.

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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in Default

 

Democratic Party? Republican Party? I prefer to identify with the pizza party…

Whenever people at my school hear that I’m interested in politics, the first question they ask is “Are you a Democrat, or a Republican?” I tend to dislike this question for a number of reasons. First, either answer comes with a host of implications and people automatically assume you associate with all of the beliefs of the party. If you are to say you are a Republican, you may even face significant bias at my school, situated in primarily liberal Los Angeles. No one even thinks for a second about the dozens of other political parties, like the Libertarian or Green parties.

Throughout America’s history, there have generally been two major political parties, with a few exceptions. It began with the Federalists and Anti-Federalists; then it was the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, the Democrats and the Whigs, up to the modern day where our country is obviously split between Republicans and Democrats. One difference is that in the past, while tensions between parties were high, compromise happened more often. After all, our entire Constitution was built on a series of compromises (Three-fifths Compromise, Connecticut Compromise, the electoral college, etc.)

Over the weekend, I went to a debate tournament and participated in a format called “extemporaneous speaking” (extemp for short) for the first time, in which you go into a room and draw three topics out of a box. You then pick one and have thirty minutes (without internet!) to write a seven minute speech about it. For my first round, the topic I picked was something along the lines of “Now that the 2012 election is approaching, what should the Republicans do in preparation for 2016?” My speech, though consisting of many components, focused partially on the importance of compromise to make sure the system continues to function as it should, laws are passed, and the Republican party isn’t painted as unnecessarily stubborn and reluctant to pass laws that could potentially benefit the entire nation. I got first place for that round. Political compromise sounds appealing on paper, yet these days it rarely seems to happen.

Barack Obama has tried to pass numerous pieces of legislation, only to be outvoted or filibustered by the Republican House majority (I have graphics showing representation of House and Senate in a slideshow at the bottom of the page!) There wasn’t a single Republican vote on Obamacare, even after many attempts to appeal to Republican Congresspeople. There is a group of Tea Party Republicans who refuse to vote for any legislation that proposes any tax whatsoever, regardless of the predicted benefit. Of course, it is not only Republicans who don’t compromise, I only use these examples because naturally, since we currently have a Republican House majority and a Democratic president, clash is bound to happen. This development is honestly quite alarming, for a number of reasons, the most important being that legislation isn’t being passed to make progress in the country and it signals further division between the two parties. If two parties can’t work together… can a country’s government really function at all?

A government must have compromise to function and actually get anything done that appeals to the majority of the country, so this current system could be very detrimental. The question that this begs is… how do we stop that from happening? The simplest solution would be to force legislators to compromise, but it is very difficult to manipulate human beings’ minds, and this would likely lead to them being replaced by their party with another legislator who appeals more to the core of the party. What we need instead is structural solutions; huge cultural shifts that are nearly impossible to start. I’ve said it enough times to sound like a broken record, but I think the first step is abolishing the electoral college. This would allow other smaller parties to become more prominent and help people see the broader spectrum of views than just the Democratic and Republican parties. What else can we do? It’s hard to say, but it’s imperative that this country learns to compromise before it filibusters its way into a political standstill.

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Posted by on October 16, 2012 in Congress, Culture

 

Super PACked

If I had to pick one word to describe the past couple weeks of my 10th grade year I would say hectic fits the bill pretty well. First week back, I was already hit with a mountain of AP US History and Honors Chemistry homework, not to mention a scrapbook project that I had to create completely in Latin and a film project that required outside work. It wasn’t like I took a break from work this summer; I was at two debate camps and also took a psychology course, both which were quite demanding. While many of my friends were at the beach I was listening to economics lectures (honestly, the closest I got to spending time outside was running across Stanford campus to my next debate round), but it was still a bit of a rude awakening. The second big wave came the next Tuesday, when I was assigned my first AP Gov homework. I will admit I was a little daunted by the plethora of social networking sites I was expected to become a member of, as well as the amount of reading and discussions I was mandated to participate in, but I survived, and I’m probably better for it. (I will also admit that I was very pleased to net the username “thefederalreserve” for myself on WordPress…)

In the past few weeks we’ve covered several topics, including the Constitution and Federalism. I was really excited to learn about federalism because I’ve done a considerable amount of research on it in the past so I could run it as an argument in debate, but I never had the history knowledge to fully explain it, so it’s really exciting to have that now!  I especially enjoyed our amendment assignment, where we had to write an amendment to the United States Constitution. Mine was about campaign funding reform (mostly focused on the banning of Super PACs, but also mentioning other corporations and independent expenditures) which I do admit I got a little carried away with – my response was about 7 paragraphs long.

As you can tell here, conservative super PACs tend to make a lot more money because their donors tend to be much richer. This graph is from February of this year, so it’s a little outdated.

It really got me thinking about the extra funding’s impact on the recent election, though – previously unparalleled amounts of money are being spent on and contributed to campaigns this year, and I really hope to be able to study or at least read about how much it really impacted the election. I read in Freakonomics that advantages in funding can only really affect a the amount of votes a candidate receives by about 1%, but Freakonomics was written before the emergence of Super PACs, so perhaps that has changed. Since super PACs are mostly confined to spending their money on advertisements, it will also be interesting to see how the media affects people’s votes. According to this article, the results of all the extra money are still unclear, and even though Romney has outspent Obama, Obama is leading in the polls. Perhaps Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s statement that campaign funding only affects voters by about 1% will hold true, no matter how much money is present. Of course, the trouble with this type of study is there are so many factors going into it and it’s impossible to isolate one particular variable. There are many, notably James Bopp who I was just reading about in an article in The Atlantic, who believe extra funding and advertisements are actually a good thing because they get the nation more involved in politics. I personally disagree; often, Super PAC funding just goes into negative ads about other candidates, which could mean many people who have only seen negative propaganda would be voting for candidates for all the wrong reasons. I’m also not a fan of the heavy focus of any politician on fundraising; perhaps the only solution would be to designate a certain amount of money to every candidate, provided by the government, and not allow the candidates to spend any other money on their campaign. Obviously, there are large problems with this plan and it would never be approved in the first place, but it’s still a problem that I believe is important to adress. To my alarm, in the same Atlantic article I learned that Illinois passed a new law for nonfederal elections saying that if a super PAC spends more than $250,000 in a statewide race, the contribution limit in the race will be eliminated, which seems to just make contribution limits irrelevant… but I digress.

If I can make one prediction, it’s that this year I’ll be living and breathing US history and politics. I’m taking AP US History, AP Government, doing debate, and covering American literature (including sermons by John Winthrop) in English class. Not only that, but it’s election year so even my peers that normally think of politics as boring and irrelevant have opinions to voice (though their eyes will still probably glaze over if I try to talk to them about federalism…)  Not that I mind particularly; it’s just a little weird when I sit down after finally finishing my work to play guitar and any lyric I try to write includes subtle references to a quote of John Winthrop’s or the text of Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. That’s just life sometimes I guess, and I’m really excited to continue with the year!

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Elections & Campaigns