Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Election decompression

I got home to New York late last night after spending a whirlwind month in Europe. But the high point of the last few weeks was back here in America on Tuesday night, the culmination of years of hard work and a long national discussion.

I knew I wanted to participate in President Obama’s re-election for a long time, but the timing wasn’t great for me to take a more substantial role (couldn’t miss this!). I was lucky to have friends who stayed involved with the campaign and allowed me to jump right into the effort when I got back. I joined friends and Grinnell alumni in visiting poor, black and Democratic-leaning areas of Richmond, Virginia to encourage folks to vote in the election. It was a special feeling to knock on the doors of perfect strangers and see their expressions change from suspicion to hope when they saw the blue Obama/Biden buttons pinned on our coats.

Virginia was a toss-up state where a handful of votes could make the difference. Not only was it incredible to see the President re-elected and his progressive vision re-affirmed, it was especially gratifying to see Virginia, the heart of the old Confederacy with major highways named after Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, vote for a black leader. Whatever impact I had was trivial, but it made me feel like part of something, part of a movement to push our country toward a fairer, more just and equal ideal.

Though it was a triumphant moment, I recognize that it isn’t during these times that change is wrought and our national character is defined. It’s the aggregate sum of our actions and decisions on a daily basis in both our private and public lives. And as the time to celebrate passes, the time to carry on the hard work of progress persists. Forward.

After a full day of canvassing in Richmond and Petersburg on Sunday 11/4. John Howard, myself, Sarah Labowitz, Julia Kent and Christina Sass.

Driving duty on our way to Richmond on election day (11/6).

All in good spirits – John Tye, Sébas and David Gearey out of frame.

John Tye and Sébas doing some planning at a volunteer coordinator’s house in Richmond.

Sarah and a very cheerful volunteer.

One of many canvassing maps.

Regrouping at the South Richmond campaign office. At 6:40PM we went to gas stations and 7/11’s to find last-minute stragglers we could drive to the polls. Sarah, Sébas and John Tye.

At the last door knocked! Sébas, Sarah Labowitz, myself and David Gearey. John Tye was kind enough to take the photo.

Watching returns come in back in Washington. A euphoric feeling when CNN called it for Obama and Fox followed suit. Karl Rove’s face above the “Barack Obama Re-elected President” banner was priceless.

CNN calling Virginia for Obama. Obama went on to win by about 3%.

Obama’s speech at the U-Street field office. An incredible night.


Chinese economic ascendancy? Maybe India is a better bet.

Economic growth and investment has shifted considerably towards India and China over the past few decades – that’s no secret. But to what extent is all the hype (ex. the RMB will be the major international reserve currency by 2020) accurate? It’s hard to predict what the future will look like between all the prophecies of western decline coupled with predictions of future Chinese economic dominance.

But then you see anecdotes like this – entire cities sitting completely empty and hugely inefficient infrastructure investments – they do make you question how sustainable Chinese growth is, not to mention their political system. China has the savings to continue these projects and keep their labor force employed, but will the inefficiencies in the system catch up with it somehow?

Sure, China is nominally a market economy, but the allocation of investment is still largely state-supported and in many circumstances, state-directed, in contrast to western economies which are much more capitalist and free market. Our economic and political systems make it harder for us to respond resolutely to economic circumstances (such as the recent financial crisis) but investments are much more efficient.

China has the cash reserves to take the hit in case these inefficient investments go south, but to what extent would that impact global confidence in the foundations of their economy?

I think investments in India are a better bet for several reasons, most notably the following: First, Chinese labor costs will inevitably rise as a result of the one-child policy. Over the next generation, every Chinese worker will have to support two parents and four grandparents, putting tremendous financial pressure on social programs for the elderly. India has no such policy, meaning that labor costs will stay low and rise very predictably.

Figure: Chinese median age is already higher than India’s. It will rise even further over the next generation. The pool of working-age labor will rise in India while it will plateau in China.

Second, despite rampant corruption in India and a massively inefficient judicial system, India has twelve times the number of English speakers China does, making it much better-suited for international commerce.

I’m no colonial apologist, but I do agree with Niall Ferguson when he says colonial powers have left behind institutions that could give former colonies advantages in their economic development. 

India certainly has its problems – there are more poor people in India than in all of Africa combined. But lastly, India is a democracy, and generally (barring aberrations such as Singapore), democracies produce greater economic growth over time.

Would love to hear what you think on this!


DoD tolerates human trafficking and foreign national abuse on US bases

Jun 20, 2011 9:57 AM

I’m reading Sarah Stillwell’s article in the June 6th issue of the New Yorker. She spent months interviewing foreign workers on American military bases abroad.

The Pentagon issues logistics contracts to big companies like Halliburton and Fluor that subcontract to smaller foreign companies. These companies then contract with recruiting firms in poor countries in Africa and South Asia, selling these jobs as cushy, high-paying gigs in the Middle east, accepting bribes above $4000 for them.

The workers are then flown to American military bases where they are paid wages as low as $275 a month and housed in shipping containers. Their legal status is not covered by American Law, regulation, or requirements, and the Pentagon doesn’t monitor the final arrangements that they work under.

Ultimately, these foreign workers are lied to and paid a fraction of what the American taxpayer pays for their services, in addition to the human rights abuses they endure.

Is this what we’re fighting for? Gates is a good man, but the American military behemoth has grown far beyond his control.

Cleantech saves soldiers’ lives

Apr 26, 2011 11:39 PM

The military is the one area where government spending on R&D is tolerated by the GOP. Republicans tried to gut the Department of Energy’s hugely successful ARPA-E program during the last budget fight, but left DoD’s DARPA virtually untouched. But Defense is picking up the slack by demonstrating a practical application of clean energy: to fight and win wars!

It’s fantastic to see the military take the lead on this when the rest of us in the clean energy space have had such difficulty. Using energy innovation to save the lives of American servicemen – that’s a proposition the Grand Oil Party can’t argue with.

Takeaways –

1.   One soldier is wounded or killed for every 50 convoys transporting fuel.

2. The U.S. military uses more energy than two-thirds of the world’s nations.

3. The military has demonstrated that clean energy can fully power the world’s most demanding endeavors. Three bases in Afghanistan run almost entirely on solar power.

The military has a history of technological innovation that has huge carry-on benefits for civilian uses (see the INTERNET, microwave etc.). Let’s hope their leadership on clean energy is a harbinger of broader acceptance stateside.


DoD official: Clean tech saves lives

By Darius Dixon

4/26/11 1:49 PM EDT

Clean energy development is a race to the battlefield as much as to the marketplace, a top Defense Department official said Tuesday.

Case in point: U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan during routine patrols carry about 18 pounds of batteries apiece for radios and other equipment. That’s a burden they shouldn’t have to bear, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn III said during a White House panel discussion on energy security.

New energy technology and efficiency save lives along vulnerable U.S. supply lines by reducing fuel shipments that are prone to insurgents’ ambushes or bombing attacks, he said.

“More than 70 percent of the convoys in Afghanistan are used just for fuel or water,” Lynn said, adding that more than 3,000 troops and contractors have been killed or wounded protecting those types of convoys.

And the Pentagon’s $15 billion annual energy bill, one that “consumes more energy than is used by two-thirds of all the nations on earth,” is largely dependent on foreign sources, Lynn said.

Last year, the Pentagon and the Energy Department entered into a partnership to promote energy efficiency and clean technology throughout the U.S. military.

“Clean energy technology is one way to lighten the load and give our troops more capability,” Lynn said. He said marines in Afghanistan started deploying solar panels in Helmand Province last fall so that two bases in the region now run completely on solar power and a third cut its consumption of diesel fuel by more than 90 percent.

The deployment of flexible solar panels, he added, reduced soldiers’ need for battery resupply on extended missions.

Read the rest at Politico Pro (subscription required).

Decline and displacement by authoritarian China

I saw this article while going through the news this afternoon:

IMF bombshell: Age of America nears end

And it’s a lot closer than you may think.

According to the latest IMF official forecasts, China’s economy will surpass that of America in real terms in 2016 — just five years from now.

It provides a painful context for the budget wrangling taking place in Washington right now. It raises enormous questions about what the international security system is going to look like in just a handful of years. And it casts a deepening cloud over both the U.S. dollar and the giant Treasury market, which have been propped up for decades by their privileged status as the liabilities of the world’s hegemonic power.

This really hits me on a deep, visceral level. I understand that free trade expands the size of the pie and has pulled millions, if not billions out of poverty. But it’s hollowed out the American middle class by allowing us to consume more, but produce less. And even though trade is not zero-sum, influence in the world is. We’ve already seen what an irresponsible member of the world community China is – last summer, China signed  a $7 billion dollar mining deal with the ruling junta in Guinea-Conakry, days after the army massacred 157 people in a stadium and mass-raped dozens of women. In addition to their internal repression (see recent imprisonment of Ai Weiwei, architect of the famous Olympic “bird nest” stadium), the rise of a repressive, authoritarian China on the world stage is ominous for democracy, openness, and two centuries of liberalism.

I’m not saying America has always maintained an enlightened foreign policy. But the openness of our democracy has always required more than the pursuit of simple self-interest. China’s policy is entirely the latter. And the world will be entirely the worse for it.

Repost from Vanity Fair: Sebastian Junger on his friend and Restrepo Collaborator, Tim Hetherington

Repost from Vanity Fair

Sebastian Junger Remembers Tim Hetherington

Tim, man, what can I say? For the first few hours the stories were confused enough that I could imagine maybe none of them were true, but they finally settled into one brief, brutal narrative: while covering rebel forces in the city of Misrata, Libya, you got hit by a piece of shrapnel and bled to death on the way to the clinic. You couldn’t have known this, but your fellow photographer Chris Hondros would die later that evening. I’m picturing you wounded in the back of a pickup truck with your three wounded colleagues. There are young men with bandannas on their heads and guns in their hands and everyone is screaming and the driver is jamming his overloaded vehicle through the destroyed streets of that city, trying to get you all to the clinic in time.

He didn’t. I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you. You went in by boat because the city was besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi (another name you probably never gave much thought to during your life) and you must have known this was a bad one. Boat trips are usually such nice affairs, but not this one. How strange to be out on the water off a beautiful coastline with the salt smell and the wind in your face—except this time, you’re headed toward a place of violence and killing and destruction. You must have known that the unthinkable had to be considered. You must have known you might not ever get back on that boat alive.

You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: Where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear. You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.

I’m in the truck with you. I’m imagining those last minutes. You’re on your back watching the tops of the buildings jolt by and the blue Mediterranean sky beyond them. I almost drowned once, and when I finally got back to the beach I was all alone and I just lay there watching the clouds go by. I’d never really thought about clouds before, but there they were, all for me, just glorious. Maybe you saw those clouds, too, but you weren’t out of it yet, and you probably knew it. I know what you were thinking: What a silly way to die. What a silly, selfish, ridiculous mistake to have made.

More at Vanity Fair.

What Obama needs to say on gas prices

I think there’s a real lack of progressive engagement with the most pressing issue to most people – gas prices.

For people working 40 to 60 hours a week, looking for jobs, feeding their families, the latest EPA MACT rule isn’t even on their radar. They care about gas prices, which are really cutting into their budgets.

What needs to be said on the left, especially by Obama, is –

“Look, gas prices are going up, and there’s nothing we can do in the short term. The price of oil isn’t going down, that’s for sure. But we can do things to make sure that five years from now, ten years from now, we don’t go broke when gas prices spike.

The answer is clean energy. And we need to invest in it for the sake of our economy and our health. It’s not going to be there tomorrow if we dont work for it today.”

Repost from NYTimes: Less than 50 years of oil left, HSBC warns

Less than 50 Years of Oil Left, HSBC Warns


The world may have no more than half a century of oil left at current rates of consumption, while surging demand from the developing world threatens to create “very significant price rises” before substitutes like biofuels can serve as viable alternatives, the British bank HSBC warns in a new report.

“We’re confident that there are around 50 years of oil left,” Karen Ward, the bank’s senior global economist, said in an interview on CNBC.

The bank, the world’s second largest in assets, further cautioned that growth trends in developing countries like China could put as many as one billion more cars on the road by midcentury. “That’s tremendous pressure on oil to power all those resources,” Ms. Ward said.

Substitutes, such as biofuels and synthetic oil from coal, could fill the gap if conventional supplies fall short, but only if average oil prices exceed $150 per barrel, the report notes. Increasingly tight global supplies, meanwhile, are likely to cause “persistent and painful” price shocks, it says.

Some oil industry observers take a more optimistic view of future supplies, arguing that further development of Canadian tar sands, offshore discoveries in the Arctic and an expected surge in supply from Iraq will keep oil markets well-supplied for decades. Shale drilling has also managed to boost domestic oil production in the United States after years of decline.

Yet in a clear illustration of the vulnerability of world oil markets to even minor disruptions, the war in Libya — which has taken a little more than 1 percent of global supply offline — is considered a key factor in the rapid run-up in oil prices since the beginning of the year. Brent crude, a European benchmark, settled at nearly $115 per barrel on Tuesday, up from about $74 less than a year ago.

The HSBC report further notes that even without a shortage in oil supplies, the uneven distribution of remaining energy resources will probably shift the balance of economic power globally in the coming decades. It estimates that the biggest loser in this regard will be Europe, where energy scarcity may significantly hinder economic growth by midcentury.

“They could be losing their influence on the world stage just at the time when they are most vulnerable,” the report says.

How oil companies recieve billions in tax breaks

President Obama proposed scrapping $4.5 billion in subsidies for oil companies in the State of the Union, suggesting the monies might be put to better use as incentives for clean energy. Presidents have been trying to do this for decades – even former oilman George W. Bush tried to shut off the spigot, but to no avail. “With $55 a gallon oil, we don’t need incentives for oil and gas companies to explore. There are plenty of incentives.”

With oil on its way back to ridiculous prices (last I checked, $92 a barrel for NYMEX Crude) oil companies are the last businesses worthy of subsidy. ExxonMobil announced profits of $9.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2010 andChevron picked up $5.3 billion over the same time period. And these numbers are a continuation of a tremendously prosperous period for the petroleum sector: over the past decade, the top five American oil companies made nearly one trillion dollars in profits. Compared to those figures, a mere $4.5 billion dollars a year seems like a pittance. But the oil lobby is intent on fighting for every penny.

Here’s how it works: technically, the $4.5 billion isn’t a subsidy. It’s a clever accounting move that allows oil companies to disingenuously claim depreciation costs on bogus assets. On the Diane Rehm show today, oil industry lobbyist Jack Coleman argued that the tax credit oil companies receive is the same tax credit any other business can file for.

That’s partially true. The 1099 is a tax credit that any corporation can claim for depreciation of an asset. Under this provision, normal businesses are allowed to claim depreciation of equipment, property, machinery, or other business asset as the value of those assets falls with use.

The tax code allows oil companies to stretch the definition of “business asset” to include their oil wells. As they suck oil out of a well, the amount in the well decreases and depreciates the value of the well. Oil companies include this “depreciation,” or depletion, in their tax filings in order to save billions of dollars.

But what’s especially conniving is that the tax code allows them to fudge the numbers to maximize their deduction, well beyond its actual value. Say an oil well has 20 million barrels of recoverable oil. The oil company will estimate the value of the well using the the market price. According to Dan Weiss at CAP, they produce the barrel for around $10 and make a profit of $82. The tax law allows them to deduct the full market price on their taxes – imagine deducting $92 dollars on your taxes for something it took $10 to produce.

For a regular business that uses its assets to create products, the 1099 credit makes sense. But it doesn’t make a whit of sense for oil companies to receive tax deductions when asset depletion is the essential operation of their business. Why should they receive tax credits for it?

The reason the law is so stacked in favor of big oil is because it’s been on the books since 1913. The U.S. was headed to war and we needed all the oil we could get. Also, searching for oil back then was a very imprecise business – nothing like it is now. Prospectors would dig into the ground on a hunch and, more often than not, have nothing more than a really deep hole to show for it.

These days, oil exploration is nothing like the crapshoot it was in 1913. So call it a subsidy, call it a tax loophole, call it whatever you want. It’s wasteful and it needs to end. I’m certain the oilies will be fine without the help.