What is the Death Penalty For?

On October 12th of last year, when Robert Pruett was executed by lethal injection, the State of Texas chose to use a single heavy dose of barbiturate in lieu of the standard three-drug cocktail. A week earlier, a state legal agency in California had rejected a similar procedure: anti-death penalty groups say it increases the risk of a botched execution. This prospect is not hypothetical. Over the past several years, the drugs used in lethal injection cocktails have become almost impossible to obtain. Some states, in their haste to eliminate prisoners, have deployed experimental execution procedures that resulted in less-than-humane deaths.

This is the great irony of lethal injection: while it spares viewers the spectacle of the gallows or the electric chair, it is considerably more error-prone than competing methods of execution. The so-called “botch rate” for lethal injection is 7.1%. Compare this with the firing squad, which successfully did its nasty job in 100% of cases between 1890 and 2010—though, in every case, it left behind a bullet-riddled corpse. It seems likely that when people refer to lethal injection as “humane,” they have the audience in mind.

The United States is the only Western country in which capital punishment persists. In terms of the absolute number of inmates executed per year, America often finds itself in the good company of nations such as Saudia Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Indonesia. The Saudis deploy a swordsman to behead citizens for such crimes as adultery and apostasy. The Iranians and Iraqis prefer a hangman, the Indonesians a firing squad. Americans favor the sterile anticlimax of lethal injection.

On Election Day a year ago, a revanchist impulse found success not just in the Presidential election but in plebiscites across the country. Nebraska’s voters reinstated capital punishment in a statewide referendum. Oklahomans changed their state constitution to emphasize their right to put criminals to death. In California, a proposal to ban the death penalty failed, but its mirror image—a proposal to speed up the process—succeeded.

The practice of the death penalty in the United States is, however, riddled with problems. These include the demonstrable frequency of wrongful conviction, the disproportionate use of capital punishment on black versus white Americans, and the absence of any convincing evidence that the practice makes Americans safer.

A widely cited 2014 study in the journal PNAS found that approximately 4% of those sentenced to die in the U.S. are innocent. The authors used data about exonerations to arrive at what they stressed was a conservative result. The figure makes explicit the implicit bargain at the heart of America’s death penalty: for every twenty-four guilty men we send to the death chamber, we attempt to murder an innocent one.

Organizations like the Death Penalty Information Center maintain a list of those executed prisoners who were likely innocent. The descriptions of these cases read like a generalized indictment of the American justice system. Richard Masterson (executed in 2016) was convicted thanks to the testimony of a fraudulent medical examiner who had falsified his credentials. The prosecutors who sent Lester Bower (executed in 2015) to the death chamber were shown to have withheld potentially exculpatory material. Cameron Todd Willingham (executed in 2004) was found guilty of setting a fire that killed his entire family, though a group of prominent arson investigators repudiated the investigation techniques used to convict him and though prosecutors seemed to have elicited perjury from a jailhouse snitch.

Empirical support for a deterrent effect is vanishingly scarce: a recent survey found that nearly 90% of American criminologists believe such evidence is nowhere to be found. Studies claiming to find evidence of a deterrent effect have been dismantled again and again by social scientists. Such studies tend to make unfounded assumptions about murderers’ perceptions, fail to take into account the effect of other (noncapital) punishments, and arrive at fantastically optimistic conclusions about the efficacy of capital punishment that are, in the words of one pair of economists, “outside the bounds of credibility.”

Capital punishment is plagued as well by persistent racial inequity. Amnesty International has found that, though black people and white people are murder victims in roughly the same proportions, 80% of those executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 were sentenced for murders involving white victims.

Even in the face of all of this, it is not uncommon to hear the claim that the death penalty might still be a good idea because it saves taxpayers money. In reality, capital cases cost far more than others in almost every U.S. state. At the federal level, the costs of a death penalty trial are many multiples of the cost of one in which only a life sentence is at stake.

For now, the death penalty continues, despite the abundance of evidence suggesting that the American justice system is engaged in an expensive, unequal, and potentially torturous endeavor with no evident social value and a nontrivial likelihood of murdering an innocent person. Lethal injection is used almost universally.

Since Texas pioneered the procedure in 1982, lethal injections have made use of a three-drug cocktail: an anesthetic, which is supposed to numb the prisoner to pain, a paralytic, which immobilizes him, and potassium chloride, which stops his heart. Without anesthetic, a patient receiving a high dose of potassium chloride experiences something similar to having fire or electricity course through his veins, or to being burned alive from the inside. It is an excruciating sensation with no evident analogue in normal human life. With sufficient paralytic but insufficient anesthetic, the condemned experiences this torture but, being paralyzed, shows no significant outward signs of agony. This is the reason a paralytic is part of the cocktail: in the event of a botched execution, it spares the audience a gruesome spectacle.

Sometimes even the paralytic is not enough to conceal a mangled execution. It was likely for the comfort of the audience that, 16 minutes into the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, the blinds separating the viewing room from the execution room were closed: a typical execution by lethal injection lasts approximately 8 minutes. The Guardian‘s Katie Fretland, who was present at the execution, reported that, three minutes after receiving the drugs, Lockett “struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney.” Ziva Branstetter, from the Tulsa World, described seeing Lockett’s body “writhing and bucking”, and related that, ten minutes into the execution, Lockett “appear[ed] to be in pain.” 43 minutes after first receiving the injections, Lockett was finally declared dead of a heart attack. A lawyer for the next inmate scheduled to die told reporters that Lockett had been “tortured to death.”

Oklahoma delivered Lockett a previously untested combination of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The amount of midazolam administered as anesthetic was insufficient to dull Lockett’s awareness of the potassium chloride slowly killing him, and he died in agony.

Before the execution, Oklahoma’s punitive machinery had threatened to jam. The increasing reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs like sodium thiopental meant that death penalty states were forced to think creatively: some states bartered with each other, while others reportedly bought drugs on the black market. In summer 2011, the DEA seized several states’ supplies, citing questions about the manner in which they had been procured. Some news outlets reported that Oklahoma had purchased its supply of midazolam using petty cash, in order to make its source more difficult to track.

The extended details of Clayton Lockett’s crime are almost too horrible to contemplate. During a home invasion robbery that expanded to include kidnapping and rape, Lockett and his accomplices abducted a nineteen-year-old named Stephanie Neiman. Asked whether she would contact the police, Neiman affirmed that she would, and Lockett shot her. His accomplice, Shawn Mathis, then buried her alive.

To read the full account of this crime is to understand immediately why some people might want Lockett not just executed, but perhaps tortured. His is the kind of crime that makes thinking almost impossible. After Lockett’s execution, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times made his way to Perry, Oklahoma, where Neiman was killed, and found a population largely untroubled by the circumstances of Lockett’s demise. “If anyone ever deserved the death penalty,” said the district attorney who prosecuted the case, “Lockett did.”

Anyone who has discussed the death penalty is likely to have heard or expressed variations on this theme: the condemned deserve to die; the dead deserve justice; the state has an obligation to restore order to the world; ruthless murderers have forfeited their right to live. The language changes, but every such argument is fundamentally the same. It is not at all uncommon to feel, deep down, that some people deserve to die. Though this feeling is palpable, it is difficult to justify except by appealing to the simple fact of the rage itself.

It is not uncommon, either, for the defenders of the death penalty to appeal to their audience’s rage and disgust when arguing their positions. In 2015, the Nebraska State Senator Bill Kintner took to Facebook to express his thoughts on capital punishment. He posted a photo of a decapitated corpse to his timeline and accompanied it with a useful caption: “According to the Nebraska Legislature, the thugs that did this should just be locked away and well fed for the next 50 years of the [sic] lives. Anyone think the Legislature is thinking clearly?”

The occasion was the passage of LB268, which briefly ended capital punishment in the State of Nebraska. In order to pass the bill, the legislature overrode the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, who was unhappy enough about the result that he threatened to execute his state’s ten remaining death row prisoners, on shaky legal justification and seemingly out of spite, after the bill was passed.

Kintner’s social media offensive mirrored the rhetorical techniques he had deployed during the floor debate over the bill, when he discussed the murder of 13-year-old Danny Eberle by the serial killer John Joubert:

“Joubert placed the helpless and bound Danny in the trunk of his car, drove to a secluded area–and this is in Senator Crawford’s district–and dragged Danny into the cornfield. In that cornfield Joubert pulled out a knife and ordered Danny to lie on his stomach. He took off his pants while the young man pleaded, please, don’t kill me. He slowly stabbed Danny but the wounds were not mortal enough, and then Danny was still alive when Joubert sliced the back of Danny’s neck. To make sure he was dead, he sliced a seven-inch gap into Danny’s legs all the way down to the bone. … Death was not instantaneous. Danny was aware for three to four minutes while Joubert inflicted nine cuts to the body before succumbing to death from loss of blood.”

A search of Kintner’s remarks for a more sophisticated argument is fruitless. He, and the others arguing in support of the death penalty, inhabited a world in which nothing mattered except the full sanguinary horror of the crimes of the condemned. The defenders of the death chamber felt that the facts of each crime were sufficient, and they described each horrific scenario in hopes that the full measure of human savagery would make their point for them.

Rarely, during the debate over LB268, did an anti-abolition argument take a form more sophisticated than that of Bill Kintner’s Facebook post. State Senator David Schnoor told the chamber that he was pro-life but that he was not “pro-life for the murderous savages because we will give you stories of what has happened in our state, and they are sickening.” He told a lurid tale that challenged Kintner’s in terms of detail, and quoted liberally from the Bible. Senator Merv Riepe read aloud the dictionary definitions of the words “innocence” and “evil” and, in keeping with the general theme, related the particulars of another brutal murder. Senator Mike Groene put the case in esoteric terms, telling the chamber that society needed to send “a strong message to evil.”

A rhetorical abyss yawned between the two sides. Contrast the true-crime style of debate with the testimony of a retired judge named Ronald Reagan, who had served on the three-judge panel that sentenced Joubert to death and who came before the legislature to argue against capital punishment:

“Iowa, a state without the death penalty, was less than two miles east of the kidnapping site. It wasn’t ignorance or stupidity that kept Joubert from taking his victim across the river. The legal consequences of his action simply played no part in his decision, nor does it in any other murderer’s. The general principle is affirmed by studies that show that bordering states, one without a death penalty and one with, have no higher murder rates than the non-death penalty state. The principle is in effect regionally, as well. The death penalty is now used almost exclusively in southern states. If capital punishment was a general deterrent, the per capita murder rate in those states should be lower, yet the reverse is true. We can repeal the death penalty, and there will be no detrimental harm to public safety. Given the time and resources attendant to capital cases from the police, prosecutors, and the court system, life without parole is the most efficient and effective penalty.”

Reagan and his fellow abolitionists came before the legislature ready to participate in the kind of reasoned discussion that is now rarely seen. They were met with fallacy and evasion. Their facts and statistics were not so much challenged as completely ignored. The opposition was united in a strategy that openly prized disgust over debate.

Behind each sophistic defense of the death penalty— behind photos of headless corpses, hazy platitudes about justice, and grisly chronicles of murder—is a perilous detachment from the common good. Whether they consciously accept it or not, advocates for capital punishment endorse a compromise entailed by its use. In exchange for the vaporous promise of Mike Groene’s “strong message to evil,” they risk subjecting an innocent person to the torture experienced by Clayton Lockett.

By hazarding this, society gains nothing. Perhaps an entry on some cosmic moral ledger or a warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of Bill Kintner’s stomach. But the death penalty is useless. It satisfies no moral imperative; it saves no lives; it serves no purpose other than to satisfy a gut feeling that is no more justifiable than the base animal rage that drives a person to murder in the first place.

The results in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and California are, fortunately, upstream ripples in a river flowing steadily toward abolition. Poll data from Gallup shows that support for the death penalty has declined by twenty percentage points since its peak in the mid-nineties. The number of actual executions has also diminished: in 1999, the U.S. saw ninety-eight; in 2016, there were only twenty. In many states, judicial authorities have demonstrated reluctance to seek the death penalty.

Nonetheless, most Republicans and a large minority of Democrats continue to support the death penalty, and the parlous circumstances of political debate in the United States are all but certain to conquer rational conversation on the topic. The way of thinking and arguing typified by Kintner et al. is no longer simply tolerated and accepted. Emotional reasoning is, rather, the main driver for policy at the national level, particularly in the executive branch. The tendency to moralize shrilly, to appeal to the mystical power of the anecdote, to favor passions over reasons, is one that bridges America’s deep political divide. As capital punishment itself dies a slow and necessary death, abolitionists will have to contend with the moral and rhetorical attitudes that have sustained the enterprise into the twentieth century, and that threaten to obliterate what little reasoned conversation there remains to be had in the United States.


Amnesty for South Sudanese rebels

The ongoing rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan manifested today in the ragged and tired forms of 3,000 soldiers of the South Sudan Liberation Army, crossing the border from Sudan and handing over their weapons. A South Sudanese official told the BBC that the SSLA rebels, like most others, had been pardoned by President Salva Kiir.

The nation of South Sudan is only two years old, but the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983, was officially terminated in 2005 by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Progress over the last eight years has been slow but steady: last month, the two Sudans came to an agreement on border security and localized demilitarization; last year, they completed negotiations on economic relations.

Economic interdependency is the stickiest part of this whole issue: unified Sudan was dependent on oil revenue, but the Sudanese split means that 75% of that oil is in the South. The South is landlocked, which means that it depends on its northern neighbor’s pipeline infrastructure as a means to profit off its reserves. Without its share of South Sudan’s oil revenues, Sudan is nothing but a war-riven kleptocracy with a war criminal as its leader. 

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is, of course, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. While the Court found insufficient evidence to put Bashir on trial for genocide, he is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is the same man who has, smilingly, shaken hands with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on multiple occasions, grimacing perhaps on the inside but advancing the cause of reconciliation with each successive agreement. 

One imagines that Kiir himself grimaces inwardly to shake hands with such a man. But, justice notwithstanding, it does seem that both parties are doing what’s necessary to ensure at least some small measure of stability. The Sudanese model is worth attempting to replicate, even as it mirrors the Irish model. In many respects, the Sudanese situation is made inestimably more complicated by the presence of oil reserves, the fabulous corruptive opportunities of which have promiscuously hampered development all over Africa. 

It all does seem to be working, to a point. Fighting last year forced thousands into refugee camps, and South Sudan has on more than one occasion threatened to suspend the flow of oil through the north as a punitive measure against Sudanese incivility. Obviously, this doesn’t work: the South needs that money as much as the north does– perhaps more, since it’s lacking a fundamental infrastructure of its own.

We’ll see what happens. The region has twice lapsed into civil war in the past half-century, and twice recovered. All we can do is hope that this time, it sticks.

Al-Nusra and Ansaru

The Economist this week mentions the recent excrescence of a group called Ansaru from the broader ranks of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Already more than a year old, Ansaru broke from Boko Haram over what its leadership referred to as “inhuman” behavior toward Nigeria’s Muslim umma. In the year-and-a-half since its creation, Ansaru has abducted a French national, taken and killed hostages, attacked Nigerian soldiers, and staged an audacious prison break. 

Ansaru has, in public communications, drawn a comparison between its relationship with Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban. This was perhaps a strategic PR decision– the group is now allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

While Ansaru does seem to have been formed as a reaction to Boko Haram’s haphazard killing of Muslim civilians, it’s probably best not to view them as principled devotees of a less explosive, more goal-oriented brand of Islamist insurgency (see above misbehavior). Where Boko Haram dedicates itself to the expulsion of un-Islamic elements from Nigeria, Ansaru has branded itself with AQIM’s jihadist cred and taken a more global tack. To the extent that a global jihad movement does exist, Ansaru is part of it. 

There is something redolent here of the appearance of Syria’s Al-Nusra Front in the same month and year as Ansaru. Al-Nusra claims 5,000 full members, Sunni jihadists all, and maintains allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Before Al-Nusra appeared, we in the West were hearing reports of Sunni jihadists amidst the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. The group’s public debut verified those rumors. Since that debut, it has taken part in operations with the FSA, conducted suicide bombings, and imposed its very own no-fly zone over Aleppo. Al-Nusra fighters have gained a reputation on the ground in Syria as aggressive, disciplined warriors– and, oddly, as a fairly polite and conscientious group. 

What’s interesting here is the way that more strictly Islamist organizations have emerged from a hodgepodge of violent grievances with vaguely Islamic themes. This is a pretty predictable process, and it’s one that we’ll probably see again as Islamic insurgencies continue to pop up in the unstable developing world. Consider the ongoing debate about the “roots” of extremism: do young men frustrated with their circumstances simply channel their violent impulses into Islamism as a convenient outlet? Or is it jihadism that finds these people and contaminates them with a savage ideology?

 Al-Nusra and Ansaru offer a clue: while supposedly jihadist groups may spring up in unstable environments as a convenient mode of cohesion among men who share both religion and grievance, the truly fanatical are wont to form their own, yet more stringently dogmatic groups.

Anders Aslund’s Austerity

Anders Aslund’s new piece on Foreign Policy’s “Think Again” blog makes a convincing case that well-managed austerity, not Keynesian stimulus, is the path to recovery and growth. His points are well taken– food for thought, if nothing else. Aslund cites a paper that came out of UMass Amherst last week, in the wake of the revelation that the conclusions of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s 2010 paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, were compromised by some subtle spreadsheet errors.

“Growth in a Time of Debt” claimed to find that a debt/GDP ratio exceeding 90% corresponded to a sharp drop in growth. This had the effect of solidifying 90% in the consciousness of some as a kind of magic number, a cap on public debt beyond which an economy was sure to collapse. These numbers have been conclusively challenged in the UMass paper – “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff” – authored by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin and cited by Aslund.

The problem with Aslund’s new FP piece is the following line, from which the rest of the article draws substantial legitimacy: “According to economists at the University of Massachusetts, GDP growth falls substantially – and predictably – with rising public debt”. This is half-true. The numbers Aslund provides via the UMass study – average annual real GDP growth of 3.2%, 2.4%, and 1.6% relating to debt ratios of 60-90%, 90-120% and 120-150% respectively– are correct. But this drop-off is no way “substantial”, certainly not in the revelatory way presented originally by “Growth in a Time of Debt”. We’re speaking here of differences in GDP growth of 0.8%. With a margin of error of 0.5% in GDP growth reporting, we could be talking about a cost of between 1.3% and 0.3%.

The charts provided by the UMass researchers evidence close-to-negligible GDP growth losses with a debt/GDP ratio between 35% and 90%. There is a slight downturn above 90%, but it’s nothing compared to the nearly 2% cost to growth seen between 0% and 35% debt/GDP.

Again, Aslund’s case against the case against austerity is convincing, and clearly worth a conversation. But he can’t sell austerity as a cure for economic woes based on the UMass numbers, which serve as a refutation of the Reinhart/Rogoff figures, not a reinforcement.

“Terror” is an empty word

In the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, Peter Jennings, who covered the tragedy for ABC, was criticized for having referred to the eight members of Black September who took part in the bloodshed as “guerrillas” and “commandos” instead of “terrorists”. Jennings could not possibly have sated these critics with an apology or a correction: to participate in this semantic dispute would have been to take sides, to implicitly profess an ideology. This, one imagines, is precisely what Jennings was trying to avoid in the first place.

A day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the President told the nation in a press conference that April 15th’s explosions at the Boston Marathon constituted an “act of terrorism”. On the day of the attacks, the President had seemed to have been avoiding this terminology; an administration figure told the New York Times that the President’s wording had evolved with the “information flow”.

We don’t gain much from trotting out this label as if it’s a uniquely instructive descriptor. The definitions for international and domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code might liberally be construed to apply not only to Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan, but also to most organized crime and gang activity, not to mention most conventional warfare. To top it off, there exists no comprehensive, internationally agreed-upon definition of “terrorism”, and most definitions currently in circulation feature language about as vague as that in the American version.

Naturally, this imprecision doesn’t stop ideologues and talking heads from bandying the term about as if it means something. In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Republican politicians began a prolonged attack on President Obama for supposedly failing to initially label the attack as an act of terror. None took the time to explain what consequence the tag could possibly have.

Terror, as it turns out, is not substantively different from many other forms of murder and war. The distinguishing feature of terror is that it attempts to coerce by inducing fear; whether it succeeds or not is up to the target population. To single out terror as a crime that somehow exceeds the facts of the act itself is to willfully submit to its perpetrators. What happened in Munich, Benghazi and Boston was murder—nothing more, nothing less.

Mattathias Lerner

Wealth Creators

As the President and House Speaker John Boehner try and repeatedly fail to come to an agreement regarding the so-called “fiscal cliff”, a dependable and predictable sticking point has been the mystifyingly overinflated issue of taxing the rich. The President is bizarrely fixated on ensuring that America’s wealthiest pay what is incessantly referred to as “their fair share”. Boehner and the Republicans have long been risibly fanatical in their insistence that the rich pay as little as possible.

This debate might sensibly be called meretricious if not for the fact that the public is bored and unconvinced by such pompous tomfoolery. Rarely has an argument with so little value so thoroughly sabotaged the machinery of government.

There is more than a little truth to the claim that, if taxed too extravagantly, America’s rich will flee to greener, less rapacious pastures. This month, the French film star Gerard Depardieu became an official resident of Néchine, Belgium, apparently in flight from the 75% tax rate imposed on France’s wealthiest citizens at the insistence of President Francois Hollande. In Belgium, where the individual tax rate tops out at 50%, Depardieu joins the sizable segment of Gaul’s exiled patrician class who have refused to contribute the bulk of their personal revenues to their nation’s depleted coffers.

Nations are not and cannot be in the business of chasing citizens from their shores by means of economic harassment. It must be noted and accepted that it is, in fact, possible to tax the rich at too high a rate.

In America, however, where the denizens of mansions and luxury high-rises rarely pay even 35% in personal income taxes, this point is likely moot. Those in favor of a low tax rate on the rich have argued insipidly for thirty years that the wealthy are not so much wealth possessors as “wealth creators”. This is a claim that bears scrutiny.

There are two possible ways that high earners might “create wealth”. The first is by employing others or by facilitating their employment through investment in productive enterprise; the second is through expenditure and consumption that stimulate the economy and cultivate employment. This second point is easily dismissed. Spending by the highest-earning quintile of taxpayers in 2011 totaled 38% of aggregate private expenditures; even if these high earners reduced their expenditures by precisely the amount of a hypothetical increase in their taxes, the effect on employment would be less than negligible.

The half of American private-sector workers who are not employed by small business would be unlikely to be affected by a rise in the personal expenses of their managers. Executives at public corporations would be unable to lay off workers to maximize their own salaries, since their pay is controlled by boards of directors that are themselves answerable to shareholders.

Clearly, then, the potential impact of tax increases on employment is restricted to those small businesses owned by high earners. A 2011 Treasury study found that only about a quarter of America’s small businesses are owned by those making more than $200,000 a year. So the people who might potentially be affected by an increase in the individual tax rates of their employers constitute about 12.5% of all private-sector workers.

This is a not-insubstantial segment of the population, and, while such encompassing venality seems seriously unlikely, there can be no guarantee that America’s small business owners are not so greedy as to lay off workers rather than suffer a pay cut. In fact, it would be perfectly rational for them to do so. As usual, the question is whether there is more to be gained by raising taxes on these earners then there is to be lost.

In a vacuum, there is clearly much more to be lost by raising tax rates on the wealthy: the miniscule gain in revenue to be squeezed from these earners will do almost nothing to close the deficit, and in most other respects is similarly paltry. One expects that the President has embraced the “fair share” notion as a rhetorical utility, a way of initiating a larger conversation about taxation. Such a conversation is deeply necessary: from broadening the tax base, to simplifying the tax code, to eliminating deductions and loopholes, to introducing novel new taxes and eliminating useless old ones, taxation deserves a serious dialogue of its own—as opposed to its current status as a blunt instrument with which to bludgeon the ideological opposition.

In any case, both the President and his Republican opposition have been thoroughly irresponsible in approaching taxation as an issue of purely ideological importance. “Wealth creators” deserve to be neither coddled nor demonized; they are part of the conversation, too.

What Does Shinzo Abe Mean For Japan?

In this year’s general election, voters in the land of the rising sun chose from a field of nine eminently qualified candidates. The incumbent, Yoshihiko Noda, was elected in 2011. His primary challengers were Shinzo Abe, who served as Prime Minister between 2006 and 2007, and Shintaro Ishihara, an aging nationalist who served as Governor of Tokyo from 1999 until October of this year.

Abe won in a landslide, the second-biggest in Japanese history. His Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) swept 294 of 480 seats in the Japanese House of Representatives, while Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) lost three-quarters of its seats in the Diet’s lower house, ending up with only 57. Ishihara’s brand-new Restoration Party won 54 seats, 11.25% of the total.

There are three issues of central importance in Japan today. The first is the dilemma of nuclear energy: after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor in March 2011, Japanese society experienced a severe backlash against nuclear power and all but two of the country’s 54 nuclear power plants remain offline. The second topic is the failing economy: Japan has experienced persistent deflation for much of the last decade, as well as an upsettingly strong yen and and low overall growth. The third and most ominous matter is that of Japan’s rising tensions with China. This year has been marked by a series of heated altercations over the various disputed islands and shoals of the South China Sea; the People’s Republic has evidently decided to crookedly hopscotch its way to regional dominion.

Abe will contend with all of these issues and much more as he takes office, although it is not at all clear that he will have the opportunity to do so for long. Indeed, Japan has gone through five Prime Ministers in five years.

Under Yoshihiko Noda’s DPJ, nuclear power was to have been slowly phased out by the 2030s. With the election of Shinzo Abe and the resurgent dominance of the LDP, it seems likely that Japan’s leaders will move cautiously to restart the nation’s nuclear infrastructure: the planned atomic suspension would have impaired Japan’s economy, increasing electricity costs and reliance on fossil fuels. Like many of the world’s elections over the past five years, Japan’s general election was in many respects a referendum on the economy, and it is telling that not even widespread angst and anxiety about the safety of Japan’s nuclear power plants was enough to override economic worries.

After the collapse of the late-1980s asset-price bubble, Japan’s government ran huge deficits in an ultimately futile attempt to pluck the economy from its doldrums. As the 2000s began, with asset prices continuing to fall and insolvent banks unable to lend, the country experienced severe deflation. To date, efforts by Japan’s central bank to combat this phenomenon have mostly failed: while Japan has the lowest interest rates in the developed world, the yen is still overvalued (partly as a result of investors’ flight to the “safe haven” yen after the 2008 recession). This latter circumstance has made Japanese goods expensive for domestic consumers, and imported goods cheap; Japan has been running a trade deficit for nearly two years.

Abe seems likely to push for a more stringent regime of quantitative easing (QE) to fight deflation, having pledged both to urge the Bank of Japan to pursue more aggressive reflation measures and to pass a budget featuring a healthy dose of federal stimulus. There is not much else he can do. Japan has historically had a very high personal savings rate, a state of historical affairs that has likely contributed to the economy’s present regrettable state. The yen lost some value with Abe’s election; if this is evidence of public confidence in his ability to speed repair of the economy, there is hope yet.

Shinzo Abe is also an unapologetic nationalist, an heir to a political family who has spent a more-than-standard amount of time trivializing and playing down Japan’s wartime atrocities. He quite clearly sees himself as a hardliner and a defense hawk, having long sought to broaden the definition of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which dictates that Japan’s military must be a strictly defensive force.

As he takes office, Abe is faced with a confrontational North Korea and an expansionist China. This year’s dispute over the Senkaku Islands—to which China lays claim, although it calls them the Diaoyu Islands—was largely precipitated by Shintaro Ishihara, Abe’s electoral opponent in the recent election. It was Ishihara’s offer to buy the islands on behalf of Japan that caused the uproar in the first place. Abe has spoken menacingly of Japan’s claim on the Senkakus; this, combined with his hopes for Article 9 and his proposals to increase defense spending, has some worried.

It does not seem likely that military conflict will erupt over the Senkakus. China and Japan conduct nearly $300 billion of trade every year. The number-one recipient of Japanese exports is China; Chinese products are Japan’s most-imported and Japanese products are China’s most-imported. It is this mercantile intertwinement that will save the South China Sea from war, and from Shinzo Abe’s martial yet largely rhetorical machinations.

-Mattathias Lerner