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

Arguments for Assault Weapons are Nonsensical

“Chris, I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out … and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids”

These are the words of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), one of the least articulate defenders of an indefensible position, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. The inexcusable stance that Gohmert hints at is that which proposes that a further profusion of assault weapons is the answer to our nation’s gory woes.

We know now that Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 27 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was armed not only with two semiautomatic handguns but also with a .223 Bushmaster rifle, an AR-15 variant capable, in its fully automatic mode, of firing 800 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,200 feet per second and a range of more than 500 yards. The M16, the AR-15 model’s most ubiquitous version, is the service weapon of the United States Marine Corps. Its value in this capacity is clear: in the hands of a well-trained infantryman, the rifle can mow down a wave of advancing troops with prodigious and devastating force.

What Rep. Gohmert is likely unable to explain is why such a weapon might be necessary in facing down a lone, crazed gunman, even one armed with his own automatic rifle. It is not at all clear, and indeed fairly nonsensical to suggest, that an assault rifle would be any more effective in confronting a single maniac than a common handgun.

In any case, the argument for the continued proliferation of assault weapons falls flat on a number of counts. The belief that the 2nd Amendment allows for the private ownership of absolutely any type of weapon is obvious twaddle: the government broadly forbids private individuals from owning nerve gas, nuclear warheads, and landmines, to name just a few arms-not-to-be-borne.

The two most common arguments against the proscription of assault weapons are these: first, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from one another, and second, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from the government. The first objection is inane; impromptu vigilantism, as we have seen, has no need for the contrivances of modern mass warfare. As for the second objection, we must sadly acknowledge that the ship has already sailed. The U.S. government possesses a monopoly on the most destructive weapons known to mankind, and would be free to use them on its populace if it so desired. An AK-47 in the hands of some rural revolutionary is little match for an armored division or a laser-guided bomb.

To top the issue off, consider what the advocates of assault weapon plenitude are really suggesting. They are evidently more threatened by the miniscule possibility that our government will one day turn on us than by the simple fact that assault weapons allow the owner to commit mass murder with a minimum of effort. They are evidently quite certain that the cost of the proliferation of this weaponry is outweighed by its benefit to enthusiastic vigilantes everywhere. The cost is clear. As for the benefit— we must leave it to Rep. Gohmert to indicate even one instance when a privately-owned AR-15 has been necessary to stop crime.

-Mattathias Lerner