Posts tagged ‘democrats’

February 15, 2012

Extended Version: On Budgets, UNESCO, and Overwhelming Pessimism

It has been a unbelievablely slow day at work today. How slow you ask? So slow I felt compelled to write about the FY 2013 Budget over at UN Dispatch. That slow. Granted, there were several extremely interesting points in the State Department’s budget request, which formed the backbone of the UN Dispatch piece, copied here:

Buried in the full State Department Congressional Justification [PDF], though, is a piece of information that’s actually a bit more interesting.  During a briefing on the FY13 Budget at the State Department on Monday, posted above, Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides was asked about page 713, which involves the funding of UNESCO. While FY 2012 had the line zeroed out, the FY 2013 request showed an increase to $79M, the same as in FY 2011. Secretary Nides replied:

Well, let’s do UNESCO first. As you know, the Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the President has also articulated quite clearly that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO. We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver. So we will work with them and work with our friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill in hopes that we can work an agreement out for us to fund. UNESCO does an enormously – a lot of enormously good work, and we’d like to make sure that we have a contribution commensurate with their work.

Secretary Nides’ statement gives me at least some cause for cheer. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Congress will pass a revocation of the law or even consider such a waiver in an election year.  The State Department’s budget is also likely to face renewed threats of cuts in the House of Representatives, and UNESCO’s funding will be a prime target. That being said, that the Obama Administration even calculated for providing dues to UNESCO shows that they haven’t given up completely on the body’s funding being restored.

That article was mostly reporting. As this is my own, personal blog, I feel a bit freer to throw around my opinion. My opinion being? Unless Congress flips in November, there’s no way this budget request comes through unscathed. Particularly the request for a waiver for UNESCO’s funding. And that is both a shame and a travesty. I wrote at length about last year’s budget fight, and how short-sighted Republicans have been when it comes to funding international affairs, those in the House in particular. None of which make any sense to me, several months later. Why wouldn’t we want to increase funding to peacekeeping, particularly as our own defense budget is slashed? When will Republican’s realize the value added in funding multilateral missions that require force? And I doubt that members of the House will appreciate the fact that the United Nations has passed a budget that actually calls for a reduction in spending for the first time in years. The time when Republicans were allowed to come out in favor of the UN, like former Senator Alan Simpson, seems to have passed, or at least has to be muzzled until retirement.

We’re likely in for a repeat of the events of the FY 12 fight for the next eight months until the election hits. Depending on the outcome of the election, the skirmishes over State’s budget, and the UNESCO waiver, will do one of the following. Should Obama win and the House remain under Speaker Boehner, they’ll likely continue apace, with the Senate acting as a vanguard against the House’s inevitable cuts. If the Democrats win enough seats to either flip the House or ease the Republican majority to a razor-thin margin, the calls for reducing Foggy Bottom’s budget will likely decrease, at least some. If the GOP manages to take control of the Senate, we would likely see an increase in pressure for cuts, as they join with the House in an assault on the re-elected Obama. Worst case scenario for State: the International budget gets trounced under a GOP White House and Congress.

As for UNESCO, I’m still pretty upset about that. There is zero chance that a waiver passes before November. I repeat: zero. Not in an election cycle in which candidates are falling over themselves to prove that they will be the most responsive to Israel’s security needs. While the Palestinian effort to gain acceptance into international bodies has certainly slowed, there’s always the chance of a resurgence, at which point more organizations could see a reduction in US funding. As that’s a chance I would hate to take, and I’m sure would leave the United States reeling as it realized just how much we depend on multilateral support, the responsible thing for Congress to do would be repeal the law. Then again, when was the last time Congress was responsible?

October 11, 2011

A Smoot Point: Punishing China or Just Ourselves?

Just so you don’t think that I spend all of my time seething at the GOP, let me assure you: I take offense to any stupidity in statecraft, be it from the right or left side of the aisle in Congress. I maintain that Congress really should just stay out of foreign policy as a whole, and this particular issue cuts right to that belief, I feel. The Democrats, seemingly seeking to look tough, are in actuality looking extremely stupid. I presage the rest of this post by saying that I am in no way an international finance expert, but, to be fair, neither is Congress.

If you were to turn on CSPAN 2 later tonight, as wonks are wont to do, you’d see that the Senate has taken up a bill known as the “Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act of 2011”. In late September, Sherrod Jackson (D-OH) introduced on the Senate floor a bill to punish ‘currency manipulators’ who suppress the value of their currency in order to flood the market with cheap goods, boosting their exports to the detriment of other countries. I wonder who they could be talking about. I. Wonder.

In this attempt to take on China and the yuan, I originally opted to let it go, as a bit of political posturing. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has been the Democrat’s message man in the Senate for the last year and has been strongly backing the bill, which doesn’t surprise me, as he’s been backing the same sort of bill for the last six years. What makes this time different is that it might actually go somewhere. There was a bit of a scene made on the Senate floor the other night surrounding the bill, as GOP Senators sought to hang more amendments on after cloture had passed, resulting in a rules change that remains fascinating for parliamentarians  and giant nerds but overall pointless in the grand scheme of things. These amendments were defeated, leaving room for the bill to move forward to a vote later tonight.

This whole thing intrigued me enough to actually read the text of the Bill, which, written in legalese, is not the most incendiary of documents right off the bat. The short of it is that following passage, the Secretary of the Treasury would be mandated to provide to Congress reports on which countries are unfairly manipulating their currency. Should a country having been found to be manipulating their currency fail to change their ways within 90 days, several actions may be taken, including:

(1) ADJUSTMENT UNDER ANTIDUMPING LAW- For purposes of an antidumping investigation under subtitle B of title VII of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1673 et seq.), or a review under subtitle C of such Act (19 U.S.C. 1675 et seq.), the following shall apply:

(A) IN GENERAL- The administering authority shall ensure a fair comparison between the export price and the normal value by adjusting the price used to establish export price or constructed export price to reflect the fundamental misalignment of the currency of the exporting country.

(B) SALES SUBJECT TO ADJUSTMENT- The adjustment described in subparagraph (A) shall apply with respect to subject merchandise sold on or after the date that is 30 days after the date the currency of the exporting country is designated for priority action pursuant to section 4(a)(3).

My eyes originally glazed over this, before realizing that this was intended to be the bulk of the punishment; my eyes instead gravitated towards the provision that has US officials at international banks refuse loans to the country in question. Which in and of itself is pointless, as while China has received various loans for infrastructure projects from the World Bank, managed to lend more to developing countries in the 2009-2010 period than the Bretton Woods system. But I digress. In any case, I was unfamiliar with the Tariff Act of 1930, or so I thought, so I went to look it up. Turns out, most people know the Tariff Act of 1930 by a far different name: The Smoot-Hawley Act. 

So let’s take a quick second to look at the Unfortunate Implications inherent so far. In the midst of an economic downturn that has shown signs of picking up again, Congress decides to go one step further, and impose tariffs to encourage people to buy local rather than importing goods. It worked so well in the past, why not bring about protectionism round two? This bill’s provisions have several flaws, which were summed up well in a Washington Post op-ed by Robert Samuelson:

Even if this becomes law — not certain — it wouldn’t work for two reasons. In 2010, our imports from China totaled $364 billion. (American exports to China were $86 billion, leaving a deficit of $278 billion.) To be effective, countervailing duties would need to apply to most Chinese imports, but in practice, companies bring cases only for individual products, affecting millions, not billions, of dollars. The process would be cumbersome and time-consuming.

Worse, China might protest any countervailing duties to the World Trade Organization, and it might win. WTO rules permit subsidies that are broad-based rather than those benefiting specific firms or industries, say lawyers. The undervalued RMB might pass muster. If so, China could then retaliate by imposing duties on U.S. exports to China.

Those duties would act in the same function as the counter-tariffs that states imposed on the United States following the passage of Smoot-Hawley. While the giant raise in unemployment that Smoot-Hawley preceded probably would not come to pass following enactment of this bill, it’s doubtful that the thousands of jobs proponents of the bill claim it will spur will actually come to pass. Samuelson goes on to say that what is needed is instead a stronger push-back against China to help prevent further unfair trade practices by Beijing in the future, when subsidized aircraft is the focus of trade disputes rather than textiles, which is where we differ. I will readily agree that China’s practices do more to harm the free-trade system than those of any other state, but I really don’t know that protectionist measures are the way to affect the sort of change that Mr. Samuelson and Senate Democrats are clamoring for.

Another nail in the coffin of this policy’s intellectual rigor is that the yuan has actually be strengthening against the dollar, as the below chart from the Economist shows, as the trade deficit has gone up. So even as the currencies have come closer to reflecting actual disparities of value, China continues to export far more to us than vice-versa. The actual value of the currency is still definitely under-appreciated, with one Wharton School graduate estimating in his thesis that is currently hovering around 35% undervaluation. A correction to a more accurate 4 yuan to the dollar may alter China’s overall economic outlook as exports decline and cheaper alternatives fill the market. However, I don’t think that such a correction, which this bill seeks, will manage to change much in the deficit that matters, the one between the United States and China.

The Economist Graph

Via @TheEconomist

Despite my reservations, it seems that the Senate isn’t listening to me. Given the ease with which the bill passed cloture, which requires sixty votes, the bill is certain to pass through the upper chamber of Congress. Even the normally uber-conservative Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions, has come out in favor of this bill.  The future of this bill is in no way certain though, and there are doubts as to whether it will become law at all. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is on the record saying that the House won’t take up the bill until the White House makes its position on it more clear, something that the Obama Administration has been loathe to do.  While President Obama has said that he supports the goals of the legislation if not the method, there’s been no release of an official Statement of Administration Policy on the matter.

I’m not saying that China’s trade practices aren’t a concern and don’t merit a healthy amount of condemnation. That’s not even mentioning the abysmal state of human rights in Chinese factories and the fair-trade standards that are routinely ignored for the sake of profits and feeding the Chinese economic engine. But the place for such determinations of fair-play are at the bilateral discussion table and at the World Trade Organization, not in the halls of Congress. I’m a solid Democrat, but when reactionary bills come forward and the lines are divided more clearly by “which party introduced it” rather than “is it a good idea?” something is horribly wrong with the way policy is created.

October 1, 2011

The Democrats really could use a foreign policy Girl Talk

First of all, I stand by my title fully and totally. I know that coming off of the Venezuela is the Lady Gaga of the United Nations article that I run the risk of overloading on pop culture references far too early in this blog’s life. But I have an article on China’s potential naval future that’s almost done, and I wanted something light before I drop that heavy knowledge on you.

Onward. Before continuing with this post, if you have never listened to mashup artist Greg Gillis, BKA Girl Talk, stop reading. Go download his albums right now. I’ll wait. I don’t care if you don’t think you like mashups, you’ll love this. Girl Talk’s music consists almost entirely of samples of another songs, that have been spliced and remixed and blended together into all new songs. Over the years he’s gotten tremendously good at it, to the point that I can’t listen to some of the songs he samples with then immediately progressing on to the next few bars of his version.

When listening to all this though, all you hear is great music. When you listen to it on somewhere like Mashup Breakdown that actually details all the pieces that went into the work, you start to get a better understanding of the parts that make it up, things that you never would have thought would go together, like Queen and the Jackson 5.

All of this is to say that this seemingly effortless blending of what were once unrelated into something new and lasting is something that the Democrats as of late have been horrible at. I don’t just mean their general messaging, which is always rocky at best. I’m specifically talking about their foreign policy messaging.

Take for a starter yesterday’s killing of US-born cleric cum al-Qaeda frontman Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen. No matter how you stand on the matter, the fact is that his death is something that in the past Republicans would base whole campaigns around. The 2004 presidential elections were based almost entirely on national security matters, with the view that Republicans absolutely trounced the Democrats when it comes to protecting the country. Now with yet another terrorist leader on the big “We Got ‘Im” board that I’m sure exists on the Situation Room’s wall, posted right under Osama bin Laden, President Obama can be seen as a true leader when it comes to keep us safe, right? Nope.

Like it or not, the Democrats have had a very difficult time of connecting their myriad policies into anything cohesive. What they need to get much better at is taking areas where they have traditionally been strong and blending them with where they have been seen as weak, using the former to bolster the latter and give new credence to their ideas overall. A policy mashup, if you will.

But how could this be done, you ask? What are some areas that would be an ideal testing of this notion? I’m glad you asked. What really got me thinking about this as a whole is the stunning inability of the Democrats to reframe the climate change debate. For the last decade, the overarching narrative of the green movement has been the case of hippies who care more about owls than people versus businesses that just want to keep Americans employed and can’t do so under tons of environmental regulations. This is an extremely stupid narrative, one that denies that climate change even exists, but it’s latched onto the American psyche like a bear trap.

Attempts by the Democrats to take this movement and mix it with their strength on the economy has failed, as a case where two positives somehow make a negative. Yes, the Democrats have had a traditional advantage on economic issues, and yes, there is no disputing the Democratic leadership on climate matters. Democrats pushed hard on the notion that investment in cleaning up the environment would produce more jobs and help pull the US out of recession. The two strengths in tandem, however, only led to an easy opening for Republicans to tar the Waxman-Markey bill as more Democratic tax and spending, playing right into their trap of allowing the right to claim that there were no good ideas for the recovery of the economy.

I think that a new approach is needed. The Democrats have to find a way to take traditional policies and ideas and intertwine them in areas that President Obama is seen currently as virtually unassailable: foreign policy. Absolutely nobody thought that this would be the conventional wisdom a little over a year out of the 2012 election, but here we are. The Republicans are inevitably going to nominate someone with little foreign policy experience and, odd as it may seem, they are going to take a pounding for it. More to come on that in pending posts.

So we have President Obama speaking from a place of strength on national security, but where does that leave economic measures and environmentalists? This is where the Girl Talk model comes in. Economic issues are often spoken of by Democrats as a matter of fairness and equality, breaking down barriers, and a society where everyone is looking out for everyone else, which I totally agree with. But that message is just is not hitting home for voters right now, no matter how basically it is stated. What needs to happen is a greater emphasis on the economic state of the United States as a national security issue. This has been done in fits and starts such as by now-former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and more often by Republicans like Jon Huntsman,  but these statements tend to indicate that the size of the national debt is the only piece that actually counts against us in security terms. In reality, the United States’ greatest strength lies in its economic potential, not its military resources, because without the former we find ourselves as a much larger version of the DPRK, all muscle with no skeleton to back it up.

Obama’s American Jobs Act has been said to have the potential to forestall another recession and raise the the country’s GDP by at least a small amount in the coming year. All of this puts the US in a much safer position in security terms than if we were to enter another period of negative growth. President Obama’s barnstorming across the country, though, has been couched in the language of Democrats in the past: “It isn’t class warfare, it’s math”. Which is great and all, but doesn’t have the same impact as “this bill will keep us all safe”.

The same thing can be said of the environmental movement. If you really want to jump-start efforts towards climate change legislation, it needs to be played up as a matter affecting our national security. The fact of the matter is that as climate change alters environments around the world, we are going to see a massive amount of migration and shifting of state borders, as some states such as the Maldives are set to disappear all together as waters rise. Rising temperatures also forewarn of more desertification and greater food insecurity. These things lead to greater instability and increase the very factors that make extremism and terrorism appealing to youth across the globe. When everything is awful, why not use violence to attempt to make things better, especially violence against the place that seems like it managing to be the greatest contributor to but least affected by climate change. Forestalling climate change needs to be rightly labeled as a top security concern.

Finally, education reform could also stand with being remixed and advanced in a national security light. The US still has the greatest number of top institutions of higher education in the world. But the country is continuing to drop lower and lower on scales of countries with students that excel in math and science. The system has been broken for years, but education has been and remains a top concern for Democrats. What needs to be said to really drive this home would be something along the lines of: “America has succeeded because America has long had the smartest people, the most able people, working diligently to further our advances in the sciences and in turn making life better for us all. Without American advancing in computing, the smartphone in your hand would not exist. Without the men and women of the Manhattan Project, there would have been no atomic bomb, preventing the deaths of thousands of soldiers in World War II. The United States remains the most advanced technological society on earth, and for us to continue to our way of life against those who would do us harm, we must retain that position”. To allow our students to stagnate should be seen as a risk that the United States simply can’t take.

This new approach wouldn’t be a magic bullet to Democratic messaging woes, obviously, and could be met with calls of “fear-mongering” by the right, which I would find a delicious irony. In my view, investing in ourselves and our future has to be considered of the utmost priority to any real US security strategy. I further think this blending of ideas is a way that could get the Democrats to finally achieve some of what both liberal and moderate members of their party have been craving for the last three years. In turn, foreign policy and international security need to be viewed in a broader framework than the bombs and bullets dominated work of the past.

Granted, there are some Democrats working in foreign policy that believe this as well and are working on their own innovative ways to make this happen. Alec Ross’ work at the Department of State comes to mind, using social media as a way to make foreign policy operate better. But Mr. Ross works more in the background; you don’t really see him on the Sunday morning talk shows. Further, what I’m thinking is less operational and more big picture, the sort of thing that we saw in the development of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review under Secretary Clinton to match up with the Quadrennial Defense Review over at DoD, but with a greater public face to it.

So where does that leave the Democrats? As of this moment, nowhere. Instead of finding new mashups to put out and make into earworms, enticing people to view their ideas from a new angle, we see them playing their Greatest Hits collection. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people seem to be listening, and rehashing the same old songs just make it easier for their sounds to be cancelled out by the GOP. All of this spells trouble not just for Democrats but the United States as a whole.