The situation of US-Iran foreign relations has fallen from the top levels of the daily news (another installment of fiscal "crisis" has taken that position recently), so maybe there is opportunity to shed a little light of historical perspective on the subject.
The Financial Times offers a summary of the situation on this day, which mostly focuses on what terms can be arranged for treatment of nuclear materials. The FT summarizes what the New York Times refers to as the "bad cop" in the equation.
The House of Representatives has already passed a new round of swingeing sanctions on Iranian oil exports. A Senate aide said that if the administration could not demonstrate progress in the talks by the end of the month, the Senate would probably begin discussions about the new sanctions bill.
[for you non-English speakers of English, swingeing translates in Merriam-Webster as "very large and difficult to deal with, very critical or severe"]
So as the world waits to see whether we might ever achieve some form of normalized relations with Iran, let alone whether handling of chemical weapons will lead to forces of the United States will be ordered into another middle east war in Syria (a land with a huge set of other problems we should be very cautious about trying to resolve), The Seattle Post-Intelligencer proffers a summary of US government foreign relations with the governments of Iran.
While the history of that region stretches to the beginnings of recorded civilization, the last century seems particularly tumultuous. Here is how the PI (via AP) describes the CIA-led coup in the immediate post-WW2 period that kicked off a period of confrontation and intervention in Iran that has lasted ever since.
The aftermath of World War II and the advent of the Cold War make Iran a U.S. policy focus for the first time. Washington sees the country as a bulwark against Soviet expansion and a source of stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. It cultivates a friendly relationship with Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The partnership is threatened with the 1951 appointment of Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh, who moves to nationalize Iran's oil industry. A CIA-backed coup ousts Mossadegh in 1953. The shah returns from his brief exile and resumes control.
A few sentences don't make a complete history, but it is still interesting how the early interest in "a bulwark against Soviet expansion and a source of stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf" transforms to hostility when the Iranian Prime Minister "moves to nationalize Iran's oil industry".
While I have fundamental objections to the state confiscating private property, I'd have to guess that the ownership of those assets was clouded by preceding history of British, Russian, and French colonialism that pervaded the entire Middle East region in decades preceding those years. A privatization scheme that gave equal shares to everyone who lived there might have been a more fair reconciliation of prior issues with ownership. Otherwise, while nationalized control of the oil under Iran would have likely led to great corruption and inefficiencies, the value of those resources would have driven whoever controlled it to continue production and sale around the world. Furthermore, the oil industry was then as now is a global affair, with production and processing that takes place in a great many locations, so even reduced access from a location like Iran would have been a blip in the broad perspective of the market, similar to ones we have seen many times in the years hence.
Some people might object that US foreign policy was being driven by concern that Iran would fall under the sway and become a satellite of the USSR. That presumption is far from certain, given that the murderous approach of communism was visible even then, and must have been far more visible to people in the region who met with refugees from the destruction of civil society that was taking place with Russian dominance of ethnic minorities across the USSR. While that would be a sorry turn for the Iranian people, I imagine that their dislike of that yoke would have turned to revolution in far less time than it took them to rise up against the Shah.
But the prospects of such a turn of events was hardly an existential threat to the United States. The threat to the United States of the former Soviet Union turned out to be the huge number of atomic weapons which existence continues to put the population of the world at risk of mass destruction. So I question the idea that we needed to control Middle East leaders to serve as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. The Soviet system was unsustainable from the start, and at the end of WW2 they were faced with having lost a tenth of their population due to the war, while their insane social and economic policy was leading to mass starvation. To stave off complete bankruptcy they looted the parts of Eastern Europe that they controlled consequent to US President Truman allowing that sphere of influence at the Yalta conference in 1945. Even in those regions nominally controlled by the Soviets, the local people were fomenting unrest (reference Hungary and Czechoslovakia); in other areas, the Soviets were further impoverishing themselves by sending huge amount of resources to subsidize the communist leaders (e.g. in Cuba).
Back to the actual history, unrest and discontent in Iran with the US-backed Shah bubbled for years leading to the revolution in 1979. This so infuriated US political leaders that they chose to support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq.
The rest of that history is so mired in tragedy that I will conclude to say that it is ironic, tragic, and an unfortunately familiar story of the backfiring of US Middle East policy - fomenting and initiating conflict that (surprise!) leads to more conflict.
The Guardian calls my attention to another figure in the international police establishment coming out in favor of major reform to the prohibition of drugs. Here is how they describe Mike Barton, currently the chief constable of the community of Durham in the UK:
"Barton is one of the north of England's most experienced crimefighters and has pioneered initiatives to break up criminal networks in County Durham via his force's "Operation Sledgehammer". He also holds the national intelligence portfolio for the Association of Chief Police Officers across the UK. Under his watch as assistant chief constable of Durham prior to his appointment to the top post earlier this year, there was a recorded 14% drop in total crime figures for his region."
Barton wrote a column published Saturday in The Guardian's Observer that lays out his case, including the following arguments that will sound familiar to those of us on the side of a rational drug policy:
"If you started to give a heroin addict the drug therapeutically, then we would not have the scourge of hepatitis C and Aids spreading among needle users, for instance. I am calling for a controlled environment, not a free-for-all."
"In my force area we have 43 organised crime groups on our radar. Most have their primary source of income in illicit drug supply, all of them are involved in some way. These criminals are often local heroes and role models for young people who covet their wealth. Decriminalising their commodity will immediately cut off their income stream and destroy their power"
Perhaps the UK will be the next European country to take concrete steps to banish the scourge of drug war paranoia, following steps taken 13 years ago in Portugal.
"A day after President Barack Obama urged Americans to support his call for military strikes if diplomacy failed, officials warned of a long process ahead."
Hmmm. Imagine that.
"The State Department said those talks would last two days or more."
Wow. Two whole days.
Considering that the meddling approach of US foreign policy has been under way since the 1950's and hasn't brought peace and stability, I wouldn't be surprised if a diplomatic approach to cleaning up the mess might take equally as long.
I'm willing to give it 60 years before once more going to war in the Middle East.
The President of The United States of America, Mr. Barack Obama, is trying hard to convince the American public, congress, and international politicians that prosecuting another war in the middle east is a good idea for peace and prosperity.
The Washington Post reports today how he reluctantly accepts the possibility that an alternative to bombs might be possible - that being a suggestion offered by the Russians for taking control of any chemical weapons stocks in Syria:
"By the end of the day, President Obama conceded that the idea of monitoring and ultimately destroying Syria’s arsenal “could potentially be a significant breakthrough.”"
And it's not as if this stand in favor of war is unique to the Democrat establishment; I wrote over three months ago about John McCain's interest in sneaking us in to war with Syria. He and Lindsey Graham are mentioned in the WP article in words that suggest they like waving the power of US arms as a threat (no matter how the years of US meddling in the region has brought neither peace nor stability):
"Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) said the proposal came only because Assad feels the threat of military force and that Congress should continue considering Obama’s request for legislative backing. "
Obama and other members of his administration were in the full press to convince Americans that just one more war would be enough to bring peace to the middle east. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is quoted with this statement addressed to the New America Foundation:
“Failing to respond to this brazen attack could indicate that the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our nation secure .... Any president, Republican or Democrat, must have recourse to all elements of American power to design and implement our national security policy, whether diplomatic, economic or military.”
The "full range of tools"? "all elements of American power"? Why not nuke the region then? that would certainly show an unhampered implementation of US national security policy. And note the transition from justification on the basis of national security to simply "policy, whether diplomatic, economic, or military", which can and does mean anything they desire.
While the WP seems to not put much weight in the senate decision to delay a procedural vote on war authorization, simply remarking about it in passing, the USA Today casts the delay as losing momentum for Obama and his administration.
"Six senators, including five Republicans and one Democrat, announced Monday they would vote against a resolution authorizing the use of force -- a strong indication that the administration's efforts to build bipartisan support have been ineffective. The Senate was scheduled to vote Wednesday on a procedural motion to begin formal debate on the resolution, but Reid announced late Monday the vote would be delayed in order to buy the president more time to make his case to senators and the public."
One of the frightening things about the conduct of US foreign policy, aside from the significant aspects of brazen disregard of the US constitution which has made war much easier for Presidents to initiate, is how in this instance it may turn out that the drums for war were dampened by what seems like an unplanned remark made by Secretary of State John Kerry. The Chicago Tribune describes what sounded like a quick rejoinder to a question that allowed for the people of Syria to escape one more load of death from the sky if their rulers allowed the UN to take control over any chemical weapon stocks. Our political masters seem to think very little about the costs of their adventures, so I can only be happy that some Russian diplomat recognized an opportunity and pushed to open it.
For this entry I'm willing to grant that Syrian President Assad authorized the use of chemical weapons against people in the region he claims to rule. And who wouldn't agree that those deaths represent a tragedy and crime worthy of severe punishment? The dead all had parents, many had children, many were children. But the response of the war party is more of the same, failing to even acknowledge that the deaths in the attacks they plan in response will also include children, people with children, people with parents, people who are innocent of the crimes of their rulers.
Once more into the breach, I make note of news that members of the secret court charged with oversight to the unconstitutional spying on US citizens find that crimes may have been done by the NSA, even when measured against the lax provisions allowed by legislation and interpreted by this and prior presidents.
I am referring to the story in The Washington Post ("NSA gathered thousands of Americans’ e-mails before court struck down program") and elsewhere (e.g. Time) that chief judge of the secret court, John D. Bates, wrote as early as October 2011 that "For the first time, the government has now advised the court that the volume and nature of the information it has been collecting is fundamentally different from what the court had been led to believe. ... "The court is troubled that the government’s revelations regarding NSA’s acquisition of Internet transactions mark the third instance in less than three years in which the government has disclosed a substantial misrepresentation regarding the scope of a major collection program" (emphasis added).
This seems like a pretty serious charge, and coming from the chief judge of the very court at issue of the violation of law and constitution, should have some weight among the people in government who are charged with upholding the law. So what is Attorney General Eric Holder doing about this? The news reports only his comments about some no doubt trivial matter in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly prejudiced gerrymandering system. If AG Holder really cared about voting rights equality he could be working to eliminate the use of tortured routes through the country and cities to carve up the spoils among local politicos.
But if AG Holder cared about the Constitution, the object of his oath of office, the supreme law of the land, he would be preparing charges for the vigorous prosecution all the parties conjoined to the gross violation of the rights of tens of thousands of Americans, no matter how high the trail might lead.
I wrote earlier in the summer of my skepticism concerning President Obama's interest in a public debate about the massive spying campaign that is being waged against American citizens by the US government; the recent news doesn't do much to improve my opinion of his treatment of our 4th amendment protections.
"President Barack Obama bowed to public concerns over US government data collection today" asserts the tag line from the CS Monitor, which goes on to describe a letter from the President that directs his underlings to establish a "Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies". Other sources report a similar tale, but it is difficult for me to see this as anything but a pro forma response to the public uproar on this topic when the person tasked with naming the members of this Review Group is the current Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, whose current occupation can hardly be considered an unbiased position, let alone one that would place priority on the rights the US Government is charged to respect. MSNBC even reports that Clapper admitted to misleading Congress over the scope of the National Security Agency’s spying programs.
Reuter's quotes another section of the directive, that the Review Group consider whether the widespread data collection "optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust". Over the years I have spent a fair amount of time reviewing specifications, to the point of being very suspicious of non-specific words - "optimally" and "appropriately" can hide many sins. And note no question as to whether such spying is even authorized by the Constitution - the document he and all those other characters are sworn to uphold - only to maintain the "public trust".
In all this, President O is known as a constitutional scholar, but it's clear he places little weight on the original construction of that document or the terms of the Bill of Rights. Particularly galling is how he invokes "the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America" to charter the Review Group, but like his predecessors he appears to believe the Constitution is infinitely flexible.
My ballot for the primary election includes a mark for Kate Martin, one of the dark horses in the field of nine running in the primary election for Mayor of Seattle. I have written to the effect that taking part in elections is an exercise in futility, but casting a ballot requires me (at least) to be able to provide some rationale for the selection, lest I be charged with making my selection based on telegenics or equally base rationale.
Like most actions in this world, casting a vote is necessarily taken in the knowledge of imperfect knowledge of the candidates and all the possible issues that may arise during the course of a term in office. Each mark we make represents some more or less subjective balance of interpretation of candidate statements and news reports, recognizing that each is limited to the few topics each think to be "important" to the electorate. As someone whose votes have been on the "winning" side substantially less than 5% of the time (my admittedly imperfect estimate), I think it is pretty clear I am not one whose views are well captured by the kinds of questions and statements that are normally reported during an election.
For any given office, it is usually easier for me to rule people out of contention based on their positions on one issue or another. For example, I previously expressed reservations about a few of the other candidates, based on their lack of understanding regarding the plight of people on the lower end of the employment spectrum1. This caused me to rule out the incumbent Mike McGinn and what seem like his three most favored opponents: Ed Murray, Bruce Harrell, and Peter Steinbrueck., as well as one more likely considered a dark horse candidate - Charlie Staadecker. There might be more important concerns in a local election than condemning marginal workers to permanent unemployment, but this was enough to strike those five off the list.
The other candidates are pretty clearly not establishment types, each with particular views they want to get across, or independent streaks that they think will either make them immune to (relatively) big city politics or somehow better able to thread the needle of special interest wheedling for favors.
The first type of non-establishment candidate clearly includes the person of Mary Martin ("factory worker", not to be confused with the other Martin, designated as "planner"). Her statement is spiked with outrage over how establishment Democrats and Republicans have sold us out to privilege represented by "too big to fail" Wall Street bankers. I can sympathize with that sentiment, but I think she has completely missed out on the root causes for those issues - that being the crony capitalism that is the natural bedfellow to unlimited government. Instead, she would shoot the golden goose that has brought to a huge population material wealth that was unreachable to kings of a century past.
Of the other type, Joey Gray has a list of 18 points she hopes will get her through partisan bickering and political grandstanding, and I confess to just being turned off by what looks like fence straddling on the topic of the Viet Nam War by Doug McQuaid.
So that left Kate Martin. Her candidate statement isn't much more informative than the others, but did strike a couple resonant chords: shared prosperity based on being socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I think there's a recipe in those ingredients, but it all depends on what else is in the shopping cart.
1. I won't repeat those concerns here, other than to note that Goodspaceguy, perennial local candidate this time running for King County Executive, discussed this issue in his candidate statement, a somewhat prescient decision considering that those booklets probably went to print well before the question of minimum wages arose in the Seattle primary discussion.
Evidently Seattle's Mayor McGinn thinks that proclamation is an effective method to improve the living standard of local citizens. Would that it were so.
Danny Westneat and Jim Brunner developed the story in a series of articles in the Seattle Times:
-  "Mayor McGinn goes all out on Whole Foods over worker pay", DW, 7/20/2013
-  "Mayor’s race ignited as McGinn called out on Whole Foods attack", DW, 7/23/2103
-  "Whole Foods fight: Murray joins attacks on McGinn effort to block West Seattle project", JB, 7/24/2013
-  "Harrell joins Whole Foods fray, calls McGinn’s stand “shallow”", JB, 7/25
The long and short of it is that the current Seattle mayor, Mike McGinn, wants to use the influence of his office to stop Whole Foods from opening a new store because he thinks the company does not pay sufficiently high wages. It is an unusual ploy, made possible by the fact that the subject development involves the prospective purchase from the city of an adjacent alley. The alley purchase, however, requires approval by the city council, not the mayor, so McGinn is free to pontificate with no actual responsibility for decision-making in this subject. It is a local election season in Seattle; ballots are due August 6 for mayor and a few other local positions. Of a large field of mayoral candidates, Peter Steinbrueck was first among the other eight to raise some concern for selective application of this policy, with a reminder of McGinn's prior support to development projects where his friends are involved; beyond that instance of hypocracy, I am reminded of another with McGinn's support to another taxpayer subsidized sports stadium. At any rate, by Wednesday a couple other local politicians - fellow candidates to replace McGinn as mayor - weighed in to complain: Charlie Staadecker and current Washington state senator Ed Murray, with Murray making the observation that many City of Seattle employees are paid less than what Whole Foods typically pays it's employees. On Thursday a fourth candidate - current councilman Bruce Harrell - had little to add but apparently decided he had to say something.
In all this posturing hubbub, nowhere to be found is a challenge to the presumption that a fiat on wage rates will improve living standards of low wage workers. Harrell, Murray, Staadecker, and Steinbrueck seem only concerned that political process be followed, that the correct set of privileged people are involved in deciding the terms of our employment, particularly the terms for those of us with minimal skills who would bear the brunt of any increase in the minimum wage.
Starting with the nominal reason why McGinn is in position to make any claim in the matter, a clear solution would be easements on the alley to be allocated to the effected property owners. The alley is a point of access to the properties and is best dispositioned by the people more directly involved.
The main consideration in this brouhaha is whether a mandate on higher wages will actually improve the lot of people on the lower end of the income range. To that question it is clear that some people will be decidedly worse off - those who turn out to be unemployable because their economic contribution to the enterprise is not greater than the minimum allowed compensation. Suppose a person employed at compensation X who makes contribution Y; as soon as X>Y that person is contributing a loss to the enterprise, which if sustained and extended leads to going out of business for the enterprise. If the business owner persists with the inequality, the loss accumulates until the point when the business employs no one.
An equivalent situation is that of the employer when faced with a potential employee whose potential contribution is less than the mandated compensation. Job seekers in those situations don't get hired at all. They don't get an opportunity to show their worth. They don't get the immediate benefit of wages. They don't get the experience needed to convince another employer that they know what it means to show up on time and get the work done. They don't get the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to a successful operation. They don't get the prospects of higher wages if they show they are worth more than their current compensation.
But that's the fate to which Mayor McGinn and those of like mind would condemn the people most on the margin of beginning and sustaining a productive contribution to our society. McGinn is not in that situation, and neither are his union supporters nor his opponents in the mayoral race.
And his opponents deserve special mention in as much as they have raised objections on the basis of not including business input in such political maneuverings. Consider what happens in such discussions. Who can afford to take time to talk to politicians when they have payroll to meet? Who bankrolls the campaigns of the major candidates? The answer to both of these questions is the same - established business interests who have no desire to face competition from upstarts. And what better way to restrain such competition than by imposing hurdles that make it more difficult for people to begin new businesses? Those new businesses are the ones with the smallest margins, the ones least able to afford the smallest extra expense, the ones surviving week to week in the effort to establish a niche and reputation for quality or novelty or style that others have not yet managed to achieve.
Whole Foods is not the only center for discussion of wage rates in the Puget Sound region. The Sea-Tac city council agreed to put a measure on the November 2013 ballot that calls for a $15/hour minimum wage ("SeaTac to vote on $15 minimum wage", The News Tribune, 7/25/2013). If raising living standards were as simple as mandating a $15/hour minimum wage as proposed in Sea-Tac and by Seattle city council candidate Kshama Sawant then why should we stop there? Why not $25 or $100/hour?
And Seattle is not the only nexus of debate on wage rates. The Sunday New York Times ("Fighting Back Against Wretched Wages", Steven Greenhouse, 7/28/2013), and the CS Monitor on Monday ("Fast food workers strike McDonald's, KFC, and other chains", Akane Otani, 7/29/2013) report the actions of workers in some fast food chains who want higher pay. I don't oppose people who choose to engage in collective bargaining. I'm sure it's worked more than once in the short term at least, but it is also possible to overreach, as union members with Chrysler and General Motors discovered.
The point is that we all want more, but we can only get more if what we offer in exchange has correspondingly greater value to others. This is true for our lives in business and as workers, a point which should be clearly recognized when we consider our role as purchasers of goods and services - in that role we don't long tolerate poor quality or inadequate service and soon go in search of someone better able to satisfy our needs. For any good or service, the payment is not based on what the providers think to be desired, but what the consumers think to be of value. What makes our wages more or less than those of other people in the economy is not the fact that we have skills and expertise, but that those particular skills contribute to something that people value at a level which supports wages we are paid. The causal direction is from consumer to producer and not the other way around, which is something that people who agitate for higher wages may want to keep in mind - those wages are based on the expressed consumer preferences of themselves and everyone else in the society.
It would be nice if politico proclamations were enough to improve our material lot in this world, but the way the world works is more complicated. The prospects for improved standards of living for all people rest in the steadily lowering costs associated with increasing production in accordance with our choices actually displayed in the market for goods and services. If we want that end then we should look at what restrains production and at what distorts its satisfaction of those choices.
Here is an article from the Guardian ("One year on, what legacy has the London Olympic Games left us?"), written on the anniversary of the 2012 London games, describing some doubt as to the vaunted hopes claimed to justify the public expense on those Olympics. A few extracts that might give further pause before taking at face value such claims regarding any similar venture around Seattle.
- "The lofty, endlessly stated aim of politicians was to use the Games as the catalyst for social change, to bring east London closer to the west in terms of prosperity"
- The Newham council lobbying group "says 5,000 residents were helped into Games-time jobs, but most of those were temporary"
- "Yet, up and down the country, other local authorities are being forced to slash their sport and recreation budgets by up to 40%, putting facilities, coaching programmes and maintenance budgets under grave threat. "
I have chided Science Friday's Ira Flatow for his tendency to equate interest in research on a given topic to the necessity that the best (or perhaps only) way to accomplish that end is via government agencies and the political process. This post points out private alternatives that are becoming a reasonable alternative to support to research scientists.
Crowdsourcing as a phenomenon has certainly passed some threshold when public radio program Planet Money uses it to finance reporting on economics(and getting pledges amounting to 10 times their target). Wikipedia has a large list of crowdsourced projects (some of which are in the areas of science and technology).
I have been aware of a couple of crowdsourcing projects in science and technology, but what triggered me to write this post was an article that passed through my local news feed. In "Microryza helps round up dollars for fund-it-yourself science", the Seattle Times' Sandi Doughton reports on a company that brings people with research ideas together with people who have both interest and money they aren't otherwise reserving for higher priorities. A related article in the International Business Times, also references Microryza, a crowdfunding website that connects researchers in biology, medicine, paleontology, physics and other disciplines with interested supports of dozens of topics such as this one aiming to figure out how to use nanoparticles in targeted drug delivery.
The amazing thing is that there are more than one such sites: fundageek and petridish being two others, while the well known crowdfunding site Kickstarter, has a section dedicated to science projects, with successful projects in conduct and teaching of science in areas as diverse as slime molds and space telescopes.
Next Scientist reports on a few notable projects and includes a graph that depicts the aggregate of dollars contributed to such projects. These levels may seem small, but keep in mind that the market for this sort of thing is in its infancy - Kickstarter has only been around since 2009. In addition there has been the crowding out effect of government finance to science for over 60 years, which has suppressed private science financing all these years.over at
I am encouraged.