The Commonwealth Blog
By Mehroz Baig
“Syria is a dangerous neglect by the United States,” cautioned Vali Nasr during his talk at the Club on May 1. “It’s a country that will impact the entire region.” Nasr said that the United States has other options in Syria besides a military presence. For example, the United States can also arm the opposition and take the lead in addressing the growing humanitarian crisis in and around Syria.
Syria’s ongoing conflict began more than two years ago in March 2011, and according to the UN, it has now claimed more than 70,000 lives, internally displaced 4.25 million people, and sent 1.3 million people into neighboring countries as refugees. The UNHCR — the UN’s refugee agency — notes that the Middle East and North Africa already face a slew of destabilizing circumstances, including civil conflicts and natural disasters. The escalating violence in Syria has added to the strain in the region.
In a statement to the UN Security Council in April, Valerie Amos, under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs at the UN, expressed concern for Syria’s neighbors, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Earlier in March, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, noted that Lebanon saw a 10 percent increase in its population due to refugee influx from Syria, which is putting a strain on Lebanon’s resources. He also said that the crisis in Syria is a “threat to international peace and security.”
“I think it would be terrific if the U.S. made an explicit push for China, Russia, Iran and the U.S. to jointly focus on the suffering of the Syrian people,” said Fred Lawson, a professor of government at Mills College and author of Global Security Watch – Syria. However, he cautioned that Syria is currently in a civil war and added, “What we learned in Somalia was that it’s impossible to carry out a humanitarian mission while there is a civil war going on.”
The UN and a host of NGOs have been consistently appealing for more funding to direct toward Syria. In a report published in April, Oxfam called out the international community, saying, “Today, the aid effort is shamefully inadequate.” The UN’s appeal of $1.5 billion has only been met halfway and UNHCR has had to revise its 2012 budget to accommodate the growing need in Syria. In 2012, it spent 18.75 percent of its entire MENA (Middle East North Africa) budget on Syria. The agency anticipates revising its 2013 budget, too.
This is precisely where Nasr thinks the U.S. can contribute. “Everyone’s operating on the assumption that we don’t care,” Nasr said. But he argues that the U.S. can lead a global initiative to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria. And as many agencies including the UN argue, that leadership is not only about donations and funding. Much of the humanitarian work is hampered by lack of authorization to enter Syria’s government-controlled territories, the inability to provide cross-border assistance, and a precarious security situation faced by humanitarian aid workers. On this front, diplomatic negotiations with the Assad government and rebel factions are needed.
Lawson agrees, adding, “It’s starting to look like humanitarian aid is not enough.” He suggested that any diplomatic efforts should be focused on giving Assad’s regime and its supporters an absolute guarantee of their safety; otherwise there is nothing to negotiate.
The United States’ reluctance on Syria might also stem from multiple calculations, which include following Turkey’s lead and considering the fragmentation within the opposition, added Lawson. Overturning the Assad regime would leave a leadership vacuum within Syria, which might be filled by anti-American parties. Additionally, the lack of organization within the opposition suggests that any one of those factions taking charge in Syria may not ultimately lead to a stabilized Syria.
“No one wants that,” Lawson said, citing interests from the U.S., Israel, Jordan, Turkey and Iran. “Washington is paralyzed.” The United States must take into its calculus additional factors, such as recent allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, Israeli airstrikes near Damascus and an Internet blackout in Syria.
The political calculation aside, humanitarian aid is still necessary, and Lawson suggests that the United States form an opinion about how to proceed: “I think the United States should first decide whether it will work through the UN or directly.” Direct aid requires forming an infrastructure of delivery, which takes time, Lawson added. However, Lawson cautioned that the “U.S. should not send food directly with U.S. personnel or aircraft,” but rather channel it through other aid entities such as the Arab Red Crescent. Doing so keeps aid workers politically neutral and out of harm’s way, especially from anti-American factions.
In testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Human Rights Watch’s Tom Malinowski addressed the double-edged sword of labeled aid. While explicit labels allow people on the ground to see where support is coming from — and support carries more weight if coming from the United States — labeling can lead to politicization. Malinowski stressed that aid must be disbursed impartially and for that, “it is better to rely on organizations that have the experience and logistical capacity on both sides of the border and that will ensure that aid is not politicized.” However, hesitancy to send aid through third-party organizations exists because the United States doesn’t come out as a prominent actor in relief efforts.
Ultimately, it may be a combination of factors — increased non-politicized aid, diplomatic unity on the Security Council, increased efforts at negotiations, strengthening and increasing cohesion among the opposition, and a political will to undertake leadership on these fronts — that might result in movement on Syria. Yet with few answers to resolving the long-term factors that will bring stability to Syria, and continued need for more humanitarian aid, it is difficult to determine how Washington will hedge its bets. Nonetheless, the announcement on Tuesday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to host an international conference on Syria and push the Assad government and the Syrian opposition to attend is a step in intensifying the diplomatic efforts to bring some resolution to this conflict.
Mehroz Baig is a Butler Koshland Fellow at The Commonwealth Club, apprenticing with the Club's CEO in non-profit leadership, and working with the Club's editorial and development teams. Mehroz comes to the Club from CNN's "Fareed Zakaria Global Public Square." She has a special interest in human rights, international affairs, and the experiences of Pakistani-Americans — much of her written work concerns these topics. Previously, Mehroz worked at the County of Sonoma's Economic Development Board and Human Services Department, conducting research and managing programs. Mehroz has a dual master's degree from Columbia University in journalism and international affairs.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey touched off controversy with his recent comments on health-care reform.
Here are a collection of reports on Mackey's comments on this and other issues, including his own article on corporate behavior; and don't forget to come see him 1.22 in SF or 1.23 in Silicon Valley (links below).
• CLUB EVENT IN SAN FRANCISCO 1/22: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2013-01-22/john-mackey-whole-isti...
• CLUB EVENT IN SILICON VALLEY 1/23: http://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2013-01-23/john-mackey-whole-isti...
Many momentous things have happened at The Commonwealth Club. FDR gave his New Deal speech here. Teddy Roosevelt first laid out his rationale for public lands here. Dan Quayle gave his controversial "Murphy Brown Speech" on our stage. And thousands of other scientists, authors, presidents, activists, business leaders, chefs, historians, clergy, journalists, inventors, futurists, comedians, and more have entertained, informed, and even provoked our audiences in our 110 years.
But in that first century or so of existence, the one thing that didn't happen has just been rectified: We've purchased our own, permanent home, and we think you're all going to love it when we've finished remodeling and moving in.
For an excellent overview of the project, read John Wildermuth's article in today's San Francisco Chronicle.
Read the entire article here.
By Amelia Cass
Mitt Romney has called his disparaging remarks concerning 47 percent of Americans, at an exclusive fundraiser this spring "not elegantly stated" and “off the cuff.” He went as far as to say, “I’m sure I can state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that.” For a politician, this comes very close to admitting that he was embarrassed when, due to a leaked video, an unintended audience heard the comments he had made in a room full of financial supporters. In 2008, President Obama found himself in a similar situation after he made some generalizations about another (perhaps even overlapping) group of Americans, also not intended for the general public, at an exclusive fundraiser of his own.
According to Washington Post opinion blogger Erik Wemple, these “off the cuff” comments are one big reason donors pay “outlandish sums” to attend these types of fundraisers, held by both presidential candidates. Because of their large donations, attendees feel entitled to “a piece of the candidate, not the same sound bites they get on the Internet and television.” One of Wemple’s sources, Ari Shapiro, an NPR correspondent who has attended the parts of these fundraisers open to the press, points out that, “part of the appeal is not having a camera there.”
Though most of the recent criticism has focused on Romney's perceived cynicism about his fellow citizens, members of the media have been complaining for some time about their limited access to political fundraisers for both presidential candidates. Just under two months ago at the Club’s Week to Week discussion series, panelist Carla Marinucci, a senior political writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, said of President Obama’s many private fundraisers in the Bay Area, “There’s no press at any of these events. We don’t get to see what they discuss, and you should all be concerned about that. What does the $40,000 voter say to the president? He’s our public servant; we should know that. Romney, too, is not great about opening up his events…. This stuff should be open so all of you can hear what goes on in these fundraisers.” Wemple, too, urges both campaigns to open up their fundraisers to the press, or at least to hold their discourse to the same standards of “elegance” that they would in any public forum.
A report of Romney’s response to the leaked video on the Fox News website on Tuesday September 18, contains, without specific context, this somewhat vague paragraph): “The Romney campaign was opening up its fundraisers to cameras on Tuesday.” So perhaps Romney's unintentional exposure will lead to more transparency in at least some aspects of the fundraising for both campaigns.
By Alex Wolinsky
In the wee hours of the morning on Aug. 5, after a voyage of more than eight months and “seven minutes of terror,” NASA’s rover Curiosity touched down on the surface of Mars. The mission will be the first to the planet since 1976 whose primary purpose is to search for life or, more likely, the bases for its existence.
Why the excitement surrounding this particular mission? After all, if the United States launched its first successful Mars mission in 1964 and has since discovered no conclusive evidence of life, why might Curiosity return more favorable results?
First, NASA has in the past decade found a series of indications that the planet might in fact be capable of supporting life forms: The Gale Crater, a vast indentation in Mars’ surface and Curiosity’s landing site, contains minerals only present in conjunction with water; methane gas, which is almost always a byproduct of life, has been found erupting from various points on the planet; organic matter was discovered on a Martian meteorite that recently fell to Earth. With these findings, in addition to other discoveries, scientists remain optimistic despite the failures of the past.
Additionally, Curiosity’s ability to gather relevant data immensely surpasses that of any mission of the past. The rover, which weighs about one ton, is comparable in size to a large automobile, and its scientific instruments are much larger — and more advanced — than those included in any previous vehicle, which will allow Curiosity to collect more material as well as analyze it more thoroughly. Furthermore, Curiosity made a flawless soft landing, meaning all of its equipment is perfectly intact, so — at least at the moment — its potential for novel discovery is highly promising.
Curiosity’s mission will primarily consist of taking geological samples of the Gale Crater and analyzing them for the one-time presence of water or other compounds conducive to the existence of life. Like previous missions, the rover will also capture photographs of the planet and perhaps even take video footage.
The exploration of the Gale Crater and the three-mile-high mountain it surrounds is currently scheduled to last two years, but if the previous two Mars rovers — each of which was to gather data for 13 weeks but continued (or continues, in the case of Opportunity) to do so for several years — are any indication, the mission could continue long after its projected termination date. Admittedly, the mysteries of Mars remain myriad, but Curiosity presents the greatest opportunity thus far to initiate a paradigm shift in our understanding of the enigmatic planet.
- On Sunday, August 26: William J. Clancey, chief scientist of the Human-Centered Computing Intelligent Systems Division for NASA Ames Research Center, will discuss "Working on Mars: Voyages of Scientific Discovery," in a Commonwealth Club program at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Details
- PHOTO ABOVE: NASA
By Alex Wolinsky
On May 24, the Times-Picayune, which received two Pulitzers in 2006 for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina, confirmed that it would eliminate staff and drop down to three days of print publication per week, rendering New Orleans the largest city in the country without a daily newspaper.
Such a decision piqued outrage among much of the citizenry and drew significant coverage from major news outlets, but it is merely symptomatic of the oft-mentioned difficulties currently facing the print journalism industry, which suffers from declining advertising revenue and a host of other issues resulting from the paradigm shift induced by the rise of the Internet. Print, however, is not the only journalistic media finding itself facing challenges: In the case of television news especially, objectivity — arguably journalism’s most integral tenet — seems to be losing its prominence.
“[W]hat engagement has turned into … is partisanship, and so you have right and you have left,” David Westin, former president of ABC News, said in a speech before the Club on May 30. “That in itself is not necessarily evil: We’ve always had opinion in newspapers; there’s an editorial page; there’s an op-ed page. What is the problem … is the blurring of the line.”
The warping of this distinction is deeply problematic, because this age of mass media has made news — and especially the manner in which it’s reported — among the most powerful forces shaping public opinion. Indeed, even the struggle for the nation’s highest office has been characterized as primarily an effort to manipulate the media. More troubling still is that pursuing such control has resulted in the appropriation of objective news sound bites in campaign advertisements, which has been the case in the current election cycle.
In a July 19 column for The New York Times, CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood described how a three-second sound bite in which he called — in an objective and factual statement — the year’s second quarter “the worst job-adding quarter in two years” became part of an ad criticizing President Obama. Crossroads GPS, the super PAC co-founded by former Republican strategist Karl Rove that paid for the ad, never acquired Harwood or CNBC’s permission to use the news broadcast footage. Other victims of such tactics include journalists as prominent as former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw and New York Times columnist David Brooks. In taking footage for political purposes, advertisers may hope to gain — or, by extension, compromise — the credibility and objectivity of the mainstream media.
As journalism faces the challenges of the 21st century and the changing nature of the media, one cannot help but wonder how the distant future will look for the reporting industry. According to another New York Times columnist, David Carr, “great journalism … is the one sure hedge against irrelevancy.” Great journalism, at least by its current definition, entails objectivity and genuine integrity; so as the industry evolves, one can only hope Carr’s analysis is correct.
• On Monday, September 10, 2012, see NBC Bay Area News Anchor Diane Dwyer and media strategist Tom Sinkovitz discuss "The Media and Presidential Politics" at The Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco
By Alex Wolinsky
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the Great Recession came to an end in June 2009. National output figures support this assertion, as GDP has surpassed its 2008 prerecession peak and continues to rise.
Despite this, much of the economy appears to remain depressed, and we currently approach the end of a fourth year of abysmal employment numbers. Unemployment currently stands at 8.2 percent of the labor force, well above the approximately 5 percent jobless rate prior to the recession, and its decline is excruciatingly sluggish. As a result, jobs and the labor market remain decisively at the forefront of political discussion.
A traditional recovery — one achieved through expansion of America’s conventionally strong industries, namely manufacturing and construction — might not, however, be effective or even desirable. This is because the economy has in the last decade undergone a revolution, of sorts, in which the driving force is no longer the production of physical goods but the conception and implementation of ideas. Indeed, as noted by UC Berkeley Economics Professor Enrico Moretti in his recent book The New Geography of Jobs, the most depressed areas of the country are those that have historically relied on manufacturing as an economic engine, and their situation has only worsened since 2008’s meltdown.
One might wonder why a recovery with its roots in traditional sectors is not an ideal target — after all, shouldn’t an economic rebound driven by any industry be appealing? There are reasons to believe that such a recovery might be short-lived and could even compromise the long-run economic well-being of the country. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant manufacturer, and it’s unlikely that it will ever regain that role. The reason for this is that other nations — especially China — possess larger pools of unskilled labor and thus far cheaper production overall. American workers produce far more goods per hour of labor, but attempting to compete with China’s sheer manpower is essentially hopeless and even counterproductive, because doing so would consume labor resources better allocated elsewhere.
So if not through an expansion of manufacturing and a proliferation of blue-collar jobs, how can America's leaders take action to combat unemployment?
One answer being proffered is as simple as it is clichéd: support greater access to higher education, and encourage youth to pursue advanced degrees. According to the 2009 American Community Survey, only 27.9 percent of Americans aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree, and a mere 10.3 percent possess advanced degrees. Given the level of expertise required for jobs in ideas-based fields, these numbers, especially the latter, are wholly inadequate.
At its peak, manufacturing directly employed nearly one-fifth of the labor force. The nation’s emerging economic engine cannot hope to approach this figure unless a larger proportion of the population acquires the necessary skills. An expansion of education might thus be in order to secure the nation’s economic future.
• For a list of programs examining the employment problems of today and tomorrow from a variety of angles, see The Commonwealth Club's August series The Future of Work
Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut to enter space, died yesterday at the age of only 61. She had been fighting pancreatic cancer.
Though much of the news coverage this day after her passing is focused on her groundbreaking flight aboard Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983 or on her previously unknown female partner of 27 years -- both of which are important and interesting angles -- at The Commonwealth Club of California we also remember her crucial work championing math and science education for girls. That was the focus of her program at the Club seven years ago, titled "The Greatest Challenge Facing Humanity."
Read a PDF of her speech and audience Q&A at The Commonwealth Club on June 16, 2005.
Analysis by Alex Wolinsky
Earlier this year, the Greek parliament voted to approve austerity measures in exchange for increased foreign aid in an attempt to resuscitate the country's moribund economy. Later that day, central Athens burned.
Given the origins of Greece's predicament -- a bloated welfare state and dishonest bookkeeping, in addition to an array of other factors -- one might conclude that austerity, in conjunction with greater external oversight, is an integral ingredient of any solution to the European economic catastrophe and, by extension, to that in the United States. Economist Paul Krugman, however, argues otherwise.
"This is not the time for that, because it is literally self-defeating," he said during a lecture before The Commonwealth Club in May. "Try to do austerity now, and it actually just deepens the depression."
According to Krugman, such action would trigger a reduction in the size of the economy as workers and businesses that depend on the government for wages and revenue cut their spending. As a result, the tax base shrinks, the deficit problem -- as well as the crisis as a whole -- worsens and the solvency of the government is placed further in jeopardy.
So, if expected results resemble those described above, why would anyone advocate a policy of austerity?
The answer is that the projected outcome is decidedly rosier. By classical economic theory, a reduction in government expenditures --a fiscal contraction -- does in fact cause a decline in GDP, but accompanying this is a bolstering of foreign confidence in the long-run solvency of the government and thus greater willingness to grant loans, which can be used for economic revitalization and a brighter future.
Though there are certainly examples of austerity being successful, more often in the post-recession world -- especially in Europe -- its results are similar to those described by Krugman. Indeed, as noted by former Council of Economic Advisers Chairwoman Christina Romer in an April 28 column for The New York Times, "[A]usterity is uniquely destructive right now."
With this in mind, what should be done to combat fiscal insolvency?
Many economists, including Romer, argue that less important than a government's total debt is its debt-to-GDP ratio. Intuitively, this makes sense: A country with a larger economy should be able to assume greater total debt than a nation with a smaller GDP before it suffers from insolvency concerns. This presents the novel conclusion that a country can mitigate insolvency either through cutting spending -- through austerity -- or through boosting its GDP. This latter action is most easily pursed by implementing an increase in government expenditures, which wholly contradicts the stipulations of austerity measures.
Overall, the debt-to-GDP ratio idea offers the immensely attractive concept of an economic recovery without further, government-induced pain. And, given the current state of the austerity-rife European Union, exploring related policies might be the tempting -- albeit admittedly unlikely -- next step.
• Related upcoming event: September 6, Economist Paul Saffo -- The Great Turbulence: Economics and the New Global Order
By Pria Whitehead
A couple of weeks ago, I cited Michael Ellsberg and Ezra Klein in a post about questions surrounding higher education in the U.S. I’d like to return briefly to Klein’s article, which appeared in both Bloomberg and The Washington Post, in which he asserts that the migration to Wall Street among recent liberal arts graduates is indicative of the “failure” of liberal arts programs to administer a useful education to their students.
One of my first encounters with this article occurred in conversation with a friend who, himself a Harvard graduate and Bay Area entrepreneur, wholly disagreed with Klein’s premise. My friend had rather fervently disputed Klein’s dismissal of liberal arts classes in “subjects like English literature and history and political science, all of which are fine and interesting, but none of which leave you with marketable skills” (Klein). “What about the fact that I learned how to write, argue and persuade in college?” my friend had asked. “Does he think I could have started a successful business without learning how to write?”
Klein’s argument is compelling insofar as it provides a framework for understanding the draw of the finance industry for recent college grads, but the careful construction of this framework is perhaps too quickly subjugated to a fairly antiseptic dichotomy between the liberal arts and the world of finance. Granted, Klein is not the first to have imagined this dichotomy. In the article itself, he cites a 2008 commencement speech by the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, in which Faust himself denounces the finance industry’s “all but irresistible recruiting juggernaut.” But in Klein’s very denunciation of an incongruity between the categories of finance and the liberal arts is an avid affirmation of – and, perhaps, contribution to – their mutual alienation.
When Klein describes the early Wall Street career as “a practical graduate school,” he seems to be referring to its compensatory pragmatism for the individual rather than to its wider social application. This individual-centric approach appears only partially fair, as it neglects the notions of accountability and cooperation inherent to any career – and perhaps especially to a career in the finance industry, which is responsible for managing massive proportions of the world’s wealth.
Yale economics professor Robert Shiller, who notoriously predicted the stock market and real estate bubbles of the past decade, appeared at the Commonwealth Club last month to discuss the rationale for his book Finance and the Good Society (Listen to the MP3 of Shiller's speech). In the book, Shiller urges readers to recognize the fundamental and large-scale contributions of the finance industry to the management of our economic, social and political assets and objectives. Though sympathetic to the criticism of the finance industry, Shiller argued in his talk that “there is a fundamental problem with being so angry at finance,” and proceeded to outline the contributions of financial capitalism to global progress. “There are some people,” he continued, “that scare others. They haven’t committed any crimes yet … but … unless they commit a crime they’re going to be out there, so we have to design a system that is nice, that encourages them to be constructive.”
Based on Shiller’s remarks, it would seem that society could draw a wider framework around the finance industry – a framework that wholly incorporates and, in some way, incentivizes social responsibility. Our system of capitalism is largely based on a correlation – not an opposition – between social good and financial gain. The fact that this balance is capable of going horribly awry suggests a reconsideration of the ways in which these two things, good and gain, might work together.
Assuming, as Klein argues, that an early-stage job in finance constitutes a type of education, perhaps it would be constructive to conceive of this kind of job as a continuation of, rather than an alternative to, a learning process. While questions surrounding the value of college institutions are paramount, the fact is that the liberal arts remain an integral part of many youngsters’ educations; one can speculate on a variety of academic and non-academic skills that such an education might hone. Perhaps a step in the right direction would be to take the numbers* that Klein cited – however astounding they may be – as a given, and figure out how better to make them work to our advantage as a society.
* “In December, the New York Times’ Catherine Rampell asked Harvard, Yale and Princeton for data on the professions their graduates were entering. As of 2011, finance remained the most popular career for Harvard graduates, sucking up 17 percent of those who went from college to a full-time job. At Yale, 14 percent of the 2010 graduating class, and at Princeton, 35.9 percent, were headed into finance.”
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