ALEKSEJ DEMJANSKI, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS
Almost twenty years ago, Fareed Zakaria published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” in which he explained a frightening new international trend. In his essay, Zakaria noted that, in recent times, democracy has been on the rise all across the world, but that this rise has not coincided with the civil, political, and economic liberties typically associated with it. In fact, he makes a very important distinction—democracy simply means that within a state there exist free, fair, and open elections, or what he calls “the procedures for selecting government.” The various liberties that we have come to believe democracy stands for are not part of the democratic political system; they instead come from the ideal of constitutional liberalism. This constitutional liberalism has been expressed by various philosophers throughout history and proclaims that humans possess many “natural or inalienable” individual liberties that Zakaria considers “the government’s goals.” As he points out, many in the West have associated democracy with this constitutional liberalism because there was a historic tendency for the two to materialize together. This coincidence is exceptional to the rise of democracy in the West and shouldn’t be applied to the democratization efforts of countries around the world today.
As a matter of fact, Zakaria declares that this tendency is not the reality for most newly democratic countries. He mentions that many of them are experiencing the rise of democracy without constitutional liberalism, a phenomenon he calls “illiberal democracy.” In these illiberal democracies, governments are democratically elected, but they are not ensuring their citizens the basic civil, political, and economic rights of a liberal constitutional system. In the conclusion, Zakaria warns the West to be mindful of political elites who consolidate power, hold free elections that are clearly unfair, repress media outlets, incite nationalist rhetoric to divide their societies, and suppress those aforementioned basic individual liberties. He also calls on the West to make an effort to rekindle constitutionalism around the world, as it is in the best interests of all countries and their citizens. Yet, if we look at the world today, it seems that the West and its leadership did not heed this warning. Illiberal democracy has spread like a wildfire, and today it’s in a phase of consolidation, particularly with the rise of right-wing leaders across East-Central Europe and its proximities.
Today, just as we had been warned, in the absence of Western influence, countries such as Russia, Hungary, Turkey, and Macedonia have all sparked flames of this fire. Zakaria himself opened his essay by mentioning the rise of illiberal democracy in the former Yugoslavia and even mentioned that in Russia, “Yeltsin's actions have created a Russian super-presidency. We can only hope his successor will not abuse it.” Ironically, the man to succeed Yeltsin, his handpicked protégé Vladimir Putin, has today consolidated the entire power structure of the Russian Federation under his leadership and created what is termed a “hybrid regime,” or an illiberal democracy, with media freedoms under attack and clearly unfair elections being held. In Turkey, the recent reelection of Reccep Tayyip Erdogan to the presidency proves just how far the consolidation of illiberal democracy has come. In his previous term, Erdogan even banned the use of Twitter and strongly suppressed media freedom. His rise to power and subsequent actions don’t seem to include liberalism anywhere on the agenda.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, during a speech at a university this summer, stated that the path his country will follow is that of Russia and Turkey. Orban explicitly states that “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” This proclamation raised concerns for many European Union leaders due to the fact that Hungary is a member state and its new path would contradict the core values of the EU. The Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, and his center-right ruling party VMRO-DPMNE, alongside their coalition partners, have been in power since 2006 and were recently re-elected in April 2014. Since gaining leadership of the country, the regime has taken to a higher level what their predecessors already started. This includes corruptly consolidating power in the elite apparatus, using state capacity to maintain authority in elections, reducing media freedoms, allowing for the judicial system to remain unreformed and inefficient, and expressing ethno-nationalist rhetoric, causing ethnic tensions within the country.
After the fall of communism in the 1990s, the United States and the West participated in the guidance of these regimes toward democracy and liberalism. Although democracy was achieved, liberalism clearly was not. Reiterating what Zakaria asserted in his 1997 essay, that the West must ensure the livelihood of individual liberties across the region and globally, I call on the West with great urgency to finish what they started. After having been the greatest promoters of democracy and liberalism in the 1990’s, the West, believing they have completed their goal, have recently begun weaning themselves away from the Balkans and East-Central Europe without considering the kinds of repercussions their inaction will have. If the spread of illiberal democracy is not a clear indication, then I don’t know what is.
Regardless of the Western-led efforts of the 1990s that have slowly been phased out, we must ensure that citizens have a voice in these countries and that their voice leads to active participation by supporting Western-led programs that engage citizens of the West with those of this region for an exchange of ideas. We must support the freedom of the media by holding these countries accountable to international law in order for truth and transparency to flourish. We must assist in the reform of judicial systems that are run by the state rather than independently through joint Western-led law initiatives and educational programs. We must help civil society organizations by creating a civil society partnership between our countries in an effort to help them cultivate a unified national conscious and not an ethnically divided one. We must guarantee citizens their basic liberties by once again advocating for constitutional liberalism. If not, the wildfire of illiberal democracy will not stop spreading--and we in the West will partially be to blame.
Stamps and Debit Cards: How the USPS Could Serve as a Financial Institution for Underserved Populations
JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
Your neighborhood post office may be good for more than just mail. As a monumental white paper from the USPS inspector general (IG) argues, by providing financial services in local offices, the postal service can both aid millions of Americans underserved by major financial institutions and help shore up its own insolvencies. This may be one way of helping the USPS remain in business, after the agency posted a $5 billion net loss in the 2013 fiscal year, the seventh consecutive year in the red.
According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, 9.9 million households did not have a bank account, and were thus considered “unbanked.” In addition, 24 million households rely on alternative financial services (AFS), alongside a bank account. These services may include money orders, check cashing, payday loans, and pawn shops, among others. Financial institutions can be essential to personal income security and growth, especially given that an unbanked family may spend roughly ten percent of their income to gain “access to credit or other financial services.”
This gap in access can be seen especially in the District of Columbia, which ranks in the fifth quintile for both unbanked (10.21 to 15.10 percent) and underbanked (22.01 to 31.22 percent) states, significantly above the national average. It is difficult to understate the overall economic problems in a district with a poverty rate of almost 23 percent, adjusted for cost of living expenses. This lack of access to financial services only exacerbates the issues in DC, as those with already diminished incomes in real terms may, due to inflation, have to pay more here for less.
It is also important to note that many minority groups are disproportionately underserved. The IG report finds that “Black (21.4 percent), Hispanic (20.1 percent), and American Indian (14.5 percent) households have the largest proportions of unbanked households.” The current banking system is particularly failing households where Spanish is the only language spoken, 36.9 percent of which are unbanked.
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has come out in favor of the inspector general’s proposal in a Huffington Post piece. “With post offices and postal workers already on the ground, USPS could partner with banks to make a critical difference for millions of Americans who don't have basic banking services because there are almost no banks or bank branches in their neighborhoods,” she writes. The Post Office in its omnipresence is well-suited to provide a number of financial services to these individuals.
The IG report specifically points to payment services, savings incentives, and credit offerings as the primary means through which the post office could operate. A prepaid, reloadable card would enable individuals to load their paycheck without needing a bank account at an institution that may be outside of their neighborhood. This would allow currently underserved people to access ATMs across the country and pay bills as needed, thus integrating those who may currently be marginalized. Also, the postal banking program could incentivize greater savings rates for emergencies or larger purchases, which help to improve credit and security, especially when 50 percent of surveyed households had less than three months’ expenses in savings. Crucially, such a USPS program could improve credit services by offering small loans to the currently underserved, who may lack the requisite checking account for traditional bank credit. This could also help protect people from being forced to use pawn shops, payday loans, or high-interest credit cards to cover unexpected expenses.
Such a program would be good for both those left out by current banking models and the ailing USPS itself. For these households, the average savings could be up to $2000 dollars per year, as the postal service could provide these services at a 90 percent discount. Remarkably, this could lead to $8.9 billion for in revenue for the post office, calculated as a speculative 10 percent of AFS spending diverted to the USPS instead. This could be critical in helping to make the USPS financially solvent, and could allow for increased employment opportunities.
It is unacceptable that over one-third of US households are unbanked or underbanked in the current system. Secure, reliable financial services can empower individuals to increase investment and consumption in the economy, help to improve credit, and can lower eviction and foreclosure rates as people can store and access their money at lower costs. By implementing payment services, savings incentives, and credit opportunities, the United States Postal Service could help provide to those who have been underserved by banks. The USPS is faltering through budget deficits and increasing market incompatibility. Millions of Americans lack the financial services needed for economic stability and growth. Drawing these two groups together could help to eliminate the separate factors bringing them down.
ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY & THE ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
GW Roosevelt Institute has voted to support Fossil Free GW and their work to persuade the university to divest all of its holdings in fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel industry is chiefly responsible for anthropogenic climate change, as well as significant damages to public health. As progressives, ignoring climate change and its causes would betray our work and passion for a future of good jobs and more equitable health outcomes.
The dire warnings regarding the dangers of climate change, propagated by everyone from the Department of Defense to Pope Francis, have often fallen on deaf ears. However, the reality remains heartbreakingly simple: If carbon dioxide emissions, particularly from burning of coal and oil, continue unchecked, the world stands to suffer from increased extreme weather, famine, drought, and devastating hardship, particularly for those in poor and developing countries.
The George Washington University has repeatedly asserted itself as caring about environmental and sustainability issues, and is ranked among the most sustainable universities in the country. Therefore, it must do its part on climate change even as many continue to drag their feet. We should join 13 other universities, a number of cities including Seattle and San Francisco, and dozens of religious institutions in making sure that tuition dollars--the ones we are investing to become future world leaders--are not financing climate change through GW’s holdings in fossil fuel companies. This is far from a radical decision; many have already endorsed such an idea on economics alone. While information regarding just how much money an individual university or other entity holds in a given industry is often difficult to find, we do know that fossil fuel investments comprise 13% of the total stock market in the United States, so it is not difficult to imagine that university investments are substantial. It is a question of simple economics: It is only a matter of time before energies such as coal and oil become less profitable, and other, more profitable and sustainable energy sources will take their place.
Allies of the divestment movement are rightly concerned that divestment from any potentially profitable industry would hurt the university’s bottom line, which could threaten cuts to vital programs, such as financial aid. These concerns are valid, but easily addressed. The market for new energies, particularly solar, is rising at historic rates. Inherently, it is causing coal stocks to decline as citizens continue to switch out traditional fossil fuels for renewable sources of energy, particularly solar. While fossil fuels often give the image of being a reliable economic investment due to their relative ubiquity, a growing body of evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.
This movement can and should find allies across the political spectrum. Liberals and progressives will find divestment desirable for the reasons stated above: a moral imperative to protect the world’s poor and our environment. Conservatives and libertarians should find the proposal desirable as a market-oriented method of mitigating climate change--one that does not require government intervention or mandates. Climate change can be a complicated issue, but our solutions don’t need to be.
SHANNON QUINN, EDUCATION DIRECTOR
As the world continues to grow smaller and globalization advances at a rapid pace, all aspects of society are being transformed and rethought at fundamental levels. This holds true for the education system. Our current system of education was designed in an industrial age, based on an assembly line mentality that was necessary for the economy of the time. However, in the 21st century, this model for education should be reevaluated and changed to meet the demands of a globalized and culturally-diverse economy.
Built into the model of industrial education is the dependency on conformity. With the rise of standardization, children are increasingly put through a “one mold fits all” curriculum. Children have little choice in what they study from a young age and are forced into a curriculum that ultimately teaches to the test. Researchers such as Ken Robinson further point out that the model penalizes collaboration by calling it cheating, which discourages group work. Though this may have been relevant to the structure of the 19th century economy, this model may actually be harmful for children today.
In a study on divergent thinking, which is defined as the essential capacity for creativity and the ability to see more than one solution to a problem, researchers showed that the more “educated” children were, the less able they were to think flexibly about solutions to problems. In a longitudinal study, 98% of Kindergarteners scored at “genius” level for divergent thinking. After five years, the rate decreased to 50%. It further declined after another five years. Considering a standardized education enforces the idea of one answer, these results make sense. In the context of the 21st century, however, the results are troubling, as we have shifted to a world where problem solving skills are paramount and technology makes it easier to share ideas and collaborate across the world.
So how can we change school curriculum to ensure that our children are receiving the most comprehensive and in-depth education possible? It certainly won’t be an easy task, as it will require a restructuring of an entire entrenched system, not to mention a significant shift in the way people think about education. One approach that is being increasingly tested in schools is project-based learning (PBL). PBL is an approach that challenges students’ problem solving skills by engaging them in an extensive investigative project that has an application in the real world. This model emphasizes group work and collaboration, in contrast with the individually centered approach of the current system. Elements of PBL include mastering 21st century competencies, such as technology, working with a driving question, and presenting work to a public audience.
Although it is not yet widely used, a nonprofit organization called New Tech Network works with schools, districts, and communities to develop effective education strategies. New Tech schools include 115 district public schools, 18 charter schools, and two independent schools; all of these schools use PBL. According to their yearly outcome report, their students graduate at a rate of 14% higher than the national average, enroll in college 9% more than the national average, and persist in college at a total rate of 83%. These numbers may reflect a deeper engagement with the subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, an increased drive to learn and succeed in education.
In another study done on PBL, researchers analyzed a project-based high school economics class. According to the outcomes of the study, students that participated in a project-based curriculum outscored their peers that followed a more traditionally designed plan. This shows the real potential impact of PBL on student performance. Although this model seems divergent from what the US typically subscribes to in education, reassessing our standards and the approach to learning is becoming increasingly necessary for innovative reform and preparation of our children for the world’s economy today.
Adopting PBL as an alternative to traditional education is one effort that can be made to reorient the education conversation and provide opportunities to struggling schools to engage their student body in a meaningful way. By doing this, the depth at which students are learning will increase, driving their curiosity and transforming them into more well-rounded individuals overall. This is economically important and is more telling about a student’s proficiency than test scores. Low-income schools can especially benefit from this model, but standardization must first be eased in order to transition to a model conducive to PBL.
The world looks different than it did when our system of public education was formed. As the world is shrinking due to the forces of globalization, we need to think of innovative ways to restructure our education system in a way that fits with the economic and cultural needs of our time. Concepts such as project-based learning should be further explored, refined, and experimented with to increase the quality of education for low-income and high-income communities alike. An overhaul of our current education system certainly will not be easy, but it must be done if we’re going to offer equitable and valuable education to this generation of students, who are being launched head first into globalized economy.
ERIN AGNEW, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS DIRECTOR
Wednesday night, President Barack Obama addressed the nation on what he calls his “comprehensive plan to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” The plan includes the authorization of air strikes in Syria and Iraq and the deployment of 475 more American military personnel, whom President Obama consistently refers to as “military advisers,” carefully avoiding any implication that more active troops will be on the ground in the coming months. Talking around the issue of direct military involvement was a theme in President Obama’s speech, showing full awareness that he addresses a war-weary nation and must act in the face of a 40% approval rating and congressional stagnation acknowledged in his speech as “divisions and discord within our democracy.”
The challenge of this speech was the obvious dissonance between his opposition to “dumb war” upon taking office and his current intent to increase the number of American troops in Iraq and the Levant to 1,600. But for those who seek to contrast the legacy President Obama intended to leave internationally and that which he realistically will leave, his announcement comes with surprisingly careful timing and preparation. In 2002, then-Senator Obama assured an audience in Chicago, “ I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world... ” His speech Wednesday retained the same sentiment. After reiterating that American action comes in the form of calculated air strikes and partnerships with global forces on the ground, he drew parallels to operations “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” It is easy to view this particular comparison as tantamount to an admission. American action in both nations was not made public until both saw improved rankings in stability. That being said, it is not unwise to lay all cards on the table as President Obama asks for the support of a dubious citizenry and congress.
While building domestic support is still a hurdle for the president, his announcement was framed perfectly between announcements of NATO ally support and that of a coalition of ten Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. As of September 6th, the UK, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark have pledged significant support in the form of military assets, intelligence, equipment, ammunition, and/or weapons. They were joined by non-NATO affiliated nation, Georgia, which has previously sent troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq.
The end of President Obama’s 14-minute speech took a surprising turn towards exceptionalist language, perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a still-conservative-controlled Congress. His situation and word choice are both eerily evocative of President Bush’s 2003 declaration of war in Iraq. (President Bush saw an approval rating of 33% in the week preceding his declaration, to President Obama’s 40%.) Following a terse pause, President Obama fervently stated that “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other country.” His later insistence that “American Power can make a decisive difference” and that “American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world” echo President Bush’s declaration of America’s responsibility to “bring freedom to others.” Both speeches-turned-declarations dedicated significant time to thanking American military members and ensuring them of the necessity and worthiness of their deployment abroad. With somber parallels to the interventionism of 2003, the question of that declaration’s validity lingers.
FRANK FRITZ, EQUAL JUSTICE DIRECTOR
Occupational Licensing is an important issue for the American economy, and it surfaced in the national political debate through Paul Ryan’s “discussion draft” plan, “Expanding Opportunity in America”. The draft plan addresses social mobility, poverty, and reforms to America’s welfare state and the criminal justice system.
What is Occupational Licensing?
Occupational Licenses are state and local level regulations that establish a barrier in the practice of a specific trade, or prevents a tradesperson competing with other fields outside their licensed trade (the latter is common in the medical field), normally with the de jure intention of protecting the public. Many fields have mandates for licensed professionals, and the number has been growing rapidly. In the 1950s, only 70 occupations, including 5% of workers, were licensed. By 2008, an average of over 800 occupations, accounting for 29% of all workers, were licensed by each state with one state licensing over 1,100 professions, according to a 2003 report by the Council of State Governments.
This doesn't mean licensing is a new phenomena. Economists Morris Kleiner and Alan Krueger find that the concept has existed at least since Adam Smith in the 18th century. Licensing has also been a theme in health care economics. In 1963, Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow discussed barriers to entry for doctors, such as expensive education and licensing requirements. At the time, I thought it would be too dangerous to lower the requirements for medical professionals to work in their field, but the data seem to be against me. Nurses can provide the same quality of care, with some patients actually reporting higher satisfaction than with a doctor, while charging 15% less for their services. Overall it is estimated that regulations on non-physicians in the medical field alone costs US consumers over $100 billion a year.
Certification is a similar process to licensing; however, gaining certification is not a prerequisite for opening a business. For example, you would not be able to open a hair and nail salon in a state that requires a license to operate, but in another state you could decide for yourself if you think that it would benefit your business to get certified to practice your trade. Rand Paul, after disagreeing with the certification board for Ophthalmology, founded his own certification board, the National Board of Ophthalmology in 1999. Somewhat comically, Paul was certified by the NBO with himself as the organization's president, while his wife served as vice-president, and his father-in-law served as secretary before that body was dissolved in 2011.
What did Paul Ryan have to say about Occupational Licensing?
Paul Ryan’s report does not cover the topic in depth, but his report concludes,
“Eliminating irrational or unnecessary licensing requirements would not be a panacea, but it would open up new opportunities for low-income families and reduce costs for consumers. The vast majority of these licensing requirements are the result of state and local laws. State and local governments should begin to dismantle these barriers to upward mobility.” (p. 66)
Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com notes that Ryan does not propose a remedy to end this problem, but he rather implores state and local governments to take action themselves. Yglesias briefly floats the idea of federal incentives for local governments to lower their license requirements for workers, but does not expand upon this idea. Still, even liberal pundits like NY Mag’s Jonathan Chait have lauded Ryan for discussing this issue at all in his overall plan to tackle economic mobility.
Why is Occupational Licensing growing so quickly?
Why are licensed and certified trades reaching towards 38% of the US workforce, while the number sits at 13% in the United Kingdom? A leading reason is a process that economists and political scientists refer to as “rent seeking”. Incumbent business owners and tradespeople seek to make it more difficult for competitors, especially those of lower income, to challenge them. They lobby their government to pass regulations to require licensing for new businesses to enter an existing market, with the stated goal of public health and safety. Kleiner and Krueger found that licensing laws increase the wages of current workers by 18%, creating a strong incentive for incumbent businesses and workers to lobby against more competitive practices. Meanwhile the increase in prices for goods and services are paid for by consumers. The increase is disproportionately borne by low income communities, as prices rise and firms focus on serving higher income clientele.
In another study, the pair of economists found an interesting correlation between a decrease in private sector unionization and professional licensing in the economy.
As union membership declines, workers seeking higher wages may be turning to government protectionism. The study finds that unions have a tendency to lift the lowest wages and restrain the highest wages; however, licensing has exacerbated--not relieved--the income inequality of the past decades as higher wages go towards a select few.
Generally, licensing laws have been passed in the nominal interest of protecting the public, yet requiring florists, hairbraiders, interior designers, tour guides, and dozens of other industries to have government licenses to operate has no rational basis and has been ruled unconstitutional in case after case. Many other cases of licensing policy have been the subject of ridicule in the Economist and the New York Times.
What Progressives could learn from Libertarians about Licensing
While politicians and commentators from the left, right, and center have now begun to challenge these embedded barriers, Libertarians were the first in leading the charge. Thanks to a vigorous distrust of government regulations, a disdain for crony capitalism, and discouragement of barriers to commerce, Libertarians have been leaders on the issue of licensing. Their party platform on poverty and welfare states, “...[O]ccupational licensing laws are particularly damaging to the type of small businesses that may help people work their way out of poverty.”
The Institute for Justice (IJ), a Libertarian law firm, has led the charge on this issue, publicizing and challenging laws that it finds excessive in the free exercise of business. IJ has been instrumental in arguing for court decisions that struck down tour guide regulations in Washington, DC as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit Court struck down regulations requiring that only funeral directors can make caskets in Louisiana, and a federal court ended a requirement that stylists need 2,000 hours of training to braid hair in Utah.
The Institute for Justice hopes to string these cases together to craft a national right to economic liberty. Although it might sound a little too much like the gospel of Ayn Rand for some, Progressives should support the creation of such a right, so long as it is balanced by the public interest on issues such as public health, the environment, and labor rights. Such a right to economic liberty, if applied regardless of class or influence, could help restrain rent seeking by corporations and reduce the power of money in politics, both of which are necessary if one wants to move towards a more progressive government that serves the best interests of its constituents.
The divergence between Liberal and Libertarians emerges when debating which trades the government should license. Libertarians are skeptical of most, if not all licensing, which is quite understandable considering the government’s track record, where it has over-regulated these trades beyond the point at which the public receives any benefit.
I would suggest that two questions be asked to determine whether an occupation should require a license or certification. First, does the occupation have a direct impact on public health, the environment, or public safety? Second, does the occupation pose a significant hazard to the health and safety of the worker employed?
When a trade does warrant certification or licensing, states and local governments should seek to implement those policies in a way that balances a competitive market with regulations that are in the best interests of the public, not a politically influential few.
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