The Syria Problem and Hillary Clinton

via Foreign Policy – Michèle Flournoy, the consensus pick to be Defense Secretary should Hillary Clinton win the White House in November, said she’s open to using the U.S. military to push Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security on Monday, the think tank Flournoy helped found and currently helms as chief executive officer, Flournoy said “limited military coercion” might be necessary to drive Assad out. She helped author a report with fellow CNAS staffers earlier this month that recommends widening American goals in the Syrian war, including “arming and training local groups that are acceptable to the United States regardless of whether they are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or ISIS.” Currently, Syrian rebels must pledge to only fight ISIS in exchange for U.S. support.

While the media focuses on terrible campaign slogans and “who burned who” on Twitter, there are actual issues playing out in the world. We all know about ISIS and the horrors that come with that  organization, but have no ability to appreciate the magnitude of war and terror that everyday Syrians are facing.

To say Syria is currently mired in a Civil War is an understatement. The country is now ground zero for the following:

  • A takeover of a third of the country by ISIS
  • A Civil War between the Assad Administration + Hezbollah and a multi-faction rebellion group that includes the al-Nursa Front (the Syrian al-Qaeda branch)
  • Open revolt by ethic Kurd forces (many coming to Syria via Turkey)
  • A proxy war between Russia / Iran and Coalition Forces (led by the US)
  • Other fringe militias attacking indiscriminately

To get a real sense of what’s happening in the country, take a moment to inspect this live map of current battles and attacks.

This conflict, which has been in full swing since 2011, has seen the lines of battle drawn and redrawn hundreds of times with many rebel groups constantly pledging allegiance to whomever appears to be winning in their area. Even the US has been duped by these organizations countless times making this statement:

Currently, Syrian rebels must pledge to only fight ISIS in exchange for U.S. support.

one of the most moronic ever uttered by foreign policy experts. “Moderate Rebels,” as described by Senator John McCain, would be the ones getting equipped. It must have been a real shock that these “moderates” said what needed to be said to get guns, ammo, and heavy weapons from either the Department of Defense or the CIA (though these two groups are not coordinating) only to switch to ISIS or whichever faction suits their needs.

However, all of these minor details pale in comparison to absurdity of the plan Ms. Flournoy has concocted. Rather than half-heartily support the groups that may or may not be fighting ISIS, the full US Military should be used to remove the Assad Administration from power. Do the Russians want that? No. Does Hezbollah want that? No. Does Iran want that? No. Does a percentage of the Syrian population want that? No.

Yes, Assad has committed heinous acts against the dissidents in Syria. He’s dropped barrel bombs and used chemical weapons, both war crimes. But, and this is important, what is the right order of operations in Syria? Is the Assad Administration making statements about blowing up American malls and restaurants? They aren’t. Has ISIS? They have and already have inspired two attacks in this country.

ISIS should be the priority. As sick as that may make some people in the Government, right now may not be the time to remove Assad from power. Why not crush ISIS and then use diplomacy to remove Assad? Why not give him a billion dollars and let him go live in Iran or Russia? That may seem insane, but it would be far cheaper, save lives, and accomplish the same goals.

The Obama Administration has had a terribly unfocused strategy in Syria. Russia is eating the US’ lunch and racking up weapons orders from other countries who have been impressed with the capabilities of Russia’s next generation weapons. Yet despite how terribly things have gone in Syria, the Clinton Administration would only make things worse.

How well did it work when we removed Saddam from power by force?

How well did it work when we orchestrated the removal of Gaddafi?

This country has two clear examples of what not to do sitting in front of us. Maybe it is time to try a new approach. Maybe in the short-term the devil we know is better than the devil we don’t.

Guns: Thoughts and Analysis

Coming off the tragic events in Orlando, Florida at the Pulse Night Club, I decided to dig into the available data on gun-related deaths, homicides, and gun laws to see what, if anything, the data shows us about guns in America.  My general hypothesis coming into this research was simple: the states with strong gun laws will have fewer gun-related deaths.

It is important to note that “gun-related deaths” is inclusive of homicide, suicide, and accidents.

Using data collected by the FBI and The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence to determine the number of gun-related deaths per 100,000 people we can breakout a rate for each state that can be used for analysis and comparison purposes.  This data shows the average across all states for gun-related deaths per 100k people is 11.29 and that the standard deviation for the same dataset is 4.05. These data points produce the following distribution for gun-related deaths in the USA:

gd_distribution_v1

Immediately evident is that two states fall below 2 standard deviations from the mean and one state falls above 2 standard deviations from the mean.

Below: Hawaii, Massachusetts

Hawaii seems to benefit from being a literal island in the Pacific ocean with very strong gun laws. Availability, though, may be the more important component as the data shows other states with strong gun laws that are surrounded by states with weaker gun laws have similar rates of gun-related deaths when compared to those states with the weaker laws. Massachusetts is surrounded by NY, CT, and RI all of which have stronger gun laws, but also VT and NH which are far more lax. This could indicate a number of different factors are at play, including: education, per capita income, political beliefs, and many others.

Above: Alaska

Alaska’s apparent lack of gun laws and regulations (relative to more strict states) has resulted in the highest gun-related death ratio per 100k people in the country. Compared to Hawaii and Massachusetts, this result seems self-explanatory, but could it be more complicated?

Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Alaska were flagged as outliers given their distribution so our next action was to focus on the states that greater than one standard deviation from the mean (above or below) and investigate the circumstances surrounding each these state’s positioning. Here we have:

Low Gun-Related Deaths: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New Hampshire

With the exception of New Hampshire, each of these states has more strict gun laws and, potentially aligning with what we see in Hawaii, the benefit of being generally clustered around one another.  New Hampshire has very few gun laws relative to Massachusetts so it is good to see that the difference did not cause a spike in gun-related deaths. This also lends credibility to the pro-gun advocates’ argument that the impact of gun laws is not as important as income or education levels – though how these would translate to policy isn’t very clear.

High Gun-Related Deaths: Montana, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana

Admittedly, several of the states on this list did not come as a shock.  The media always seems to have Mississippi or Louisiana in the news for gun-related issues. What we do see from these states is very lax gun laws, defined by: no required handgun permits, no universal background checks for handgun sales (there is a Federal background check required so this likely references the ‘trade show’ loophole), no registration / reporting of handgun ownership, stand your ground laws, easily acquired ‘conceal carry’ permits, no permits required for open carry (outside of Arkansas), and no waiting period for handgun purchases.

If you were to stop here, you could make an obvious case based only on these observations that the key to lowering gun-related deaths is to pass tougher laws and make sure the states sharing your state’s borders pass similar laws. Or you could strategically position your state on an island, either way. The issue at this point is not that the data isn’t clear (at this level, it very much is), it’s that “gun-related deaths” is by its nature a collection of more granular data points.

Unpacking this data set we see that “gun-related deaths” summarizes three key data points: homicides with a gun, suicides with a gun, and accidents involving a gun that result in death. To expand our dataset for evaluation, we have to layer in the best possible data for homicide rates (using a gun) per 100k people by state. The picture that this resulting data paints is very revealing and could highlight a major men’s health issue, suicide.

First, an explanation: the assumption that will be used going forward is that because “gun-related deaths” contains homicides, suicides, and accidents, then a removal of the the homicides will show the rate that which death from a firearm was a suicide or an accident. Further, the accident rate (give available sources of data) appears to be very negligible relative to the homicide and suicide rates. With that in mind, the assumption used in this next cut of the data will be that the removal of the homicide rate will generally show us the suicide rate. This approach reveals:

1. The suicide rate for the states that already had stricter gun laws and lower overall gun-related deaths was very low relative to the full population. Massachusetts, for example, had a ratio of 31% meaning that for approximately every 3 gun-related deaths, 1 was a suicide. Put another way, the original Massachusetts number is more reflective of crime than it is of suicide or “something” else.

2. The suicide rate for the states that had lax gun laws and higher gun-related deaths had a ratio that was much higher than the low group noted above.  In some cases a significant majority of the “gun-related deaths” could be attributed to a suicide. For example, Alaska’s overall “gun-related death” ratio was 19.8 per 100k people – by far the highest. Removing homicides from this ratio leaves us with a 14.2 or that 71% of all “gun-related deaths” in Alaska were suicides.

This insight into the data feels somehow worse than finding out that we have a significant crime-driven homicide issue in this country.  Remember New Hampshire’s inclusion in the original list as a positive example (Relatively speaking as the topic is guns and death)?  It was nice to see this state on the list with only a 6.2 given the relaxed gun laws. It feels terrible to see that the homicide rate is a 0.9 though, meaning that just under 86% of “gun-related deaths” in the Granite State are suicides.

Does the data tell us anything we can act on?

Well, yes. One of the data points we have access to is whether or not the state requires a permit to purchase a handgun. This simple data point may represent a major key to this puzzle and provide a non-extreme target for Americans to work toward regarding gun control. Of the 50 states, only 12 require a permit to purchase a handgun. Coincidentally, those same states that make up the lower “gun-related death” numbers are almost fully represented on this list (New Hampshire being the one that is missing).

Could it be the mere requirement of filling out the paperwork for a handgun permit is a big enough deterrent that it actually reduces suicide rates?

Could this also address the “criminals don’t follow laws” point that is made by the pro-gun lobby?

As we noted above, the average “gun-related deaths” per 100k people in the United States is 11.29. Using our projection to determine the average suicide rate per 100k people we come up with 7.28.  It would be impossible to ever achieve a full reduction, but a decrease from 11.29 to 4.01 across the United States would be a great target to set. If requiring a handgun permit is one of the main avenues to use to get there, then that is a discussion we should be having.

Special Note:

The data used for this analysis was collected primarily from the following sources. Validating the accuracy of this data is an ongoing process. Further, any additional insights into this topic or data will be used to update this post or drive future posts.

FBI Homicide Data: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2013/crime-in-the-u.s.-2013/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded-homicide/expanded_homicide_data_table_8_murder_victims_by_weapon_2009-2013.xls

FBI Crime by State: https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/table-5

Gun Violence Statistics: http://smartgunlaws.org/category/gun-studies-statistics/gun-violence-statistics/

What Does Minnesota Teach Us About Running a State?

Minnesota has been on fire lately.  With a low unemployment rate and state-level surplus, it would be easy to point at the Governor’s increase in both the income tax rates and minimum wage as “proof” that high taxes solve all problems.  The Daily KOS did just this in a post this past February, but be warned Daily KOS readers: even the Governor that enacted these measures notes that it isn’t because of them that the state is in its current position.

It is Minnesota’s economic successes, not tax increases, that have produced our present budget surplus

– Governor Mark Dayton

What can other states and, for that matter, the country do to emulate what Governor Dayton already knows?  Well for starters, all states can recognize that state taxes on businesses do far more harm than good.  Dayton’s administration has pushed tax breaks and subsidies for businesses to attract them to (or keep them from leaving) Minnesota.  Businesses can then expand through capital investments and hiring.

The sweet spot – right where Minnesota is – comes from a state that invests in education and infrastructure while keeping taxes and regulations on business low / manageable.  Minnesota’s higher state income tax rate allows the state Government to benefit from the increased economic output of the business community and the people of Minnesota, in turn, benefit from the increase in funding to education and infrastructure, both which are rated highly in Minnesota.

For states like Rhode Island, languishing at 48th place in the same CNBC review, the Minnesota model offers a playbook of what could be done to improve the state’s positioning.  Implementing this type of program needs to be done with care, though, as a blanket copy will likely result in a high tax state bleeding wealthy residents.  Further, the allure of higher tax revenues consistently causes some states to hire bodies into non-value add Government bureaucrat positions.  No State in the union is currently hurting because of a lack of Administrative roles.

The key points that States should target include:

1. Cut business taxes and remove regulations that prevent business formation and / or expansion (for example, cutting costs on business licenses for business that do not deal with food or dangerous materials).

2. Create “Economic Improvement” zones in a similar manner to New York State to attract businesses to the state or to encourage expansion of existing businesses within the State.  The rationale here is simple, no / low income taxes on a business that hires 100 employees at livable wages is an easy trade to make when the alternative is those same 100 households on welfare.

3. Invest in infrastructure projects.  A UK-study noted that there are links between strong, modern infrastructure and economic growth.  A State investing in infrastructure projects not only gets the short-term positive impact of the capital investment on employment and tax revenue, but also gets the long-term ability to remain competitive and flexible in the face of changing economic conditions.

4. Investments in public education and training.  Drawn from increasing tax revenues (fueled by points 1-3), state-level education programs should invest directly into Pre-k to 12th grade, community college, vocational, public college, and rapid re-training programs.  Well-educated workers are a key component to attracting new businesses to a state and there have been countless examples of businesses placing new facilities near education hubs (Recently several businesses opened new facilities in Pittsburgh, PA because of the robotics work being done by Carnegie Mellon).

These aren’t hard ideas for a state to tackle, so why do many states fall down?  First, many states continue to languish in debates about exactly “what” policies to enact.  This inaction never accidentally produces the desired outcomes so politicians need to learn how to compromise.  Second, many states that want to raise taxes attempt to do so with a fire and brimstone campaign against the state’s wealthy.

Well-educated, wealthy citizens have the ability to leave the state if the message becomes too toxic (see California), but many wont if there is a clear plan in place for what these tax increases are for.  Maybe that is the clearest point that Minnesota makes: don’t demonize the business and wealthy communities as a way to popularize support for new taxes.  Instead create a win-win and let them come to you.

The Democrats May Have a Voter Problem

Lost in the talk about Trump crushing Marco Rubio in his home state of Florida is any discussion surrounding the number of people who actually turned out to vote in the Republican Primary.  This may come as a shock to some given the general excitement around candidates like Bernie Sanders on college campuses, but Donald Trump received 1,077,221 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 1,097,400.

So what, he would have lost, right?

Not so fast.  Total votes for the Democrats came out to be 1,702,878 broken down as follows:

Clinton: 1,097,400
Sanders: 566, 603
O’Malley: 38,875

Whereas the Republicans had approximately 2,355,183 votes cast for GOP candidates, broken out as:

Trump: 1,077,221
Rubio: 636,653
Cruz: 403,640
Kasich: 159,412
Bush: 43,452
Carson: 21,163
Others: ~12,000

There is an old saying in politics that is going to be very important for this election:

Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line

This saying points to the Democrat’s issue, what will Bernie Sanders voters do?  The majority of his voters right now are young and idealistic.  They view the establishment in much the same way that Trump supporters view – with extreme frustration – so there exists a very real scenario where a significant number of his supports either write Sanders in or don’t vote at all.

That could absolutely sink the Democrats in critical states like Florida (Remember, President Obama only defeated Mitt Romney in Florida by about 0.9% of the vote).  Trump being able to match Hillary when competing against far more opponents is incredibly important.  If the above saying holds true, a lot of these voters will “fall in line” and vote for Trump in the general election regardless of who their current choice is.

Combine that with half the country’s feelings toward Hillary Clinton and there is a very real possibility that Donald Trump takes the White House.

The Romney Effect (aka When Nothing Happens)

When former GOP Nominee / Next Guy Up Mitt Romney came out guns blazing against Donald Trump’s candidacy last week, many saw it as a sign that the Republican establishment was moving to block the future Republican nominee from his chance at the Oval Office.  The speech, delivered as the text format of paint drying, did little to accomplish the GOP’s grand plans.  In fact, a poll conducted by Morning Consult found that nearly half of Republican voters (48%) wouldn’t let Romney’s warnings impact their vote.

Perhaps Mitt put it best in his Netflix Documentary “Mitt” (Side note: this is worth a watch regardless of your general feelings toward Mitt) when he declared “when you lose the election, you are forever a loser.”  Trump’s campaign has been all about how much of a “winner” he is and how all that stand in front of him are “losers, dummies, jokes.”  With that in mind, is it really that shocking that Mitt’s speech didn’t sway Trump’s supporters?

Trump destroying Rubio in Florida last night despite it being Rubio’s home turf and having the backing of both Jeb! and Mitt Romney is nothing short of embarrassing for the GOP establishment.  Kasich was popular enough in Ohio to put him over the top there, but let’s not undersell what is happening:  In 2012, Mitt Romney lost a very winnable election to President Obama.  Top to bottom, voters saw how badly the establishment messed up the campaign. This failure caused an open revolt from the “next guy up” playbook that the Republicans have relied on for so long.

McCain failed.  Romney failed.  Jeb! failed.

Working class Americans are pissed and have taken a “guilty by association” view of the establishment.  The reality is this: Trump is going to be the Republican nominee for a lot of reasons good and bad.

Trump has run a very good campaign while spending very little money – something no one in the Political press would have predicted a year ago.  He has also tugged on the very heart strings that working class Republicans have been upset about for a long time: people who are working aren’t getting ahead and no one in the Federal government seems to care.  You can argue the merits of this point of view, but it is how they feel.

As it also looks more and more likely that the Democrats won’t have to use the power of their super-delegates and other backroom deals to put Hillary up as the blue candidate, we can begin to think about future debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Trump is a master at counter attacking and seems to hit back harder the more challengers press against him.  If you think these debates will be about policy or detailed plans, you are going to be very wrong.  This is going to be a gutter war and Hillary does not have the clean slate to win a gutter war.  Trump will attack – without hesitation – Hillary’s character and record with a relentlessness that will bother a lot of people.

Hillary should focus on policy and what she is going to do once in the White House, but her campaign staff seems inept so she is likely going to fall into Trump’s mousetrap.  This will be her downfall – she must avoid it at all costs.

For those, like this author, looking for sanity in our elections, one can only hope that it is this showdown that finally puts the status quo to bed.  We need better candidates, real discussions, and common sense in governing.

 

 

Post-Caucus: How Close It Was!

The Iowa Caucus proved to be more of a thrill ride than anyone expected.  The Clinton-Sanders margin was almost negligible and the GOP had 3 candidates taking the majority of the Republican votes.  In yesterday’s prediction thread we stated that Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders would be Monday night’s victors.

Ted Cruz did in fact win with Donald Trump taking second place (also predicted) and Marco Rubio taking third place.  Rubio’s strong showing was not expected in Iowa as the Evangelical population pointed more to a strong Ben Carson showing (who finished forth with around 10% of the vote and was our predicted 3rd place finisher).  Rubio’s win was bolstered further by a key endorsement from Tom Scott.  This result for Rubio will likely lead to a major jump in the national polls.

The most disappointing performances within the GOP had to come from Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.  Rand’s father Ron finished in third place during the 2012 Iowa Caucus and there was some thought that he would capture a bit of that magic.  At fifth place with only 4.5% of the vote, the Paul campaign has to be frustrated by their candidates inability to grab real traction within the party.

For all of the disappointment felt by the Paul campaign, the Jeb Bush camp must be in outright panic.  With millions of dollars spent and coming off his strongest debate performance yet, the early GOP favorite had to expect better than 2.8% of the vote.  We may be seeing the last days of the Jeb! experience.

In all, don’t expect the GOP candidates to throw in the towel before next week’s Primary in NH.  NH tends to be more friendly to establishment / moderate Republicans, many of whom were at the bottom of this poll.  After NH, though, we expect several campaigns to close up shop.

For the Democrats, the story got interesting in Iowa.  Martin O’Malley – debt strapped and with little support – suspended his campaign.  O’Malley is often rumored to be interested in a VP nomination, but that may be in doubt now that the Democrat Party has seen what he would actually bring to the table.  Staying in this race through the Iowa Caucus may have hurt O’Malley’s political career more than it helped.

Clinton narrowly defeated Bernie Sanders in a state that she had a decent lead in before the votes were cast.  While this is a technical win for Hillary, it was also a spiritual win for Sanders, though it was not without controversy.  No other candidate has come from the fringe to the mainstream like he has and with a monster lead in New Hampshire, he is going to force Clinton to play major defense over the coming weeks.

One additional point of note about the Democrat voters shown during the CNN broadcast was the difference in voter profiles between those who chose Clinton and those who chose Sanders.  The voters that valued “experience” overwhelmingly chose Clinton, while those that wanted “someone who shares my values” overwhelmingly chose Sanders.  Look for this information to be used by both campaigns going forward.

Prediction – Iowa Winners Will Be: Cruz and Sanders

The big day is finally here.

Iowa again marks the beginning of a new beginning (as President Obama cannot run for office again) and with that, Americans will be subjected to an exhaustive gauntlet of campaign ads, calls, and donation requests.  Iowa also marks the point when we, as Americans, start to get some real data about who the next leader of our country will be.

Prior to actually voting for someone, all we have had to go on are the polls conducted by research groups and media organizations.  While these polls give some insight into the general state of mind of American voters, we have also seen that one debate performance can launch a candidate into a leading position for a time being.

This is especially true with the leaderless Republican party.  Through the summer and fall, Republican voters have acted like middle-school children trying to figure out who they wanted to date.  First it was Bush, then Fiorina, then Carson, and now Cruz (all while maintaining a huge crush on Donald Trump).  None of these “picks” lasted longer than a a few months as the spotlight tends to reveal the truth and subsequently forcing those candidates back down the charts.

So who will win in Iowa?

For the Republicans, the winner with be Senator Ted Cruz.  Looking at maps of previous caucuses in the state, it becomes obvious that Iowans love both Evangelical and Libertarian leaning candidates.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, being the best examples.  Cruz represents both to some extent and is also currently tied with Donald Trump in the national polls, lending to votes by name recognition.  Second place will go to Donald Trump and third place will go to Ben Carson, who remains very popular with the very religious.

For the Democrats the race is less a race and more a head-to-head competition.  Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders going into today’s caucus (though the difference is close to margin of error).  Sanders, though, has a message that has been building quite dramatically over the past 6 months and strong support from millennial voters.  If (and here we are assuming they will) those millennial voters turn out, Sanders will narrowly win Iowa.

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When Do the Emails Become an Issue?

With the latest reports out of Washington, DC indicating that the FBI is running a far more thorough and rigid investigation than is being publicly reported, when does the DNC start to panic?  The Clinton’s are powerful and have survived a litany of scandals over the years, but formal charges against HRC may be insurmountable.  There has to be a backup plan.

Is it Bernie Sanders?  Is it Michael Bloomberg?  Al Gore?  Nothing would serve to put Donald Trump into the White House faster than NOT having a very legitimate backup plan.  And right now it seems the coronation that the DNC had planned out back in May could very well be blowing up in the organization’s face.

HRC and the DNC need both a strong showing this week and to they need to assure the base that all is well going forward.  If Trump is right about one thing (only) it is that America hates losers.

The Senate Needs to Bring the Hammer Down on Sen. Corker

In a Wall Street Journal report this morning, it was revealed that Sen. Corker (R-TN) filed tax amendments going back to 2007 to report $7m of previously undisclosed income.  Sen. Corker sits on the powerful Senate Banking Committee and its jointly responsible for ethics and oversight of the financial sector.

While a thorough investigation still needs to be completed, it is only reasonable to demand that the Senate strip Sen. Corker of his role and press all available charges against him for these transgressions against the American people.  The integrity of the financial markets is paramount to a strong, fair economy.  What Sen. Corker has demonstrated is a blatant disregard for the principles that guide this country.

The Federal Government has long felt that mandatory minimum sentencing for minor drug crimes was “essential” for a strong America.  How many kids have had their lives ruined for having a little bit of weed on them?  Someone who has benefited from insider knowledge, cheated the American people by lying on his tax return, and done nothing to strengthen the public’s trust in one of the country’s most important industries should be locked up.

Sen. Corker has done far more damage to this country and should be punished accordingly.  It is encouraged that you take the time to contact your Senators and press them for a swift, thorough investigation.  You can do so by clicking here.

Sen. Cruz Focuses on the Big Issues

The Republicans are well on their way to losing the 2016 Presidential Election.  With the candidates continuing to produce over-the-top slogans about issues that have already been decided, it is safe to assume most Americans will be abstaining from the election or voting blue.

Last week’s debate – the debacle that it was – did not advance the GOP cause.  Getting mad at the media for asking garbage questions (even if correct) did not communicate leadership, it communicated hostility.  Maybe messages like Sen. Cruz’s tweet above are more effective than we give them credit for, but at the end of the day, the people who get excited by this type of stuff already live in echo chambers.