Monday
Apr142014

Flat Tax Simpler? Not Necessarily

The tax code is overly complex and many argue that a flat tax could help address this problem.  However, a new State Tax Complexity Index, developed by Paul Weinstein, the director of the MA in Public Management shows that the tale is not so simple, in fact: 

 

...in measuring complexity in terms of tax expenditures, states that rely on flat or sales tax systems are just as likely to have high levels of complexity as those states that have progressive income tax systems.
In the brief introducing the index, Weinstein reviews the history of state income tax systems and highlights the various shortcomings across states and finds that: 
Reducing complexity through the elimination of tax expenditures can finance lower tax rates and also increase fairness (progressivity) because their benefits mostly go to higher income individuals and businesses.
You can find the full brief here at the Progressive Policy Institute

 

Monday
Apr072014

Words on a wall: Graffiti and Dissent in Syria

Current GSS student, Jeremiah Foxwell, writes in the @WorldPolicy blog about the role of graffiti as a tool of dissent in Syria. Drawing on his midterm essay from his class on Politics and Security in the Middle East, Jeremiah writes: 

Political graffiti is indicative of an angry population unable to express themselves through the democratic process. A notable increase in its presence can be an indicator of  emerging political unrest in nations that do not have democratic processes for political change.

Read the full account here

Wednesday
Apr022014

Alum Matt Laslo Launches Online Political Show "Bills and Brews"


Matt Laslo
, MA in Government 2012, wrote his masters thesis on the problem of partisanship  ("Why Compromise Shouldn't Be A Dirty Word.")  He continues to build on the work of his thesis and is now hosting an online political show called "Bills and Brews."  Matt interviews politicians on the show as they sip local craft beers from their districts, "ridding Washington of partisanship one sip at a time," in Matt's words.  The first episode of Bills and Brews can be seen here: 
http://billsandbrews.com/
Matt has lined up 10 lawmakers to be part of future episodes.  
 
Matt has been a public radio reporter on the Hill for eight years and is revising his thesis on the increase in partisanship since the 1970s into a potential  book.  
If you are interested in supporting this project please go to  Kickstarter:https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/347676607/bills-and-brews-season-1?ref=live
Thursday
Mar202014

The Importance of Global Net Assessment: A New Course

By Dr. Michael Vlahos. Dr. Vlahos will teach 470.664.51 “Global Net Assessment: Tracking and Bounding World Crisis” in the summer semester.

 

It is official: AMC’s series The Walking Dead shows how Americans are wildly into the Zombie Apocalypse.

But such mass literary engagement is also a testament of a larger awareness and anxiety over the prospect of real “end times.” It is chilling to remember that such literature flourishes in times of big trouble: so-called “apocalypses” were the most popular fiction attending the fall of the Roman Empire and at the onset of what we call the “Dark Ages.” Likewise, H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come and Orwell’s 1984 seemed to be ripped right from the page of a world on the edge of coming apart.

In other words, if peoples’ entertainment is riveted on big bad things happening, then at some level people really believe that those big bad things might actually happen. And when people collectively believe that big bad things could happen, they might actually come to pass.

So it seems that The Peoplea lá James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds thesis — do strategic net assessment, even if it appears to us to be mere entertainment. Going further, it is pretty good net assessment.  That means that we had better listen.

The new course, “Global Net Assessment: Tracking and Bounding World Crisis,” is my effort to do just that in a graduate seminar in the Global Security Studies MA program here in Johns Hopkin’s Advanced Academic Programs. But there is more to this class than merely taking seriously a Walking Dead Wisdom of Crowds.

By “global net assessment” I mean finding a way to figure out, on the biggest possible scale, what is really going on in our world. By “world crisis” I mean a global system pushed over the edge, where the global network is ruptured, followed by a long-term subsidence of both economic activity and human interaction.

But how do we build an analytic framework for understanding how global system crises develop and go over the edge? Here, we can learn from the past. There have been several of these crises in the last two millennia, and they have been truly consequential and calamitous for humanity. Our most recent began in 1931 with the collapse of the Austrian Creditanstalt bank. Lasting all the way to the spring of 1951 this crisis could have ended badly.  Very badly.

I started working on this idea in 2008 and what I found shook me. If “we the people” somehow manage to do good net assessment, the converse also rules: governments and their smarty-pants “think tanks” have been responsible for much bad net assessment, especially when it comes to thinking about system crisis.  I personally discovered is that the very top “thinking” groups in our Government simply laugh at the prospect of a system crisis. The only establishment leader who took the issue seriously was Vice Admiral Phil Wisecup, then President of the U.S. Naval War College where I was on the faculty.

So this is where we stand: establishment net assessment of big bad things is being trumped by the net assessment of popular culture — and no one in the halls of power is really taking notice.

There are for sure, private and international groups that worry intensely about big bad things, like climate change and water stress. (You can study these topics in the Global Security Studies MA program, as well.)  But these stalwart worriers tend to focus on single causation. But what might bring it all down — meaning a subsidence of our global system — is more complex and analytically elusive.

For one thing, the world network today seems quite resilient and robust. But, in fact, it may be vulnerable not only to sudden stresses but to the rogue dynamic interaction of multiple stresses (political, military, economic, environmental) within the structure of the system itself. My goal in the course is to identify the dynamics of system subsidence. This is not a course on gaming an apocalypse nor even a prediction of an apocalypse, but rather a conversation that tries to more precisely identify what could bring down the system that sustains our current global civilization. Such a dreaded “system subsidence” need not truly be the “apocalypse,” and it would not necessarily mean the end of civilized life. Rather it would represent an intermission from the narrative we have been so used to for a long time. Such an outcome in our lifetime would not be the end of the world, but it would also be far from “optimal.”

The main student project for the class will be the creation of frameworks or models that help us think through how a system crisis could emerge and develop. By “model” I am not implying a complex mathematical construct. Our course, in contrast seeks to identify all the components that go into system stress — utilizing both historical case studies and contemporary field surveys — and then collaboratively developing notional analytic structures that could point the way to actual working models. In this sense the course metaphor would be more like a “proof of concept” or “feasibility study” of world system crisis.

The seminar is designed to be a team effort, rather than a one-way transmission from teacher to student. This intent flows from the democratic imperative suggested by the Wisdom of Crowds. My teaching proposition is driven by this truth: that humanity currently lacks a construct for thinking about human system crisis. My argument is that the absence of such a construct will make the arrival of system crisis more surprising and ensure that we will be less prepared and equally without a response.

History shows that humanity characteristically responds on-the-spot, off-the-cuff, and invariably in ways that actually amplifying both damage and consequences. What we do often makes the crisis worse. Check the record.

“Global Net Assessment: Tracking and Bounding World Crisis” is about taking on dark things in advance of their arrival. History shows how we, apart from literature, barely think about such things at all. My course is something entirely different. 

 

Friday
Mar142014

Russian Geostrategy and the Crimean Invasion

Alexander Rosenthal, PhD -Senior Lecturer at JHUIn a game of chess if you want to understand your opponent's strategic logic and likely next moves it is usually advantageous to visualize the board from his perspective.  The same is true in international relations.  A salient example is furnished by the present crisis in the Ukraine. Vladmir Putin may be what his opponents say he is - an authoritarian with little concern for Western liberal values.  But he is also a consummate geopolitical chess player.

The sequence of events is by now very well known. Ukraine has been the object of tug of war for influence between the European Union and Russia. The proximate issue has been who will aid its beleaguered economy. The west of the country tends to strongly support integration with Europe while the east where many ethnic Russians reside leans toward Moscow.  On Nov 21 Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych suddenly reneged on a plan to join an EU Association agreement in favor of a Russian bailout. Gathering protests of Ukrainian nationalist and pro-EU factions in Kiev led to bloody clashes and a populist revolt which ousted President Yanukovych on Feb 22, leading to the installation of a pro-Western interim government. Russia argues that the new government in Kiev is illegitimate and a danger to the ethnic Russians of Crimea, and sent military forces to occupy the Crimean peninsula on Feb 28  Shortly afterwards a referendum was announced for this Sunday,  March 16 on Crimea's independence. Russia's hard power tactic caught everyone off guard - in effect Europe had brought a wad of cash to a gun fight.

Russia's argues that the overthrow of Yanukovyich was illegal and consequently the new interim government is illegitmate. They justify the occupation of Crimea by a claimed threat to the ethnic Russian population and the idea of self-determination. The West by contrast argues that the new government as legitimate, that the Russian occupation of Crimea is a direct violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, and that the Crimean referendum plan is  unconstitutional and  illegitimate.

The moral arguments which nations use to justify their conduct are often poor predictors of their actions.  It is not that states are simply amoral but that rather they are very poor judges of their own cause.  When their core interests are engaged they often choose the arguments which are most advantageous rather than those which from a disinterested philosophical perspective are most objectively valid.  Had Yanukovych been pro-Western and had he been ousted by a pro-Russian populist revolt we would not expect Russia to be arguing for the illegitimacy of the Kiev government. Likewise  the West  might well be speaking of how Russia subverted an elected government through fomenting popular unrest. To understand the drama which is unfolding in the Ukraine and why Russia invaded Crimea we would be better served by giving secondary importance to the professed motives and the moral and legal arguments and looking at the strategic logic that emerges from Russia's geography, history and economics. 

In essence this the latest chapter in the centuries old tug of war between the West and Russia over central and eastern Europe. In the latest chapter since the fall of the Soviet Union,  the West in the form of the EU and NATO  has been steadily expanding eastward integrating first former Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe and then into former Soviet Republics like those of Baltics.  Some experts have argued that Russia has felt cornered by the West's expanding influence in its near abroad due to the ultimate prospect of NATO on the Russian borderlands.  While Russia may see its  assertion over its periphery as defensive it is naturally viewed as imperialistic by the border nations for whom loss of  autonomy is the price of appeasing Russian security concerns.

 In essence Russia seems to view the Ukrainian westward drift as a three fold threat to its core strategic interests.  The first pertains to its conception that Ukraine belongs to its historical and geographical sphere of influence. Whatever we think of the fact from a moral perspective this is consistent with how great powers historically tended to behave. They define geographical spheres of influence and react aggressively when these defined territorial spheres are "trespassed" by other powers. This notion has not always been structurally alien to America's geostrategy either.   The goal of the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary was to create a "keep out" zone in the Western hemisphere on the premise that if other powers established a position in "our" sphere it would pose a security threat to the US. Russia with with a history of invasions by Western powers and few natural land or sea barriers to block them, is determined to control its "near abroad" whatever the peoples in the border states feel about it. Putin has in effect declared the remaining states of the Russian periphery a "keep out" zone for foreign powers. Whenever  the West has made moves to influence these states into joining its alliance system whether in Georgia or Ukraine,  Putin has reacted with force. Controlling these states both buffers Russia from attack but also allows it to project its power into Central Europe.  In short it can serve both defensive or offensive objectives.

The second point of interest is the perrenial Russian interest in a warm water naval port . Russia while dominating the Eurasian heartland is a largely landlocked country blocked from  access to the warm seas of the Atlantic by Europe in the West, the Pacific by China in the East, and the Arabian Sea by the Persian Gulf states. This has made the Black Sea region and the Crimean Peninsula a long term focus of Russian grand strategy. Lacking access to to warm water  restricts Russia's commerce and contains its ability to project naval power beyond its land borders. As argued by historians R.R. Palmer and Joel Colton the historic isolation of Russia from the economic and cultural modernizing processes of Europe is largely related to this fact of geography. It is no coincidence that the Westernizing autocrat Peter the Great was obsessed with giving Russia a access to warm water through territorial expansion to the sea of Azov.  In 1783 Russia at last annexed Crimea which provides Russia direct access to that warm Mediterranean water which leads out into the open seas (albeit through the narrow Sea of Marmara controlled by Turkey leading to perrenial historic conflict between those two nations). Today perhaps Russia's only major warm water naval base sits in Sebastopol on the Black Sea. Russia's occupation is a bid move to remove it from whatever happens in Kiev.

 A third issue is of more recent vintage is economic.  Russia has positioned itself as a major supplier of oil and gas to Europe which provides not only revenue for the Russian economy but political leverage which it has not been afraid to use. Many of these pipelines pass through Ukraine into Europe. Some 60% of Ukrainian oil comes from Russia, and the European Union relies on Russia for a quarter of its gas. A Westernized Ukraine could ultimately threaten this enormous political and economic leverage.

While there are in fact some extremist forces in the Ukrainian nationalist movement, the notion of a general threat to the ethnic Russian minority is more of a cover to realize Russia's strategic objectives. Taking control of Crimea immediately secures Russia's warm water naval port while annexation through the device of a referendum by a pro-Russian  population is designed to forstall any future threat to Russian control whatever may happen in Kiev. The Russian military presence moreover intimidates the Kiev government giving Russia leverage to deter the Ukrainian government from its Westernizing course, or subvert it.  Russia moreover aims to send the message to other states on its periphery that the West will not defend them  hence pressuring them to accommodate the reality of Russian power.

For Europe matters of course appear differently. Ukraine borders Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Moldova,  and if Ukraine were to fall to  Russian invasion or subversion,  Russia would then be positioned to project land power into Central Europe. By contrast a Westernized Ukraine would help to" insulate"  Europe from Russia by pushing it further east.  The West unfortunately has relatively few levers to reverse the situation.  The notion of waging war with Russia over Ukraine is a virtual non-starter given Russian vast military strength which includes a nuclear arsenal. Europe longer term will however need to reconsider its relatively weak military investment, since it is likely to be its hard power and not its moral and legal arguments which are the principle constraint on Russian designs whatever they may be. Europe has more economic leverage and economic sanctions are likely. But Europe and Russia are locked in economic inter-dependence and a  protracted and/or extensive sanctions war will hurt both sides. The best hope of a more immediate solution is diplomatic. We know what Russia will not tolerate - more states on its borders in the Western alliance system. We know what Europe cannot tolerate - a Russian military presence in the Ukraine that threatens the peace and security of Europe. In the space between these  European and the Russian interests  lies the possibility of resolution.