Follow the guns: Response

This essay responds to this interview and was submitted in an application for the University of Northwestern at Saint Paul’s honor program, formatted accordingly, and later reformatted for this blog.

Summary

Researchgate interviews Paul Holtom, an expert on global firearms trade and the impact of the Arab Spring on weapons sales, asking for his perspective on the origins of the Kalashnikovs used in the Paris terrorist attacks of November 13. Most small arms and light weapons (SALW) enter the illicit market through complicit governments that purchase them legitimately but later forward them to underground distributing points. SALW also arrive at black-market midpoints through theft and by the reanimation of equipment from earlier wars. For example, the rifles used in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in France had been funneled through Slovakia and mechanically reassembled in Belgium.

A European Union ban on semi-automatic weapons would help law enforcement agencies by reducing the number of potential intermediaries of SALW trade, allowing law enforcement to bottleneck the shipment routes. In the past, states generally avoided SALW trade with Syria because of its connections to Hezbollah, but now many states pretend not to notice, implicitly funding rebels like the Free Syrian Army. Holtom provides an example of such distribution going awry, when ISIS intercepted a U.S. airdrop of SALW intended for the Free Syrian Army in October 2014.

Contrary to popular belief, not all illegal firearms trade occurs on the deep web; instead, many otherwise legitimate arms distributors forward SALW to off-market demanders. Law enforcement agencies therefore cannot usually prove their guilt with certainty. Finally, Holtom mentions that the U.S., Italy and Germany produce most of these weapons; slowing down production of SALW could mitigate most of the distribution its start.

Response

Holtom’s interview understates the state-sponsorship of SALW flows, suggests an ineffective EU-wide ban on semi-automatic weapons and implies that the U.S. could potentially stop the use of deep net technology in the sale of weaponry, which it cannot.

The term State Interests, in neorealist International Relations theory, denotes intentional attempts by states to become more powerful relative to other states, usually militarily. When a state’s interests include allowing SALW flows through their countries, no level of international diplomacy will stop them, in general, especially for something considered so innocuous. Many African states funnel SALW into their neighbor’s insurgencies to destabilize those neighbors; to establish themselves as a regional power, they must destabilize their neighbors, since power comes as a relative gain. Take for instance the insurgency in Sierra Leone, which received SALW from Senegal, Gambia, Liberia, Cote D’Ivory and Burkina Faso; these weapons originally came from Bulgaria, Slovakia, Ukraine and Lybia. Presumably these original states did not intend for secondary distribution. As Sierra Leone remained in perpetual chaos in a decades-long civil war, its neighboring states continuously pumped weapons into the country, as that policy fell within their state interests. Such states therefore act intentionally.

U.S. military intervention – besides usually failing to establish democracy abroad –  leaves behind residual weaponry. In many cases these leftover SALW have hurt U.S. interests, its allies or the local civilian populations. For instance, fearing that Afghanistan could fall into Soviet control, the Reagan administration funded and funneled SALW into Kabul to support the mujahideen, a fundamentalist religious insurgency; two decades later the U.S. fought a war against fighters who used those same weapons. For all the outcry in the early 2000’s on WMDs, which have international regulation mechanisms like the non-proliferation treaty and annual atomic energy inspections, the true mass killers and counterinsurgencies fight with SALW, for which no international regulations exist. In another example, the US provided SALW to Indonesia, but had to discontinue the program when news broke about the genocide in East Timor, where the aggressors used those same weapons. Intervention causes the unintended consequence of SALW blowback.

While a European Union ban on semi-automatic weapons would restrict state-sponsored flow from EU countries, the problem mostly originates with poor African states and rich Gulf states. Moreover, most of the European states that participate in illicit SALW trade do not hold EU membership, like Ukraine, Moldova and the countries in former Yugoslavia. Of the EU states implicated, most already ignore EU ordinances when those ordinances contradict state interests. So, the problem isn’t centrally European, the main European actors are not bound by the proposed ban, and the EU members who are bound will disobey once it matters. Europeans tend to enjoy empty but rhetorically dense lawmaking, so perhaps another Lisbon-treaty-esque bill could sate demand for a solution to SALW flows.

Weapons funneling in the Syrian war creates even more unintended consequences. It should surprise no one that the U.S. could not securely deliver weapons to Kurds. Parallel to Holtom’s example, as President Obama rushed the troops home from Iraq in 2011, the Department of Defense had allocated $200 million in military equipment for the Kurds; fearful Iraqi Defense forces fled northern Iraq when the Islamic State swept the region, and all of the equipment fell into ISIS control. But ignore these examples and assume temporarily that the U.S. could effectively deliver weapons to the Kurds. Iraqi and Syrian Kurds represent an unstable irredentist movement, fought by ISIS, Iraq, Turkey, Russia, Lebanon, Syria, the Syrian Rebels, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Saudi Arabia. In other words, nearly every state in the region disagrees with the establishment of a sovereign Kurdistan, for various reasons. As such the weapons that the United States forwards to the Kurds represent an even greater than usual threat of incidental SALW flows contrary to U.S. interests.

Holtom correctly identifies the prosecution of deep web crime as tricky, but ignores a much greater reality: the United States increasingly cannot regulate the deep web at all. For example, it took the DEA more than three years to track down Ross Ulbricht, the mastermind behind the internet’s largest drug distribution website, in spite of several incredibly sloppy mistakes. Even still, deep web users since have created 19 equivalent websites. This process would presumably apply for SALW as well; facing a constant demand, limiting supply doesn’t actually limit supply, it pushes it underground. For example, a coalition of European and U.S. law enforcement agencies had to spend six months planning a raid that took down over 400 deep web markets. Prosecutors celebrated their immense victory at the time, but once the back-patting finished, they immediately had to take down the (more numerous) replacement websites. The implication that governments can stop illicit trade by monitoring and prosecuting the deep web is laughable, and incredibly understates the anonymity, flexibility and immutability of these encrypted services.

Conclusion

Small arms and light weapons present the greatest challenge to regional stability in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East; in a classic North-South conflict generation scheme, key NATO members produce the weapons used by developing countries in their wars. Holtom correctly identifies a potential solution for de-escalation: the U.S., Italy and Germany could decrease the total quantity of weapons exported legitimately from their countries, or at least not intentionally go out of their way to overproduce weapons and sell them at below-market prices, incentivizing developing countries to their own collapse in civil war, if not worse: the genocide and crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda and East Timor.

Writing Prompt: Melodramatic God

God has a tendency to be a bit melodramatic. The great flood, the 10 plagues, the second coming- a little underwhelming. Pick a biblical event and re-write it from the perspective of those who came, saw, and rolled their eyes.

Hey. My name is Faddua. I’m a priest of the god Ba’al. Long story, I don’t really have the time.

Alright since you won’t stop pestering me. I spend my time pushing paper in the temple. Working in the temple is only mildly better than an office. In my free time I dream up reasons to leave work early, and don’t criticize me for it, don’t mock me for it, I’m proud, its a way to express my creativity, alright?

I already know what you’re thinking. But I’m not one of those priests of Ba’al. What I mean is, I’m religious, but not that guy. You know? Really I only joined the priesthood after loosing a bet with a roommate my sophomore year of college and degree-decisions were due, it was a rough night and a rough choice, but everybody does some things they regret, you know?.

It hasn’t rained in a few years, and the High Priest (my boss’s boss’s boss) decided to form a committee to solve the problem. He decided to appoint me, for Ba’al knows what reason. I haven’t come to any meetings yet. I can learn what I can through office gossip. They take the second half of my lunch break, and I truly just need some alone time, its my right, understand?

Our customers, those common citizens, man they are furious and want us to kill the guy who prayed to withhold the rain. The committee seems split on that question. We’re not into violence, its generally against our policy, but either way, we can at least chat with him.

So this guy, Elijah, meets us up on Mt. Carmel, nothing to do with those mini cubed caramels I sometimes take from Jeanine’s desk, but a massive mountain. Absolutely gigantic. My white-collar peers complain the whole way up. Complaining? Really? You work in the priesthood, we don’t complain here, get what I mean?

So 450 of us priests of Ba’al show up, right? And immediately this hysterical little man yells out “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al is God, follow him.” I’m not too concerned, but some of the more tryhard priests decide to take up the challenge. We throw together an altar for Ba’al to light up, can you picture it?

Sure our fire doesn’t work that well, or work at all, but in all fairness the other guy stooped as low as implying that Ba’al couldn’t light it because he was busy in the restroom doing Ba’al-knows-what. I’m unmoved by his theatrics, the guy belongs in a psych ward not the priesthood, who let him in here, does our profession have no dignity? I’m stuck on this windy mountain instead of lounging at home. Can’t you see the problem I’m in?

He wants to kill us. I’m a little concerned now. He has a sword and he’s yelling something in Hebrew while chasing us. Whatever, you know?

https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/3tgbe6/wp_god_has_a_tendency_to_be_a_bit_melodramatic/

Greek Debt Crisis

Background

When the 2008 economic recession in the U.S. began to spread globally, the Greek economy disproportionately declined. News media quickly and inextricably linked the terms “Greek government” and “debt crisis,” and later created the portmanteau “Grexit” to describe a Greek exit from the European Union. Coupled with a fourfold food poverty increase, an unemployment rate that rose to and now remains above 25% and youth unemployment above 60%, the Greek government does not have the funds to pay its creditors.

The Greek government may not have money, but it has options:

raise taxes, or
cut spending on domestic investments and pensions.

Analysts refer to these two options as austerity. However, austerity, the attempts by governments to match spending with revenue, inevitably encounters a feedback-loop problem: since the Greek economy is largely centered around public spending and around the market liquidity of retirees spending their public pensions, cuts to public spending essentially are direct cuts to the economy. Cuts to the economy yield lower tax income, which negates any progress made by austerity to eliminate debt. Therefore, where austerity attempts succeed at shrinking Greek government spending, they fail to retain tax revenues, and just delay the solution. (See this explanation from the 3:57 to the 4:30 mark).

So perhaps the Greek government does not have money or options. Continuing to ignore the problem certainly seems ineffective. Facing increasing interest rates on payments and the social unrest caused by low market liquidity (which means that banks have little cash to dispense, see 1:00 to 1:50 mark), the Greek government cannot afford to progressively nibble the edges of its budget, as it has through eleven separate austerity bills over five years. A debt haircut threatens to unsettle the entire global financial order, first toppling the eurozone, then Germany, then much of the West’s neo-liberal economic dream. Implications abound for citizens and global financial markets alike.

Causes

The eurozone experiment began in 1999 to unify European states under a common currency, regulated by the European Central Bank (ECB). From then until 2001 when Greece joined, consultants from Goldman Sachs labored intensely to falsify official financial reports for the Greek government. Greece likely did not meet key macroeconomic targets required for entry, most importantly the less than 3% debt-to-GDP ratio.

The “creative accounting” techniques of Goldman Sachs allowed Greece to “cheat on its euro-entry exam” in claiming less than 1% debt-to-GDP, a figure well below the 3% requirement and even farther below its actual 3.7% figure. When the Greek government revealed this news several years after joining the eurozone, ECB officials responded with little more than a request to hire better bookkeepers. From an entirely macroeconomic standpoint, Greece therefore did not belong in the eurozone.

Typically, states facing high unemployment
will devalue their currency to attract low interest rates from investors and decrease the cost of exports, stimulating the economy and fixing the unemployment problem.

Conversely, states with low unemployment
want an expensive currency to increase their citizens’ purchasing power in international goods and keep prices down at home.

Countries tied into the euro face a dilemma; states create financial policy, but the ECB creates monetary policy. The above Keynesian assumptions about unemployment become meaningless when states cannot control their own fiat currency.

See this video for more information on the divorce between fiscal and monetary policy in the eurozone.

Many investors thought that, given this divorce of power, Greece would accept its fate and tame its government expenditures. This thought – a recognition of the value of increased economic stability – pushed investors to offer loans to Greece substantially, and at below-market interest rates. This self-fulfilling prophecy worked: the investments themselves stabilized the Greek economy more than any government policies did. The public sector then expanded accordingly.

The eurozone depends on at least modest homogeneity among member states. In an attempt to only allow member states with similar economies, the ECB set very specific, calculated values for some important macroeconomic targets. When Greece entered with a mathematically untenable debt-to-GDP level, its fate was already sealed: it would disproportionately benefit from eurozone membership and disproportionately suffer from financial decline. Greece’s main industries- tourism and shipping- fared poorly in the 2008 recession; foreign capital flows dried up, and with government spending constant, the economy collapsed.

Greeks evade taxes equally as much as they pay taxes. The self-employed most commonly evade. In 2009, self-employed Greeks “dodged taxes on at least €28 billion of unreported income” amounting to almost a third of the annual deficit. Excessively wealthy business executives aside, standard mid-to-upper-class white collar professionals owe the most in taxes.

These also have the most political connections: with the exception of lawyers, who have an “already nasty habit of becoming politicians,” the three most tax-dodging professions account for “about half the votes among Greek M.P.s.” Unsurprisingly then, the parliament lacks motivation to fully prosecute tax evasion among its colleagues. Nor will the government collect these taxes retroactively; Prime Minister Tspiras vowed during his campaign to forgive most unpaid taxes.

Public Opinion

The general public in Greece remains divided, but mostly confused. Many (according to a firsthand reporter conducting street interviews here, at the 2:55 mark) do not understand the complex economic concepts involved in making decisions about financial policy, but P.M. Tsipras nonetheless deferred the choice to a voter referendum. Voters had to accept or reject a loan package from the ECB, where rejection also partially indicated leaving the eurozone.

The ECB withdrew its end of the referendum bill for renegotiation, so the vote was essentially meaningless, but the 39%-61% yes to no vote still clearly demonstrated Greek frustration with European “discipline” and a desire to further Spriza’s anti-austerity measures. The radical leftist party Spriza originally won the January 2015 election on a heavy anti-austerity platform. Ironically, the subsequent proposals accepted by Tspiras “were harsher than those the citizens had just rejected.” To the Greek people, “it all felt like a farce.”

Implications

If Greece defaults on its debt, European creditors will have to take a haircut. In a 50% financial haircut, for example, the Greek government would pay back 50% of their loans, forever ignoring the rest. Politicians have a tendency to use benign-sounding words and phrases to describe policies, when regular people would use “theft.”

Most European banks are leveraged between twenty and thirty to one, meaning they operate 3% to 5% away from their long-run shutdown point. To insure shareholders and customers against insolvency, regulators require banks to hold assets worth 6% of their exposures.

In other words, banks do not lend without the solid ground of at least some assets beneath them, specifically 6%.

In the haircut situation, the value of Greek holdings and bonds would fall dramatically, so the affected banks lose assets. When they lose assets, they must unwind frozen holdings to recoup the cost. Usually these holdings come from the derivative market. Selling a derivative out of panic inevitably lowers the value of the yet-unsold derivatives, even further lowering the bank’s total asset base. For every $1 million lost in a haircut, banks must unwind $18 or $19 million in holdings; this whiplash effect destabilizes the market, lowers overall liquidity and the raises the risk of instantaneous collapse.

That Germany pushes for harsh bailout terms comes primarily not from its citizens, though they feel little sympathy for Greece, but from this volatility in the derivative market. The term derivative generally denotes financial tools that have no value in themselves, their value must be derived from something else. A person can never walk into a forest and accidentally stub their toe on a derivative, trip over a derivative while running from a bear, or gather sticks for fire wood and accidentally splinter their finger with a derivative. They exist only as a mathematical and financial abstraction based upon other, more tangible measurements.

The Deutsche Bank derivative exposure (or, the total derivative amount) reaches $75 trillion, more than twenty times the entire German GDP. Under normal circumstances, the market fulfills derivative contracts and the $75 trillion falls to its true market value of $522 billion in deposits. Germany can easily manage this level.

However, in a whiplash situation the high exposure level threatens to quickly burst, before the derivatives contracts can be fulfilled; in other words, the system could entirely collapse. In describing this effect in 2002, Warren Buffet succinctly called derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction, carrying dangers that, while now latent, are potentially lethal.” Greek failure to repay debt therefore threatens the entire neo-liberal market structure.

Less dramatically, Greece could leave the eurozone and print its own money, somehow exchanging its citizens euros for a new, post-drachma currency. Low market liquidity- the primary effect of the debt crisis for citizens- threatens main-street Greek economics and baseline food purchasing power; local banks had just 50 euros per citizen on stock at the time of the referendum. If Greece altogether left the euro, countries with similar debt-to-GDP ratios may also leave, particularly Portugal and Spain.

Solutions and Conclusion

The Greek debt crisis, though political in origin, threatens millions of citizens who have no control over financial markets and international monetary policy. At risk of sounding melodramatic, the economy impacts daily living at even the desire to live daily. The country also faces the problem of refugee population flows, and if Greece cannot maintain its own finances, can humanitarian watchdogs condemn the failure to provide them with adequate food and shelter?

Greece has long artificially sustained an economy centered around public sector growth. This makes austerity painful, even unproductive in the short-term. But in the long-term, no state can spend more than it has.

Tsipras must achieve what previous government have not: cut public spending while somehow maintaining tax revenue; his failure to match revenue with spending, alongside a failure to actually negotiate a substantial loan assistance package with the ECB will sink the country into a permanent and likely irrevocable economic wasteland.

The ancient Greeks (see Molyneux’s ending remarks), no less ironically, professed a simple but profound truth that perhaps more politicians today ought to consider:

“Take what you want- 
but pay for it.”

Book Review: A Work in Progress by Connor Franta

connor franta image a work in progess

Keywords Press understands something that academics, librarians and average consumers do not:

People judge books by their covers.

I strolled through Walmart to waste time and eventually stumbled into the book section. “Stumbled into” may sound accidental, but there is nothing accidental about finding me in the book section. From experience, Walmart seems to carry only three types of books: books for children, faith-based books designed to prey upon the biblically illiterate, and steamy, poorly written sex novels.

I found Connor Franta’s book A Work In Progress and saw mysterious cover art. The title seemed to connote deep introspection and reflection upon personal growth, and the triangle-cut, pop-color design solidified my instant gut feeling: I will buy this book, I will not read the description, I will choose to feel absolutely no shame, and nothing will reverse this split-second decision.

It’s called impulse shopping.

Connor Franta, as I quickly found out, maintains a Youtube channel with weekly content and millions of subscribers. His book describes a childhood of creativity, formative years spent with supportive parents, sibling relationships and dynamics, and a life lived in the rural Midwest. Do not fear the 212 pages- his scenic photography fills half the book in full color.

Franta writes several feet below surface level, but nothing so abstract that average high school students would miss:

When in a relationship, find the “person worth ignoring your phone for.”
When using social media, avoid “measuring self-esteem by the numbers” of likes or comments.
When taking risks, “allow yourself to [take] them and add your splash of color to the world.” 

I particularly appreciate his section on labels and stereotypes. From my experience, teachers and school counselors told us to avoid labeling each other – one time – in the 6th grade – but never again. Labels provide a “launch pad for judgments” that deter us from following our ambitions. He certainly has a strong sense of self, an identity based on discovering himself rather than hearing about himself from others.

According to Connor, nothing “aids or abets depression” as powerfully or as permanently as “being left alone with negative thoughts.” The depression throughout his late teens came not from being gay, but from holding it within and never expressing himself, from living a double life. Actual freedom came in telling others about his true self.

Religion – a theme entirely absent from the book – probably played a significant role in that struggle. For example, Connor attended a Catholic K-8 school; to what extent did his formative education instill in him values contrary to his sexuality? He never mentions his parents’ beliefs, other than that they immediately accepted his orientation; to what extent did his parents’ beliefs influence his long-term closetedness? What are his beliefs, and how do they inform his homosexuality? On this subject, the book left me wanting.

He alternates between cheeky sections that, not ironically, read like a Youtube video and more rich, mature prose of introspection and conviction. He shifts to the latter for second half of the book. Franta herein follows his own rule: be yourself. His writing style reflects his own experiences, creativity and passions, rather than reflecting someone else. Connor admittedly doesn’t speak “as some wise old wizard on the hill,” but as a “twenty-two year old with . . . much left to explore and learn.”

Middle school or High school students will enjoy this book for its levelheaded analysis of everyday teenage life and for its brevity. His instantly applicable insights into teenage relationships, long-term loneliness, seemingly inescapable depression, social anxiety and unrestricted creativity will help readers take inventory on their lives and reflect upon their own journey.

Starting

I began A.P. English Literature with high expectations- by the end of the course I would: understand every line of every play in the first read; write like Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell, James Joyce and Jack Kerouac somehow created a 92-chromosome child destined for literary fame; develop style; learn how to spell develop correctly the first time.

I should have had more realistic expectations. Tom Reynolds cannot focus solely on one student of 80, yet even that sole focus would not transform me as I had hoped. However, I have learned over the first three months to make bold and forceful claims about a text, let nuance and qualification be (temporarily) damned. I also quickly began to emulate his unique speaking style: he strings together word phrases instead of mere words. Though I already had experimented with cutting away unnecessary linking verbs, I hadn’t considered the tempo of my sentences until forced to write a 3000 word essay with none. Periodic and Loose sentences must alternate. I ought to tell more jokes in my writing. The word foibles is, in fact, a word.

Some lingering habits from middle school and earlier in high school must be unlearned. They come not as the fault of my teachers, but in my failure to practice writing outside of class. For example, writers ought to give their concluding paragraph intrinsic value by actually stating something meaningful; good writers choose to not repeat the thesis- why waste words? why waste time? I also had lapsed into “thesaurusing,” or picking from a thesaurus the most exotic word instead of the most precise word. Immature and uncreative writers employ this tactic usually when aiming to impress their teachers. Separately, on several occasions during important in-class essays, I had nothing to say. With the clock always running down and the weight of my future seemingly hanging on every “B” grade, I have to write at least something. In a combination of this unpreparedness and some momentary panic, the I-have-nothing-to-say-but-I-am-very-angry-about-it style appeared, each time receiving a justifiably low grade. Worst yet: I was, above all, in a word, boring.

I value writing and the refining of it. Improve my reasoning skills without improving my communication skills and I become Hegel without a pen, I become Luther without a hammer. There is no skill more cross-disciplinary than writing; humanity long ago chose it as the common means of communication. So, our words have influence. Where clearly articulated, the ideas of others have altered my worldview to an unrecognizable degree. May my words have such impact; if I must improve my vocabulary, if I must improve my oral speaking, if I must conjure from the deepest bowls of this antimotivated, senioritis stricken self some desire to express ideas formally, so be it.

Hopefully I have been clear: I desire to express ideas. This expression has previously come in Tumblr, song-writing and passive-aggressive rants on social media. A WordPress account seems safe, a professional and durable medium where my ideas can remain.

I particularly appreciate and desire to emulate Ryan Holiday’s blog. He strikes an irregular balance between professionalism and personal tone (although perhaps professionalism already ought to include such tone, and most writers cannot escape the journalistic impulse to drown readers in factoids). Particularly I enjoy the concept that I can still read his blog posts from 2008. Perhaps I, in the year 2022, want to reflect with accuracy on my 2015 self. Often we construct inaccurate narratives about our past – a written record might help.

Where predictions for English class this year fall short, a personal ambition to communicate must rise, must motivate me to grow anyways, and must ground my expectations.