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Friday, February 21, 2014

Democratic Tyranny: The Case of Ukraine

Is democratic tyranny an oxymoron? If it were, why then did the delegates at the American Constitutional Convention go to such pains to carve up public or governmental power between the states and the federal government, as well as between three “arms,” or “branches,” of the federal government. Moreover, pitting ambition against ambition points to just how dangerous ambition itself can be. When it is legitimated under the auspices of democracy, democrats may have trouble coming up with justifications for removing a democratically-elected tyrant. In this essay, I draw on the case of Ukraine in early 2014 to suggest a few possible rationales.

Would it make a difference if the protesters were hitting other citizens rather than governmental forces? (Image Source: GlobalPost)

On February 19, 2014, violence erupted between the police and the protesters bent on toppling the democratically-elected president. Twenty died on that day, and over seventy on the following day. While it might be tempting to focus on “who started it,” a higher-yielding strategy goes after the means used by the government to end the protests. Such means need not involve violence. For example, after the second day of violence raging in Kiev, the president took part in a fruitful “all-nighter” negotiation session with the protest leaders and E.U. officials. 

To be sure, the president had an incentive to negotiate then, for his backing in the parliament was weakening. Violence rather than compromise had been his preference. Behind the scenes, the government had been paying titushki men to attack protesters whether they were being violent or not. Heather McGill of the Europe and Central Asia Regional Program at Amnesty International points to various reports of armed men carrying bats and other makeshift weapons roaming around Kiev in organized groups and attacking citizens presumed to be protesters.[1] “(W)e have seen interviews with titushki where they admitted they were being paid—there is definitely a body of young, athletic men being paid by the government.”[2] This practice obviously goes well beyond hiring people as counter-protesters, and this distinction is vital in forming an argument founded on human rights that can be used as a basis to re-conceptualize national sovereignty as inherently limited rather than absolute.

Specifically, in sanctioning payments to young athletic men tasked with hurting and even killing citizens who are not being violent at the time of attack, the Ukrainian president violated his governmental obligation to protect the citizenry. This duty goes back to the social contract between kings and subjects wherein the latter agreed to be ruled by the former, who in turn obligated himself to protecting the subjects. This social contract survives in the norm held around the world that a government is obliged to protect its citizenry (including residents). Put another way, a government that violently turns on its own people is typically viewed as having over-reached in a way that violates a major postulate of its monopoly on legitimate force. When people are themselves being violent against each other or their respective property, or are destroying public property, military or police force does not involve such a violation of the conditions of governmental sovereignty because protecting the citizenry includes stopping violence within the citizenry and a government acts legitimately to protect public goods.[3]

Besides being a case of over-kill, paying thugs to wander around Kiev (and other cities) to beat or kill citizens thought to have been in the protests or to be protesting non-violently at the time exceeds and thus violates a government’s legitimate use of force, which in turn comes out of the concept of governmental sovereignty and thus national sovereignty. Such a violation invalidates a government’s claim to the rights the sovereignty. Crucially, this human-rights and sovereignty based argument applies to any government official, regardless of how he or she gained power. Hence, tyranny invalidates even a democratically-elected government. Just as governmental and national sovereignty are subject to limits based on the normative social contract and the human right to life (which itself may be limited by committing violence), democratic government also faces limits at the expense of unlimited license.





[1] Olga Rudenko and Jennifer Collins, “Thugs Said to Roam in Ukraine,” USA TODAY, February 20, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] I am assuming here that the case of citizens paid by the government to inflict harm on other citizens pertains to governmental power rather than violence between citizens. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On the Democratization of Credibility: Global Warming Experts

Even as late as 2013, as if the mounting evidence of global warming and our carbon footprint were some new kind of faith narrative whose white-coated high priests preside over a new political religion distinctly American, some members of Congress, political commentators, and lay apostates recoiled with the declaration, "I don't believe in global warming." Epistemologically, to believe is less rigorous than to know. Actually, what they mean is that they know that our industries and carbon-emitting vehicles are blameless, even pure. It is the sheer declarativeness and the underlying epistemological assumption that I want to make transparent, as being inherently problematic and yet likely "hard-wired" in the very fabric of human brain.

The entire essay is at "On the Democratization of Credibility"


Digital-Journalism Entrepreneurs: Lured by Technology or Fleeing Journalistic Decadence?

How does a business model premised on abundance rather than scarcity look? Will the budding journalistic entrepreneurs end up freely adding to the trove of abundance subtly yet indelibly points to selective scarcity, or will the sea of free abundance dry up once the economic need for a viable revenue stream finally calls in the loan? If only we had infallible crystal balls capable of showing us the future. Rather than staring into the still-foggy abyss, let’s try breaking off pieces of the mammoth digital-media revolution that can be answered.  In this essay, I tackle the question of whether the expansion of online journalism has been primarily chasing the open-ended promise of the burgeoning technology, or pushing away from increasingly decadence in the traditional media. In investigating this question, I do not mean to imply a direct relation to the broader question. Putting GlobalPost under the microscope, I contend that shortcomings increasingly evident in the traditional media have been giving the online revolution a “shot in the arm” in the form of a transfer of talent.  


Phil Balboni and Charles Sennott became digital-journalism entrepreneurs in 2009 by founding and running GlobalPost, an online news business whose mission from the start has been “to help fill the gap caused by the massive retreat from international coverage by traditional news outlets.”[1] In the midst of the 2014 winter Olympics, for example, the for-profit online news-site reported that the Hindu-nationalist party would likely appoint the next prime minister of India.[2]

The traditional herd’s retreat began as broadcast networks willowed international coverage to countries in which the U.S. had a strong political or military interest. For example, the signing of a proposed E.U. constitution in Rome in 2004 received negligible coverage on American newscasts, whose international news stories galvanized between Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan (i.e., George W. Bush’s priorities). The circumscribed international coverage meant fewer stories chasing a 24/7 time-slot at the dedicated news-networks; the pattern of going on and on with one story at the expense of all others was on its way. I submit that this pattern is itself a viable reason why seasoned journalists would ditch the established ships for row boats in the churning digital waters devoid of immediate revenue.

Referring to the online media start-ups, Balboni opines that the “only thing wrong with journalism today is the revenue equation. . . . Until it sorts itself out, it’s going to be difficult for journalism entities to be very successful financially.”[3] Broaden this out to include the traditional American outlets and the online revenue problem can be seen as a consequence of American broadcast journalism itself having gone off the rails.

Besides the obsessive binges such as CNN’s “extended” coverage of the earthquake in Haiti, the encroachments of commentary and the underlying advocacy onto journalism at television news-networks including Fox and MSNBC have compromised journalistic credibility sufficiently for serious journalists of the “shoe-leather reporting” ilk to want some distance from the sickness that does not even recognize itself as sordid. That a sustainable “revenue equation” for online-news commercial ventures has not been in place suggests that their founders were running from more than running toward.

My conclusion may seem counter-intuitive because the marvels of computer technology are so much more visible than has the gradual downward path of traditional broadcast journalism. Although “guilty by association,” news-print publications such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have likely been losing talent due to the potentials in online outlets whose very existence hits the traditional revenue streams even in spite of not having viable ones themselves. Therefore, although the blight causing broadcast journalism to hemorrhage credibility is perhaps not always given its due as prompting the migration to online outlets without any viable revenue-model already constructed, the impact of the technology on the traditional revenue-equation is also in the mix.




[1] Rem Rieder, “’GlobalPost’ Thrives, But It’s Not in the Black,” USA Today, February 13, 2014.
[2] James Tapper, “The Rise of the Hindu Fundamentalists,” GlobalPost, February 19, 2014.
[3] Rieder, “’GlobalPost’ Thrives.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Global Warming: Has China Done Enough?

Whereas the Montreal Protocol in 1985 created a fund to reimburse countries for the incremental costs of banning ozone-depleting chemicals, later international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, oriented to reducing global warming have not given countries, including developing nations such as China, a financial incentive to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the U.S. Government rejected the Kyoto Protocol because the reductions only applied to developed countries. Even though China reduced its carbon emissions per unit of GNP by half from 1990 to 2010 by investing in alternative energy sources and mandating that polluting companies publicly disclose their respective emissions, the amount of emissions continued to increase dramatically through the period. How do we discern whether the Chinese government has done enough? Furthermore, are other countries enabling China and thus indirectly responsible and thus culpable too?

The steep rise in carbon emissions in China from 2003 demonstrate just how misleading incremental, or marginal, changes can be. Even China's goal of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 may not mean much in terms of the total amounts emitted. 

Because CO2 is a “stock” pollutant—meaning that global warming is a function of the total amount of accumulated CO2 in the planet’s atmosphere (regardless of when added)a country’s total emissions figure is key (total accumulated as well as annual amounts). As the following graph shows, China would have to do much more than it had accomplished during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

By 2010, industrialized countries had become large net-importers of products such as steel whose manufacture involves sizable CO2 emissions. 

Developed countries have enabled China’s emissions to the extent that they are “contained” in products exported. The increase for China from 1990 to 2010 (blue and red bars in the bar-graph below) is astonishing. So too is the increase in carbon emissions “embodied” in products imported by developed countries. Interestingly, the E.U. imported more product-emissions than did the U.S. both in 1990 and 2010. The larger manufacturing output of the U.S. may explain much of the difference in the respective nets. Europeans critical of the U.S. for walking away from the Kyoto Protocol may be surprised to learn that their country has been enabling foreign carbon-emissions more.  


The thick black lines heading to China from Australia and Indonesia stand out in this map, suggesting just how much carbon China emitted in 2011. 

Coal exports to China can be understood as another instance of enabling. As global shipping costs for bulk commodities such as coal dropped significantly, the amount of the commodity traded increased significantly. Obviously, major exporters have a financial incentive to oppose global carbon-emissions limits being written into multilateral treaties. In 2011, Australian companies extracted a lot of coal, a majority of which went to China. Indeed, the sheer magnitude of coal imported into China can tell us a lot about just how much carbon China continued to emit in spite of the government’s forays into alternative energy sources. Even though parts of Australia had been burned by the hole in the ozone layer decades before 2011, the continent’s government and mining companies have had a financial incentive to keep China from shifting to wind and solar energy sources sufficiently even to level-off China’s annual carbon emissions.

Had the Kyoto Protocol included carbon limits for developing countries, complete with “self-enforcing” financial incentives (e.g., an international fund to cover incremental costs of compliance) and disincentives (e.g., other countries in the treaty can boycott trade with non-compliers), in spite of opposition from major coal-exporters, perhaps China would have curtailed the upward trend in the country’s total carbon-emissions even by 2010.  Lest it be thought that the dictatorship in China has far outpaced the world’s largest democracy (i.e., India) as a “global citizen” enabling our species to have a future, keeping global warming to within 2 degrees (C) will require much more from China, and indeed the world.