The Agenda

Stray Links for 12 November 2013

Iranian sanctions. Critics of President Obama’s recent overtures to the Iranian government fear that while the U.S. and its allies seem willing to make significant economic concessions (unfreezing assets, easing sanctions on exports), the Iranian government is promising relatively little in return in terms of a verifiable commitment to abandoning its quest for nuclear weapons. Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz note that easing sanctions now would give the Iranian government access to much-needed hard currency that it could invest in its nuclear program. Moreover, they argue that even if Hasan Rouhani, the newly-elected Iranian president, were sincere in his desire to abandon Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, there is little reason to believe that he could get the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Supreme Leader Khamenei to embrace his enlightened perspective. The concessions Rouhani has been empowered to make wouldn’t, in their view, pose much of an obstacle to the nuclear weapons development effort. And so Gerecht and Dubowitz call for tightening rather than easing sanctions:

America’s capacity to inflict more pain on those who are driving Tehran’s nuclear effort is substantial. New financial sanctions could lock up all of Iran’s currency reserves—around $70 to $80 billion—held abroad, which would effectively shut down non-humanitarian imports and collapse the rial, Iran’s currency. Financial relief would only come when Iran takes steps to verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its military-nuclear program—and only through controllable accounts, in Europe, where Tehran could exchange funds for industrial goods.

Even new sanctions may not be enough to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions. But after the debacle of American policy in Syria, sanctions are really the only hammer the U.S. has left. America would have a strong hand in negotiations with Iran if President Obama were serious about leaving “all options on the table”—including the threat of military action. His hand might be decent if he were prepared to play economic hardball. But he has to be prepared to fail in order to win. It’s the price of admission to power politics in the Middle East.

If there is a strong argument against Gerecht and Dubowitz’s position, I’d like to read it, as it seems to reflect a realistic appraisal of Iranian interests and of the leverage the U.S. and its allies have (if only temporarily) due to the effectiveness of Euro-American sanctions to date and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. oil and gas boom.

Anti-science. The notion that conservatives are anti-science is, for Mischa Fisher, an oversimplification that allows anti-science sentiments on the left to get a free pass.

Tesla and “the mutation of modern American liberalism.” Charles Lane offers a scathing denunciation of Tesla, manufacturer of stylish electric vehicles, and its environmentally-minded liberal boosters. He sees the celebration of Tesla and its founder, the celebrated technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, as a distraction from the left’s commitment to bettering the lives of “lunch-bucket working stiffs and oppressed minorities,” and he expresses skepticism about the supposed environmental and economic virtues of the subsidies that have been lavished on the company and others like it.

How aging and demographic change will impact America’s future growth trajectory. Steve Matthews of Bloomberg Businessweek describes how retiring boomers might depress growth in consumer spending. Buried at the end of the piece is an observation that has bearing on the immigration reform debate:

Minorities will account for about 35 percent of the U.S. population in 2030, up from about 29 percent in 2010. Minority incomes have historically been about 60 percent of the incomes of whites. While the ratio of blacks’ income to whites’ has remained largely constant since 1979, Larrimore of the Joint Committee on Taxation says the income gap between Hispanics and whites has widened.

A larger share of minorities in the workforce could restrain income growth, but economists say that’s not inevitable. If policymakers are seeking to increase incomes, they could target immigration policies to attract the most skilled workers, says Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That, coupled with improvements in education and training programs, would help “boost average income and productivity growth.”

So far, however, the immigration reform agenda has focused on regularizing the status of unauthorized immigrants and increasing employment-based immigration for the less-skilled as well as the skilled; family reunification immigration is left largely intact. The increase in skilled immigration is welcome. But overall, the legislation is not “targeted” terribly well. The contrast between legal immigrants in Canada and the U.S. is instructive. In Canada, 55 percent of immigrants have a college education or more, 82 percent speak English or French fluently, and the average household income for immigrants is over $50,000. In the U.S., 26 percent of legal immigrants have a college education or more, 47 percent speak English fluently, and average household incomes are below $40,000. Factoring in the unauthorized population would sharpen the contrast, as unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. are much poorer than authorized immigrants, and Canada has a relatively small population of unauthorized immigrants.     

Cutting the cost of the federal prison system. Though the U.S. incarceration problem is largely a state-level problem, the Urban Institute has a new roadmap on cutting the cost, and improving the performance, of the federal prison system.

The Obamacare rollout. Harold Pollack, a policy scholar at the University of Chicago and a champion of the Affordable Care Act, sees a number of silver linings in the troubled Obamacare rollout. Agenda readers will likely find James Capretta’s interpretation of the troubled rollout more plausible.

The fate of smaller post-industrial cities. During periods of industrial decline and sluggish growth, bigger cities have tended to be more resilient than smaller cities, according to Aaron Renn. Yet he also observes that during periods of robust expansion, “growth disproportionately accrues to the places that are doing well in the first place.” Renn contrasts the fate of smaller cities in Illinois and Indiana to emphasize the fact that neither the “blue model” nor the “red model” has figured out how to help smaller cities flourish, and he offers thoughts on how policymakers can do better.

Self-service security checkpoints. Will automating security checkpoints, and thus driving down their cost, making going through security less of a hassle — or will it so drive down the barriers to security checkpoints that we’ll have to go through them everywhere? Joshua Brustein’s short article on Qylur, an innovative start-up that’s created a new kind of security device, doesn’t resolve this question, but he raises it, and the idea of Qylur everywhere is giving me pause.

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