Monthly Archives: January 2013

2013 predictions

Predictions for 2013

2012 had its surprises, like the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obamacare and the acceleration of the “Myanmar Spring.”  Mostly, however, the year was notable for how many things remained status quo.  The Syrian War continued; violence in Iraq and Afghanistan remained at largely the same level; the Muslim Brotherhood continued to dominate Egyptian politics despite its missteps; President Obama was reelected as was a Republican-majority House and Democrat-majority Senate; Chinese leaders chose stability over change; Hugo Chavez won convincingly in Venezuelan elections; European regained its economic footing a bit; and the world continued to dither on global climate change.

Will 2013 witness any big surprises?  Well, as Nate Silver points out in his excellent book, predicting big political events is like predicting big earthquakes – you can only know that some happen over long periods, but it’s pretty impossible to say one is coming up during a given year.  Still, it’s interesting to speculate, even if with a truckload of salt.

1). Prediction 1: People will still be fighting in Syria at the end of the year.  While a former professor in my department at graduate school argues that the more-conventional nature of the Syrian conflict may lead to a faster resolution than typical civil wars, I would argue that this is mitigated somewhat by the “ethnic” nature of the conflict.  Research suggests that ethnic wars (in this case the word “sectarian” would be more correct – but the dynamic is similar) last longer than non-ethnic wars.  When groups like the Alawites of Syria fear that their survival may be at stake if they lay down their arms, the incentive to negotiate is greatly reduced.  Even if President Assad goes, there may still be enough fear and hate, and weapons, for the fighting to continue past this year.  I hope I am wrong.

2). Prediction 2: Iran will still not get bombed.  I largely stand by what I wrote over a year ago when I blogged that “Israel can’t; America won’t.”  It is hard to believe the Israelis would be able to overcome distance and logistics to act alone against Iran.  It’s hard to imagine, on the other hand, watching the Obama administration launch a lengthy bombing campaign against Iran without overwhelming international backing – backing which is unlikely to ever be forthcoming.

3). Prediction 3: Mainstream Republicans will slowly back away from debt ceiling rhetoric weeks before the scheduled vote.  No one emerged political winners from the debt crisis in 2011, but this time only one side has to run for re-election.  While the true believers in the Tea Party will vote against raising the debt ceiling, enough reason will prevail among the Republican “establishment” to back away from a potentially disastrous economic and political situation.

4). Prediction 4: Congress will make strong progress on immigration reform.  Republicans saw the lopsided loss of the Hispanic vote as a key reason for Romney’s loss in 2012, and fear for the political future of the Republican Party if the trend is not reversed.   Political calculations and pro-business considerations will combine to push many Republicans toward a compromise with Democrats that includes expanded work visas and some sort of “amnesty” for the ten million plus illegal immigrants in the country.

5). Prediction 5: Argo will win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Okay, I know I’m going out on a limb for a movie that is a 6  or 7  – 1 odds longshot, but here’s my thinking about Oscar psychology.  Argo, like the Artist last year, celebrates Hollywood – in this case giving it a role in releasing the Iranian hostages.  Oscar voters love that just as they love period pieces.  It’s also the movie with the fewest “problems” – Zero Dark Thirty has a torture problem, which won’t play well among voters, and Lincoln script and ending left some critics wanting.

So, that’s it – just five humble predictions this year.  I’d love to hear any of yours!

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Throwing out the wheel on the debt ceiling

The uncertainty surrounding the “fiscal cliff” has ended only to be replaced by uncertainty surrounding the next round of “debt ceiling” negotiations.  While going off the fiscal cliff would have hurt the American economy, failing to raise the debt ceiling would absolutely destroy the American economy.  Yet many Republicans, including “respectable” ones like Lindsay Graham, have already announced that they would be willing to do just that if the Obama administration fails to enact their preferred version of spending cuts.  What’s President Obama to do?

First, a little history.  Before 1917, Congress had to sign off on each individual loan every time the Treasury Department borrowed money – a system that worked during simpler times when the government was less involved in the economy.  During the First World War, however, when the Treasury needed to borrow much larger sums of money, Congress gave the Treasury the authority to sign off on individual loans itself with Congress simply setting a collective limit on the amount of these loans.  Thus, ironically, the debt ceiling came into being as a way of enabling government borrowing rather than restricting it.

What many voters and, I suspect, a few Representatives, do not understand is that approving the debt ceiling is a process completely divorced from decisions about budgeting.  The debt ceiling has been a simple procedural matter over the years, akin to signing checks for someone after already agreeing to the contract for their services.  It was a simple matter that is until 2011, when someone in the Republican Party figured out that the threat of ruining the American economy by refusing to pay for items that had been previously budgeted could be used as political leverage against the President.

While many Republicans might rejoice in their new-found political tool, the use of the debt ceiling as a political weapon is bad for all of us.  Now that the genie is out of the bottle, the majority in the House can, and will, make the same threats and demands on a regular basis, creating a perpetual state of uncertainty about the “full faith and credit” of the US government while empowering one branch of Congress with indefinite, disproportional influence over future budgets.

The only way to stop the future use of the debt ceiling as a weapon is for the President to go eyeball to eyeball with House Republicans and hope they blink.  He needs to stick by his recent pronouncements that the debt ceiling is not negotiable and trust, just as the US did during the Cold War, that the other side was rational enough not to launch an attack that would result in Mutual Assured Destruction.

One of the analogies used for disputes between the US and former Soviet Union involved the game of chicken.  Game theorists argued that because mutual accommodation was rarely the best outcome for both sides and escalation to nuclear war inconceivable, that the outcome (the “Nash equilibrium”) of chicken played between two rational actors could usually be expected to result in one side “swerving” and the other side winning.

How then, does one side best make sure that it is the winner in a game of chicken and not the one on the side of the road?  Well, extending the analogy further, advocates of strong deterrence in the Cold War suggested that the best way to win the nuclear “game” was for a player to throw his or her steering wheel out the window.  In other words, once your opponent knows that you have taken the option of swerving off the table for yourself, they have no choice but to be the ones to do so because the alternative is much worse.

President Obama’s recent statements that he is unwilling to negotiate on the debt ceiling are intended to demonstrate to Republicans that he has no intention on swerving.  He should make such pronouncements as frequently and strongly to the point at which it is clear that he cannot back down politically.  He needs to throw out the steering wheel and hope the other side acts rationally.  If we could trust that the Soviet leadership was rational enough not to destroy our country, surely we can trust Republicans in Congress not to push the button.