The Syrian Civil War.

How long do civil wars last?[1]  The Spanish Civil War lasted 2 years, 8 months, 2 weeks and 1 day; the American Civil War lasted 4 years, 3 weeks and 6 days.  However, the average duration for modern civil wars is about ten years.[2]  Lots of these civil wars end in a peace deal because both sides already have shot their bolt.  The Syrian civil war has lasted about half that long.  So far.

Why have modern civil wars dragged on for so long?  Historically, foreign intervention plays a large role in prolonging civil wars.  That is one reason that the Americans welcomed French support in the War for Independence and Abraham Lincoln sought to avoid British or French intervention in the American Civil War. Spain became a battle ground for Fascism (Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) and Communism (the Soviet Union and the International Brigades raised by the Comintern).  Syria has become the battle ground for radical Islam (ISIS and the Al Nusra Front); the Shi’ite side of the larger Muslim civil war (Iran, Iraq, and Syria); the Sunni side of the larger Muslim civil war (Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states); Kurdish nationalists and Turkey (which has its own issues with the Kurds); and Western powers (the USA and Russia).  The multiple powers engaged only complicate a peace settlement.[3]

Why has the Syrian civil war been so gory?  Normally, say the scholars of these things, both sides in a civil war have a strong incentive to win the loyalty of the civilians who provide the “sea” in which the insurgents “swim.”  This puts a check on the atrocities.[4]  It doesn’t prevent them, but it does limit them.  However, the Syrian civil war is different.  First, the Alawite and Christian minorities fear genocide at the hands of the Sunni majority.  If you look at the broader pattern in the Middle East, this isn’t an unreasonable fear.  Outside support/intervention reduces the importance of the local population in the eyes of the fighters.  Thus, ISIS is OK with atrocities committed against Unbelievers, or Insufficient Believers.  The government is backed by a minority of Syrians, so there is little to be gained from humane conduct toward the rebellious Sunni majority.  The foreign Sunni supporters of the rebels only stand to profit from the massacre of Shi’ites.  This intensifies the “normal” atrocities of war.  The popular image of men with guns run amuck may not be accurate.  Syria could be suffering multiple “ethnic cleansings.”  The government is the “Mr. Clean” in this business, but it has competitors.  Thus, many Christians and Alawite Muslims have fled to sanctuary in western Aleppo.

Is the Syrian Civil War un-winnable?  This is unclear, in spite of the prognostication of the New York Times and the Obama administration.

What is the basis of a peace deal?  All sides are coalitions of things that they are against, rather than things they are for.  (This is much like the Russo-British-Americans alliance during the Second World War.( The Russkies want President Assad to get off the stage at some point, but aren’t—yet–willing to force him or kill him.   Neither Turkey nor Iraq wants the Kurds to gain much territory or prestige.  The various parties will try to hold what they have already won.  (Except, perhaps, ISIS.)  ISIS will be defeated, but what will become of the Sunni rebel territories?  Perhaps, the country will have to be partitioned between an Assad-ruled-for-now West and an ISIS-ruled “free fire zone” in the East.  Then what?

[1] Max Fisher, “Why Syria’s War, After 400,000 Deaths, Is Only Getting Worse,” NYT, 27 August 2016.

[2] This may reflect weak governments out against weak insurgencies, with lots of ordinary people caught in the middle.

[3] See: The Thirty Years War; see: The Treaty of Westphalia.

[4] More specifically, it puts a check on the actions of the psychopaths who fill the ranks of opposing armies.

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The technology of revenue enhancement.

In Summer 2007, the New York Times published a story detailing one effect of modern scanning or signaling technology.  In places where the EZPass system had been introduced, tolls went up thirty percent more than they did in places where the old-fashioned wait-in-line-to-pay-cash system still existed.  The explanation for this was that policymakers knew that people were much less aware of the real costs they were paying when using EZPass.  So they wouldn’t get bent out of shape.[1]  At the same time, the use of EZPass systems allows State Departments of Transportation to steadily cut down on the number of toll-takers they employ.  Is there any evidence that the number of toll-takers has fallen with the introduction of EZPass?  Or were they re-directed to other work for the department?  Or do departments just keep as many toll-takers on duty, while raising everyone’s pay out of the additional revenue?

Between 2010 and 2015, the State of Maryland issued 2.35 million citations for speeding in highway construction work zones.  The citations were based on traffic cameras.[2]

The use of the traffic cameras seems to have had some effect on work zone safety.  Work zone collisions and worker deaths are both down compared to the pre-camera period.  Although state officials argue that the cameras are meant to serve an educational purposes as much as an enforcement purpose, there are some curiosities about the law that feed the belief that it is really just a revenue enhancer.  For one thing, the car must be traveling at least 12 miles per hour over the posted limit to be ticketed.  The fine is set at a standard $40, regardless of how fast the vehicle was traveling or how many prior citations have been issued to the vehicle.  Repeat violators can’t lose their license.  Apparently some drivers see the fines as buying a personal license to speed.

With a standard fine of $40 per citation, the state should have accrued $94 million in gross revenue.  Out-of-state violators pay up at a rate of 85 percent.  Maryland violators pay up at a rate of 94 percent.  All in all, the net revenue amounted to $45 million.  This has gone to the Maryland State Police to pay for salaries, vehicles, and equipment.

Is there any pattern in the citations issued?  Scarcely any are issued between 3:00 AM and 5:00 AM, or between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM.  In the former case, there just aren’t many people on the road.  In the latter case, there are too many people on the road, traffic jams keep anyone from speeding.  The numbers rise sharply from 6:00 to 9:00 AM and from 6:00 to 8:00 PM.  So, the morning rush hour as people try to get to work, and the aftermath of the evening ruish hour as the traffic jams start to break up and drivers attempt to make up lost time.  The numbers stay high from 8:00 PM to mid-night, then they drop off sharply.  The really high numbers of tickets issued, however, come between 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM.  Who are these people?  Why are they speeding through work zones?  Maybe they’re driving on business, trying to cram in as many appointments as possible.  Maybe they’re travelers trying to get as far as possible in the day by passing through the next city on their route before the traffic jams starts.  Maybe they’ve been driving this speed long before they got to the work zone, the road looks manageable, and they don’t see any reason to slow down.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 20 July, 2007, p. 18.

[2] Scott Calvert, “Traffic Cameras: Safety Tools or Cash Grabs?” WSJ, 11-12 June 2016.

EUwwwww.

The First World War, the Great Depression, the collapse of most European democracies, the Second World War: a continent in ruins and—with the Cold War—a divided continent at that.  What to do?  One answer came in a movement toward Western European unity.[1]  In 1949 came the European Coal and Steel Community (France, West Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries); in 1957 came the European Economic Community (same countries with a common external tariff, but no tariffs within the EEC); in the 1970s and 1980s came new members (Britain for example); in 1992 came the Maastricht Treaty that committed the members to ride the process as far as they could go; and the collapse of the Soviet Union’s empire in Eastern Europe.  The European Union (EU), as it is now called, started out with 6 member countries; now it has 28 members.  It also added various institutions of government.  These included a European Commission representing the member countries, a European Parliament, a Council of Ministers, a European Court to settle conflicts between national laws and EU laws, a President and a Foreign Minister, and a kinda-sorta common currency called the “Euro.”

Did it work?  Yes it did.  First, no wars have been fought between member states since 1945.[2]  Second, incomes have risen for ordinary Europeans: a recent estimate reported that the per-family income effect over just ten years has been a $6,000 increase.

So, people are in love with the European Union, right?  Well, no.  No?  Well, why not?

First, because the French used to count for a lot more than they do today,[3] so they had a large voice in designing the institutions.  These institutions bear a certain resemblance to the constitution of the first French Empire created by the military dictator Napoleon I.  The European Commission, with one appointed representative for each country, writes legislation.  The Commission then sends the proposed legislation to the popularly elected European Parliament. The Parliament can amend legislation or it can approve it or it can reject it, but it cannot initiate any legislation.  Legislation approved by the Parliament must then be ratified by the Council of Ministers, which is made up of more appointed representatives of the member states.  So, elected governments take forever bargaining with one another to achieve a moderately acceptable outcome.

Second, the EU’s government often fails to take action, but the “Eurocrats” issue regulations all the time.  Hundreds of thousands of them.  The regulations create common standards across all member states.  The European Court regularly decides that these regulations are superior to the laws of any protesting country.  To take one really absurd example, EU regulations banned bananas with “abnormal curvature.”

Third, because the Europeans have never settled the conflict over who they want to be.  On the one hand, many people see themselves as “Europeans-all-in-this-together.”  On the other hand, many people see themselves as, for example, “British-first-and-Europeans-second.”  The EU created a community where goods and services, but also people and money, moved around inside the community without any national boundaries.  Citizens of EU countries don’t need a passport to travel anywhere or work anywhere inside the EU.  Younger people often like this, but it freaks-out older people who still feel patriotism.

[1] “The endangered European Union,” The Week, 19-26 August 2016, p. 11.

[2] OK, you wouldn’t want to try to jump ship on the French Empire, but otherwise..

[3] Back in the day, the West Germans felt bad—or pretended to—about the whole unfortunate Nazi thing.  So, “working their passage” back to international respectability involved the Germans putting up with a lot of guff.  Now, they’re over it.

The ACA in August 2016 2.

One means to control costs included in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took the form of a mechanism for publicly reviewing requests for rate increases by insurance companies.[1]  In Summer 2016, health insurance companies began requesting large increases in premiums.[2]

A witness for one Pennsylvania health insurer observed that his company had about 250 clients who had signed up for coverage under the ACA, then received treatment worth about $100,000 each, and then had cancelled their policies immediately after receiving treatment.[3]  The cost of the care then had to be passed on to other clients.  In Montana, ten individual customers consumed more than $4 million in care in the first six months of 2016, for an average of about $70,000 a month each.  In this case, 1 percent of customers accounted for 30 percent of pharmacy bills.  Making matters worse, in the first years of the ACA, a federal program helped insurers pay the cost of some of the most expensive claims.  Now, according to a Department of Health and Human Services economist, that program is winding down.

What has been happening in Pennsylvania is not unique to the Keystone State.  In Montana in 2015, one insurer reported that it had paid out $1.26 in claims for every $1.00 in premiums.  Unable to sustain such losses, major insurance companies have had to choose between seeking much higher premiums and abandoning the health-insurance market places.  In 20 states, insurers have asked to raise their premiums by at least 25 percent.  In some other states, insurers seem to be abandoning the market places to more efficient or competitive insurers.

 

Who are the uninsured?[4]

More than half of the uninsured live in the 20 states that refused to expand Medicaid, many of them populous Southern states like Texas and Florida.  As a result, 39 percent of the uninsured have incomes below the federal poverty level.

In 2013, 28 percent of people between 19 and 34 years old were uninsured; today 18 percent are such “Millennials.”  Still, that 18 percent accounts for almost half of the total uninsured.

In 2013, 50 percent of the uninsured were white; now 41 percent are white.

In 2013, 36 percent of the uninsured were American citizens of Hispanic descent; today 29 percent of the uninsured are American citizens of Hispanic descent.[5]

In 2013, 13 percent of the uninsured were black; now 12 percent are black.

More than half (57 percent) of the working Americans without insurance work for small companies that were exempted from the requirement to provide insurance.

[1] It speaks volumes to the intellectual world inhabited by Democratic legislators that the NYT reporter Robert Pear can describe the process as intended to “shame” companies that requested increases.  Apparently, Democrats believe that immense profits by health insurers and exorbitant pay for executives explain high health costs.

[2] Robert Pear, “Health Insurers Use Reviews, Intended to Constrain Rate Jumps, to Justify Them,” NYT, 15 August 2016.

[3] The chief executive of the federal insurance market-place optimistically portrayed the join-spend-quit pattern as a one-time “decline in pent-up demand for services.”  In all likelihood, uninsured people will continue to pen-up their use of services, then join-spend-quit again.  Robert Pear and Reed Abelson, “As Insurers Balk, U.S. Makes New Push for Health Care Law,” NYT, 18 August 2016.

[4] Abby Goodnough, “Still Uninsured, Even With the Health Law,” NYT, 18 August 2016.

[5] However, the ineligibility of illegal immigrants for coverage means that the total Hispanic share without insurance has risen from 29 percent to 40 percent.

The ACA in August 2016.

Prior to passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many Americans received their health insurance through their employers; many others bought individual insurance; and a relatively small percentage had no insurance at all.  As one part of the effort to extend health insurance to the uninsured, the ACA required everyone to have insurance, created a system of subsidies to make that insurance affordable for lower-income people, and encouraged the creation of market-places where individuals could purchase standard plans offered by insurance companies.[1]  (In essence, lots of younger, healthier, lower-income people would be constrained to buy insurance to pay for the care of older, sicker, and often higher-income people.)  Broad participation in the health-exchanges by the major insurance companies would create a competitive environment that would help hold down prices while providing a broad array of choices to customers.

In spite of the unfortunate early mishaps of the ACA (the botched roll-out of the web-site, the president’s terminological inexactitude about keeping one’s insurance, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the portion of the ACA that tried to coerce states into expanding Medicaid), far more serious problems have begun to emerge.

In what seems to have come as a surprise to Democrats and the New York Times (“but I repeat myself” as Mark Twain once said), it turns out that people really are economic animals.  First, for many potential customers, the price of health insurance is too high for what it would buy.  While it had been projected that about 21 million people would be enrolled in health exchanges by 2016, only about 10 million have enrolled.  That’s a lot of premiums that never get paid to insurers.  In 2015, half of the people who did buy insurance in the market-places bought the cheapest possible plan.[2]  Those who buy the more expensive plans tend to be people with serious medical conditions.  Furthermore, many of these customers don’t care about choice of physician or the size of the network of providers. They have opted for plans offered by smaller insurance companies.  Some of these companies already had deep experience dealing with Medicaid payments.  They knew low income customers and they knew how to keep down costs.  Part of this involved limiting choice of care to doctors and hospitals that were willing to accept a low level of payment.

Second, private enterprise runs on a profit and loss basis.  Having run health insurance policies for employer-provided health insurance, the major insurance companies assumed that their new customers would want the same range of choice of physicians and hospitals.  They didn’t.  Anticipating large numbers of customers, many without serious health needs, the insurance companies priced many of their policies too low.  Getting half as many customers, many with serious health issues, the insurance companies suffered heavy early losses.  Facing continuing huge losses in this sector of their business, major insurers like United Health Group, Humana, and Aetna have either decided to pull out of the health-exchange market or limit their participation.  The insurers who remain in the health exchange market place plan to steeply raise premiums for 2017.  This may well drive even more price-sensitive customers out of the market place.  A health care expert at the Urban Institute rationalized that “you can’t lower costs without breaking some eggs.”  In this case, the “eggs” are companies owned by stock-holders as an investment of their assets.  The big insurers need to learn the market or to get out.

One solution would be to let the experienced low-cost providers take over this market.

[1] Reed Abelson, “Health Insurers Lose as Clients Focus on Costs,” NYT, 13 August 2016.

[2] “Bronze,” like coffin handles.

CrISIS 9.

For all those angry with President Obama’s policy, the Islamic State is in retreat.  Iraq’s militias under the guidance of Iranian advisors, various Kurdish militias, and the Russian- supported Assad regime have rolled back ISIS gains.  At the same time, American efforts to focus narrowly on the danger of ISIS cut across the more powerful enmities and affinities in the region.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war in the Muslim world frames many local conflicts.  Russia has chosen alignment with the Shi’ites (Iran, the majority in Iraq, the Alawites of Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon).  The United States is having a harder time making a choice.

After the final American withdrawal from Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Nouri al-Maliki reverted to persecuting Sunni Iraqis.  Alienated, many Sunnis withdrew their support from the government.  Currently, on the principle of “once burned, twice shy,” the Sunnis of Iraq have been sitting-out the Reconquista by the so-called government of so-called Iraq.[1]  However, the occupation of the “liberated” areas by either Shi’ite militias or by Kurds merely shifted the locus of repression for the Sunnis.  The government has resisted pressure from Washington to arm Sunnis willing to fight ISIS because those same arms might later be used to resist the Shi’ites.[2]

Neither Russia nor its client Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad cared to focus on ISIS when they saw the other Sunni rebel groups as a target more dangerous and more near at hand.  Nor did the Sunni rebels against the Assad government see ISIS as the most pressing danger.  They often co-operate with Islamist groups in the fight against Assad.[3]  In the recent fighting around Aleppo, the Syrian Conquest Front (formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front—the Syrian off-shoot of Al Qaeda) has done much of the heavy lifting.  Will Islamist fighters in flight from the embattled ISIS caliphate head West to join the ranks of the Syrian Conquest Front?

If the Syrian Conquest Front, which the US still regards as a version of its old enemy Al Qaeda, becomes the dominant force in the war against the Assad government, Washington will face an ugly choice.  Which does it see as the greater threat?  With which will it align itself?  Will it support the increasingly Islamist-led rebels against the Assad government, even if that means a tacit alliance with the survivors of ISIS and a re-branded Al Qaeda?  Will it support the Assad government, even if that means following the Russian lead into a tacit alliance with the Shi’ites?

Where will future historians locate the root of this disaster?  The most obvious cause lies in the American decision to attack Iraq in 2003.[4]  Anyone who voted for that war has much to answer for.  Even before the occupation had been botched, the Turks had refused to cooperate because they foresaw the effect on Kurdish nationalism.  Then the occupation was botched.  Then came the Obama administration’s too-ready embrace of the “Arab Spring,” its overthrow of the Libyan dictator, and its un-deft handling of the Russians.

Looking farther back, though, can some of the origins be located in the refusal of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to write-off the loans made to Iraq in order for it to fight the long war in the 1980s against the revolutionary Shi’ite regime in Iran, or to support higher oil prices so that Iraq could earn the money to rebuild?  Everything turns out to be complicated, rather than simple.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Islamic State Slips, But Sunnis Are On the Sidelines,” WSJ, 10 June 2016.

[2] For its part, Washington has limited the flow of aid to the Kurds because the weapons supplied to fight ISIS might well be used against the Turks.  Given the recent hostility of Turkish president Erdogan to the West generally and to the United States in particular, Washington may decide to re-think this position.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Syria’s Alliance Hang on Outcome in Aleppo,” WSJ, 12 August 2016.

[4] In my view on specious grounds.

Turk’s Head Knot 2.

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic by Mustapha Kemal, the military has been the guardian of the secular, Western-oriented policy laid down by “Ataturk.”  On many occasions, most recently in 1997, this has led to military coups against elected leaders.  When Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power in Turkey in 2003, he presented himself as the champion of a democratic Islamism.[1]  However, he took care to cripple the ability of the military to intervene in politics.  His efforts included what is now recognized to have been a faked prosecution of military leaders for planning a supposed coup in 2008.  After 2011, je also supported the Egyptian Islamist Mohammad Morsi of Egypt, another democratically elected leader.  Morsi had faced down Egypt’s military dictatorship for a time.  When, in 2013, the Egyptian generals overthrew Morsi, Erdogan had to give thought to his own desperate position.  Since 2013, Erdogan has been on a rampage as he sought to shore up his claim on power.

In mid-July 2015, some members of the military of the Turkish Republic got fed up with President Erdogan and tried to overthrow him.  They missed their punch.  Not the least part of the key to Erdogan’s survival came in the support he received from pro-democracy opposition parties.  Ever since, there has been Hell to pay.

The failed coup will have a tremendous impact within Turkey.  Erdogan has launched a sweeping purge that targets the military, the bureaucracy, the schools, and the kinda-free media.  Alleging involvement in the coup, Erdogan has either dismissed from employment or arrested thousands of people.  He has bruited it about that his one-time ally Fethullah Gulen conspired in the coup.  The American reluctance to extradite Gulen on what may well be specious charges adds fuel to the fire of Erdogan’s rising hostility to the United States.  Turkey is in danger of becoming a “normal” Middle Eastern country.

What impact will these events have in the region?  Since 2011, Erdogan has opposed Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[2]  Turkey has provided the chief conduit for foreign-fighters of all ideological commitments to reach Syria.  Turkey has provided the main road for supplies from elsewhere (i.e. Saudi Arabia) to reach those who are willing to fight against Assad.  This seems to have included many people bound for the ISIS caliphate.

Erdogan has turned even more emphatically against Turkey’s Western allies.  He had already unleashed a tidal wave of Syrian (and other) refugees on Western Europe in order to extract various concessions from the Europeans.  Even more dramatically, Erdogan’s government has accused the United States of complicity in the failed coup.

Furthermore, Erdogan has shifted his stance on the civil war in Syria.  He has sought to mend fences with the Russians.  The Turkish air force pilots who shot down a Russian strike-fighter over a penny-ante invasion of Turkish air space in November 2015 have suddenly found themselves accused of involvement in the coup.  Erdogan’s sweeping purge of the military leadership has dragged down the commander of the Second Army, which controls the border with Syria and Iraq, along with many of his subordinates.

The Assad government might hope that the Turkish supply route for fighters may be closed, while the anti-Assad government might fear that their main supply route would be cut.  So, the Russo-Assad alliance took heart.  They launched a long-prepared assault to cut the last life-lines into Aleppo.  In desperation, many of the rebel groups combined to launch their own counter-attack.  It continues, with little chance of success.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Political Foes Stood by Leader,” WSJ, 18 July 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Upheavals in Turkey Threatens Rebels in Syria,” WSJ, 5 August 2016.