Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Catching up on postings to this blog

I have just posted a number of op-ed articles and 3 published letters to the Wall Street Journal that I have written during the last year but not gotten around to posting.  

Obamacare and Part-Time Work----letter to the Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

Andrew Puzder argues correctly that Obamacare encourages employers to add more part-time and fewer full-time workers.  But he pushes his argument too far. 

When the mandate finally kicks in,  employers who must start providing insurance for their higher-paid workers can reduce cash wages by the amount of their premiums and thus incur no increase in their total cost of labor, as those who already supply insurance are doing now.    

Employers with low-paid workers cannot reduce wages below the legal minimum and will therefore reduce them to part-time.  These are the businesses for which Puzder’s analysis is correct.

Employers with higher-paid workers would not save money by making them all part-time.  Such a strategy would ignore the value placed by workers on insurance. To be equally attractive to newly part-time workers,  such employers would have to increase wages by more than their decreased insurance costs since individually purchased insurance costs more and would not be tax-sheltered.  And their management expenses would increase because of the need to supervise more workers.    

Mr. Puzder is chief executive of a restaurant chain, and restaurants do employ large numbers of  low-wage workers,  but his analysis cannot be extended to  the economy in general.

Paul deLespinasse


A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal

Don't Encourage Violent Overthrow of Iranian Government----letter to Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

In reviewing Kenneth M. Pollack’s The Ayatollah Puzzle, Sohrab Ahmari says “The book’s most compelling section contends, convincingly, that the West should attempt to foment revolution inside Iran by supporting dissidents . . .” 

This is a terrible idea.  It is much easier to overthrow a regime we regard as bad than it is to replace it with something that is better, as we have seen in Iraq, AfghanistanLibya, and (prospectively) Syria.  This is true whether the overthrow is brought about by the U.S. military or by armed insurgents.

Such overthrows have not furthered  U.S. interests and cannot be justified as “humanitarian” on behalf of the local populations.   Saddam Hussein’s regime was horrible,  and Husssein killed a lot of “his own” people to preserve his rule.  But now that he is gone life in Iraq is even more precarious as various factions that he had been able to repress are now free to bomb weddings,  funerals,  and everywhere else innocent civilians gather. 

The U.S. should refrain from encouraging violent overthrows of existing regimes,  no matter how bad.  We should instead root for reformers.   Even very bad regimes can be reformed from within, as we saw in the U.S.S.R. and South Africa.
Given our bad image in Iran,  we should not handicap dissidents who are seeking peaceful reforms by “supporting” them.  With friends like us,  they would not need enemies. 

Paul deLespinasse
Corvallis, Oregon

A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal.

Robots and Unemployment--letter to Wall Street Journal

To the editor:

Holmon W Jenkins [“Robots to the Rescue?”, Jan. 9, 2013]  worries about a future labor shortage caused by an aging population with fewer people producing what “idle oldsters” would like to consume. 

As one who is far from idle and who has been receiving Social Security for ten years,  I take umbrage at the snide generalization “idle oldsters.”  And I can’t understand how it will improve the consumer-producer ratio if people “save [more] for their retirement and depend less on Uncle Sam.”   If you are retired,  you are retired,  no matter what the source of  your income.  

Perhaps Jenkins should spend more time worrying about actual, current problems, and less time extrapolating dubious hypothetical problems into the future.  At the moment, as some of us have noticed,  not only is there no labor shortage, but there is a terrible surplus.  We call that surplus unemployment. 

As the numbers of young producers decrease, perhaps the chronically unemployed will be able to get jobs.   And if an actual shortage threatens to develop,   remember that shortages exist only at a given prevailing price.  Any shortage will evaporate once wages rise to the level where the amount of labor demanded equals the amount supplied. 

Paul deLespinasse
Corvallis, Oregon

A version of this letter was published by the Wall Street Journal.

An Open Letter To U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, My Former Student, On Iran

Dear Rep. Rogers:

Since you are were one of my students at Adrian College,  I have naturally followed your career with great interest.  Of all my students, you have been the most successful in elective politics,  and I can see real possibility of higher office for you. 

As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee you have been very prominent, and only yesterday  on C-SPAN I saw you discussing current negotiations with Iran

As you know,  bills being considered  in Congress would increase economic sanctions while the negotiations are still going on—hardly a way to enable even well-intentioned  Iranian leaders to get to yes.    And they would require any final agreement to be so harsh that it would be impossible for any Iranian leader to agree to it.  Unfortunately, it appears that you currently support these bills, which would destroy President Obama’s ability to negotiate a reasonable deal with Iran

In your interview last night you said that the preliminary confidence-building agreement with Iran could make it impossible to impose more sanctions if the negotiations fail or if agreement is reached but the Iranians build atomic weapons anyway.   But if Congress makes it impossible to negotiate a reasonable deal,  this too may burn some bridges that we cannot get back across later. 

You cited evidence of bad Iranian behavior in the past,  but did not address the serious possibility that the election of President Rouhani signals a serious effort to restore good relations with the United States and Europe in the future.

Congressman Rogers,  what if you are wrong?  What if Iranian leaders have decided that Iran would be better off as a “little China”—a country with rapidly increasing prosperity and welfare for its talented people---than as a “Big North Korea”---a destitute outlaw regime brandishing atomic bombs against its neighbors?  What if, like Mikhail Gorbachev,  Mr. Rouhani is a real reformer committed to developing good relations with the rest of the world?       

Of course all possible policies have potential downsides.  Even a reasonable deal with teeth in it may leave Iran with ultimate ability to make atomic bombs.  On the other hand sabotaging  negotiations would undermine Iranian reformers.  It would increase the danger that we will have to choose between accepting Iranian atomic weapons or attacking that country militarily. 

You are well aware that a “limited” or “surgical” air strike could not do the job.  To guarantee that Iran can't produce atomic weapons would require a massive, bloody and expensive military occupation of the entire country, the overthrow of the regime and the forcible repression of prolonged insurgent-style nationalist resistance to the occupation. To incur these costs because Iran might develop and use atomic weapons makes no sense and would never get the necessary sustained support from Americans or our allies.

The only alternative to such an invasion and occupation would be to use atomic weapons on Iran,  which would kill millions and is unthinkable if done pre-emptively.

In the end we would have to rely on deterrence, employing atomic weapons as a regrettable necessity only in response to actual Iranian use of such weapons.  If a negotiated deal went bad we would be in no worse a position, whereas successful negotiations could get us to a much better relationship with Iran

I hope very much that you will reconsider your support of Congressional efforts to derail these negotiations, negotiations which at worst can do little harm and at best could produce a much better world for all of us. 


Paul F. deLespinasse


This piece has appeared in the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram.

How to Increase the Real Minimum Wage

Proposals to increase the minimum wage are being debated again, with both sides treating us to the usual arguments. Those favoring increases note the impossibility of supporting a family on the current minimum:  $7.25 an hour federally up to around $10 in some states.  This is obviously true. Opponents say increasing labor costs will reduce the number of workers hired, increasing unemployment.  This also is true, though the extent of the damage is unclear. 

We need a policy that would increase the prevailing minimum wage to a decent level selected by the government,  perhaps $15 hourly,  without increasing unemployment.

Of all places,  North Dakota may suggest the way.  The oil boom there has produced such a labor shortage that some McDonalds are paying rank and file workers $15 to $20 per hour. Some even offer signing bonuses.

North Dakota undermines claims that increasing the legal minimum would drive fast food establishments out of business.  McDonalds pays less in the rest of the country, not because it can’t afford to pay more,  but because conditions allow it to get workers for much less.  Most places the supply of low-skill workers is greater than the demand for them, and employers are not in business for their health.

We seem to be in a trap:  Unemployment could be reduced by reducing the minimum wage,  but this would aggravate already intolerable economic inequality.  A higher floor under wages could reduce economic inequality (for those with jobs) but reduce the number of jobs. 

We can avoid this trap by make the whole country more like North Dakota.  This would require a federal program offering full time jobs for everyone over 18  for (say) $15 an hour plus legally-required fringe benefits like health insurance.   Those hired would do things that need doing but are not getting done—helping old people,  maintaining parks,  picking up litter,  tutoring kids,  keeping an eye out for vandals, taking care of invalids,  comforting the dying,  you name it. 

Given such a program, places like McDonalds would have to pay staff at least as well as the federal program does to get enough workers.  And if employers reduce staffing because of increased costs, it wouldn’t increase unemployment; the government program would pick up the slack.  There would in fact be no unemployment.  None! 

The biggest disadvantage of this program is that it would visibly cost taxpayers something.  But it is more honest than minimum wage laws which promote noble objectives without apparently costing anybody anything and which do not guarantee a job,  just  minimum hourly pay if you can find a job.    

Benefits like improved personal security against unemployment would be an offset against the costs. The services provided by people working under the program would also be a plus.  And the program could partly be paid for by eliminating or reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit,  food stamps,  unemployment compensation, and other federal benefits.  Minimum wage laws could be repealed, eliminating the costs of enforcing them,  and no one would notice. 

It is time to put a real floor under wages and eliminate the scourge of unemployment once and for all.  North Dakota proves that this is not impossible as a matter of economics.  Now all we need is leaders who will make it politically possible.

This piece has appeared in the Grand Forks (N. Dakota) Herald.

Some of Life's Events Lead in Unexpected Directions

The announcement that Natural Grocers is coming to Corvallis mentioned  the chain’s founders,  Philip and Margaret Isely.   It reminded me that I had attended a meeting Mr. Isely organized in Denver fifty years ago and had corresponded with him before and after that meeting.  

My acquaintance with Isely resulted from  events going back to my high school days in Vallejo, California.  The honor society at Vallejo was the California Scholarship Federation,  and CSF’s principal activity was a field trip to San Francisco once each semester.  After touring an educational site they would turn us loose on Market Street for a few hours.  One such trip was on November 10, 1955, and I paid 10 cents for a used book by Norman Cousins,  Modern Man Is Obsolete.

This book expanded an editorial Cousins wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature shortly after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan.  He argued that in the atomic age,  mankind would destroy itself unless we established a world government:  “No control [of the atomic bomb] without power, no power without law,  no law without government.”  I found this argument overwhelming (perhaps more so than I do now), and it helped change my college plans from studying physics to studying political science and languages with an eye to a diplomatic career.

My college years at Willamette University followed this new plan but led me to rethink the career.  I ended up in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University preparing to be a college teacher.  But my interest in world government remained strong.

In 1963 the World Committee For A World Constitutional Convention held a “preparatory congress” in Denver.   It was in early September,  when I would be returning from Portland to Baltimore for my final year of graduate school, so  I just hopped off the train for five days in Denver en route east.  I was a (self-selected) delegate,  presented a paper on strategies for a sustained campaign,  and met Philip Isely,   the impressive executive secretary for the World Committee and its main leader and driving force.

As often happens,  Isely and I lost contact decades ago.  I assumed he must have died long since,  but googling reveals that he only died in 2012, at age 96.  His obituaries suggest that his mission in life was promoting peace and world government. Apparently Natural Grocers was more the work of his wife,  Margaret.

Philip Isely reminds us that economic activities are not necessarily the most important part of a person’s life work.  And my experience illustrates how important accidents can be in shaping our lives.  What if I had never found that book?  What if someone else had bought it an hour earlier?  According to a handwritten letter pasted in the back cover, it was a wedding present from a Stanford professor named Sam Hepburn to one of his former students only ten years earlier.  So why was the book for sale?  Did his former student die?  Was she divorced?     

And what if Natural Grocers had not come to Corvallis?  I might never have thought about Philip Isely again, and could not have written this article.  Reading the “replacement” article occupying this space in the GT  might have affected someone’s life as dramatically as finding Norman Cousin’s book impacted mine.

Or perhaps this article itself may lead a reader in unexpected directions.   These kinds of thing go on all the time.   I leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

This piece has appeared in the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

U.S.-Iran: Time to Exchange Ambassadors?

Now that a confidence-building agreement has been reached,  further negotiations with Iran will continue unless the Israeli government,  Congressional hawks,  or Iranian hardliners manage to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings.

 But it is also time to consider further steps to improve relations with Iran.

The lack of official diplomatic relations with Iran  has not prevented us from making this deal.  But this agreement may signal an opportunity to end the abnormal situation that has existed since 1980:  the lack of an Iranian ambassador and  embassy in Washington and of  official American representatives in Tehran.

Of course the seizure of our Tehran embassy in 1980 and the prolonged captivity of our diplomats made it impossible to continue normal diplomatic relations at that time.   International law and custom  long had required countries to respect diplomats even when war breaks out with their country.  Thus Japanese and German diplomats were allowed to leave the U.S. after Pearl Harbor and American diplomats were free to come home.  The  refusal or perhaps inability of the Iranian government to free the Americans immediately was a gross violation of the basic rules of the game.

But that was a third of a century ago.  The U.S. recognized the Communist regime in China in 1979,  only 30 years after the Communists came to power there.   Actually, our mutual isolation began eroding right after President Nixon’s dramatic visit in 1972.  It is now generally agreed that this trip was one of Nixon’s finest accomplishments. 

While the time may not yet be ripe for President Obama to visit Tehran,  we can hope that he is quietly exploring the possible recognition and exchange of diplomats with President Rouhani.  For political reasons both in Washington and Tehran,  any such agreement might have to be phased in gradually, as it was with China,  but it would be good to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. 

Diplomatic recognition implies an obligation not to try to bring about “regime change” in the other country, whether in our own interests or for humanitarian purposes.   Our track record in such adventures (think of IraqAfghanistanEgyptLibya, and probably Syria) is dreadful and we should learn something from that record.

Secret negotiations about mutual recognition are probably going on, but what can Americans and Iranians do in more public ways to improve our relations?  Is it time for an American ping pong team to  visit Tehran?  Or for an Iranian sports team to play in the U.S?  An exchange of symphonic orchesta concerts?  High school or college students  spending a semester living with families in the other country?  

Perhaps all of the above.  And while we are at it,  we ought to encourage the Iranian and Israeli governments to think about similar exchanges and, ultimately,  mutual diplomatic recognition.    Perhaps a few hundred Iranian students in Israel would alleviate Israeli fears, since any Iranian attack would kill these students too.  Likewise Israeli students in Iran could reduce Iranian fears, while the person to person contacts could reduce stereotyping and demonizing of the other country.

And maybe,  just maybe,  President Obama may end up in Tehran sometime.  After Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip,  we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that anything is impossible.

This piece has run in the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram and the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

Dubchek, Solzhenitsyn, Gorbachev, ....Rouhani?

My senior thesis at Willamette University in 1960 studied the possibility of peaceful reform in a totalitarian country.  Inspired by the reform efforts of Nikita Khrushchev,  I studied reforms in three non-totalitarian countries---women suffrage in the U.S.,  repeal of the “corn laws” in England, and the freeing of the Russian serfs  in 1862.  Drawing conclusions about successful reform strategies,  I extrapolated them into the challenging circumstances facing reformers in the U.S.S.R. 

I concluded that two roads were open to a Soviet  reformer.  You could become a literary person, develop a reputation, and then gradually write more and more radical political commentaries, leaving censors wondering where to draw the line and force you to shut up.  Or you could join the Communist Party,  worm your way up to the top,  then pull out your horns and use the vast powers of the top leader to reform the system.

Years later,  my analysis was vindicated.  Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s literary career followed the first road, and was very successful until his criticisms went too far and Leonid Brezhnev deported him.  The second road was followed by Mr. Gorbachev, whose successful reforms brought in freedom of speech,  competitive elections, and d├ętente with the U.S. but then resulted in the demise---relatively peaceful---of the U.S.S.R.  

Before Gorbachev, however,  the first example of  a road two reformer was Alexander Dubchek in Czechoslovakia, whose 1968 “Prague Spring” reforms were only halted when the Soviet Union invaded and threw Dubchek out. 

Of course when Gorbachev first came to power it was not obvious that he was a Soviet Dubchek.   It was only when Pravda,  the Communist Party newspaper which I read for 29 years,  printed a poem claiming censorship was un-Marxist that I realized that Gorbachev was a real reformer.  Not all American leaders were as quick to catch on, and many were horrified when President Reagan started the negotiations with Gorbachev which ended the Cold War.

This is all history,  but it may have great relevance to today.   The recently elected Iranian president,  Hasan Rouhani,  appears to be interested in improving relations with the United States, and serious negotiations have started.  However influential voices including Israeli leaders,  many U.S. politicians, and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal,   have been condemning these negotiations.  They insist that Iran cannot reform, it cannot be trusted,  and that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  

Of course they could be right about Rouhani.  Even  some of the Politburo members who made Gorbachev General Secretary expected him to continue the old Soviet policies.  Foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, who nominated him,  told the Politburo that Gorbachev had a nice smile but had teeth of iron.  Coming from Gromyko,  known to some as “old iron pants,”  this was intended as a compliment!  But Gorbachev turned out to be a real reformer.  And so might Rouhani, no matter what the intent of the leaders who propelled him to the Iranian presidency.

Since there is a chance that Rouhani,  like Gorbachev, is the real deal,  we ought to make an honest effort to negotiate with him, and we ought to presume that he is sincere until events prove otherwise. 

The U.S. should announce that if we reach an agreement and Israel tries to sabotage it by bombing Iran,  we will end all U.S. foreign aid to Israel.  There is too much at stake here to allow anybody, including the Israeli leader,  to stand in the way of testing Rouhani’s sincerity and political ability to make a reasonable deal

This piece has run in the Salem, Oregon Statesman-Journal and the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram. 

Israel and Palestine: How About A Zero-State Solution?

Sometimes we need to change the entire way we think about a problem if we want to solve it. When talented people, strongly motivated by personal interest, noble ideals, or both, cannot figure out what to do, either the problem is unsolvable or we need to think about it in a new way.  The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians may be an example of such a problem.

For many years the United States has promoted a two-state solution: one state for Israelis,  one for Palestinians.  Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders favor it,  for many reasons the idea has never gotten anywhere. Getting to yes on this approach may be politically impossible both for Israel and for the Palestinians. 

The apparent alternative would be a single-state in which Israelis and Palestinians would live peacefully under the same government.  This would avoid the sticky issue of who gets Jerusalem.  It would recognize there is no place where a geographical line can neatly be drawn between the two populations.  But a single-state solution scares Israelis,  who fear that the faster growth of the Palestinian population would allow a future Jewish minority to be repressed by a Palestinian majority.  So a single-state solution may also be impossible.

If both two-states and one-state are impossible,  does this mean there is no possible solution?  Maybe not.   It might just be possible to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to join,  jointly,  the United States as its 51st state.  This would be a zero-state solution,  if the ambiguous term “state” is taken to mean an independent country. Israel-Palestine (or Palestine-Israel?—perhaps this could be determined by a coin flip) would be a state, but in a different sense:   a constituent element of a federal union, like Oregon or Michigan
Residents of the new state would be protected by the Constitution’s  equal protection and due process clauses.  Free exercise of religion by Muslims, Jews and Christians would be guaranteed by the First Amendment.  The huge resources devoted by Israelis and Palestinians to military preparedness could be redirected. Their economy would benefit by being  an integral part of the larger American economy.  

Adding Palestine-Israel as a state might be a hard sell here. Cultural,  linguistic and religious differences,  the fear of importing problems from a troubled area, opening the present United States to free immigration from the new state, and the radical nature of the idea will give many Americans pause.  But considering how central the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to many other problems facing us in the Middle East and the amount of foreign aid now going to that area,  it might not be impossible to get congressional approval.
Much would depend on the details.  To avoid looking like empire-building we should add the new state only if substantial majorities of Israelis and of  Palestinians, in separate referendums,  approved.  We must make it clear to other countries in the area that we seek good relations and are not interested in taking over more local real estate.  
Before the end of the South African apartheid regime,  I once shocked a panel discussion by proposing that South Africa become our 51st state.  Fears by the minority white population that it would be abused if the black majority was enfranchised would be eliminated by the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by American courts.  Fortunately South Africa was able to reform itself without going to this extreme thanks to wise leadership by F.W. deKlerk  and Nelson Mandela. 

Does anyone see a deKlerk or a Mandela in the current  Middle East?  Maybe this time we really need to add that 51st state.  

Oregon State University Should Not Abandon Profitable Investments

Ken Winograd  [“It’s wrong for OSU to profit from climate destruction”] overlooks significant details that undermine all but one part of his argument.

If OSU sells all its stock in fossil fuel industries,  it will reduce neither the sales nor the profits of those industries.  It will have no effect on the sales one way or the other, and it will simply redirect dividends and capital gains to the people who buy the stock from OSU.  The investments  purchased by the OSU Foundation to replace the divested stock will be less profitable,  or the Foundation would already have made the switch for purely economic rather than moral reasons. 

Winograd in effect concedes this point when he tells us that “the question of divestment must be shaped by moral concerns and not the bottom line.” 

Why, then,  divest?  Says Winograd:  “The goal of divestment is to stimulate a synergy of activism,  to affect a seismic shift in public opinion—that drastic changes in public policy are needed now.”  In other words,  divestment would be a massive publicity stunt! 

I would like to make a friendly suggestion about an even more dramatic publicity stunt that would actually reduce fossil fuel consumption in the U.S. and that would reduce OSU income from its fossil industry investments by a smaller amount. 

Several times a year tens of thousands of people migrate to Corvallis to attend OSU football games.  Their cars and RVs burn large amounts of gasoline.  For night games Reiser Stadium is brightly lit with floodlights that use large amounts of electricity, some of which is produced by burning coal and natural gas---fossil fuels.  When the team travels to other schools for games,  its buses or airplanes burn diesel or jet fuel—fossil fuels.   And don’t forget the electricity consumed when people run TV sets to watch televised games.   

Do you see what I am driving at?   If OSU were to abolish its football team,  it would actually reduce fossil fuel use in the United States.   It would reduce the serious brain damage that football players risk every time they take the field.   And it would also be a REAL publicity stunt.   If other universities imitated OSU,  so much the better. 

To be sure, OSU would lose the income earned by the football program,  but this will not reduce the money available for teaching and research, the core missions of a university.  

As a serious student of American politics,  culture, and higher education,  I predict that OSU will not take me up on this proposal.  We can’t push morality too far,  after all, especially when it interferes with our entertainment! 

But while we are waiting for the ecological millennium,  I hope OSU won’t dump profitable investments, reducing income that it could put to good uses educating our youth and researching greener power sources.  Winograd claims that “if it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”  But until better energy technology is developed,  fossil fuel companies will continue to make money, and if money is going to be made anyhow it might as well go to OSU.