IPS Blog

Taxing the Chesapeake Bay

Pollution and trash in a river

(Photo: Clean Bread and Cheese Creek / Flickr)

Growing up in Jarrettsville, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to live close to many wonderous parks, farms and other natural wonders. And I remember becoming a Brownie in the Girl Scouts by crossing the bridge at Friendship Park in Forest Hill. It symbolized growing up and moving onto the next level of life. We celebrated by camping and exploring the great outdoors.

I hope that as my son — now 2 years old — grows, he too will discover the Maryland forests and creeks that I roamed across as a child. Now settled in Catonsville, we frequently visit the beautiful Pataspco State Park. As his little feet get sturdier, he’ll go further along the park’s dirt paths. When he grabs a pile of leaves in his chubby hands, I don’t want to worry about whether they’re coated with toxic dust.

But our creeks, streams, rivers and Chesapeake Bay aren’t as pristine as they once were. After heavy rains, scientists warn that it’s not safe for us to swim or wade in these waterways due to stormwater pollution.

And that same stormwater flows off our driveways, parking lots and sidewalks straight into the drains that wind up in our local creeks and streams. That water eventually gets funneled into the Chesapeake Bay.

When I began my career as a community organizer with the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, my primary motivation was to preserve these great areas. In 2012, the environmental community made great progress by passing the Stormwater Management Program into law, mandating that the state’s most urban and developed areas levy and collect fees based upon systems designed by local governments. Through these pooled funds, local governments are beginning to clean up this pollution in their own communities.

Now, through a cynical ploy to brand this crucial policy tool as some kind of “rain tax,” Maryland’s Bay cleanup progress is jeopardized.

This approach has succeeded in other states, including some of the country’s most conservative bastions. In Texas, dedicated fees helped stop flooding and minimize water damages to homes and businesses. This money collected in Texas can cover the costs of retrofitting pavement into porous pavement to reduce runoff and creating rain gardens and rain barrels.

The fact is, we need to clean up our act by capturing water at its source and using it where it lands. We need to cherish our water and protect it for future generations of Marylanders.

This state must put money into protecting this precious resource, and programs that do this well reflect our best values. We need to get more serious about protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Paying small fees that give local governments the money they need to do their fair share is a step in the right direction.

One of Gov. Larry Hogan’s first actions was to introduce legislation to repeal the stormwater runoff program. Some counties are repealing the program entirely or significantly reducing the fee and others are standing behind this proven program to move us forward. I hope that after all the grandstanding and arguing, we can work together to get these programs right and get Maryland’s Bay cleanup efforts back on track.

Maryland is standing at the foot of a bridge to our future. We can stay here, looking at the “Keep Out” signs posted along the shores of our polluted waterways and wondering where we went wrong. Or we can cross it, securing a safe and clean place where our children can grow and explore our remarkable rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay.

Let’s cross the bridge.

We Owe You Nothing!


Inequality and student debt

(Photo: DonkeyHotey/Flickr)

The small group of debtors with loans from the now defunct for-profit Corinthian College — the “Corinthian 15” — have a simple message for the Department of Education: We owe you nothing.

The 15 students declared in late February that they won’t be paying back their student debt and, with that move, sparked a media frenzy as journalists, pundits, and policy makers rushed to make sense of this unprecedented act of defiance.

Organized by the Debt Collective, a volunteer-run offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, the Corinthian 15 opened their letter to the Department of Education calling themselves “the first generation made poor by the business of education.” 

Support for the strikers has so far come from a number of prominent activists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Bill McKibben, Frances Fox Piven, and Sarita Gupta. The strikers have also received explicit support from Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the powerful House Financial Services Committee. 

The potential for serious negative personal consequences makes the strikers’ defiance, as the Washington Post notes, particularly “startling.” Unlike other forms of debt, student debt is not discharged during bankruptcy. Loan servicers can garnish the strikers’ wages, tax refunds, and disability payments — and essentially destroy their credit.

Yet the strikers’ resolve remains strong in the face of these consequences. As striker Mallory Heiny, age 21, puts it: “The repercussions are intimidating, but without dissonance there will be no change.”

The driving idea behind the Corinthian 15 student protest — that students with debt from Corinthian College and similar schools like Everest College should have their debt forgiven — has become increasingly realistic.

A group of thirteen Senate Democrats led by Senator Elizabeth Warren has called on the Department of Education to forgive such loans, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced it would forgive $480 million in similar student loans in February.

The strike highlights perhaps the most egregious aspect of the country’s student debt problem: the recklessness of for-profit colleges that provide very low-quality education for high tuition. These colleges only exist because they can collect billions from federal student aid programs.

Overall, over 40 million Americans are now struggling to pay off an average of $27,000 in student debt. Over seven million have gone into default, a figure steadily rising.

In a move to address growing concerns about student debt, President Obama announced the creation of a Student Aid Bill of Rights during a speech at Georgia Tech Tuesday. The plan leverages the President’s executive authority to create a central online portal for student debt repayment and aims to help debtors better understand and pay their loans.

The President’s announcement comes in the wake of a recent announcement that the Department of Education will be cutting ties with five private loan servicers for misleading consumers.

But more comprehensive action on student debt will require congressional action, something hard to imagine in the short term. Most effective would be to simply make public universities tuition-free, a move that could cost a mere $15 billion more than what’s currently being spent on higher education.

President Obama’s new Student Aid Bill of Rights does rate as a welcome development and has received praise as a step in the right direction from the United States Student Association as well as the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. We need, as the Corinthian 15 make clear, many more steps — and more activism will certainly speed them.

Walmart Needs a Maximum Wage

WalmartWalmart’s recent decision to raise the pay of almost half its US employees should be lauded on many fronts. As my colleague Karen Dolan pointed out in her column this week, it’s important to acknowledge when corporations do something right—not just when they screw up.

In a letter to associates, CEO Doug McMillon announced that Walmart would increase starting wages to $9 an hour by April and to at least $10 an hour by early next year.

Other changes included the launching of new employee retention and promotion programs and providing more fixed schedules for some of its employees.

But the pay raise is the most immediate and sweeping of the changes.

After years of protests and strikes from Walmart employees, the company is responding with concrete improvements that should be applauded.

But there are also some serious limitations. McMillon’s announcement was embarrassingly tone deaf in relation to inequality. After saying that one of Walmart’s “highest priorities” will be “investing in our people this year,” McMillon says to his associates: “Let’s take care of one another.”

Is McMillon including himself in this communal portrait of Walmart? I sure hope not. As CEO of the company, McMillon’s compensation rose a whopping 168 percent to $25.6 million in 2014 alone.

Even with the recent raise for workers, Walmart still has the highest CEO-to-worker pay ratio (more than 1,000 to 1) among Fortune 500 companies, as Jobs with Justice recently pointed out.

And the Walton family—owners of Walmart—hold the same wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.

In other words, Walmart raised wages so as not to be downright embarrassing for the mega-wealthy corporation, but it still outpaces the pack when it comes to inequality within their own company.

As other companies such as Costco have helped reveal, low wages are connected to excessive pay at the top. Bringing down the top is just as important—and just as necessary—as pulling up the bottom.

If Walmart is serious about creating a communal environment in which all employees care for one another, its next announcement ought to be a maximum wage for executives.

Until that day, Walmart hasn’t changed all that much: Always low prices. Occasionally a little bit higher wages. Always the highest inequality.

Teaching, Testing and ‘Filling the Pail’


Taking a scantron "bubble" test

(Photo: Shutterstock)

One of the “hard truths” described by FBI Director James Comey in his now viral Georgetown University speech about race had to do with the “disproportionate challenges faced by young men of color.” Recruiting and training police better to avoid racial bias or “mental shortcuts” that they adopt — often unintentionally — when policing minority neighborhoods won’t be enough, he said.

One problem is path dependency: “Those neighborhoods,” he pointed out, drawing upon federal data, “too often inherit a legacy of crime and prison.” The other is that “so many minority families and communities are struggling, so many boys and young men grow up in environments lacking role models, adequate education and decent employment.” This challenge is significantly harder than simply changing police attitudes because this hard truth means that we have to address the environment in which crime takes place.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone in the federal government made a clarion call like this about the environment in which public education takes place?

The problems are familiar and generally well-documented. According to the Council of Great City Schools, only 13 percent of African-American eighth-graders and 16 percent of Latino eighth-graders meet the minimum standards of proficiency on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 39 percent of their white eighth-grade peers.

Imagine a discussion about education in America that begins with the communities where these children come from, and considers the effects of such tests on students. Instead of targeting teachers for lagging student achievement and using data dumps from for-profit testing companies, we would connect and equip classrooms, homes and neighborhoods as inspired, integrated learning environments.

This would mean fully funding Head Start and early childhood development, and probably doing some big rethinking about the structure and goals of secondary education (I nominate Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, for the commission). It would also mean replacing some standardized testing with tools and time for teachers to teach students with different needs, interests and skills.

“Yes, we need better schools,” writes Darlene Leiding in Winds of Change: Declaring War on Education, but “the achievement gap starts at birth.” High-stakes testing drives good teachers and principals away, it has led to huge cheating scandals (among teachers and administrators!) and ultimately “it holds people accountable for factors over which they have little or no control.”

The testing industry has responded with statistical algorithms that attempt to weight environmental factors, track student progress and then assess teachers based on anticipated, predicted progress. That’s a defensible statistical technique, and one that I’ve used to study corruption in the developing world, but it requires lots of data points. And this means more tests for your 6-year-old.

Summarizing some of the academic research on these “value added” measurement techniques in his new book, Fear and Learning in America, John Kuhn points out that they do not just assess teachers on how well they teach; they end up rewarding and punishing teachers based on whom they teach.

I have taught students at three different universities over the last decade, so the students I teach have already survived the SAT, the ACT and Common Core. I worry, though, not just about the achievement gap for those who do and do not make it into college, but also about a gap between students’ learning experience in secondary school and their college encounter.

While high schools keep piling on more tests, higher education is substituting practice for term papers, integrating Twitter into classrooms, and sending students abroad like never before to discover knowledge and become passionate about experiential learning; the number of U.S. students spending a summer or a semester overseas has tripled over the last two decades, according to the Institute for International Education.

Last semester, I asked Jeff Selingo, author of the bestselling College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, what happens to the student who arrives in college having come to equate learning with filling out bubbles on a test sheet, or who sees teachers as bland authority figures?

William Butler Yeats was on my mind, since he said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Unfortunately, Selingo said, it’s going to be up to us college professors to fix the gap between testing in high school and learning in college, and he’s probably right. We are going to have to show students how to enjoy learning again, and to associate knowledge with passion.

The popular image of the school reform movement was a broom, a metaphor for cleaning up schools systems. I worry, though, that it is looking more and more like a pail. So when we set out to fix the achievement gap, let’s also try to address any emerging gaps between testing and learning.

Our 100 Most Overpaid Corporate CEOs


Briefcase with money inside

(Photo: Pixabay)

You may already think most — if not all — CEOs of major U.S. companies fully qualify as overpaid. But who among them rate as the most overpaid?

The shareholder advocacy group As You Sow has just released a list of the 100 S&P 500 CEOs the group sees as the most deserving of this distinction.

Topping the list: Anthony Petrello of the oil drilling company Nabors Industries.

Shareholders at Nabors, As You Sow’s heavily researched 40-page report details, suffered net losses of nearly 21 percent during the period 2009-2013 — and yet Petrello saw a 2013 payout of $68.2 million. The firm earned additional demerits for giving Petrello massive bonuses not conditioned on company performance.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Nabors Industries ranks as one of only two companies whose shareholders have voted down executive pay packages four years in a row. But since such “say on pay” votes are only advisory, the Nabors board went ahead and doled out the dough anyway.

Report author Rosanna Landis Weaver points out that the problem of excessive compensation affects all of us. CEO pay excess is expanding our inequality — and draining value from our pension funds.

“The pay packages analyzed in this report are from the companies that the majority of retirement funds are invested in,” Landis Weaver points out. “If someone has a 401(k) through their employer, it’s likely they are invested in a company with an overpaid CEO.”

Let’s hope As You Sow makes the top 100 overpaid CEO list an annual exercise in shaming the worst offenders of executive excess. 

A Budget Plan for the People

2016 Budget of the U.S. Government booklets

(Photo: White House)

What do you need to know about the 2016 budget plan President Obama released this week? Mostly that it benefits ordinary Americans and pays for it by taxing the rich.

It’s a long wish list (150-pages) but here are a few highlights:

  • This is a $4 trillion budget plan packed with all sorts of things for middle-class and poor families.
  • One of the big items on the wish list is a $478 billion public works infrastructure program for roads, bridges, and transit.
  • Working families are a big winner as it calls for increased spending on paid leave, universal preschool, and public education.
  • Another boon for families: new tax credit for working spouses and tripling of maximum child care tax credit.

If working families are the big winners here, who are the losers? The rich. Big banks. Corporations (especially when they hoard profits overseas).

Here are a few ways the rich would pay for this budget:

  • Tax increases for the wealthiest (estate tax & capital gains taxes)
  • Fees on big banks that are overly risky.
  • Mandatory taxes on corporate profits held overseas (but as David DayenAmericans for Tax FairnessCampaign for America’s Future, and others have pointed out, this part of the proposal should be much stronger to eliminate all favorable tax treatment for offshoring).

Obama’s plan is a populist political agenda very much aligned with his recent State of the Union speech. It’s ambitious and bold and will leave many Republicans scrambling to explain why they don’t support it.

The plan is more than just a symbolic wish list. It’s a way to define and shape the debate. Aiming so clearly to lift up working families, reduce income inequality, and pay for it by taxing the rich, this agenda comes at a time when most Americans think a little wealth redistribution sounds great. Of course, Republicans have already come out strongly against it. But the Obama administration just may be betting correctly that the people will be on the President’s side.

Our Girls are Still Not Home: Boko Haram and the Politics of Death

Boy holds sign to bring our girls back at rally

(Photo: Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

The ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis in Northeastern Nigeria has deteriorated over the last week with the cross-border military clashes between Boko Haram and the military forces of Cameroon and Chad, and Boko Haram’s attacks on the northeastern Nigerian cities of Monguno and Maiduguri.

On Sunday, initial reports from the strategically important city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State visited by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan only the day before, claimed that Boko Haram had routed the Nigerian forces deployed to defend the city. However, updated reports on Monday indicated that the Nigerian military was able to prevent the fall of Maiduguri, at least temporarily.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Nigeria on Sunday and pledged that the United States would support efforts to meet the threat to the internal security of Nigeria and surrounding nations. The presidents of Chad, Niger and Cameroon, along with the Nigerian administration, have declared that they will carry out military actions to crush the Boko Haram insurgency.

The Chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, stated that the situation in Nigeria will be a priority item at this week’s AU meeting. Nigerian authorities, however, have rejected the need for AU or United Nations intervention. For them, West African regional authorities can address the issue through collective military actions.

My position, however, is that a purely military response will only exacerbate an insurgency whose roots lie in the complex socio-historical conditions and internal contradictions of Northeast Nigeria. Those conditions include massive poverty, feudal social and economic relationships that are deeply entangled with ethnic and religious affiliations, and an elite intra-class politics in which the control of the Nigerian state apparatus is the ultimate prize.

The advocates of a purely military response ignore or are unaware of the fact that before Boko Haram went underground to wage its military campaign against the Nigerian state, it represented a mass movement that had a significant popular base. And while the war may have eroded that popular base and Boko Haram’s connections to the elite of Northern Nigeria, to ignore the social/economic conditions and religious ideological factors that still provide the foundation for Boko Haram’s recruitment and popular support is to fall prey to the simplistic caricatures projected in the Western media and mimicked by the African press.

There is no doubt that Boko Haram has committed egregious crimes against humanity. But so has the Nigerian government. In every major city and town that is being contested militarily, from Baga to Maiduguri, it has been documented that the Nigerian authorities committed massive human rights violations including torture, extrajudicial killings, house burnings, kidnapping and rape. The targets of those violations were members and suspected members and supporters of Boko Haram and their families.

Abstract moralism will confuse the complex confluence of social and historical forces that shaped and are shaping the realities of Nigerian society and contextualize the rise of Boko Haram. Embracing the simplistic explanation that Boko Haram represents an alien force of wide-eyed fanatics who use terror tactics to conquer and rule over territory and people may be attractive to the intellectually lazy, but it by no means explains the reality of the situation, even if that characterization reflects some elements of truth.

There are no innocents in this conflict except the people who are losing their lives, having their towns and cities destroyed and children disappeared. Powerful forces in both the U.S. and Nigeria are benefiting from the chaos and death in that country. The U.S. Africa Command’s ( AFRICOM) strategic objective of establishing closer military relations with nations in Africa in which the U.S. has vital interests is certainly being satisfied as a result of the insurgency. And because of the security issue, the Northern-based All Progressive Congress (APC) has a good opportunity to dislodge the Democratic Party (PDP) of President Goodluck Jonathan in the upcoming Nigerian elections.

But no matter who wins the election next month or whatever military force is raised and thrown against Boko Haram in the future, it is likely that the insurgency will continue. That’s because the fuel for the insurgency will continue to be provided by elites in Nigeria and the U.S. as in other parts of the world where armed groups resist (and exploit) the politics of indifference, Western counter-insurgency violence, poverty, official corruption and the hypocrisy of the Western civilizational model.

2015 State of the Union: The Good, the Bad, and the Missed Opportunities

President Obama 2015 State of the Union

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In his sixth State of the Union address, President Obama projected a sense of decency and common sense fairness and reminded us that he can make a powerful case for good government. The Republicans seemed almost irrelevant — until you remembered that the country just voted to put them in control of both chambers of Congress. Obama made some big omissions and he got some things plain wrong, but overall, a good speech that helps open up important conversations.

The Good:

  • He made a strong case for how government helps people and can help people more. The free community college proposal is concrete and right and smart. He also gave an important boost to the growing movements at the state and city levels that aren’t waiting around for Congress to provide paid sick leave and maternity leave.
  • He boldly touted his fresh new policy on Cuba: “When something doesn’t work for 50 years, it might be time to change it.” How often do you here that in Washington?
  • He made SOTU history by being the first POTUS to utter the words “transgender” and “bisexual people” in a moving plea for the protection of these individuals’ rights.
  • He made a strong case for using diplomacy before military force—in Iran, and everywhere.
  • He threw down the gauntlet on the minimum wage: “If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
  • Good populist lines about the tax code loopholes that benefit the rich and a vow to veto any attempts to undo Wall Street regulations.
  • A forceful two minutes on climate change: “And no challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
  • The story of the Minneapolis newlyweds who bounced back from the recession—who isn’t a sucker for that kind of thing?
  • The centrality of values that led him to say we must prohibit torture and speak out against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim speech.

The Bad:

  • Fair trade activists have learned to plug their ears when Obama shifts from supporting wage increases and fighting climate change to pushing trade agreements that help corporations drive down labor and environmental standards everywhere. This year the pain was heightened by fear-mongering about China.
  • Despite his strong words on climate change, he continued to plug his “all of the above energy policy,” which includes fossil fuels.
  • His defense of our use of drones as “properly constrained.” Imagine how that line went over with the families of Pakistani civilian victims. Obama has ordered many more drone strikes than President George W. Bush.
  • It is wrong for Obama to demand Congressional authorization for an illegal and unconstitutional war in Iraq and Syria that he’s already started, especially since he’s insisted in the past that he doesn’t actually need a new authorization. What he wants is a fig leaf, issued long after a proper debate should have happened, and he shouldn’t get it. He also said the war in Afghanistan was “over,” just a few months after surreptitiously extending it at least another year. That was worthy of many more jeers than it got.

The Missed Opportunities:

  • What, not a word on racism? He did say a few sentences on Ferguson at the end and called for criminal justice reform, but he missed a key opportunity to contribute to the best conversation the nation has had on race in years.  He’s done it before. Why is he skirting the topic now?
  • While his new proposals to tax the 1% and put funds into child care and higher education are commendable, he could have said more about why inequality is both morally wrong and bad for society and bad for the economy. He’s done better elsewhere.
  • It was moving to see Ana Zamora, a DACAmented DREAMer, sitting with the First Lady. But he should have made a stronger case for immigration reform—an area where there might be some potential for bipartisanship.
  • Even though he mentioned a few communities where he has mourned with the victims of mass shootings/our nation’s lax gun regulations, he failed to utter the word “guns.”

Understanding the Trust Fund Loophole

Offering debit cardPresident Obama plans to unveil his fiscal policy agenda during the State of the Union address Tuesday. His new agenda will include a number of programs that aim to shift the tax burden off of working families and onto the top 1 percent and, more specifically, the top .1 percent.

One major Obama initiative to watch calls for closing the “trust fund loophole,” a move important to addressing skyrocketing wealth inequality.

The trust fund loophole is a new term to describe an egregious yet legal tax avoidance technique of the super wealthy. They use this loophole to avoid paying capital gains taxes on their assets.

Here’s how this works: Suppose you buy stock worth $100,000 (the “basis” value in tax terms) that appreciates to $1,000,000 over the time you own it. When you die, your heir inherits the stock valued at $1,000,000.

Under current law, neither you nor your heir would ever pay any tax on that $900,000 appreciation. Your heir’s inheritance instead gets “stepped up” to $1,000,000 and, thanks to this “stepped-up basis,” the heir does not owe capital gains tax either at the point of transfer or when the asset is sold.

The trust fund loophole lets the super wealthy transfer hundreds of billions of dollars, untaxed, year in and year out. Closing the loophole — and raising the capital gains rate to the Reagan-era level of 28 percent for couples with incomes over $500,000, as the White House is also proposing — would raise a projected $210 billion over ten years, nearly exclusively from the super wealthy.

Explains the White House Fact Sheet on this reform package: “99 percent of the impact of the President’s capital gains reform proposal (including eliminating stepped-up basis and raising the capital gains rate) would be on the top 1 percent, and more than 80 percent on the top 0.1 percent (those with incomes over $2 million).”

Numbers like these make the new White House tax reform proposal arguably the most aggressive Obama move yet to take on skyrocketing wealth inequality. The President, as the Washington Post puts it, is finally having his “Piketty moment,” a tribute to the French economist Thomas Piketty, author of the 2014 blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The President’s proposal stands in sharp contrast to what House Republicans are proposing. They’re calling for eliminating the estate tax and maintaining stepped-up basis, a sure-fire formula for ensuring that America’s wealth inequality rises to ever-greater levels. The estate tax remains our nation’s best check on concentrated wealth.

This check, unfortunately, has been blunted over recent years. Rising exemptions to the estate tax and lower estate tax rates have greatly diminished the contribution the estate tax ought to be making.

The new Obama administration trust fund loophole reform does not address these estate tax problems or other serious problems — known collectively as the billionaire loophole — that allow the wealthy to shield their assets from the tax liability they would otherwise owe. But efforts to close the billionaire loophole do appear likely to be included as part of the President’s budget due out February 1.

Charlie Hebdo Meets ‘The Interview’

The Interview screen capture

In the film, “The Interview,” an American journalist is instructed to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Columbia Pictures)

The hacking of Sony Pictures and the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris differ in obvious ways: One involved a state-directed cyberattack on a private corporation; the other involved radicals loosely linked to non-state actors determined to kill journalists. But both incidents also constitute attacks on freedom of expression, thus inspiring a public recommitment to this bedrock principle of Western liberalism. In France, millions lined up to buy copies of the newspaper, again with an offending cartoon of prophet Mohammed prominently displayed. And in the United States, millions of Americans (including myself) watched “The Interview,” a raunchy comedy mocking North Korea’s autocratic leader.

Both events also engaged ideas and debates in political science. In “The Interview,” when the television journalist played by James Franco lobs a softball question about hunger in North Korea, the Kim Jong-un character argues that crippling Western sanctions are to blame. Spoiler alert: Franco politely moves on – until later when he realizes that people really are starving. Are sanctions effective negative incentives for shaping political behavior?

An essay on sanctions enforcement in the current issue of International Organization notes there is a large literature on sanction effectiveness. Sanctions failed to bring down Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, but they succeeded in preventing him from building weapons of mass destruction, as we all learned after the 2003 invasion. They were instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa, where unlike Iraq there was popular support for sanctions and an organized solidarity movement directed the political effects of the economic pain toward the white minority regime.

But in Cuba sanctions only succeeded in befuddling America’s allies, who couldn’t understand why we couldn’t kick a Cold War conceit. President Obama’s recent reestablishment of diplomatic ties not only acknowledges some of these lessons about sanctions, it implicitly endorses Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s argument that “linkage” – economic ties, cultural exchanges, and open communications with the West – is more likely to advance democratization than “leverage,” in this case, sanctions. Though their argument is specific to “hybrid” regimes that blend features of democracy with dictatorships’ limited political competition as a special post-cold war phenomenon, American corporations have argued for linkage with Cuba since the 1990s.

“The Interview” also relates more broadly to the new literature on comparative authoritarianism, which I recently wrote about in the journal Commonwealth and Comparative Politics. When the characters played by Franco and co-star Seth Rogan resume their mission to kill Kim, their co-conspirator argues you can’t just kill him because someone else will simply replace him. As political scientists Jason Brownlee and Barbara Geddes argue, an important difference between stable and unstable authoritarian regimes is institutions that can resolve internal conflicts and avoid succession crises. Leaders don’t last long without organizations, parties and institutions.

In the film, the subversives therefore set out to expose Kim as a fallible human, with the goal of generating “audience costs” – what political scientist Jessica Weeks describes as tides of public opinion capable of limiting a ruler’s options. This is more likely to work, the journalists’ co-conspirator explains, because she’s not alone: There’s a whole faction of what political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter called “soft-liners” who support liberalization.

Following the regime’s collapse, Rogan in the final scene flirts with the co-conspirator via Skype. One could see her hyperbolic sexuality as a shallow appeal to Rogan and Franco’s fan base, which I admit includes me. But we should also see it as a subversive mockery of the old Hollywood recipe for gun-toting heroines. Despite its sarcasm, as political commentary it is not too far from Katniss’s war on war (and authoritarianism) in the “Hunger Games.”

This brings us back to Charlie Hebdo. Like blowing up Kim’s head in “The Interview,” I’m not comfortable with publishing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, because I know they will offend my Muslim friends. Anticipating this view, pundits have been quick to quote Voltaire’s adage, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” This week his 1763 “Treatise on Tolerance” ranked 17th on Amazon.com’s best sellers in France. Then again, it’s worth remembering that two years later he called for the death of Jean-Jacque Rousseau (a dispute detailed in Leo Damrosch’s 2005 biography, “Restless Genius“). So this free speech stuff gets complicated. But we’re better off having its limits tested by artists, including obnoxious ones, than having its limits imposed by political rulers. Maybe along the way we’ll learn something about how to be both good citizens and good neighbors.

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