Archive for the ‘Government’ category

Why Understanding the Middle East is Hard for Westerners; Demystifying Critical Elements

August 18, 2015

The political tensions in the Middle East have always been difficult for me to understand. The cultural and religious nuances and customs are unfamiliar. The names, political parties and language are removed from my own native tongue making my usual memory techniques difficult to use. Sometimes it honestly just becomes a swirled mush and I am not sure where to start since most news is event or crisis driven. For me it helps to return to basics and unwind some of the geographic, ethnic, religious and government elements before applying them to tensions within the Middle East.

I think back to lessons in early geography where I struggled to understand the differences between countries and nations.

  • A country is defined through political geography
  • A nation is defined through ethnic boundaries

This makes a country rather simple to understand since most maps are denoted this way. It is easy to pick out where the United States, Britian, France, Russia, Australia, Japan, etc. are located and clearly defined. Generally, these are established and internationally agreed upon. There are exceptions: the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India is an example of territory disputed between two countries.

A nation though can be a bit fuzzier. The classic example in American classrooms is some of the Native American Indian tribes. For example the Cherokee Nation exists within the political geographic boundaries of the United States and maintains its own government. The Cherokee Nation practices self-determination, is governmentally separate from the United States and is comprised of those who are ethnically Cherokee. The seat of government is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the National’s territory geographically falls within the state Oklahoma and there is a representative office in Washington DC. (

Another example of a nation would be Tibet. While deemed an autonomous region by China and within its political borders this is not universally accepted within the international community. Additionally, the political boundaries asserted by China are disputed by India which also claims part of Tibet. This tension is seen when foreign heads of government receive the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, for state visits to the protests of the Chinese government. It should be noted the Tibetan people are not afforded the same freedoms and autonomy as the Cherokee Nation. This notes the important point that being identified as part of a nation does not guarantee political rights or freedoms.

There is another important combination to mention here; when both a nation and a country coincide, this is called a nation-state. While there is not full scholarly agreement, loosely the defining threshold is approximately 95% of the population is of the same ethnicity. Japan and Iceland would be examples of nation-state countries familiar to Western readers while the Jewish population within Israel (75%) does not rise to this threshold. While there are not explicit legal implications or rights for being a nation-state, it is conceptually useful in understanding a country, its people and its interaction with its neighbors.

Applying these understandings of countries and nations, conflicts seems likely to occur where political lines (countries) unnaturally split ethnic groups such that rival groups can exert unchecked political control or power and dominate another ethnic group. In my mind this helps explains the conflicts citizens of western nations commonly misunderstand, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina (fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbians) and conflicts in the Middle East. At a glance it appears that ethnic allegiance (nationalism) seems to trump political allegiance to a country when the two are in conflict.

Below are some excellent maps from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project which show the ethnic composition of the Middle East:

(note: the large map, which permits zooming, will not always load from the project’s host for reasons unknown)

While educating, the maps do not seem to fully explain the explosive tensions in the region. Some of the countries are relatively homogeneous, for example much of the Arabic peninsula including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen. Others are more ethnically diverse such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Visually seeing Iraq and Syria ethnic minorities split by political boundaries from larger populations in Turkey helps me understand the tensions. A single ethnic people being treated differently across the political boundaries, especially if treated harshly by the ethnic majority in a country, would very reasonably draw strong emotional reactions. This helps me but does not fully satisfy why there is such intense, consistent fighting within this part of the world.

So I look to religion, of which Islam is the dominate religious in this geography. In the Middle East governments generally intertwine religion and politics. A secular government is non-religious while a non-secular government is religious based. The later may have laws or its governing hierarchy directly pulled from religious texts. For those familiar with the rule of law common in many secular governments (e.g. the United States) a government who’s leader claims to be the Almighty’s representation on earth and having absolute authority may feel uncomfortable with this. Further it becomes more complicated when within that one country you have two or conflicting religions and the rights of the minority may or may not be protected. Islam, like Christianity, has several branches, with the main ones being Sunni Islam (~85%) and Shia Islam (~15%). While the point of this piece is not to elicit the finer differences or place judgement, sufficient to say there are meaningful theological and spiritual differences between the two.

The following excellent maps, again from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project, show the religious composition of the Middle East:

The dark green areas denote Shia concentrations while the lighter green areas denote Sunni concentrations.

This startles me. Iran is a non-secular (religious) government based in Shia Islam while most of its non-secular neighbors are followers of Sunni Islam. To what extent the violence we see today is directly attributable to these differences, I do not know. However when the ethnic and religious maps are overlaid, it clearly shows friction points in the middle east today: northern Iraq, Yeman, northern Syria, Afghanistan.

Where this torques my perspective is my context and experience is that the various branches of Christianity, in modern times, do not engage in brutal sectarian violence. Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Protestants—if members of each can explain the differences between—do not seem to engage in violence due to these differences. I do not see Catholics murdering Episcopalians because the later permits female priests and priests with non-heterosexual sexual preferences to openly hold those beliefs.**

It is possible that politically motivated actions are cloaked in religious trappings. Possibly it is the actions of a very small number of extremists that, due to the foreignness and propensity of humans to overly generalize things not well understood, is inaccurately extrapolated to the entire religion or area. This intent of this article is to articulate some of the conceptual drivers to start the conversation on these themes

  • Countries, Nations, and Nation-states
  • Ethnic diversity and concentrations
  • Religious diversity and concentrations
  • The impact of secular and non-secular governments

and how these interact.


**Note: I acknowledge this does dismiss the Catholic Church endorsed military campaigns, the Crusades, during the Middle Ages; however, this piece aims to focus on the current day tensions and conflicts within the Middle East.

Hacking the Automobile Is No Longer Science Fiction

July 22, 2015

Authors Note:  After consideration and feedback,  I have pulled this post.  While I believe it offered compelling introspection, I also do not believe it was in the spirit of these articles.  While I broke the issue into component parts, it was more of an opinionated commentary than a starting point for conversation.



Confederate Flags: Separating Symbols from the Conflicting Underlying Values and Beliefs and How We Resolve Them.

July 14, 2015

How do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our

closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

There has been much heated conversation recently on the appropriateness of Confederate symbols, their role and place in society today. Notably, I was surprised by the political actions of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remove any state flag from the Capital Grounds that incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag. While politically advantageous for her, it is a federal overreach into States self-determining their own flag. This is different than the issue in South Caroline where the Confederate Army Battle Flag was flow separately from the South Carolina State Flag and was appropriately retired last Friday. (As an aside, it is not without precedence that non-US elements be incorporated into state flags; the Hawaiian state flag includes the British Union Jack showing the bond between the Native Hawaiians and the British government)

Unfortunately, by focusing on the symbol, we are overlooking a critical part of the discussion. Removing the symbol does not resolve the underlying tensions and conflict represented. Strongly held opinions and beliefs do not suddenly evaporate. There will still be Southerners that refer to the “War of Northern Aggression.” There are still racial tensions that exist through perceived and actual inequalities on both sides. That is the hard underlying issue that removing a flag does not settle. Perhaps now was a politically expedient time to achieve a long-time goal of some groups to do so—but that is not the item to explore here. Would the removal of the flag from the grounds of a state capital have suppressed online discussions groups where like-minded people discuss pro-confederacy beliefs and heritage. No. Further, suppressing the right to free speech and association would have only caused the discussions to occur in another way and violated free speech protections. It is unlikely that removing the flag would have averted the tragic shooting in South Carolina.

Placing this is sharp relief, it was not uncommon during the 1970s and 1980s for citizens to publicly burn US flags to express displeasure with government actions, policies or positions. The act of burning the flag, essentially removing a copy of it from existence, did not cause the source of conflict to go away. The tension of opposing views did not disappear: Vietnam, Middle Eastern conflicts, social issues, etc. The values the flag directly represents–and via association as a symbol of America the county’s values–did not disappear. Pushed further, the British 1814 sacking of Washington DC and burning of the United States flag reinforced American resolution and willingness to fight for the values the flag represented. The removal of the flag did not remove the deeply ingrained beliefs articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

The American Civil War showed ideological divisions between races, states and people within the United States. There are painful awkward moments in our individual and collective history. While not in any means attempting to compare them, ignoring them does not heal or resolve them. They still exist and shaped us as individuals and as a country. Further complicating an emotionally charged topic, symbols can take on ideologies that may not have been intended upon their inception as later causes borrow or otherwise revise the original belief.

Undoubtedly there will be discussions about the role family values did or did not have in the upbringing of the young man who murdered participants in a bible study. I believe that gets closer to the issue but is not the issue. It is not that any particular set of values, family or otherwise, are right or wrong. The crux is: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

We see this friction in another way today: American politicians and their mandates from increasingly homogenous constituencies politicians themselves created when favorably redrawing voting districts. Divisive monologues, not real conversation, ensue that fails to resolve the questions at hand but serves to further articulation of one’s beliefs. We see this on many topics: abortion, federal tax philosophies, foreign policy, social programs including health insurance subsidies. These are manifestations of the underlying beliefs and values of the participants.

These fights degrade into political procedural maneuvering, withholding funding for approved programs, grandstanding in public forums, and other political manipulations. Essentially it is a fight for one ideology to impose its will over another and achieve power and control. In American politics, the victory is to codify it in law and then protect it by influencing the judicial process through the selection of favorable nominees.

Again, this is not limited to just the United States. We see this same primal fight to impose one’s will and beliefs on another in other contexts internationally. In the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, with ISIS and ISIL we see the same actions clad in religious values. We see the same murders in houses of worship over differences in these beliefs manifested as shootings and bombings at mosques during religious services. There are the civil conflicts in Egypt and Syria, the Greek debt negotiations. It returns back to the same question: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

Maybe the first question is how does this resolve at the lowest common denominator in our lives with our spouses, children, friends, co-workers? Do we force our will on others? In what areas or topics? Do we open ourselves to listen to the other perspectives secure in the knowledge that the act of listening does not mean we abandon our own perspectives? Do you give a positive example for others to follow?

China’s Quandary: The Natural Forces Within a Stock Market

July 9, 2015

China’s Communist government, in an attempt to save face and promote predictability and harmony, is taking highly unusual, intrusive measures to fight free market forces as the total value of the Shanghai stock market drops. 1  There is much media hype—with the fervor and emotion one expects from a real-time sports commentator—about how devastating the losses are. Yes more than 3 Trillion, or 30%, of the total value of all companies traded on the Chinese Stock Exchange have been lost over the last month1 is a large number. Yet we need to put this in context to determine if it is unreasonable.

The buying and selling of stocks is essentially the trading of ownership stakes in a company. What someone is willing to pay for that ownership stake may be more than it is actually worth. A loss or drop in market value occurs when collectively people are willing to pay less for a stock than before. Sometimes this causes a snowball effect when, given the new price, (1) more people are willing to sell to avoid further paper or real losses, and (2) buyers are willing to pay less given more supply (those willing to sell) and a perception the price may fall further.

To substantiate this consider a stock’s price to earnings ratio. This common financial measure shows how much an investor is willing to pay based upon how profitable a firm is. Earlier this year stocks traded on the Chinese Stock Market had an average price to earnings ratio (P/E) of 50.2 This is well above historic market norms and is indicative of stocks being overvalued. (For a developed economy this would mean a company share fundamentally worth $10, could be trading on a stock market for $30-$40 a share). The natural course of events is the market will balance the actual, fundamental value of stock with what people are willing to pay for it. This is when sharp decreases (or increases) in the value of a stock or the stock market as a whole occurs. As I heard eloquently presented an Alliance Bernstein investor roundtable in the early 2000s (and had been attributed to many): “the most powerful financial force is regression to the [historic] mean.”

The vast majority, 85%,2 of stockholders in the Chinese stock market are retail investors (individuals) and not institutional investors (investment professionals). As such, the unreasonable prices and valuations paid for the stocks are determined principally by individuals. These investor, as a whole globally, tend to made more emotional buy/sell decisions and conduct less research than professionals. Given strict Chinese regulations that limit foreign ownership, much of this overvaluation and stock market volatility is from the local individual investors. This creates an unusual position for the Chinese culture: a people that values uniformity, predictability, and face are in a position where the natural order of supply and demand takes place because of the overvaluation of the prices of stocks. This runs in direct contrast to these values and communist philosophy and creates a conundrum.

The free market system, when free of corruption and manipulation is beautiful because it self-regulates. The inherent checks and balances are that people, of their own-free will, make the buy and sell decisions. Once there is government intervention, this natural balance is impeded as winners, losers and protected companies are chosen in a manipulative way. Failure to let a market correct itself is akin to collective disillusionment or lying. One could equate the current frenzy to the collective realization that the emperor actually has no clothes and an urgency to act on that truth. The government is claiming that “short-sellers”—those who made financial trades indicating a stock is overvalued and is expected to drop in value—are manipulating the stock market3 and causing the revaluation seems misguided. (In actually these trades are more likely bringing a degree of truth.) Essentially the Communist Party is taking actions to perpetuate the irrational values being paid for stock prices. (As an aside, while the United States and European Union have taken action to assist the markets, it was not in manipulating the price paid for a stock. The efforts, in part, lower the interest rates for money kept at or borrowed from banks to incent companies and individuals to spend or invest money instead of leave it in saving accounts not earning interest. That is a subject for another article)

Yet again the forgotten financial lessons may not have been relearned: Markets do not only go up. Revenues, net income and other fundamental financial measures do not only grow at increasing rates year over year. Markets, even the Chinese stock market, do not usually grow 100% a year. And lastly, the most powerful force in a stock market is regression to the historic mean.



  1. Webb, Quentin, “Trade halts add to China’s Potemkin market problem,” Reuters, retrieved 7/9/15,
  2. Shun, Samuel and Goh, Brenda, “China stock market freezing up as sell-off gathers pace,” Reuters, retrieved 7/8/15,
  3. Taplin, Nathaniel, “China points finger at ‘manipulators’ as shares slump again,” Reuters, retrieved 7/2/15,


Napkin Notes: American Voter Non-Binding Resolution on Congressional Compensation

June 15, 2015

The annual blizzard of annual shareholder voting and meeting announcements have been arriving.  Tucked within the annual Board of Director recommendations for electing or re-electing people I do not know to act on my behalf, is an increasing popular referendum: a non-binding shareholder vote on executive compensation.  The actual influence the vote will have I believe is as yet indeterminate.  What intrigues me is Congress approves its own pay each year.  Maybe the American people should formally have a non-binding opinion on congressional compensation each general election.

Today Congressional approval by the American public stands at 19% and above the all-time low of 9% in late 2013.

While pay may not be the primary motivating factor for politicians, a non-binding resolution in general elections in conjunction with individual and congressional approval ratings by an independent third-party may help with informed management our representatives.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”: Politicians and Social Security

April 14, 2015

Why should Social Security require means testing to determine payments as suggested by New Jersey Governor, and potential 2016 Presidential candidate, Chris Christie? (

The program was not established as a so called “entitlement program,” Republican code seemingly translating to a program that provides benefits to someone who did not pay for them.  Social Security follows a very specific formula: employees get annual statements from the agency that shows what benefits are to be received based upon mandatory payroll deductions and employer contributions.  (In the case of self-employment, the individual pays both).  These are not entitled benefits, they are earned and paid for and should not be subject to the political whims of potential presidential candidates vying for any attention 19 months before the next election.

What I find particular is a such an outspoken member who has viciously attacked the Democratic party spending on entitlement programs is suggesting that (1) Social Security is an entitlement program and (2) that there be a redistribution of that wealth through means testing.  How exactly should individuals who made contributions with the understanding that they would be returned under the program at a later time take this change to a contractual agreement with the United States Government?  Those monies are now forfeit?

The non-partisan Congressional Research Service, in publication RL33028, Social Security: The Trust Fund ( talks about how the program is financed.  Of note is this except on page 15:

“The Social Security Trust Fund and the Level of Federal Debt
As part of the annual congressional budget process, the level of federal debt (the federal debt limit) is set for the budget by Congress. The federal debt limit includes debt held by the public as well as the internal debt of the U.S. government (i.e., debt held by government accounts).  Borrowing from the public and the investment of the Social Security trust fund in special U.S. government obligations both fall under the restrictions of the federal debt limit. This means that the Social Security trust fund balance has implications for the federal debt limit.

This talks about how monies are borrowed from the Social Security trust fund in the form of internal government debt obligations.  Perhaps to deal with the inevitable expansions and contraction of the population receiving their earned benefits, there will need to be an inflow into the program instead of borrowings from it–instead of broken promises in the form of changing the earned benefit payout.  Since its design as a pay-as-you-go program works successfully when more are paying into the program than receiving earned benefits; now that the baby boomer generation is retiring the funding realities are apparent.  The question is will politicians address this rationally and within the public trust granted to them by those who income was promised to be returned?  Will politicians ignore their responsibility, by deferring and not making tough decisions.  If they choose the latter, I think a conversation about the generous Congressman pension plans that fully vest after only two years need to be examined since they would be unearned.  Lets make this article’s Cool Hand Luke quote crystal clear: politicians will break the word of the US Government and the trust of the American people by reallocating earned benefits

Related Common Clarity articles:

A Social Contact’s Promises and What is Our Word Worth?

What is an “Entitlement Program?” – Part One Social Security



Napkin Notes: US Strategic Interests in the Middle East

March 20, 2015

With great interest I have watched the recent row between Israel and the US as Prime Minister Netanyahu fought for his political life before Wednesday’s election.  Matt Spetalnick’s Reuter’s article today caught my attention with the following statement:

The goal of Palestinian statehood is a central principle of U.S. diplomacy going back decades.”

This sparks a series of questions for me:  Why is this a pillar?  What interest does this forward?  Would a two state solution truly contribute to regional stability?  Is stability the primary goal?



Spetalnick, Matt, “Obama tells Netanyahu U.S. to ‘reassess’ policy on Israel, Mideast diplomacy,” Reuters, March, 19, 2015. Retrieved from:

Foreign Affairs: Abuses of the Public Trust

March 11, 2015

Now before the Republicans begin to throw stones and claim impropriety trying to score points against a potential 2016 candidates over email accounts and record retention, a pause may be in order. The latest attempts to circumvent the US Constitution, knowingly invite foreign dignitaries to speak to Congress and intentionally circumventing the President of the United States are equally appalling, irresponsible and show reckless disregard.

Article Two of the US Constitution is very clear on this matter in Clause One:

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”

and Clause Four:

“The President receives all foreign Ambassadors”

It is not the responsibility of the legislative body, whose powers as the country’s law making body is clearly defined in Article One, to execute or conduct the affairs of the country. Nowhere in Article One Section Eight of the US Constitution (Powers of Congress) is the Legislative Branch responsible for executing foreign affairs. It is an improper stretch to claim that by ratifying treaties executed and negotiated by the Executive Branch, Legislators have the right to insert themselves in foreign affairs and negotiations.

Further writing open letters–as political and business figures commonly do to national periodicals–is another inappropriate and unacceptable meddling into the execution of foreign affairs. Quibbling over legality and whether or not the inclusions or exclusion of their official titles is appropriate or causes undue influence, it is without question against the spirit of the Constitution and an abuse of the people’s trust.

For the political party that promised to bring leadership to Washington DC, it is definitely neither Ethical Leadership nor unquestionably, ethically above board.

By directly circumventing the President, or his designee within the Executive Branch, is grossly overstepping its authority. More grievously, this is occurring during rampant dysfunction within and between both chambers of Congress which is stymied and resorts to procedural slight-of-hand to make halting progress. Rudimentary legislation that funds and provides the appointments and framework for the Executive Branch to then manage the country’s day-to-day affairs languishes.

Congress may be better focused on actually processing, negotiating the finalizing the legislation before it, the business it is responsible for, prior to inappropriately interjecting itself into other areas of related concern but where no responsibility is had.

What is concerning is the theatrics being offered by the US Congress may well compete with Greece’s own domestic and international drama in some horrible Saturday Night Live spoof of the Academy Awards. The embarrassing climax is I am unsure which would win.

There is a good op-ed piece by Elizabeth Cobb Hoffman (no relation) that delves further into the constitutional aspects

Political Calculus: Commentary on American-Cuban Relationships and Rome

January 5, 2015

President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba shows a cunning piece of calculated politics. Announced after the November elections and before the Republicans take control of both houses of Congress, it creates a dilemma for Republicans.  While the president has authorization to establish diplomatic ties, Congressional approval is required to lift the embargo.  Attempts by Congress to reverse course will probably infuriate and frustrate the minority voters empowered by the reestablishment of ties.  Statisticians and pollsters will assess what material affect the renewed times will have on the 2016 presidential election in this critically conflicted and contested state.

The political posturing has already begun:

Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American Republican, will be incoming chair of a key Senate Foreign Relations panel and said he was committed to doing all he could to “unravel” the plan. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both set to hold senior foreign policy positions, said the policy shift reflected “America and the values it stands for in retreat and decline.”1

It is not a large extension to see a Democratic Party response that spins this as a return to strong-arm George W. H. Bush era isolationist thinking.  Undoubtedly much sports-game-like debate for TV personalities will ensue. My sense is the more this is fought, the more favorable the outcome for the Democratic party.

What puzzles me is why there is such adamant opposition to establishing an official mechanism for official communications between countries? While the negotiation of diplomatic privileges can be a diplomatic tool in and of itself, just because an official communicate channel exists, does not mean America will agree to or capitulate on every point raised by Cuba. (As opposed to self-serving TV soundbytes by non-involved, under-informed politicians from both parties that are not official US government communications or positions.  It appears to be another example of politicians trying to unduly force influence over the Executive Branch which Constitutionally holds that responsibility and the State Department which enacts it.)

Isolation with Iran and North Korea does not appear to reach the desired ends. It would be intriguing to understand the nuanced reasoning as to why a lack of official diplomatic channels is part of the United States’s strategic interest? For example the communication between President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis assisted with its resolution.

Rome’s Involvement

This does offer an insight into the thinking of Pope Francis–his interest in both Latin and South America and his willingness to become actively involved establishing reconciliation and world peace. It does cause one to speculate what other conversations are being faciliated elsewhere in the world; more likely in the Russia / Ukraine conflict, less likely in the Korean standoff or with China given the religious proclivities of those countries.

As a parting thought, in hindsight, it was curious that negotiations and communications were keep secret for the purported 18 months.  With the crossing of a non-responsive US based private plane in Cubian airspace( that this (1) was not considered an incursion by Cuba and (2) occurred during these negotiations and (3) raised little public discourse on the matter that involved a degree of inter-county communication and trust.  I sense the response may have been different two or three years ago.



  1. Reuters, “U.S., Cuba restore ties after 50 years,” December 17, 2014. Retrieved December 17, 2014.