Archive for July, 2015

On the Prairie

One of the joys of the last year is having read the “Little House on the Prairie” book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder with my youngest son.  De Smet, South Dakota is the “little town on the prairie,” Laura’s home for the last five books.  This summer we had a chance to visit De Smet while I traveled with my sons back to see family in South Dakota.

The piece of the prairie the Ingalls family settled as their homestead

The piece of the prairie the Ingalls family settled as their homestead

I admit, I love being in Maine.  It is a beautiful state with wonderful people and everything from magnificent mountains to some of the most gorgeous ocean coastlines in the world.  However, this summer when we headed West for vacation, I found myself feeling at home in the wide open prairie, the part of the country in which I grew up.

If you’ve never read the “Little House” series, you should – the books are as meaningful for adults as children, perhaps more so.  By today’s standards Laura’s parents were reckless, putting the family in danger by penetrating into the West, away from the safety of civilization.  Wolves, blizzards, crop failures, prairie fires and outlaws threatened their existence constantly.

Reading as a child the books were magical – one wanted to jump into the book and be with them, confronting a badger in Minnesota, or even weaving straw together as emergency fuel when the trains from Tracy MN couldn’t make it to DeSmet in the infamous winter of 1880-81.  Reading as an adult one sees that they were very poor – often barely holding on – living a precarious existence.  In a world where parents now can be jailed if they let a ten year old play alone in a near by park, Laura and her sisters were often on their own, watching the house and responsible.

Outside of Laura's old De Smet school

Outside of Laura’s old De Smet school

Being here, breathing the prairie air, remembering what it was like growing up about an hour and a half away in Sioux Falls, I realize that these northern plains still carry that sense of pioneering, freedom and the desire not to be constrained. Laura’s Pa thought South Dakota was getting too full and wanted to continue to move West, seeking solitude and total freedom.  Caroline, however, said De Smet was it, and they stayed until they died.  Laura and Almanzo would ultimately end up in Missouri.

The books are still remarkable.  They also inspired really good conversations with my son.  For instance, when they confront Indians we closed the book and talked a bit about how basically our ancestors came in and stole the land.  Why didn’t they think it was stealing, what was happening?  Rather than painting history as black and white, it has shades of grey and different perspectives.

The trip also included a visit to Target field as the Twins beat the O's 5-3, with back to back homeruns by Dozier and Mauer.

The trip also included a visit to Target field as the Twins beat the O’s 5-3, with back to back homeruns by Dozier and Mauer.

This year I got Directv’s baseball package to be able to watch every Twins game.  My youngest has become an avid Twins fan watching the games with me, and we were able to enjoy seeing a Twins game as well.   Target Field is magnificent, and my youngest got a shirt with the name of Arcia (#31) as a souvenir.  To be sure, Oswaldo Arcia has been sent down to Rochester AAA, but Dana didn’t care – he’s still one of his favorite players!

Beyond that we got to go boating with my family down on the Missouri river near the Ft. Randall dam, and also caught some baseball in Sioux Falls – the Sioux Falls Canaries vs. the Saint Paul Saints.  A great trip – but we’re back in New England now.  Still, there’s something special about the northern prairie!

Tubing on the Missouri

Tubing on the Missouri

Even a nine year old can drive the golf cart (and no, they're not drinking beer)

Even a nine year old can drive the golf cart (and no, they’re not drinking beer)

At a Sioux Falls Canaries game!

At a Sioux Falls Canaries game!

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Congress Can’t Stop the Iran Agreement


One of my favorite classes to teach is American Foreign Policy, since there are always current event issues present that provide examples of the concepts and ideas of the course.   Last spring the US Congress voted itself the power to potentially disapprove the deal with Iran.   I used that as a way to talk about institutional power within the US government and with global institutions.  Everything played out pretty much as I predicted.

The class had a number of liberals, many of whom were angry at Republicans for trying to mess up Presidential diplomacy, especially after Senator Tom Cotton circulated a letter signed by 47 Republicans notifying Iran that since the deal isn’t a treaty but an executive agreement, the next President can simply choose not to follow it.  Is that true?

Yes, it is.  Executive agreements historically outnumber treaties by nearly 20 to 1 since the bar for passing a treaty is so high:  2/3 of the Senate.  In fact, until 1973 the President didn’t even have to notify Congress of executive agreements!   If President Obama signs this, then it is not binding on the next President.   The next question: then how can Congress give themselves power to disapprove it?

Due to the separation of powers, Corker never really had a chance to use Congress to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran

Due to the separation of powers, Corker never really had a chance to use Congress to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran

Because part of the agreement involves removing sanctions which the Congress has the power to nix.  That gives them the capacity to intervene and try to thwart the agreement.   “So,” one of the more liberal students said, “that means that the Republicans can prevent a global agreement to limit Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons and thereby push us to war.  Great.”

“Not so fast,” I responded.  “Here’s the scenario:  Senator Corker wanted Congress to have final say on the deal – that approval would require Congressional action.  He could not get enough Democrats on board for that, so instead Congress only has the power to disapprove.  If they do that, President Obama could veto that disapproval and opponents of the deal would need 67 Senators on their side to override the veto.  That means a number of Democrats would have to oppose it.”

“But even that won’t stop the deal.   If there is a deal, nothing Congress does can prevent it from becoming reality due to the nature of the separation of powers.”

This is a global deal, backed by the UN Security Council and the EU.  They don't need to listen to the US Congress.

This is a global deal, backed by the UN Security Council and the EU. They don’t need to listen to the US Congress.

That brought puzzled looks from students, so I continued, “Note that this is a UN Security Council negotiation, not a bilateral US-Iranian deal.  That means the US would be just one party to the agreement.  If a deal is signed, it will quickly become a Security Council resolution, meaning that the international sanctions regime the US helped put in place will end.  Russia, China, the EU and the rest of the world will start to do business with Iran.  If the US Congress disapproves the agreement, that only keeps US sanctions in place – and that probably would hurt the US more than Iran!  Moreover, the US would lose clout in how to enforce and maintain the agreement, if we are not party to it.”

In other words, since the UN Ambassador is part of the executive branch of government, Congress has no influence over how the US votes in the Security Council.   That’s Obama’s trump card – if a deal is reached, there really is nothing Congress can do, the sanctions regime will end regardless of how the Congress votes.   And that’s exactly how things are playing themselves out!


A Greek Tragedy?


It wasn’t supposed to be like this.  When Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party won in January, he vowed to keep Greece in the Eurozone, but end the austerity programs the Greeks had been suffering through for nearly five years.   There was skepticism, but early on signs pointed to the possibility of a new deal.  Greece still had to maintain austerity and reform its system, but the EU would work out a way to make it less painful.

Despite some brinksmanship and harsh give and takes, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker seemed optimistic, sympathetic to Tsipras and the Greek predicament.

Then the tone changed.   Last week Juncker was visibly angry, claiming Tsipras was lying to his people.   Headlines asked “Is Tsipras crazy?”   Insiders say he made promises he later did not keep, said Greece would do things and then backed down.  You don’t do that in the EU – the heads of government form a close knit group and while they may disagree heavily at times, the one rule is to be up front and keep your word.  Tsipras seems to have broken that rule.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was his sudden call for a referendum, to be held Sunday July 5, on whether or not Greece should accept the conditions imposed by the EU.  That violated the shared understanding of what the process would be, and seemed to come from nowhere.  EU leaders felt betrayed.

So what gives?   Are we on the verge of a “Grexit?”   What would that mean?  It’s a complicated situation so I’ll simply offer seven points.

Last week's bank closures gave the Greeks a taste of what default would mean

Last week’s bank closures gave the Greeks a taste of what default would mean

1.   Tsipras is in over his head.   It appears that while he may have been willing to reach a deal, his party balked.   They are a left wing anti-establishment movement with no qualms about leaving the capitalist EU.  He realized he couldn’t get the parliament to agree to any deal without relying on votes from the opposition, which would likely force him to call new elections.  Under pressure, he improvised, called for the referendum and hoped European leaders would panic and accept Greek positions.  They didn’t.

In 1914 German Kaiser Wilhelm II realized that the decision to invade France via Belgium was wrong and ordered the trains to turn around and come back.  But it was too late – he had already gone too far.  Tsipras is in a similar situation.

Merkel needs Finance Minister Schaeuble's support to get a deal through the Bundestag

Merkel needs Finance Minister Schaeuble’s support to get a deal through the Bundestag

2.  Angela Merkel is facing the toughest dilemma of her ten year Chancellorship.   Tsipras believed that a deal would be reached because he knows Merkel desperately wants one.   Ironically, the Greeks were relying on the Germans to make a deal happen.

Merkel’s commitment to the Euro and the EU is absolute.  She sees the EU as not primarily about trade or economics, but European peace and security.  Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has real gravitas in the CDU, Merkel’s party.   He was in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet as early as 1984, when Merkel was still a scientist in East Germany.   He also believes fervently in the Euro, but disagrees with Merkel’s desire to keep Greece in the Eurozone at any cost.  He thinks the Eurozone without Greece will be stronger.  She wants a deal but Schauble’s wing of the party will only support it if it makes economic sense – in other words, if it’s not too generous to Greece.  With Tsipras acting up, she has no choice but to say no deal.

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis says he will resign if the yes side wins Sunday, signaling that Syriza's government needs a no vote to survive

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis says he will resign if the yes side wins Sunday, signaling that Syriza’s government needs a no vote to survive

3.  Sunday’s vote is big.  Polls show the “yes” vote (accept the bailout conditions from the EU) to be leading, but only slightly.  If it passes, then Tsipras’ government will likely fall and new elections will be held.  The chances of a Greek-EU deal will greatly improve.  If the vote is “no,” Tsipras will try to restart negotiations, but it’ll be difficult.  He’s lost the trust and respect of his fellow leaders and they’re hinting that any post-referendum conditions might be harsher.  Still, most want Greece not to leave the Eurozone, so a late deal is possible.

4.  One reason Tsipras has such a weak position is that no one is fearing contagion.  In fact, if Italy, Spain and Portugal see Eurozone leaders willing to kiss Greece goodbye, they’re more likely to continue their reform programs, recognizing that it is their only real option.  If this had happened in 2012 it would be a very different story.

5.  Even in default, a Grexit is not inevitable.  The chaos last week when Greek banks closed show show that the Greeks are playing with a dangerous fire.  A return to the drachma doesn’t just mean that the Greeks could use monetary policy to stimulate the economy, it also means that politicians could go back to the kind of corrupt shenanigans that caused this problem in the first place.  Greece would fall behind many former Soviet bloc countries in economic well being.  The consequences of default for the European and global banking system as well as for Greece means that no one is going to rush to the Euro exit.

Years of economic mismanagement leave the Greeks with no good choices

Years of economic mismanagement leave the Greeks with no good choices

6.  A Greek Tragedy?   The frustrating thing is that a Grexit is irrational, against the interests of both the Greeks and the EU leaders.  This is the kind of situation where a compromise must be possible, both sides want it desperately.  Yet the way it’s playing itself out, with Tsipras’ ineptitude, anger in both camps, chaos in Greece, a snap referendum, and the inability of Tsipras to lead his own party, it’s possible everything will come undone.  People will look back and say “how could they have let that happen?”

7.  To end on a point of optimism:  Greece won’t likely leave the EU even if it were to leave the Eurozone, and the EU and the Eurozone aren’t themselves in danger.  Under the adage “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” handling a Grexit would demonstrate the capacity to survive a crisis.   Moreover, blame is on the Greeks – no one could say the EU didn’t try hard to reach a deal.

My prediction: a narrow “yes” victory on Sunday, followed by a deal and new elections in Greece.  But don’t take that to the bank (they’re closed in Greece anyway).   Anything can happen!

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