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Ryan Beck
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Attended Iowa State University
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Ryan Beck

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First round of homemade ornaments!
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Thanks! It might be my favorite as well.
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The most important part of being the coolest dog on the planet is having the right pair of shades.
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Bothans -- because the Star Wars universe needs red shirts too.
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Alright, so I've seen this post going around on Facebook, and I've also seen a lot of people talking about the officer flipping the high school student out of her desk. Regarding this post, the procedure followed by this guy is great, and being respectful and polite is always good advice. Here's the problem though. The post is kind of implying that if you are not perfect model citizen when dealing with the police that you somehow deserve whatever it is that happens to you. We are all well aware that all of the incidents in the news between police and civilians, both black and white, involve some sort of disobedience by the civilians. No one is suggesting that police officers are pulling over and executing black civilians who are behaving perfectly. The problem is that when a civilian makes a mistake, whether they are purposefully misbehaving or whether they just had a lapse of good judgement, this does not mean that they get whatever is coming to them. Civilians are expected to make mistakes, and we wouldn't need police officers if every civilian was a perfect citizen. We pay police officers to uphold the law, protect citizens, and to protect themselves. To perform these duties their job is to take necessary actions to either take people who are misbehaving into custody, or if civilian or officer's lives are in danger they must subdue the threat, by taking whatever action is required based on the level of the threat. Nothing more. It is not in their duties to be judge and jury. We have a legal system for a reason, and that is to ensure beyond a reasonable doubt that suspect is guilty and that the punishment is fair.

So what that means is that if someone murders hundreds of people and becomes subdued, police officers are not justified in beating, maiming, or killing that person if they are no longer a threat. No matter how much the public thinks the individual may deserve to be beaten, maimed, or killed, that is not up to them to decide. This is the issue we are seeing, somehow misbehavior by civilians is being seen as making them deserving of whatever action the officer used. Mouthing off, having a bad attitude, or being disrespectful are not punishable by beatings in our criminal justice system. Running from the police is not a death sentence.

The girl in the classroom was obviously being extremely disrespectful and apparently she was being disruptive of the class and needed to be removed. That's fine. However, this behavior does not warrant being flipped out of your desk and dragged across the floor. This is not a reasonable response to the situation at hand. I've heard people ask what else he should have done. I don't have police training, I don't know what other options he had. But if flipping a teenagers out of a desk and dragging her across the floor is the only thing they are trained to do then there is something seriously wrong with the training.

We can have both better protection for police officers and demand better accountability and transparency. These things are not mutually exclusive.
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Yeah it's been extremely aggravating seeing this get shared so much on Facebook as if it is saying something profound.
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I wonder if people in the future will look favorably on people like Al Sharpton. We forget when looking back in history that MLK had personal issues. It seems that he had many extramarital affairs, something which the FBI tried to use to threaten him into quitting his campaign for equal rights. He was hated by many white people, his house was firebombed and he was assassinated. I could imagine at the time people called him a "race baiter" or thought he was just trying to stir up a race war. History tends to find leaders within movements to focus on, and it generally focuses more on their public works than their private lives. The present tends to find leaders within movements and criticize their personal lives as a way of discrediting their public statements. It'll be interesting to see how the present is covered by future history books.
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A few days ago, I posted about the history of redlining, [1] the system of government-operated housing discrimination which both manufactured ghettos and systematically robbed the black community from 1937 until 1968. (Unofficial redlining continued well beyond that) 

I mentioned in that article that this had been part of a system of extracting wealth from the nascent black middle class and moving it to white hands, but the full scale of the effect may not have been obvious. Fortunately, just yesterday Rakesh Kochar and Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center published a short data analysis of wealth inequality by race [2] which helps see what happened here.

The most important thing to remember is that income is not the same as wealth. Wealth is important, because it represents money you have access to in case of an emergency: you could, for example, take out a HELOC or mortgage against your house. As many threads have discussed before, "how much money you could get in an emergency" is probably the single best way to measure people's real financial security, because it's the metric most closely tied to the way in which money affects your life.

For example, if you have an unexpected car breakdown that costs $500 to fix, and you have $500, it's a pain in the ass but ultimately not a big deal. If you don't have $500, then you have to take out some kind of loan which imposes a long-term cost – i.e., not a loan you can pay off quickly. That long-term cost, in turn, reduces your ability to handle the next emergency, so you'll end up needing more such loans, etc., etc. Generally, a measure of how financially stable you are is how big of a financial shock you could take before getting dragged into such a death spiral. 

For those of you who have been following the Ferguson case, or similar ones across the country, one of the key ways in which the local police routinely extorted the population was to set up traffic fines or similar "minor" costs which had various extra fees attached, up to the point where the average black resident could no longer afford them – which would drag people into debt spirals. [3]

This has a far more sinister history: after the end of the Civil War, a "New Slavery" system was instituted based on that interesting loophole in the 13th Amendment which allowed servitude "as punishment for a crime." Black people would be arrested on trivial charges or on none at all ("Vagrancy" was a particularly popular one for years), and fined a nominal amount ($5) plus decidedly non-nominal "court fees." These would tend to total between $80 and $120, far more than a typical black farmer or worker would have on hand in the 1870's. (These numbers increased with inflation, of course) If the person couldn't pay on the spot, a (white) business representative would then show up and offer to pay off their debt in exchange for them working at their factory, farm, or mine, and the victim would be packaged off and sent to hard labor. Often, this entire negotiation happened without the people arrested even being involved; they were simply rounded up, told they had been convicted, and sent off to mines, where the conditions were indistinguishable from slavery, down to the whips, the lack of food, and the overseers. 

This was no coincidence: it became a major economic engine of not just the South, but soon afterwards the North as well, in the period from 1865 to 1943. [4]

In 1934, one of the key programs of the New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration, was created to help Americans buy and keep homes, and in doing so build a reserve of personal wealth. Its charter explicitly included racial segregation: its job was to help white Americans, and white Americans only. The redlining system was created and operated by the FHA. 

But it was far from the only such program. The key programs which created the great American middle class in the postwar period – the GI Bill, the various housing programs, and the mortgage tax exemption that went with them [5] – explicitly excluded nonwhite citizens. So the entire boom that moved people from Depression-era poverty to 1950's era comfort, to the wealth of the present day, was segregated and available only to some Americans.

And what's the result? The graph below shows the median net worth of American households over the past 30 years. The line at the top shows white families; you can see a steady rise over the 1990's and early 2000's, and a major hit in 2008 thanks to the Great Recession.

The two tiny lines at the bottom are black and Hispanic families. Not only do these curves show none of that big rise over the 1990's, they are literally an order of magnitude lower. That difference is hugely tied to differences in home ownership rates, but quite generally, the fraction of white Americans who have some sort of money in the bank is hugely greater than the fraction for non-white Americans.

That's the impact of not just 300 years of slavery (which created a large population that was freed with nothing but the clothes on their backs), but 150 years of systematic plunder afterwards: each financial gain made by black families was quickly taken away, through everything from the shady loans created in the shadow of redlining to systems like Ferguson's "traffic courts."

Remember the basic rule: it takes money to make money. That's not just true when you're investing millions of dollars; if you don't have the money to get a nice set of clothes, you can't interview as well. If you're homeless, and can't even receive mail? You're screwed. If you can get a job, but the first car breakdown or failure of day care gives you a choice between losing the job and going into a debt spiral, then what happens with the second one?

That's the underlying mechanism behind the graph below. The trick is that, when people are already poor, taking a small amount from them has a much bigger impact, and keeps them from ceasing to be poor. 

One way to think of it is this: Imagine we have two people, Alice and Bob, who each get the same income – say, $100 per month after expenses. Alice has $100 in the bank; Bob has $1,000. Each month, there's a 50% chance of an unexpected $250 expense. 

Say that in the first month, they both crap out and get hit with an expense. Alice is now $50 in debt ($100 + $100 - $250), and Bob has $850. The next month everything goes fine, but Alice has to pay $5 in interest, so she ends the month with $45, while Bob has $950. The third month, they're hit again; Alice now has $105 in debt, and Bob has $800. Now we have another good month; Alice is now $15 in debt ($10 interest) and Bob is at $900.

But this isn't really realistic: the problem isn't interest so much as foregone opportunity. Say that this next month, they both have a chance to invest: maybe to get an apartment with better rent but an up-front deposit. They would each have the opportunity to pay $200 now, and then get an extra $50 per month. What a deal!

Except Alice needs the money to buy food, because she doesn't have access to unlimited credit. (Or you can think of their wealth as including access to credit, instead of just dollars in the bank) So at the end of this month, Alice is $45 in debt and makes $100 per month, while Bob has $700 and makes $150 per month.

You can guess what's going to happen next: that extra $150 per month will add up, and Bob will have opportunities to grab many other investments that Alice will have to pass up on by spending some of his buffer. Each investment increases Bob's average income, which in turn gives him more buffer, while Alice's buffer never grows.

Fast-forward that 50 years, and you have the graph below.


[2] . My thanks to Richard Fry for sending me the raw data, so that I could plot this on linear axes and show you three different racial groups stacked up together. The data here comes from the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, .

[3] As detailed in the Justice Department's report, ; see pages 42ff in particular.

[4] I highly encourage you to read more about this. The best book (by far) on the subject is Douglas Blackmon's Slavery By Another Name, , which is probably the single most useful book for understanding 20th-century American politics and economics out there.

The conditions were indistinguishable from slavery because they were, in fact, slavery: people were also routinely bought and sold, and the servitude was effectively for life, since tricks were used ranging from charging them (more than they earned) for their food and lodging, to simply re-arresting anyone who got out within 24 hours, to simply not bothering with even a pretense and just keeping people there for good. 

[5] for its history. This was actually created in the 1890's, but didn't affect a majority of Americans until programs like the FHA made home ownership and mortgages common in the 1950's.
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I often have a kind of chicken and the egg argument with people I know about whether it is culture or racism and poverty that came first. The huge problem I have with culture arguments is that it seems to be making the racist argument that black culture just randomly imploded, implying that there is some flaw with black people that led to the current poverty numbers. The other problem with that argument is that it's basically an out, a way of saying black people need to fix their culture and no one else needs to change. If you logically look at the history and racism that occurred every step of the way it is pretty obvious to me that black people were driven into poverty through practices like below. Poverty is extremely hard to escape, especially when you are discriminated against, so these poor areas have persisted. I'm not really sure why this isn't obvious to everyone.
You may have heard of "redlining" as a method of not only enforcing racial segregation in the US, but as a systematic method of taking wealth away from the nascent black middle class in the 20th century: the Federal Housing Administration, set up to help Americans get housing in 1934, routinely surveyed every residential tract in the country and classified them according to "risk." Areas with black populations, or which might soon acquire black populations, were marked in red; those areas could not get ordinary home loans at all, with only highly predatory loans (of sorts as bad as the subprime ones of the past few years, and even worse) available.

This was the engine for any number of scams: "blockbusting," for example, in which a realtor would convince the residents of a neighborhood that black families were about to move in, get them to sell at a discount before prices crashed, then actually bring said black families in and sell to them at outrageous prices, because they could only get special high-interest loans. Often, these loans were rigged so that they could never be successfully paid off, allowing the sellers to seize both the houses and all of the mortgage payments over the years; this is one of the major reasons why black wealth (as opposed to income) is, on the average, only one tenth of average white wealth.

But these seem like general abstractions. The scan below, unearthed by Alexis Madrigal, shows you what it looked like in practice: this is a government assessment of a tract in Oakland in 1937. It describes the tract's "favorable influences" as "convenience to local and San Francisco transportation, schools, and local shopping districts. Good climatic conditions." The "detrimental influences" are "Infiltration of colored residents. There are now about twelve families scattered over the area indicated."

If you look at the rest of the form, you'll see that under the description of "inhabitants," not only are there fields to describe common occupations and salaries in the area, but the percent foreign-born, and a field marked "Infiltration of ___". ("Orientals & Negroes," in this case) But they note that "unless one knows about the colored families living in the district, there is no means of distinguishing their homes from those of their white neighbors. The homes of the Negroes are in many instances better kept than the adjoining homes of white owners."

Nonetheless, "loans in this area should be governed according to hazard" – that is, this area was color-coded red on the map, due to the hazard of further "infiltration."

This wasn't a private organization; this was an official government form, used by a federal agency to ensure that black people could not get loans, and that any neighborhoods with black people in them would quickly become worthless from a housing perspective to anybody white: that is, to legally create ghettos.

So if you're wondering how the economics of the US, and of black poverty, came about: here's where it starts.

If you want to know more about redlining, there are a few great places to start: the Wikipedia article,

Alexis Madrigal's article about it:

and Ta-Nehisi Coates' famous "reparations" article, which is actually almost entirely about redlining as well:
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I'm sad to hear that people, and some US states, are wanting to send away or refuse to accept Syrian refugees. I understand there are risks, but refusing the refugees is what Da'esh wants. Is all of the talk about being brave and carrying on in response to this disaster just talk? In my opinion refusing the refugees is pretty much telling Da'esh that they win, that they have succeeded in breaking our spirit with their terrible acts.
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Well said, and the article in footnote one about the term Da'esh is very interesting. I'll have to do a better job of using that term in the future.
Twenty-four hours after an attack by Da'esh (the organization formerly known as ISIS [1]) on Paris left 129 dead and 352 wounded, the Internet and the airwaves alike have been filled with profound waves of self-serving nonsense and stupidity from left and right alike. Everyone seems to have found a way in which this situation justifies their position – protect the refugees! Exile the refugees! Bomb someone! Stop all bombing of anyone! – and magically, it seems that one of the most complex political situations of our time can be reduced to simple slogans.

Well, I've run out of patience with this, so let me seriously discuss what just happened here, and what it tells us. I'm going to talk about three things which have combined to lead to yesterday's massacre: the refugee crisis, Europe's Muslim population, and Da'esh. I'll then talk about a few things which I think have little or nothing to do with what we're seeing – most importantly, religion and oil – and a few things which do – such as food and water. And finally, we'll talk about what it's going to take to fix this, both in the short term and the long term.

Being entirely out of patience right now, forgive me for being particularly blunt. I suspect that, by the end of this, you will be thoroughly offended by my opinions, whether you are American, European, or Middle Eastern, left or right: nobody has behaved well in the lead-up to this.

The first thing to realize about the refugees streaming into Europe from Syria and its environs is that not only are they not, by and large, terrorists – they're people fleeing these exact terrorists. France was just hit by Da'esh, with over five hundred casualties; in Syria, people are surrounded by Da'esh on one side, and a bloodthirsty army on the other side, and have been seeing death on the scale of yesterday's attack every single day for the past four and a half years. [2] If you were living there, you would very likely be fleeing, too.

But the second thing to realize about the refugees is that there are, in fact, Da'esh members among them. It's clear that at least one of the attackers came in from Syria as part of October's refugee flood, and there's no reason at all not to believe that quite a few more are among them, working both at short- and long-term goals. (More on which in a moment)

Everyone seems to have simplistic solutions, here: kick out all the Muslims (as America's Ann Coulter and Donald Trump suggest), settle the refugees more permanently, build giant prison camps. These solutions tend to miss a few very basic points:

(1) When you have hundreds of thousands of people who are quite literally willing to risk not only their deaths, but the deaths of their families, in order to escape, your odds of being able to keep them out aren't actually great, unless your plan is to mobilize a giant army and start attacking inward until they're fleeing in the opposite direction.

(2) You do not have enough prison camp capacity to handle this many people, nor could you build it. Nor do you have enough housing and residential infrastructure capacity to easily settle this many people, because the flux you're seeing out of Syria is very far from the end of it. 

This is why large regional disasters quickly tend to spread into adjacent regions. This is why it's important not to let regional disasters get out of hand, no matter how politically appealing isolationism may appear.

The second thing to be aware of is that this didn't happen in a vacuum: Europe has a very large Muslim population, and it seems that most of the attackers were French or Belgian citizens. This started out with Europe's colonial ambitions, back in the day: France, for example, ruled over Algeria with a mind-bogglingly bloodthirsty approach [3] for decades, but now has a large population of people with a right to French residence who have been moving in to the country in search of a better economic situation. (Hardly surprising, when you leave behind a colony wracked by a horrifying civil war for decades) And France is far from alone in this.

Europe's Muslim population is both profoundly European and profoundly not European. They are European in that they have been living there, often for more than a generation; they work there, they pay taxes, they have become as assimilated as they can. They are not European in that Europe has been profoundly unwilling to allow them to assimilate. This is far from a historical anomaly: Europe has historically defined itself in terms of villages or cities and their local populations, which one can't really join very easily. Groups marked as outsiders – be they Jews, Romany, or Muslims – have been considered only marginally European. At times, there has been a high degree of apparent assimilation: for example, Jews were thoroughly integrated into European culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, intermarrying, forming friendships and professional associations across the board. As you may notice, "thorough integration" can be an awfully chancy business. 

Muslims in today's Europe, on the other hand, don't have anything close to this superficial level of integration; France has been routinely passing laws banning Muslims from dressing the way they did in their home countries in the past few years, which should tell you a great deal about local opinions of that population.

So you have a large population who finds it systematically hard to find work, impossible to be accepted, the regular target of police, and told every day that they should probably be kicked out of the country. I'm sure you will find it shocking that, if you do this to a few tens of millions of people for a few decades at a stretch, you will end up with a disillusioned and disenfranchised youth, some of which will combine this with the general hot-headedness and stupidity of being a young adult to become easy fodder for people who have shown up to recruit.

Lots of people seem to have half-assed solutions here, and they tend to be even more foolish than the solutions to the refugee crisis. "Send them back," the European right frequently cries: back to where? Most of the Muslim population is no longer fresh immigrants; they are second and third generation Europeans. They don't have homes anywhere else. The European left, on the other hand, preaches a mealymouthed combination of urging assimilation and unmistakeable racism. 

For some context, go back to the Charlie Hebdo attacks several months ago. There was a large outcry, saying that what the magazine (a notable left-wing satirical organ) had been doing was entirely in the bounds of proper satire, that the satire of religion was a hallowed European tradition. What this explanation glosses over is that nobody on the receiving end of the satire saw it as satire of religion, for the simple reason that religious affiliation, in Europe as in the Middle East, has little to do with what you believe and much to do with who you are. Charlie Hebdo's targets weren't simply religious extremists preaching from Saudi mosques; they were a portrayal of the French Muslim population as violent extremists, the dangerous other. And that's precisely the European left-wing line: Muslims are fine, so long as they become completely European, to the extent that we can forget that they were ever from someone else. Which, realistically, might mean they have to intermarry for a few generations and acquire blue eyes and blond hair, but that's OK, we welcome them!

The honest fact is this: neither the European left nor the right have ever made the large Muslim community into a full part of society. One side has covered it in nice words, while the other side has blared its xenophobia from the rooftops, but nobody on the receiving end of either of these has been fooled.

You sow the wind, you reap the whirlwind. What did you expect was going to happen?

And then we come over to our friends in the Middle East, the psychotically bloodthirsty bastards of Da'esh itself. It's a bit off to even refer to them as Islamist extremists in the mold of al-Qaeda; they've gone so far off the rails of Islam that the only clear ideology that often seems left is power and murder. Exhortations from theologians of any stripe aren't really going to have an effect on them.

But they seem to have realized that they are on an upswing of power, nobody having the resources or will to stop them, and have come up with the idea of spreading this worldwide, with attacks spreading to places like Russia and France – and, as soon as they can, everywhere else. Because as far as anyone can tell, they want to take over the world.

(Yes, this is a kind of screwy plan, and they barely even control chunks of land in the ass end of Syria and Iraq. But they've had enough luck with killing people that they seem to have convinced themselves that if they engage in even more killing people, it'll continue to work just as well. [4])

They seem to have one fairly simple strategic objective with these new attacks: drive a hard wedge between Muslim and infidel populations around the world, so that the Muslims will have no choice but to join them and become their army, overthrowing the local governments and establishing a world-wide Caliphate.

Unfortunately, political stupidity seems likely to help them. If the response to these attacks is to further isolate Muslim populations – both settled and refugee – then they will certainly have a far easier time recruiting among them. It's not actually going to lead to them taking over the world, but it will lead to bloodshed.

This recruitment tends to take a few forms. One is to recruit fighters to come and help in the bloodshed in existing battlefields; the second is to recruit suicide bombers and the like in other countries. These are somewhat disjoint processes, since the process of recruiting someone to commit suicide is rather different and targets different sorts of people, but there is also overlap: one strategy which al-Qaeda long favored was to recruit people to come to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Chechnya to fight, and later export trained fighters elsewhere.

One important thing about these tactics is that they seem to be realizing that surprisingly little training and planning is required. Yesterday's attack required some coordination among teams, but nothing spectacular; it did require practice in gunplay. But even this was fairly complex compared to the bare minimum required; consider the amount of chaos caused by the D.C. Sniper back in 2002.

Da'esh poses a particular danger because they seem to have latched onto the idea of exporting their violence to the rest of the world, but they're hardly the first or the last group to do this. If they were to be wiped out, I wouldn't bet any money that someone else wouldn't get the same idea soon after, much like al-Qaeda did before them. It's not even a particularly regional idea; the notion that if we kill enough people we can restructure the world to be perfectly {Aryan, Muslim, Democratic, Christian, Communist, etc.}, or to be the economic vassal states of the {X} empire, is frankly a cliché by now on pretty much every square kilometer of the planet.

So let's review where we are, for a moment. There's a large European Muslim population which is disillusioned, disenfranchised, underemployed, and generally treated as outsiders and fair political punching bags by the society as a whole. There's a giant stream of refugees pouring in to Europe, combining huge numbers of people running for their lives from bloodthirsty maniacs with small numbers of bloodthirsty maniacs looking to recruit. There's a factory of particularly bloodthirsty maniacs with a vision of taking over the world through (a) killing people and (b) convincing the rest of the world to treat Muslims even more like outsiders, who are actively trying to both create refugee streams and send out recruiters, to this end.

At this point, I expect to hear a chorus of voices blaming two things for this: religion (specifically, Islam), and oil (specifically, the West's insatiable need for it). To which my main response to both is "hogwash."

The reason I reject Islam as an explanation for this is that there's nothing particularly Muslim about any of it. The European Muslims which are being treated as second-class citizens aren't being treated that way because they pray on rugs facing Mecca, rather than in pews facing an altar; they're being treated this way because they're "dirty foreigners." (I'll spare you the actual terms used to describe them) Da'esh's plan to take over the world isn't rooted in a theological destiny of Muslims; it's rooted in an explicitly political vision of conquest. And quite frankly, the people being shot at the most are Muslims, too; remember who the refugees were running from?

More profoundly, people in the Middle East aren't systematically any more religious than people are in America. You have the same spectrum from the wholly secular to the crazed fundamentalist, with the former predominating in cities and the latter in the countryside. There's a tendency to assume (for example) that any woman wearing a headscarf must be extremely devout, or subject to domination and terror by some devout man; you have to back away and look at it in its local context, where sometimes it's a sign of devotion or a political statement, but it's also just what people wear; for many people, walking around with one's hair exposed is not done in much the same way people don't walk around in most of the US or Europe with their asses hanging out.

Oil is generally used as a proxy for "if only the Americans|Europeans never intervened in the Middle East, it would be peaceful there!" This bespeaks a rather curious innocence as to the history of the Middle East, combined with a reversed vision of (generally American) exceptionalism, that somehow our surpassing evil can corrupt otherwise noble savages. It's certainly true that without oil, most of the Middle East would be desperately poor – but as it happens, most of it is desperately poor anyway. Oil is not uniformly distributed, and Syria doesn't have that much of it to begin with.

There is one sense in which this is true, which is that the 2003 invasion of Iraq created a spectacular disaster. George W. Bush's belief that if we just created enough of a power vacuum, democracy would magically rush in to fill the void – the precise belief which his father didn't have, mind you, which is why GHWB made the explicit and deliberate decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power – proved to be exactly as unwise as it sounds when written so plainly. The result was a giant area of anarchy and civil war smack in the center of the Middle East, into which would-be fighters from all over the region (as well as other regions) swarmed: veterans of Chechnya and Bosnia found new employment in Iraq, as Sunnis and Shi'ites alike slaughtered one another. This anarchy, never resolved, has been the perfect factory of chaos which quite easily spilled over elsewhere.

But there's one profound factor which has driven the violence in the Middle East far more than oil ever could: water.

The entire Middle East has been in a water, and thus food, crisis for decades. In Egypt, for example, the Nile Valley has been drying out ever since the Aswan Dam was completed in 1970; as this once-fertile soil turned to desert, people have streamed into Cairo, doubling and tripling its population by forming tremendous shantytowns. Unemployment was extreme, as it's not like the cities suddenly had tens of millions of new jobs in them; the government kept order as well as it could by importing grain in tremendous quantities (the government's by-far largest annual expense) and selling bread cheaply. Unfortunately, a drought in Russia and Ukraine, Egypt's primary suppliers, caused those countries to cut off wheat exports in 2011 – and the government collapsed soon after.

Syria is a similar story: the lead-in to the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's dictatorship was steady droughts in the Syrian countryside driving people into the cities by the hundreds of thousands, leading to mass unemployment and unrest. People's livelihoods had simply disappeared. Stories like this repeat across the entire Middle East.

When we talk about the ultimate causes of the situation, this is the fact we tend to ignore: at the root of it, there isn't enough water, and there isn't enough food, and droughts have been hitting the area harder and harder for a decade. When there isn't enough food, people move from the countryside to the cities; and now you have giant groups of people who still don't have jobs or food, and that's a recipe for the collapse of governments as surely today as it was in Europe in the 1840's.

If you've ever wondered why I have often said that we need to be very actively worried about climate change, this is it. Changing climate breaks agriculture in various areas; the people who were farming there don't magically turn into factory workers or teleport to places which are (slowly) becoming more fertile; they become desperate former farmers, generally flooding into cities. 

So given all of this, what can we actually conclude? I think the most important thing is that you can't bury your head in the sand, and assume that problems in some other part of the world aren't your own. A drought or a civil war somewhere else can easily start to spill over in unexpected ways.

If you want to avoid terrible consequences, what you have to do is plan, and in particular never let kindling build up. For example:

(1) If you have a large, disenfranchised, population, this is trouble waiting to start. The only way to fix this problem is to enfranchise them: give them a full stake in your society. Yes, that means treating people who are very different from you like full equals. Yes, it also means that your society – that is, the set of people that you're responsible for – now includes a bunch of people who are a lot poorer than you are, and this is going to be expensive to fix. You're not going to like it. But you're going to like the alternative a whole lot less.

(2) If there's political instability, or worst of all, food supply instability somewhere else in the world, it doesn't matter how far away it seems: you need to get together with everyone else and have a serious plan to deal with it. Once masses of hundreds of thousands of people start streaming across the countryside, chaos will follow in their wake. 

(3) Climate change isn't an abstract fear for the future; it's a major political problem right now. You can't punt it away and talk about what to do about carbon emissions or its effect on the economy; you have to sit down and come up with serious strategic plans for what to do when agricultural productivity in critical breadbaskets drops sharply, or watersheds dry up. Contingency planning for any government needs to include anything from hurricanes to long-term droughts, and not just as one-offs, but what to do if these start happening a lot. The reason you need to plan for this is that it's not a goddamned hypothetical, you idiot.

What do we do in the short term? This is harder, because right now Da'esh has been sending agents across the planet to cause as much trouble as they can. One obvious prong of the solution is ordinary police work; that's proven far more effective than complex intelligence solutions at catching terrorists. Another prong is stopping their support system at the root. Because Da'esh's plans are so focused on actual conquest, a collapse of their regime back home is likely to have more of an effect on their satellite agents than the collapse of a more ideologically-oriented organization like al-Qaeda.

A third prong is to stabilize the situation in Syria: here the key isn't so much blowing anyone up as giving people a way to stop fighting. There are three key obstacles to this. One is Da'esh, which seems to be pretty committed to fighting for its own sake; this is unlikely fixable by any means short of straightforward military defeat. One is the underlying lack of food availability. The third is that quite a lot of people have reason to believe that they will be killed either if al-Assad regains power, or if he loses power. They need a serious guarantee of personal safety in any peace.

What this probably means is that a peace agreement will require very heavy international support: aid to rebuild the country, neutral military forces to guarantee cease-fires, and some way to deal with the underlying economic issues. That's going to require heavy international coordination of the profoundly unsexy sort: not deploying giant militaries to bomb targets and wave banners, or propping up regimes and helping them "suppress insurgencies," but working on the long-term realities of helping locals build a government that they're invested in – even when said government is unlikely to be either similar to Western norms, or friendly to Western aims. Military force to crush Da'esh is almost certainly needed as a precondition to this, but it's by far the smaller part of the game.

The short version is: if you want to fix problems, you're going to have to deal with some very serious, expensive, and unsexy solutions. Because life isn't simple, and you can't just bomb your way out of trouble.

[1] See this recent editorial for the argument for switching to the term Da'esh more broadly: [Thanks to +Lisa Straanger for finding this more in-depth discussion than the Boston Globe op-ed which I had earlier cited]

[2] cf, for example, this infographic:

[3] cf, for example, this obituary of a proud French torturer:

[4] cf
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Who on earth decided it would be a good idea to sell scissors with a zip tie around one handle? If this was my only pair of scissors I would have to buy a second pair of scissors to get the zip tie off.

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That's a pretty funny article. You can create pretty good arguments for even the most ridiculous points.
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Turned out decent, you can almost maybe even tell what it is if you squint just right.
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My first thought was spider but it was missing four legs.
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Have him in circles
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Structural Engineer
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    Bridge EIT, 2015 - present
  • LeMar Industries
    Structural Engineer, 2014 - 2015
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Basic Information
An engineer and a geek
I'm a structural engineer who also happens to be a huge nerd. I have a lot of interests and hobbies which I am usually doing in my free time. Here are some of my hobbies and interests, which typically make up the things I post about, in no particular order:

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  • Iowa State University
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  • Iowa State University
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