Rise of the Far Right in Europe

By Michael Pusic

Meeting Recap: The Rise of The Far Right

On February 6th, the Roosevelt Institute met to discuss the widespread rise of far right parties in Europe and the U.S. Given Trump’s rapid ascent to power and the polarizing effect of surging immigrant populations in Europe, few issues seemed more pressing or relevant. Though many were familiar with the nature of such movements at home, discussion shed light on the intricacies and parallels that could be found in countries ranging from France to Hungary. Center Director for Defense and Diplomacy Ademali Sengal and Journal Editor Jordan Singer set out three major issues for discourse: the causes behind this rise in extremism, obligations regarding the refugee crisis, and the possibility of nations exiting the EU.

 

Sengal opened the discussion by observing two similarities between the far right in the U.S. and Europe: First, both used strongly anti-immigrant and even anti-Muslim rhetoric, and second, both were led by ‘outsider’ candidates who were not part of the existing establishment. From this, discussion naturally flowed to how these aspects revealed the similar causes behind both movements. In Europe and the U.S. recent terrorist attacks have led to gross generalizations about Muslims and foreigners as a whole. This has been especially true in Europe, where millions of refugees are pressing at the borders of such nations, and their economies are struggling to bear the according welfare costs. Many also argued that the movement away from traditional candidates in recent elections reflected a popular disenfranchisement with mainstream politics. Economic turmoil in Europe and political gridlock in the United States has eroded faith in the establishment and made many more willing to support extremist movements.

 

From this, Singer moved the discussion towards the burden that the U.S. and Europe hold in regards to the international refugee crisis. Concerns were raised about reports of immigrants committing crime in their host nations, but others argued that these claims were largely anecdotal and that given Europe’s aging demographics, the surge in a younger population would be largely beneficial in the long run. The main issue of discussion was whether or not European economies would be able to bear the welfare cost of immigrants and if deteriorating economies might further the rise of political extremism. Policies were then proposed regarding what the U.S. could do to alleviate this burden. While some recommended providing aid tied to the acceptance of refugees, others believed that we should take in the immigrants ourselves given our larger and more robust economy.

 

Finally, Roosevelt discussed popular movements in Britain and Greece to exit the European Union. In May 2015, David Cameron acquiesced to a referendum on EU membership in order to prevent the rise of an extremist party and to ensure the Tory vote. Though it is very unlikely that the UK will leave the EU, members largely agreed that this sets a dangerous precedent and harms the image of the European Union. With an unemployment rate of 26% and a GDP-to-Debt ratio of 177%, Greece is similarly considering exiting the EU. This economic desperation is exacerbated by the fact that they are the first, and often last, stop for refugees travelling by boat from Turkey. Again policy proposals largely centered around means to alleviate these economic woes, in order to maintain stability and political centrism.

 

Ultimately, the discussion found that the rise of the far right stemmed from fragile economies threatened by large influxes of refugees. However unlikely, a solution to this issue must deal with the financial woes that have pushed so many to support radical solutions.

What Makes a Vote? Discussing America’s Electoral System

by Emma Gomez

On January 26th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to ask the question: What Makes a Vote? With the Iowa caucus less than a week away, it seemed only right that the first discussion of the spring semester focused on this contemporary issue. While most would argue that they have an educated understanding of the presidential election process, the discussion proved that there were many details of the process that members were not aware of and a lot of area for policy recommendations. To address these issues, Outreach Director Ricardo Jaramillo (CC ’19) and Treasurer Emma Cloyd (BC ’19) began the discussion by separating the details of the process into four distinct categories: voter ID and registration, caucuses vs. primaries, delegates and super delegates, and voting scheduling.

In 2007, the New York Times reported only 120 cases of voter fraud out of the millions of citizens that cast a ballot that year. Despite the small percentage of the population taking part in this wrongdoing, the demand for stricter voter ID laws from conservative lawmakers has resurfaced as a hot topic in the upcoming election. Moreover, demand for policies to increase voter turnout have emerged in recent years, as 24% of the eligible population of voters are not registered.

Members first put to rest the controversy over voter ID laws, explaining that they were a non-issue created to exclude minorities and lower class citizens from democratic processes. To increase voter turnout, members suggested online or automatic registration as effective policies to streamline the process and make it more accessible in a country dominated by technology. The idea of same-day registration was also offered as a way for citizens to be able to participate in the election without having to remember to register 60 days before they’re scheduled to cast a ballot.

The discussion then moved on to an explanation between a caucus and a primary. Ricardo and Emma described how caucuses and primaries both involve selecting delegates for candidates, but in different ways. During a caucus, people go to a meeting and discuss the candidates before casting an informal vote. While in a primary, voters submit actual ballots as they participate in a sort of preliminary election. There was debate between members over which style of election they preferred. Those who favored the caucus system advocated for its focus on discussion while those who preferred the primary favored the way it gave voters a chance to actually cast ballots rather than simply claiming they support a candidate.

The discourse then transitioned into the open vs. closed primary/caucus system. In an open primary/caucus, voters are not required to declare party affiliations while casting a ballot as they are in a closed system. The members who were in favor of the open system spoke to how declaring party affiliation increases partisanship while those who were fond of the closed system explained how party members could sabotage the votes of a candidate from another party in their state if their candidate was secure.

The participation of super delegates was another contentious discussion topic. Super delegates, unlike regular delegates, are not required to support the candidates that win their respective states. Given that they are usually either party officials or members of Congress, some members of the group decided that their experience was necessary to ensure the candidate who would work best within the system gets the position, while others argued their participation was completely undemocratic.

Finally, the discussion ended with discourse over front-loading, or the idea that candidates who win early caucuses and primaries will gain momentums that last throughout the election season. Some members offered the idea of switching around the order of the state primaries and caucuses in order to ensure that states with varying interests could have the focus and coverage that the initial states enjoy.

Ultimately, it seems that these large scale election reforms will take years to bring to fruition and what policy makers should be doing now is ensuring that the current system continues to be fair and allowing all eligible voters to participate.

Bail Reform and Plea Bargaining

by Olivia Ghosh

The intricacies of the United States’s legal system are further complicated by two key issues: bail reform and plea bargaining. Current bail and plea bargaining practices may infringe upon 5th and 6th amendment rights as well as the principle that an accused criminal is “innocent until proven guilty.” The Roosevelt Institute spent an hour on Tuesday, November 24, discussing the various complexities, consequences, and alternatives to the two practices.

The discussion began with an overview of bail and the history of monetary bail. Monetary bail is a relatively recent installation in the justice system. Release on recognizance — a contractual agreement to appear in court — has historically been the favored practice. However, the crux of the issue lies in the question of whether holding an individual pretrial is a violation of the presumption of innocence principle. When one is arrested, a judge determines a monetary value for bail based on the likelihood that the accused will flee or pose a threat to society. This amount must be paid in order for the accused to be released before his or her trial.

The discussion focused on several aspects of bail. First, many participants agreed that monetary bail is problematic because low income, minority groups are often the ones unable to pay bail. In this case, they go to jail and may lose their jobs in their absence even in the case of total innocence. To prevent this, some members suggested that judges should take into account the accused’s income before determining bail in order to set an amount that is fair but is not impossible. However, many people found bail to be a necessary evil in preventing potential criminals from fleeing. Despite this, there was enthusiasm for proposed bail alternatives to protect the rights of the accused including risk assessment programs and other pretrial programs that cost less than holding people in jail.

When the discussing plea bargains, many similar issues were raised. A plea bargain happens when a defendant pleads guilty to a crime in exchange for a lesser sentence. Most of the cases in the justice system are never brought to trial because of plea bargains. Because the courts and accompanying public defenders struggle to process their current caseload, much of the group agreed that some form of plea bargains are necessary. This position was countered by members who noted that many things are unjustly criminalized in the United States and that the issue would be partially solved if fewer things were illegal. However, in our current pretrial system, low income people are often coerced by overworked prosecutors into taking plea bargains when they would perhaps have gone to court had they more knowledge or better lawyers. To combat this, some members proposed that the prosecution should be legally obliged to disclose all evidence to the accused.

The final thoughts of the night circled back to a few key policy changes. First, many people mentioned giving public defenders a lot more funding in order to provide low income people with counsel at bail hearings and better defense against plea bargains. Many members also mentioned decriminalization as a solution to these issues among others.

Monopolization of Standardized Testing

by Emma Cloyd

On Tuesday, November 17, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia discussed the monopolization of textbook — the three major ones being McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson —companies on high school curriculums in the United States. Many states also have standardized, state mandated tests designed by these companies that they use to assess how schools are operating vis-à-vis student scores. The discussion was moderated by Nicki Felmus, the Education Center Chair, and Karen Reppy, a general body member.

In most states, these companies set public schools’ curriculums. This has both positive and negative consequences. Since the companies are private, competition between them to make the best possible textbooks with the most up to date research allows for increased quality in educational materials. However, multiple members raised concerns about the impact that these private companies can have on the content of curriculums as Pearson writes different tests for different states. Ricardo Esteves, who is from Texas, raised this concern by discussing how there are movements within the state government to ban teachings of evolution in public schools. Since these textbooks companies are private and for profit, they have no reason to not indulge Texas in such requests. All of the members agreed that this control that private companies exert on public educations should be concerning to Americans because it does not necessarily guarantee an equal or even similar education to all students.

Furthermore, the competition between the three major companies comes across through the high pricing of the textbooks. Many of these textbooks cost well over $100 and are a massive financial burden to many school districts. Additionally, the same companies that design the books typically design the state mandated standardized tests, used to rank high schools, students, teachers and ultimately to decide the amount of funding a school should receive. One member of Roosevelt, Emma Gomez, remembered taking a test on a subject that clearly corresponded to a newer version of a textbook than the one her school had used; this adversely affected the test results and the students’ learning outcomes.

This led to a discussion of the cyclical nature of rewarding schools for higher test scores. Schools that score well on state mandated standardized tests tend to receive more funding from their state. As a result, these schools become further advantaged by gaining or increasing their financial capability to hire the best teachers, improve their facilities and purchase the best textbooks. Conversely, schools who do poorly on the tests are subjected to budget cuts which in turn make it more difficult for them to improve or maintain their current quality of education.

The dramatic impacts of these state mandated standardized tests made the group ponder the overall emphasis our education system puts on standardized testing more closely. Not all students are good test takers, despite how much practice they have, therefore it is not necessarily fair to use these results alone to judge how schools are operating. Furthermore, when students have low test scores, teachers are often blamed and are at risk of losing their jobs. Therefore many teachers teach “to the test,” planning their curriculum around achieving higher test scores rather than broader educational goals. Many members of Roosevelt agreed that this is not a good idea because it teaches students to find loopholes in the test rather than how to think critically.

The group also discussed the importance of the SAT and ACT in college admissions. Like the aforementioned state tests, these college admissions tests can be gamed for higher scores; however, in order to learn how to do so students often have to hire expensive tutors or attend classes. This is incredibly unfair to who cannot afford extra prep. Furthermore, these tests cost money to take and send to colleges, again giving deeper-pocketed students a leg up. As a result of the amount of money required to do well on these tests and subsequently utilize them, underprivileged students are at an extreme disadvantage.

Roosevelters proposed many policy solutions ranging from removing state mandated and college admissions tests to leaving these tests in place but deemphasizing them. The group almost unanimously agreed that these tests should not hold as much weight as they currently do. The members also agreed that if these state mandated tests do stay in place, schools that do poorly on them should receive more funding rather than less. This would facilitate improvement, allowing all public schools to offer equal educations to students in the United States.

Roosevelt Trip to Washington D.C.: A Reflection on the Realities of Policymaking

by Upasna Saha

It is a privilege to be a student at such a politically active university as the 2016 presidential election heats up; groups across the political spectrum are holding debate watches, meet-and-greets with campaign officials, and canvassing events. It is even more rewarding to participate in an organization like the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University, which holds weekly discussions on a variety of issues and fosters a community of people who are genuinely curious about public policy. But even as I acknowledge these incredible experiences, I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency amongst those of us who consider ourselves to be politically involved: we discuss a variety of issues – from Hillary Clinton’s finances to gun control to the role of media in campaigns – without providing or even considering policy proposals for these same topics. This is understandable; policy construction is daunting. It’s easy to identify a problem in our flawed political system, but, particularly as a college student with limited experience, it’s much harder to take the next step and try to actually solve the problem through reasonable policy solutions. Even Congress can’t seem to do it. Partisan gridlock and the influence of money in politics only fuel the ever-popular sentiment that government ignores the average voter and his or her positions. People have less and less incentive to actively engage with the issues surrounding them, even though this stagnation and silencing only makes it more obvious that we need comprehensive, unique policies which address our issues and can garner support across the entire political spectrum

After spending four days on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the Roosevelt Institute and meeting with bureaucrats, analysts, lobbyists, and Congressional officials of all stripes, it quickly becomes apparent that, depending on whom you ask in the political field, the preferred means to create policy differs. The media portrays two extremes of political motivation: the altruism of for-the-people idealists and the selfishness of Machiavellian schemers. But, as a staffer for Congressman John Conyers sagely said to us, “If The West Wing is at one end and House of Cards at the other, the reality is somewhere in the middle.” And that general sentiment was reflected in the various methods we heard of attacking the multitude of issues the country grapples with.

The think tank approach is to examine raw data, make observations, and target observed phenomena through policy initiatives. Depending on the type of think tank, what actually constitutes as data may differ. For an organization like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, qualitative data is more important than quantitative data. Meanwhile, a domestically focused organization such as the Center for American Progress uses more quantitative research to address larger goals like reforming sentencing for non-violent crimes. By understanding that data, they are able to create specific initiatives, like banning college applications asking about an applicant’s criminal and disciplinary history, to target the initial problem.

There are also organizations in which individuals advocate for an already-existing standard position. The bureaucracy is an excellent example of an institution in which such a strategy is used. The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is partially an investigative team in which, based on precedent, lawyers and paralegals conduct investigations to ensure that industries are indeed abiding by current laws; similarly, the Federal Election Commission reviews statements of donors and candidates to ensure that all those who are financially participating in our political process are doing so legally. This approach even exists in the private sector in a different iteration with lobbyist organizations like the Podesta Group which, by representing a client, make their specific position a reality in American politics.

Both these approaches are equally valid. In fact, in order to create effective policy, it is necessary both for those who are focused on individual issues to propose solutions and for those within the political system to ensure that those solutions are viable, and to either tailor or counter them.

Today, with increasing partisan gridlock and party polarization, a healthy dose of pragmatism is needed to survive in D.C. People simply can’t afford to champion policy solutions which fail to garner enough support; they have to be realistic about their position as it relates to those of others. The people we visited, both in the public and private sector, confirmed this. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, was incredibly upfront about the current unviability of public financing as a solution to money in politics. Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel, who sat in a panel with McGehee, was not much more optimistic about being able to fully regulate money in politics given the current vagueness of American laws which do not strictly control regulation, disclosure, or donations. Congressman Conyers’ staffer spoke about the difficulty of discussing bipartisan environmental policy when the vast majority of the Republican Congress either doesn’t believe in or refuses to acknowledge climate change.

Yet even as people we spoke to were realistic about what it takes to further policy in the current political climate, they were not disheartened, and made sure we were aware of that. Ultimately, the future of policy depends on what it has always needed: passionate people with a variety of political allegiances, with knowledge of specific issues and the inner workings of the process. Passion may have become more stifled, the process more convoluted – but, as Congressman Keith Ellison himself reminded us, if we the young don’t have any hope of being the change, no one else will.

Keystone XL and Fossil Fuel Dependence

by Fernando Garcia

On November 10th, the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University gathered to discuss the Keystone XL Pipeline and fossil fuel dependence in a debate led by the two Energy and the Environment co-directors: Charles Harper and Simon Schwartz. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal intended to extend a current pipeline that would transport 1.3 million barrels of tar sand oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Texas. The proposal had an estimated cost of $7 billion and was ultimately rejected by the State Department after years of protests and controversy.

The discussion began with an analysis of the pros and cons of the proposal. The extension of the pipeline would create 2000 short-term (one to two years) and 50 long-term jobs and would lower the cost of transporting tar sand oil, possibly leading to a worldwide drop in oil prices. It would also strengthen U.S.-Canadian economic and diplomatic relations. However, these benefits would come at a huge environmental cost, not only because of increased burning of fossil fuel but also due to the fact that the extension would pass over aquifers and endanger the welfare of surrounding ecosystems. Some members pointed out that the pipeline would also put nature at risk on certain Native American and First Nations reservations. Others discussed the fact that a justification for the expansion based on increased jobs is faulty because renewable energy development and maintenance has the potential to create a profitable industry with many new jobs, especially if given the necessary governmental support.

Another key question raised during the discussion was the U.S. dependence on Saudi oil and whether or not declining the proposal to import Canadian oil would only further this dependence. Many argued that it is better to import oil from countries that are more respectful of human rights and have closer diplomatic ties to the United States such as Canada than to rely on oil from countries such as Saudi Arabia. Some members equated U.S. reliance on Saudi oil with direct support for the Saudi regime its widespread violation of human rights. Supporters of this view also argued that if the United States does not trade this oil with Canada, Canada will happily trade it with another nation, thereby leading to the burning of fossil fuel and environmental damage in any case.

The opposing view is that the United States as a global superpower has the clout necessary to influence other nations and set the precedent that fossil fuel energy is a thing of the past and that we as humans should now focus solely on renewable energy infrastructure for the sake of our very existence in the coming decades. By rejecting such fossil fuel infrastructure proposals and implementing other policies such as a carbon tax or expanding renewable energy subsidies, many argued, the United States can shift away from fossil fuel dependence and start building an infrastructure that is completely geared toward renewable energy sources. Many also argued that this has to be as much of a local effort as a national effort. States such as Arizona can focus on solar energy whereas windier states can focus on expanding wind energy infrastructure. By doing this, the United States can show the rest of the world that it is indeed possible to eventually let go of fossil fuels. This can be achieved in many ways: diplomatic influence, transnational agreements, economic partnerships, development and exporting of cheap renewable energy technology and other forms of soft power.

Despite having differing opinions on the recent decision by the State Department, all members of the Institute agreed that it was necessary to shift away from fossil fuels in favor of green energy sources. In other words, everyone acknowledged the impending consequences of climate change. This led to another point being raised: the fact that many members of the United States Congress publicly deny the very existence of global warming. The general opinion was that this is a deep-rooted problem that must be addressed before the U.S. quits dirty energy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

By Fernand Le Fevre

On October 5th, after 5 years of negotiation, twelve Pacific Rim countries agreed to the terms of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. For trade supporters, the conclusion of the regional trade agreement (RTA) is a promising step in the right direction after years of standstill at the multilateral level. Opponents of the deal stress the geopolitical implications, the secrecy of negotiations, and fear of a “race to the bottom.” On October 20th, the Roosevelt Institute addressed these points of contention in a debate moderated by Brendan Moore (director, Center for Economic Development) and Masih Babagoli (general body member).

The discussion kicked off with a conversation about secrecy. Critics of the TPP (and free-trade in general) often decry secrecy within the framework of a “democratic deficit” argument. This democratic deficit is further compounded by the “green room” effect, in which a small group of the stronger nations involved in negotiations form a “core.” The core then monopolizes agreement outcomes at the expense of the other “periphery” nations in closed “green room” meetings. Roosevelt members seemed to unanimously agree that secrecy actually serves trade negotiations well, following classic pro-trade logic. Since the formalization of trade institutions, secrecy of negotiations has been a fundamental tool to avoid the collapse of negotiations under domestic pressure. More specifically, members pointed out the possibility of Congressional or interest-group capture. Stalling in domestic institutions slows the crucial dynamism of negotiations (making the proverbial “bicycle” of agreements fall due to inactivity). Other members added some nuance, pointing out existing mechanisms for presidents to overcome Congressional stalemate – notably, fast-track authority.

The rest of the conversation revolved primarily around a second question: “Does the exclusion of China in the TPP make this a deal America should sign even if not perfect?” The question prompted a consideration of the TPP’s geopolitical impact, especially in the context of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” Often, the conversation took on characteristics of early trade theory, treating trade negotiations as zero-sum power grabs, relativizing American power to (potentially) impending Chinese dominance. As members brought up the competition between institutions (the US’s IMF vs. China’s new AIIB, etc.), the argument quickly took on undertones of hegemonic theory; could China potentially pose a threat to American hegemony? Points regarding the strategic membership of the TPP suggested that the latest trade agreement is as much about geopolitics as it is about trade (though not all members agreed).

Concerns regarding the environment dominated the last portion of the discussion, much as they have been a focal point of public debate on the TPP. Generally, members agreed that degradation of environmental standards was a central concern, citing the potential “race to the bottom” often brought up when discussing the impact of trade on environmental and labour regulations. Some accurately pointed out stipulations of the agreement calling for increased labour and environmental standards. But other members added an important caveat, insisting that such regulations create an unfair playing field; newly- or still- industrializing countries, according to this argument, are unjustly handicapped by higher standards. The question arises: how do we make free-trade (more) fair?

A final brief point on new dispute settlement mechanisms (DSMs) brought some members to point out the potential for trade to become an alternative channel to resolve societal problems. According to this line of thought, strict standards in DSMs could serve to “strike certain issues off the list.” Expert panels would effectively refuse to hear certain types of complaints, forcing a stricter regulatory environment. Other societal concerns included the domestic ramifications of free-trade on employment; members generally agreed that safety-net and job training spending was an appropriate response to factor adjustment.

Separation of Church and State

by Ricardo Jarmillo

On September 29th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to discuss policies surrounding religious liberty in the United States. The separation of church and state has been a notoriously difficult concept to translate into policy. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”–but what does that really mean? To answer that question, co-directors of the Equal Justice Center, Jay Rappaport and Rachel Knowles, led a discussion that explored the limits of religious liberty laws and deliberated over possible policies regarding the regulation of religious activities and institutions.

Different countries regulate religious expression and religious groups in a variety of ways. In France, for example, the French parliament voted to ban the wearing of veils that cover the face in public spaces as well as all “ostensibly” religious signs in schools. Many expressed discontent over these laws, arguing that they disproportionately targeted Muslims and other religious minority groups. In the United States, however, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) mandate that the government cannot violate an individual’s religious expression unless it has a compelling government interest and is acting in the least intrusive manner possible. Furthermore, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts prevent an individual from losing employment based on personal religious expression. Originally passed by the Clinton Administration in the 90s, the RFRAs were intended to protect religious minorities, particularly Native American groups, from religious discrimination.

Although the RFRAs were intended for religious minorities, nowadays many Christian groups invoke the RFRAs to avoid compliance with federal regulations. The Supreme Court has ruled on several conflicts between government policy and religious expression. In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, the Supreme Court ruled that “closely held” corporations can be exempt from a law that they object to on a religious basis. In this case, Hobby Lobby was protesting the provision in the Affordable Care Act that would have required them to include coverage of contraception as part of their health care plans. However, more recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that homosexuals in the United States are legally entitled to marriage. Kim Davis, a county clerk from Kentucky, was briefly jailed for refusing to sign the marriage licenses of same-sex couples, claiming that her religious beliefs were being violated. These conflicting results from the clashes between laws and religious liberty only further contribute to the blurry division between the two.

In the discussion, members questioned the tax-exempt status that is held by churches and other religious groups. Churches can file 501c3 forms to avoid taxation and to receive tax-deductible donations so long as they are “religious, educational, scientific,…or charitable.” While churches cannot attempt to influence legislation or participate in political campaigns under current regulations, many members expressed skepticism that churches are currently adhering to such regulations. Members also questioned the strength and toughness of these regulations given that in 1993, the IRS awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. The Church of Scientology is accused of allegedly physically and mentally harming its members and holds millions of dollars’ worth of luxury real estate assets all across the world. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately $71 billion worth of taxes is being lost by the amount of churches that are tax-exempt.

Members debated whether or not churches should be tax-exempt and if there should be laws that allow for religious exemptions in policy. On the question of the tax-exempt status of churches, many members concurred that there should be some form of tax on churches, particularly on churches that are very wealthy and hold a lot of valuable real estate assets. A policy that would cap the amount of real estate assets that a church can own was proposed. Other members proposed a regressive income tax on churches, trying to find a balance between poor, rural churches that depend on their tax-exempt status to stay open and rich churches that could afford to pay more. On whether laws should allow for religious exemptions, it seemed as if the group was somewhat more divided. Many referenced the bakery in Indiana that refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Some claimed that the bakery’s refusal to bake the cake was an unacceptable form of discrimination and that businesses exist solely for profit, not for the advancement of a particular moral agenda. Others, however, referenced the Muslim flight attendant who was fired for refusing to serve alcohol, claiming an overbearing drive for secularism unfairly affects religious minorities, many of whom already suffer from other forms of discrimination. Ultimately, however, it seems as if the debate about the line between religious liberty and the advancement of public policy will continue to hang over future policymaking.

The Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Guy Raber

With hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking shelter around the globe, the topic of discussion on our September 22nd meeting was how to address this growing crisis. Center Director for Defense & Diplomacy Ademali “Adem” Sengal focused the discussion onto the roles different nations should take, specifically referencing the United States and members of the EU.

Key questions for discussion included: Do states have an obligation to the refugees? If so, which states? Should EU member states have sovereignty over their immigration policies? How does xenophobia play into policymaking in the EU? What role can the UN play in aiding refugees? What is a systematic policy we can create from lessons learned from this and previous refugee spikes? Would military intervention in Syria alleviate the crisis?

The conversation began with a general discussion on morality, attempting to define the existence of state obligations to refugees. While most agreed that states are obligated on a humanitarian basis to provide what aid they can, several members mentioned that the protection and needs of citizens within their own states should come first. Even though the two trains of thought are not mutually exclusive, the different priorities came into play later when considering options that were worth taking.

Essentially, if the priority was to help the refugees, then the corresponding processes were to accept and provide for a larger number of uprooted Syrians. The solution then was primarily diplomatic; as a few individuals pointed out, our previous military interventions have played a significant role in causing these developments to begin with. Words, rather than weapons, would be used to offer aid to refugees and avoid a war at all costs.

An alternative priority was placed on the security of non-refugees. For example, one person brought up that the instability of this region was a national security threat, as ISIS continues to grow in power within the political vacuum. He, along with multiple others, strongly advocated providing weapons and military aid to the Kurds as they fight against our enemies in the Middle East. Another concern for this side was that among the massive number of Syrian refugees could be hidden ISIS members, capable of terrorism and other heinous acts.

Perhaps most striking about this debate was the difference in characterization of the issue. One side painted refugees as potential terrorists, while one praised them for being talented and educated youths. Another contention was between the individuals who sincerely dread the thought of any military conflict, and those who see the troubling radicalization of this region as a need for action. Our differences in opinion not only about the ramifications of a military course of action, but about the nature of this crisis, is a concern. We have carried a proverbial “big stick” ever since the days of Teddy Roosevelt. However, when it comes to the Middle East, we often can’t seem to figure out if we’re using the stick to play baseball or whack-a-mole.

US, China, and International Climate Change Relations

By Masih Babagoli  

In light of Earth Week, the discussion topic on April 9th was on climate change relations. Our Energy & Environment Center Leader Sam Place, and body member Charles Harper focused the conversation on the relationship between developed countries, like the US, and the developing countries, like China.

How do we escape from the “doomsday” that scientists are prophesizing? How should the US Congress enter this issue of sustainable development? What are the best ways at slowing down climate change? And most controversially, are we justified in telling developing countries that they cannot go through the same path that developed countries have taken because of the contributions that the conventional path makes to global issues of climate change?

 

This last question was the main topic of discussion for our meeting. Some argued that it was not justified for developed countries such as the US to dictate the course of development for countries – such as China – that are undergoing industrialization right now. The main premise of this argument was that by forcing China to change the way that it is developing, for example by replacing its agricultural technologies with greener though less efficient ones, the United States would be reducing the standard of living of Chinese people.

 

Through that lens, it is not justifiable for the United States to be depriving other individuals of a better quality of life when Americans were able to enjoy the same luxuries without a responsibility for its emissions. We might claim to have sustainable technology, but that is nothing more than rhetoric if implementing this technology is at odds with the economic wellbeing of a nation.

 

Those who argued that we can and should dictate a change in course of development of countries undergoing this transition focused on the macro impacts. Climate change, economic inequity, and other problems that fall under the umbrella of sustainable development are dire global issues – and these dire global issues need to be addressed immediately. Therefore, we cannot wait for developing countries to go through the process because we just don’t have the time. It is not Americans versus Chinese; it is humans against their own fate.

 

Many argued that we have a moral obligation as a developed country to export the lessons that we have learned in undergoing industrialization and development in a traditional path. Now that we know what shouldn’t be done, we need to inform others. However, some might frame this exportation of knowledge as imperialistic. But can it be viewed that we – as a developed nation – underwent “growing pains”, and now we are just helping others so that they don’t have to go through the same pains? Isn’t that a good deed?