Jeff Engel weighs in on tax reform and Flynn’s guilty plea

Tower Center Senior Fellow Jeff Engel was interviewed on Fox 4 about what the future holds for the recently passed tax reform bill, and for the Trump administration dealing with the newest advancement in the Russian investigations: Flynn’s guilty plea.

“It’s not only about who doesn’t like a tax cut, it’s who really wants to keep talking about scandal when of course the American people want the country moving forward with legislation,” Engel said.

Watch the interview here.

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Event Recap | Explaining Russia’s Contradictory Policies Toward the U.S.

Russia's contradictory policies toward the U.S.

Kimberly Marten speaks at the Tower Center Nov. 28.

Russia proved it understands American politics through its successful election interference campaign in 2016. Russia also proved it has a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. public opinion through its carefully disguised, yet effective, social media posts that have both Facebook and Google scrambling for solutions to fake news. However, Russia has also made moves suggesting it’s clueless to American interests and motives. Kimberly Marten, director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, visited the SMU Tower Center Nov. 28 to explain why Russia is so inconsistent. She has four theories.

To help understand the theories, Marten laid out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two goals. To maintain power for as long as possible, and to go down in history for making Russia great again.

Theory one: Putin has psychological biases and makes all of the decisions.

Marten argues that Putin’s background in the KGB enforces his view of the U.S. as an adversary, and fuels his fear of internal revolt. As a judo black belt and hockey player his style of fighting is tactical rather than strategic. This means he wants immediate success and doesn’t necessarily consider the long view. In this theory, Putin’s spontaneity is what leads to some of Russia’s spot-on decisions, as well as to others, as Marten said, that appear utterly “bone-headed.”

Theory two: Nobody dares contradict Putin.

For this theory, Marten referenced Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is now clear that Hussein’s advisers warned him to give up the rouse of possessing weapons of mass destruction. They told him the U.S. would invade, but he refused to listen. She argues the same situation could now be true of Putin and his advisers. While Putin isn’t known to murder dissidents as Hussein was, he does have the ability to exclude them from the patron-client system he controls. This power could leader to a culture of non-dissent.

Theory three: There are internal rivalries in Putin’s network.

This theory suggests Putin is influenced by those in his inner circle. Groups such as those responsible for arms sales, like Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, stand to benefit from foreign conflict. Chemezov has financial interest in supplying weapons to Syria, Iran and Turkey. These arms deals have increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Conflict also gives the siloviki (high-ranking politicians who were KGB men or military officers) an expanded mission and keeps the Russian military distracted from domestic politics. However, on the other side, the finance and commerce sectors benefit from international cooperation. These conflicting interests result in a push-pull effect that could be causing Russia’s fluctuating actions.

Theory four: Russian intelligence officers have gone rogue.

There is a blurred line between Russia’s intelligence and politics, unlike in the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, money was in short supply from the government. Russia’s intelligence merged with private commerce in order to make up the difference, and the merging never went away. This suggests, Russian intelligence officers could be working to please the highest bidder rather than serving the nation’s interest.

An upsetting conclusion

Marten left the audience with an upsetting conclusion: U.S. policies have no effect on Russia’s actions. She argued everything in Russia happens internally, behind closed doors, without consideration of research or expert analysis.

For further reading, take a look at Marten’s latest article in New Republic.

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TC Experts Discuss Viability of Austerity Politics in UK

Tower Center affiliates Harold D. Clarke and Marianne Stewart authored an article for the London School of Economics and Political Science blog about the viability of austerity-based politics in British general elections. They argue the rhetoric isn’t attractive to important young voters.

Read the article here.

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Event Recap | Legacies of the First World War in the Middle East

Event Recap Middle EastMichael Provence, historian and expert on Syria, gave a lecture at the SMU Tower Center with Aimee Genell, assistant professor of history at the University of West Georgia, about the impact the resolution of the World War I had on the Middle East. Provence and Genell argue the source of the instability in the region today dates back 100 years, to the signing of the Sykes-Picot agreement and the League of Nations mandate system. (The Sykes-Picot agreement was secretly reached between Great Britain and France in 1916 to define their spheres of influence in their newly conquered lands, which are now the Middle East.) Provence’s lecture focused on the mandate system designed by the Great Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia) at the close of the war to replace the authority of the Ottoman Empire. Genell looked at the Ottoman perspective, and how their proposed solution — developed out of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s 12th point — could have been more in line with Western promises.

The League of Nations mandate system explained

The First World War, according to Provence, was not just a European war. It was designed in part with the hope of colonizing the lands dominated by the Ottoman Empire. The Great Powers used the “mission of civilization” as a cover to expand imperialism. This self-deception on behalf of the Europeans gave the Middle East the institutions it has today.

At the close of the war, the League of Nations created a mandate system for territories that were no longer under control of the same leader as before the war. The league decided that the people in these lands were incapable of governing themselves, and therefore required foreign assistance. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, were all declared mandates in 1919-1920. The people in these mandates were not asked to give consent to this new order, and they were not permitted to represent themselves in Geneva. But they all desired independence.

The British and French faced a crisis of legitimacy in these mandates because they were so unpopular. The people repeatedly claimed rule under the Ottoman Empire had been more just. The response to the legitimacy crisis was mass violence, under the facade of attempts at liberalization.

“The mandates regimes undermined the appeal and credibility of civilian leadership,” Provence said. He argues the institutions developed during this period were not meant to function properly, by delivering justice and order, but rather to be a facade for control of the region.

“The Middle East needs institutions citizens can trust, and the reason that it doesn’t have them, is because they were designed not to be trustworthy,” he said.

What the Ottoman Empire Wanted

Aimee Genell followed Provence’s lecture by looking at what the Ottoman Empire wanted at the conclusion of the war. They clung to Wilson’s 12th point, which outlined autonomous control for the Turkish part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their interpretation, the Ottomans would keep their empire and develop autonomous regions within it, using the United States as an example. The Great Powers rejected this proposal, however, saying that the Ottomans were unfit for an empire.

The mandate solution that was instead implemented, the Turks argued, went against Wilson’s promises and provided a legal basis for the expansion of imperialism.

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Center Spotlight | In the Weeds of Criminal Justice

SMU Tower Center Associate Jenia Turner is a law professor at SMU’s Dedman School of Law. For this month’s Center Spotlight we decided to get to know Jenia and ask her about her research and goals.

A lot of your research focuses around plea bargaining. Why did you decide to focus in on this aspect of the criminal justice system?

Center Spotlight Jenia Turner

Jenia Turner teaches a class at SMU Dedman School of Law.

My first law review article argued that the jury should be more involved in sentencing than it currently is in most U.S. states. I believed that because of its deliberative democratic character, the jury is often better positioned than judges to decide questions of punishment. One of the questions people asked when I presented the paper was, why should we even care about jury sentencing when the vast majority of our cases are plea bargained? And indeed, over 95% of convictions in state and federal cases are the product of guilty pleas, not jury trials. So this led me to focus on plea bargaining and whether there are aspects of that process that can be improved to make it fairer and more accurate.

What has been your biggest takeaway so far?

I strongly believe that our plea bargaining process needs to be better regulated. Courts and legislatures should enact reforms to make the practice more transparent and more likely to produce accurate and just results. Some of the necessary reforms are relatively minor and quite feasible, like requiring that plea bargains be in writing. Others are more ambitious and more difficult, but important—for example, regulating the sentencing discounts that defendants receive for pleading guilty or requiring that prosecutors disclose all relevant evidence before a guilty plea.

Do you have a favorite case you have studied or that you teach? What makes it interesting?

Currently, my favorite case to teach is United States v. Jones. In it, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether a month-long GPS tracking of an individual’s car, while traveling on public roads, is a search requiring a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. The court held that the GPS tracking was a search, but three groups of justices offered three different rationales for the holding. These three rationales have different implications for how we regulate law enforcement’s use of new technologies, and these are fascinating to explore with students. I am increasingly interested in these types of questions—how the law weighs privacy interests against law enforcement interests in the context of emerging technologies and mass surveillance. Next semester, I will be teaching a new seminar on that topic, entitled Criminal Procedure in the Digital Age.

You have also focused your scholarship on comparative law. What do you find most striking about US law? Is there something that stands out to you as different from most of the world?

One striking difference is how much more prominent democratic principles are in our criminal justice system. We use juries to decide guilt or innocence in criminal cases, and our judges and prosecutors are often elected.  In most other countries, this is not the case. This has important implications for how our criminal justice system functions.

What do you think the most effective avenue is for changing the criminal justice system? What changes would you like to see as a result of your research?

I would say that currently, state legislatures are where the most significant, comprehensive criminal justice reform can happen. For example, in Texas we have taken important steps to expand the kind of evidence that prosecutors must disclose to the defense, to regulate eyewitness identification procedures, and to limit the use of testimony given by jailhouse informants. But more needs to be done, particularly in the areas of sentencing and plea bargaining.

What advice would you give to young academics, and specifically young women, who want to follow in your footsteps?

I would encourage them to reach out to people in their field whom they admire and ask them for advice and mentorship. I know that I owe so much of what I accomplished in academia to scores of mentors, who read my drafts, collaborated with me on research projects, invited me to take part in conferences, and helped me with teaching advice. So, I would encourage young academics to look for such mentors, reach out to them, and learn from them.

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Event Recap | Why Russia interfered in the 2016 Presidential Election

Why Russia interfered

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia.

A year later, the intelligence community has no doubt Russia did everything it could to interfere with the 2016 United States presidential election. Andrew Kuchins, senior fellow at the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, visited the SMU Tower Center to explain Russia’s motives and explore how successful its campaign was.

What did Russia hope to gain from its efforts? Russian President Vladimir Putin has hated Hillary Clinton since she was secretary of state under President Obama. From watching Trump on the campaign trail, it was easy to conclude Trump, who went as far as to praise Putin for his strong leadership, would be a softer opponent than Clinton. The Russians wanted to do more than help Donald Trump; they wanted to disrupt. Hackers backed by Russia targeted various election systems, and even though the intelligence community concluded that no votes were affected, Russia had succeeded in their real goal: decreasing Americans’ trust in the democratic process. According to Kuchins, Putin thought even if Clinton won, at least people would question the legitimacy of her election.

US-Russian Relations: A History Lesson

Why Russia interfered

Andrew Kuchins, research professor at Georgetown University, gives a lecture at the Tower Center on Russian motives to interfere with the election.

The United States and Russia are fundamentally different in every aspect. The U.S. is a classic sea power, while Russia is a continental power concerned with border security. “Centralized power is in Russian DNA,” Kuchins said. Russia values and promotes stability abroad, while the U.S. has decentralized power and believes in and promotes democracy abroad.

To understand why Russia launched this campaign in the first place, Kuchins went all the way back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Overnight Russia was no longer a super power; it was bankrupt, and forced to accept humanitarian aid. Putin still looks back on this as humiliating.  The Soviet Union believed if it disbanded, it was implicitly agreed that the U.S. would not take advantage of its geopolitical weakness. The United States, on the other hand, thought a victory  in the Cold War would mean a democratic, Westernized Russia. Both sides were unrealistic, Kuchins says, and both were disappointed. This mutual disappointment set the stage for sour contemporary American-Russian relations.

NATO Expands

Kuchins argues several moments gradually led to the ice-cold relations the U.S. now has with the Kremlin. The first, and maybe most notable, was the expansion of NATO in 1999 (Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic) and then again under George W. Bush in 2004 (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia). Even though the former Warsaw Pact countries were the ones to initiate and push for NATO membership, Kuchins argued the U.S. underestimated the consequences.

Libya: 2011

Putin was furious with the U.S.’s involvement in Libya and with the death of Muammar el-Qaddafi. In his view, the NATO airstrikes on the convoy of loyalists that eventually led to Qaddafi’s murder violated the UN security council resolutions. Putin saw that Qaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction and was then punished for it. He was further infuriated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nonchalance in regard to the disaster in Libya, as she famously said “We came, we saw, he died!” after Qaddafi’s death was announced. Putin promised he would not let Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad meet the same fate. “Putin drew a red line,” Kuchins said.

Ukraine: 2014

Ukraine holds historic and strategic significance to Russia. In 2014, protesters filled the streets to voice grievances against Ukraine’s pro-Russia Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych was overthrown by the uprising and fled to Russia. It looked bad that Putin’s candidate was forced out, and Putin still believes the U.S. was behind the coup. Putin responded by annexing the “least Ukrainian part of Ukraine,” the Crimea, Kuchins said. This move was widely supported by Russians. Kuchins even described it as “cathartic” for them.

All of these turning points, and more, led to today’s state of American-Russian relations. Russia interfered in the election with the hope of gaining a strategic advantage and compromising the United States’ status in the geopolitical sphere.

Did Russia get what it wanted?

According to Kuchins, yes and no. Yes, President Trump won. But, he is unpredictable, which goes against the stability Putin is known to favor. As Kuchins put it, only Putin is allowed to be spontaneous and unpredictable. Yes, the Russians were successful in creating disruption and mistrust in both mainstream media and mainstream politics.  However, there was a backlash to the election of Trump in Europe. Kuchins argues French President Emmanuel Macron and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel both would most likely have been less successful if it weren’t for a vehement European rejection of Trumpism and alt-right politics.

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Scholar Spotlight | Connecting communities in Texas

bringing Japan's high speed rail to Texas

Fairooz Adams asks a question at an SMU Tower Center lecture.

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Fairooz Adams believes in using local politics to shape a community. Adams ran for local office when he was 20 years old, and is now carrying out his senior practicum with Texas Central Partners to bring high-speed rail to Texas and revolutionize the way cities are connected in America. The SMU Tower Center sat down with him to discuss his experiences and his goals.

You ran for local office in Lewisville, Texas, as a sophomore at SMU. Tell us about your experience.

I’ve been involved in local politics around Lewisville, where I’m from, since I was 15 years old. I launched a petition to stop my high school class from being split into two different classes, and we were successful — since then I’ve worked on four campaigns. When I was 20 years old, I thought that if I wanted to do something meaningful then I could go back to the community and run, so that’s exactly what I did. I was worried people wouldn’t take me seriously, but I was pleasantly surprised that wasn’t the case. Many people were enthused about my campaign and were supportive; we out-fundraised our opponent and that was a big success. In the end we came up short, but it was a good learning experience.

What did you take away from your campaign?

It’s very important to involve people in the local community in your campaign because it gives them a stake in your success, and it’s also very important to connect with people on a gut level. At the end of the day people vote with their guts, and you need to know whether people believe in you or not. You also have to genuinely care about your community. Our campaign wouldn’t have been as successful if I hadn’t been consistently involved since I was 15.

Let’s switch gears to what you’re doing now. Your research project for the Tower Scholars Program is focused on bringing high-speed rail to Texas. What have you found so far?

I’m looking at whether high-speed rail would be able to connect different communities so that places with high economic activity can be connected to places with a surplus of labor. The idea came to me when I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. He makes the argument that opportunity has left these communities behind and now they’re impoverished. The people there can’t afford to move and don’t want to. So what if you could connect these places to economic centers?

Dr. Hiroki Takeuchi and I interviewed people from several industries while we were in Japan (through the SMU-in-Japan study abroad program) — Central Japan Railway Company, Japan Airlines, J-Air, Toyota — to look at how those companies compete against each other and how they function. I learned there is a substantial degree of competition between the industries and not a lot of cooperation.

What was it like to ride the shinkansen in Japan?

I rode the train from Osaka to Tokyo. It was the smoothest train I’ve ever been on. I’ve taken DART, and it just does not compare in any way. It’s like being in an airplane, but without the noise – it’s so smooth. I couldn’t tell we were going 220 miles per hour. It accelerates and decelerates so smoothly, it’s amazing.

How has being an HCM Tower Scholar affected your college experience?

I’m very happy with the Tower Scholars Program. I don’t think I would be interning at Texas Central Partners if it weren’t for the Program and Texas Central Partners is an amazing place because it has a Silicon Valley feel to it, like a startup, but at the same time it’s a big project with a lot of funding behind it. It’s the best of both worlds because you’re doing something real that’s already big and important, but at the same time it’s still kind of a startup.

I’ve also met incredible people through this program, people who really care about America and our politics and making our country better.

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The Crackdown in Saudi Arabia: Former Amb. Robert Jordan weighs in

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman arrested as many as 500 people Monday in what he said was an action to rid the country of corruption. Today, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of an act of war.

Tower Center Senior Fellow and Diplomat-in Residence, Robert Jordan, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has weighed in on the newly aggressive crown prince. Read and listen to his interviews in:

 

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Student blog | Jerome Powell as Fed Chair Means More of the Same

All eyes have been on the Federal Reserve this year; investors and economists have been awaiting decisions on the direction the bank is going to take as the U.S. economy continues to recover. Wednesday, the Fed took center stage again when the White House announced that President Trump will indeed be nominating a new chairman, opting to replace Janet Yellen when her first term expires in February. White House officials reportedly notified Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell that he would be Trump’s choice. This is unprecedented, seeing as every chair has been reappointed to a second term since World War II.

So, who is Jerome Powell?

The 64-year old was appointed to the board of governors by President Obama in 2012. He spent time as a lawyer and investment banker before joining President George H.W. Bush’s administration to serve as Assistant Secretary and Undersecretary of the Treasury. He later became a partner at a New York-based private equity firm, The Carlyle Group, and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, all before joining the board of governors. Powell is expected to continue Yellen’s slow and cautious approach to monetary policy and financial regulations, though some on Wall Street are confident he can be an ally in the push to deregulate.

The announcement comes at an important time for the Fed, which just concluded its monthly meeting and elected not to raise interest rates yet. The bank began raising rates in December 2015, having kept them low since the recession to stimulate economic growth. Since then, there have been four rate increases and another is likely on the way in December. Powell is expected to stay the course, keeping an eye on inflation, which has been growing more slowly than anticipated, in addition to other indicators that may suggest the economy is ready for changes in policy.

He is also expected to continue with the plans to normalize the Fed’s balance sheet, which were announced earlier this year. These plans will take over at a consequential time, for they will test the central bank’s true power over the economy. Many institutions around the world, including the European Central Bank and Bank of Japan, will be watching closely to see if the U.S. succeeds in its attempt to be the first major economy to unwind the drastic measures taken during the recession.


Brian O’Donnell is a senior from Fairfield, Connecticut. He is triple major in Finance, Economics, and Public Policy with a minor in Public Policy and International Affairs. Along with being an HCM Tower Scholar, Brian is a Hilltop New Century Scholar and Francis Ouimet Scholar. Brian’s areas of interest include fiscal and monetary policy as well as globalization and international trade.

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Event Recap | How China Escaped the Poverty Trap

China's rapid economic development

Yuen Yuen Ang presents findings from her new book “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap.”

China’s rapid economic development has stunned theorists everywhere. After all, economic success isn’t supposed to be possible under a dictatorship, and yet over the past 30 years China has managed to pull 800 million people out of poverty through national development alone, while still maintaining its autocratic regime. In 1980, China was an impoverished country, with a GDP lower than traditionally poor countries like Chad and Malawi. Today, its global prowess has Americans worried about losing their number-one slot.

Yuen Yuen Ang, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan, gave a lecture at the Tower Center to explain China’s success. In her new book “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap,” Ang credits China’s rapid rise to its use of “directed improvisation,” which she defines as the combination of top-down direction and bottom-up improvisation within the party state. Central authorities direct, while local authorities improvise local solutions to local problems. Within this environment, she explained that China’s development process unfolded in three steps.

Step one: Use weak institutions to build markets

China harnessed weak (by traditional Western standards) institutions to build markets at the local level.  For example, China had collective property rights instead of private property rights, partial regulation instead of impartial regulation, incentives for extraction, etc. Normally, all of these elements would usually be considered an awful start. But instead of importing best practices from abroad or attempting to modernize in one step, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) encouraged local officials to use their existing institutions, even if normatively weak, such as personal relations, to kick-start markets.

Step two: Emerging markets stimulate strong institutions

Once markets emerged, the goals of development evolved: from rapid, coarse growth to higher-quality development. Available resources change too. Ang argues that efforts to copy strong institutions found in developed economies without a sufficient level of economic development are typically fruitless. China pragmatically focused on adapting its existing institutions, including communist features and personalist networks, to build markets first.

Step three: Strong institutions preserve markets

This third step, Ang argues, is the widely accepted argument in “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that economic success is driven by the presence of “inclusive and non-extractive” institutions. Ang agrees with this development theory, but points out that this is a theory that applies to advanced market economies. It took China 30 years to get close to this step. In the West and in the United States, it took centuries.

China’s ruthless pursuit for economic growth, however, has negative consequences. The environment is in ruin and not everyone benefited equally from economic growth. Ang argues that the CCP was aware of these shortcomings, but in the beginning, desired economic growth at all costs.

Ang concluded her talk arguing that this three-step development process is not unique to China. Nigeria, for example, built Nollywood, the world’s third largest movie industry, without established intellectual property rights, by using piracy to their advantage. Other weak states like Afghanistan, Ang believes, can also learn from the Chinese example by adapting their existing institutions, even religion and tribalism, to serve developmental goals.

For a detailed summary of Ang’s book, see Duncan Green’s review at the Oxfam blog.

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