June 30, 2006

Is Prostitution Really Inevitable?

In the New Republic today, Michelle Cottle argues against Congress' brand new "pimp tax" idea, which aims to use the IRS to crack down on sex traffickers. This, I think, is a sharp point:
Obviously sex trafficking is a global atrocity. ... But the chairman's current proposal, which lumps together international sex traffickers with neighborhood pimps and down-on-their-luck working girls, comes with a built-in overreach that all but ensures that the agency's pursuit of sex criminals will wind up resembling its pursuit of tax cheats in general over the years: Overwhelmingly, the small fry are the ones netted since they are both the most abundant and the least able to defend themselves. [Here's a good example.]
Fair enough. A sincere effort to crack down on sex trafficking obviously wouldn't just give the IRS some token funding to hound "down-on-their-luck working girls." And there's certainly something to the criticism that many attempts to stop sex trafficking end up hurting women who become prostitutes "voluntarily" (yeah, those are scare quotes). The International Justice Mission, for instance, a Christian organization that helps the Thai police bust brothels, often "rescues" women who don't want to be freed. "We need to make money for our families," one woman said after a raid in 2001. "How can you do this to us?"

So that's all well and good. What I'm not so convinced about is when Cottle says that "some form of [prostitution] will always be with us," and so we should do what many sex-worker advocates in Nevada are calling for and decriminalize the business. Now these advocates are listening to actual prostitutes and know infinitely more than I, but there are studies looking into this subject that are worth noting. In 2003, the Scottish government, looking to revamp its own prostitution policies, did a massive report on policies in different countries around the world, and found that pure legalization plus regulation just isn't the best way to handle prostitution.

Among other things, the study found that legalization led to a dramatic expansion of the sex industry—in Australia, brothels expanded to the point where they overwhelmed the state's ability to regulate them, and became mired in organized crime and corruption. That was typical. In countries that went the legalization route, child prostitution and the trafficking of foreign women into the region also increased dramatically. Surveys, meanwhile, found that sex workers still felt coerced and unsafe even after legalization. In the Netherlands—often held up as a model in this regard—a survey done in 2000 found that 79 percent of prostitutes were in the sex business "due to some degree of force."

The best approach, as far as I can tell, turns out to be Sweden's. In Sweden, prostitution is considered "an aspect of male violence against women and children" and treated as such. Legislation, passed in 1999 as part of a broader "violence against women" bill, decriminalized the selling of sex while making the buying of sex illegal (pimping was already outlawed). So that was novel. But the bill also—and this bit was crucial—provided ample social service funds for helping any prostitute who wanted to get out of the business to do so, as well as funds for educating the public.

And after a few early hiccups, this strategy seems to have worked. Prosecutions of male buyers and johns went up dramatically. The sex trade doesn't seem to have been pushed underground, as many feared. Street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by two-thirds since 1999. The Swedish government estimates that only around 200-500 women are trafficked annually into the country, as compared to some 17,000 trafficked into Finland each year. And most importantly, 60 percent of prostitutes took advantage of the social service funds and succeeded in exiting the sex industry.

At any rate, when it comes to views on prostitution I think I pretty much agree with this post by Emma of Gendergeek, who opposes fully legalizing prostitution in theory and isn't swayed by the argument that it just allows women to "choose" for themselves what to do with their body. And although I'd be interested in seeing evidence to the contrary, Sweden's approach appears to best finesse the line between legalization—which seems to work out horribly in practice—and outright criminalization, while offering those in the sex industry more of a choice than they quite obviously have at present.

UPDATE: Petra Östergren, a Swedish writer who has interviewed a number of Swedish sex workers, has some strong criticisms of the law here, which are very much worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 5:18 PM || ||

June 29, 2006

Good-bye Old Films

Is the demise of an entire generation of American film at hand? That sounds overly dramatic, but it's true. I meant to write about this bit from Larry Lessig's Free Culture last week, but forgot. In 1998 Congress passed the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the terms of existing copyrights for another twenty years. So now, any films, books, or works of art produced after 1923 won't begin entering the public domain until 2019 at the earliest—provided, of course, that Congress doesn't extend copyrights again before then, which it probably will at the behest of Disney and friends.

So here's the problem. The vast majority of films produced after 1923 have no continuing commercial value. They're just sitting in vaults gathering dust. There's obviously no need to extend their copyrights; if no one's currently making any money off these films, they might as well enter the public domain. But thanks to the CTEA, they can't. (A more sensible copyright law would have extended copyrights only for those owners who actually wanted to extend them; but that's not the law Congress passed—all copyrights are affected.)

Now, these days, it's cheap and easy to restore old films with digital technology—it can cost as little as $100 to digitize an hour of 8 mm film. Many of these films could, in theory, be easily restored, and released, or put in an archive, for people to watch. But thanks to the CTEA, it's not cheap and easy. Anyone who wanted to restore one of these films would have to track down the owners of the copyright—no small task—and then hire a lawyer, lest they commit a felony. That's way too much effort and expense just to restore some arcane old movie that only a few people might enjoy. So no one does it.

And the worst part is that by the time the copyright for a lot of these obscure films expires, in 2019 and beyond, the film for these movies—which were produced on nitrate-based stock—will have completely dissolved. They'll just be canisters filled with dust. An entire generation of movies really will have vanished, never to be watched again. I guess it's hardly the most important problem on the face of the earth, but culturally, it's a tragedy, and a rather striking example of the insanity of copyright law.
-- Brad Plumer 7:10 PM || ||
Down with Air-Conditioning?

Over at Alternet, Stan Cox has an interesting two-part article about air conditioning, and how its rise has transformed the United States. Granted, his section on how A/C has helped make the country more conservative—by allowing more and more people to move to those sprawling, Bush-voting, water-guzzling Sun Belt regions—seems a bit overstated. He never really explains why hotter regions are so conservative (because they have more senior citizens living in retirement communities?). Anyway, I'm more interested in these assorted statistics:
The United States devotes 18 percent of its electricity consumption just to air-condition buildings. That's more than four times as much electricity per capita as India uses per capita for all purposes combined. ...

About 5.5 percent of the gasoline burned annually by America's cars and light trucks—7 billion gallons—goes to run air-conditioners. ...

Fifty-six percent of refrigerants worldwide are used for air-conditioning buildings and vehicles. North America, with 6 percent of the world's people, accounts for nearly 40 percent of its refrigerant market, as well as 43 percent of all refrigerants currently "banked" inside appliances and 38 percent of the resultant global-warming effects.
So air conditioning is destroying the planet. And the cherry on top:
Better insulation and 'green' energy can never be enough to satisfy the nation's summer demand for A/C. Just to air-condition buildings—and do nothing else—would require eight times as much electricity from renewable energy as is currently produced.
That doesn't mean it couldn't be done, of course. But might Americans just have to use less A/C and learn to suffer through the heat if we want to convert to renewable energy, lower our carbon emissions, and have any hope of staving off global warming? Cox believes so, unless, of course, someone invents some sort of ultra-efficient air conditioner (the EPA recently raised energy-efficiency standards for A/C units by 30 percent, but even if all current units were replaced overnight, which they won't be, that would only mean a scant 5 percent reduction in power used for A/C).

Now as strategies for reducing emissions go, I'd prefer to focus on making more fuel-efficient cars and bolstering public transportation before killing the A/C. But what if we had to use less air conditioning? Our economy currently depends quite heavily on it, especially in warmer parts of the country. No one's going to go to a sweltering movie theater in June, after all, or spend hours in a mall buying lots of stuff, unless there's air conditioning to keep people cool. And without air conditioning, worker productivity would plummet during the hotter months (long summer vacations, of course, are out of the question—that's crazy socialist talk). Fun little dilemma we have here...
-- Brad Plumer 4:50 PM || ||

June 22, 2006

The Cost of Superfund Neglect

The 8,000 residents living in the town of Glen Avon, California, are lucky; they get to live right next to a 17-acre toxic waste dump:
[The Stringfellow site] served as a hazardous waste disposal facility from 1956-1972, accepting over 34 million gallons of waste from metal refinishing, electroplating and pesticide manufacturing companies. This waste was dumped into surface evaporation ponds. Rainfall caused the ponds to overflow, sending streams of heavily polluted water into nearby neighborhoods. The population of the census tract around the site is 52 percent minority and has a median household income of $43,000.
And no one's cleaning it up. Then there are the 6,491 residents of Montgomery County, Ohio, who live near North Sanitary Landfill. Decades ago, engineers decided that the best way to dispose of liquid industrial waste was to pour it on top of ordinary household garbage, thinking that the garbage would soak up the liquid like a sponge and hold it in place. But then they realized that the landfills started leaking all that toxic liquid, and instead of keeping it in place, the garbage—which covered hundreds of acres—just spread it around:
[T]he 102-acre North Sanitary Landfill sits atop an aquifer used for drinking water, which is composed of highly transmissive sands and gravel. Portions of the site have caught fire several times. It is located in a census tract with a median household income of $25,000.
Again, no one's cleaning it up. Those sites are two of the thousands of toxic waste facilities on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL), created by Congress in 1980—a short while after Love Canal, a town built atop a toxic waste dump, was discovered by the media. Polluters responsible for sites on the NPL were required to clean up their messes or face steep penalties, and a government-run "Trust Fund," financed by taxes on the heaviest-polluting industrial sectors, was set up to pay for cleanup at sites where the companies responsible couldn't do so.

Since then, of course, Republicans have gutted the Superfund program. In 1995, Congress allowed Superfund taxes—which generated $1.5 billion a year (2 percent of the profits earned by the top six oil and petrochemical companies alone in 2005)—to expire, at the behest of industry lobbyists. Under George W. Bush, the EPA has not only abandoned the principle of forcing polluters to pay to clean up "orphan sites," but it has slowed the pace of cleanups. The number of completed Superfund cleanups fell abruptly, by 50 percent, starting in 2001. Lots and lots of toxic waste sites have been neglected.

That's all been reported before. But now the Center for American Progress has recently come out with a 182-page report describing, in gory detail, the 50 worst NPL sites that have been neglected due to the gutting of Superfund. The above descriptions come from that report. Between 200,000 and 800,000 people live within a mile of these toxic sites, and are exposed to chemicals in the air and soil. Perhaps needless to say, those people are disproportionately low-income and minority. When people talk about "environmental racism," this is what they have in mind.

Most glaring of all, many of the sites have languished on the NPL even though a responsible party has already been named—often a viable, profitable businesses that could certainly afford to clean up its mess. For instance, a 75-acre toxic waste site in Bergen, NJ, where 4.5 million gallons of liquid waste were dumped in unlined lagoons, is owned by Honeywell, which made $1.2 billion in profits last year. But nothing has happened because the EPA under Bush won't enforce a cleanup.

Now, as I understand it, the main argument against Superfund is that many companies are already cleaning up their messes—70 percent according to the Bush administration—and shouldn't have to contribute to the Trust Fund that pays for cleaning up "orphan sites." This seems weak to me. It makes perfect sense that industries that have benefited by and large from cheap disposal practices over the years should pay to clean up "orphan sites." Who else should pay for it?

And it's also worth noting that many of these companies are "voluntarily" cleaning up their toxic waste only because of the threat of litigation by the EPA, which charges responsible parties triple if the agency has to clean up the mess itself. And those litigation threats are in turn financed by… the Superfund Trust Fund. If there was no Superfund, you wouldn't see nearly as much "voluntary" cleanup. Anyway, the cost of neglect has been extraordinarily high, and though it's a bit dry, the CAP report does the best job I've seen of laying that out.
-- Brad Plumer 9:01 PM || ||
Kids These Days...

Am I turning into a curmudgeon? Obviously not, but today I was worrying that I might be showing early signs of curmudgeon-hood. Here's why: Since I'm going to see Built to Spill play tonight, I thought I'd give their new album another listen while walking to work. And it's good. Enjoyable. Catchy in places, even. But it's hard to deny that it's quite obviously inferior to their stuff from the '90s. So inferior, in fact, that I don't think one could really chalk it up to an "off" album.

So then I got to wondering: Maybe rock—"indie" rock in particular—just isn't as good as it used to be. I mean, sure, I was a teenager in the '90s, so naturally there's some bias-inducing nostalgia at work here, but a lot of favorite bands from that era seem to be a bit boring nowadays. Sleater-Kinney and Wilco keep getting better, but they seem to be the exceptions. There's Built to Spill, but the Flaming Lips are also becoming increasingly annoying, and Modest Mouse recently released an unspeakably loathsome album two years ago. Maybe that's no coincidence. Maybe indie rock has played itself out and there's nothing new or interesting to do.

Well, suggestions that "things were better in the old days" usually don't stand up under scrutiny, so I thought I'd do some quick scrutiny. With the recognition that this is all extraordinarily wanktastic, that top-10 lists are the last refuge of the scoundrel, that taste is highly personal, etc., etc., I thought I'd do a very, very rough "top ten albums of the '90s" list. Not necessarily "favorites," but ten albums I would consider "the best". It would go something like this:
Pavement, Slanted & Enchanted
Slint, Spiderland
Guided By Voices, Alien Lanes
Sonic Youth, Goo
Lullaby for the Working Class, Blanket Warm
Bjork, Post
The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin
Brainiac, Bonsai Superstar
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Palace Music, Viva Last Blues
Whatever. We could quibble over this all day, but I think that's decently representative, allowing for idiosyncrasies. (e.g.: I left My Bloody Valentine's Loveless off this list mostly for personal reasons: their 1989 debut, Isn't Anything, purchased when I was about 13 or so, was the album that made me realize I had to stop listening to Nirvana, it's one of my all-time favorites, and Loveless was a massive disappointment—boring, even—by comparison. Blah blah.) Anyway, by way of comparison, here's a tentative top ten of the '00s thus far:
Sigur Ros, Agaetis Byrjun
Sleater-Kinney, One Beat
The Books, Thought for Food
Broken Social Scene, Broken Social Scene
Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Pinetop Seven, The Night's Bloom
The Microphones, The Glow, Part 2
Animal Collective, Sung Tongs
Modest Mouse, Moon and Antarctica
Deerhoof, Reveille
I'm much less sure of this list, but again, it'll do. The point here is that what surprised me is that the difference in quality between the two lists seems negligible. As much as I'd like to say, for nostalgia's sake, that Slint and Brainiac are somehow more "inventive" than The Books or Animal Collective or Deerhoof, that's not really true. Nor could I honestly say that The Soft Bulletin is somehow more "epic" than the unpronounceable Sigur Ros album or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Right, then: This is all quite subjective, but my quick impression is that indie rock is, in fact, just as good in this decade as it was in the last. And the decade's not even over yet. And I don't even listen to hip-hop (which, I've heard, is where all the innovation in music is taking place these days). So I guess I'm not quite ready to walk around muttering, "Kids these days..." Yet.
-- Brad Plumer 4:17 PM || ||

June 21, 2006

How the Mentally Ill Are Treated

Since there isn't enough to be horrified about these days, read this St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation into the abuses taking place in Missouri's mental institutions. Thousands of "mentally retarded and mentally ill people... have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers." The public tends not to find out about this stuff thanks to "secrecy laws, shoddy investigations and ambivalent police and prosecutors." Every year, meanwhile, state officials promise to "do better." Here's what doing better entails:
In 2002, a privately run home in Bolivar let a man's bed sores rot his flesh so badly that he died. Two years earlier, state workers repeatedly and severely beat mentally retarded boys in Marshall....

One mentally retarded man [in a facility near Overland] prone to swallowing things died in November after swallowing an ink pen. The resident, Michael Pallme, was supposed to be watched constantly.

Another patient, Rudy Wallace, died in March from burns so severe his skin began falling off after a worker left him in scalding water.

But those incidents are only a fraction of what has occurred inside the state and private facilities that house more than 11,000 state residents who have the most severe cases of mental retardation, developmental disabilities and mental illness.
Now in a country where pundits will applaud one presidential candidate for flying back to Arkansas to execute a functionally-retarded criminal and where another president orders the torture of a mentally-disturbed prisoner so as not to "lose face", maybe this won't come as a surprise, but it should still be intolerable.

Some very cursory searching on Google and Nexis didn't bring up any similar stories about mental institutions in other states, but I'm probably looking in the wrong place. The largest "institutions" in the country nowadays are prisons, which house some 300,000 people with mental disorders, and tend to have poor mental-health services and plenty of abuse to go around. In 2003, Human Rights Watch did a report on prisoners with mental illnesses:
In the most extreme cases, conditions are truly horrific: mentally ill prisoners locked in segregation with no treatment at all; confined in filthy and beastly hot cells; left for days covered in feces they have smeared over their bodies; taunted, abused, or ignored by prison staff; given so little water during summer heat waves that they drink from their toilet bowls.... Suicidal prisoners are left naked and unattended for days on end in barren, cold observation cells. Poorly trained correctional officers have accidentally asphyxiated mentally ill prisoners whom they were trying to restrain.
It doesn't even take "the most extreme cases" to see things are bad. From people who have worked closely on this issue, I've heard plenty of stories of, say, prisoners who simply won't be "officially" classified as mentally ill despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, and will then get written up by guards at the first outburst of strange behavior (say, compulsive masturbating in their cell), leading to longer prison sentences. Is this likely to make things a) better or b) worse? Yeah, I wonder too.

A summary of the HRW report is here. Among other things, HRW notes that until this country gets serious about the community mental health systems that were supposed to replace mental hospitals after "deinstitutionalization" in the 1960s, prisons will continue to serve as mental institutions of last resort. I'd like to know what effects the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, passed by Congress in 2004, has had but perhaps it's too early to tell. It also appears that the "war on drugs," the gift that keeps on giving, has disproportionately affected the mentally ill as the prison population continues to grow and grow without end.
-- Brad Plumer 7:30 PM || ||

June 20, 2006

Roe vs. the Contrarians

Most people have heard the argument from various "contrarian" liberals that overturning Roe v. Wade would actually be a boon for abortion rights—not to mention the Democratic party—because it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway and it would rouse pro-choicers from their apathetic slumber. Examples are here and here. It's totally false, of course, but it's still an insidious idea that seems to have some staying power among well-to-do male pundits living in blue states. So I'm glad Scott Lemieux took the time to shred the argument in this American Prospect article.

But the other thing to note—and Scott sort of gets at this in his piece—is that Roe v. Wade is somewhat beside the point here. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad Roe exists, and even seem to be one of the few people convinced it was correct as a legal decision. But barring John Paul Stevens dying or some similar catastrophe (and I'm not much for praying, but I could be persuaded to light a candle for Stevens), the Supreme Court isn't likely to overturn Roe anytime soon.

Instead, as Helena Silverstein and Wayne Fishman point out here, a Court with Anthony Kennedy as its swing justice is just going to chip away at abortion rights, bit by bit. And while that won't be nearly as disastrous from a pro-choice standpoint as overturning Roe would be, it will still be pretty damn disastrous. The court will start upholding more and more state and federal restrictions, supported by "centrists," that will a) make it harder for women to get first-trimester abortions by putting in place "waiting periods" and the like and b) restrict the very late-term abortions that are being necessitated by the first group of regulations.

So the real battle, then, will be at the state level. And that's what made this piece, by Allison Stevens, so intriguing. Stevens notes that pro-choice groups are much, much less organized at the state level than pro-life groups. NARAL has chapters in only 29 states, compared to 50 for the National Right to Life Committee. And the pro-choice state groups largely tend to fight defensive battles rather than fighting an "incrementalist counterattack" by introducing "initiatives of their own that could preserve, or even improve, access to abortion." Nationwide, states have enacted 194 major restrictions on abortion compared to only 39 major laws protecting access.

Ramesh Ponnuru has long gloated about how effective the pro-life "incrementalist" strategy has been at the state level, and he has a point. Stevens has a good example: ridiculously stringent laws (known as TRAPs) that regulate abortion providers, from the size of the parking lot to the width of the hallways, have been extremely effective at shutting clinics across the country down by driving up costs. (The regulations are, of course, totally unnecessary: abortion is already an extremely safe medical procedure—much safer than actually giving birth, for instance.)

But it's stealthy enough that it doesn't incur much of a backlash. So I can sort of understand the rationale behind the argument that only the death of Roe will wake people up to what's going on here and spur pro-choice groups into fighting back at the state level. But Scott shows that that's exactly the wrong approach. I'm just not sure, though, what can reverse the pro-life "incrementalist" attacks, apart from a major strategy shift among state-level groups—which Stevens recommends—and a more liberal Supreme Court that actually strengthens abortion rights rather than simply preserving the status quo.
-- Brad Plumer 6:27 PM || ||

June 16, 2006

Pirates, Pirates Everywhere

The other interesting bit of Larry Lessig's book so far, which is probably worth summarizing, is that most of the major industries in the United States were founded on piracy, or some version of it. Hollywood became the locus of film production because a bunch of filmmakers in the early 20th century wanted to use Thomas Edison's filmmaking technology without permission, and California was far enough away that Edison's MPCC couldn't confiscate all the unlicensed equipment and shut down all the unlicensed films that were being made there. Fox was a major pirate here.

The recording industry? Also founded on some form of piracy, although I'm not sure the legal explanation here. Congress seems to have set a law in 1909 that allowed record companies to distribute copies of recordings so long as they paid the composer a fee set by law. This differs from the book industry, where a publisher who wanted to publish, say, John Grisham's books would have to get permission from, and pay a fee determined by, the author himself (or herself). So recording artists have somewhat weaker rights than authors, thanks to Congress—although this government subsidy of sorts helped the music industry get off the ground.

The same goes for the radio industry: Congress decided that radio stations don't have to pay recording artists to play their songs. The same goes for the cable industry: cable providers weren't required to pay broadcasters to air their content. The same goes for the photography industry: the Supreme Court ruled that you didn't have to get someone's permission to take their picture in public. Walt Disney was founded on a form of blatant "copying" and reworking—"Steamboat Willie" was based heavily on a Buster Keaton film that came out at around the same time—ironic for a company that now lobbies heavily for rather draconian copyright laws.

Anyway, the history is fascinating, but the point here is pretty obvious: in all of these cases Congress allowed what might be considered "piracy" in some sense because it was good for society as a whole. And that's just the argument in the book—intellectual property rights aren't worthwhile in themselves, they're only worthwhile insofar as they promote creativity (and some version of the "public interest"), and if they fail to do that, they should be scrapped. No doubt there are counterarguments here, but he seems pretty convincing to me.

MORE: Relatedly, and since it's Bloomsday today, I should link to this rather infuriating New Yorker piece on Stephen Joyce, the protective grandson of James Joyce who controls the family's literary estate and has literally brought much Joyce scholarship to a grinding halt by refusing to give academics permission to reprint various unpublished material. A lot of scholars have given up and are just planning to wait until 2012 when that stuff goes into the public domain, but if Congress again extends the duration of copyright protections, as it did in 1998, they're screwed.
-- Brad Plumer 3:23 PM || ||
In Praise of Piracy

I started reading Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture last night, partly because it's all about attempts to regulate the internet—and that seems to be a hot topic these days—and partly because it looked entertaining. And it is! At one point, Lessig makes it clear that he's staunchly against piracy in the traditional sense—for instance, people in China copying DVDs illegally and selling them for a buck on the street. But he actually makes a better case for piracy in the traditional sense, or at least the case that this stuff might not matter as much as one might think.

For starters, many people who buy pirated DVDs in, say, China for a buck weren't ever going to buy the original DVD for, say, $20. They couldn't afford it. So the MPAA isn't really losing money on these particular people, while these people are benefiting by enjoying movies they couldn't otherwise enjoy. Second, piracy may actually help some companies; if everyone in some Third World country is getting a pirated copy of Windows off the black market, well, then for better or worse they're all becoming addicted to Microsoft, and should they ever get "rich" some day and actually be able to afford to buy computer software, they'll likely stick with Microsoft products.

Now Lessig says that despite all this, property rights are property rights, and stealing is wrong. But—and I guess I'm a bad libertarian for saying this—property rights only seem worthwhile insofar as they have good practical effects. And copyright law only seems worthwhile to the extent that it bolsters creativity and makes everyone better off. In its first 100 years as a country, the United States didn't honor foreign copyrights, and that seemed to be pretty beneficial. And a bit of piracy here and there seems to be more beneficial for poorer countries than strict adherence to intellectual property law, although it's possible this isn't actually true in practice.
-- Brad Plumer 3:04 PM || ||
Overhyping China

Well, this is disturbing. As we all know, the Pentagon has a rather alarmist view of China. But where does this view come from? Careful analysis? Maybe not. Gregory Kulacki reports in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the United States' appraisal of China's intentions and military capabilities is often based on dubious sources—an essay from tabloid newspaper in one case, the writings of an amateur weapons enthusiast in another—that are then wrongly attributed to the Chinese government and deemed cause for concern.

In 2001, for instance, a U.S. commission warned that China was preparing for, quote, a "space Pearl Harbor" and probing for weaknesses in our high-tech infrastructure that could be exploited in a possible war over Taiwan. But much of this assessment was based on an essay written in China by a junior military officer freelancing for an "outlook" magazine, who wrote a piece on U.S. vulnerabilities that exclusively cited U.S. sources, including various Pentagon reports. In no way did the essay reflect China's official intentions, much less its ability to probe for weaknesses. It was just misinterpreted by whatever analyst read it. As Kulacki says, it's "a game of telephone gone horribly wrong."

Now China might in fact be planning some colossal space war against the United States. Or planning to dominate all of Asia. Or whatever nightmare scenario we're supposed to worry about. It's possible. But there's no reason to take the U.S. intelligence community's word on this as final—not least because, according to Kulacki, most of people gathering intelligence on China don't even speak Chinese very well, and so are quite prone to misunderstandings and mistranslations.

Even worse, though, is that a needlessly hawkish view on China can create a dangerous feedback loop. Chinese analysts read U.S. government reports, and in turn write their own analyses for Chinese military journals, which are in turn read by U.S. analysts, and so on. A bit of excess alarmism in those initial reports can be amplified over time, as both sides get increasingly alarmist, and hawkishness can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Already we have a military-industrial complex that has every incentive to hype the Chinese threat in order to justify expensive new weapons systems; we hardly need Chicken Little intelligence based on shoddy translation on top of that.
-- Brad Plumer 2:55 PM || ||

June 15, 2006

Yet Another Food Aid Plea

Let's rattle off some numbers here: The Pentagon is currently spending $300 million on a propaganda program to sneak stories favorable to the United States into foreign newspapers. In May, meanwhile, the United Nation's emergency food agency had collected only $14 million of the $37.3 million needed to continue its feeding programs. Across Africa, 16 million people are "facing starvation or debilitating malnutrition."

You can see where this is going. Those figures come from this Salon piece by Samuel Lowenberg on the dire need for food aid to stave off world hunger. It's become fashionable to say that "aid doesn't work," but food aid works perfectly well—it's just underfunded. And what aid there is usually pours in long after a famine has struck, when it's too late. (Famine insurance might help alleviate this problem, however.) Most food aid from the United States, meanwhile, must be used to purchase U.S. crops, a subsidy to agribusiness that causes delays in aid delivery and usually undercuts local markets. No doubt "local corruption" makes some food aid ineffective, but there are more immediate problems that can be addressed first.

There's also the argument that emergency food aid is just a stopgap measure. Give a man a fish and all that. True, but Africa has never received the sort of long-term agricultural development assistance that Latin America and Asia received during the Cold War—currently, only a small fraction of U.S. food aid to Africa is set aside for this purpose. This is stuff that's extremely doable. It's just not done. And people really are dying unnecessarily.
-- Brad Plumer 5:15 PM || ||
Sight Unseen

When Jesus healed a blind man, all the guy had to do was put mud over his eyes, wash it out, and he could see. Simple as that. But apparently it's not as simple as that. The New Yorker has posted an old Oliver Sacks article about a man whose sight was restored after fifty years of blindness. It turns out that he was extremely confused—at first he didn't even realize that he was seeing—and had a hard time, for instance, distinguishing shapes and colors, because he had never done it before. This part is especially remarkable—when they take the man, Virgil, to the zoo:
In general, it seemed to us, if Virgil could identify an animal it would be either by its motion or by virtue of a single feature—thus, he might identify a kangaroo because it leaped, a giraffe by its height, or a zebra by its stripes—but he could not form any over-all impression of the animal. It was also necessary that the animal be sharply defined against a background; he could not identify the elephants, despite their trunks, because they were at a considerable distance and stood against a slate-colored background.

Finally, we went to the great-ape enclosure; Virgil was curious to see the gorilla. He could not see it at all when it was half hidden among some trees, and when it finally came into the open he thought that, though it moved differently, it looked just like a large man. Fortunately, there was a life-size bronze statue of a gorilla in the enclosure, and we told Virgil, who had been longing to touch all the animals, that he could, if nothing else, at least examine the statue.

Exploring it swiftly and minutely with his hands, he had an air of assurance that he had never shown when examining anything by sight. It came to me—perhaps it came to all of us at this moment—how skillful and self-sufficient he had been as a blind man, how naturally and easily he had experienced his world with his hands, and how much we were now, so to speak, pushing him against the grain: demanding that he renounce all that came easily to him, that he sense the world in a way incredibly difficult for him, and alien.

His face seemed to light up with comprehension as he felt the statue. “It’s not like a man at all,” he murmured. The statue examined, he opened his eyes, and turned around to the real gorilla standing before him in the enclosure. And now, in a way that would have been impossible before, he described the ape’s posture, the way the knuckles touched the ground, the little bandy legs, the great canines, the huge ridge on the head, pointing to each feature as he did so.
It ends up being a bit of a sad and depressing story in the end, but it's very much worth reading. The idea that perception involves much more than simply letting a bit of light hit your eye isn't, I gather, terribly groundbreaking, but Virgil's case illustrates it quite nicely.
-- Brad Plumer 3:40 PM || ||

June 14, 2006

Proxy Season

Kevin Kelleher of CorpWatch has a great article about how activists are increasingly submitting shareholder resolutions during proxy season in order to demand accountability from large corporations. Coca-Cola alone was the target of three such resolutions this past fall: one to demand an investigation into the company's complicity with paramilitaries in Colombia; one to force the company to develop a plan for recycling; and one to clarify the environmental impact of Coke's water-extraction plants in India. All three resolutions failed, but that's not the point:
For shareholder activists, bringing a proxy to other shareholders is less about winning the vote: Most institutional investors don't vote or blindly go with the management's recommendation. And even if a resolution passes, it's not legally binding. What's more encouraging is when a proxy wins the attention and the approval of a large number of investors.

"More and more, shareholders are voting in favor of resolutions," says Schueth. "Five to seven years ago, we'd win 3 percent or 4 percent of the vote and we'd be thrilled. "But we're seeing an uptick every year, so that now they win maybe 15 percent to 20 percent of the vote. That's a lot of investors, and it's often enough to lead the management to change."
Indeed, many corporations worry enough about the optics of these resolutions to try to reform themselves before the issue gets brought to the attention of investors. (Apple promised to offer free recycling to users discarding their old Macs in response to a threatened shareholder resolution by activists complaining about the company's ever-growing e-waste.)

This looks like a trend to follow closely, especially as public pension funds start getting into the game. The New York City Employees Retirement System, for instance, sponsored the paramilitary resolution submitted to Coca-Cola shareholders. It's possible that with conservatives controlling the majority of statehouses across the country and likely to hold onto at least one branch of Congress this fall, the main impetus for progressive reform in this country could increasingly come from the treasurers, comptrollers, and pension-fund trustees that help manage large blue-state public funds such as CalPERS in California. (The potential for state pension funds to throw their weight around is staggering—nationwide, public funds hold $2.7 trillion in stocks and union-managed funds another $400 billion.)

California Treasurer Phil Angelides, the current Democratic candidate for governor, was big on a variation of this strategy while sitting on the boards of both CalPERS and CalSTRS (the teachers' pension fund). As William Greider reported last year, he helped initiate a host of activist moves: "dumping tobacco stocks, blacklisting ten 'emerging markets' that ignore international labor standards, redeploying capital to neglected sectors like inner-city redevelopment and innovative environmental technologies, and, above all, peppering scores of corporations, banks, brokerages, financial markets and federal regulators with critiques and demands for change." The strategy was slowed somewhat when Schwarzenegger helped force out Andrew Harrigan, the labor-backed CalPERS board president, in 2004, but it was a good start.
-- Brad Plumer 3:52 PM || ||

June 13, 2006

Taking the High Road

In the middle of Nathan Newman's great primer on unions and why they're important, there's an interesting discussion about the various "high road" and "low road" strategies corporations often adopt, and what that means for organized labor:
The commonest metaphor for how unions strengthen the economy is that they force employers on to the "high road" of production-- concentrating on innovation rather than sweating workers, promoting skilled work versus unskilled low-wage labor, and encouraging investment in long-term productivity rather than short-term profits.

Especially in a world of global competition, "low road" companies will inevitably lose to firms in developing nations which can always undercut them on price, so forcing companies into long-term investments in "high road" production is the only way US economic growth will sustain itself in the longer term.
I'd suggest a good example here—New York's garment industry, which, in the postwar era, focused on lowering production costs by colluding with corrupt unions and the Mafia to slash wages and set up sweatshops. But now the industry, whose main selling point is its low prices, faces competition from overseas, where wages are even lower. By contrast, Northern Italy's garment industry—where workers get paid two to three times what they do in New York—has long competed on quality and innovation, and faces somewhat less overseas pressure (although there's still some). So I think there's something to Nathan's point.

The post also brings to mind an interesting paper by Roberto Fernandez, who looked at what happened when a food reprocessing plant in the Midwest when it "retooled" and upgraded its production equipment. Not surprisingly, the new technology increased wage inequality within the firm: those workers who could do the new, more complicated jobs requiring greater education saw a leap in pay, and those who didn't were left behind. It's evidence that technological change can and probably does lead to greater wage inequality in the United States (although I doubt it's the whole story).

But. There's a "but" here. One noteworthy thing about the plant was that it was unionized, and thanks to that, the plant owners agreed not to fire any workers prior to retooling but instead to retrain them for their new jobs (in this, they were helped by state programs to pay for retraining). Although this didn't eliminate the adverse impact of the retooling on inequality (especially on racial and gender inequality), it greatly reduced it. More to the point, it worked out well for the firm too, since "workers fretting for their jobs or wages can undo many of the benefits expected from new technology." So score one for unions.
-- Brad Plumer 4:57 PM || ||

June 09, 2006

Watching the Bombs Go Off

The Cold War, along with the arms race it spurred, was one of the largest environmental disasters in history—if not the largest. The Soviet side of things is well-known: There was the 1957 nuclear meltdown in the military city of Chelyabinsk-40 (where prisoners were sent to work on plutonium processing), the poisoning of Lake Baikal by military-industrial waste, and the endless fallout from the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan. All told, some 3.3 percent of the former Soviet Union has been deemed "irreparable," much of it in the military-industrial region.

But last night, I was looking at Richard Misrach's famous pictures of the Great Basin in parts of Utah and most of Nevada (which I first heard about in, I believe, Mike Davis' Ecology of Fear), trying to get a sense of the devastation left here in the U.S. by a half-century of nuclear testing and Pentagon bombing ranges. Here is one taken in 1987—perhaps his best-known—of the "Bravo 20" range in Nevada, which Misrach called "the most graphically ravaged environment I had ever seen":

Another well-known image is "Dead Animals," also taken in 1987:

The pictures are stunning by themselves, but obviously don't give the full extent of the damage done to the region. No one seems to know how many conventional bombs have been dropped—and have continued to be dropped—or how large an area was affected. (The Military Toxic Project estimates that up to 25 million acres of land and water around the U.S. have been contaminated with unexploded ordinance, but that doesn't answer the question.)

Information on "unconventional weapons" used in the West is easier to come by. In the 1950s and 1960s, the military conducted over 1,000 open air chemical weapons tests, over 200 open air biological weapons tests, and nearly two dozen open air radiological tests in Dugway, 75 miles west of Salt Lake City. But I haven't seen anyone assess the full ecological impact here. Perhaps no one's done it. Perhaps I'm not looking hard enough.

The extent and fallout from early nuclear testing is better known. The city of St. George, Utah—a small Mormon town east of the Nevada test site—has been bombarded with radiation since the early 1950s. Abnormally high cancer and birth defect rates continue to this day. The Atomic Energy Commission lied about exposure levels, covered up accidents, and suppressed studies on the effects of the radiation. It wasn't until a report under the Carter administration emerged that the full extent of exposure was even estimated—some 170,000 people in a 250-mile radius of the test site, most of them rural Utahans and Nevadans that were among the most loyal "cold warriors."

Again, though, that still doesn't cover the full scale of it. Sadly, most of Misrach's books seem to be out of print; maybe a used bookstore around these parts will have one...
-- Brad Plumer 4:47 PM || ||

June 08, 2006

Hooray for Activists

Do anti-sweatshop activists make poor countries even poorer? Nick Kristof says yes, but has no actual data. I'd like actual data. Here's a good paper, from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse of Berkeley, that suggests Kristof's wrong:
During the 1990s, human rights and anti-sweatshop activists increased their efforts to improve working conditions and raise wages for workers in developing countries. These campaigns took many different forms: direct pressure to change legislation in developing countries, pressure on firms, newspaper campaigns, and grassroots organizing.

This paper analyzes the impact of two different types of interventions on labor market outcomes in Indonesian manufacturing: (1) direct US government pressure, which contributed to a doubling of the minimum wage and (2) anti-sweatshop campaigns. The combined effects of the minimum wage legislation and the anti-sweatshop campaigns led to a 50 percent increase in real wages and a 100 percent increase in nominal wages for unskilled workers at targeted plants. We then examine whether higher wages led firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere.

Although the higher minimum wage reduced employment for unskilled workers, anti-sweatshop activism targeted at textiles, apparel, and footwear plants did not. Plants targeted by activists were more likely to close, but those losses were offset by employment gains at surviving plants. The message is a mixed one: activism significantly improved wages for unskilled workers in sweatshop industries, but probably encouraged some plants to leave Indonesia.
That leaves some questions unanswered—is it a bad thing that some plants left Indonesia, so long as workers could find employment elsewhere, and at higher wages?—but it certainly suggests that anti-sweatshop activism is much more beneficial than suggested by the likes of Kristof, at least in Indonesia. I'll try to have more on this later. One thing Harrison and Scorse note is that labor costs in Indonesia account for only 4 percent of the cost of, say, a $90 sneaker, so many factories can absorb the higher wages without needing to relocate.

Meanwhile, Edward Gresser points out via email that anti-sweatshop activists could probably do a world of good by highlighting and endorsing countries and companies with good labor practices. That seems right; activists tend to be good about promoting sweatshop-free clothing made here in the United States, but apart from "fair trade coffee," I can't think of similar campaigns for products manufactured abroad. (In fairness, maybe I'm just missing them.)

But it also seems like this should be the task of the U.S. government, rather than 20-year-old college students. Regulations and labels that highlighted imports made under "fair" working conditions seem appropriate, much like the USDA does with "organic food." Obviously, though, "organic" labels can be fudged and fiddled with—a trend that will likely increase now that Wal-Mart has joined the organic market and will no doubt lobby the (largely pro-agribusiness) USDA to loosen the definition of what counts as "organic" in the first place. But that's a story for another time...
-- Brad Plumer 3:56 PM || ||

June 06, 2006

Ah, the Sweatshop Defense...

Normally I wouldn't link to a Times Select column, partly because I have no intention of paying for it and partly because most of the Times' columnists are rather dull. But I picked up the paper today and found Nick Kristof writing what must be his fiftieth or sixtieth column praising Third World sweatshops. Paul Krugman likes this argument too. It's "cute". It's also wrong. Here's an excerpt:
Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program....

The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.
That last sentence is insane. Campaigns against sweatshops may be a lot of things, but one thing they're not is omniscient. For every Gap and Nike they expose and vilify, there are ten other manufacturers who escape bad publicity altogether. If companies thought it was profitable to set up sweatshops in Africa, student campaigns couldn't deter them all. Clearly they have other reasons not to invest.

Kristof then talks about a garment factory in Namibia which was forced to close because it was cheaper to import clothes from China. But that's an argument for trying to raise labor standards in China, where working conditions are famously dismal, rather than for trying to force Namibia down to China's level. Writers such as Kristof—and Krugman—seem to be under the impression that critics of neoliberalism are all idiots and don't realize that if you raise labor standards in, say, Namibia, manufacturers might flee to some more brutal country where working conditions are even worse. But of course we realize this. That's what the criticism is all about.

At any rate, it's not clear that manufacturers always and everywhere move to where wages are the lowest. Wages in Mexico are four times what they are in Indonesia, yet Nike has factories in both countries. There are specific reasons for that, of course, but it goes to show that countries don't necessarily need the lowest wages and worst working conditions on the planet to attract investment. Here's a good study by David Kucera finding a weak relationship between labor standards and foreign investment. And it's not at all obvious that specializing in low-wage garments is the only way for Namibia to develop (it might be one of the worst, in fact).

There's also the argument that industrialized countries had to go through their own sweatshop phase to get to where they are today. Well, sure, some places did, but those places also saw serious fights for better working conditions at the same time. New York's garment workers battled against sweatshop conditions for most of the 20th century—remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?—and consistently made gains until they were undermined in the postwar period by the Mafia and corrupt union bosses. And nowadays sweatshops are again flourishing in the city, which only goes to show that labor standards naturally tend to deteriorate unless someone, somewhere, is fighting for them.
-- Brad Plumer 8:18 PM || ||