April 30, 2007

Beyond Hypocrisy

Timothy Noah points out that former USAID director Randall Tobias is a hypocrite for cavorting with call girls, seeing as how he oversaw USAID's policy of refusing AIDS funding to any group that didn't sign an anti-prostitution loyalty oath. That's an amusing bit of irony, but now seems like a good time to note that the policy really isn't very funny at all.

When Congress first told USAID to make all its recipients sign the pledge, in 2003, lawyers at the Justice Department argued that the policy violated the First Amendment and should be ignored. But the Christian right blew a gasket, DoJ quickly reversed itself, and, under Tobias, USAID started requiring the pledge. The fallout was severe: Brazil lost $40 million in funding for a successful program that persuaded sex workers to use condoms. Over 200 NGOs wrote the White House complaining that the pledge would interfere with their work. In two separate court cases last year, federal judges ordered USAID to stop the policy (those decisions are still being appealed).

Of course, since Tobias didn't come up with the pledge, presumably the White House will just find someone with a cleaner personal life to keep things quietly going, but it's still appalling. And here's another question. When Tobias was first hired to head up Bush's AIDS initiative in 2003, a number of people suggested that the former Eli Lilly CEO had been brought aboard to ensure that the money would be spent on brand-name pharmaceuticals rather than cheaper generic drugs. Big Pharma plunders the aid budget, etc. But I haven't seen much follow-up reporting on this, and now seems like an opportune time to find out if Tobias really was horrible on this front or not.
-- Brad Plumer 7:28 PM || ||
Socialism Gets Liberal

I don't have anything clever to say about it, but Marc Soudon's essay in Dissent on the evolution of French socialism, and how it reconciled itself with European liberalism, makes for a good read. I'd always just assumed that the Socialist Party only became more liberal after economic crises in the '80s forced Mitterand to abandon his economic platform, but evidently the history's more complex than that.
-- Brad Plumer 2:06 PM || ||
Nuclear Mania

In this month's Wilson Quarterly, it's Max Schultz (pro) vs. Brice Smith and Arjun Makhijani (anti) on the merits of relying on lots and lots of nuclear power to satisfy our carbon-free energy needs in the future. I tend to think the "anti" side has a better case here, especially on the point that nuclear power isn't the most cost-effective form of alternative energy, but judge for yourself. (Note that when Schultz is called out for fudging the cost of nuclear, he rather weakly retorts that the numbers are "open to interpretation.")

One question neither side asks is whether there's even enough cheaply retrievable uranium lying around to support a global effort to build thousands of new nuclear plants. An analyst at The Oil Drum recently ran the numbers and concluded, "If nuclear energy is to become a major solution... the needed manifold increase in nuclear capacity [and demand for uranium] could make nuclear energy too expensive to be competitive with other alternatives." Breeder reactors might be competitive on a grand scale, but they aren't likely to make a significant contribution until 2030 at the earliest. If the world's serious about averting large-scale climate change, we'll need much more carbon-free energy before then. I'd be curious to see more on this.

On the other hand, this is all fairly irrelevant to the energy debate in Congress. A certain number of Republicans are going to demand subsidies for nuclear no matter what (all the while scolding environmentalists for being so fanatical about the subject). When Al Gore spoke before the Senate, it was the only thing Larry Craig, Johnny Isakson, and Lamar Alexander wanted to chat about. If and when Democrats craft a climate bill, though, it's not clear whether they'll seriously consider nuclear energy or just include a few desultory handouts to peel off Republican support.
-- Brad Plumer 11:03 AM || ||

April 29, 2007

Happy Happy Joy Joy

Will Wilkinson has written a new paper on happiness research for the Cato Institute that I found both fascinating and odd. Odd because there are two parts: In the first, he argues that happiness surveys are too problematic and unreliable to use as the basis for public policy. In the second half, though, he uses those very same happiness surveys to suggest that the United States's "relatively libertarian" socio-economic model is a "glowing success." Okay, the paper's not as illogical as I made it sound—and it's quite brilliant in places—but that structure seems a bit jarring.

Anyway—onto the fun bits. I've been reading Bill McKibben's new book, Deep Economy, which is wonderful, but he spends a lot of pages pointing out that, according to various surveys, Americans aren't any happier today than they were 50 years ago, despite heaps and heaps of economic growth. His conclusion is that growth doesn't always make us better off. Now, I'm all for questioning GDP growth as the end-all and be-all, partly for some of the other reasons in McKibben's book. But, like Wilkinson, I'd rather not use happiness surveys to make that case.

A rather fatal problem for these surveys is that people often aren't aware of how good they have it compared to the past. The brain doesn't work like that. "Prior to the advent of modern sanitation and medicine," Wilkinson notes, "multitudes suffered from low-grade bacterial infections… toothaches, and other chronic maladies." But because people were used to these everyday annoyances, chronic toothaches wouldn't factor into their self-assessments of how happy they were. But everyone would agree that, at least in this respect, life has gotten much better—for those who can afford it—thanks to advances in medicine, dental care and the like.

Now, granted, dental care isn't the only thing that's changed over time. Maybe we've traded increased levels of stress and social isolation for fewer toothaches, and hence, from an objective standpoint, people really are no better off today than they were back then. That's possible. The point is that happiness surveys can't capture all of this change. Wilkinson quotes a paper by Dan Haybron, "Do We Know How Happy We Are?" that illustrates the point nicely:
[Subjects in a noisy office] showed elevated epinephrine levels, made half as many ergonomic adjustments to their workstations, and were markedly less persistent in efforts to solve difficult puzzles afterwards. Yet the researchers were surprised to find no differences in reports of perceived stress—specifically, reports about the extent to which subjects felt "bothered, worried, relaxed, frustrated, unhappy, contented, [or] tense" ...

It seems likely that given enough time, the experienced office workers . . . ceased to notice the unpleasant effects of the noise. Yet it also seems plausible that the noise affected not only subjects’ physiological responses and behavior, but the hedonic quality of their experience as well: they experienced more stress, had a less pleasant time of it, than they would have without the noise.
So we can be better off or worse off without knowing it. Is that the same as being happier without knowing it? Maybe, but that's a trickier question. Indeed, the difficulty researchers have even defining "happiness" seems like a sound reason to be skeptical of these surveys.

But this also cuts both ways. In the second half of his paper, Wilkinson cites research suggesting that countries that spend more money on welfare and social insurance aren't any happier. Welfare spending doesn't even appear to boost the happiness of the unemployed. But of course, a larger safety net might still make many people happier, even if they don't say so—because they may not realize, to some extent, that they're happier. In any case, happiness research will no doubt improve over time, but for now, it seems way, way, way too fuzzy for many policy purposes. (And, for instance, I think there are better reasons to worry about income inequality than the possibility that it causes envy and unhappiness, as Richard Layard suggests.)
-- Brad Plumer 6:23 PM || ||
Neocons for Obama

Dedicated neo-con (and TNR contributor) Robert Kagan hearts Barack Obama's foreign policy views. Huh. I'm less alarmed by Obama's imperialist ("interventionist," if you prefer) tendencies than, say, Max Sawicky, but only a little. Of the major contenders, Obama's instincts still seem the most sensibly dovish, although his proposal to expand the end strength of the Marines and Army by 92,000 soldiers strikes me as absurd.

Carl Conetta of the Project on Defense Alternatives examined the 92,000-troop proposal back when the Secretary of Defense first floated it. By his calculations, we only need those extra troops if a) we plan to keep a force of about 80,000 in Iraq indefinitely; or b) we plan to "routinely and continuously" send 100,000 or more ground troops to do regime change, nation-building, or counterinsurgency abroad. If either of those things are in the cards, it would be nice to hear about it. $10 billion a year, minimum, is a lot to spend "just in case."
-- Brad Plumer 6:03 PM || ||
Food Fight

Over at Grist, Gar Lipow has a long post on "Feeding the World Sustainably" that's worth a peek. Our current industrial agricultural system produces more than enough to feed everyone in the world. (The fact that people still go hungry is a problem of distribution and justice, not production.) But the current system is also totally untenable over the long run. Not only are we depleting water and topsoil at unsustainable rates, but food production relies much too heavily on fossil fuels. If "peak oil" hits—or if we decide that we need to lower our carbon use so that we don't burn up the earth—the industrial agricultural model just won't fly.

Fortunately, there are ways around this. Lipow argues that different grazing techniques for cattle, goats, and sheep, along with no-till farming for row crops, would lower agricultural energy consumption some 60 percent. In some cases, food might even be cheaper. As for soil and water, it's still not clear that we can produce enough food for 9.4 billion people by 2050 in any sort of sustainable manner, even with a shift in techniques (At last count, our global footprint was exceeding the earth's biocapacity by some 25 percent.) But that's a topic, I guess, for another day. If you can't wait that long, see the heated debate in the Grist comments section.

Now, things haven't shifted, in part, because oil's still incredibly cheap. If industrial farms were slapped with a sufficiently high carbon tax, they'd presumably change their ways pretty quickly. But that's not the whole story. Lipow points out that grass-fed cattle actually produce about the same amount of food per acre as feedlot cattle (once you factor in all the corn and grain needed to feed the latter). Grass-fed cattle use a fraction of the fossil fuel energy that feedlot cattle do. It's a more sustainable farming technique. And on the whole, it costs less. So why are feedlots so popular?

The obvious answer is that government policies favor the existing large feedlot ranchers. Obscene farm subsidies make corn and soy exceedingly cheap—and hence, lower the costs of feedlots. Large ranchers tend to have a good thing going, and see no reason to mess with it; instead it's easier just to lobby for regulations that favor large industrial farms. This is partly what Michael Pollan was alluding to in his fab New York Times Magazine piece on the madness of Congress' annual farm bill. Fiddling with that wouldn't solve all the world's problems, but it'd be a nice start.
-- Brad Plumer 12:09 PM || ||
Mass Extinction

A poll by the American Museum of Natural History finds that 7 in 10 biologists believe that mass extinction poses a colossal threat to human existence, a more serious environmental problem than even its contributor, global warming, and that the dangers of mass extinction are woefully underestimated by most everyone outside of science.
That's from Julia Whitty's new cover story in Mother Jones. E.O. Wilson has predicted that roughly half of all plant and animal species will be extinct by the year 2100. Normally about one species per million dies off each year. There have been five great extinction waves in the past 439 million years. We're on the verge of a sixth, as "habitat degradation, overexploitation, agricultural monocultures, human-borne invasive species, [and] human-induced climate change" raise the rate of extinction to something like 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate. (Recently, Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Laundau have argued that the crisis isn't as bad as thought, although their work is controversial.)

Whitty's piece is very much worth reading, although I tend to wish these articles would really hammer home why humans should care about the loss of biodiversity. It sounds strange to say, but I don't think it's obvious to most people why it's a problem if entire ecosystems up and vanish. Newspapers have been reporting the fact that bees are vanishing en masse, which could threaten $15 billion worth of U.S. agriculture. More concrete examples like this might, I think, get people to perk up. There's no equivalent to the IPCC for the extinction crisis—a body that could hammer out a consensus perspective and urge governments to take action. Why not?

Mind you, climate change is a solvable—though staggering—problem. I'm not so sure anything can be done to halt what Stephen Meyer calls the "The End of the Wild" (Meyer isn't sure, either). Whitty discusses the Wildlands Project, which would create massive linked "corridors" for wildlife, on a scale larger than anything yet contemplated. In the United States, ecologically significant areas such as Florida, the Arctic/Boreal regions, and the Rocky Mountains would be preserved and connected (see this map). But it's also an audacious project: Wildlands advocates estimate that the project could take 100 years or more--and by then, mass extinction will be well underway.

There's certainly something to the Wildlands idea. Right now, wildlife preserves are much too small, and usually cut off from each other, preventing the sort of migration that fosters biodiversity. These reserves are usually surrounded by human activity—farms, urban sprawl, clearcutting—that can affect them, even if they have well-enforced boundaries. The Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, an eco-tourist hotspot which covers 30,000 acres and hosts thousands of species, has been drying out because of farming in the surrounding lowlands. Plus, climate change could soon make the whole concept of a static, isolated preserve unworkable. Monarch butterflies, for instance, could soon find the biopreserves in Mexico where they winter uninhabitable in a few decades.

Any serious attempt to at least stem the extinction crisis—even if it can't be stopped—will, it seems, have to take a new approach to wildlife preserves. (As Whitty notes, even Yellowstone National Park has been losing biodiversity.) Meyer recommends setting up sites that protect "broad ecosystem functions... in a dynamic environment rather than species-specific habitat needs or singly-defining (highly peculiar) ecological characteristics." That seems right. Even if something like the Wildlands project is totally unfeasible, governments should be thinking bigger than a few butterfly preserves.

At the moment, governments focus mainly on saving individual species. This amounts to man-made evolution: We decide which species get to stay and which ones go. Pandas are cute and must be saved. Thousands of insects and deep-sea invertebrates that sustain whole ecosystems get little thought. Indeed, the original idea behind the U.S. Endangered Species Act was that the causes of extinction were finite and only a handful of species were genuinely threatened. That notion seems quaint in the face of an impending mass die-off of species we don't even know about. Obviously I don't want to see the ESA junked. Pandas really are adorable and need to be saved. But it's sort of like spitting in a hurricane at this point.

Update: Apologies, I had mischaracterized the Wildlands Project--it would not require large population resettlements, as I had thought.
-- Brad Plumer 8:41 AM || ||

April 27, 2007

Cheering On Divorce

I just got around to reading Tyler Cowen's New York Times column about how divorce has actually improved the quality of married life around the world. Can't say I've had much personal experience with the subject, but he brings up a lot of good points. This seems especially crucial:
And what about the children? Don’t they suffer in happiness and future prospects from divorce? Maybe so, but Mr. Wolfers and Ms. Stevenson do not think the question has received a final answer. To be sure, it is better for a child to have happily married parents, but when the family is dysfunctional anyway, we don’t know whether divorce harms the children.
Right. It's easy to point to studies showing that children with two married parents are better off than those without (although, as Trish Wilson has pointed out, even that research is ambiguous at best). But that's not even the relevant comparison. What you'd need to do is look specifically at children in broken marriages and figure out whether they'd be better off if their parents separated or stayed together. In many cases—say, one of the parents is abusive—staying together will obviously be the worse alternative.

As far as know, no one's ever done that, and so no one really knows if, on average, divorce has been bad for children. Maybe someday Steve Levitt or one of his acolytes will stumble on a clever natural experiment and settle this question once and for all. Maybe not. In any case, Cowen notes that "the number of children in a given divorce is, on average, declining," which seems like a positive trend.
-- Brad Plumer 5:06 PM || ||
China Gets Busy

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting piece on China's efforts to rein in its greenhouse gases. If the country gets even halfway to meeting its latest energy efficiency goals by 2010, it will cut emissions growth by more than the EU plans to do under Kyoto. Of course, anyone can set lofty goals, and China's still aiming to be the world's largest polluter either way, but the signs are far more encouraging than one would expect.

Anyway, it's not surprising that China's starting to take global warming seriously (surely people have noticed the Gobi desert edge closer and closer to Beijing each year). The trick is getting people in Washington, D.C., to notice. Plenty of people in Congress still oppose climate-change legislation on the grounds that it would be useless so long as China refuses to act. But that seems to be changing.
-- Brad Plumer 3:55 PM || ||
Beyond Ressentiment

The other day, Deroy Murdock wrote a hilarious column offering "proof" that Giuliani was no liberal, all because the mayor once pissed off a few environmentalists by dousing New York with pesticides and privatizing the management of Central Park. The idea, I guess, is that it doesn't matter what policies you adopt--as long as some "eco-freak" somewhere hates your guts, you're a bona fide conservative!

Anyway, it sounded plausible at the time, this idea that Republican voters would learn to love Rudy simply because he drove liberals batty. But I guess Giuliani's not so sure that's enough, which explains why he would chuck his support for gay rights over the transom and denounce New Hampshire's new civil unions law. (Which, by the way, was passed by the legislature, so there's no hiding behind complaints about "activist judges" and the like.) What a guy.
-- Brad Plumer 3:53 PM || ||

April 26, 2007

Scams Away

This story was published about two weeks ago, so apologies if you've already seen it on a million other blogs, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer did some rooting around and discovered that the FBI's new focus on counterterrorism has forced it to cut back its resources devoted to white-collar crime. "We realized we were going to have to pull out of some areas," one official said. "Bank fraud, investment fraud, ID theft--cases that protect the financial infrastructure of the country."

Congress never bothered to pay to put new agents on the fraud and embezzlement beat, so prosecutions dipped and scams went up. Civil rights investigations into hate crimes and police abuse have also dipped. Since many of these crimes affect lower-income and elderly people, no one raises a fuss. Also, I assumed that the FBI would've found some way to keep prosecuting drug cases (because what's more important than that?), but no, according to a 2004 GAO report, they've lost drug agents too. In fact, 55 percent of all agents now work on counterterrorism or counterintelligence, with only 41 percent doing criminal investigations.

Anyway, I'm all for fewer drug investigations, but not so hot on letting fraud and embezzlement go unchecked. Not a terribly interesting opinion, I know. But it does bring up a question I've always had. Is white-collar crime more deterrable than other sorts of crimes? I mean, I've always assumed that instituting the death penalty for, say, Ken Lay-type behavior would have far more of a deterrence effect than death sentences for, say, murder. The idea here is that Lay is a rational actor who will respond to incentives, in a way that a drug addict on a shooting spree might not. Or something. But is that true? Not that I'm suggesting the death penalty. I'm just curious.
-- Brad Plumer 1:44 AM || ||
Standard Solution

Hoff Stauffer has written an interesting paper on climate change, for anyone who wants to get into the gritty policy details. According to Stauffer, the carbon emissions we really need to worry about are those that will come from new sources—buildings that have yet to be built, cars that have yet to be driven, power plants that have yet to go online. That means that policymakers who want to mitigate global warming should concentrate their efforts primarily on putting in place strict performance standards for all new sources of pollution (CAFE standards, green building codes, power plant regulations, etc.), and focus somewhat less on carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes as the answer to all our problems.

As I understand it, Stauffer helped design the cap-and-trade system that curbed sulfur-dioxide emissions in the 1990s, so if he says a different approach would work more effectively for greenhouse gases, that deserves a hearing. And granted, on some level, this is all just quibbling, and Congress will likely need to try anything and everything to wean the country off fossil fuels. (Plus, if he's right, we'll still need to raise the price of carbon in order to reduce emissions from current sources.)

But it's also true that, as things stand, no serious climate-change legislation will be signed into law until George W. Bush leaves office. Right now seems like the time to look at all the relevant policy options and figure out which ones will work best. In any case, I'd imagine that businesses would fight performance standards harder than they would a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax—auto makers, for instance, tend to be fine with a gas tax but not so keen on higher CAFE standards. But I'd like to hear more about this, since Stauffer seems to be suggesting that all of the climate-change bills currently being pushed in Congress are, to some extent, misguided.
-- Brad Plumer 1:17 AM || ||

April 21, 2007

Who Needs Plans?

This month's National Journal has a piece looking at the nuts and bolts of withdrawal from Iraq--what it would entail, who would stay behind, etc. Most of the piece just recaps the battles in Washington over funding and the like, but these two paragraphs are unnerving:
It's almost impossible for the military to seriously plan for a contingency -- withdrawal -- that the commander-in-chief won't even discuss, Sinnreich noted. "The probability that it would leak to the press is too high, and no one in uniform wants to take that chance," he said. "Yet only with deliberate planning will we be able to take some of the sting out of what will surely be seen as a U.S. retreat. My point is, there are defeats -- and then there are defeats."

Knowledgeable Pentagon sources say that some planning for a possible drawdown in Iraq is in the "conceptual" stage, but they concede that the vast majority of the military's energy and effort is focused on implementing the troop surge and Petraeus's counterinsurgency campaign in Baghdad. If the campaign is successful, it will certainly set the conditions for a more orderly withdrawal. Yet some experts recall a similar lack of serious advance planning for "Phase 4" stability operations in Iraq, even as the 2003 invasion loomed.
So let's see. In all probability, the United States is going to draw down troops from Iraq sooner or later, regardless of whether the surge ends up pacifying Baghdad or not (likely not). Military experts all agree that pulling out could prove to be the most difficult and treacherous phase of the entire war. But the Pentagon can't really plan for withdrawal because the president doesn't want to discuss it. That's... more than a little frightening.
-- Brad Plumer 3:46 PM || ||

April 20, 2007

Why Wait for China?

Some staffer or other at The New Republic wrote a short editorial arguing that China and India's ostensible refusal to curb their own greenhouse emissions shouldn't give the United States an excuse to sit on its hands. I'll just add one other thing. I've heard people suggest that if the United States put a cap on carbon emissions--through a carbon tax or cap-and-trade program--then our manufacturers would just move their production to, say, China and merrily continue their polluting ways, free of hassle. It's a reasonable fear, and I actually haven't heard many people address it.

At the Kerry-Gingrich debate on global warming last week, though, Kerry mentioned that if worst came to worst, the United States and Europe could always use trade policy to force China and India to change course. Presumably that would mean carbon taxes on imports. I'm not sure how that would work in practice, or whether it would even pass muster with the WTO (Kerry admitted that he wasn't sure, either), but it's a possibility that at least some Democrats seem to be discussing.
-- Brad Plumer 2:29 PM || ||
Dodd Goes Wild

As far as policies to reduce greenhouse emissions go, most economists would argue that a straight-up carbon tax would work more effectively than a cap-and-trade regime, like the one Europe's struggling with. But politicians usually avoid even talking about carbon taxes—all of the big climate bills in the Senate involve cap-and-trade—for fear of being branded a puppy-hating socialist and all that.

So it's a semi-big deal that Chris Dodd decided to break the taboo and propose a "Corporate Carbon Tax" in his big energy speech the other day. Granted, a carbon tax that was actually refunded to consumers would be a lot more feasible than what he's proposing. Still, it's nice to see one of the long-shots do something dramatic to broaden the policy conversation a bit, rather than just mull around and wait to get voted off the island.
-- Brad Plumer 12:59 PM || ||

April 19, 2007


Obviously the Virginia Tech massacre is getting round-the-clock coverage. And some people seem to be fretting that giving the killer so much media publicity might end up encouraging copycat shooters. That seems plausible. But a flat earth seems plausible, too. So I'm curious: Is there any hard evidence that blanket coverage of massacres like this actually do inspire copycats? The first thing I found on Google was this passage from an old New York Times story, circa October 2006:
Psychologists and scholars of the news media said that although copycat events were always possible, the likelihood of one school attack leading to another was probably a bit less than it was a few years ago.

Some experts said they were not sure that the copycat phenomenon was real.
So "some experts" are skeptical. But "some experts" are also unnamed. That's not terribly helpful. Moving on, there's Loren Coleman, who wrote a whole book on the subject: The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. Naturally, he has a blog, which touts some relevant findings:
-- copycats follow a regular temporal pattern that repeats - these could be after a primary media event in a day, a week, two weeks, a month, a year, ten years—vulnerable humans have internal media clocks...

-- copycats imitate the previous violent attacks, oftentimes down to specific details as that mirror the previous specifics of the shooter, the victims, and the methods.

-- "celebrity" events have a far-reaching impact and modeling effect—so, of course, Columbine serves as a dark cloud over many school shootings.
Coleman argues that a school shooting in Essex, Vermont on August 24, 2006, really did inspire a wave of copycats—he lists them all and notices certain patterns. Okay, but if we want to be strict here, this just means that all of these shootings, occurring in a short time span, had some things in common. It doesn't necessarily mean that the first shooting caused the subsequent shootings (or that Student X would have never gunned down his classmates had it not been for, say, Columbine). Or that overblown media coverage was the culprit. Still, Coleman might well be onto something.

Alternatively, we could look at a parallel issue—copycat suicides, which have been studied pretty intensively. The World Health Organization cites a study finding that the suicide rate spikes in the ten days after news reports on suicides. This effect also depends largely on the type of coverage. The WHO recommends that media outlets keep their reports brief, point out any mental health problems the victim may have had, avoid publishing pictures or descriptions of the methods used, and not to depict suicide "as a method of coping with personal problems." In any case, I'd say the evidence is suggestive, but not quite conclusive, unless there are some major studies I'm missing.
-- Brad Plumer 8:44 PM || ||
Reid Has Second Thoughts

Harry Reid doesn't seem overly thrilled with the Supreme Court's abortion decision yesterday: "A lot of us wish that Alito weren't there and O'Connor were there." That's nice, and I agree, but then why did Reid vote for the D&X ban in the first place? Had he been hoping all along that O'Connor would still be there and the Supreme Court would strike it down?

Actually, I'd be curious to know if any of the 90 Democrats who voted for the ban did so because that was the politically safe move--the procedure is, after all, quite unpopular even if the ban itself was sloppily written, arbitrary, and fairly clearly designed to weaken abortion rights across the board--but were hoping the Supreme Court would overturn the law. That isn't unprecedented: George Lovell's book, Legislative Deferrals, has all sorts of examples of Congress passing laws they don't necessarily agree with, on the assumption that the courts will sort things out. But it's a sleazy way to do business--and ends up backfiring if, say, the swing Justice you're counting on ends up retiring.
-- Brad Plumer 10:32 AM || ||

April 18, 2007

Court Upholds Abortion Ban

The Supreme Court upholds the ban on so-called "partial-birth abortions." Here's the decision. Anthony Kennedy channels his inner right-winger. Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets at the import of this: "For the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception protecting a woman's health."

For more context, read this earlier piece by Scott Lemieux. The Court has, in the end, upheld a vague and arbitrary ban--as Richard Posner has pointed out, the only difference between D&X and other procedures still allowed depends on "which way the fetus's feet are pointing"--that will legislatures plenty of leeway to continue to chip away at abortion rights. Also, as I understand it, Kennedy's ruling that the law could not be challenged facially--it would have to be contested by a plaintiff who could show that it caused her specific harm--could make it much harder to challenge future anti-abortion laws in the courts (especially for poorer women most likely to be affected by such restrictions).

Update: I'll be curious to know if anyone still wants to argue that John Roberts and Samuel Alito are "moderates" who will practice restraint and all that. I guess the best that can be said about them is that they didn't sign onto this.
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 AM || ||

April 17, 2007

Abstinence for All

The Baptist Press is reporting that True Love Waits--a Christian group promoting abstinence-only education--plans to expand its operations in six African countries, thanks to a recent surge in donations. Guess they're unfazed by that report showing that these programs are basically useless. (Put the Family Research Council in the undaunted category as well.)

Anyway, True Love Waits's co-founder gets quoted claiming that the organization's abstinence-only message has helped reduce the HIV infection rate in Uganda. Oh, really? As I recall, Helen Epstein looked into this issue back in 2005, and found that many of the religious groups operating in Uganda have actually been lobbying against the two strategies that have been proven to work there: condom education and the government's now-defunct "Zero Grazing" initiative--a carefully tailored sex-ed campaign that accepted polygamy but denounced casual sex. (At this point, the Ugandan government has effectively shelved both strategies, so as not to anger USAID grantmakers.) I gather that little tidbit didn't make it into the press release.
-- Brad Plumer 7:15 PM || ||
Better Spin, Please?

So the EPA just released a report showing that greenhouse-gas emissions increased by about one percent in 2005. A few weeks ago, the government's latest Climate Action Report, which had to be leaked to the press, revealed that emissions will grow at the same rate in the coming decade as they did in the previous decade, if current trends hold. Back in the old days, the administration might've tried to suppress this stuff, or at least given it a decent spin. (Say, by pointing out that Europe's not doing much better, and pretending that that makes it all okay.) Something, anything.

But no. Here's the EPA's press release: "'The Bush Administration's unparalleled financial, international and domestic commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is delivering real results,' said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson." It's like they're not even trying to be clever anymore. A flack gap, indeed.
-- Brad Plumer 11:55 AM || ||
Flat Tax Here We Come

Yesterday, Ari Fleischer argued in the Wall Street Journal that the wealthy bear too much of the U.S. tax burden. Jon Chait gave the op-ed a good thumping here (among other things, the top 1 percent are paying more in taxes these days because they're making more money, not because they're getting soaked harder). But it's also worth noting a new study on this issue by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, which finds that the U.S. tax system is becoming steadily less progressive, and could even become effectively flat in a matter of years--at least for the top half of earners.

Among other things, since 1960, the effective federal tax rate--lumping all taxes together--has fallen dramatically for, say, the top 0.01 percent (from upwards of 71 percent to about 35 percent), risen a bit for those in the middle quintile (from 15.9 percent to 16.1 percent), and risen rather significantly for those in the 60th percentile to the 80th (from 16.7 percent to 20.5 percent). And it could get even flatter if Congress raises Social Security taxes for whatever reason or if the Alternative Minimum Tax starts hitting lower earners.

It's an interesting study. But it also looks only at federal taxes. A few years ago, the Christian Science Monitor did an analysis of total tax burdens, including state and local taxes (which are regressive), and found that the United States was even closer to a flat tax than Piketty and Saez believe. The middle quintile of earners pays a total tax rate of about 27 percent, while top earners pay about 32.8 percent. Not exactly a yawning difference--and that gap might be narrower depending on how adept top earners are at finding tax shelters in the Cayman Islands. So even as Fleischer's grousing that the tax structure is too progressive, there's plenty of reason to worry that it's losing virtually all of its progressiveness.
-- Brad Plumer 10:58 AM || ||

April 13, 2007

Black-Market Barbers

So I was reading Kerry Howley's review of Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, and got to wondering: Why are there so many requirements to become a barber? In Maryland, you need "1200 hours of barber student training in a barber school or 2250 hours as a registered apprentice in a licensed barber shop, and qualify by examination given by the Board."

I mean, I understand why doctors need licenses and whatnot--because training is necessary, and the cost of letting "the market" decide which doctors were good and well-qualified would be very high (i.e., lots of deaths). I also understand why barber shops need health inspections and the like. But thousands of hours of training? People really can cut hair without going to school--especially guy's hair. My untrained roommate cut my hair for two years, and if the end results were embarrassing, no one ever said anything. And Howley's claim that loosening the licensing requirements would allow many "underground" beauticians to move into the formal economy more easily seems persuasive on its face.

Maybe there's something I'm not considering here and it really is important that every barber has 2250 hours of schooling. But what?
-- Brad Plumer 2:24 PM || ||
Say No to Cruises!

Brian Beutler notes that the National Review is going on a little cruise with wealthy donors to raise money, and wonders why no liberal political journals (apart from The Nation) do the same. Well, not to be super-sanctimonious or anything, but I don't think any progressive organization should ever go on cruise ship vacations to raise money. Those boats tend to dump millions of gallons of waste water into the ocean, usually aren't regulated very well, and are often staffed by Third World workers earning rock-bottom wages and vulnerable to exploitation.

Maybe The Nation has found itself some nice eco-friendly cruise line, but I doubt it. From the website, it looks like they're using Holland America. Here's one account of how HA treats its workers. (Short answer: not well.) In 2004, the line paid a large fine for dumping 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into a harbor in Alaska. In 1998, the line had forked over another $2 million after it got caught illegally dumping waste. Sadly, giving passengers the option of buying a few carbon offsets doesn't make it all okay.

Okay, that was super-sanctimonious. Sorry! I'll try to write some more reasonable posts soon enough. But seriously, surely there are cleaner ways to do fund-raising...

Update: I see Salon and Ms. Magazine also go on cruises with Holland America. What fun!
-- Brad Plumer 2:04 PM || ||

April 12, 2007

Toxic Waste Next Door

Everyone should check out Garance Franke-Ruta's new-ish blog. It's a good one. Today she points us to this grim Los Angeles Times story:
California has the nation's highest concentration of minorities living near hazardous waste facilities, according to a newly released study. Greater Los Angeles has 1.2 million people living less than two miles from such facilities and 91%, or 1.1 million, are minorities. Statewide, the figure was 81%.
Garance calls this "environmental racism." I think she's right. But some of her commenters see things differently, arguing that there's a less-insidious explanation at work: Toxic waste facilities tend to get sited in poorer neighborhoods because it's cheaper to do so, and it just so happens that a lot of minorities are clustered in those poorer neighborhoods. In other words, to the extent that there's racial injustice at work here, it merely reflects preexisting patterns of racial segregation and racial inequality. The site owners aren't making racist decisions per se, even if the hazardous facilities are obviously exacerbating these patterns.

I'd say it's a bit more complicated than that. If you look at the study in question, it notes rather clearly that "race [is] more important than socioeconomic status in predicting the location of the nation's commercial hazardous facilities." So this pattern can't, it seems, be explained away simply by saying that minorities just happen to live in poorer neighborhoods. And that conclusion jibes with previous research on the topic. See this 1997 study on Los Angeles, for instance. And in 1995, James Hamilton found that the wealth of a community didn't predict the location of hazardous-waste sites nearly as well as race did.

What Hamilton found, in fact, was that polluting industries were more likely to build in a neighborhood if they thought the residents were less likely to engage in collective action against the new facility. And since minorities tend to have less political power--not least because they're poorly represented in state and local governments--these industries tend to assume they won't put up as much of a fight. So they saunter on in. (This probably explains why toxic facilities tend to "cluster" in certain regions--if an incinerator can move into neighborhood A without much hassle, then developers figure they can also put, say, a chemical plant there rather easily.)

So there are several things going on here: Not only are African-Americans and Hispanics more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods--due in no small part to general economic inequality and discriminatory housing policies--but their neighborhoods are more likely to be targeted by hazardous facilities, thanks to their relative lack of political power. And these things all reinforce each other. Living near a toxic dump can often be bad for your health. Inequality begets more inequality. And so on. Now, in 1994, Bill Clinton ordered the EPA to take "environmental justice" into consideration during its reviews of new facilities. But the EPA hasn't really enforced the rule (if it ever did), and it's not exactly a high priority in the current administration. So that's that.
-- Brad Plumer 8:21 PM || ||
Will Does Math

George Will writes today that any attempts to avert large-scale global warming would be absurdly expensive, while the "positive impact on the globe's temperature [would be] insignificant." He's also discovered--shockingly--that California can't reduce the world's emissions all by itself. So there you have it: No use trying. Nothing we can do. Give Bangladesh our regards.

Would it be too much to ask Will to offer numbers here? Yes, it would. (Although he does rattle off a bunch of fun facts about zinc mining in Canada.) Fortunately, though, Reuters just got its mitts on a leaked copy of the forthcoming IPCC report on mitigation--which deals with this exact subject--so we can put this discussion in context. The IPCC plans to report that it is perfectly possible to prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (the "dangerous" threshold). It would cost about 3 percent of global GDP--roughly one year's worth of economic growth. Not cheap, but not exactly undoable, either. (For the record, Nicholas Stern estimated that it would cost a third that much.)

Maybe Will would say that a year's worth of economic growth is still too high a price to pay. Or maybe he would start arguing about discount rates and the like. But why not have that debate, rather than rambling on about Ben & Jerry's and then accusing environmentalists of "fuzzy climate math"? Okay, maybe that's a dumb question.
-- Brad Plumer 2:00 PM || ||

April 09, 2007

Cap It or Tax It?

The Washington Post has a front-pager today on the various problems that have been plaguing Europe's attempts to curb carbon emissions with a cap-and-trade system. The sheer complexity of the regime has, among other things, allowed countries to cheat in order to protect their home industries. The prognosis isn't exactly terminal--Europe's still working to iron out the wrinkles, and U.S. policymakers are trying to learn from their mistakes--but it's clear that most carbon-trading programs will inevitably allow for a certain amount of monkey business.

Now, economists such as William Nordhaus have been noting the problems with cap-and-trade for quite some time. And most environmentalists, I think, agree that if we want to reduce carbon emissions, a simple carbon tax would be easier to administer--and harder to cheat--than a cap-and-trade system (although lord knows companies are perfectly capable of lobbying for tax loopholes, too). The catch, though, is that most politicians see a carbon tax as a total non-starter, especially after the BTU-tax debacle in 1993. And legislators like the opacity of cap-and-trade, because it shields them from voter anger over price increases. That's why all the major climate-change bills in the Senate right now involve carbon trading.

On the other hand, conservatives are increasingly speaking out in favor of a carbon tax. Greg Mankiw and Kevin Hassett are both on board. And now I see Reason's Ron Bailey is flirting with the idea, too. So who knows, maybe we'll see some bizarre alliance between greens, right-wing economists, and libertarians on the issue.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 PM || ||
King Coal Comes Knocking

Most coal companies aren't exactly thrilled by the prospect of Democrats putting a cap on carbon emissions in the coming years. So that means... lobbying. Whole shovels full. In March, the day before Al Gore testified before Congress on climate change, the coal industry held a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Virginia Democrat Rick Boucher, chair of the House subcommittee in charge of global warming legislation. And now Peabody Energy, the world's largest private coal company, has hired former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt to "spearhead its drive to defeat efforts by Democrats to put caps on carbon emissions."

The pairing isn't as shocking as it might seem. Gephardt has never been fond of taking action on global warming. And I suspect there are more than a few Democrats aligned with industrial unionism who share his view. At the recent candidate forum held by the AFL-CIO's building trades division, I noticed that not a single candidate garnered applause for talking about global warming. When John Edwards--who seemed to get a standing ovation every time he so much as blinked--discussed his plan to slash carbon emissions by 80 percent before 2050, the silence was stark. (No one seemed to buy his promise to replace "every single job that would be lost.")

Now, I'd be a fool to try and predict this far in advance how the carbon-cap debate will play out in Congress, but the lack of enthusiasm from groups like the AFL-CIO could be a big deal. In the past, Democrats have failed to get universal health care passed, in part, because they couldn't get labor on board. In the 1940's, during Truman's big push, unions like the UMW were already satisfied with the benefits they had won for their workers and offered only tepid support. In 1994, many labor leaders were furious at Clinton over NAFTA and didn't really get behind his health-care drive. Sometimes I wonder if climate-change legislation could suffer the same fate.

P.S. Peabody plans to have Gephardt lobby for "increased funding for 'clean coal technology.'" And it's true, federal support for clean-coal research has been lagging (see this MIT report on "The Future of Coal"). But even if scientists can get carbon sequestration to work, there are really only two ways for clean coal plants to become competitive: if the price of carbon (and hence the cost of conventional coal plants) rises thanks to a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime, or if the government starts doling out massive subsidies. Wonder which option Peabody has in mind.
-- Brad Plumer 12:57 PM || ||