September 30, 2007

Death Penalty Roulette

Worth a read: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a long four-part investigative series on the state of the death penalty in Georgia. What's striking is how horribly random the whole process is. The newspaper found 1,315 murder cases between 1995 and 2004 that could've been prosecuted for death. But prosecutors sought the death penalty in only a quarter of those cases, and only one in 23 landed on death row.

The thing is, there's absolutely no rhyme or reason as to why some criminals get the death penalty and not others. It's certainly not the "worst of the worst" who end up on death row—lesser crimes often get punished more severely than ghastly murders. Geography is a big factor: Some counties are simply far more likely to pursue the death penalty. And race matters, too: "Prosecutors were more than twice as likely to seek the death penalty when the victim was white." Basically, it's all a big roulette wheel—as one attorney notes, they could execute every 100th murderer at random and it would have the same effect.

Needless to say, the state's judicial review doesn't inspire confidence, either: "The newspaper's analysis shows the [Georgia Supreme Court's] reviews have been perfunctory and often inaccurate. Since 1982, 19 percent of cases cited by the court to justify death sentences had already been thrown out on appeal."
-- Brad Plumer 11:37 PM || ||
Softer on Crime?

The Los Angeles Times reports on a growing backlash against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which, of course, can lead to absurdly long prison sentences in cases where they clearly aren't warranted. One example: A 52-year-old woman with a history of mental illness was recently sentenced to 159 years in prison as an "accomplice" after her live-in boyfriend pleaded guilty to a series of armed robberies in Montana. Then there are all of the absurdly steep "minimum" sentences for non-violent drug crimes, and so on.

Judges are getting even more vocal about the need for more leeway. As best I can tell, United States v. Booker, in which the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing guidelines should only be "advisory," didn't change much. But the Court's hearing two new cases on Tuesday: one dealing with how closely judges have to follow the guidelines, the other dealing with the 100-to-1 disparity in punishments for crack and powder cocaine, a disparity that hits poor black Americans hardest. (The United States Sentencing Commission has just proposed to reduce the penalties for crack offenses, though Congress can still veto the proposal.)

We'll see if things actually change. Somehow I can't see the Roberts Court going all mushy. But it's hard to imagine that anyone's still unaware of the problems with having a massive prison state. Just read any of the dozens of new books on the subject. Even some hardcore Republicans like Jeff Sessions support reform. It was also nice to see Barack Obama outline some semi-concrete proposals last week, such as a promise to "review mandatory minimum drug sentencing." But, all that said, there are still plenty of Democrats wary of doing anything that could get them tagged as "soft on crime," and two decades of sentencing policies certainly aren't going to be reversed overnight.
-- Brad Plumer 11:25 PM || ||
D.C. Tops Sweden

Holy f—: "The Washington [D.C.] area produces more carbon dioxide than several medium-size European countries, [thanks to] the region's crawling traffic and coal-fired power plants." That's 65.6 million tons of CO2 emitted in 2005, more than Hungary, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, or Switzerland, all of which have far more people. (The area produces 25 percent more carbon than Sweden, which has nearly twice as many people—see here for why Sweden's so clean.)

For my money, the scary factoid here is that D.C.-area residents are actually fairly green when stacked against the rest of the country, emitting 13.2 tons of carbon annually, versus a national average of 20 tons. And they already use public transit at far higher rates than most of the rest of the country. So, I guess the main options for cutting emissions are: convincing people to live in D.C. proper rather than the suburbs and kicking all those coal plants to the curb.

Sure, sure. Easier said than done. Although I was lazily clicking through reading a new report by the Urban Land Institute, Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change (the "evidence," obviously, is that we're never going to mitigate climate change unless we figure out how to make our urban areas more compact and less sprawling), and came across this most intriguing tidbit:
The density increases required to achieve the changes proposed in this publication would be moderate. Nelson’s work shows that the average density of residential development in U.S. urban areas was about 7.6 units per acre in 2003. His predictions of shifting market demand indicate that all housing growth to 2025 could be accommodated by building condominiums, apartments, townhomes, and detached houses on small lots, while maintaining the current stock of houses on large lots.

Under this scenario, while new developments would average a density of 13 units per acre, the average density of metropolitan areas overall would rise modestly, to about nine units per acre. Much of the change would result from stopping the sprawling development that has resulted in falling densities in many metropolitan areas.
That doesn't sound so painful, now does it?
-- Brad Plumer 11:12 PM || ||
Well Said

I guess it's not really notable that I agree with every word Bill McKibben says here, but I'm going to give it a link anyway.

On a related note, since McKibben criticized the sorta-weak climate bill being touted by Joe Lieberman, it was interesting to hear Lieberman himself suggest the other day that many industry groups are pushing for major climate legislation now, before 2009 rolls around. Evidently, they don't want to take the chance that the next president will be a Democrat—and the next Congress even more progressive. Now, I doubt that Bush would ever agree to let even a weak cap-and-trade bill pass, even if it would preempt more drastic action down the road, but Lieberman sure is giving off the impression that that could happen.
-- Brad Plumer 4:17 PM || ||
Revitalization In Action

The Washington Post reports that downtown Los Angeles is now becoming a "hipster heaven," filled with chic restaurants, dance clubs, and, of course, lofts. There's just one little problem:
All this is remarkable because until recently, nobody lived downtown except on Skid Row, where about 13,000 drug-addicted, mentally ill or poor people crash in flophouses, homeless shelters and on the streets. Skid Row remains the supreme challenge for revitalization -- and the source of guilt and rancor as the two downtowns alternatively coexist or collide.

The friction has increased as police have stepped up arrests for drug use and petty crime in an attempt to bring order to the wild open-air dope bazaars and homeless camps.
And how's that working out? The LA Daily News has some additional info. For the past year, the LAPD has flooded Skid Row with dozens of additional officers. According to a recent UCLA study, crime in the area has dropped 40 percent, but it has also increased in the surrounding areas, as the police sweeps push both the homeless and other folks elsewhere. What's more, of the 1000 citations now given out each month, most are for minor infractions like loitering or jaywalking. "Good, good," one might say, "'broken windows' policing in action." Except that many Skid Row denizens can't pay the fine, and then get sent to jail, which in turn makes them ineligible for housing. Not so good.

On the bright side, the mayor says he's "willing to look at" adding more housing and other social services for the homeless, but doesn't want to distract attention from the fact that stepping up law enforcement in Skid Row has worked so well.

P.S. On a slightly different-yet-related note, the city overall has seen a big drop in homicides this year, apparently due to an increased reliance on gang-intervention workers rather than mass arrests and high-profile sweeps by the police. The interventionists, who take pains to distance themselves from the cops publicly, have been particularly successful at "rumor control," that is, "calming tensions after a shooting to prevent retaliation."
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||
Vietnam, Revised

Rick Perlstein reviews the two big revisionist histories of the Vietnam war that have come out lately, both of which conservatives have used to argue that the U.S. military was actually winning the conflict—before, of course, being betrayed by those pesky liberals in Congress. Shockingly, both books are pretty shoddy (curiously, one of them, Triumph Forsaken, goes about uncritically accepting Communist missives in order to make its case).
-- Brad Plumer 3:28 PM || ||
No Asylum For You

Consider two stories—both of them horrible. The first involves a woman who was a member of the opposition Democratic Party in Albania. In the mid-1990s, she was arrested at a political rally and held without charge. Shortly thereafter, she was kidnapped by four masked men on the street and forced into prostitution. Her captors, one of them a policeman, told her that she was being "punished" for her involvement with the Democratic Party and branded her leg, in case she escaped. Eventually, she was rescued by her fiancé and returned home, but, after her fiancé was attacked by masked men, they left the country—first to Italy, then to the United States.

The second story involves another young Albanian woman, "Ariana," who was kidnapped with her cousin in 1999 by two masked men, raped at gunpoint, and then driven to a vacant building with five other women where they were raped and beaten for a week. The women were then dragged onto headed to Italy, where they would be forced into prostitution, but the boat was intercepted and Ariana was freed. She filed a police report, but nothing ever came of it. Soon after, her family started receiving regular threats over the phone by men who knew Ariana's name. After her cousin was kidnapped yet again, and gunmen broke into her home, she fled to the United States.

What's the difference here? Well, the first woman was granted asylum by the Bureau of Immigration; the second was not. In both cases, the immigration judges found the women's stories credible, but, in the second, the judge ruled that Ariana had been "randomly targeted," and had no proof that the kidnappers had any "personal animus" toward her. Of course, there did seem to be personal animus at work—Ariana and her cousin were repeatedly targeted by men who knew her name—but in any case, that's irrelevant. For asylum purposes, the question should have been whether she would be targeted for persecution if she returned to Albania. And the answer is: Yes, very likely.

Now, anyone can nitpick with an individual judge's decision in this or that case. What we want to know is if there's a systemic problem here. The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) has just put out a report examining nearly 100 cases in which trafficking was a key part of an applicant's claim to asylum. The center found that the trend is disturbing—decisions by immigration courts are "heavily weighted toward denials." In fact, most of the cases seem to run counter to the criteria for asylum laid out in U.S. law:
Refugee status may be established by showing past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution. An applicant seeking to qualify for asylum based on past persecution must show: "(1) an incident, or incidents, that rise to the level of persecution; (2) that is 'on account of' one of the statutorily-protected grounds; and (3) is committed by the government or forces the government is either 'unable or unwilling' to control."
The problem here is that most immigration judges seem to treat women fleeing trafficking as victims of ordinary crime. On the other hand, if a woman can prove that she was persecuted in part because of her political beliefs—as with the first case I mentioned—then judges will look more favorably on their cases. But this isn't always easy to prove. A huge plurality of cases involves Albania, which has a serious trafficking problem, and there's good reason to think that many women are targeted for political reasons. But they can't always prove it. Strikingly, Albanian women seeking asylum are rejected at a much higher rate than average.

Reading through the case studies, it looks like judges also tend to argue that many women aren't being targeted for trafficking because they belong to a specific social group, and hence don't qualify for asylum. CGRS argues that this is misguided: Previous court rulings have declared that sex and gender can constitute a "protected" group, and various international rulings have, rightly, pointed out that women are often targeted for trafficking because of "their vulnerability in certain social settings." There's something wrong with this picture, and even if immigration judges aren't to blame, then the policy seems badly conceived.
-- Brad Plumer 3:03 PM || ||

September 25, 2007


The New York Times runs down the big anti-government protest by Buddhist monks in Burma. I'm not sure what it all means, but this detail stood out:
There were also concerns that the government might use provocateurs to stir violence and justify a crackdown, as it did in 1988. The Burma Campaign UK said its sources had reported the junta ordering large numbers of maroon monastic robes and telling soldiers to shave their heads, possibly to infiltrate the monks.
Creepy. Also, this FPIF piece by Kyi May Kaung, written just as the protests were starting in August, offers a decent lay of the land, especially on how previous attempts to "privatize" select parts of the country's command economy just made things worse. There's also this: "In 1988, the general consensus... was that the military government came within a hair's breadth of losing power. The difference between 1988 and now is that now, due to the internet and citizen journalism, it is much more difficult for the junta to hide its human rights abuses." Sure, but is that really enough to make a difference?
-- Brad Plumer 11:58 AM || ||

September 24, 2007

Economics of the Slave Trade

Via Dani Rodrik, a new paper by Nathan Nunn finds that the slave trade had very severe, very horrific, and very long-lasting effects on Africa's development. Okay, that's no surprise, but it's illuminating to read Nunn's account of exactly how the slave trade ravaged certain nations and regions:
The most common manner in which slaves were taken was through villages or states raiding one another. Where groups of villages had previously developed into larger scale village federations, relations between the villages tended to turn hostile. As a result, ties between villages were weakened, which in turn impeded the formation of larger communities and broader ethnic identities. ... Because of this process, the slave trades may be an important factor explaining Africa's high level of ethnic fractionalization today. ...

Because of the environment of uncertainty and insecurity at the time, individuals required weapons, such as iron knives, spears, swords or firearms, to defend themselves. These weapons could be obtained from Europeans in exchange for slaves, which were often obtained through local kidnappings. This further perpetuated the slave trade and the insecurity that it caused, which in turn further increased the need to enslave others to protect oneself. ...

Generally, the consequence of internal conflict was increased political instability and in many cases the collapse of pre-existing forms of government. In 16th century Northern Senegambia, the Portuguese slave trade was a key factor leading to the eventual disintegration of the Joloff Confederation, which was replaced by the much smaller kingdoms of Waalo, Ka joor, Baol, Siin and Saalum. Further south, in Southern Senegambia, the same pattern is observed. Prior to the slave trades, complex state systems were in the process of evolving. However, this evolution stagnated soon after the arrival of the Portuguese in the 15th century. ...

Pre-existing governance structures were generally replaced by small bands of slave raiders, controlled by an established ruler or warlord. However, these bands were generally unable to develop into large, stable states. Colson writes that "both the bands and the new states they created retained an air of improvisation. Few band leaders were able to hand power to a legitimate successor. Even where a band leader had become the ruler of a state, succession remained a problem. Leadership was a personal role, rather than an established office."

The slave trades also contributed to political instability by causing the corruption of previous established legal structures. In many cases, it became common to obtain slaves by falsely accusing others of witchcraft or other crimes. Klein writes that "communities began enslaving their own. Judicial penalties that formerly had taken the form of beatings, payment of compensation or exile, for example, were now converted to enslavement." Often, leaders themselves supported or even instigated this abuse of the judicial system. To protect themselves and their community from being raided, leaders often chose to pay slaves as tribute, which were often obtained through the judicial system.***
According to Nunn, the economic evidence bears this account out: The slave trade ripped apart many relatively stable states, undermined existing legal structures, and fomented ethnic factionalization. As a rule, the more a country was devastated by the slave trade, the worse its economic performance is likely to be today. Nunn also tries to rule out reverse-causation, noting that most slaves were taken from the better-developed parts of Africa, since it was easier for Europeans to cull slaves from countries with centralized governments and well-developed trading networks. (By contrast, Gabon, a poor and relatively violent part of Africa back then, scared off Portuguese traders.)

In any case, the paper appears to be well done, pinning down what many people had suspected for quite some time. Nunn also points out, surprisingly, that most of the impact of the slave trades were felt after colonial independence—since this is when Africa's pre-colonial political structures, which had been destroyed by the slave trade, suddenly became much more critical.

*** Here's one particularly gruesome example: "The chief of the Cassanga [in what is now Guinea Bissau] used the 'red water ordeal' to procure slaves and their possessions. Those accused of a crime were forced to drink a poisonous red liquid. If they vomited, then they were judged to be guilty. If they did not vomit, they were deemed not guilty. However, for those that did not vomit this usually brought death by poisoning. Their possessions were then seized and their family members were sold into slavery."
-- Brad Plumer 7:49 PM || ||
When In Doubt... Try Harder!

There's a new GAO report out on the War on Drugs. We learn that the United States spent $7 billion between 2000 and 2006 on drug-fighting efforts in Latin America, and—get this—it turns out we're not getting a whole lot for our money. Drug seizures affect "a very small percentage of the estimated drug supply." An average of 275 tons of cocaine enters the United States each year, but law-enforcement officials only seize about 36 of those tons. And so on.

Meanwhile, the recent strategy of targeting drug cartel "kingpins" seems to be about as effective as killing off Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq. That is, not very: "[T]his strategy does not appear to have significantly reduced drug trafficking in Mexico.... However, the disruption caused by the removal of some of the leadership presented opportunities for other drug traffickers to take advantage of the changing balance of power.... Such struggles led to increased violence throughout Mexico, with drug related deaths estimated at over 2,000 in 2006." Nicely done.

So the whole thing's a debacle, from start to finish. Any guess as to what the GAO recommends in response? Throw in the towel? Try a different approach? Maybe flirt with legalization...? Haha, no. They just suggest that the lead agency for U.S. drug policy should try to work better with its Mexican counterparts. In particular, "greater cooperation and coordination between Defense and the Mexican military service" might help. Yes, no doubt that's been the problem all along.
-- Brad Plumer 7:19 PM || ||
Why Bother with a Summit?

So in the wake of news that the Arctic ice is melting faster than anyone expected, the UN climate summit is kicking off in New York today. It's true, nothing super-meaningful is going to come out of the conference—especially since President Bush has basically refused to attend, having decided to hold his own "summit" in Bali—but, as Matt Yglesias points out, the kabuki still serves a purpose, since it helps keep talks over how the world can best mitigate climate change moving in such a way that a new U.S. president could come into office in 2009 and, in theory, hit the ground running.

On a conference call last week with reporters, John Kerry and Tim Wirth—the main U.S. negotiator for the first Kyoto agreement—put the timeline in perspective. The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in 2012. Kerry and Wirth estimated that it would take three years from the time that there's global agreement on a new treaty to actual ratification. So in order for there to be any chance of a new global treaty taking effect in 2012—and avoid having all the existing emission-reduction mechanisms in Europe and elsewhere come to a halt—the next U.S. president would, ideally, negotiate and get a new treaty agreed to by the end of 2009.

Kerry, for his part, seemed to think this would be insanely difficult but still doable: "If you have [a new president] who understands the nature of the challenge, who realizes the legitimacy of the crisis ... then I believe you can put experienced people in place and very rapidly move the United States," he said. "It'll be a push but we have no choice." The big question, though, is how effective the new treaty would actually be. Kerry also argued that, even though the last Kyoto agreement was nixed by the Senate 95-0, a new treaty that addressed concerns about China, India, and other developing countries could win the Senate's approval. We'll see. I'm mildly optimistic about Congress passing some sort of cap-and-trade system, less so about signing on to a global climate-change treaty in the near future. But I'd love to be wrong.

Note, too, that Kerry's scenario would depend on having a president who made global warming a top priority—higher than, say, health care or taxes. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be in the cards at this point in the campaign.
-- Brad Plumer 11:07 AM || ||

September 23, 2007

Just Ship It Abroad

Back in 1979, a fledgling publication by the name of Mother Jones published a package of stories with the headline "The Corporate Crime of the Century," which described how U.S. businesses were being allowed to export products overseas that had been deemed unsafe for the domestic market. Some of the examples were absolutely appalling:
* After the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device killed at least 17 women in the United States, the manufacturer withdrew it from the domestic market. It was sold overseas after the American recall and is still in common use in some countries.

* Lomotil, an effective anti-diarrhea medicine sold only by prescription in the U.S. because it is fatal in amounts just slightly over the recommended doses, was sold over the counter in Sudan, in packages proclaiming it was "used by astronauts during Gemini and Apollo space flights" and recommended for use by children as young as 12 months.

* An undisclosed number of farmers and over 1,000 water buffalos died suddenly in Egypt after being exposed to leptophos, a chemical pesticide which was never registered for domestic use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but was exported to at least 30 countries.

* 450,000 baby pacifiers of the type that has caused choking deaths have been exported by at least five manufacturers since a ban was proposed by the [Consumer Product Safety Commission]. 120,000 teething rings that did not meet recently established CPSC standards were cleared for export and are on sale right now in Australia.
And so on. The investigation sparked an uproar—particularly with the revelation that the State Department was offering direct support for this practice—and spurred all sorts of legislative changes, especially after the Washington Post confirmed the magazine's story four months later (although the Post refrained from calling such dumping a "crime," since that wouldn't be very objective, now would it?)

Anyhow, I'm only dredging this up now because the Sacramento Bee just did a major investigation that appears to have identified a very similar scandal at the modern-day Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has come under fire lately after the recall of lead-contaminated toys from China. To wit:
Investigative Report: U.S. ships unsafe products
Since long before China furor, federal agency has OK'd exporting goods banned in America.

The Bee found that between October 1993 and September 2006, the CPSC received 1,031 requests from companies to export products the agency had found unsafe for American consumers. The CPSC approved 991 of those requests, or 96 percent.
A return to 1970s-era dumping? Well, it's actually hard to say. For one, the Bee couldn't determine how many of those requests are from U.S. companies dumping unsafe products overseas, and how many of them are merely requests to ship unsafe goods back to their country of origin, or what have you. In one instance, an L.A.-based company was allowed to ship art materials to Venezuela that had been deemed unsafe for American kids, but the company insists that it had merely received the supplies from China by mistake and was just passing them along. Still, even the CPSC's commissioner thinks there's a problem here.

(Of course, with everything the agency is being criticized for right now, this one is probably low on the list of things Congress will investigate. See also this.)
-- Brad Plumer 7:45 PM || ||
Adventures on the High Seas

The AP interviewed two dozen climate experts and found a lot of people who believe that sea levels are going to rise at least a meter in the intermediate future, "regardless of any future action to curb greenhouse gases." If so, a rise that big would swamp a big chunk of the U.S. coastline—areas that are seriously at risk include Jamestown, the Louisiana wetlands, parts of Florida, North Carolina, Texas, South Carolina, and so on. Most surprisingly, even John Christy, who often gets hyped in skeptic circles, seems to think we should prepare for a meter's worth of rising seas. (It's unclear exactly what he means, though.)

Now, a couple things: Even if a one-meter rise is likely to happen regardless of what we do about greenhouse gases, that doesn't mean we shouldn't bother taking action. After all, the rate of sea-level rise matters—a one-meter rise that took place over 50 years would be much, much more catastrophic than a one-meter rise over, say, two centuries (which would at least gives us some time to adapt). And, of course, there's always the high likelihood that sea levels could rise even higher than a meter, if CO2 levels continue increasing without end. Not a happy thought.

(As a sidenote, yes, these scientists are leaning toward the alarmist end of things, and this isn't a "consensus" judgment. On the other hand, skeptics like Bjorn Lomborg love to say that the IPCC only predicted, at worst, a rise of eight inches by the end of the century. That is certainly false, seeing as how the IPCC explicitly said they weren't including "the full effect of changes in ice flow" in their prediction. Maybe that's well-known by now, but seeing as how Lomborg got to peddle this line on the Colbert Report recently without being challenged, it's worth hitting this again and again.)
-- Brad Plumer 5:30 PM || ||
Bent Spear

Via Steve Benen, The Washington Post tries to untangle the story of how six nuclear-armed missiles were accidentally flown from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Louisiana, without anyone realizing that the bombs went missing for at least 36 hours. On the list of possible f'ups, this was a big one. (The bombs weren't really at risk of detonating, but slip-ups like this one could very easily lead to them being stolen or damaged.)

The Post's reporting is top-notch, but it's still unclear how and why all of the safeguards failed—especially how the missiles made it from storage onto the plane. Amazingly, the Air Force seems to be focusing at this point on punishing individual airmen while assuring everyone that "its security system is working." Bad apples and all that.

Meanwhile, here's an alarming line: "The Air Force's inspector general in 2003 found that half of the 'nuclear surety' inspections conducted that year resulted in failing grades." I guess the predictable lefty thing to say here is that, given the fact that the cold war-era safeguard system appears to be "utterly debased," and given the potential for major mistakes like this one, maybe it's not such a fantastic idea after all to have thousands of our nearly 10,000 warheads on hair-trigger alert.

Update: Hmmm... Larry Johnson, a former intelligence officer, isn't buying the official storyline here. He thinks the nukes may well have been transported deliberately, and notes that the base in Louisiana where they were taken is a jump-off point for air strikes on targets in the Middle East. I guess anything's possible...
-- Brad Plumer 4:44 PM || ||
Moses Revisionism

The new "revisionist" exhibit of Robert Moses in New York seemed interesting enough, and after reading Nathan Glazer's review in The New Republic, I figured, hey, maybe historians are pointing out things that Robert Caro's famous 1000-page biography missed. But now comes Thomas Bender in Democracy Journal insisting that the new Moses revisionism doesn't revise all that much; it mostly just fills out the portrait Caro already sculpted. In particular, Bender offers this, which I don't know nearly enough to judge one way or the other:
[T]he claim that Moses’ work is the foundation for the city’s revival after 1975 cannot be proven by empirical evidence. Are the Moses projects the basis for the city’s recent flourishing? To some extent, of course, yes, the parks, bridges, freeways, and parkways are important building blocks for metropolitan New York. But the immediate engine of change in New York since 1975 was not anything that can be associated with Moses.

In my view, it was the massive rehabilitation of the subway system under the strong but not dictatorial leadership of Richard Ravitch, and the political development of zoning regulations and city ordinances that allowed and promoted the conversion of old factory buildings, in places like SoHo, for residence. The latter not only reinvigorated a de-industrializing New York but also transformed the meaning of urban living around the world, making loft living a real estate slogan and a marker of contemporary urbanity. Both mass transit and those old buildings were, of course, objects of Moses’ scorn.
Much of the new revisionism, it seems, comes from various architects, historians, and city planners who believe some form of the idea that "twenty-first-century city-making requires a strong hand." Bender's basically saying, no, look, New York's planners aren't actually that paralyzed, Moses' approach (as Moses proved) lends itself to serious abuse, it's a good thing that more and more (though certainly not all) urban-planning endeavors get community input these days, and the main thing to worry about is that the mechanisms for public participation are still clumsy and need be improved, not abolished. Intuitively, that seems right, although again, it's not something I know heaps about. Fascinating essay all around, though.
-- Brad Plumer 11:35 AM || ||

September 22, 2007


Not a novel insight, but it's pretty freakin' impressive that organizers got as many as 50,000 protesters down to a tiny Louisiana town for the march over the Jena 6 case. Antiwar folks haven't managed anything half as formidable lately. Also, check out this Chicago Tribune piece, on how online groups such as Color of Change and the black blogosphere—which brought the Jena 6 story into the national spotlight—appear to be creating a new infrastructure for a modern-day civil rights movement, which in the last two decades has had to rely heavily on a few key leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor has a somewhat different take. Everyone who's studied the issue agrees that there are large racial disparities in the U.S. justice system. The question, says CSM, is how much of this is a result of prejudice on the part of individual prosecutors and police officers (which, at first glance, appears to have been a factor in the Jena case), and how much a result pre-existing racial disparities in income and education that are then amplified by the criminal justice system. Experts seem to disagree. I don't really know who's right, but Kenneth Nunn of the University of Florida brings it all back to the Jena 6:
"The public at large basically thinks that these cases are aberrations, and that's one reason why so much attention is paid to them," says Professor Nunn. "It's the idea that it's the redneck sheriff doing this and not the way we sort of stack the odds against black criminal defendants. We can point to a few bad apples, say, 'See, it's them,' and the rest of us feel great because we're demonstrating how we disagree with racism."
I don't think that's what's going on in this particular instance, but I guess I can see his larger point.
-- Brad Plumer 7:20 PM || ||
A Lot of Nerve

Okay, I read this Texas Observer story, which seemed mildly outrageous at first. Basically, there's a chemical-weapons facility up in Indiana that is destroying a bunch of cold war-era weapons with VX nerve agent in them. Deadly stuff. After the weapons are destroyed and the nerve agent neutralized, the resulting wastewater is then being shipped to Port Arthur, Texas, one of the poorer and more polluted towns in the state, where it will be incinerated. The only problem, say local activists, is that no one knows whether the VX agent has really been neutralized, and the incinerator smokestacks aren't very well monitored, and it's all very shady, etc. etc.

Anyway, the complaints sounded plausible enough, because what the hell do I know. But the Armchair Generalist has been following this—and other chemical-demilitarization issues—for a long time, and he says there's nothing to see here: The Army has now won 24 federal cases over this issue, and even the National Research Council has okayed the whole neutralize-and-incinerate process. No doubt, Port Arthur has plenty of environmental problems (most ominously, the company that runs the incinerator has had 67 regulatory violations since 2002), but this particular VX disposal method appears reasonable enough.

Well, this might be the first time I've sided with the U.S. Army over the Sierra Club. So it goes. Meanwhile, it's worth trawling through the AG's archives on the subject of "chem demil." There are all sorts of interesting stories about chemical-weapons activists making common cause with senators like Mitch McConnell over the issue, with the latter very high on winning funding to build "alternative" disposal facilities. I'm not sure what the upshot is—besides the fact that actual disposal ends up taking longer and costing more—but it's all very curious.
-- Brad Plumer 3:49 PM || ||
Tough on Crime? Hardly!

Russell Mokhiber, the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, has a few comparisons he wants to share with the class.
The FBI estimates that burglary and robbery—street crimes—costs the nation $3.8 billion a year.

[In contrast,] health care fraud costs Americans $100 billion $400 billion a year. And then you have your lesser frauds: auto repair fraud, $40 billion a year, securities fraud, $15 billion a year—and on down the list. ...
Here's one more comparison:
The FBI estimates that 16,000 Americans are murdered every year.

Compare this to the 56,000 Americans who die every year on the job or from occupational diseases such as black lung and asbestos... These deaths are often the result of criminal recklessness. Yet, they are rarely prosecuted as homicides or as criminal violations of federal laws.
That's from "Twenty Things You Should Know About Corporate Crime." The most interesting tidbits come near the end: Over the years, Mokhiber has been tracking the sharp rise in deferred-prosecution agreements (in which the Justice Department files criminal charges against a corporation, but then agrees to drop them completely if the company behaves for the next two years), as well as non-prosecution agreements (where companies just pay a fine and avoid criminal charges). Actual punishments that run the risk of spurring structural reforms, such as "corporate probation," have fallen into disfavor.
-- Brad Plumer 3:28 PM || ||
Waste Not, etc.

When did the slogan "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" first come into vogue? The 1970s? I'm not sure. During that time, though, when overflowing landfills were garnering national attention, industry-funded groups such as Keep American Beautiful were trying to fend off the green movement by emphasizing voluntary consumer efforts to recycle as an alternative to more stringent waste-management laws.* Sure, recycling wasn't as effective at stemming garbage as reducing or reusing (much of "recycling" ends up junked anyway), but it also doesn't threaten to curb production or slow the pace of consumerism, which, from the standpoint of manufacturers, is what matters.

Anyway, the Oregonian had a great story recently about how Oregon's "much touted recycling rates" can't keep up with the state's tide of garbage production: a ton and a half per person each year. So some regulators are trying to go past recycling and revisit those other two neglected precepts—reduce and reuse. After all, there's also the climate angle to consider: "Stopping the growth in waste… generates the third-highest greenhouse gas savings, behind only boosting auto mileage and increasing renewable energy."

The problem is, it's not going over well. Businesses, for their part, are tentatively okay with making tweaks, such as reducing packaging to cut costs. Green residential design is also being talked about. (There are huge energy savings to be had there.) But more ambitious items—mandates for green product design, planning fees for bigger houses, carbon taxes—seem to be mostly off-limits. After all, recycling gets support from manufacturers and, especially, garbage collectors. For obvious reasons, though, no one has any financial interest in promoting "Buy Nothing Day" and the like.

* Keep America Beautiful's original focus was an anti-littering campaign as a way of steering focus away from dread bottle-deposit laws, and only seems to have shifted its emphasis to (voluntary) recycling later on. The group also seems to have founded the National Center for Solid Waste Disposal, which, as best I can tell, helped spearhead the burgeoning waste-disposal industry in the 1970s. Here's a curious Time article from 1971 on "Gold in Garbage." Another KAB offshoot appears to have gone even further, working to convince the EPA that incineration was the best alternative to burying garbage underground.
-- Brad Plumer 2:57 PM || ||
The Tobacco Toll

The tobacco industry turns out to be… not so environmentally friendly. An In These Times piece by Bryan Farrell assembles some statistics you can use to harangue your smoking friends. After you've browbeaten them into going vegetarian, that is:
Without even factoring in the paper wrapping, packaging, and print advertisements—which require as much paper by weight as the tobacco being grown—nearly 600 million trees are felled each year to provide the fuel necessary for drying out the tobacco. That means one in eight trees cut down each year worldwide is being destroyed for tobacco production. [I]n Malawi, in a region where only three percent of the farmers grow tobacco, nearly 80 percent of the trees cut down each year are used for the curing process. …

Moreover, were farmers to stop growing tobacco and only grow food crops—as the Yale University School of Medicine proposed more than a decade ago—10 to 20 million of the world's current 28 million undernourished people could be fed.

Aside from land erosion, deforestation also affects the atmosphere, by raising the level of carbon dioxide emissions responsible for global warming. Scientists affiliated with the climate research group Global Canopy Programme in England have reported that the 51 million acres cut down every year account for nearly 25 percent of heat-trapping gases. By that standard, the 9 million acres being deforested annually for tobacco production account for nearly 5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
What's also striking is just how massive the tobacco industry is. There are about 1.2 billion smokers worldwide—a fifth of the world's population—which in turn creates a business that employs some 33 million workers around the world cultivating tobacco. And the UN estimates that cigarette consumption in developing countries will continue to increase at a rate of 1.7 percent a year, so RJ Reynolds and Philip Morris have nothing to fear.
-- Brad Plumer 2:34 PM || ||

September 19, 2007

Exciting New Stuff

Yes, I know—there haven't been any updates 'round these parts for a good long while. I've been busy working on this interminable piece for The New Republic about Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. So, enjoy.

Er... as for the fate of this here blog, well, it will either die an unremarkable death over the next few months or else I'll get inspired and start posting about Tuvalu's climate refugees, who are wondering just where the hell it is they're supposed to go if their country disappears beneath the sea. Or whatever else.
-- Brad Plumer 1:04 AM || ||