January 30, 2006

How Helpless?

Over the weekend, the Washington Post ran an important front-page story on the global warming debate: "Now that most scientists agree human activity is causing Earth to warm, the debate has shifted to whether climate change is progressing so rapidly that, within decades, humans may be helpless to slow or reverse the trend." Right. A few months ago, I wrote an article on this very subject for QED that isn't fully online, but here are some basic numbers from the piece and reasons for serious pessimism that humans really can slow or reverse the trend at this point. Basically, the goal looks attainable in theory, but in practice may be far out of reach.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has argued that to avert catastrophic global warming, the world will, at the very least, need to keep the amount of CO2 it emits into the atmosphere stabilized under a "red line" of 550 parts per million by mid-century. (The Pew Center on Global Climate Change says that even that level will lead to significant global warming, and suggest 450 ppm as a safer, though unrealistic, goal.) Hopefully meeting that goal will stave off the climate change-associated death, destruction and mayhem that is predicted by, say, the Pentagon. But unless the world starts changing its mix of energy sources, and soon, we won't even come close to meeting the IPCC goal: at the current rate, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will reach 1,100 ppm by 2100.

Okay, so to avoid that fate, roughly two-thirds of the world's power must come from carbon-free sources by 2050, given current growth rates. (These numbers come from interviews with Nathan Lewis of Caltech, along with, among other things, his presentation here.) That's 20 TW of power coming from carbon-free sources by mid-century; to put that in perspective, much more than the total amount of power produced by all sources globally, at present. It's an unimaginable amount of carbon-free power that needs to be generated, and fast.

So where are we going to find those 20 terrawatts? Well, nuclear power alone can't do it—to produce even 10 TW of nuclear power by 2050 would mean building 10,000 new plants: one every other day for 50 years. Realistic? No. And that's ignoring the fact that the world's uranium deposits will run out in about 45 years, unless fast-breeder reactors somehow become more feasible. Biomass alone can't do it either. It would take all of the farmable land on earth that isn't being used for growing food to produce 7-12 terawatts of power; and there likely isn't enough freshwater on the earth for those farms anyway. Hydropower, meanwhile, would give us, at most, 1.5 TW—which is five times the present amount—and poses more than a few environmental hurdles in setting up new dams.

Two other popular solutions: Carbon sequestration—pumping carbon into the ocean or geological reservoirs—shows a lot of promise, but the hurdles are very real. How, for instance, will the carbon waste get transported from power plants to sequestration sites? Can we ensure that the carbon won't leak back out of the ground? And what happens if the carbon that's been sequestered in the water starts raising the pH levels of the oceans dramatically? It's a promising idea, but still shaky. Meanwhile, conventional estimates put the maximum total potential for wind power sites around the world at about 1.6-2 terawatts, total (although two Stanford researchers have very recently suggested a much higher figure; jury's still out though, from what I gather).

Just looking at the math here, the only source that could even conceivably provide enough power to avert catastrophic global warming is solar power. The potential value for practical sites around the world is about 600 terawatts, and with solar farms running at 10 percent efficiency, that would yield 60 terawatts, more than enough to provide the carbon-free energy necessary.

So that's all very well and good, but—and this is what the article was about—there are still so many hurdles standing between where the solar industry is today, and where it would have to be to help the world achieve 550 ppm by mid-century, that it would require a radical shift in thinking on the part of world leaders to get there. More radical, certainly, than anything now being contemplated by politicians in this country.

Even ambitious mainstream liberal ideas for weaning the United States off carbon sources, such as those from the Apollo Alliance or the Solar High-Impact National Energy Project (SHINE) fall short, although they're decent steps. The SHINE proposal, for instance, is billed as a "man-on-the-moon" solar initiative, but aims for solar to generate a relatively scant 9 percent of electricity needs in the United States alone by 2025. That's certainly far more than the projected 1 percent under current trends, but it probably wouldn't meet the more important goal of having 20TW of the world's power coming from carbon-free sources by 2050. The scale of the problem here is really overwhelming.
-- Brad Plumer 4:44 PM || ||
Head in the Sand

Ezra Klein puts up a few nice charts and graphs showing that, relatively, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation simply isn't going to be the devastating demographic shift that many pundits make it out to be. Good stuff; and as a bonus, here's my favorite way to put the so-called "old-age crisis" in context. As we've heard many times, the future unfunded increases in spending associated with the aging of the population are going to require a tax hike of about 6.5 percent of GDP to close the gap. (Personally, I think it will be much less than that, since the problems with both Social Security and Medicare are wildly overstated, but let's say 6.5 percent.)

That sounds like a lot, but it's hardly unprecedented. Between 1950 and 1952, note, the federal tax burden jumped suddenly from 14.4 percent to 19 percent as a result of the Korean War, a leap in defense spending that was more or less permanent for the duration the Cold War. Now that increase came in just a few years—rather than gradually over decades, as would be the case to pay for Social Security and Medicare—and it was entirely manageable. The economy didn't implode. Life went on.

It would be nice to figure a way to curtail the cost of health care in the future, and obviously a lower tax burden is better than a higher one whenever possible, but even in the worst case, we're not talking about Armageddon here. We wouldn't even be up to European levels of taxation. As Max Sawicky has gone over in gruesome detail, bringing federal revenues back up to around 20 percent of GDP—only slightly higher than the long-term historical average—is perfectly adequate to maintain current spending levels and keep our debt ratios sustainable. Beyond that, thanks to the magic of productivity, those "overtaxed" Americans of the future will still be much richer in real terms than people are today. Slicing up a bit more of all that extra pie to ensure that the workers who brought this country to where it is today can have a decent retirement is a perfectly sensible way to go.
-- Brad Plumer 3:31 PM || ||
Just Like Sports Fans

Is there a neurological explanation for blind partisanship? According to this press release, scientists, using fMRI scans, have found that when "committed Democrats and Republicans" are faced with criticism of their favorite politician, they show no increase in activity of the parts of their brains associated with reasoning. (Incidentally, or not, the subjects of the study were all men.) That's not all that surprising, really, although I wonder whether this holds equally for all education groups, or whether it's possible to train oneself not to do this. At any rate, one could note that a good number of media types who worship at the altar of "non-partisanship" tend to turn off the rational bits in their brains fairly frequently…

On a related note, economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Ebonya Washington recently put out a paper suggesting that voters have an irrational preference for the candidates they've just voted for. They found that twenty-year-olds who had voted in a particular election two years prior showed more polarization in their opinions about the elected candidates than did nineteen-year-olds who, incidentally, missed the chance to vote that year. (Assuming, of course, that there's no other reason why twenty-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds should have such different political views.)

Meanwhile, Senators who are elected in high-turnout presidential years are more polarizing figures among the public than those elected in off-years. That could partially explain why incumbents keep winning, and suggests that term limits, perhaps, could inject a bit more rationality into politics. Although if that's the goal, we're a fair ways off.
-- Brad Plumer 2:28 PM || ||

January 27, 2006

Midwifing Hamas

Richard Ben Cramer, in his book How Israel Lost, notes in an aside that back in the 1970s, Israel had funded and supported Hamas as a way of creating a counterweight to the PLO. Anyway, I read the book a few months ago and only today got around to following up on that new-to-me tidbit. Back in 2002, UPI interviewed several intelligence officials and experts who said that this was indeed true. A longer, more detailed, and intermittently-footnoted account came from journalist Ray Hanian in 2003.

Apparently Bob Dreyfuss' new book, Devil's Game, discusses this story as well, along with other instances where "Western" powers actively supported Islamic fundamentalism during the 1960s and 70s so as to counterbalance Arab nationalism, which was seen back then as the primary threat. (Islamic radicals also tended to be anti-Soviet, which was a plus.) Dreyfuss' account, I hear, has evidence that the State Department knew full well what was going on and turned a blind eye as Israel provided military training to Islamic groups. But I haven't read the book. And no, this is hardly the most important issue right now; I was just curious.
-- Brad Plumer 7:16 PM || ||
Death and Popularity

Also in yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Felix Rohatyn says that the Supreme Court should abolish the death penalty in order to improve our standing in the world. Sort of. I certainly oppose the death penalty, but I want to nitpick something here:
During my four years as the American ambassador to France, I discovered that no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty... Contempt for the laws of our allies is a major factor in our increasing isolation in the world...

Taking the views of 450 million Europeans into account is not a sign of weakness on our part, nor is it a commitment to change our views. It is simply recognition that the laws of our most important allies, our biggest foreign investors, foreign employers, foreign customers and trading partners are worthy of our attention.
But in all likelihood, we already are taking the views of "450 million Europeans" into account... by keeping the death penalty. International popular opinion, for the most part, is very much in favor of killing criminals. Canadians seem to love executions almost as much as Americans do—around 70 percent were in favor of capital punishment in 1995. [Edit: As Julia notes in comments, this might be shallow support.] See similar results in Britain. And Italy. Even in Sweden and France the death penalty has close to majority support. It's just that their leaders disagree.

Admittedly, I don't think American political institutions are very democratic. Still, our politicians seem to have mirrored popular opinion on this issue, at least, better than parliaments in other countries. My guess is that this is because we vote for candidates rather than parties: a candidate can always use the death penalty debate to say something about him/herself as a person, so he or she is more likely to demagogue on the subject. In other words, candidate-centered systems may be more responsive to popular opinion on "moral" or "cultural" issues. (The downside is that the candidate-centric system also explains, in part, why we don't have universal health care—it's much easier for a centralized party to design, pass, and implement this sort of thing than it is a loose coalition of elected officials).

At any rate, it seems questionable that abolishing the death penalty would actually endear us to all Europeans. Of course, what Rohatyn really meant is that it will increase America's standing and respect—its "soft power," if you will—among European leaders. The sort of people that someone like Rohatyn would actually be talking to in his four years in France. Now that's an important goal, since it makes it somewhat more likely that those leaders will adopt American norms, or trust American intentions, or whatever. But respect among leaders and intellectuals isn't everything. Ideally we also want to increase our standing and respect among populations in other countries, since popular opinion constrains what those world leaders can do. And it's not obvious that abolishing the death penalty for minors will win us that many fans among the masses abroad.
-- Brad Plumer 5:51 PM || ||
Who's Guilty?

The main point of Joshua Marquis' New York Times op-ed seems to be that most people in prison are guilty—that is, contrary to the sorts of things you see on "In Justice" or "CSI," courts don't send an overwhelming number of innocent people to jail, and the handful of death row inmates whose convictions were overturned on DNA evidence represent a very small sample. Overall, Marquis calculates, the court system has an extremely high (99.973) percent accuracy rate: "most industries would like to claim such a record of efficiency."

Okay, even if those numbers are right—and if they are, that's still no reason to get complacent about the problems with the justice system—I'd add one other statistic here. According to a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, 51.8 percent of all ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years. Of those, over half go back not for committing new crimes but for technical violations of parole—a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job. Most people in prison are guilty? Depends on how you define it.
-- Brad Plumer 5:25 PM || ||
Do Pro-Life Policies Ever Work?

Ampersand has a good post, complete with statistics, pointing out what should be the obvious fact that criminalizing abortion has very little effect on abortion rates. Among other things, he points out that the abortion and birth rates in the years before Roe v. Wade came down are nearly identical to the rates afterwards. The main difference, obviously, is that abortion was much safer and easier after Roe. Something similar is going on in this old New York Times story about Latin America, noting that the region has "the developing world's highest rate of abortion" despite having "some of the world's most stringent abortion laws"—in many cases, women discovered that overdosing on a cheap ulcer medication would do the trick, albeit with risks.

Now a number of pro-choice politicians in the United States—Hillary Clinton being the most prominent—have adopted this way of framing things, arguing that pro-choice policies, combined with better contraception, safe-sex education, and economic support for single mothers, will do more to reduce abortion than, say, overturning Roe. In large part, that's true, and it seems like a politically savvy way to rally support for choice, but sometimes I wonder whether the argument could be undercut in important ways, and whether it's really the best thing to focus on. Wbat if, after all, some of these pro-life policies did help reduce abortion or unwanted pregnancies, even at the margins?

This week, Time (which, for incidental reasons, is the only magazine I get at home and hence the only print magazine I ever actually read) had an important article on abortion restrictions in Missouri that put a spin I've never heard before on why abortion rates dropped so sharply in the Clinton years:
The reason for the declines is a matter of dispute. Economic growth, better contraception and safe-sex practices probably all contribute to the trend. But a 2004 study by researcher Michael J. New for the conservative Heritage Foundation found that states that have adopted laws regulating abortion experienced a larger decline than those that have not. Reductions are particularly steep, he found, in states that restricted the use of Medicaid funds to pay for poor women's abortions and those that required pre-abortion counseling about fetal development and abortion risks.
New's study might be totally off-base—the Heritage Foundation isn't exactly known for unbiased work, and I'd be interested to see critiques (for instance, the difference could be largely accounted for by the fact that women are crossing state lines to get abortions)—but then again, it might well be true. I'll plead agnosticism for the sake of argument. I've never heard any pro-life politicians cite these statistics, but it seems like a fairly easy counter to the claim that liberal policies are in fact the best way to reduce abortion. Now granted, it doesn't take much to see the problems with New's argument. Here's Time again:
Missouri's new restriction concerning minors is already having an impact. Missouri has become the first state to extend its parental-notification law beyond its state line, a move aimed across the Mississippi River at the Hope Clinic, a low-slung building that sits amid a vast industrial park in Granite City, Ill. A recent morning found a security guard posted out front and a waiting room filled with anxious-looking young women, along with a few boyfriends, husbands and children. Because Illinois has no parental-notification law, Hope Clinic had been the easiest option for Missouri teens seeking to get an abortion without telling their parents. But the new Missouri law that makes it possible to sue anyone who provides an abortion to a Missouri resident under age 18 without written consent of a parent has Hope demanding proof of age of all prospective patients.

Hope counselor Zoila Rendon-Ochoa recently received a call from a St. Louis woman who spoke only Spanish and identified herself as an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. In her ninth week of pregnancy, she had left Mexico with no birth certificate; she had no driver's license or other identification. "I can't have this baby," she pleaded. Recalls Rendon-Ochoa: "Before the law, we could have given her an abortion. She kept saying to me, 'You can trust me. I'm 24,' but we couldn't prove it. She asked me, 'Where do I go now?' I couldn't tell her. I would guess that she carried the baby to term."
The goal of "reducing abortions" is very obviously (for liberals, at least) a hollow one if it comes about because more women are being forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And this is exactly what we're likely to see more of in the coming years. If Samuel Alito gets confirmed, the Supreme Court still won't have the votes to overturn Roe, provided Anthony Kennedy stays on the side of angels. But as Dawn Johnsen points out, the Roberts Court will certainly support continued state efforts to "hollow out" Roe by imposing increasingly stringent "side" restrictions. These restrictions might very well prove effective in reducing the total number of abortions in America. They might even deter people from having sex and prevent unwanted pregnancies, if Jonathan Klick's research is correct, and that's the ultimate "liberal anti-abortion" goal. Even so, they're wrong.

Very few people in this country—even in the pro-life movement—believe that abortion is murder. They simply don't. An overwhelming majority of Americans support abortion in the case of rape or incest, and it's impossible for anyone to believe that "murder" of a fetus is fine simply because of the circumstances in which it, through no fault of its own, was conceived.

The only issue, when it comes down to it, is why women get abortions. Most people strongly believe that being a victim of rape is such a difficult and blameless situation for a woman to be in that forcing her to give birth on top of it is wrong and perverse. But what else counts as a difficult and blameless situation? Already having four other kids and no way to take care of them? Living in an environment unfit to raise children in? Being a hormone-crazed teenager who makes a mistake? Should they be forced to give birth? When is doing so wrong and perverse? Should the government decide which women are and aren't blameless for their personal decisions? The actual number of abortions is a red herring here. The ability of the government to control the moral behavior of women is the main question. All restrictions do that. And we know that people like Samuel Alito would like to go very, very far in that direction.

At any rate, this is all by way of saying that the autonomy argument has always struck me as much stronger, and more durable, then the argument that pro-life policies don't work. (And yes, I know the former isn't a particularly original argument to make.) Although one could argue that pro-life policies usually don't work precisely because women the world over will go to great lengths, risking sickness or even death, to preserve their autonomy. As the president once said in quite another context, "there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure" their freedom. Right, similar principle.

Continue reading "Do Pro-Life Policies Ever Work?"
-- Brad Plumer 4:50 PM || ||

January 26, 2006

Saving the Trees

Stark facts courtesy of Bill McKibben, writing in 1999: "[John] Terbourgh, a prominent ornithologist with long experience in the Amazon region… writes that the rates of [worldwide] deforestation have increased in the 1990s. Even at the rate of destruction observed between 1980 and 1990, the last tree in the last primary rainforest on the planet would be cut sometime around 2045."

Okay, figures like that get around from time to time, but McKibben's essay looks at what people can actually do to stop it. Most of the clever ideas that have been floated in the past simply won't work. "Ecoprospecting," where drug companies save rainforests in the hopes of finding new medicines within won't work—the trend in molecular biology is towards synthetic compounds. Ecotourism tends to be a bust; customers just complain that it's hot, sweaty, and hard to see anything. And locals can't be convinced to, say, gather and market nuts instead of cutting down trees—it's way too unprofitable.

Really, says McKibben, the best way to save the rainforests is for other countries to follow the stellar and shining environmental example of—wait for it—the United States, whose protected federal lands have actually been quite successful at preserving biodiversity, even after you factor in all our loggers cutting down national forests or the BLM letting farmers overgraze on western lands. Partly this success comes from the fact that federal law prohibits change in land use: a national forest has to remain a forest, a grassland a grassland, and so on. No matter how corrupt the government, publicly-owned lands still fare far better than privately-owned ones. (Another alternative is to give indigenous people legal rights to their land; in the Amazon rainforests, says McKibben, when given a chance, they "can, and do, stop the endless expansion of the cattle ranches.")

Now granted, we've had five years of the Bush administration, and federal lands don't get half the protection they used to, but despite that—or maybe because of it—McKibben's essay is worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 5:26 PM || ||
Congress and the English Language

Allen Sloan is simply shocked to discover that the 2004 Republican tax cuts known as the "American Jobs Creation Act" didn't actually create any jobs. Stunning, I know. But this is an interesting thought:
Congress should thank its lucky stars that federal truth-in-labeling laws don't apply to names it accords to legislation, because almost every dispassionate analyst agrees that the American Jobs Creation Act didn't create jobs in the United States.
Why don't federal truth-in-labeling laws apply to the names of legislation? We could make this real simple: If a law doesn't do what its name claims it will do—cf., the "American Jobs Creation Act" cutting taxes for the wealthy; the "Healthy Forests Restoration Act" gutting our forests; the "Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act," destroying Medicare, etc.—then the law is instantly repealed. Either that, or the member of Congress or president responsible for the name gets put in jail for three weeks. And at worst we get a long trial hashing out the actual effects of these bills; a free civic education for all! In practice, no one would actually be punished, since it's easy to come up with a vague name, but it would put a stop to what's no doubt a pet peeve of the tens if not hundreds of people who track these bills.
-- Brad Plumer 4:40 PM || ||
Broken Record

This is getting annoying. Once again, the White House is floating the notion (on page A1, no less) that its soon-to-be-proposed tax deductions for health expenses are somehow "designed to help the uninsured." They are not. Making progress on the 45 million* uninsured people in this country will cost about $80-100 billion per year. There's no getting around that number. Bush will not propose anything of the sort.

Tax deductions will do little to help those who currently pay no federal income taxes—or are in the 10 or 15 percent bracket—which includes the majority of the uninsured. Tax deductions will largely help those making over $50,000 who currently can afford insurance but just don't value it enough to get it. If the president's tax deductions look anything like what he proposed on the campaign trail, then, according to CBPP, they will actually increase the number of uninsured by 350,000 while costing tens of billions of dollars. That's all.

(*Well, it's 45 million now; but according to a new report on the GOP's budget reconciliation bill, a new round of Medicaid cuts will ensure that 3 to 5 million lucky recipients will lose their coverage.)
-- Brad Plumer 4:29 PM || ||
Hamas Miscellany

Marc Lynch raises some crucial questions about Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections yesterday:
Hamas winning and presumably moving to form a government is the first real instance of an Islamist movement on the brink of winning power democratically since 1992 [i.e., since the FIS won elections in Algeria, only to be denied power by a military coup].

If [Hamas takes] power, we are going to see some major political science propositions put to the test: does power moderate or radicalize Islamist groups? Will they be willing and able to work with non-Islamist parties in a coalition? Will they use their democratic victory to abolish democracy? Will Islamist groups concentrate on the pragmatics of rule or resort to foreign policy grandstanding? Will they use their position of power to pursue terrorism? Will they be willing to set aside doctrine and work pragmatically with Israelis and Americans? Will they use government power to impose unpopular sharia rule over their people? Will they oppress Christian and non-Islamist Muslims?
I'm not sure anyone knows the answers for sure. A handful of reasons for optimism: Hamas has mostly adhered to the ceasefire over the past six months, certainly more strictly than Fatah has; at the local level, where it has previously won elections, Hamas has been dealing with Israel regularly and for the most part has focused solely on day-to-day governing and economic development, rather than talking up the virtues of a sharia state. And judging from recent polling, most Palestinians would support a compromise peace settlement with Israel, and increasingly are souring on Hamas' armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Popular opinion could prove a moderating force. On the other hand, this is Hamas, after all—it's still a terrorist group with extreme views, a bloody reputation, and clandestine wings ready to resume attacks against Israel at any time.

At any rate, here's an insightful—and I assume fairly firsthand—account of how and why Hamas actually won the elections, courtesy of a commenter on As'ad Abu Khalil's site:
It is only partially (and I stress partially) true that the vote for Hamas was a vote against [the largely corrupt] Fatah, but it was much more than a protest vote. The candidates that Hamas fielded were… by and large very qualified candidates who are well known and respected in their districts. They are well-educated professionals including doctors, professors, teachers, etc.

What struck me was the level of organization, dedication and quiet self-confidence of the Hamas campaign. In most polling districts Hamas volunteers, armed with computers, helped voters locate their names in the registries and their polling place. Early in the evening, most pollsters were predicting a Fatah win, but as early as 6 hours after the close of the polls, Hamas was quietly and confidently saying that their internal counts (based on volunteers at every polling station) showed them winning more than 70 seats (not far from the actual outcome). To me that was very impressive.

An interesting factor that could explain why the exit polls did not predict the outcome is that many voters (especially among police and security services) were afraid to tell the pollster that they had voted for Hamas.

A win like this does not come easy. Hamas worked hard in the face of large obstacles to achieve it. In the face of US and European financing for Fatah and some so-called "independents," Hamas financed its campaign (with a smaller budget) by asking for a 10% contribution from the salaries of its cadres. In addition, they received free support from thousands of volunteers. Hamas proved the value of its grassroots organization.
One could also wonder how much Western support ended up hurting Fatah at the polls. Also note that if more than 6 percent of the some 250,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem had been allowed to vote, the election might have turned out differently. This bit, from the same commenter, is also interesting, and perhaps a sign of things to come:
The second observation is that Hamas, before and after the election, is reaching out to all Palestinians, including Fatah. There is no gloating in their victory; instead they emphasize national unity and partnership. During the campaign, I tried to keep up with the pronouncements of both Fatah and Hamas. To Hamas' credit they did not engage in smear campaigns, dirty tricks, name calling, etc which Fatah used. I think that Hamas set a much better tone and an example, and that, no doubt, helped it.
In that vein, the International Crisis Group paper on how the U.S. and Europe can encourage a moderate Hamas-led government is interesting:
Western countries have not done the one thing that might have had a positive impact: try to shape Hamas’s policies by exploiting its clear desire for international recognition and legitimacy. There is every reason for the West to withhold formal dealings at a national level, at least until it renounces attacks against civilians and drops its opposition to a two-state solution, but the current confused approach – boycotting Hamas while facilitating its electoral participation; facilitating its participation without seeking through some engagement reciprocal concessions – makes no sense at all.

Without conferring immediate legitimacy on Hamas, engaging its national officials or removing it from the terrorism list, the EU in particular – which has more flexibility than the U.S. in this regard – should encourage the Islamists to focus on day-to-day matters and facilitate a process of potential political integration and gradual military decommissioning. With Prime Minister Sharon’s sudden incapacitation, an already impossibly perplexing situation has become more confused still. Using Western economic and political leverage to try to stabilise the Palestinian arena would be far from the worst possible investment.
All of that seems sensible, worth trying, and hardly naïve about what Hamas is and what it's known for. As Marc Lynch points out, if the United States doesn't even give Hamas a chance, that will further undercut perceptions about its commitment to democracy in the Middle East. On the other hand, Israel may not prefer to try to moderate Hamas—after all, it's much easier to justify the security barrier and settlements in the West Bank if there's an extremist group on the other side. I guess we'll find out when the Israeli elections come around.

more: Jonathan Edelstein is, as always, endlessly informative.
-- Brad Plumer 1:49 PM || ||

January 25, 2006

Tainted Trials

Over the past week, I've been reading the San Jose Mercury News' massive and much-recommended five-part series, "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice." Based on a three-year investigation, the report looks at 727 court cases in Santa Clara County over a five year period. In over a third of the cases, the paper found, trials were marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendants—who, judging from the case studies, tended to be minorities and poor—and a number of cases led to wrongful convictions. A quick summary of the findings:
  • In nearly 100 cases, prosecutors engaged in questionable conduct, including withholding evidence, defying a judge's orders or misleading juries. "Experts say individual prosecutors reflect the dominant culture in their office, and too often it's all about winning rather than ethics and fairness." Often district attorney offices are extremely slow—taking years and years—to discipline prosecutors who overstep their bounds.

  • In about 100 cases, defense attorneys neglected to do even the most basic independent investigation—interviewing witnesses or gathering evidence—or to raise objections to questionable prosecution tactics. In some cases they didn't even appear to know basic criminal law. Note that this applies to both public defenders and private attorneys, who will often take cases for relatively low fees and make profits by avoiding a time-consuming trial.

  • In over 160 cases, judges failed to oversee trials impartially—allowing improper evidence or improperly favoring the prosecution—and repeatedly failed to properly instruct juries. This may partly come from the fact that judges are elected, and no one wants to appear "soft on crime." (This also means that judges tend to come from the ranks of prosecutors, and the relationship between the two groups is fairly cozy.)

  • In more than 100 cases, the 6th District Court of Appeal upheld verdicts even while acknowledging trial errors, deeming them "harmless." While that might have been true in some of the cases, judges devised questionable rationales to dismiss others.
  • It's shocking stuff, even for those already cynical about the justice system. The 6th District Court, by the way, upholds 97 percent of all convictions yet publishes only 2 percent of its rulings, which is the lowest in the state, so a bit of transparency certainly seems in order here.

    The Mercury News was "unable to determine" whether Santa Clara County was particularly dysfunctional or whether its problems mirrored those of justice systems elsewhere in the country. I'd note that Santa Clara, while relatively liberal in most things, is considered a "tough on crime" region, one of the six highest sentencing counties in California during the '90s, with law enforcement agencies that practiced "broken windows" policing and invoked the "Three Strikes" law at extremely high rates. Interestingly, in the 1990s, San Francisco under the "ultraliberal" DA Terrence Hallinan saw its crime rate decrease much more rapidly than Santa Clara's did. Go figure. At any rate, read the series, it's a good one.
    -- Brad Plumer 7:42 PM || ||
    Doha: What's the Big Deal?

    According to UPI, ministers from 25 "major trading powers" are now trying to resuscitate the Doha round of WTO trade talks that stalled in Hong Kong last month. The EU, it seems, wants to see more concessions from developing countries to reduce their tariffs before it will agree to open its own agricultural markets. Okay, fair enough. But I still don't see what incentive developing countries have to make large concessions, or how, as The Economist put it by way of chiding those stubborn holdouts, "the Doha round... is geared specifically to help poor countries." How much help are we talking here?

    Not very much, it seems. Two months ago, an extensive study from the World Bank found that under "likely Doha scenarios" for cuts to agricultural subsidies and tariffs, and reductions in industrial tariffs, liberalization would provide the world a one-time gain of between $17.9 to $119.3 billion by 2013. Not a whole lot, when it comes down to it, and most of those gains go to the developing world. An analysis of the World Bank study by Frank Ackerman the Global Development and Environment Institute suggested that the "most likely scenario" would boost the world's income by a mere $96 billion. Of that, $80 billion would go to developed countries, and $16 billion to poor countries—less than a penny per day per capita.1

    Meanwhile, the World Bank found that the vast majority of those gains would go to eight nations: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. Other developing countries will likely be hurt by the reduction in agricultural subsidies, especially those that are net food importers. The Middle East, parts of Africa, Bangladesh and Mexico would be all net losers from "likely Doha scenarios," and those are already countries that have the most difficulty attracting investment and growing.

    Now in a sense, this is an overly dire picture. A "mere" $16 billion to the developing world is still better than nothing. And surely lifting 2.5 million people out of poverty, as the Bank estimates for "likely scenarios," is worth doing. Even if these gains aren't huge, why not take them? (Although it does reaffirm the fact that trade can only be a small part of any poverty-reduction agenda.) Plus, these numbers may well understate the side benefits that supposedly come with trade liberalization: like "better institutions," or increased foreign investment, or whatever sort of magic free trade is supposed to create. (cf. "New Evidence" that trade liberalization "has robust positive effects on growth," etc.)

    On the other hand, these projections may not be dire enough. The World Bank study, for instance, presumes that developing countries will instantly make up the revenue they'll lose from slashing tariffs by raising domestic taxes. Is that realistic? According to UNCTAD, for developing countries, tariff collection accounts for 20 percent of government revenue in some developing countries. Quite the tax. UNCTAD predicts that tariff revenue losses could amount to up to $60 billion for these countries (I assume annually), dwarfing the estimated benefits from trade, and would lead to either cuts in social services or domestic taxes that would create their own distortions, just like tariffs do now.

    It's also not clear what the effect of the new agreement on intellectual property will be, although allowing developing countries to import generic drugs more easily seems like an obviously good idea, if drug companies don't scuttle it first (here's a more in-depth look by the Asian Development Bank that I haven't read). Still—and I'm willing to be convinced otherwise—the idea that there's so much at stake for poor countries in the Doha rounds that they can't afford to see this fail seems a bit overstated.


    1 The summary of the World Bank study claims a $287 billion one-time gain by 2013, but that's an estimate for complete trade liberalization, which isn't under discussion right now. At any rate, only 40 percent of that gain would go to the developing world; less than 7 cents per day per capita.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:55 PM || ||

    January 24, 2006

    Wastrels of Defense

    Winslow Wheeler, a former staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici, has an article in Counterpunch explaining how Congress can secretly add $12 billion in pork projects to the last defense appropriations bill while simultaneously reducing the apparent size of the bill by $4.4 billion. (Answer, they hide the money rather than cutting anything.) It's one of the better explanations around of how Congress fiddles with bills to sneak in projects here and there. Wheeler, after all, helped design some of these tricks—for instance, "cutting" programs only to stuff them later into "emergency" spending bills, so that the money is spent but doesn't show up on budget projections.

    If that's all that was going on, that would be bad enough (mind you, usually pork is just pork; a small waste, sure, but things wouldn't get done without it—but the ever-inflating Pentagon budget is far more disconcerting, I think). But Wheeler points out a few places where actually crucial funds seem to have been cut in the appropriations bill—for instance, $1.3 billion for "Peacetime Training" and "Operations Support"—and then weren't put back in the emergency bill, as they were presumably supposed to be. A bit of a morass, to say the least.
    -- Brad Plumer 5:07 PM || ||
    HSA's and the Uninsured

    So the president, as we know, wants to "do" health care in his upcoming State of the Union address. Any talk of reform would, ideally, begin by addressing the 45 million Americans who go uninsured each year. There are several things that make the United States a second-rate nation, but one of the biggest, I think, is that 11.2 percent of all children in this country—8.3 million—lack even basic health insurance. Judging from Peter Gosselin's overview, President Bush has no interest in tackling this little problem next Tuesday, although there's some talk that his "Health Savings Accounts" will lower the cost of health care so dramatically that many more people will be able to afford insurance.

    Is this even remotely plausible? Well, no. Not really.

    To recap: HSAs were introduced in the 2003 Medicare bill, and now Bush wants to expand them. Basically, you purchase a high-deductible policy—one with lower premiums that forces you to pay, say, the first $2,000 of your medical costs out of your own pocket—and then you can get a savings account into which you can deposit tax-deductible money each year, up to $2,000, to pay for those out-of-pocket costs. The money rolls over each year. As Ezra Klein points out, it's a good deal if you're healthy (or have a spare $2,000 stuffed under your mattress), not a great deal otherwise.

    The idea behind thinking that HSA plans will help the uninsured is that high deductible policies have lower premiums than traditional insurance, and that market competition among companies offering high-deductible plans will reduce costs further. Plus, since patients with these policies will have to pay a lot out of their own pockets, they'll be more careful about spending money on frivolous care, which will constrain costs. It's like magic!

    Now true, this didn't work in South Africa, where HSAs became massively popular yet health care costs skyrocketed—as it turns out, individual consumers have less ability to bargain down the costs of medical services than large insurers do. And there's no conceivable way HSAs can reduce the vast bulk of health care costs in America: The rule of thumb, after all, is that 20 percent of patients account for 80 percent of costs, and since these are generally catastrophic costs over $2,000, HSAs won't change the amount consumers are spending. They just can't.

    On the other hand, early "trials" with HRAs (a similar system) have shown that the accounts might prove moderately effective at constraining costs for the rest of us—see this hardly-unbiased Aetna study or John Bertko's testimony about Humana, Inc.'s experience with a "consumer directed health plan." Whether this is because workers were being smarter about their care or because they were foregoing much-needed care is an open question. Meanwhile, since the healthy people are all fleeing traditional insurance plans and signing up for HSAs, the premiums for traditional policies could rise unduly, although there are, in theory, a few ways that employers can reduce this "adverse selection."

    Back to the main point. Even if "consumer-directed health plans" do control costs and reduce premiums, they probably won't make a significant dent on the numbers of those without insurance. As this Kaiser study shows, people generally don't have insurance because either their employer doesn't offer it, they can't afford the premiums, or they can afford the premiums but can't afford the surcharges for their age or pre-existing conditions. The reduced cost of high-deductible insurance won't make a difference for many of these people, especially if they would have to pay more out of pocket. (Many of the uninsured also don't have $2,000 to spare on out-of-pocket costs.)

    Moreover, most of the uninsured are in the 10 or 15 percent tax bracket, and would not see enough of a tax benefit to take advantage of the HSAs. A Commonwealth Fund study pointed out that HSAs will mostly make a difference to higher-income uninsured individuals (those making over $50,000) who currently can afford insurance but just don't value it enough.

    Now in his FY2005 budget, the president proposed to allow premiums for high-deductible policies to be claimed as a deduction. This would substantially reduce the cost of insurance—and cost the Treasury $25 billion over 10 years. On the other hand, Edwin Park and Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated that this deduction would increase the number of uninsured by 350,000—inducing some people to buy insurance on the one hand, but inducing many employers to drop health coverage on the other. On the other hand, the HSA Coalition, an advocacy group, argued that Bush's proposal would reduce the number of uninsured by 1.2 to 4.3 million, although this is based on data from an HSA company whose customers may not be representative of the general population. (See CBPP's response here.)

    So at absolute best, the U.S. government could spend about $35 billion and cover 4 million new people. At worst, this would have no effect. Ultimately, there's no free fix for achieving universal coverage. Uwe Reinhardt has often said that barring comprehensive reform, a good rule of thumb is to assume that covering the 45 million uninsured—or the 60 million Americans who go uninsured at some point during the year—will cost at least $80-100 billion a year. (Jonathan Gruber has shown that the cheapest way to do this—i.e., covering the uninsured without inducing a lot of the currently-insured to drop their coverage and go for what the government's offering—is simply to expand Medicaid.) Any proposal that falls short of this rough dollar amount, as Bush's is sure to, is not likely to do much for the uninsured.

    Continue reading "HSA's and the Uninsured"...
    -- Brad Plumer 1:50 PM || ||

    January 23, 2006

    Bolivia Commentary

    As far as I can tell, there hasn't been a whole lot of enlightening commentary on Evo Morales and Bolivia in the press. Two exceptions are "The Chequered Rainbow," by Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson in the New Left Review, which nicely traces the history of social unrest and revolution in Bolivia over the past century, along with Benjamin Dangl's "Bolivia's Trial By Fire," in Monthly Review, which points out that the American "war on coca leaves" hasn't really achieved much of anything apart from getting people killed, and Morales isn't all that crazy to suggest that maybe they should, um, stop. Also informative: "Evo Morales no Che Guevara," by Ronald Bruce St. John.
    -- Brad Plumer 7:27 PM || ||
    A MAD World No Longer?

    Is "mutually assured destruction" on its way out? Apparently so. Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, two defense analysts, reportedly have a new paper out suggesting Russia's nuclear capabilities have decayed to the point where the United States, perhaps, can no longer be deterred:
    In a feat of technical sophistication and strategic insight, Lieber and Press have modeled a U.S. first strike against Russia. … To be conservative, it assumes that U.S. nuclear weapons will perform with much less accuracy and reliability than should be expected. Even so, the authors conclude, a U.S. attack today would destroy the entire Russian nuclear arsenal.
    Part of this analysis depends on the observation that recent improvements to the American nuclear arsenal only really make sense if you assume that the Pentagon is trying to develop the ability to "win" a nuclear war outright. Insane, yes, but that seems to be the order of the day:
    Lieber and Press emphasize that their analysis doesn't prove that a U.S. first strike would succeed, but it highlights a development that is grave if only because it's one that prudent planners in Russia and China, who conduct similar analyses, are no doubt already surmising: that their countries can no longer be confident of having a viable deterrent. Surely adding to their alarm is the realization that the nuclear imbalance, troubling enough already, will only grow in the coming years.

    Washington's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its concomitant pursuit of a national missile-defense system will greatly enhance its offensive nuclear capabilities, because although critics of missile defense correctly argue that it could never shield America from a massive full-scale nuclear attack, it could quite plausibly deal with the very few missiles an adversary might have left to deploy after a U.S. first strike. What's more, the United States is actively pursuing a series of initiatives—including further advances in anti-submarine and anti-satellite warfare; in missile accuracy and potency; and in wide-area remote sensing, aimed at finding "relocatable" targets such as mobile ICBMs—that will render Russia's and China's nuclear forces all the more vulnerable.
    That explains the rationale for the missile defense system, apparently. And what does all this mean for foreign relations?
    To be sure, America's emerging nuclear hegemony could bring benefits, including potential leverage vis-à-vis our superpower counterparts in such areas of competition as the Balkans and Taiwan. It will also force China to divert defense resources from its power-projection efforts in East Asia. (This, however, would be both a blessing and a curse: "We should expect a new, prolonged, and intense nuclear arms race," Lieber and Press conclude.) But whether or not America has deliberately pursued the ability to win a nuclear conflict, that capability will increase the risk of great-power war. U.S.-Chinese relations are bound to be edgy or worse for the foreseeable future, and although relations between Washington and Moscow are nowhere near their Cold War nadir, actual and potential strains remain formidable. Each country has nuclear-armed missiles that can be delivered against the other within minutes—and in America's nuclear-war plans the overwhelming number of targets remain inside Russia. Most important, any shift in the nuclear balance itself will engender a volatility that could cause seemingly small conflicts between countries to quickly spiral.

    Confronted with the growing nuclear imbalance, Russia and China will be forced to try to redress it; but given America's advantages, that effort, as Lieber and Press note, could take well over a decade. Until a nuclear stalemate is restored—if it ever is—Moscow and Beijing will surely buy deterrence by spreading out their nuclear forces, decentralizing their command-and-control systems, and implementing "launch on warning" policies. If more than half a century of analyzing nuclear dangers and "crisis stability" has taught us anything, it is that all these steps can cause crises to escalate uncontrollably. They could trigger the unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons; this could lead to inadvertent nuclear war.
    I may be in the small minority that doesn't quite understand why we'll simply have to fight a war with China someday, but the fears above seem reasonable. China and Russia are far more likely to be "edgy" when it comes to foreign policy if they can no longer be confident of their nuclear deterrents. And that really could make conflict more likely. Pleasant thought.

    Continue reading "A MAD World No Longer?"
    -- Brad Plumer 4:08 PM || ||
    March of the Living Wage

    Last Sunday, Jon Gertner had a good piece for the New York Times Magazine about the living wage campaigns that are proving extremely popular—and successful—in cities across the country. The main point of the piece is that the progressives running these campaigns tend to make their appeals in moral, rather than economic terms, and suggests that its popularity could even make it a liberal wedge issue; as one living-wage advocate says, "This is our gay marriage."

    But Gertner also takes time to point out that the economic case for raising the minimum wage can hold its own too. Here, for instance, is what happened in Santa Fe, which voted to raise the local minimum to $8.50 an hour in 2003. Granted, Gertner considers "data" a plural word (which is strictly correct but still ludicrous), but the rest is good:
    To look at the data that have accumulated since the wage went into effect is to get a more positive impression of the law. Last month, the University of New Mexico's Bureau of Business and Economic Research issued some preliminary findings on what had happened to the city over the past year and a half. The report listed some potential unintended consequences of the wage raise: the exemption in the living-wage law for businesses with fewer than 25 employees, for instance, created "perverse incentives" for owners to keep their payrolls below 25 workers. There was some concern that the high living wage might encourage more high-school students to drop out; in addition, some employers reported that workers had begun commuting in to Santa Fe to earn more for a job there than they could make outside the city.

    Yet the city's employment picture stayed healthy - overall employment increased in each quarter after the living wage went into effect and was especially strong for hotels and restaurants, which have the most low-wage jobs.
    That jibes with what economists David Card and Alan Krueger found in their study on the minimum wage. Why wouldn't a wage hike force employers to hire fewer workers? They reasoned that in the actual, existing labor market, employers might often have various undue advantages over their workers and as a result, businesses are able to bargain wages below what they would be in a market where wages were determined solely by supply and demand, in order to raise their profits. A minimum wage simply corrects this imbalance. Back to Gertner:
    Most encouraging to supporters: the number of families in need of temporary assistance - a reasonably good indicator of the squeeze on the working poor - has declined significantly. On the other hand, the city's gross receipts, a reflection of consumer spending and tourism, have been disappointing since the wage went into effect. That could suggest that prices are driving people away. Or it could merely mean that high gas and housing prices are hitting hard. The report calculates that the cost of living in Santa Fe rose by 9 percent a year over the past two and a half years.
    Opponents of the minimum wage tend to argue that hiking the floor for wages will only increase inflation, as businesses are "forced" to increase prices, but they rarely cite any sort of proof, and it remains to be seen whether this is actually what happened in Santa Fe. It's worth noting that last year, after Florida raised its state minimum, prices in local restaurants only rose about 3 percent. It's also worth noting that workers will almost certainly come out ahead even factoring in for inflation—that was the case in Baltimore after living wage laws went into effect in 1994. (Granted, runaway inflation would definitely hurt workers, but as James K. Galbraith pointed out a while back, there's no evidence that an inflationary spiral induced by a wage increase has ever occurred.) One more quote:
    Rob Day of the Santa Fe Bar and Grill sees this [i.e., the high cost of living] as the crux of the matter. In his view, the problem with Santa Fe is the cost of housing, and there are better ways than wage regulations - housing subsidies, for example - to make homes more affordable. In the wake of the wage raise, Day told me, he eventually tweaked his prices, but not enough to offset the payroll increases. He let go of his executive chef and was himself working longer hours. "Now in the matter of a year and a half, I think there is a whole group of us who thought, If we were going to start over, this isn't the business we would have gone into," he says.
    Some of Day's concerns are valid, and it's true, some individual businesses may suffer, but on the whole, it's hard to be sympathetic here. Between 1968 and 2004, domestic corporate profits rose 85 percent while the minimum wage fell 41 percent and the average hourly wage fell 4 percent. In the retail sector, profits have gone up 159 percent. Obviously capitalism wouldn't work very well if no one made a profit, but even a living wage is hardly going to put that in danger. (Moreover, some evidence, again, from Baltimore's experiment with a living wage in the 1990s, suggested that some employers absorb the increase in labor costs through efficiency gains, especially lower turnover and "reduced shirking" at work.)

    At any rate, owners and managers who have to work more thanks to a wage hike may find life a bit more burdensome, but presumably less burdensome than families who, at the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour, have to get by with a little over $10,000 a year. (And yes, despite the myth that only teenagers work for $5.15 an hour, most minimum wage workers tend to be breadwinners—Heather Boushey has estimated that the average minimum-wage worker earns 68 percent of his or her family's income.) If we're matching sob stories here, it's not even close.
    -- Brad Plumer 4:06 PM || ||

    January 20, 2006

    Spy Satellites

    The latest issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has an interesting (and, sadly, not-online) article by Jeffrey T. Richelson about the growing number of nations trying to join the "space reconnaissance club" by launching their own spy satellites. Until the 1990s, only the United States, Russia, and, to some extent, China had serious spy satellites—that is, with resolutions of 1 meter or less. But now Israel, Japan, and France have all launched their own, and more countries, such as Germany, Italy, Pakistan, India, South Africa, and Iran will likely follow soon enough.

    Each country has its own reasons for wanting space reconnaissance programs. France doesn't want to rely on the United States for its information, and, at a bare minimum, hopes that having its own satellites will "keep the Americans honest," as one French defense analyst says, in situations similar to, say, the Iraq war. Israel, for its part, has learned that different CIA directors have different ideas about how much information to share with their ally, so it has now launched several of its own satellites to keep track of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. (None of these satellites, of course, even come close to seeing as much as the United States can.)

    Japan's two (only two!) spy satellites, meanwhile, which were launched after North Korea fired a Taepodong missile over Japan in 1998, are making the neighbors nervous. That's another issue in itself. More interestingly, Richelson lays out the case for why the proliferation of spy satellites may actually make the world a safer place:
    [T]he worldwide constellation of spy satellites makes the task of a nation seeking to hide certain activities—whether it is China moving troops or missiles to locations near Taiwan, Iran constructing a nuclear facility, or Pakistan preparing for a missile or nuclear test—far more difficult than in the past…. The transparency that the proliferation of reconnaissance satellites was expected to bring is far closer to a reality than it was a decade ago. Such transparency can serve to increase stability by reducing the chance of a successful surprise attack as well as by providing reassurance in tense times to adversaries who would prefer to avoid war…

    Indeed, the widespared proliferation of space reconnaissance capabilities has opened the door to a series of innovative proposals. Gaurav Rajen, a visiting scholar at Sandia National Laboratories, has suggested that India and Pakistan engage in cooperative remote sensing projects as a way to reduce political tensions and minimize the risk of misperceptions during times of crisis. The South China Morning Post reports that surveillance satellites could help to avoid conflict over the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines: "Structures built on the reefs by any of the rival claimants could be discovered early during the construction process."…
    And so on. It seems, though, that the United States, at the very least, would prefer not to see this sort of proliferation of spy satellites—hence the constant talk about "Space Control" and "militarizing space" and the like. The reasoning probably goes something like this: if a country like Pakistan fell into the hands of radical Islamists, it could, theoretically, use its satellites to direct terrorist attacks on the United States. And it's no doubt possible to imagine situations where increased transparency would increase, rather than decrease, the chances of conflict.

    MORE: Here's an overview of "Satellite Capabilities of Emerging Space-Competent States" by Gerald Steinberg, written in 1996, that covers some of the same ground. If anyone wants the Richelson article I can send it by email.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:50 PM || ||
    Slower, Please

    Anytime I hear someone suggest that the only proper way to deal with Iran is to steer the country on the path towards democracy, I think of Michael Ledeen and his calls to topple regimes across the Middle East in some unspecified way—"Faster, please"—and cringe a bit. Which is too bad, since the sentiment has a lot going for it. In the Los Angeles Times yesterday, Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights advocate and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, made a more level-headed plea for promoting democracy and human rights in Iran:
    So, what can the West do? Western nations should help the U.N. appoint a special human rights monitor for Iran. It would remind the General Assembly of Iran's human rights record annually, and strongly condemn it if the record keeps deteriorating. Contrary to the general perception, Iran's clerics are sensitive to outside criticism.

    The World Bank should stop providing Iran with loans and, instead, work with nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to strengthen civil society. The West should support Iran's human-rights and democracy advocates, nominate jailed leaders for international awards and keep the cause in the public eye. Western nations should downgrade diplomatic relations if Iran continues violating basic human rights.

    Iran is at least six to 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, by most estimates. The crisis is not even a crisis. There is ample time for political reform before Iran ever develops the bomb. Meanwhile, the West should permit Iran a limited uranium enrichment program (as allowed under the nonproliferation treaty) under strict safeguards by the International Atomic Energy Agency — but only when Tehran undertakes meaningful reforms, including freeing political prisoners and holding free and fair elections.

    Lastly, the U.S. and Iran should enter direct negotiations. It is simply absurd for the U.S. and the most important nation in the Middle East not to communicate directly. The Bush administration should not be seduced by exile groups with no support in Iran. Developing democracy is an internal affair.
    "Slower, please." Nothing here seems that objectionable, and as I mentioned in my last post, it's useful to remember that Iran almost certainly is "at least six to 10 years away from a nuclear bomb, by most estimates. " See Jeffrey Lewis for the technical details. But I'd add that—and Ebadi seems to agree, judging by her last paragraph—that "Western nations" can only influence Iranian behavior and promote good governance if they have some sort of relationship with the regime. The United States can't ever threaten to "downgrade diplomatic relations if Iran continues violating basic human rights" if diplomatic relations are already, you know, non-existent.

    The United States has rarely, if ever, promoted reform, much less democracy, in countries it has alienated or isolated completely (although a large number of people seem to persist in the curious belief that our Cuba policy has somehow "worked" all these decades). There's no reason to think Iran would be any different—strangling the country with sanctions while encouraging fringe exile groups to rise up almost certainly won't get anywhere. "Smart sanctions" may offer a key middle ground—punish the leaders but not the people—but even that seems unlikely to foster serious change. One rather drastic alternative, then, is China-style engagement, which, it seems, Ebadi is suggesting, with some modifications.

    Granted, with China, the United States hasn't managed to parlay economic engagement into progress on human rights—or else has avoided doing so, for various economic reasons—but China may be exceptional in this regard, since the U.S. lacks serious leverage over the country. More recently, however, the Bush administration decided to defer trade talks with Egypt until Mubarak undergoes serious political reforms. We'll see whether the administration is serious about this threat or not, but that's the sort of subtle pressure for reform that's presumably more effective when directed at friends rather than embittered and isolated foes.

    Judging from this New York Times report today officials in the State Department already agree with a lot of this: "A heavy-handed sanctions approach is going to hurt an awful lot of Iranians that we don't want to alienate," says one. And David Ignatius reports that Condoleeza Rice and Stephen Hadley are re-evaluating America's Iran policy, trying to avoid a confrontation and hoping for a split in the regime between radicals like Ahmadinejad and the so-called "pragmatists." That's hardly seeing eye-to-eye with people like Ebadi, but it certainly counts as drastic progress since the good old "Axis of Evil" days.
    -- Brad Plumer 2:29 PM || ||

    January 17, 2006

    Why Not Engagement?

    Over the weekend, Atrios among others wondered whether the Bush administration was going to gear up for an attack on Iran—if not for the purpose of actually doing something about Iran, which seems unlikely, then at least for the purpose of putting the Democratic Party in a corner. Atrios is probably right to say that thinking about this in terms of actual policies—i.e., "What should the U.S. do about Iran?"—is fairly useless and thinking about this in terms of politics is the only reasonable way to go. But there are more than enough clever folks out there spending all their time pondering how the Democrats can "outflank" the Bush administration, so I'll stick with policy talk, I guess.

    Reading over various news reports, there are, it seems to me, four pressing and genuinely ambiguous questions about Iran:
    1. Is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really as crazy as everybody says?

    2. How much power does Ahmadinejad really hold in the Iranian government, and is it true that the people who actually run the show—for instance, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—are "pragmatic" folks who can be persuaded to negotiate with the West or even disarm, given the right incentives?

    3. How much does Iran have to lose by going nuclear, and do the people in charge care?

    4. What kind of time frame are we talking about here? When could Iran, conceivably, get nuclear weapons?
    A lot, I think, follows from what the answers are here. So fourth question first. A recent National Intelligence Estimate, leaked last year to Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post, suggested that Iran was still ten years away from making a bomb. A recent CRS report on the subject, meanwhile, noted that if AQ Khan sold Iran the very same nuclear weapon design he sold Libya, then Iran's only "remaining technical hurdle (albeit the most difficult) would be fissile material production." No time frame on that, though. Still, the presumption is that there's still a fair bit of time. Ahmadinejad could conceivably be out of office before Iran can even produce its first nuclear test. Keep that in mind.

    On the first question, whether Ahmadinejad is really as war-mongering as he appears or not, Scott Peterson wrote a semi-alarmist story in the Christian Science Monitor about how Iran's president may hold very deep-seated millenarian (apocalyptic, even) views about the imminent return of the Mahdi. Suffice to say, a man who believes the rapture is on its way is, as Peterson says, not very willing to compromise on much of anything. He might even feel the urge to use nuclear weapons, should he get them, or at the very least, get up to a lot of nasty stuff behind a nuclear shield. That's the generally accepted theory.

    On the other hand, there's Ray Takeyh and Karim Sadjapour in the Boston Globe. I should mention that I place a great deal of trust in anything Takeyh has to say about Iran, partly because he strikes me as something of a knee-jerk dove on Iran, and anyone who writes about things with a very strong presumption against going to war seems like someone with a sensible head on his shoulders. Takeyh and Sadjapour think that Ahmadinejad's rants of late, especially his promise to wipe Israel "off the map"—which is hardly a new sentiment in the region—amount to little more than attempts to increase his support within the country by triggering a confrontation with the United States, and thus give Iranian hardliners the upper hand in government. See also Sanam Vakil's piece in the Lebanon Daily Star today for a similar analysis.

    So there's that. It's also plausible that Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials and the like may be attempts to curry favor with other Arab governments in the region—after all, if Ahmadinejad says that an Iranian nuclear program is intended to wipe out Israel and confront America, rather than, say, establish Iranian dominance in the Middle East, that might help make, say, Saudi Arabia feel less jittery and maybe even more supportive of Iran's program. That would mean that Ahmadinejad doesn't actually plan to spark a nuclear war and be the man responsible for the obliteration of Tehran; all this talk is just tactical. Who knows?

    That leads to question number two. At a general level, Ahmadinejad probably doesn't run things in Iran. The former president, Mohamed Khatami, certainly didn't, and that's because the Iranian presidency just isn't a strong position. On the other hand, the man in charge, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has reportedly always felt insecure about his position as Supreme Leader, partly because his clerical credentials are so flimsy, and has certainly yielded in the past to the ayatollahs on his right. (There's a long-running question, for instance, about whether Khamenei has any say over various activities by the IRGC, including their infiltration in Iraq and support for al-Qaeda.) As always in Iran, lots of intrigue and power struggle-type activities are going on in the back halls.

    What that means is hard to say. Takeyh, along with Kenneth Pollack, (who may have gotten Iraq dead wrong but tends to speak a lot of sense on Iran) have suggested that the Iranian regime has split between those who want to pursue nuclear weapons at any economic cost, and those "pragmatists" who are casting a wary at the dismal economic situation in Iran and would probably prefer to engage with the United States and Europe. Here's the reason:
    Iran’s massive youth bulge is straining the nation’s economy, and young Iranians’ demands for social freedoms are challenging a principal goal of the revolution itself. Currently, the Iranian economy is generating roughly 400,000 new jobs a year, but more than 1 million new workers are entering the workforce every year. The ensuing rapid rise in unemployment has fed unrest with the regime, and the technocrats who manage Iran’s economy have warned that only massive, foreign investment (to the tune of $20 billion a year for the next five-year plan) will be needed just to keep the status quo from deteriorating any further.

    Moreover, the Iranian national oil company estimates that it will need $70 billion over the next five to ten years to refurbish Iran’s decrepit oil infrastructure if the country is to continue to produce at current levels. Unfortunately for the mullahs, the only places that Iran can find these levels of investment are in Europe, Japan, and the United States. (Although some claim that rising oil prices, coupled with investment from Russia and China will suffice, none of Iran’s own economists believe it.)
    Last week, Saeed Leylaz, an Iranian analyst quoted by the Guardian sounded a similar theme. After noting that Khamenei had backed Ahmadinejad's hard-line approach, he also noted that ultimately, Khamenei was doing so not to pave the way for the obliteration of Israel or anything of the sort, but mostly to spur the U.S. into offering serious incentives for disarmament:
    Mr Leylaz said: "This is not the beginning of enrichment. But diplomatically it's very aggressive and intended to gain advantage for the Iranian side. We've had two plane crashes in the past month caused by American economic sanctions against Iran. Those accidents are forcing Iran to take a more aggressive stance towards the sanctions. The regime wants to start real negotiations with the US, because it doesn't think the Europeans are authorised to negotiate properly. This move is aimed at breaking the circle and getting America's attention."

    Another analyst said: "This decision is about forcing the west to come up with something substantial and serious. Iran wants rewards for not turning its nuclear programme into a weapons programme. The Russians are saying, come and do uranium enrichment on our soil, but there's no reward for that. The regime is saying, if you want us to work with the Russians, there's a price - which is lifting the sanctions, security guarantees, economic incentives and recognition of Iran's role in the region."
    And here's another quote from a "senior Iranian official" to Newsweek, pointing in the exact same direction:
    A senior Iranian official close to Ayatollah Khamenei, who insisted on anonymity, says Iran's ultimate goal in this complicated game of chess is to win security guarantees from the United States at a time when American troops are in several countries on Iran's borders. "How can the world expect us to sit back and not defend ourselves?" he asks.
    That seems right. All you need is a working map of the region to figure out why Iran wants nuclear weapons. Every single nation that borders the country is either occupied by U.S. troops (Iraq, Afghanistan), or is a staunch American ally—many with U.S. bases on their soil (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait). Understandably, the mullahs feel a bit cagey about the nearby presence of a belligerent nation that frequently invades sovereign nations for no good reason.

    Would security guarantees and real economic incentives from the United States convince the Iranian government to give up its nuclear program—or, at the very least, outsource its uranium enrichment to Russia? Maybe. Maybe not. What I don't understand is why this isn't worth trying. The United States would have to negotiate directly with Iran, which would contradict the Bush administration's longstanding preference not to "appease rogue regimes," true, but a little loss of face is about the worst that would come of trying. If it fails, then move on to step two. But the upsides to a serious attempt at engagement are very high.

    Meanwhile, it's not as if the United States would have to negotiate with its tail between its legs. The conventional wisdom, I take it, holds that Iran has the upper hand over the United States—Iran can always stir up trouble in Iraq, after all, while the U.S. can't credibly threaten an invasion since it has no soldiers available. But as Dariush Zahedi and Omid Memarian recently wrote in the New York Times, Iran has its own very glaring vulnerabilities and has its own reasons for seeking peace:
    Many of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities see themselves as victims of discrimination, and they have not been effectively integrated into Iranian economic, political or cultural life. Some two million disgruntled Arabs reside mainly in the oil- and gas- rich province of Khuzestan. The United States could make serious trouble for Tehran by providing financial, logistical and moral support to Arab secessionists in that province. Other aggrieved Iranian minorities would be emboldened by the Arabs' example - for example, the Kurds and the Baluchis, or even the Azeris (though the Azeris, being Shiites, are better integrated into Iranian society). A simple spark could suffice to set off centrifugal explosions.

    Furthermore, the plummeting Iranian economy will only worsen if the United States succeeds in referring Iran's nuclear file to the Security Council, whether or not meaningful sanctions follow. Such a referral would accelerate capital flight, deal a blow to the country's already collapsing stock market, devastate its hitherto booming real estate market, and wipe out the savings of a large part of the middle class. It would also most likely result in galloping inflation, hurting Iran's dispossessed, whom the Ahmadinejad administration claims to represent.
    Of course, that's what the United States is trying to threaten now: a referral to the Security Council and further sanctions. There are some signs that Iran doesn't want to go there, so maybe that will get Iran to comply with the IAEA—if China and Russia agree to sanctions. But without any "carrots" being extended, it's unlikely that the Iranian government will see any reason to seriously change course.

    Even if the United States succeeds in "punishing" Iran, further sanctions could do no more than devastate the Iranian population, and probably kill off any hope of democratic change in the country by wiping out Iran's middle class, as happened in Iraq during the 1990s. Further confrontation seems like the perfect way to stifle liberalization—although certainly many "Iran hawks" think that negotiating with Iran will only strengthen the mullahs and kill off hope for democratization. Omid Memarian wrote a good counter to the hawk view here.

    Ideally, meanwhile, the international community should set a long-term goal of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, as I mentioned last December, and as Mort Halperin argues today. Whether that's a reasonable goal or not, it's ultimately less likely to happen if the United States keeps throwing sanctions at Iran until the country can no longer breathe, and more likely to happen if Iran can become integrated back into the international community. Perhaps that's mushy-headed, but so what? And if absolutely nothing can stop Iran from going nuclear, accommodation seems like the smarter goal anyway. Is Iran more likely to act belligerently in the future if it a) is isolated from the rest of the world and has nothing left to lose or b) has decent ties with the West? I don't often agree with Thomas Barnett, but on this issue (and on China), he makes a lot of sense.

    MORE: Irfan Husain points out that Iran may be casting a wary eye towards Pakistan these days, and the prospect of a nuclear-armed, radical Sunni state to its east. Ze'ef Schiff, defense editor of Haaretz, agrees that "diplomatic and political maneuvers on this issue have not been exhausted."

    Continue reading "Why Not Engagement?"
    -- Brad Plumer 5:53 PM || ||

    January 12, 2006

    The Arab Public Sphere

    Over at the Mother Jones site, I have a fairly long (and interesting!, of course) interview with Marc Lynch, of Abu Aardvark fame, about his just-released book, Voices of the New Arab Public.

    The book's much recommended, by the way: Marc's looking at the public sphere that has emerged in the Arab world over the past decade, thanks in part to al-Jazeerah and the internet, where people can actually debate politics and agitate for change rather than listen to state-run propaganda 24 hours a day—and has a lot to say about it. He's pretty convincing, I think, that this stuff is shaking up the region just as much if not more so than the Iraq war is, though this might be one of those debates that never gets resolved, much like the causes of the fall of the Soviet Union (some say it was Ronald Reagan's cast-iron resolve, I say it was oil prices, etc. etc.). Oh well.
    -- Brad Plumer 8:46 PM || ||
    SWAT Teams Everywhere

    Are SWAT teams and other forms of "paramilitary" policing becoming much too common in the United States? I ask because in Slate today, Daniel Engber writes as an aside that "By the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of American cities had active teams, as did more than half of all law enforcement agencies in the country with more than 50 officers." He links to a 1997 study by Peter Kraska, who found that the number of SWAT teams in America has not only risen dramatically since the 1980s, but that they've been used much more frequently:
    Traditionally utilized for highly specialized action, such as barricaded suspects and hostage situations, the teams are increasingly engaged in traditional police work, especially work related to anti-drug efforts. The research shows that between 1990 and 1995 SWAT units were employed in their traditional roles for only a small number of occasions. Instead 75% of their activities were devoted to serving "high risk" warrants, such as "no-knock" warrants, mostly drug searches.

    "In SWAT units formed since 1980, their use has increased by 538 percent," said Kraska. He added that such units are now being deployed as full-time roaming patrols.
    One survey respondent in the Kraska study described his department's use of SWAT teams this way:
    We're into saturation patrols in hot spots. We do a lot of our work with the SWAT unit because we have bigger guns. We send out two, two-to-four-men cars, we look for minor violations and do jump-outs, either on people on the street or automobiles. After we jump-out the second car provides periphery cover with an ostentatious display of weaponry. We're sending a clear message: if the shootings don't stop, we'll shoot someone.
    "Ostentatious." Many of these units have been trained by the military and armed by the Defense Department, as the "war on drugs" under Reagan increasingly involved the military in domestic law enforcement, thanks to a 1981 Congressional amendment to the Posse Comitatus Act, which authorized the military to "assist" civilian police in the enforcement of drug laws. According to a 1999 CATO study, that led, among other things, to this:
    Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s….

    Of 459 SWAT teams across the country, 46 percent acquired their initial training from 'police officers with special operations experience in the military,' and 43 percent with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.' Almost 46 percent currently conducted training exercises with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.'… Because of their close collaboration with the military, SWAT units are taking on the warrior mentality of our military's special forces.
    So that's the basic state of play. But what of it? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? One police chief notes that "because of the extreme response tactics of the SWAT teams, they actually fire fewer shots." This idea that more "specialized teams" lead to fewer casualties is a compelling one. Researcher Darrell Ross has found that police shootings have declined dramatically since the 1970s, and credits, among other things, "more sophisticated police training. (I don't know if anyone has critically examined Ross' research yet—certainly groups like Human Rights Watch have found plenty of police brutality to go around in the United States even today, and of course causation is hard to determine.)

    On the other hand, Kraska argues that the trend towards more SWAT teams and paramilitary police squads is "militarizing Mayberry" and undermining more "community-oriented" policing methods. Via Nexis, in 1995, the Boston Globe reported, "Cities such as Fresno, Calif., and Indianapolis routinely send officers into communities to patrol in full battle dress, giving these communities all the ambience of the West Bank." And here's a description from the San Francisco Bay Guardian of a SFPD raid in 1998:
    Just before Dawn on Oct. 30 1998, 90 law-enforcement officers wearing black masks and fatigues and armed with assault rifles stormed the Martin Luther King Jr./Marcus Garvey Cooperative in the Western Addition. They used special "shock-lock" shotgun rounds to blow apartment doors off their hinges and cleared people out of rooms by throwing "flash-bang grenades," which produce nonlethal explosions that terrify and disorient people.

    At a Nov. 4 police commission meeting, a train of furious and sobbing residents from the raided housing complex - all of them African American - described how officers slapped them, stepped on their necks and put guns to their heads while other officers ransacked their homes. Weeping and terrified children, some as young as six, were handcuffed and separated from their parents. Some urinated in their pajamas. (Police chief Fred Lau told the San Francisco Chronicle that officers wanted to keep the kids from "running around.")

    Residents of the complex say the raid was a violation of their civil rights. Scores of people with no charges against them and no criminal records were put in disposable plastic "flex-cuffs." Civil servants and grandmothers were held at gunpoint. One woman was hospitalized after a fit of seizures; other people were so distraught they couldn't return to work for days….

    The squad that raided the housing complex included agents from the San Francisco Police Department's tactical squad and narcotics division, the District Attorney's office, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. According to SFPD narcotics lieutenant Kitt Crenshaw, who initiated and planned the operation, the action was designed to "put fear in the hearts" of a gang called the Knock Out Posse. "The raid went off, more or less, without a hitch," Crenshaw said. "I feel bad for the innocent women and children that were there, but in a way they do bear some responsibility for harboring drug dealers."
    No one died in this particular raid (except a pit bull, who was shot by the police), true, but there's not a whole lot of "community policing" going on here, and these raids don't always end "more or less, without a hitch." In a 1996 raid on a suspected drug dealer's home in Fitchburg, MA, a stun grenade used by the SWAT team set off a fire and left 24 people homeless. And it's likely that regardless of the overall trend since the 1970s, "militarized" police departments can lead to more, rather than fewer, unnecessary deaths. In Albuquerque in 1999, after a series of controversial SWAT shooting that led to several wrongful death lawsuits, the police department hired Sam Walker of the University of Nebraska to investigate its practices. Walker found:
    The rate of killings by the police was just off the charts… They had an organizational culture that led them to escalate situations upward rather than de-escalating.
    Albuquerque eventually dismantled its SWAT unit, and in the late '90s cities such as Dallas and Seattle curtailed their own units, taking them off drug raids and suicide calls. (Apparently SWAT teams are used for suicide calls: In May of1999 in San Antonio, "A 48-year-old armed man was killed in a hail of gunfire early Saturday by a special operations police squad during what police said was an attempt to stop him from committing suicide.")

    In the larger scheme of things, the debate over whether SWAT teams are used too frequently or whether they reduce casualties seems like something of a second-order one. Ultimately, the United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest rate of crime among industrialized nations, and it's clear that what's wrong here goes well beyond whether SWAT teams are used too often or too rarely. But it certainly ties into a lot of other important larger issues related to law enforcement and is worth looking at.

    Continue reading "SWAT Teams Everywhere"
    -- Brad Plumer 8:34 PM || ||