March 29, 2006

Remittances Revisited

This is going to contradict some of what I said below about how remittances are an extremely effective form of foreign aid, but Scientific American has an interesting piece on the subject, noting that the thinking on this issue has changed over time. In the 1980s, economists thought that remittances could "rot out [the] economy" of the country receiving them, since, the theory went, recipients often went on spending sprees at the mall rather than investing in farm equipment in the like.

In the 1990s, a number of economists changed their minds about this, and in one model, researchers found that $1 of remittances boosts the GDP of the recipient country by $3. "Compared with alternatives to catalyze economic development, such as government programs or foreign aid and investment, remittances are more accurately targeted to families' needs and more likely to reach the poor." That's what I was saying below. So far, so good. But that's not all:
Today the debate has settled into a "both sides are right" mode. Some towns achieve prosperity aided by remittances; others get trapped in a cycle of dependency. A number of cross-country analyses, such as one last year by economist Nikola Spatafora of the International Monetary Fund and his colleagues, have concluded that nations that rake in more remittances have a lower poverty rate--but only barely. A larger effect is to smooth out the business cycle, because migrants increase their giving during economic downturns in their homelands and scale it back during upswings. Averting the disruptive extremes of boom and bust can help bring about long-term growth.

One burning question is whether immigrants who sink roots into their adopted countries send less money. "Some people are actually saying that in Mexico remittances might stop in 10 years' time," says World Bank economist Dilip Ratha.
So there, whatever that's worth.
-- Brad Plumer 9:36 PM || ||
Layoffs and Productivity

Thomas Geoghegan has a review of Louis Uchitelle's new book, The Disposable American, that has this point: "Mr. Uchitelle effectively wrecks the claim that all this downsizing makes the country more productive, more competitive, more flexible." And: "A growing number of economists argue that layoffs cause more problems than they solve." Huh. He doesn't offer any details in the review, but I was curious about the first point. And it seems quite right, at least from a bit of cursory searching.

In 1996, Martin Neil Baily and two of his colleagues wondered whether the downsizing strategy that was all the rage in the 1980s—wherein companies would boost their stock prices by cutting costs and laying off workers by the hundreds—actually increased productivity. The answer: probably not. Manufacturing firms that added workers during that time contributed just as much to productivity growth as the firms that were downsizing, and in any case, it's hard to find evidence that downsizing improves productivity. (The effect on the workers, on the other hand, is less ambiguous: a Finnish study in 2004 found that layoffs increased the chance of heart disease five times over.)
-- Brad Plumer 8:29 PM || ||
Immigration Debate Time

I don't have a whole lot of really novel things to say right now about the immigration debate. I'll pretty much stand by two longish posts I wrote back in December, the first making the case for more-or-less opening the borders completely (which would never happen, granted), and the second looking at the United States' experience with immigration restrictions between 1924 and 1965. Both of those were pretty good, I think, if disjointed and longwinded, as usual.

But I did want to comment quickly on David Neiwert's suggestion that in order to stem the tide of immigration, we need to help, say, Mexico develop economically and "ameliorate the wage disparity between the two nations." In one sense, that's surely right. I'm all for helping Mexico develop; what with all we've put the country through, from helping trigger the peso crisis of 1982 to the various bad effects of NAFTA that persist to this day, we certainly owe Mexico quite a bit. On the other hand, I'm not so sure the right way to think about immigration policy is: "Make Mexico richer and Mexicans will stop coming here en masse."

For one, it's very unlikely that anything the United States could offer Mexico would help the country develop nearly as much as remittances do. In 2002, Mexican workers in the U.S. sent home $9 billion. I doubt Congress would ever pass a $9 billion aid package for Mexico, and even if it did, it wouldn't be nearly as effective as remittances. Last year, Raghuram Rajand and Arvind Subramanian of the IMF released a paper showing that foreign aid could help countries grow under the right conditions. But what the paper also noted was that remittances were very, very good at avoiding most of the adverse effects of foreign aid. In many ways, immigration is one of the best ways to help Mexico develop—far better than aid or "free trade". (That's not to say nothing else should be done, obviously.)

It's also not necessarily true, at least not in the short and medium term, that making Mexico richer would curtail immigration. There's evidence that as developing countries get richer, they start sending more, rather than fewer, immigrants abroad—partly because as incomes rise, more people can afford to make the journey to, say, the United States. Another thing to consider is that in the medium term immigration from Mexico will presumably begin to taper off naturally, as its population continues to age. I don't really know the numbers on this, though.

In the meantime, if anyone wants to read a left-leaning immigration proposal that has at least a miniscule chance of influencing the debate, Tom Barry's short policy paper for IRC Americas seems pretty good to me. I'll put the quick summary below the fold:
A comprehensive overhaul of our immigration system would include these components:

  • Occurs in the context of a national economic policy that encourages full-employment at livable wages and with respect for basic rights to organize.

  • Prioritizes the entry of political refugees.

  • Legalizes the presence of the large sector of unauthorized immigrants that have established roots in U.S. society and economy.

  • Leaves open the possibility for guest-worker programs that do not endanger the jobs of legal U.S. residents and guarantees respect for the rights of these temporary workers.

  • Determines a sustainable level of legal immigration that benefits U.S. society and economy.

  • Reduces immigration visas for family reunification to ensure that any earned legalization program does not lead to large increases in legal immigration flows.

  • Deemphasizes border security, and instead places the emphasis of controlling illegal immigration on institution of a worker ID system.

  • Reforms U.S. foreign policy in ways that promote broad development and job creation in "sending" countries.

  • Protects the human rights (with special attention to labor rights and conditions) of all U.S. residents—whether legal or not.
  • Like I said, I'd agree with pretty much all of that, I think.

    Continue reading "Immigration Debate Time"...
    -- Brad Plumer 6:08 PM || ||

    March 22, 2006

    Plant Xenophobia

    Let's talk about invasive species for a bit. Last Sunday, the New York Times printed a strange op-ed by George Ball, president of the seed and plant company W. Atlee Burpee & Company, which argued that environmentalists—or, in his marvelously neutral language, "botanical xenophobes"—should stop worrying and let his company sell exotic and non-native plans to anyone who wants them:
    The horticultural world is having its own debate over immigration, with some environmentalists warning about the dangers of so-called exotic plants from other countries and continents "invading" American gardens. These botanical xenophobes say that a pristine natural state exists in our yards and that to disturb it is both sinful and calamitous. In their view, exotic plants will swallow your garden, your neighbors' gardens and your neighbors' neighbors' gardens until the ecosystem collapses under their rampant suffocating growth.

    If anything suffocates us, though, it will be the environmentalists' narrowmindedness. Like all utopian visions, their dream beckons us into a perfect and rational natural world where nothing ever changes — a world that never existed and never will.
    I'm not aware of very many environmentalists trafficking in "utopian visions" these days; most of them are too busy figuring out how to avoid complete ecological disaster. I'd encourage everyone to read Stephen Meyer's excellent Boston Review piece, "End of the Wild," on the loss of biodiversity around the world today, which notes that over the next century "over half of the Earth's species, representing a quarter of the planet's genetic stock, will disappear." Invasive species are a big reason why. Not only that, but the human costs are steep:
    Ecological concerns such as biotic homogenization aside, the economic toll [of doing absolutely nothing about invasive species] would be disastrous. The economic harm caused by the 50,000 non-native invasive plants, animals, and other organisms already in the United States is approaching $140 billion per year. Florida's government alone spends $45 million annually battling invasive species, which cause some $180 million in agricultural damage.
    And $180 million annually is a small price tag compared to what those in the developing world are facing thanks to the introduction "exotic plants" and the resulting damage to the Earth's biodiversity: According to Hope Shand of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the poor rely on that biodiversity for "85 to 90% of their livelihood needs." And crop genetic resources "are disappearing at 1-2% per annum." Yes, tell us again how environmental "narrowmindedness" is suffocating us.

    At any rate, much of Ball's piece seems like a straw man; for instance this: "Should we deprive ourselves of petunias, begonias, impatiens and hollyhocks—not a one of them 'native'?" Okay, fine, but I doubt very many horticulturalists, if any, want to see a blanket ban on all exotic plants. (In an interesting twist, a fair number of alien and invasive plants are actually quite valuable to a number of endangered birds and insects in the United States.) There's plenty of middle ground between letting invasive species run wild and "closing the borders" completely. So whatever.

    But this also seems like a good time as any for ad hominem attacks. Big seed companies like W. Atlee Burpee, more often than not, tend to be pretty evil. Again, according to the RAFI paper linked above, "20 years ago there were thousands of seed companies, most of which were small and family owned. Today [i.e., 1999], the top 10 global seed companies control 30% of the $23 billion commercial seed trade."

    That means that increasingly, a handful of firms in the private sector—big names like Monsarto, Novartis, Dupont, and Dow—control the genetic diversity of seeds. And those companies can increasingly "patent" their engineered plants, making it illegal for smaller farmers to save and replant patented seeds, instead forcing them to come back and shell out money to a few large seed companies each and every year if they want to keep planting. (And most of them have to come back; many times, after, say, a patented pesticide-resistant strain is planted and doused in pesticides, "native" plants will no longer grow in the area.)

    The indentured servitude aspect to all this is bad enough, but the dependency on agribusiness also prevents all of those farmers from breeding and adapting their seeds to changing conditions each season, as they have for hundreds of years. That adversely affects biodiversity, too—a prime example of monopolies stifling competition. At any rate, we're very far afield from the original, bizarre, Times op-ed, but it's just to say I'm disinclined to listen to a seed corporate executive rail against "xenophobic" environmentalists, to say the least.
    -- Brad Plumer 4:09 PM || ||

    March 21, 2006

    Drunk Driving Lessons

    For a long time, I thought that the next big breakthrough in contrarian journalism would come in the form of an article defending drunk driving. So at long last, here it is. Okay, not really, but Mark Schone does manage to point out that a lot of drunk-driving laws manage to make some serious infringements on our various constitutional rights. And because "everyone" opposes drunk driving, the Supreme Court has happily gone along:
    The best-known Supreme Court ruling on a drunken driving measure came about when a motorist named Rick Sitz filed suit to stop the Michigan state police from using ''sobriety checkpoints." But in Michigan v. Sitz (1990) and again in Indianapolis v. Edmond a year later, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-alcohol roadblocks were justified, because preventing impaired motorists from causing accidents is part of a small category of public-safety ''special needs" exceptions to the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable search and seizure.

    Once stopped, a motorist can then be compelled to provide evidence against himself. The government has been allowed to coerce the timely production of blood evidence in a DUI case-by warrant and by physical force-since Schmerber v. California (1966). But if the arresting officer doesn't want to wrestle a recalcitrant suspect to the ground, in most states the prosecutor can simply use the defendant's refusal to take the test as evidence at trial. In South Dakota v. Neville (2000), the court ruled that introducing the refusal as evidence does not violate the Fifth Amendment, because it is not oral testimony and thus not self-incriminating.

    The accused, meanwhile, has only a limited right to examine the evidence against him. Though it's possible to preserve breathalyzer evidence, California v. Trombetta (1984) endorsed the routine police practice of disposing of it immediately. The defendant also has no Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, provided the criminal penalties do not exceed six months in jail, a standard retrieved from British common law in Blanton v. North Las Vegas (1989).
    It's a pretty interesting piece, and if I knew anything about the Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth Amendments, maybe I could have some really insightful things to say. (One law professor quoted in the piece, for instance, thinks that there's more of an automobile exception to, say, the Fourth Amendment than anything like a "DUI exception"—interesting, that.) But no. (Also noteworthy: The Justice Department cited those warrantless "sobriety checkpoints" as a precedent for the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.)

    What I can offer is a little bit of drunk driving-related trivia, though. Way back in 1988, drunk driving was a bit of a problem, as it is now. But back then, no one had ever really heard of the concept of a "designated driver." Basically, it didn't exist. A professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Jay Winsten, came up with the idea and pitched it, with the help of an NBC executive, to over 200 writers and producers at various networks, asking them to include a line or two about it in their shows whenever they dealt with drinking issues.

    And it worked! TV shows such as "Cheers" and the "Cosby Show" started talking about "designated drivers" and people took notice. In 1989, Gallup found that 67 percent of all adults had heard about the concept, and in 1991, the Roper Organization found that 37 percent of adults had passed up drinking to act as a designated driver—up from 29 percent two years earlier. Between 1988 and 1992, drunk-driving fatalities declined from 23,626 to 17,858 a year. Obviously a lot of things could explain that decline, but it's not too outlandish to imagine that the "designated driver" campaign had quite the impact. So there. Behold the power of TV sitcoms. And sure, it wasn't just TV sitcoms—there were other government and community groups pushing the concept—but TV surely helped.
    -- Brad Plumer 4:34 PM || ||

    March 17, 2006

    Doha Revisited

    Trade-bashing probably gets tiresome after awhile, but here's some more of it. A few months ago I looked at some research suggesting that the Doha Round of WTO talks, if completed, was likely to produce very, very tiny gains for developing countries—so tiny that they probably wouldn't offset many of the bad effects from trade liberalization. Well, now Sandra Polanski the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has put out a new study that comes to an even more dire conclusion.

    Polanski's statistical model differs from previous models in a couple of ways: She doesn't unrealistically assume that developing countries will run at full employment, as most World Bank studies do, for instance. And what her model finds is pretty revealing. Basically, any of the "plausible trade scenarios" that could emerge from the talks would only produce a one-time gain to the world of $40 to $60 billion. That's nothing, really. That would only amount to pennies a day for everyone in the world—if the gains were distributed evenly, and there were no negative effects to trade liberalization.

    But the gains aren't distributed evenly. There are winners and losers. In Polanski's model, the United States, the EU, Japan, and China would all benefit greatly from either the Doha or the Hong Kong liberalization proposals—China would gain anywhere from 0.8 to 1.2 percent of GDP. Many poorer countries, by contrast, would suffer pretty heavily: Sub-Saharan African countries would see a 1 percent drop in income if a liberalization agreement was reached, while Bangladesh and many countries in East Africa would lose anywhere from 0.1 to 0.5 percent of GDP.

    Poorer countries, as it turns out, would be hurt by the reduction in agricultural tariffs and subsidies now under discussion. Partly this is because, as I mentioned long ago, many developing countries are net food importers, and depend on existing farm subsidies to keep food cheap. For other countries, meanwhile, the reduction of tariffs would hurt subsistence farmers, who make up the bulk of production in many developing countries, and can't compete in a "free trade" world market. And in many countries, farmers driven off their land won't be able to find manufacturing jobs very easily.

    That brings us to manufacturing. Trade liberalization for manufactured goods would create some benefits, and would increase the demand for unskilled labor in many poorer countries. But that increased demand almost certainly wouldn't increase wages, partly because those developing countries won't be running at full employment—most cities will see a surplus of agricultural workers kicked off their land (which means that it's slum time).

    Plus, as pointed out before, these figures omit all the costs from these WTO talks. Many developing country governments, for instance, derive a significant portion of their income from tariffs. How will they make up those lost revenues once the tariffs are slashed? By cutting social services? Running deficits? Raising sales taxes? Devil in the details. And what about the cost of WTO intellectual property agreements, which can be, in many cases, written primarily for the benefit of corporations in the United States and Europe?

    The utilitarian perspective on all this is interesting, meanwhile. By one count, China has 200 million desperately poor people living on less than $1 a day, and 600 million subsisting on less than $2. Some of those people will see their lives improved—albeit very marginally—by a Doha pact. But in the countries that would lose from Doha there are roughly 267 million dollar-a-day folks, and 486 million people living on less than $2 a day. So almost as many people become worse off as become better off. Which is to say again that "Trade, not aid," is a pretty weak strategy for alleviating world poverty. And, at the very least, the Doha negotiations need to be tweaked to protect some of the poorer countries from the negative effects here.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:17 PM || ||

    March 14, 2006

    Aryan Brotherhood

    The Times headline today, "Trial Begins for Members of Aryan Prison Gang," offers as good excuse as any to re-read one of my favorite New Yorker stories of all time, David Grann's 2004 investigation into "How the Aryan Brotherhood became the most murderous prison gang in America." Being able to store homemade ten-inch knives up your rectum, it turns out, is a key survival skill:
    By 1975, the [Aryan Brotherhood] had expanded into most of California’s state prisons and was engaged in what authorities describe as a full-fledged race war. Dozens had already been slain when, that same year, a fish named Michael Thompson entered the system. A twenty-three-year-old white former high-school football star, he had been sentenced for helping to murder two drug dealers and burying their bodies in a lime-filled pit in a back yard. Six feet four and weighing nearly three hundred pounds, he was strong enough to break ordinary shackles. He had brown hair, which was parted in the middle, and hypnotic blue eyes. Despite the violent nature of his crime, he had no other convictions and, with a chance for parole in less than a decade, he initially kept to himself, barely aware of the different forces moving around him. “I was a fish with gills out to fucking here,” he later said.

    Unaligned with any of the emerging gangs, he was conspicuous prey for roaming Hispanic and black groups, and several of them soon assaulted him in the yard at a prison in Tracy, California; later, he was sent to Folsom, which, along with San Quentin, was exploding with gang wars. On his first day there, he says, no one spoke to him until a leader of the Black Guerrilla Family, a trim, angular man in shorts and a T-shirt, began to taunt him, telling him to come to the yard “ready” the next day. That night in his cell, Thompson recalled, he looked frantically for a weapon; he broke a piece of steel off his cell door and began to file its edges. It was at least ten inches long, and he sharpened both sides. Before the cell doors opened and the guards searched him, he said, he knew he needed to hide the weapon. He took off his clothes and tried to insert it in his rectum. “I couldn’t,” he recalled. “I was too ashamed.” He tried again and again, until finally he succeeded.

    The next morning in the yard, he could see the guards, the tips of their rifles glistening in the sun. The leader of the Black Guerrilla Family circled toward him, flashing a steel blade, and Thompson lay down, trying to extricate his weapon. Eventually, he got it and began to lunge violently at his foe; another gang member came at him and Thompson stabbed him, too. By the time the guards interceded, Thompson was covered in blood, and one of the members of the Black Guerrilla Family lay on the ground, near death.
    Gruesome. Relatedly, Kendrick Blackwood wrote a piece in The Pitch which has a few extra details about the various difficulties federal prosecutors have had in building a case against the Brotherhood (a "web of perjury" is one obvious obstacle).

    One thing worth noting, judging from Grann's piece, is that organizations like the Aryan Brotherhood are able to grow so large and get so out of control partly because law-enforcement officials have little interest in investigating prisoner-on-prisoner crimes ("officials often dismiss such crimes as N.H.I.—'No humans involved'—because the victims are considered to be as unsympathetic as the perps") in the first place. It's not until, say, paroled Brotherhood members continue their activities outside of prison that anyone decides to try to put a stop to it.
    -- Brad Plumer 9:49 PM || ||
    The AFL-CIO Abroad

    At a time when unions are under serious attack, it always seems a bit treasonous to dredge up anything negative about organized labor's past. (Attacking unions because some of them conspired with the mob back in the day, for instance, is wholly irrelevant, especially since this sort of corruption pales beside far more serious corporate crimes.) Still, Kim Scipes' long article in last May's Monthly Review—which I just happened across today—reporting that the AFL-CIO may be returning to the same reactionary foreign policy program it carried out during the Cold War, deserves a look.

    In his much-discussed essay calling for Democrats to embrace a more hawkish foreign policy last year, Peter Beinart noted that in 1944, the conservative AFL set up the Free Trade Union Committee, which, in Beinart's retelling, "worked to build an anti-totalitarian labor movement around the world," undermining Communist efforts in Italy, France, and Greece. Right. That's certainly the rosy version of the story.

    Less well-known is that the AFL also worked with the U.S. government to overthrow the elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, helped the CIA set up drug smuggling routes to finance its anti-communist efforts in Europe, and in 1962, established the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) which helped lay the groundwork for U.S.-backed military coups in Brazil in 1964, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1975, among others. Under the aegis of "business unionism," the AFL-CIO supported military dictatorships around the world against leftist and progressive unions.

    The AFL-CIO supported, for example, the Reagan administration's refusal to conduct a review of labor rights under the military regime in El Salvador for most of the 1980s, because, as Human Rights Watch noted, those being killed were mostly left-wing unionists. For another particularly vivid example of "labor imperialism" in practice, Scipes himself has detailed how the AFL-CIO's Asian counterpart to the AIFLD actively collaborated with death squads under the Marcos regime in the Philippines to put down a KMU local union in the mid-1980s. Certainly the AFL-CIO's foreign policy bears no small portion of the blame for the dismal state of labor around the world today.

    In the 1960s, the AFL-CIO had been drained of most of its left-unionists by purges in the McCarthy era—to the point where it appointed the head of the United Fruit Company, J. Peter Grace, as chairman of the AIFLD—and it wasn't until John Sweeney was elected to the presidency in 1995 that the labor activists who had been calling for a "clearing of the air" on the organization's foreign policy finally began to be heeded. Sweeney disbanded the AIFLD and other regional "institutes," took the International Affairs Department off the government's payroll (in the 1980s, this funding accounted for over half of the AFL-CIO's national budget), and announced that, from now on, the federation would cooperate with all workers around the world fighting for labor rights, regardless of their politics.

    Or at least that was the idea. Scipes' Monthly Review piece suggests that the AFL-CIO hasn't yet changed its ways. The most convincing piece of evidence here is Scipes' look at the AFL-CIO's work with the CTV in Venezuela, a "reactionary" union, and FEDECAMARAS, a Venezuelan business association, to help organize the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. (The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center received $700,000 from the State Department for its work in Venezuela.)

    Less clear-cut, but perhaps more ominous, is Scipes' report that the AFL-CIO has signed on to a new State Department program, the Advisory Committee on Labor and Diplomacy, that aims to use "labor diplomacy" to promote national security "as it did during the Cold War." (Those are the State Department's words.) A recent committee report describes, in part, what the government's looking for:
    The war on terrorism provides one more example of why labor diplomacy functions are so important. Working conditions that lead to misery, alienation, and hopelessness are extremely important in the constellation of forces responsible for terrorism, especially when demagogues blame the United States, globalization or other external forces.
    What that passage means—and what, exactly, the State Department wants the AFL-CIO to help do about those "demagogues," or even who the "demagogues" are (Islamists? any anti-globalization activists?)—is unclear. But the history of "labor diplomacy" in this country should raise some red flags. Granted, for many people, even some of those involved with or sympathetic to organized labor, that Cold War history may not seem like such a big deal. Many liberals probably wouldn't be big fans of many of the leftist, socialist, or Communist unions and groups that the AFL-CIO fought to suppress during the Cold War, and it seems fashionable these days to oppose Chavez in any case.

    But—and here's where I think most people can agree—the AFL-CIO's foreign policy past still very much affects its ability to work today with other unions abroad, against the corporate interests that are labor's primary foe at this point. In 1997, Abby Scher reported in Dollars & Sense that textile unions in the Dominican Republic refused to collaborate with the ACTWU, an American textile union, over organizing when the AFL-CIO waded in to the talks. People have long memories. It's not clear how widespread those sorts of incidents are, but as Scher says, U.S. unions during the Cold War "undercut their international strength during crucial years when multinationals were growing more powerful."

    Whatever the future of labor, it's going to have to take a more international and cross-border component to organizing, something Andy Stern has been talking about for awhile—and criticizing the AFL-CIO over. During the Cold War, unions here at home might have benefited from U.S. corporations pillaging raw materials from Third World countries governed by union-busting despots (to put it crudely). An uneasy alliance with corporate imperialism might have made sense, in terms of naked self-interest. I disagree, but you can see the argument. That's very clearly no longer the case, though—poor labor standards and weak unions abroad have ended up hurting American manufacturers here.

    Some of the more progressive unions out there, such as the Communications Workers for America and the United Electrical Workers, have long recognized this, and have been very active in trying to raise working standards abroad—the UE has tried its hand at organizing multiple plants owned by a single multinational, for instance. It's hard to tell if the AFL-CIO is serious about following the same path, or if it really intends to be co-opted by the Bush administration's foreign policy, which is why Scipes has been so insistent for so long about greater transparency within the federation, asking the AFL-CIO to explain to its members what, exactly, it's doing on the foreign policy front. That doesn't seem like so much to ask.
    -- Brad Plumer 9:30 PM || ||

    March 09, 2006

    "Voluntary Fatherhood"

    Over at MoJo, my co-worker Juliana reports that the National Center for Men has filed a lawsuit arguing that if women have the right to choose whether to get an abortion or not, then men should have the right to choose whether to pay child-support or not. So if, for example, a man wants an abortion and the woman doesn't, the dude should be off the hook. Fair's fair, right?

    Just to pile on to what Juliana had to say, the whole line of thinking seems ridiculous—and I wouldn't necessarily say that about all right-wing arguments—and it's either vaguely amusing or thoroughly depressing that it gets discussed so much, I can't tell. In practice, the NCM's preferred outcome would mean the end of child support, since every guy in the world would have an easy "out" at his disposal. And since the case for child support is pretty straightforward, that pretty much settles that. (For the record, it's usually not a crippling amount of money at stake here: according to the U.S. Census, median child support in the Untied States is $280 a month; $125 for fathers below the poverty line—far less than the cost of raising a child..)

    And then you have the NCM's director, Mel Feit, saying that he just wants to "find a way for a man also to have some say over decisions that affect his life profoundly." Again, a common refrain. Again, please. It would be lovely if men could "have some say," sure, but biology being what it is, that's not really possible. Lots of well-adjusted couples no doubt make mutually agreed-upon decisions on whether to carry a pregnancy to term or not, and that's very nice for those people, but there's no way to turn that into a law. Either the woman has the baby or she doesn't, so if the man is allowed to have a "say," either he gets to decide what happens—giving him control over the woman's uterus—or he doesn't. But in the event of disagreement, there's no "magic" middle ground here.

    It’s sort of a "tough shit" argument, but there's not really any other way around it. Pregnancy is always going to be issue involving inequality; some inequalities are just less of a problem than others. Undoubtedly some men have been genuinely screwed over on custody or child support matters over the years. It's also true that far, far more women have been screwed over—with more serious consequences than forfeiting $280 a month—on the same issues (49 percent of all child support went unpaid in 2004, for instance). So it goes.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:34 PM || ||

    March 07, 2006

    Diamonds are Forever

    In the 1930s, De Beers, the South African diamond cartel, was in trouble. Americans weren't buying diamonds anymore, partly because of the economy, and partly because people found diamonds a bit tacky. So in 1938 the cartel hired an ad agency, N.W. Ayer, to strengthen the association in the public mind between diamonds and romance. Young men had to be brainwashed into thinking that diamonds were an indication of love; young women that diamonds were a crucial part of the courtship. And it worked. Between 1938 and 1941, De Beers' sales went up 55 percent.

    The real challenge, though, was to make sure a secondary market for diamonds didn't arise, which would then depress world prices and make diamond investors very unhappy and not-quite-as-filthy-rich people. Luckily, a copywriter at N.W. Ayer came up with the slogan, "A Diamond is Forever," and that did the trick. The public—both in America and especially in countries like Germany and Japan—saw diamonds as "symbols of betrothal," to be kept for life rather than resold. (And good thing too; people who do try to resell their diamonds find that they're pretty much worthless on the secondary market.)

    That—and a lot more—comes from Edward Jay Epstein's 1982 Atlantic piece, "Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" The work of N.W. Ayer wasn't the only way De Beers grew so massive—the cartel's ability to manipulate the world supply of diamonds played just as big a part—but it's hard to find a better description of how powerful a deviously clever ad campaign can be.
    -- Brad Plumer 6:27 PM || ||
    Ants And Locusts

    The health care piece in the New York Review of Books by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells is good and important, but honestly not half as fascinating as Tim Flannery's essay on scorpions, worms, and other small insects. Tidbit one:
    Among the most thought-provoking of such creatures are the ranchers. These ants carefully tend herds of sap-sucking aphids, tiny pear-shaped insects, which they milk for a sugary substance that makes good ant food. Just like human farmers, the ants ensure that their herds get the best possible forage. They do this by driving their aphids to parts of the plant that are rich in sap, and when the aphids produce young (which are miniature versions of the adults), the ants carry them to fresh pastures.

    Ant shepherds drive off aphid predators such as ladybirds, and in bad weather build shelters of leaf particles and soil to protect their livestock. They have even been observed marking their herds with a substance specific to one ant colony; it resembles our branding of livestock, Attenborough says. But most astonishingly, the ants have discovered how to interfere with the reproduction of their herds so as to maximize production; just as we castrate calves, so the ants feed their aphids a fluid which prevents them from reaching sexual maturity.
    Flannery also has a section asking why the locust, which used to dominate the Midwest—one swarm that rolled into Nebraska in 1875 and ate up all the crops, paint, window blinds, wooden tool handles, dead bats, and live birds it could find numbered some 3.5 trillion insects—is now almost completely extinct. No one really knows why; maybe they're hiding, maybe all the locusts turned into grasshoppers (yeah, I don't really understand that part either), or maybe the Mormons asked for divine protection. Or:
    Jeffrey Lockwood, however, had his own ideas. He figured that the outbreaks had to come from somewhere and that if the cradle of the swarm could be identified, then so would the cause of the creature's extinction.

    The swarms, he established, originated in the high valleys of the Rocky Mountains. The species probably required just three thousand square miles as its nursery, and may actually have used far less. At around the time the locust vanished, the high valleys were being settled. Grazing, irrigating, and cropping, it seems, transformed the vital nurseries in ways that made them inhospitable to locusts. Thus a few farmers banished from the land a creature that once rivaled or even exceeded the passenger pigeon in abundance, and which had threatened farming across a vast region.
    Here's another good review of the Jeffrey Lockwood's Locust, which also describes some of the inventions frontier farmers came up with to stave off the swarms, including a "horse-drawn flamethrower" that, apparently, never made it past prototype.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:47 PM || ||
    Closer to Nuclear War

    Fred Kaplan gets at some of the problems with the Bush administration's recent nuclear deal with India. Among other worries, India could start building fast-breeder reactors—which can be used to build lots and lots of plutonium bombs—inside its unmonitored military facilities. The whole thing also undermines the Non-Proliferation Treaty: after all, if the U.S. can offer India nuclear technology without requiring the latter to disarm (or even, more weakly, put a moratorium on new weapons), what's to stop Russia and China from offering, say, Pakistan or Iran a similar deal?

    But there's another—and, I think, far more serious—problem here. A few weeks ago in the New Yorker, Steve Coll had a scary piece of reporting about how in December of 2001, after Kashmiri jihadis allegedly tried to blow up the Parliament House in New Delhi, India and Pakistan came very close to war. Very close. And because neither country could tell how serious the other side was about deterrence and using its nukes, the world came closer to seeing a real-life nuclear exchange than at any time since 1962. For instance:
    At a round-table discussion in London, a Pakistani general involved with his country's nuclear program discussed the crisis with Indian civilian participants. "They said, 'We can live with losing Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta, but we will wipe out Pakistan,'" the general recalled. "I said, 'That's easier said than done. Losing Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay, it would be very difficult for India to survive.'"

    Such talk unnerved British and American officials, and in late May Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, called Armitage, asking him to visit Islamabad and New Delhi; he was hoping that a new round of diplomacy might at least slow down India's war planners. Armitage agreed, and he invited analysts from the State Department's intelligence and regional bureaus to his office. He asked for a show of hands: "How many think we're going to war?" Everybody's hand went up but his.
    (Indeed, the State Department took the threat so seriously that it evacuated its diplomats from the region—the first time it had ever done so.) Now the standoff was resolved, at least in Coll's telling, because Colin Powell and Richard Armitage did a deft job of mediating between the two sides. That's partly because they could be seen as somewhat impartial mediators—among other things, relations between the United States and Pakistan were warming in late 2001. But because the Bush administration has cozied up to India of late, Pakistan's generals now have "an absolute certainty that the U.S. is not an honest broker," one Defense Department official told Coll.

    It's hard to tell whether the nuclear crisis in late 2001 has scared Pakistani and Indian leaders into bouts of moderation—the two countries have warmed slightly towards each other of late. But another major attack by Pakistani groups could easily provoke a war—or at the very least another round of brinksmanship. (Some jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed seem to have this very goal in mind.) And the next time, the United States might not be able to calm everyone down.

    War would be disastrous for all the obvious reasons, but even having Pakistan and India get close to war would be extremely dangerous from a global security perspective. As Coll reports, Pakistan's nuclear weapons are pretty well guarded until they're put on alert and dispersed in preparation for battle. When that happens, the chances that a nuclear weapon could fall into the wrong hands will suddenly go up significantly. (And it won't be known when that happens—it's not even known to what extent Pakistan's arsenal was dispersed in late 2001.)

    A few years ago in the Atlantic, Graham Allison explained why we should all be terrified of this scenario—he was also worried about a possible coup in Pakistan, which could again lead to nuclear weapons falling in the wrong hands—and suggested that as a solution, the U.S. should provide technological safeguards to Pakistan, such as bomb locks known as Permissive Action Links that would ensure that only Gen. Perez Musharraf could activate the weapons. It seemed like a sound idea, but Coll describes why Pakistan never accepted:
    Colin Powell first raised the possibility of American assistance with Musharraf [on nuclear safeguards] in the autumn of 2001, but Musharraf rejected the idea; the Pakistani side "just said no," the former Bush Administration official recalled. The Pakistanis said they "had it all under control themselves."

    Many of Pakistan's ruling generals fear that, given an opportunity, the United States might stand by as India attempted to preëmptively destroy Pakistan's nuclear-weapons facilities. In the view of Musharraf and his senior generals, Feroz Khan told me, "the United States is not hostile to Pakistan, but they do know that the U.S. was inimical to the Pakistani program from the beginning, so they would not assume any sympathy" if India attacked. Pakistan's military has gone to great lengths to keep the operational details of its nuclear-weapons systems secret, several well-placed American officials told me. To accept U.S. nuclear-security assistance, the generals would have to be convinced that the aid would not be used to collect intelligence or undermine Pakistan's control of its nuclear arsenal.
    It's not an entirely unreasonable fear, really, and the United States' recent deal with India will very likely make Pakistan's generals even less likely to accept assistance anytime in the near future. And that makes nuclear proliferation more likely. Now perhaps it really is in our best interests to make a long-term strategic alliance with India—so that they can help us "contain China" or whatever nonsense is the rationale here—but it's easy to see the problems here.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:17 PM || ||

    March 03, 2006

    Memes and Stuff

    Okay, what the hell, it's Friday, hilzoy of Obsidian Wings "tagged" me with this little meme thing, so I may as well give it a go. Apologies for not posting much of late; work's been busy, and for the past two months I haven't had a computer at home (mine busted), so it's been hard to find time to write stuff, even though there's lots of stuff I'd like to write about. Well, maybe no one cares. Either way, thrilling personal revelations below the fold:

    Four jobs I've had: Researcher at a flood observatory (sort of like the tornado chasers in Twister only less exciting); ESL teacher; Barnes & Noble clerk dude; fact-checker for everyone's favorite best-selling travel book.

    Four movies I can watch over and over again: Well, I grew up in a foreign country, and we didn't have a whole lot of English movies, so what ones we did have definitely got a lot of repeat viewings. Some of the "classics," as I remember, were Big Bird Goes to China, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Stand By Me. But I doubt I could watch any of those over and over today. Except Big Bird. That was great. No, since we're just listing any four and not our top four, I'd probably go with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Splendour in the Grass, Annie Hall, and, strangely, The Opposite of Sex with Christina Ricci, which I'm pretty sure I find far funnier than I really should.

    Four places I've lived: Tokyo, Japan; Dublin, Ireland; Harlem, NY; Boston, MA. Also deep in the New Hampshire wilderness, but I didn't really "live" there so much as "survive." Incidentally, San Francisco's far and away my favorite place to have ever lived.

    Four TV shows I love: I don't have cable at home, so I don't really know the lay of the land here. But my roommate and I recently got through season one of "Lost" on DVD and that was vaguely addicting. Can't say I'm aching to see season two, though. "Rollergirls" seems fascinating, but I've never watched it, just heard about it. "Iron Chef" has some pretty useful tips now and again.

    Four highly regarded and recommended TV shows I haven’t seen: Whatever else is out there. Although I was at a taqueria the other night and I think they were showing "Law and Order," but it could have been "Boston Confidential" or whatever it's called. This really isn't a good question for me.

    Four of my favorite dishes: My ex-roommate and her girlfriend made some fantastic Middle Eastern eggplant wrap-type thing sometime ago that I've been trying to recreate for ages. Also, the frozen BBQ chicken pizza from Trader Joe's has been a staple, especially when I don't have time to cook. I'm trying to go vegetarian but that pizza pulls me back from the brink every time. The tea leaf salad at Burma Superstar here in SF surely deserves a gold medal. I'm a pretty middling cook (even though I do it fairly frequently) so I probably shouldn't list anything I've personally made.

    (Okay, I'm deleting some questions here. Four places I've vacationed? Who cares? And two questions about TV? Why not some classic desert island questions? What about books? Or music? Four words you mispronounce regularly? [Personally, that last would be a long list, but classic stumpers include "abominable," "labyrinth," "indefatigable," and "chasm."] One could go on. I won't.)

    Four sites I visit daily: Um, when I absolutely don't have time to surf the web, apart from and our publishing site, it usually boils down to Google News and the New York Times. And for various reasons I've been visiting the BLS site a lot lately, but "daily" is a pretty high bar.

    Right. I won't send this on because it's not all that interesting. But fun while it lasted!

    Continue reading "Memes and Stuff"...
    -- Brad Plumer 9:18 PM || ||
    Sen v. Easterly on Aid

    Every now and again, William Easterly, a former World Bank official and development expert, will appear on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and tell everyone that foreign aid doesn't really work all that well in places like Africa, taking a jab at Jeffrey Sachs and all those other good-intentioned "foreign aid" liberals out there in the process. And no doubt, it's good to remember that more than a few grandiose aid projects have ended in disaster, but it's another thing to say that foreign aid is hopeless, now and forever.

    Anyway, Amartya Sen has a good review in Foreign Affairs of Easterly's new book, The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, that takes a more nuanced view here. Among other things, he notes that even according to Easterly's own data, aid efforts haven't really done as "much ill" as advertised, although often they do do "little good." But sometimes they do a lot of good. And it's not like aid efforts are impossible to improve. As Sen points out, Easterly's detailed (and valuable) observations and research put him in a position to offer constructive advice, but his "useful hints at balanced evaluation come amid deafening outbursts against the advocates of aid." It's almost as if he'd rather mock Bob Geldof than, you know, help fix things.

    Sen's optimistic view on aid makes more sense to me; a few months ago I wrote an article that found a good deal of evidence that aid to poor countries actually works much better than the pessimists say (although the current aid regime obviously isn't perfect). One could also note that aid in the past hasn't always come at the behest of well-meaning liberals. As one researcher I talked to showed, the Cold War and various geopolitical considerations, rather than development concerns, influenced a lot of Western aid-giving patterns. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising that aid didn't always lead to economic growth.

    (Not to mention the fact that all the conflicts, wars, and coups triggered by the United States and the Soviet Union in the Third World during the Cold War negated whatever "good" effects aid might have had. Branko Milanovic has argued that conflict has caused a 40 percent income loss in developing countries over the past twenty years; presumably it was even higher during the Cold War.)

    Meanwhile, as John Perkins' thinly-argued but wholly plausible book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, suggests, a variety of Western development projects have often been carried out with the express purpose of doing nothing more than looting and pillaging the Third World to the benefit of Western business. Indeed, much aid still follows this pattern, as when developing nations receive restricted "loans" with which they can only purchase things from the original donor country. Again, little wonder that much of this aid "fails" to produce growth. The foreign aid plotline doesn't exactly run: "Western country tries to do well-intentioned and benevolent stuff to help poor country grow, and it doesn't work out." Maybe sometimes that's true, but certainly not always.
    -- Brad Plumer 3:29 PM || ||