December 30, 2006

A Hawk Bias?

Is the human brain hard-wired to be hawkish when it comes to foreign affairs? Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon think so, noting in this month's Foreign Policy that "policymakers come to the debate predisposed to believe their hawkish advisors more than the doves." That tilted playing field, they argue, is due to various psychological biases that all people are prone to. Those biases include:
1. Policymakers, like all people, tend to overestimate their chances in matters of war—much like how 80 percent of people believe their driving skills are better than average. Ken Adelman's boast in 2003 that the invasion of Iraq would be a "cakewalk" was stupid, but hardly an aberration in the history of warfare.

2. Similarly, policymakers, like all people, are prone to an "illusion of control," exaggerating the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them. At the moment, a number of U.S. policymakers seem to believe that they can still prevent a catastrophe in Iraq, or prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, when it's entirely likely that they can't do either.

3. Leaders in one country generally underestimate the extent to which their actions may be perceived as hostile by other countries. During the Korean War, as UN forces marched up the peninsula, Secretary of State Dean Acheson was convinced that China would understand their "non-threatening intentions." China, of course, saw things differently, and went to war. Likewise, most U.S. policymakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, dismiss the entirely reasonable possibility that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons because it fears the United States' rather ominous presence in the Middle East.

4. A psychological bias known in academic circles as "reactive devaluation" tends to undermine negotiations with adversaries. In one experiment, pro-Israeli Jews evaluated an actual Israeli-authored peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. The other side would have to concede extra to be perceived as making a "fair" offer. Hence: "Psychologically, we are receptive not only to hawks' arguments for war, but also to their case against negotiated solutions."

5. People have a deep-seated aversion to cutting their losses. When offered a) a sure loss of $890 or b) a 90 percent chance to lose $1000 and a 10 percent chance to lose nothing, most people would take option b), even though it's statistically the worse choice.
Now that doesn't necessarily mean that people who subscribe to the hawkish worldview—in which all adversaries are implacably hostile regimes that can only be dealt with through the use of force—are always and everywhere merely delusional, suckered by their own psychological biases. In some instances, of course, a hawkish policy course might well be the correct one. As Kahneman and Renshon write, "Our conclusion is not that hawkish advisors are necessarily wrong, only that they are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be."

Moreover, it's not like these biases are insurmountable. Policymakers in Europe, for instance, don't seem to share the Bush administration's pessimism about negotiating with adversaries—European diplomats favored both talks with Iran and engagement with the erstwhile Islamist leaders in Somalia. No doubt a knee-jerk preference for negotiations rather than combat reflects its own set of psychological biases, although they're biases I happen to share. On that note, check out "A Natural History of Peace," by Robert Sapolsky, which looks at recent primate research and concludes that the human brain isn't necessarily predisposed to fear and aggression. That's a nice thought.
-- Brad Plumer 2:10 PM || ||

December 27, 2006

Water Carriers

About 1.1 billion people in the developing world lack access to clean water. A lot of bad things obviously result from this, including dehydration and disease. But Hilzoy points to another, hidden cost: "A United Nations survey carried out in 177 countries has revealed that women spend an estimated 40 billion hours collecting water." In some countries, women spend 15 to 17 hours a week traveling to faraway streams and wells. All that lost time has a massive impact on gender inequality. From the report itself:
It is not uncommon for women to walk more than 10 kilometres during the dry season. Research in eastern Uganda found households spending on average 660 hours a year collecting water. This represents two full months of labour with the attendant opportunity costs for education, income generation and female leisure time," the report, released last week, partly reads.

In India, according to research done by Self Employed Women's Association, it is estimated that reducing time spent on water collection to one hour a day would enable women to earn an additional US$100 a year. "But it was not only the loss of income that was important. Women also emphasized the importance of income generation to their independence."
I don't really have any added commentary, those are just stunning numbers.
-- Brad Plumer 6:17 PM || ||
Moms Need Not Apply

Sheila Gibbons of Women's eNews takes note of a movement afoot to end workplace discrimination against mothers by making it illegal for employers to ask applicants about their marital or familial status. Only 22 states have such laws on the books. In the rest of the country, it's perfectly kosher to reject a candidate just because she has kids:
But Pennsylvania is one of those many states that says nothing against the practice, which in the absence of a federal prohibition, makes it perfectly OK. In fact, those were usually among the first questions asked, [Kiki Peppard, a single mother,] said, and many hiring managers ended the encounter soon after she honestly answered them.
I'm curious about the extent to which this particular brand of discrimination against mothers plays a role in the "gender wage gap" that's making the news of late. Presumably it's a big one. Last year, Shelley Correll and Stephen Benard, two Cornell researchers, conducted a little experiment, creating resumes and sending them out to a variety of employers. The results: "Mothers were ranked as less competent and committed and least likely to be promoted. And they were offered lower starting salaries." On the other hand, fathers were "most likely to be promoted," even more than childless dudes.

Now, given that men spend vastly less time taking care of the kids, and given the lack of affordable child-care options for most working families, one can see why employers might do this. That hardly excuses the broader state of affairs, though. I'd also note that one of the aims of so-called welfare "reform" was to force single mothers to find jobs. Just a hunch, but I'd imagine that becomes much more difficult when businesses can discriminate against single mothers at will.
-- Brad Plumer 6:06 PM || ||
Beg Your Pardon

This 1974 Time Magazine cover story, looking at Gerald Ford's decision to pardon Richard Nixon, makes for fascinating reading. I've never given it much thought, but it is utterly shocking that Ford pardoned Nixon before the ex-president had even been charged with a crime, any crime—a virtually-unprecedented use of the pardon. Not surprisingly, the move provoked a backlash among legal scholars, with the California State Bar Association declaring that the pardon threatened to "undermine" the "American system of justice." Voters weren't thrilled either, apparently.

In the end, "26 months and millions of dollars spent on the painstaking investigation and prosecution of the Watergate crimes were cast aside" to spare Nixon further anguish and, we are told, to "heal the nation's wounds." But Nixon had been responsible for more than merely Watergate, and Ford's pardon cut off a broader inquiry into all of the longstanding abuses of power by Nixon and his associates. It also set an ugly precedent. Various Iran-Contra criminals received their pardons a decade later, and many were eventually allowed to return to government and lead the country down the path of further corruption and war. Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, it's hard to imagine we'd have had Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, and John Poindexter handling various national security issues over the past six years, at minimum.

One alternative, of course, would be maximum vengeance, in which government officials who commit crimes get the full extent of the law jammed down their throats. Maybe this is too time-consuming, and distracts from other, more pressing matters. Sometimes, though, I tend to think that the current Congress ought take this route anyway, if only so we don't have to see the same shady characters resurface like whack-a-mole heads in the next Republican administration, and the next, and the next.

More: Meanwhile, Alexander Cockburn makes the case that Ford was "America's greatest President." It's all relative, of course.
-- Brad Plumer 10:03 AM || ||

December 26, 2006

Haven't Got the Time

Are certain cities more laid-back than others? That's certainly the impression I've always had. Tokyo, where I grew up, seems a fair bit more manic, faster-paced, and schedule-driven than, say, San Francisco, and not simply because it's more crowded and chaotic. But how would you measure this sort of thing? Apparently Robert Levine of California State University gave it a try, and it's a nifty little experiment, laid out in his book, The Geography of Time.

Levine looked at thirty-one cities around the world and measured three things. First, he checked how accurate clocks in various buildings were, to see how highly people in each city prized punctuality. Then he asked observers to measure the foot speed of pedestrians who were walking from place to place in each city, controlling for weather, to try to measure the pace of everyday life. Finally, he sent volunteers to various post offices—since how postal workers do more or less the same thing in each country—where they submitted a request for a small stamp and timed the response, as a proxy for working speed.

The results got tallied up, and here are the country ratings, from fastest-paced to most laid-back:
1. Switzerland (Berne and Zurich)
2. Ireland (Dublin)
3. Germany (Frankfurt)
4. Japan (Tokyo)
5. Italy (Rome)
6. England (London)
7. Sweden (Stockholm)
8. Austria (Vienna)
9. Netherlands (Amsterdam)
10. Hong Kong
11. France (Paris)
12. Poland (Wroclaw, Lodz, Poznan, Lublin, and Warsaw)
13. Costa Rica (San Jose)
14. Taiwan (Taipei)
15. Singapore (Singapore)
16. United States (New York City
17. Canada (Toronto)
18. South Korea (Seoul)
19. Hungary (Budapest)
20. Czech Republic (Prague)
21. Greece (Athens)
22. Kenya (Nairobi)
23. China (Guanzhou)
24. Bulgaria (Sofia)
25. Romania (Bucharest)
26. Jordan (Amman)
27. Syria (Damascus)
28. El Salvador (San Salvador)
29. Brazil (Rio de Janeiro)
30. Indonesia (Jakarta)
31. Mexico (Mexico City)
I don't know how airtight these rankings are. Having lived in both Dublin and Tokyo, the latter certainly feels much more of a Type-A city, with people always rushing to the next meeting or appointment. People in Dublin seemed to waste a lot more time, linger about more, arrive late more often. But that's just my vague impression. Levine argues that faster-paced cities suffer from greater levels of stress, which in turn leads to higher smoking rights and more heart-attack deaths, although Tokyo seems to be the big exception on the latter (perhaps eating fish oil really does ward off heart disease).

It also seems, to me at least, that fast-paced cities conduct themselves in different ways. Drivers in London, as I recall, tend to lay on the horn and blaze through intersections, and pedestrians plunge through busy traffic just so they don't have to wait for the walk light. In Tokyo, by contrast, people by and large wait patiently for lights to change, and don't seem to use their horns nearly as often, even though traffic moves at a mind-numbingly slow pace. Cultural differences and etiquette no doubt play a role, but perhaps many Tokyo-dwellers, pressed as they might be for time, just have more patience for some things and not others.
-- Brad Plumer 11:50 AM || ||
Turkey Trouble

Let's look on the bright side. Even though most of Iraq is imploding, at least the Kurdish bits in the north are fairly stable. Right? Well, that's what I thought—even setting aside the whole Kirkuk issue, which still looks worrisome—until this story popped up on my Google News alerts:
Turkey and the United States are reportedly negotiating the possibility of a cross-border operation into northern Iraq, where the PKK has base camps. Two special coordinators appointed by the United States and Turkey have been continuing talks on the possibility of military action in northern Iraq.
A "cross-border operation"? Meaning what, exactly? Turkey, as I understand it, is getting sick of attacks on its soldiers by the PKK, the Kurdish rebel group with a foothold in northern Iraq. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said that his patience for this sort of thing has "limits." Hawkish generals in the Turkish military have been exasperated that the United States has done squat to clamp down on PKK strongholds in northern Iraq—especially since the Bush administration officially considers the group a terrorist organization. (Although it's not like the Turkish Army is a bunch of angels, either.)

Now we get a "seasoned NATO military observer" telling The Economist: "It's no longer a matter of if [the Turks] invade but how America responds when they do." Uh. So if, say, the Iraqi Kurds decided to fight back against a Turkish encroachment, how exactly would the U.S. respond? Who would we support? At the moment, Condoleezza Rice is trying to ratchet down tensions on all sides, insisting that the PKK is being dealt with through a "trilateral cooperative mechanism," whatever that means. Erdogan, though, didn't seem overly optimistic about this in his interview with PBS.

Most onlookers, I take it, have assumed that Turkey wouldn't ever send troops into Kurdish Iraq for fear of jeopardizing its EU membership application. But these days EU membership seems increasingly precarious. So maybe they'll invade anyway. The country did deploy 250,000 troops to the border in April, but backed down after the U.S. promised to appoint a special envoy, former NATO commander Joseph Ralston, to deal with the problem. But apparently it never got dealt with. It seems Ralston may have been too busy lobbying the Turkish government on behalf of Lockheed Martin, who wanted to sell the country 30 new F-16s. That, at least, got accomplished.

So here we are. Another U.S. official told the Economist: "At this rate, we're not only going to lose Iraq but Turkey too." Nice! Even on the long, long list of Iraq-related fuck-ups, this one looks like it may soon deserve special mention.
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 AM || ||

December 22, 2006

Holiday Time!

I, for one, can't wait for the holidays to start. My home, alas, is on the other side of the Pacific, and way too far away to visit this year, so I'm going to spend the next few days down in Florida of all places, dashing through the snow no doubt. Maybe in my spare time I'll write some blog posts. In the meantime, here are links to a few articles I've written in the past few weeks—in case anyone was curious—all in one convenient place:
An article for The New Republic on the Houston janitors' strike that ended in November, and what it might mean for labor's perennial attempts to make inroads into the South.

Another TNR piece up today on how Dems can stop Bush from screwing women abroad. (No, not Neil Bush...)

A story for The American Prospect's January/February issue on how the defense industry is pushing to weaken arms export controls in order to sell more weapons overseas—free of oversight. (It's subscriber-only, but I think it will be unshackled of these days.)
Enjoy! Oh, and happy holidays! Personally, I'm not much of a fan of Christmas (or whatever sectarian holiday one might prefer), and found James Henry's economic case against the holiday season suitably peevish. "[T] the data show that the yuletide time period is marked by environmental degradation, hazardous products and travel, and--perhaps most important--inefficient uses of key resources." So beware.
-- Brad Plumer 1:36 PM || ||

December 21, 2006

Poverty in the Suburbs

Every so often I read boring reports. Here's one, from the Brookings Institution: "City and Suburban Poverty Trends, 1999-2005." Mmmm... eye-glazing... But this is sort of interesting: In 1999 there was roughly the same number of poor people in cities as in the suburbs. But by 2005, the suburban poor outnumbered the urban poor by over 1 million.

What's going on here? The report hints that the dismal wage growth in the United States has hit lower-skilled workers in the suburbs especially hard. Alternatively, poor families may be migrating from the inner city to the suburbs. That's where the jobs seem to be, after all—a few years ago, GAO study found that while three-fourths of all welfare recipients lived in central cities or rural areas, three-fourths of all jobs were located in the suburbs of over 100 metro areas. Who wouldn't move if they could?

The Brookings report notes one troubling aspect of all this: Most social service providers are still disproportionately located in the inner cities, despite the fact that most poor people now live in the suburbs. Immigrants living in lower-density suburban areas, for instance, are less likely to receive the Earned-Income Tax Credit than those living in cities—I assume because they're less likely to hear about it. I don't know. In other news, since 1999 "nearly half of large cities nationwide saw a significant rise in their poverty rates." Good to see that progress is being made.
-- Brad Plumer 6:33 PM || ||

December 20, 2006

What We Need Are More Lists

Fun times: Pitchfork has published their list of the top 50 albums of 2006. Honestly, I was mostly underwhelmed by all the new music offerings this year, at least compared to the year before. A lot of indie-rock staples—Will Oldham, Built to Spill, Belle and Sebastian, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo—put out new albums that were pleasant enough, but not much more. And, probably because I'm crotchety and can't help it, I never got into the hot bands of the year, such as Tapes 'n' Tapes, the Thermals, the Hold Steady, or Grizzly Bear. My hunch is that few people will still be listening to most of those albums a year from now, although I'm abysmal about predicting such things. Maybe The Loon really is a timeless classic in disguise. Who knows?

But enough with the carping, on with the drum roll! Here are my ten favorite albums of the year, in no particular order—since paring down a list is simple, but ranking is tricky and time-consuming:
Califone, Roots and Crowns
Paul Flaherty and Chris Corsano, The Beloved Music
Joanna Newsom, Ys
John Cale, Paris 1919
Function, The Secret Miracle Fountain
Danielson, Ships
Christine Fellows, Paper Anniversary
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale
Clipse, Hell Hath No Fury
Karen Dalton, In My Own Time
Hopefully I didn't leave anything off. Of note: Two hip-hop albums made the list, which surprised me, at least, since I'm not exactly an ardent hip-hop fan. Christine Fellows' album was technically released in Canada in 2005, but it only emerged south of the border this year, so in it goes. John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is a big fan (it fits, apparently, alongside his affinity for Swedish death metal). Karen Dalton and John Cale are singers from the 1970s with cult followings, and their albums aren't exactly "new," but they were re-released this year, so I'll include them too. Some reviewer somewhere called the Flaherty and Corsano album a "post-hardcore take on improvised jazz," and I don't know what that means, but it's wonderful all the same.

So there. Three of my "Top ten of 2006" aren't even from 2006. I thought about including Pavement's reissue of Wowee Zowee but that seemed unduly churlish. Oh well. I also swore off reading music blogs this year, so maybe that's why I have no idea whence all the hot new music comes. Incidentally, a few months back I strongly considered turning this here blog into a full-time music/mp3 blog, but that idea seems so improbable right now that I may as well spill the beans and chuckle. Har har.
-- Brad Plumer 1:33 PM || ||

December 19, 2006

Lunatics Everywhere

Justin Logan has the goods on why the United States shouldn't go to war with Iran. Most of the arguments are pretty familiar, but everything's compiled in one place, which is handy, and I thought this passage was well done:
Finally, as hawkish American pundits repeat the bizarre and seemingly apocalyptic statements of Iranians to advance the case for war, they would be well-served to consider how hawkish Iranians could make much the same arguments about certain worldviews that are prevalent in America and enjoy influence in Washington.

For one example, the evangelical preacher John Hagee has published a top-selling book titled Jerusalem Countdown, in which he uses biblical prophecy to advocate an apocalyptic showdown wherein Israel and the United States join in a preventive war against Iran, which will be, in Hagee’s telling, the fulfillment of God’s will. Ultimately, according to Hagee, the war will provoke Russia to lead a group of Arab nations into war against Israel and the United States, and this will hasten the second coming of Christ, wherein Hagee and his followers will be granted eternal life.

Hagee has now formed a lobbying organization, Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which is designed to advance his apocalyptic visions. At CUFI’s kickoff banquet, the 3,000 attendees heard speeches from Republican senators Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum, as well as Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Subsequently, CUFI has enjoyed remarkable access to the Bush administration, including a series of off-the-record briefings on Middle East policy at the White House with officials that the Bush administration refuses to name.

None of this is presented in order to pass theological judgment on Hagee’s views. It does, however, illustrate how certain beliefs that appear bizarre and incomprehensible could be used by outsiders to portray an opponent as dangerous, or wedded to theological tenets that would suggest irrationality. For example, Iranian hardliners could easily cite Hagee’s views and access to the White House to argue that the American administration is convinced that it must hasten the second coming of Christ by attacking their country. While that view would be rightly ridiculed as absurd in this country, it is not difficult to see how it could be used in a culture that does not understand some of the oddity and nuances of American society.
I'd just add that, unlike any of the fanatical clerics running the show in Tehran, the Bush administration actually has semi-openly discussed using nuclear weapons near civilian areas. Just in case we're trying to figure out who's more apocalyptic than whom. But other than that—point taken.
-- Brad Plumer 1:08 AM || ||

December 18, 2006

No Sex Workers for You

The State Department, hard at work:
The State Department's office combating human trafficking issued a directive Friday to US agencies urging them to avoid using terms "sex worker" or "child sex worker" and even advised governments not to use them. ...

"However, there are other substitutes such as 'women used in prostitution' or 'sexually exploited children' that are neither pejorative nor pretend that violence to women and children is 'work,'" said [office director John] Miller, who retired Friday after campaigning extensively across the globe to stem the human trafficking problem.
As Jessica Valenti points out, it's not entirely clear why "women used in prostitution" is less pejorative than "sex worker." On another level, though, the change is telling. To put this in context, Maggie Jones wrote a piece for Mother Jones a few years back about legal groups that were raiding brothels in countries such as Thailand in order to "save" the women working inside, even though many of them appear to have no desire to be rescued. "We need to make money for our families," one sex worker said. "How can you do this to us?"

Sex work is, of course, a complex issue, and many women obviously don't fall into this category--they really are trafficked against their will. But the State Department has long held that no woman works in a brothel of her own accord, and that any group that tries to distinguish between the two categories (such as the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women) is on the wrong track. USAID has declared that it won't offer grants to any anti-trafficking organization that supports legalizing prostitution. Nations such as South Korea, meanwhile, have been pressured by U.S. anti-trafficking officials to pass sweeping laws making all prostitution a crime. This has been going on for quite some time, and now, curiously, it seems the final step is to rewrite the sex-work lexicon.
-- Brad Plumer 12:04 PM || ||

December 14, 2006

Company Spies

Via Atrios, an NPR reporter catches former CIA director James Woolsey admitting that the agency conducts "economic espionage" from time to time. Now, it doesn't seem all that surprising that our spies would keep tabs on foreign companies and, if anything relevant comes up, share that information with the president. Maybe that's what Woolsey meant. But the prize-winning question is whether this information ever gets passed on to American corporations. Here's what Woolsey told Robert Dreyfuss back in 1994:
R. James Woolsey, President Clinton's CIA director, has said repeatedly that the CIA will not engage in corporate spy work. Targeting foreign companies and giving that information to American companies is "fraught with legal and foreign policy difficulties," Woolsey says. But there is not the slightest hesitation among other top CIA officials that such information, when obtained, ought to be shared with American automakers.
In Dreyfuss' story, "three separate U.S. officials" acknowledged that the CIA had provided the government with information about Japanese auto technology. That info, in turn, may or may not have been handed over to Chrysler, GM, and Ford. One top industry official bragged that he's seen "things" passed along by the "spook agencies," but waved off any further questions. Then, in 1999, a report from the European Parliament argued that the NSA was intercepting communications from companies such as Thomson and Airbus and sharing them with American corporations. I gather no one ever found out if it was true or not.

My hunch is that the CIA is less likely to try this stuff today than it was back in the 1990s, when agents didn't have to spend all their time setting up secret prisons and torturing detainees and the like. And yes, this is a trivial issue when set beside those abuses, but I'd still be curious to know whether economic espionage occurs. Certainly it raises questions: If the government did decide to share corporate secrets with U.S. companies, who would they share it with? How would the lucky winners be chosen? And so on. But perhaps we'll never know.
-- Brad Plumer 3:55 PM || ||

December 13, 2006

Hill of Beans

Oh look: Another day, another Economist article bashing those dirty fucking hippies in the organic food movement. Okay, that's unfair, the article does raise some valid concerns here and there, although I don't quite understand this section:
What about Fairtrade? Its aim is to address "the injustice of low prices" by guaranteeing that producers receive a fair price... In essence, it means paying producers an above-market "Fairtrade" price for their produce, provided they meet particular labour and production standards. ...

The standard economic argument against Fairtrade goes like this: the low price of commodities such as coffee is due to overproduction, and ought to be a signal to producers to switch to growing other crops. Paying a guaranteed Fairtrade premium--in effect, a subsidy--both prevents this signal from getting through and, by raising the average price paid for coffee, encourages more producers to enter the market.

This then drives down the price of non-Fairtrade coffee even further, making non-Fairtrade farmers poorer. Fairtrade does not address the basic problem, argues Tim Harford, author of "The Undercover Economist" (2005), which is that too much coffee is being produced in the first place. Instead, it could even encourage more production.
Okay, I'm willing to believe that too much coffee is being produced in the world, and that's why prices are so low. But that was a problem long before the fair-trade movement showed up, clearly. Something in the "free" market was already preventing producers from switching to other crops. Maybe farmers were too poor to diversify. Who knows? At any rate, fair-trade coffee only comprised 1.8 percent of the U.S. market in 2004—a tiny fraction—so it's hard to imagine that this is the chief thing stimulating overproduction. I agree that it's only a partial solution to rural poverty (and it does seem true that most of the markup on fair-trade coffee goes to supermarkets rather than farmers). But making things worse? Really?

Meanwhile, I obviously haven't examined all of the evidence at hand, but I'm skeptical of the Economist's claim that organic farming might not be as environmentally-friendly as conventional farming because it "produces lower yields and therefore requires more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food." An idle Google search suggests that this argument gets tossed around a lot by, say, biotech firms, whereas we hear from Cornell University: "Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes."
-- Brad Plumer 2:44 PM || ||

December 10, 2006

Hard Time

Keith Chen and Jesse Shapiro have published a new paper on prisons that looks quite important, if not exactly earth-shattering. Here's the basic idea: In the federal prison system, before being assigned to a facility, inmates are given a score, reflecting their need for supervision. Prisoners with scores that are above certain cutoff points are put in higher-security prisons, as you'd expect.

So let's say one inmate receives a score of 59, and another receives a score of 60. All told, the second guy really isn't that much more dangerous than the first. But the first guy gets shipped off to a "minimum-security" prison, and the second guy to a "low-security" prison. That's just the way the rules work. Now what Chen and Shapiro found is that the guy who gets bumped up to a higher-security prison is twice as likely to commit a crime in the three years after he's released. The prison conditions themselves are the ostensible cause here.

That doesn't strike me as surprising at all. Someone who enters a higher-security prison is likely going to have more violent peers during his time in jail. He'll probably be exposed to more violence, both from prisoners and guards. He'll probably have more difficulty finding a job after he's released. What else would we expect? A person subjected to higher levels of brutality is more likely to become brutal himself. And indeed, Chen and Shapiro found that being put in a higher-security prison makes you much more likely to commit a violent crime after being released. It swamps any "deterrent" effect that prisons may have on the recidivism rate.

So harsher prison conditions don't actually reduce recidivism, they increase it. Hard time hardens prisoners. And so on. Most people realize this, but it's nice to see it measured. For the record, I'll point out that a large number of people arrested for non-violent drug crimes are sent to higher-security prisons, where, as Chen and Shapiro show, they're more likely to become the sort of people who commit violent crimes. The "War on Drugs" truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

One could also note the perverse fact that the state relies, at least implicitly, on other prisoners to make prison a "punishing" experience. Although no one would ever say so in court, the threat of being raped, for example, is a very real part of being sentenced. This makes the punishment aspect very arbitrary, since the awfulness of your prison sentence is, to some extent, weakly correlated with the badness of your crime, and strongly correlated with totally unrelated things, like whether you have friends on the inside, how tough you look, etc. I don't think we should go back to whipping people who commit crimes, but to some extent it would be a less arbitrary punishment than prison.
-- Brad Plumer 4:50 PM || ||
Where Does the U.S. Keep Its Nukes?

The government, of course, won't say. But Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists and Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council tried to figure it out anyway. Here's a map of all the likely locations:


The mother lode seems to be in Bangor, Washington, where 2,300 weapons are housed, although about half of them are deployed on nuclear submarines lurking around the Pacific Ocean at any given time. The follow-up discussion by Kristensen at FAS's blog makes for fascinating reading. Among other things, he notes there's no evidence that there are nuclear submarines roaming the waters of the Indian Ocean, prepared to strike, say, Iran. In case anyone was wondering.

The United States is dismantling fewer warheads at a slower pace today than it did in the 1990s, and still has roughly 10,000 nuclear weapons intact, which may seem a bit excessive to some. The current plan is to whittle its arsenal down to 6,000 by 2012—still excessive, but better. We'll see how that goes. Keir Leiber and Daryl Press have argued that the United States may be approaching a point of nuclear dominance, where it could, potentially, strike Russia or China and disable their missiles before either country had the chance to retaliate. It's unclear whether the United States would actually try to expand its nuclear capacity to try to reach that point, although the Bush administration sure acts like that's the goal sometimes.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lewis takes stock of the debate going on in Britain right now over whether the country still needs a nuclear deterrent in this day and age. Lewis says the debate's a bit surreal because "the UK’s nuclear weapons are irrelevant: they don’t deter anyone, confer any status or, frankly, threaten anyone." But the government still wants them. The United States may also have an interest in keeping Britain's arsenal up and running, since a disarmed Britain would be less likely to maintain its role as a key ally during various nuclear-weapons debates within NATO. I mean, not that the United States would try to apply any undue pressure here or anything...
-- Brad Plumer 12:27 PM || ||

December 05, 2006

The Bewildering World of Grocery Stores

Here's a question I thought I could Google, but apparently not. Down at Safeway the other day, buying frozen pizzas and other assorted goods, I noticed that, as has been going on for years, the supermarket carries all sorts of deals. For instance, I can walk away with ten cans of tuna for $10. Sweet! But it turns out that I can also buy just one can of tuna for a dollar--I don't have to buy all ten. Why don't they just make that readily obvious? Instead, to a casual onlooker, it really does seem as if you have to buy all ten. (Anecdotally, it seems I wasn't the only one who was confused about this.) Especially since you really do have to buy all ten at some stores.

Why the confusion? My first guess was that Safeway wants to "trick" shoppers into buying all ten cans of tuna, even though they don't have to. Stock up! And savvier shoppers can buy just one if that's what they need. But the store also runs the risk of scaring off people who would buy just one or two cans at the reduced price, but are afraid they have to buy all ten to get the deal and don't bother. Maybe one outweighs the other. Maybe the latter isn't a problem. Or maybe the store just wants to put all people in the mindset of buying in bulk. Does this work? Can a store really convince people to think, "Hmm... maybe I should buy lots and lots of tuna or whatever." Maybe so. A natural disaster could strike anytime. Can't have enough tuna.

Oh, and while we're on this, Governing magazine has an interesting piece this month asking why there's such a dearth of supermarkets in urban areas, especially in some of the poorer neighborhoods. This is pretty true in my neck of Columbia Heights, so I'd like to know what's going on, too. The article appears to blame zoning regulations and "bureaucratic slowness," which seems plausible--one might also note that, according to one recent poll, a majority of Americans oppose commercial development in their neighborhoods, and that includes grocery stores (although I'd be curious to see how this poll breaks down by urban and suburban folks)--and that earned the piece some applause from libertarians.

But when the piece gets around to talking about potential solutions to the "grocery gap," the author talks primarily about the Fresh Food Financing Initiative pushed by Representative Dwight Evans in Pennsylvania. The FFFI, in turn, seems to have little to do with clearing away "bureaucratic slowness" and everything to do with creating a "joint public-private economic development partnership" and using government money to finance the creation of new supermarkets. And it does seem to have led to a slew of new supermarkets opening up in inner-city Philadelphia. That doesn't sound terribly libertarian, although maybe there are details here I'm just not grasping.
-- Brad Plumer 2:14 PM || ||