July 30, 2007

Knock Knock

This story is stunning: In San Diego, welfare recipients must submit to unannounced home inspections before they are allowed to receive benefits. From the sound of things, the investigators tend to rifle through drawers and medicine cabinets looking to see if single mothers really are single--or if there's evidence of a man living in the house. Of course, if those investigators come across anything suspicious--signs of drug use, say--they can pass that along to the police. The courts, for their part, aren't much interested in the possible Fourth Amendment violations here.

On one key metric San Diego's program "works" as intended: The denial rate for welfare applicants has risen significantly, from 41 percent to 48 percent, and what's more, a lot of people are now choosing to withdraw their applications altogether rather than allow investigators to show up, without warning, to rummage through their dirty laundry. So San Diego gets to claim "success" in paring its welfare rolls, and if a few deserving applicants are turned away or deterred from applying, well, that's life.

Oh, and needless to say, farmers receiving agriculture subsidies or companies getting tax breaks don't have to subject themselves to unannounced raids. That would be going too far.

Update: Scott Lemieux discusses the constitutional questions here. Suffice to say, if we had a Supreme Court with five Thurgood Marshall clones, this policy might get overturned. But that's... nowhere near the case. (Speaking of which, I still find it striking--even if it's a banal point--whenever anyone points out that, compared to the Supreme Court liberals of old, folks like Breyer and Ginsburg are extremely moderate.)
-- Brad Plumer 7:33 PM || ||
No Kidding

According to the latest NBER research, "fraternity membership has a large impact on drinking intensity [and] frequency." Also: Minimum legal drinking age laws may not actually deter teens from drinking. You don't say!

Update: Oops, snarked too soon. Apparently the latter finding is not entirely uncontroversial. An earlier study in New Zealand found that lowering the drinking age led to an increase in car crashes. So the new NBER paper is basically challenging that result. Meanwhile, five U.S. states are considering legislation to lower their minimum legal drinking age, so this is all quite relevant...
-- Brad Plumer 7:29 PM || ||
Venezuela Fact of the Day

Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval of CEPR argue that the Venezuelan economy is actually doing rather well, and poverty has decreased dramatically under Hugo Chávez. I don't really have any opinion on this--I just thought that this bit was unexpected:
[Venezuela's] private sector has grown faster than the public sector over the last 8 years and therefore the private sector is a bigger share of the economy in 2007 than it was before President Chavez took office.
Who knew?
-- Brad Plumer 7:09 PM || ||
Who Wants Weapons?

So it seems that the United States is going to send an additional $30.4 billion worth of military aid to Israel so that the Israelis stop complaining about the $20 billion in "advanced weaponry" that we're trying to sell Saudi Arabia, a country that seems to be offering considerable support to Sunni insurgents in Iraq. And if that wasn't enough, William Arkin adds yet another twist today:
Israel needn't worry. The Saudi military is even less dangerous than the gang who couldn't shoot straight. After gazillions in arms sales during the heyday of oil, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia demonstrated that it wasn't capable, even with its advanced American-supplied military, of defending its country. When Desert Storm unfolded in 1991, the Saudi military was well shielded behind the American armed forces: Saudi ground forces were given a sector to operate in where they wouldn't get in the way. Through terrorist attacks in the mid-1990s and the rise of terrorism, the Saudi "military" proved unable to protect itself, let alone the country.

And it's not just incompetence when it comes to the Saudi military. The Saudi monarchy has methodically focused its military on pomp and equipment and spiffy uniforms, ensuring that it not acquire any real offensive capacity or the ability to operate as a coherent force. It does not want a competent, independent military contemplating a coup.
Indeed, Tariq Ali mentioned something similar in his recent review of two books on Saudi Arabia: "[T]he Saud clan, living in a state of permanent fear... [has] kept the size of the national army and air force to the barest minimum. [W]hat happens to the vast quantity of armaments purchased to please the West? Most of them rust peacefully in desert warehouses." Is that true? The Saudis don't even want the weapons in question and have no intention of using them? They just buy them "to please the West"? Do these deals make any sense to anyone who's not a defense contractor?
-- Brad Plumer 7:06 PM || ||
Greener Green Zones

There are a lot of great bits in Dave Roberts's interview with Amory Lovins, the quirky energy expert who's (rightly) obsessed with decentralized energy generation and efficiency improvements. But check out what Lovins has to say about U.S. efforts to fix Iraq's electricity:
Some of us have made three attempts at [bringing decentralized power to Iraq] and there's a fourth now under discussion. The first three attempts, the third of which was backed by the Iraqi power minister, were vetoed by the U.S. political authorities on the grounds that they'd already given big contracts to Bechtel, Halliburton, et. al to rebuild the old centralized system, which of course the bad guys are knocking down faster than it can be put back up.
I've never seen that reported anywhere else. There's also this passage:
Meanwhile, about a third of our army's wartime fuel use is for generator sets, and nearly all of that electricity is used to air-condition tents in the desert, known as "space cooling by cooling outer space." We recently had a two-star Marine general commanding in western Iraq begging for efficiency and renewables to untether him from fuel convoys, so he could carry out his more important missions. This is a very teachable moment for the military. The costs, risks, and distractions of fuel convoys and power supplies in theater have focused a great deal of senior military attention on the need for not dragging around this fat fuel-logistics tail -- therefore for making military equipment and operations several-fold more energy efficient.
Well, it would certainly be ironic if one of the by-products of the war in Iraq was that the Pentagon started paying more attention to renewable energy and distributed power generation--which, in turn, helped drive green technology for the rest of the country. But that might be getting too far ahead here...
-- Brad Plumer 1:38 PM || ||

July 25, 2007

Bush Hearts Socialism

Nicely put, David Lazarus:
The Senate Finance Committee last week approved a five-year plan to increase funding for the program through a 61-cents-per-pack increase in the federal cigarette tax. This would maintain coverage for 6.6 million recipients while adding 3.2 million uninsured kids to the system.

Bush told an audience in Nashville last week that the Senate bill is "the beginning salvo of the encroachment of the federal government on the health care system." He said he'd veto any such legislation making its way to his desk.

That's a fine how-do-you-do for a guy who had five growths removed from his colon on Saturday largely at the government's expense and had them promptly examined by government experts at the government-run National Naval Medical Center.

Happily, the tests showed no sign of cancer. So Bush can rest easy for another few years, thanks to all that government health care.
Oh, snap! Actually, though, according to the latest analysis from CBPP, the House's version of the SCHIP bill would, by 2012, cover an additional 5.1 million kids who would otherwise be uninsured. Even better. But here's the catch: It would all have to be paid for by cutting welfare for insurance companies and a tax hike on cigarettes. We can't have that, now can we? After all, insurance companies and tobacco firms are major GOP donors here...
-- Brad Plumer 9:23 PM || ||
Is Local Food Greener?

Drake Bennett has a fascinating piece in the Boston Globe today on eating locally. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, he argues, eating locally doesn't always save energy and lower greenhouse emissions: "A head of lettuce grown in Vermont may have less of an energy impact than one shipped up from Chile. But grow that Vermont lettuce late in the season in a heated greenhouse and its energy impact leapfrogs the imported option." Okay, maybe that's true, but some of this sounds fishy:
Judged by unit of weight, ship and rail transport in particular are highly energy efficient. Financial considerations force shippers to pack as much as they can into their cargo containers, whether they're being carried by ship, rail, or truck, and to ensure that they rarely make a return trip empty.

And because of their size, container ships and trains enjoy impressive economies of scale. The marginal extra energy it takes to transport a single bunch of bananas packed in with 60,000 tons of other cargo on a container ship is more than an order of magnitude less than that required to move them with a couple hundred pounds of cargo in a car or small truck.
But how often do containers actually return non-empty? That doesn't always seem possible—when food's being shipped to a city, it's not like there's anything to bring back, is there? And surely when you transport bananas on a container ship, you have to refrigerate them, which in turn uses more energy per banana than a short car trip might. I guess the moral is that this stuff is complicated, and the best way to reduce "food miles" would be a labeling system (which Bennett discusses) or—it's turning into a refrain!—a carbon tax.

Of course, as Bill McKibben notes in his recent book, Deep Economy, there are plenty of other reasons why people would want to eat locally, apart from the potential energy savings: the money stays in the community, the food tends to be fresher and hence healthier (more nutrients!), you're not subsidizing massive agribusinesses, which are always and everywhere evil, and—supposedly—it tastes better. Either way, Bennett's piece was interesting.
-- Brad Plumer 9:09 PM || ||
Multimedia Is Hard

Right, then. So I've finally figured out how to embed YouTube videos. It involved a little copying and a little pasting. I feel like a Luddite who's just discovered the typewriter. In any case, here's "Sour Death Balls," by Jessica Yu, which—I believe—won a bunch of awards at some festival or other. It's rather well done.

-- Brad Plumer 6:58 PM || ||

July 24, 2007

Bringing Back Town Centers

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting story about how suburbanites increasingly want to live near walkable town centers. Younger folks especially want to do less driving and more walking. Ay, but here's the rub: "The key is to find housing that is an integral part of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood." Over at Grist, Jon Rynn chimes in to say that regulations against mixed-use zoning have really hampered things here. Presumably, then, the fact that a greater number of suburban-dwellers now want mixed-use and in-town living will alter the picture somewhat.

Okay, correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that zoning laws aren't the only impediment to greater amounts of mixed-use living. Don't developers and lenders tend to shy away from mixed-use development because it's somewhat riskier (seeing as how all the components have to stay in business for things to work, which in turn requires somewhat more planning and foresight)?

I'm basing most of this on a talk given by Christopher Leinberger of Brookings, who noted that the 19 "real estate products" that can most easily get financing are all sprawling suburban projects: grocery-anchored retail centers, starter homes, office parks. (That seems to be because the short-term financial returns on suburban developments tend to be greater—something that would no doubt change if a carbon tax was ever implemented.) Construction costs for mixed-use development also tend to be greater, Leinberger says, since buildings in walkable areas that are seen up close need to be higher quality than buildings that people are whizzing by in their cars at 45 miles per hour.

Maybe nonsensical zoning laws and the preferences of suburbanites are the main obstacles here, but Leinberger seems to suggest there are a lot more factors at work here. On the other hand, it does seem like there's ample room for local governments to alter the incentives at work. Anyway, like I said, it's not something I know a ton about, so correct away.
-- Brad Plumer 11:28 PM || ||
Python Pete

There were a lot of great bits in Andy Revkin's New York Times piece about how thousands of pythons are devastating Everglades National Park in Florida. Most of them originally arrived as "discards or escapees from the bustling global trade in exotic pets," and now they're taking over and eating everything in sight. Fortunately, though, the park rangers have backup:
On a recent checkup on several tagged females, Mr. Snow and Lori Oberhofer, another park biologist, headed out in Mr. Snow’s battered, white S.U.V. with a beeping radio-tracking receiver and "Python Pete," a beagle trained to sniff out pythons.
And who, pray tell, is "Python Pete"? Here's an earlier profile of the puppy in National Geographic—from back when Pete was still a hunter-in-training in 2005—which includes this much-appreciated detail:
As he does in training, Pete will stay on a leash once he is on real missions. The aim is to keep the beagle from becoming a snake snack.
Excellent. Actually, trawling around Google, it seems that Python Pete might just be the best-profiled beagle in history. The hype is unreal: "Before Python Pete, biologists had captured 68 pythons. Now that he's on the job, they hope to catch a lot more." Sure, sure, but where's the follow-up reporting? How's the dog doing now that he's finished his training? What's his body-count so far? No one can say.
-- Brad Plumer 10:50 PM || ||
Greatest Living American?

Both Gregg Easterbrook and Jonathan Alter wrote encomiums to Norman Borlaug, the man who developed the dwarf-wheat hybrid back in the 1940s and 1950s, which kick-started the "Green Revolution" and helped countries triple and quadruple their grain production. In Easterbrook's eyes, Bourlaug is the "Greatest Living American." Now, as I've written before, it's easy to overstate the accomplishments of the Green Revolution (and the concerns about its sustainability tend to get dismissed much too quickly), but yes, the decline in world hunger thanks to Bourlag's work was certainly impressive.

Still, this passage from Alter's profile can't pass without comment: "Borlaug scoffs at the mania for organic food, which he proves with calm logic is unsuited to fight global hunger. (Dung, for instance, is an inefficient source of nitrogen.)" Oh, really? What about this study on how organic farming methods can produce more than enough to feed the world (which addresses the "dung" problem)? Is that no match for "calm logic"? Hm, well, apparently so.
-- Brad Plumer 9:56 PM || ||
More on Africa Command

Just to follow up on the long post below. Via Jim, the Center for Global Development offers even more skepticism about the newly-minted Africa Command. Key quote: "By giving the Pentagon responsibility for government-wide policy integration, AFRICOM risks undercutting U.S. public diplomacy while accentuating our image as a militaristic nation." Sure, although I'd say that understates the risks by quite a bit.

Meanwhile, a May Washington Post article raised some more mundane procedural questions concerning congressional oversight of the new command. And while the State Department will have nominal input into what AFRICOM does--to ensure the military doesn't "pursue activities that are not a core part of its mandate" or "overestimate its capabilities"--it's not clear that that will be an effective safeguard.

Update: Rob Farley has a more sympathetic take here. I should clarify that my concern isn't the fact that the military is reorganizing so that Africa gets its own combatant command--it's true, the previous haphazard setup, in which Africa was split three ways, didn't make much sense. No, my main concern is the fact that the U.S. military presence in Africa seems to be expanding quite heavily, and the Pentagon is increasingly taking over tasks that would normally be handled by the State Department or USAID.
-- Brad Plumer 10:25 AM || ||
Surging Into Africa

In Esquire this month, Thomas Barnett reports that the United States is slowly but surely building up a large military presence in Africa. By 2012, we plan to have some two dozen bases scattered around the continent, outposts that do a combination of "defense, diplomacy, and development." There's never been an "Africa Command" before, and this is, Barnett notes, a major new development that's largely flown below the media radar.

Okay. But why do we need such a massive military presence in Africa? What's the point? That's... not clear.

Barnett can't really summon up a concrete rationale for such a presence. As he admits, "There aren't enough Islamic terrorists in Africa" to justify the buildup. The United States certainly doesn't need two dozen bases to secure Africa's oil supply. And China isn't trying to build an empire on the continent; Beijing just wants access to natural resources. Nothing to fear there. No, the main purpose of Africa Command seems to be to engage in "preemptive nation-building"--the United States wants a presence in Africa so it can dominate and shape the region as it develops.

How this is all supposed to work, exactly, is unclear. After all, is the military uniquely suited to development work? That's doubtful. Barnett has an anecdote about how soldiers stationed in a village in Kenya helped the local school build a girls' bathroom. That's admirable, but you don't need a military presence to do that. On the other hand, as African nations develop, the U.S. could threaten them to adopt "free-market" reforms--or face the business end of a Marine battalion. Maybe that's what this is all about. I mean, here's how the military plans to "surge" into Africa:
The pattern of our military's expanding presence in Africa seems clear: 1) look where the locals or former colonials set up shop previously; 2) move inside the existing wire first with your special operators for capture/kill missions and military-to-military training with the locals to do the same; and then 3) settle in more formally with new versions of Camp Lemonier. Once set up, the task force storefront can be used to flow trigger pullers onto the scene at a moment's notice -- the precinct that hosts the SWAT team.
Setting up shop in the old colonial strongholds is a nice touch. No doubt it would be shrill to call this "imperialism," eh? Note also that the United States' "expanding presence" in Africa is likely to get us embroiled in local conflicts. Barnett tells the story of how CENTCOM got sucked into Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia last December. The U.S. signed on mainly because we were jazzed about killing some unspecified number of fighters in Somalia. (Says one official: "Honestly, nobody had any idea just how many there really were. But we wanted to get them all.") As far as anyone can tell, nothing positive has come from our involvement in--and support for--that war.

Anyway, there's a decent debate about U.S. hegemony to be had here. Is there a chance that this military presence in Africa could be a force for good--one that could stabilize the continent and help governments build up their security forces and maintain order? Or is this neo-colonialism just going to wreak havoc, as we arm and equip nasty regimes that violate human rights; strong-arm poor countries into adopting economic policies favorable to U.S. corporations--as has been done in Latin America for the past fifty years; and end up getting the U.S. military involved in an endless series of conflicts and quagmires?

I tend to think the latter scenario, while crudely sketched, is far more likely. Honestly, if the United States really wanted to help "stabilize" Africa, it could huddle together with France, Britain, and Russia, and figure out a way to stop flooding the continent with the small arms and rifles that end up killing more people than all the Al Qaeda fighters in the world could ever hope to do. But it's not at all obvious to me that the growth of Africa Command is a good thing.
-- Brad Plumer 12:35 AM || ||

July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Okay, so I finished the seventh book over the weekend, and beyond being able to brag that I was right about absolutely everything in this old post (spoiler warning), I have to ask: Do they not have sex-ed at Hogwarts? How is it at all plausible that there are a bunch of 17-year-old boys who still shudder and squirm at the very thought of kissing girls? What's going on here? Don't the Muggle-borns watch TV when they're home for the summer?

Anyway, I enjoyed Megan McArdle's Guardian piece on the inconsistencies of the Harry Potter universe, although some of her criticisms seemed not quite right (the "poverty" of the Weasley family seems to have more to do with social class than material wealth, and it seems reasonable that they can't just magically create complicated textbooks out of thin air). One thing that seems odd, though, is how there can be only one wizard school in all of Britain. Surely there are more wizards than that, right? Especially since they all seem to have lots of babies--and at ridiculously early ages, to boot. Oh well.
-- Brad Plumer 8:05 PM || ||
Dingell's Serious

Dave Roberts reports that Rep. John Dingell really is serious about putting forward a carbon-tax bill in the House. Right now, he's proposing to put some of the revenue into the Medicare and Social Security trust funds, although it's not clear that the plan would be totally revenue-neutral, which is probably the only way to sell a carbon tax in this country. Better to just cut a refund check to every American or something.

On the other hand, this account says that Dingell's plan would raise gas prices by 50 cents, which means that he's considering a carbon tax of about 55$ a ton--which, if I'm not mistaken, would be well within what economists think is necessary for the United States to do its part to stabilize carbon concentrations at around 450 ppm. Not a halfhearted measure by any means.
-- Brad Plumer 7:58 PM || ||

Not that I have anything terribly interesting to say about them, but these two posts over at Feministe on street harassment were both quite insightful and worth checking out.
-- Brad Plumer 7:54 PM || ||
Byman on Getting Out

I agree with most of Daniel Byman's House testimony on withdrawing from Iraq. In a nutshell: There's nothing the United States can do to bring about "peace and stability" anytime soon, so it's time to leave. Now. Bad things will likely result, and it would be nice if the United States could prevent those bad things, but that's not always possible--our record of micromanaging affairs in the Middle East is miserable, and further meddling will likely just make things worse. Yes, yes, lefties have been saying this stuff for years, but it's good to see it percolating into the mainstream.

Anyway, there are some decent points here. For instance, Joe Biden and others have suggested that we split Iraq into three parts in order to prevent massive sectarian bloodletting. Leaving aside the question of whether the United States has any right to do so, Byman raises some practical objections to this plan:
The basic problem with pursuing any version of partition today in Iraq is that it is probably impossible to do so without either causing the all-out civil war in the first place, or deploying the hundreds of thousands of American and other first-world troops whose absence has been the first-order problem preventing reconstruction from succeeding. Other than the Kurds, few Iraqis--whether political leaders, militia commanders or ordinary citizens--want their country divided. And many of those who are fleeing their homes are not merely peacefully resettling in a more ethnically homogeneous region, but are joining vicious sectarian militias like the Mahdi Army in hope of regaining their homes or at least extracting revenge on whoever drove them out.

Nor is it clear that a move to partition would result in the neat division of Iraq into three smaller states, as many of its advocates seem to assume. As noted above, the Sunnis and the Shi'a are highly divided and are likely to fight amongst themselves, leading to regular war within the communities and a probable fracturing of power in areas where they predominate. Many militia leaders, particularly the Sadrists, have made clear that they intend to fight for all of the land they believe is "theirs", which seems to include considerable land that the Sunnis consider "theirs." Baghdad is one area of contention between Sunnis and Shi'a, but many major cities are also home to multiple communities. Much of Iraq's oil also lies in areas that are not peopled exclusively by one group.

The partition model most observers seem to have in mind is the former Yugoslavia. There, however, years of fighting preceded the partition, clarifying the relative balance of power of the parties involved. Perhaps more important, the communities had a degree of unity and clear leaders--Slobodan Milosovic and Franjo Tudjman, for example--who could command their followers to stop the fighting. Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders cannot issue similar orders even if they wanted to. Iraq's civil war is just not yet "ripe" for a solution like partition, and therefore to impose it upon Iraq would require a far greater military commitment by the United States than the present one--closer to the troop to population ratio required to police the Bosnia partition, where the conflict actually was ripe for solution when Richard Holbrooke sat down at the negotiating table in Dayton.
On the other hand, Byman predicts that the "biggest headache of all" will be how to prevent Iran from "intervening" in Iraq. But why would the Iranian government even want to stick its hand into that particular bear trap? And if they're stupid enough to try, why should we bother to stop them? (Serious question.)
-- Brad Plumer 6:44 PM || ||
Maggot Therapy

Steven Aftergood brings us a tasty tidbit: According to a 1982 medical manual (PDF) for the U.S. Army Special Forces, it's sometimes okay to insert maggots into a wound to consume diseased or infected flesh if you don't have any antibiotics handy:
Despite the hazards involved, maggot therapy should be considered a viable alternative when, in the absence of antibiotics, a wound becomes severely infected, does not heal, and ordinary [removal of diseased tissue] is impossible.
As far as I can tell, "maggot therapy" is pretty uncontroversial within the medical community--they've even done experiments and everything. On the downside, it's hard to buy medicinal grade maggots these days. Also, there are risks, since maggot therapy can introduce flies into the equation, and "flies, because of their filthy habits, are likely to introduce bacteria." Also, the maggots can start chomping on live flesh, which can get ugly. So everything has to be done delicately...

Anyway, other helpful hints in the "primitive medicine" section of the manual: Intestinal worms can be combated by eating cigarettes--the nicotine "kills or stuns the worms long enough for them to be passed." Alternatively, you can drink kerosene: "Drink 2 tablespoons. Don't drink more." Fair enough.
-- Brad Plumer 4:37 PM || ||
Who Gets Exonerated?

More than 200 U.S. prisoners who were serving time for crimes they didn't commit have been exonerated by DNA evidence. According to a story that's sadly behind the New York Times pay-wall, Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, decided to examine each of those cases in detail, and found that "the evidence used to convict them was at least flawed and often false--yet juries, trial judges and appellate courts failed to notice."

Here's the breakdown: 79 percent of those cases featured erroneous eyewitness testimony, which, in a quarter of cases, was the only evidence presented. In 55 percent of the cases Garrett looked at, bad forensic evidence was introduced. Some 18 percent of the cases relied on informants who weren't telling the truth--in three of those instances, the informant actually turned out to be the guilty party. And 16 percent of the cases involved false confessions, with two-thirds involving "defendants who were juveniles, mentally retarded, or both."

On top of all that, it's also not uncommon for prosecutors to make mistakes, exaggerate evidence, or even commit fraud. Check out last year's San Jose Mercury News exposé on the "justice" system in Santa Clara County. Prosecutors engaged in questionable conduct in nearly 100 of the 727 cases examined, including withholding evidence, defying a judge's orders, or misleading juries. In about 100 cases, defense attorneys frequently neglected to do even the most basic investigations. And in 160 cases, judges failed to oversee trials impartially--allowing improper evidence, say, or failing to properly instruct juries.

A couple of other points from Garrett's study are noteworthy. One, the appeals process doesn't work very well: 30 of the 31 prisoners who appealed to the Supreme Court were turned down. Second, many prosecutors and courts oppose DNA testing. Third, those prisoners who are exonerated by DNA testing are, obviously, a small subset of all criminal cases—generally, those who are accused of rape--and the full universe of people who are wrongfully imprisoned is no doubt much, much larger.
-- Brad Plumer 2:53 PM || ||

July 17, 2007

Farm Fight

Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Michigan put out a study showing that organic farming methods can produce more than enough food to feed the world. Andrew Leonard fills us in on the backstory: There's a longstanding argument between those who think modern agriculture needs to follow the "green revolution" model--using hybrid or bio-tech crops and synthetic fertilizers--and those who think organic farming is a better, more sustainable, way forward.

In the wake of this latest study, it does look like the organic farmers now have the better argument. Meanwhile, Leonard notes, "there are serious questions as to whether large-scale mono-crop agriculture that requires huge inputs of synthetic petrochemically-derived nutrients is sustainable in the long run." That's doubly true in the face of rising oil prices. "Green revolution" advocates usually respond by saying that innovation will save the day--someone will design genetically modified vegetables that can feed more people with fewer inputs--but that's hardly assured.
-- Brad Plumer 7:38 PM || ||
Adventures in Carbon Taxation

According to this short paper by Gilbert Metcalf (via Grist), it would be fairly easy to combine a carbon tax with a reduction in payroll taxes. The result, Metcalf says, would be "revenue-neutral and distributionally neutral." In other words, so much for the increasingly common conservative line that the United States shouldn't do anything about global warming because it would hurt the poor.

On the other hand, Metcalf's clever proposal wouldn't do anything for retirees, who don't pay any payroll taxes, so that probably needs tweaking. Also, it's possible that using carbon taxes to fund Social Security would put the program on an unstable footing--since, if the carbon tax works, it will generate less and less revenue over time, as people use less and less carbon. Metcalf argues that Congress could just hoist the payroll tax back up when that happens. True, but that's easier said than done.

Meanwhile, some people have suggested that a carbon tax will just force heavily-polluting industries to outsource their production abroad. I think the technical term for this is "carbon leakage." Meltcalf writes that this fear "may be overblown," and cites a 2003 paper by Matthew Kahn, which, unfortunately, isn't online. In any case, the vast majority of carbon emissions in the United States come from the transportation, residential, and commercial sectors, and those things can't exactly be outsourced.
-- Brad Plumer 7:11 PM || ||
The Case Against Trees

So, I was at Ikea this weekend, doing some furniture shopping for the new apartment, and noticed that they now charge 5 cents for every plastic bag you take, with the proceeds used to help plant trees around the world. From a global warming standpoint, is planting more trees a good idea? Maybe not, according to Joseph Romm.

Back in 2005, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory put out a study (PDF) on this, and found that trees planted in higher latitudes may actually have a "net warming effect on the Earth's climate." That's because forest covers are darker than, say, grasslands, and so tend to absorb more heat, and that "albedo effect" may actually outweigh the fact that they suck up carbon dioxide. (That doesn't mean that we should just start mowing down forests to cool the planet, since slashing and burning existing trees can release even more carbon into the atmosphere.)

But that's just for trees in higher latitudes. One of the study's authors has argued that tropical rainforests are a different matter, since they tend to
"evaporate water to the atmosphere and increase cloudiness," which has a cooling effect. (Indeed, the IPCC blamed a quarter of the manmade increase in CO2 over the years on "land change use"--which presumably includes a great deal of tropical deforestation.) Anyway, the LLNL paper isn't the last word on the subject--even its authors say the issue needs to be studied more--but it's not something I've ever really thought about.
-- Brad Plumer 4:31 PM || ||
Who Loves Corruption?

In the Wall Street Journal today, John Fund complains that Democrats are cutting $11 million from the Office of Labor Management Standards, which investigates labor unions. The conclusion is obvious: Democrats are in favor of union corruption! What's more, says Fund, they're massive hypocrites for supporting Sarbanes-Oxley while turning a blind eye to the fact that a handful of top AFL-CIO officials make more than $130,000 a year. (Really.)

Er, okay. Anyway, it's not clear that the Democrats really are making steep cuts to OLMS. Between 2001 and 2005, funding for the office increased by a whopping $74 million--about 28 percent--even as the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division's budget was being cut by $113 million. The Bush administration was taking money away from labor-law enforcement and putting it toward investigating labor groups. It sure looks like Democrats are now correcting this imbalance, not doing away with union oversight altogether. There's no scandal here.

P.S. This line from Fund is cute: "Whatever sums are spent on union disclosure reports appear to be a good investment." Of course. When it comes to requiring transparency from corporations, prudence is a virtue. Don't want to go to far. But when it's time to investigate unions, then hey, no amount of government spending is too much.
-- Brad Plumer 12:27 PM || ||

July 16, 2007

Where Are the Riots?

"Why Aren't U.S. Cities Burning?" Michael Katz wonders in the latest issue of Dissent. In 1968, riots broke out in nearly 150 African-American neighborhoods across the country. But since then, save for Miami in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1992, urban conflagrations have been relatively rare. And many of the conditions that caused those earlier riots still persist: Unemployment in the inner cities is still high, black men are still thrown into prison at shocking rates, and police brutality is hardly a relic of the past. So, Katz asks, why have the riots ceased?

Well, one answer might be: Perhaps people don't think rioting is all that productive. Or maybe conditions have improved more than one might think. (Perhaps, for instance, mass consumerism has disguised worsening inequality.) But Katz doesn't go there. Instead, he suggests that large-scale urban disorder started to die out once white families fled for the suburbs, effectively ceding political control of the cities to African-Americans:
Between 1970 and 2001, the number of African American county and municipal officials rose 960 percent and 619 percent respectively. African Americans also made inroads into the police, the most visible and, often, hated agents of the local state.

The irony, of course, is that African Americans inherited city governments at the moment when deindustrialization, cuts in federal aid, and white flight were decimating tax bases and job opportunities while fueling homelessness, street crime, and poverty. Newly African American-led city governments confronted escalating demands for services and the repair of crumbling infrastructures with shrinking resources and power curtailed by often hostile state governments. This kind of governmental power was truly, as a political scientist wrote in 1969, a "hollow prize." Nonetheless, with so many whites gone, boundaries became less contentious, eroding one major source of civil violence.
That's possible. It's also possible that the U.S. crime-control apparatus has been effective at "controlling" urban disorder. In 1968, Congress created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which funneled money to state police forces. Since only a third of those funds could go toward personnel, much of the rest was spent on hardware: antiriot tools, helicopters, etc. (The war on drugs has also contributed to the "militarization" of the police force.) It's not clear that "tough on crime" policies actually reduced crime, although mass incarceration did devastate inner cities and disenfranchise millions of African American men. But... it's possible that the new, better-equipped police forces were more adept at preventing and squelching urban riots.

Anyway, Katz also gets into the differences between the ways that France and the United States treat their immigrants--differences that were hashed out pretty thoroughly back when the French riots were taking place in 2005, and differences that redound to our benefit. Honestly, that all seems much more persuasive in explaining "why no riots?" than anything else, but it's still a pretty interesting essay, if extremely speculative.

P.S. The New York Times recently published an interesting retrospective of the 1967 Newark riots--"five nights of gunfire, looting and flames that disemboweled the geographic midsection of the city" and left 23 people dead.

P.P.S. The article's now online.
-- Brad Plumer 7:39 PM || ||
Simpson Family Values

The latest issue of Vanity Fair has an "oral history" of The Simpsons--interviews with various people who have been involved with the show over the years--and the end result is pretty amusing. This part was particularly hilarious, or depressing, or both:
Jay Krogen: We thought we were really writing these really funny, smart, special shows that were chock-full of jokes every few seconds. And then someone showed us this study Fox had done: the No. 1 reason why people liked The Simpsons was "all the pretty colors" and they liked it when Homer hit his head. We were writing the show for ourselves--we always made it funny for ourselves--but who knows why America likes it. Maybe they like the pretty colors and when Homer hits his head, but I hope it's for more.
It's also fun to note that, back in 1992, George H. W. Bush was railing against the show as evidence of America's moral turpitude and the general decline of family values. These days, though, you can't pick up an issue of the National Review without seeing Simpsons references all over the place. A few years ago, Deroy Murdock even heaped praise on the show for depicting "a tightly knit community of generally endearing neighbors who, somehow, all get along." Quite the turnaround.
-- Brad Plumer 12:13 PM || ||
Not Really Withdrawal

Newsweek has a piece on those Senate Republicans who are grumbling about Iraq. But what are they going to do about it? This looks like a big caveat:
[Susan Collins] introduced a bipartisan amendment to immediately wind down combat operations and instead have troops focus on counterterrorism, border security and training Iraqi troops. Collins believes her plan--broadly similar to others floating around Congress--will result in a "significant drawdown of our troops."

Maybe. But military experts whom NEWSWEEK interviewed (among them senior officers serving in Iraq) suggest that for such a combination of missions to be done effectively, there would be little allowance for any reduction in troops. Given political realities, of course, adding troops is a nonstarter.
It's also not clear that "counterterrorism, border security and training" are things that actually should get greater emphasis: "Training" could just end up bolstering the various militias and making future sectarian warfare worse; it's not obvious that "border security" would significantly reduce the level of violence in Iraq (although it could increase the risk of a shooting incident with Iranian troops), and "counterterrorism" sounds like a license to carry on as usual, since presumably pretty much any operation can be considered "counterterrorism."

But this approach has the most support in Congress right now: Beyond Collins' amendment and the Iraq Study Group bill, even the Levin-Reed bill would shift troops to "counterterrorism, border security, and training" as a prelude to (perhaps) eventual withdrawal.
-- Brad Plumer 11:56 AM || ||

July 12, 2007

Dingell Hermeneutics

This is pretty deep in the weeds, but Dave Roberts and Brian Beutler are trying to figure out what John Dingell's up to with his new carbon-tax proposal. Is he trying to squelch the idea once and for all by throwing it out there and watching the the public recoil in horror, at which point he'll pronounce drastic emissions cuts politically impossible? Or is this his subtle way of telling liberal Dems to either put up or shut up about his committee being too meek on global warming?

Dave makes a good case for the latter. On the other hand, though, if Dingell was really serious about giving a carbon tax a fair chance, it seems like he'd give it his best shot and put forward a proposal that was as palatable as possible--coupling it with a rebate on payroll taxes, say--and working privately to bring other key Dems on board. He wouldn't just say, "Fine, here's your goddamn carbon tax--not that you fuckers will support it anyway," and then, when enthusiasm predictably fails to muster, give up on the idea. But he's basically doing the latter.

Anyway, Dingell's a very shrewd legislator who knows better than most how to get things done, and it's great that he's putting a bold climate-change proposal on the table. But it does seem like there's an air of disingenuousness about the way he's going about things. The Grist commenters make an analogy to HillaryCare, and I think that's apt: If you present a major policy proposal in a ham-fisted way, the resulting backlash can kill all support for the underlying idea, even if it might've succeeded with a better roll-out.

That said, if Dingell's new climate bill really is everything environmentalists want, then they should probably stop fretting so much about whether he's sincere and start trying to drum up as much support as possible for the thing when it comes out, no?
-- Brad Plumer 11:13 PM || ||
Silly Europeans

Over at Planet Gore, Henry Payne is chuckling at our hapless friends on the other side of the Atlantic:
While U.S. lawmakers try to impose a 35 mpg mandate on US manufacturers by 2020, it’s worth noting that similar mandates--enacted 17 years ago--are now failing even in heavily gas-taxed Europe.
Ha, ha! Silly Europeans! But wait, how are they "failing"? Well, right now the European Commission is trying to get car companies to meet a 62 mile-per-gallon standard by 2012. According to Payne, they're probably going to fall short: Belgium's average fuel economy has stalled out at "only" 42 mpg, for instance. And some Euro-bureaucrats think the 62-mpg target needs to be pushed back to 2015. Meanwhile, many Europeans want to buy SUVs. That's it.

Er... I guess you could consider that mockworthy. Or you could note that Europe, whatever its hurdles, is still light-years ahead of the United States, where automakers are whining about a 35 mpg target by 2020. I have no doubt that it's possible to set a fuel-economy target that simply can't be met. Maybe Europe's reached that point with its 62-mpg-by-2012 rule. Maybe not. But doesn't, say, the fact that Belgium's already at 42 mpg suggest that the United States is nowhere near that breaking point? That's the lesson I took away, at least.
-- Brad Plumer 10:29 PM || ||

July 11, 2007

A Greener Green Lantern

Having read a few things Mike Davis has written—notably, Planet of Slums and City of Quartz, I've admitted to myself that I'm probably going to have to read everything he ever writes. So I should link to his very interesting essay in Sierra Club Magazine about American conservation efforts during World War II:
In the 1940s, Americans simultaneously battled fascism overseas and waste at home. My parents, their neighbors, and millions of others left cars at home to ride bikes to work, tore up their front yards to plant cabbage, recycled toothpaste tubes and cooking grease, volunteered at daycare centers and USOs, shared their houses and dinners with strangers, and conscientiously attempted to reduce unnecessary consumption and waste.

The World War II home front was the most important and broadly participatory green experiment in U.S. history. Lessing Rosenwald, the chief of the Bureau of Industrial Conservation, called on Americans "to change from an economy of waste--and this country has been notorious for waste--to an economy of conservation." A majority of civilians, some reluctantly but many others enthusiastically, answered the call.
I've always thought those posters that read, "When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!" were faintly ridiculous. But apparently they worked—in a number of cities, the average occupancy per trip went up dramatically, as car pools became widespread, and oil consumption went down. The point, I guess, is that if the United States wanted to embark on a mass conservation effort today—say, to try to avert global warming—it probably could. It would just be a question of national will. Let's call this the Green Lantern Theory of, um, the green movement.
-- Brad Plumer 1:03 AM || ||
The Cancer Industry

Over at The Plank, Mike Crowley notes that Tommy Thompson has vowed to "end breast cancer" in eight years and comments:
[I[t's not as though breast cancer, of all diseases, persists from a lack of publicity and political focus. My guess is we're already doing about as much as can be done.
Actually, my understanding is that we're not necessarily doing all we can. Yes, there's a gigantic breast-cancer industry out there. Organizations like the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the biggest group of them all, raise millions to raise awareness about breast cancer, run "pink ribbon" campaigns and annual races, and pour money into the search for finding a cure. Corporations line up to donate money because, hey, it's a good cause—who's against finding a cure for breast cancer?

Much of that is laudable. There's just one problem: As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her classic Harper's essay on the subject, "Welcome to Cancerland," inherited genes are only thought to account for about 10 percent of breast cancers, and lifestyle choices have been largely ruled out as a major cause. So a lot of experts and feminists think there should be a much greater focus on environmental factors—toxins and carcinogens in the air and water. None have been definitively linked to breast cancer yet, though many have been shown to cause the disease in animals. Although the big corporate-backed breast-cancer groups do mention this now and again, it definitely gets less emphasis.

For obvious reasons, no one wants to talk too loudly about, say, curbing industrial carcinogens. That gets messy and complicated. It's much less controversial to promote treatments and hold out hope for a miracle cure. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical companies are big boosters of the Komen Foundation, which, in 1998, was the only national breast-cancer group to endorse tamoxifen as a treatment, despite concerns about its link to uterine cancer. Mary Ann Swissler wrote a fascinating piece for Southern Exposure in 2002 about the darker side of the Komen Foundation. (Obviously that's not an indictment of all groups everywhere, or the many good things Komen does.)

Anyway, I doubt that Tommy Thompson's going to change all of this, but it does seem like there's a lot of room for improvement.
-- Brad Plumer 12:09 AM || ||

July 09, 2007


Mark Kleiman once wrote, "Compared to getting lead out of gasoline, everything else that happened in the 1980s to influence the health of children was a rounding error." That always struck me as a smart point. In 1986, lead was finally banned as a gasoline additive in the United States, and, in the years that followed, average blood-lead levels plummeted some 75 percent. That was huge: A 1985 EPA study estimated that nearly 5,000 Americans were dying of lead-related heart disease each year, to say nothing of the tens of millions of children who suffered from toxic exposure to lead from gasoline and were at risk for all sorts of developmental problems.

So the ban was good. But now researchers think that lead abatement might also have been a major driver in the great crime decline of the 1990s. On this theory, children who are exposed to lead paint or gasoline fumes are more likely to become violent teenagers. Rick Nevin, an economist, argues that the reduction in lead pollution in the 1970s and 1980s can account for most of the decline in New York City's crime rate over the past decade. That's... interesting. Meanwhile, Kevin Drum contends that "lead abatement could raise IQs in 6 million children by about 7 points for a cost of only $30 billion or so." Even if that estimate were off by quite a bit, further lead abatement would be a huge deal.

One problem, though. The Bush administration loves lead. Loves it. They want it everywhere. Okay, that's only a slight exaggeration: Back in 2002, the White House tried to stack an advisory committee on lead regulations with industry types. Last December, the administration announced that it would consider doing away with the standards that cut lead from gasoline, at the behest of battery makers and lead smelters. And its EPA has weakened a rule on removing lead paint from older residences. All that research on the toxic effects of lead exposure? Eh, who needs it.

In any case, another place where a massive lead-abatement really needs to happen is in the developing world. In Pakistan, some 80 percent of children have dangerous levels of lead in their bloodstream, which in turn affects childhood development and, presumably, intelligence. It wasn't until 2005 that sub-Saharan Africa finally phased out leaded gasoline, and the stuff is still used in a number of Third World countries. Lead batteries remain a major source of pollution all over the place. And so on.

P.S. Back in 2000, The Nation had a super-super-long piece on "The Secret History of Lead" that explained how lead got into gasoline in the first place, why companies continued to sell it even though they were well aware of the health effects, and why leaded gasoline was still being sold in the developing world. Some of it's a little dated, but it's a good read if you have a few hours to kill.
-- Brad Plumer 11:56 PM || ||
Mission Accomplished?

According to Terence Samuel, some Democrats now think that the best way to push for withdrawal from Iraq is simply to declare victory. Here's Montana's Jon Tester: "Our work in Iraq is done... It's time for American troops to stop refereeing a centuries-old civil war and come home after a job well done." Hillary Clinton is probably going for something similar when she blames the Iraqi government for the fact that the occupation's gone so badly. The U.S. military gave it its best shot, but Iraqis fucked things up, so now, sadly, we have to leave. (Assuming she wants to leave.)

Now, okay. This is probably more politically savvy than Harry Reid saying that we need to exit Iraq because we "lost" the war. No one likes a defeatist, least of all American voters. And I'm mostly in favor of whatever political strategy gets the U.S. out of Iraq as quickly as humanly possible. But I'm also not terribly in favor of lying. The United States didn't do a "job well done." It's not the Iraqis fault that the Bush administration, with no small amount of malice and recklessness, smashed their country and could not (or would not) create the conditions for a stable new state. And so on.

More importantly, these myths have consequences. Part of the reason so many people supported the war in Iraq—and why they support all sorts of ill-conceived wars—is that many Americans believe that the United States is always virtuous; that our leaders' intentions are always honorable; that when the president says that he's going to war for the sake of freedom and democracy, he means it; and that the U.S. military is only ever used for benevolent and noble ends. Not to be too shrill about it, but these are the sort of myths that enable war and imperialism, and Tester is trying to perpetuate them. So... I don't know about this one.
-- Brad Plumer 10:11 PM || ||
Tobacco Tactics

Yes, I've been a smoker in the past. A heavy smoker, even. And no, it wasn't because I was duped or mislead by Phillip Morris. That said, I totally agree that cigarette companies are nasty—as nasty as corporations get. Helen Epstein has the full indictment in the New York Review of Books this month, with all the familiar charges laid out, but this part was all news to me:
According to [former secretary of health and human services Joseph] Califano, cigarette taxes are among the most powerful weapons against the [tobacco[ industry. When New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg increased cigarette taxes in 2002, the smoking rate fell by 11 percent, and by 36 percent among teens.

Cigarette companies now spend billions fighting tax increases by providing discounts, free samples, and coupons, all meant to attract teenagers and the poor, the two groups of consumers who care most about prices. The companies also contribute to the political campaigns of candidates willing to vote down new cigarette taxes...

[A]ccording to Califano, they have even fostered cross-border smuggling rackets in Canada and Europe, in order to persuade governments to reduce cigarette taxes, which they claim provide opportunities for "organized crime."
Okay, that last part was really news to me. But apparently it's true: Check out this report by the Center for Public Integrity, or this fact sheet. Gangsters one and all. In other cigarette news, it seems like Hillary Clinton's main political advisor, Mark Penn, has spent a lot of time over the last two decades shilling for Big Tobacco. Now, I don't think it's entirely "indefensible" to oppose, say bans on smoking in bars, but it's more than a little creepy that Penn and Doug Schoen went about helping to create "smoker's rights" astroturf groups on behalf of RJ Reynolds.
-- Brad Plumer 9:55 PM || ||
Cleaning Up China

"Hey, what about China?" It's the question to ask as far as global warming is concerned. After all, the United States and Europe could start cutting emissions tomorrow, and none of it would matter much so long as China keeps building dirty coal plants and belching carbon at its current pace. Now, I certainly don't think that's a good excuse for the West not to act, but it's still a good question: What about China? Well, Elizabeth Economy has a good overview of this issue in the Nation.

The dynamics here are complicated: Despite its best efforts, the central government doesn't have much power to enforce environmental laws in the provinces. And it's afraid to let journalists and green NGOs do too much agitating, since once you give those folks free rein, who knows where that leads. Plus, many of China's environmental groups are, quite understandably, more concerned about local air quality than about climate change. So, even though Beijing is drawing up some decent proposals to promote renewable energy and efficiency, actual progress is going to be insanely difficult.

The good news is that China is willing to do climate-friendly things whenever they don't put too much pressure on short-term economic growth. So Beijing won't push for explicit emissions cuts, but it has been taking active steps to lure Western investors who will finance green projects under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism. Likewise, China's leaders would no doubt love for someone to figure out how to sequester carbon from coal plants, or make solar energy cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Given the right technology and incentives, China is happy to go green. But at this point, it's still very, very far from that path.
-- Brad Plumer 9:40 PM || ||

July 06, 2007

Iraqi Refugees

Lately, there have been a number of articles—most notably, George Packer's long New Yorker piece—about how the unending violence in Iraq has given rise to a massive refugee crisis, with some 1.9 million Iraqis uprooted from their homes, and hundreds of thousands fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month. Most of them end up in the slums of Amman and Damascus, so they don't get the media attention that they would if they were huddled in sprawling desert camps on the border. (The latter makes for better TV, presumably.)

But the kicker is that the United States isn't taking Iraqi refugees: Only 202 Iraqis were admitted in 2006. We're even turning away Iraqis who have helped U.S. forces and are now in danger of being marked as "collaborators" and killed. According to Joseph Huff-Hannon's recent piece in Dissent, the State Department is telling Iraqis that they cannot qualify for asylum status because Iraq is now a "democracy," and there's no reason to flee. Recently, in the Boston Globe, Arthur Dewey, a former assistant secretary of state, explained that the administration wanted to "discourage" an influx of Iraqi refugees, "because of the psychological message it would send, that it is a losing cause."

Anyway, it's not online right now, but Huff-Hannon's Dissent piece is a very good addition to this line of reporting, especially with the way it puts the current Iraq refugee policy in a broader context. The United States has always taken an impressive number of political refugees and asylum-seekers—far more than most countries do—and that is something to be proud of. But the U.S. has also always been selective:
Though historically the world's largest resettlement destination, the United States has linked refugee policy to foreign policy, making a consistent distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" refugees. The undeserving are typically those fleeing war and persecution in countries with governments supported by the United States. Deserving refugees flee states that have leftist governments, stormy diplomatic relations with the United States, or both. North Korea, China, Vietnam, Eritrea, Iran, and Sudan, for example, are designated by the State Department as "Countries of Particular Concern." Unsurprisingly, their refugees receive a much heartier welcome than Iraq's.
During the 1980s, U.S.-backed military governments were wreaking havoc in Guatemala and El Salvador, causing up to one million residents to seek shelter in the United States. But they had a hard time getting asylum: They were labeled "economic migrants" by the Reagan administration and turned away or deported (and were often killed upon returning). By contrast, asylum seekers from Nicaragua were welcomed with open arms, since, after all, the official line was that they were fleeing the leftist Sandinista government. All told, Nicaraguan asylum claims were approved at a rate of about 60-80 percent, versus 2-3 percent for Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

That's not an aberration: Cuban refugees are, of course, always welcomed with open arms, while Haitians are considered "economic migrants" and usually sent back, even during the 1991 military coup. Vietnamese refugees were allowed to resettle here only after the war was over and Saigon fell in the hands of communists (although one the gates opened up, about 900,000 Vietnamese came to the United States). In a sense, the situation with Iraqi refugees just follows that pattern. But it is no less appalling now.
-- Brad Plumer 1:26 PM || ||
Liar, Liar

This is purely anecdotal, but most people, I've found, like to think of themselves as good liars. I once had a friend who was incapable of telling even the tiniest lie, but she was an exception (and she really could not do it—if she tried, say, to get out of dinner plans with relatives by pretending she had other plans, her voice would stammer, her face would redden, and she would, at last, have to confess the truth). Many people really do like to think they can mislead or deceive, and do it quite well, on demand.

And the thing is, they're probably right. Margaret Talbot had a piece in The New Yorker last week about brain-scan technology, and whether it can help us create better lie-detector tests. (The lie-detector tests currently on offer—especially the polygraph—are notoriously unreliable, even though plenty of government agencies use them quite frequently.) But the takeaway lesson from the article, I'd say, is that people are terrible at catching others in lies on an everyday basis. In lab studies, subjects distinguish truth from lies only about 54 percent of the time—no better than chance. The brain is one of the worst lie detectors around.

That's partly, it seems, because people think they know what sort of behavior goes with lying: sweating, maybe, or anxiety. But not so! When people tell intricate lies, they sometimes pause longer and speak more slowly, although sometimes not. Liars often blink and fidget less—as if they're restraining themselves—but, again, sometimes not. When someone is telling a story that's true, he'll often interrupt himself or go back and correct things he said previously, or tell things out of order, or say, "Wait, wait, no! It was like this…" Liars do much less of that, especially if they've been rehearsing their alibi. But, of course, a scattered tale is more likely to arouse suspicion.

Then, of course, some behavior is just random. As Talbot recounts, one 1992 book, Practical Aspects of Interview and Interrogation, insists that liars tend to be "jerky and abrupt," with "cold and clammy" hands, and will do things like scrunching up Kleenex. But lots of people may act this way. I love scrunching up Kleenex. And outgoing people are assumed to be more truthful, even though there's no reason to think they are. The biggest problem is that we can't really learn why lying behavior is from observation and trial-and-error: If someone's successfully snookered you, then by definition, you won't know it. Some trained professionals can practice and practice and get a little better at telling when people are lying, but even they fall far, far short of perfection.
-- Brad Plumer 1:09 PM || ||