October 31, 2007

Cleaning Up the Garbage Patch

Not that anyone should remember, but a few months ago I wrote a little post on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a big swirling gyre of trash and debris in the Pacific Ocean that's at least twice the size of Texas. Well, now it seems the U.S. government wants to clean it up. True, that might not even be possible—we're talking 3 million tons of plastic, most of it in chunks too small to scoop out—but that won't stop them from trying.

Interestingly, the guy who discovered the Garbage Patch, Charles Moore, thinks that cleanup is too crazy an idea, and all that effort would be better spent trying to reduce plastic production in the first place. (Fun fact: The United States produced 60 billion pounds of plastic resin in 1987; that's doubled to 120 billion pounds in 2007.) I'd agree with that. Of course, the American Chemistry Council thinks curbing production is a horrible idea, and we should mostly focus on putting recycling bins on beaches and cracking down on litterbugs. But what would you expect them to say?
-- Brad Plumer 6:02 PM || ||

Let's see if I understand this story correctly: Katie Heath, a 27-year-old woman in Illinois, was convicted for selling meth and spent a year in state prison (much of that while pregnant). She came out, met the parole requirements, cleaned up her life, found a job, and enrolled in school. But then, a few months later, federal prosecutors came knocking and indicted her again for basically the same crime, a charge that carried 20 years in prison. So she cooperated with the prosecutors, something that would normally lead to a reduction in sentences, but got... no leniency in the end.

Not surprisingly, one federal judge was beyond appalled, delayed the sentencing (before, eventually, granting a motion to reconsider and recusing himself), and accused prosecutors of abusing the plea agreement process:
"For some prosecutors in the Southern District of Illinois, prosecutions are driven by statistics and a desire to prevent judges from exercising any control over the sentencing process without regard for the individual. Although not rising to the level of mean-spiritedness, the words arbitrary and capricious come to mind," Gilbert said Tuesday during a motion hearing on the case. ...

Gilbert accused the prosecution of making "illusory" promises in the agreements and said, "At least in this district, these so-called plea agreements are one-way streets and are unenforceable at sentencing by either the defendant or the Court."

He went on to say that in Heath's case, where she was already punished by the state for her conduct, "I strongly believe our government has failed here in that they have not been objective, abused their discretion and are not treating [Heath] with a concern for fairness or justice. In fact, sentencing [Heath] to prison for 20 years would be a miscarriage of justice."
That all sounds about right, although I'm curious to know why he doesn't think this "ris[es] to the level of mean-spiritedness."
-- Brad Plumer 5:45 PM || ||
Skid Row Ceasefire

That's awfully nice of them: According to the Times, the LAPD has agreed to stop cracking down on homeless folks sleeping on sidewalks in Skid Row, at least until the city provides 1,250 new beds in low-income housing. Still, 1,250 new beds isn't much. And some of the shelters aren't any safer than the streets:
But while there are 17,000 shelter beds in Los Angeles County, most of them within the city, there are some 74,000 homeless across the county's 4,060 square miles, officials say. And despite the decline in their numbers on Skid Row, it remains an area with one of the nation's largest concentrations of the homeless. As a result, the shelters remain full every night, said Andy Bales, chief executive of the Union Rescue Mission, which operates one of them.

Though the shelters have set up courtyard cots to accommodate the nightly overflow, some of the homeless prefer the street, which, they say, is safer. One woman, Guadalupe Ibarra, who showers and eats at the missions but does not sleep there because she fears for her safety, gestured at the sleeping bags and tents under a store's awning. "This is our residence," she said. "We all respect each other here."
Here's an earlier post on the crackdown, which seems to be driven mostly by the gentrification of downtown L.A. (because, hey, who wants "wandering drunks and drug addicts" hanging around near their refurbished lofts?). The Times estimates that about half of the 8,000 homeless in Skid Row have been driven out to parts unknown, most likely to areas where it's harder to find shelter, services, food, and so on. It doesn't seem to have accomplished much of anything, really.

P.S. I came across this a few days ago, but Russ Rymer's 2001 piece on Skid Row for Mother Jones is really quite nuanced and excellent.
-- Brad Plumer 5:21 PM || ||
The Crack Gap, Reformed (Sorta)

You've probably seen this: The Supreme Court just put a de facto moratorium on all executions until Baze v. Rees, a lethal injection case from Kentucky, gets decided next spring. (Here's one prediction on how that will turn out.)

For my money, though, the bigger criminal-justice news is that, tomorrow, the U.S. Sentencing Commission's new guidelines come into effect, reducing (somewhat) the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine. It's not a huge change (see here), but it's something. According to the Legal Times, if those guidelines are made retroactive—that's still undecided—then some 19,500 federal prisoners would be released early.

So there's that; there's the fact that the Supreme Court looks set to give judges some leeway to deviate from the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity; and now conservatives like J.C. Watts and Pat Nolan are writing op-eds in places like The Washington Times arguing that the crack gap is unjust and counterproductive and needs to be fixed. I don't know if Congress is any closer to finally making its own reforms (like, say, Biden's bill to eliminate the disparity entirely), but the momentum's nudging in that direction.
-- Brad Plumer 5:20 PM || ||

October 29, 2007

Drying Up

Okay, first the bad news. In last week's New York Times Magazine, Jon Gertner pointed out that the planet's heating up, which means less snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain ranges, which means less water in the Colorado River, which means—that's right—catastrophe for the American Southwest:
Chu noted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear. "There's a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster," Chu said, "and that's in the best scenario." ... A catastrophic reduction in the flow of the Colorado River—which mostly consists of snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains—has always served as a kind of thought experiment for water engineers, a risk situation from the outer edge of their practical imaginations.

Some 30 million people depend on that water. A greatly reduced river would wreak chaos in seven states: Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. An almost unfathomable legal morass might well result, with farmers suing the federal government; cities suing cities; states suing states; Indian nations suing state officials; and foreign nations (by treaty, Mexico has a small claim on the river) bringing international law to bear on the United States government.

In addition, a lesser Colorado River would almost certainly lead to a considerable amount of economic havoc, as the future water supplies for the West’s industries, agriculture and growing municipalities are threatened. As one prominent Western water official described the possible future to me, if some of the Southwest’s largest reservoirs empty out, the region would experience an apocalypse, "an Armageddon."
Gertner's piece is morbidly fascinating, especially his vignettes of the various Western water managers who have become Robert Moses-type figures with unmatched authority. Las Vegas has watched nearby Lake Mead drop to below 50 percent capacity, and Pat Mulroy, the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, now has to figure out how to keep all her casinos quenched: Dig deeper? Lay multimillion-dollar pipelines out to the center of the state and search for groundwater? Ask California to trade some of its freshwater in exchange for a promise to build desalination plants on the coast? Questions, questions.

Still, what's missing from this picture? As Gertner notes in passing, it's farming, and not residential areas, that consumes the vast majority of water in the region (90 percent of Colorado's water goes toward agriculture). You'd think, then, that inefficient agriculture practices would get most of the scrutiny here. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, most irrigated farmland in the area—in California, Colorado, and Wyoming—is watered via flood irrigation, the least efficient method out there. Basically, farmers dig a bunch of trenches and dump water in them. In the short run, it's cheap and easy; in the long run, it tends to waste water and deplete topsoil.

Subsidies are part of the problem here: Large farms often qualify for taxpayer-subsidized irrigation water, paying as little as 10 percent of the full cost. That, in turn, discourages conservation: "A 1997 study by researchers at Cornell University suggests that more than 50 percent of irrigation water never reaches crops because of losses during pumping and transport." The subsidies also encourage farmers to grow water-guzzling crops like alfalfa, a crop that sucks up about 20 percent of California's water but comprises only a tiny part of the economy (it's mostly used to feed cows). I'd like to see more on the subject, but this seems like a major place to focus on, no?

P.S. And, obviously, the Southwest isn't the only place suffering from dwindling water supplies. CJR has a rundown of the havoc caused by droughts in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. (Plus the fact that no one's really been planning for any of this down there...)
-- Brad Plumer 3:48 PM || ||

October 21, 2007

Coal on the Ropes

So much coal news, so little time: Ranchers and farmers are banding together with greens out West to oppose the construction of new coal-burning plants. The state of Kansas just shot down plans for a new coal plant on the grounds that it would emit too much CO2. Around the country, at least 16 proposals for new coal-fired plants have been scuttled—and three-dozen plans—delayed thanks to "concerns over global warming and rising construction costs." Hell, even The New Republic is stumping for a coal moratorium.

Meanwhile, there's a new poll out showing that 75 percent of Americans would support putting the kibbosh on new coal-fired power plants for five years in exchange for stepped-up investment in renewable energy and conservation. If I'm not mistaken, this sort of groundswell was what convinced Austin Energy decided, back in 1982, to scrap plans for a coal-fired power plant and make up the difference in energy efficiency (plus renewables plus, yes, nuclear)—and that's worked out pretty well: Consumers haven't seen much in the way of rate increases and they never needed to build the plant (I'm told that hay now grows on the proposed plant site).

Lucky for them, though, the coal industry can always turn to Congress for help. I see that the new Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill in the Senate would give away, for free, nearly half of its CO2 allowances to coal companies—handouts that will be worth anywhere from $62 to $375 billion in 2012. Now, the ideal "green" alternative would be to auction all of the credits off (in which case the cap-and-trade would work just like a carbon tax), and then use the proceeds to ease the burden on low-income folks or invest in stuff like public transit. It seems the Democratic front-runners are all, at least, moving toward this position.

Meanwhile, a dozen major utilities—including Duke Energy—are now lobbying Congress to weaken the Lieberman-Warner bill further by putting a price cap on emission allowances. They call it a "safety valve." The way it will work is this: Utilities and coal companies will ask Congress for billions more in R&D subsidies to look into clean coal and carbon sequestration and other harebrained schemes that may never work. And if these schemes don't, in fact, work, well, the safety valve will ensure that they don't get penalized too badly and will live to fight another day. Yes, I'm shrill, but this is all by way of saying: The Lieberman-Warner bill is an OK start, but hot damn it needs improving.
-- Brad Plumer 3:06 PM || ||

The Washington Post reports that smaller farmers are chafing at many of the federal and state safety regulations you need to follow to get your food "certified organic." Richard Bean of Virginia complains that produce shipped from New Zealand by big industrial giants gets certified, while his sustainable local farm can't pass muster, because he doesn't slaughter his animals in "inspected" facilities. (In fact, he got arrested for not doing so.) Long story short, small farmers are pissed at regulations that penalize them and benefit the big, industrial producers who kill people with contaminated spinach in the first place.

If I remember correctly, Gabriel Kolko's Triumph of Conservatism was about this exact same thing. That is, after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, the big meatpackers saw their chance to push for new safety regulations in Congress that would secure their market position by making life difficult for smaller businesses—while taxpayers footed the bill? Something like that. Kolko argued that a whole lot of Progressive-era reforms were steered through Congress not by the progressives who first advocated them, but by big businesses looking to protect themselves from competition. I honestly don't know how seriously people take that book—it was pretty revisionist—but it seems relevant.

On a sorta-related note, the Times has a fascinating profile of the two companies that utterly dominate the lottery industry in the United States: Gtech and Scientific Games. Of course, they don't dominate it because they have any special ability to come up with new and exciting games. In fact, they're rather bad at that. No, they've mostly just managed to bribe state lottery officials—both at home and abroad—in order to secure plum contracts. (Of course, they say that's all in the past now.)
-- Brad Plumer 1:51 PM || ||

October 13, 2007

The Joys of Cheap Fertilizer

For the past 20 years, the World Bank and assorted Western governments have been telling Malawi how to conduct its affairs. Stop subsidizing crop prices. Curtail spending. Float your currency. And so on. More recently, in 2000, donors demanded that Malawi dismantle a fledgling program that subsidized fertilizer for poor farmers--who often can't afford it on their own--on the grounds that the subsidies would make it impossible for a "solid agricultural market to develop."

Well, it's hard to flout the donors, and Malawi did as told. What happened next? Some 1,500 Malawians starved to death in 2002, and five million more needed emergency rations in 2005. So, last year, the government finally told its "advisors" to shove off and put the subsidies back in place. Two years of record surpluses followed, and Malawi is now shipping excess maize to Zimbabwe. As Toronto's Globe and Mail tells it, the subsidies have worked wonders; they're far cheaper than importing food aid; and even the EU has reversed its stance and pledge to underwrite the fertilizer coupons.

Is everything that simple? Yes and no, I guess. This reminds me of a long New York Times Magazine piece from 2003 about famine in Malawi. The author, Barry Bearak, noted that African poverty poses an endlessly intractable problem that no one quite knows how to solve. Many onlookers agree that the "structural adjustment" reforms imposed by the IMF and World Bank have frequently been a disaster (although, in the case of Malawi, the IMF maintains that its recommendations "were sound and remain valid"--they just haven't been carried out properly). But there's no consensus on what comes next.

That said, Bearak did make clear in his piece that famine wasn't at all inevitable. Every farmer he interviewed basically told him the same thing: "If you give us fertilizer, or a reasonable way to buy it, we'll manage for ourselves from one hungry season to the next." It just took years for anyone to listen.

Update: An internal investigation finds... that the World Bank's approach to African agriculture has been a disaster.
-- Brad Plumer 2:54 PM || ||

October 11, 2007

Why So Long?

In the latest issue of Social Research (wait! come back!...), Marc Mauer has a very smart essay pointing out that the U.S. prison population grew so rapidly during the 1990s not because people were being thrown in prison at a greater rate, but because the length of time served in prison was increasing so dramatically. This bubbled up briefly in the hearing on penal reform I covered last week, but it still doesn't get nearly enough attention.

By Mauer's calculations, if legislatures had left the length of prison sentences alone during the '90s, and the average time served hadn't increased, there would be about 400,000 fewer prisoners in state prisons today (there are currently 1.2 million). And that's without any change in the actual number of people sentenced to prison--before anyone starts talking about treatment programs as an alternative to jail for drug offenses, or graduated sanctions for parole violations, or other wonky measures to reduce recidivism.

The second striking bit comes when Mauer compares U.S. sentences with those abroad. Burglars now serve an average of 16.2 months in prison in the United States, compared with 5.3 months in Canada and 6.8 months in England. A conviction in a U.S. federal court for selling a kilogram of heroin gets you a mandatory 10-year sentence, versus six months in prison in England. Then, of course, there's the prevalence of "three-strikes" laws here in the United States: Around 4,000 prisoners in California are serving life sentences after committing drug or property crimes as their third strike.

Maybe this would be justified if there was any reason to think that longer sentences actually make a difference. But there's not: As Mauer notes, there's no evidence that longer sentences deter crime ("any deterrent effect... is achieved primarily by certainty of punishment, not severity") or reduce recidivism. In theory, of course, you can lock up a prisoner for five or ten years, until he "ages out" of his prime crime-committing years, and that could reduce recidivism. But doing that for everyone would mean quadrupling our $60 billion-per-year prison system, and I trust no one needs to explain why that would be a horrible idea.

Correction: Sorry, it should be 300,000 fewer, not 400,000. Thanks to James Shearer in comments.
-- Brad Plumer 3:45 PM || ||