December 12, 2007

Climate Change and Innovation

Nowadays, a growing number of conservatives are admitting that, yes, okay, global warming is real. But, they add, we shouldn't impose binding caps on CO2 because it's too costly, and anyway, the only thing that will save us is awesome new technology. For variations on the theme, see Newt Gingrich or Jim Manzi. Some of these folks seem to have great faith in Congress's ability to pick out the technologies that will save us, so they suggest that the government should just ramp up R&D spending on mitigation and adaptation and call it a day.

The liberal response is to say, yes, we need some technological advances to avert catastrophic global warming, but to get those, we mostly need to cap carbon emissions and let the market decide how best to adjust. That's the best way to spur innovation. Now, I'm a kneejerk lefty, so I've always thought this was basically correct, but here's a chart putting the argument in graphic form (via ED's excellent climate blog):

What are we looking at here? This is from a Carnegie Mellon research paper looking at patent filings for sulfur dioxide-control technologies for electric power plants. The government had been spending money on research for this stuff for a long time, but it was only in the late 1960s—after Congress passed the Clean Air Act, in all its regulatory glory—that the patents started flooding in. Regulation, it seems, and not R&D spending per se, helped drive innovation.
-- Brad Plumer 5:35 PM || ||
Prison Exodus

The flipside of setting new incarceration records each year—at last count, the United States had locked up 1.5 million people in state or federal prison, and 775,000 in jail for minor crimes—is that, each year, you get fresh news reports heralding "the largest exodus of prisoners in American history." Those numbers, in turn, end up swamping state re-entry programs—which are often underfunded anyway—and that means high recidivism rates, which swell the prison population even further, and so the cycle continues. Onward and upward.

Anyway, U.S. News & World Report has a nice feature story on states that are trying to break that cycle. One major obstacle: "Holding a job remains the best predictor of success for ex-cons, and employer surveys have found about 80 percent of ex-cons to be diligent, trustworthy, and dependable. Yet employers are still reluctant to hire them. They risk having employees who can be at worst violent and at best antisocial and reap few benefits in return."

States can try to address that problem through tax credits and regulations, but even that's not a sure bet—on the tax credit front, "small businesses often find the paperwork more trouble than it's worth," and it's hard to bar employers from turning down ex-convicts (New York state tries, but I'm not sure how effective that is). Then there's the difficulty of coordinating job training, housing, and so forth. But Kansas, for one, has launched several re-entry programs that have cut recidivism rate in half. So it's not at all impossible.
-- Brad Plumer 5:15 PM || ||
Getting Revisionist With McGovern

In the latest issue of Democracy, Rick Perlstein makes the case that most accounts of George McGovern's landslide loss in 1972 miss the mark:
McGovern lost because he was an isolationist? If you had said that in 1972, people might have looked at you funny. Whatever his preference for deep cuts in the defense budget, Republican surrogates who hauled out the isolationist charge were labeled "silly" by no less an honest broker than the New York Times' Scotty Reston. Over the following six years–according to my ProQuest search–the words "McGovern" and some variant of "isolation" were mentioned in the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune a mere six times.
And, of course, McGovern lost to a candidate who was also campaigning on a pledge to end the war. But what about the whole "acid, amnesty, and abortion" thing?
Well, like I said, his position on abortion was the same as Nixon's. His position on pot followed the President’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. And amnesty was enacted, in limited form, by Gerald Ford. And the person who cast the false aspersion, Novak has recently revealed in his memoirs, was ... Thomas Eagleton.
Perlstein argues that McGovern's substantive positions hurt him far less than his breathtakingly incompetent campaign: The disastrous flip-flop on whether to keep Eagleton on the ticket, for instance, or the 21-year-old novices crunching polling data. Plus, Nixon's dirty tricks were effective, and many prominent Democrats had a visceral loathing for McGovern. (Evidently, Hubert Humphrey—in an anecdote that's in dire need of follow-up—phoned Nixon on Election Night to congratulate the victor and intone, darkly, that "I did what I had to do" to keep McGovern from winning.)

Anyway, I'm not saying this is the final word on the matter, but since the specter of McGovern seems to get summoned anytime a less-than-maximally-hawkish Democrat opens his or her mouth, the counter-CW take is worth reading.

Update: For anyone interested, Rick Perlstein e-mails with a few more points that got left on Democracy's cutting-room floor:
1) In April of 1971... every viable Democratic presidential candidate, including Humphrey, went on TV in an extraordinary joint appearance and implored Nixon to set a date for withdrawal from Vietnam—including Scoop Jackson (who differed from the others only in that he said Nixon shouldn't publicly announce the date. So if people want to indict McGovern for his stance on Vietnam, they also have to indict his opponents in the Democrats' civil war—Humprey and, to a lesser extent, Jackson. It was just self-evidence to EVERY Democrat that we had to get out, and self-evident to Nixon that he had to appear to be getting out.

2) "Come home America" was a quote from Martin Luther King, and though of course it had isolationist resonances, in the context of both King and McGovern's speeches it was not literally geographic--it was a figurative call for America to "come home" to its founding ideals.

3) Democrats only started accusing each other of "McGovernism," equating that with "isolationism" starting in the early 1980s, in the context of debates about Central America--ie, if we ignored Communist encroachments there, Democrats would lose 49 states. It was an accusation Walter Mondale pioneered against Gary Hart (McGovern's campaign manager) for his announced reluctance to commit ground troops to protect oil in the Persian Gulf and (according to a Mondale spokesman) for continuing "the McGovern legacy of resistance to military spending and American involvement abroad." (Then, of course, Mondale lost 49 states...)

4) By 1986 you could be accused of "McGovernism" for basically paraphrasing things Nixon and Kissinger said in 1972. There was a columnist in the Post named Stephen S. Rosenfeld (I hadn't heard of him before) who excoriated a Hart foreign policy position paper for claiming "superpowers no longer dominate the world and 'the diffusion of power is the defining reality of our age.'" You can look it up (for example, Nixon's July 6, 1971 speech in Kansas CIty to a gathering of media executives, about which your colleague John Judis writes brilliantly in his 1992 book Grand Illusions: Critics and Champions of the American Century): that utterance was Nixon-Kissingerist to a T. And yet this Rosenfeld called it "one of those amorphous generalities that seem to come with the Democratic Party card."

Thus my ultimate point: "McGovernism" is a word not signifying an idea but a cudgel to short-circuit thought and honest historical reckoning.
-- Brad Plumer 3:47 PM || ||

December 06, 2007

Stick PIt

Nothing about working in a slaughterhouse sounds pleasant. There's the meager pay: $21,000 a year, on average. There's the sheer danger of it all: The dizzying pace of the plant forces workers wielding sharp knives to work very rapidly, and workers face an absurdly high risk of death or disability. Safety standards are atrocious. There's also the... well, hell, just read the description:
Human hands… must make the same knife or scissors cut to slit open carcasses from anus to breast or the same twist of the hand to yank out viscera at a grueling pace, set by a relentless conveyor belt and reinforced by circulating foremen, while workers are standing in pools of water and grease in temperatures that range from freezing to ninety-five degrees and being pelted by flying fat globules or dripping blood.
Most of that's probably familiar to anyone who's read Fast Food Nation (or the Mother Jones piece that was the basis for that part of the book). But what's new to me is the angle Jennifer Dillard brings up in this recent paper: namely, the psychological toll of doing all that killing. Here's one interview with a slaughterhouse worker:
The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you and think, God, that really isn’t a bad-looking animal. You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them—beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.
And another, even more gruesome passage:
Another time, there was a live hog in the pit. It hadn’t done anything wrong, wasn’t even running around the pit. It was just alive. I took a three-foot chunk of pipe—two-inch diameter pipe—and I literally beat that hog to death. Couldn’t have been a two-inch piece of solid bone left in its head. . . . It was like I started hitting the hog and I couldn’t stop. And when I finally did stop, I’d expended all this energy and frustration, and I’m thinking, what in God’s sweet name did I do? ... People go into Morrell expecting respect and good working conditions. They come out with carpal tunnel, tendonitis, alcoholism, you name it, because they’re under incredible pressure and they’re expected to perform under intolerable conditions. Or they develop a sadistic sense of reality.
That's horrible, but not surprising. I certainly couldn't kill a pig. Most people couldn't—that's (partly) why we have slaughterhouses in the first place. And while I've never really believed that a person should only eat something he or she can kill with their bare hands, it is an incredibly gruesome task to outsource, perhaps even different in kind from other wretched tasks that low-wage workers end up doing. Maybe this can all be reworked into a moral case for vegetarianism at some point.

There's some evidence that slaughterhouse work is associated with increases in alcoholism and violent crime, but no one's done any rigorous studies. One big question is how to curb some of the worst, most trauma-inducing conditions. OSHA rarely addresses psychological hazards in the workplace, and, in any case, has never done a fantastic job of protecting slaughterhouse workers. Dillard suggests a few potential legal remedies, but what about labor unions? I'd be curious to know what the difference is between unionized and non-unionized slaughterhouses on this score. (Not that organizing a meatpacking plant is even remotely easy these days...)
-- Brad Plumer 11:49 PM || ||
Profiles of Clever People

Via Greg Mankiw, The American—which is, I think, AEI's in-house rag—has a short but interesting profile of up-and-coming MIT economist Ivan Werning. Here's a summary of his work on inequality and inheritance:
Previous studies have shown that the most efficient economic system causes inequality to grow. Policies that reduce inequality are believed to have a trade-off: If you punish people too much for doing well—by reducing their incentives to pass on wealth to their children—these people will reduce their effort, to the detriment of the economy as a whole. But allowing inequality to increase concentrates the world’s wealth into fewer and fewer hands.

Werning found that the models at the core of these judgments were incomplete. Allowing inequality to grow, unfettered, is economically optimal only if one looks at just the first generation. But if you take into account the children of first-generation parents, and their children’s children, then the most preferable system is not one that allows inequality to grow, but one that attempts to stabilize the distribution of wealth.

His paper shows that the transmission of wealth should be regulated to prevent an accumulation of luck—that children should essentially be insured against the family into which they are born.
Well, that jibes with everything I've always believed, so of course I'm going to find this interesting. Mankiw seems less convinced. Either way, here are the two papers where Werning lays out the case for a progressive estate tax (along with, in fact, subsidies for bequests by lower-income families). Here's a paper in which he rather cleverly rebuts the notion that the state needs to cut off unemployment benefits after six months in order to spur workers into finding jobs.
-- Brad Plumer 9:16 PM || ||

December 04, 2007

How's That for Disproportionate?

One major point about drug laws is that they're very widely violated. In 2002, there were some 19.5 million drug users in the United States—about 8 percent of the population—but just 1.5 million drug arrests and 175,000 people who went to jail for drug offenses. Now, that's a ton of people in prison—and most of them should not be there, period—but it's still only a tiny fraction of all drug users. Any law that's flouted that frequently is going to be enforced in a very, very selective manner.

But even though we often hear platitudes about how that's true—about how the War on Drugs disproportionately affects black people, and so on—the details here are truly remarkable. For instance, a 2002 NIDA survey found that African American teens use drugs at a slightly lower rate than their white counterparts, and that's true for a variety of specific drugs—even crack. But, that year, black youths were brought to court on drug charges at a rate of 8.2 per 1,000, compared with only 6.0 per 1,000 for whites.

Likewise, the 2002 SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that African Americans of all ages use illicit drugs at only a slightly higher rate than whites (9.7 percent vs. 8.5 percent). But blacks were sent to prison for drug offenses at a far, far higher rate. Okay, maybe that's because African Americans are more likely to be involved in selling drugs? But that's also doubtful: One DoJ study found that 13 percent of black youths had sold drugs, compared with 17 percent of white youth, yet, in 2003, black youths were arrested for drug crimes at twice the rate of whites.

Now, there are a slew of possible theories for why that's so. Disparate policing practices are one factor—police often focus on low-income and minority neighborhoods, and it's easier to spot and bust street deals than suburban sales. Unequal treatment in courts is another factor—white youths are twice as likely to retain private counsel as black youths, and one study found that, for instance, probation officers are more likely to see crimes by minorities as caused by personal failings, while seeing crimes by white youth as caused by circumstance. ("He's a good boy, just fell in with a bad crowd…") It's not hard to imagine that bias applies to judges and prosecutors, too.

Anyway, along those lines, the Justice Policy Institute just put out a fantastic new study adding its two cents on the issue. Their study looked at county-by-county data, and found some striking patterns. There's barely any correlation between drug use and the rate counties put people in prison for drug offenses. Rockingham County, NH, has a higher percentage of drug users than Jefferson Parish, LA, but Jefferson has a drug admission rate 36 times greater. And so on. JPI did find, though that counties with higher poverty rates, or larger percentages of minorities have higher drug incarceration rates—even after you control for crime rates.

The other noteworthy finding here is that counties that spend more on police budgets end up imprisoning people for drug offenses at a higher rate—even after you control for crime, region, poverty, unemployment, and so on. It's like you'd expect: When a county adds more police, those police spend more time going after drug offenders. And they're more likely to use their discretion to go primarily after black drug dealers—even if African Americans aren't selling drugs at higher rates, as has been the the case in Seattle, according to this in-depth study.
-- Brad Plumer 10:48 PM || ||
Yellow Tail For All

Wine trivia pops up in the oddest places. Lying around the office was a copy of The Milken Institute Review, which appears to be the in-house publication of the Milken Institute—as in Michael Milken, of junk bond fame. Who knew? Inside, among other things, was a fun essay on the wine industry, by Philip Martin of UC Davis:
There have been three important changes in American wine drinkers over the past two decades. First, Americans upgraded their palates, moving from inexpensive jug wines with retail prices of less than $3 a bottle to popular-premium wines costing $3 to $7, super-premium wines at $7 to $14 a bottle and ultra-premiums, which cost more than $14.

Second, preferences are shifting toward reds, both because palates have become more sophisticated and because red wines may have health benefits that whites do not.

Third, Americans increasingly prefer the consistent taste of fruity (high-acid, high-sugar) wines produced in California, Argentina, Australia, Chile and New Zealand to the "mystery in every bottle" (typically drier) wines from Old World Europe. This trend has been accelerated (or, skeptics maintain, created) by the independent critic Robert Parker, who changed the global wine-rating business by setting a high ethical standard in his wine reviews that was missing before he vaulted to prominence in the 1980s.
That's interesting about Parker (as is his Wikipedia page, which notes that some chateau owners are so desperate to curry favor with the guy that they've done everything from send death threats to offer up their daughters). Meanwhile, I assume U.S. demand is going to keep growing rapidly—especially if we keep getting bombarded with 60 Minutes specials on how those accursed French oenophiles never get heart disease. And that could make things interesting.

After all, Americans seem to prefer the California/New Zealand/Australia style of winemaking, which strives for consistency across vintages, has an the alcohol level around 13-14 percent, and does away with some of the musty old European techniques like using wooden casks. So we''d expect European winemakers to adopt some of these methods in response, no? Surely someone's noticed that Yellow Tail is doing very, very well (by Martin's estimate, it now accounts for about a fifth of all U.S. wine imports, and Australia has surpassed Italy in U.S. sales). Then again, maybe it's just the cute 'critter' label, which can make any wine a hot seller here in the U.S.A.
-- Brad Plumer 8:20 PM || ||
Following the Bali Talks (But Not Too Closely...)

There sure are a lot of news reports being filed from Bali—where delegates from some 190 nations are starting to discuss what sort of climate change treaty might follow Kyoto—but there's not much in the way of actual, er, news.

The one piece I'd recommend is Alan Zarembo's harsh—but perfectly fair—article in the Los Angeles Times detailing all the ways in which the Kyoto Protocol fell flat. The only reason participating countries could report a 12 percent drop in emissions was because industries in the former Soviet Union collapsed after 1990 and factories were shuttered across Eastern Europe. If you exclude the former Soviet bloc, total CO2 emissions from countries bound by Kyoto's caps actually rose about 8 percent since 1990.

Now, in many ways, Kyoto was less about achieving dramatic reductions and more about getting countries together to start acting like grown-ups and cooperating over climate change. (Although it was obviously a huge problem that the United States never ratified the treaty and that it exempted developing countries from pollution limits.) So it's probably fair, as one expert tells the Times, to say that Kyoto "was a diplomatic success, but environmentally it was a complete failure," though obviously that excuse won't fly this time around...

Okay, one more: This Der Spiegel dispatch, if true, is unbelievable. The Bush administration has long insisted that it won't accept mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions because, among other things, China and India haven't done so. But now U.S. officials are "discreetly" trying to convince China and India to publicly declare that they won't accept binding caps unless the United States does more—in effect, deadlocking the talks.

Another: George Monbiot complains that the UN goals for emissions cuts are inadequate, and that the only way we're going to avoid dangerous climate change is through "the complete decarbonization of the global economy." He actually thinks it can be done without too much calamity, although we'll probably have to give up flying... Yikes. Although maybe we can bring back the Zeppelin?
-- Brad Plumer 4:02 PM || ||
Aiding and Abetting

Do I have this right? Florida courts have long rejected the argument that gun wholesalers are at all responsible for any murders committed with the weapons they sell. But, as The New York Times reports today, if a 20-year-old in Florida lends some friends his car one morning, and they end up killing someone, he can be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole?
-- Brad Plumer 11:28 AM || ||

December 03, 2007

Race and the Death Penalty

This paper, via The Monkey Cage, is striking. Two political scientists, Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz, polled a bunch of white people with this question:
“Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?”

Somewhat favor: 29%
Strongly favor: 36%
Okay, that's about what you'd expect. But then they polled another random set of white people with a slight variant:
“Some people say that the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are African-Americans. Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?”

Somewhat favor: 25%
Strongly favor: 52%
No, that's not a typo. White respondents were more likely to strongly favor the death penalty after they were told that it's mostly African Americans being executed. (Not surprisingly, black respondents were far less eager to support the death penalty after learning about the racial disparity.)

Anyway, rather than chalk these results up to, say, genocidal tendencies among white folks, the researchers dove into a bunch of survey data and decided on this explanation: White survey subjects, they found, were more likely to emphasize personal failings as a primary cause of crime, rather than focusing on situational factors—poverty, inequality in the justice system, etc. So they're more likely to believe that, if black people are being disproportionately punished, it's because they "deserve" it, and hence, they reject any suggestion of unfairness so strongly—because it's inconsistent with their prior beliefs—that they run in the other direction.

I can't tell if that's the best explanation here, but either way, that's the result. Also, note that the death penalty debate has shifted terrain in the past decade. It used to be that opponents would argue over the morality of the death penalty, or appeal to the Constitution, but nowadays—especially after the rash of DNA exonerations that began in the early '90s—they tend to focus more on the risk of executing innocent people, as well as the disparate racial impact.

Those arguments actually seem to have worked somewhat—support for the death penalty nudged downward from 84 percent in 1994 to 66 percent in 2000—but Peffley and Hurwitz's work suggests that white enthusiasm for the death penalty isn't likely to change much in response to these new tactics. As noted, the racial disparity argument may, in some cases, even increase white support. What a world, eh?
-- Brad Plumer 7:52 PM || ||
Will the Amazon Survive?

In another must-read New York Review of Books essay, John Terborgh argues that out-of-control fires may be the Amazon rainforest's undoing—and they may come sooner than we think:
Humid tropical forests simply don't burn, or at least that was the conventional wisdom. After all, millions of fires are set in tropical forest regions every year in conjunction with the slash-and-burn methods used to clear land for agriculture; yet the fires almost never escape into the surrounding forest. But in 1983, the large-scale fluctuation in climate called El Niño brought about a different reality. Southeast Asia became a tinderbox after unprecedented drought. Fires broke out and burned for months in the equatorial rainforests of Borneo, creating a pall of acrid smoke that shut down airports hundreds of miles away and caused respiratory distress in thousands.

Scientists investigating the causes and consequences of the Borneo fires discovered an important corollary. Forests that had been logged were the ones that burned; unlogged forests resisted fire. Logging synergizes fire in two ways. First, cutting down trees opens the forest canopy, admitting sunlight and drying out the leaf litter on the forest floor. Second, the debris of branches, chips, and stumps left behind by logging operations serves as fuel for any subsequent fire. For these two reasons, fire can propagate through logged forest under drought conditions but usually peters out in unlogged forests.

Ground fires burned huge tracts of Amazonian forest in conjunction with the El Niño of 1997 and 1998. The toll promises to be far more severe in the future. The first time a tropical forest burns, the damage can hardly be detected from above because the destruction is largely confined to saplings and small trees whose crowns lie below the canopy. But the subsequent presence of large numbers of dead trees greatly increases the fuel available to stoke the next fire. Consequently, second fires burn hotter and more destructively, killing large trees as well as practically all smaller ones.

And, of course, second fires generate even more fuel for the third fire. Colleagues of mine who study this subject, notably, Carlos Peres and Jos Barlow of the University of East Anglia (UK) and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, assert that the third fire spells doom for the forest, since it kills all remaining trees. After that, the land once occupied by forest fills with coarse shrubs and grasses that become flammable every dry season. Fires then become a permanent feature of a transformed ecology and defeat the prospects for recovering the forest. Millions of acres of forest are now primed to burn a second time and millions more are primed for the first burn, thanks to the wave of rampant logging that has spread through the region.
Scary stuff. Terborgh's conclusion is harsh, but probably accurate: Brazil is going to keep hacking away at the Amazon—and, hence, increasing the risk of uncontrollable fire—until "an international community united by the specter of radical climate change" decides that it's worth paying Brazilians not to do so. The first version of the Kyoto Protocol didn't cover forests under its cap-and-trade system. Unless someone figures out how to account for them in a successor treaty, it may well be bye-bye Amazon rainforest—which would, in turn, further accelerate global warming.

P.S. Terborgh brings up the oft-overlooked point that about 40 percent of the Amazon basin actually lies not in Brazil, but in neighboring countries, and that in two of those countries—Peru and Venezuela—the vast majority of rainforest remains untouched, for various idiosyncratic reasons. But will that last forever? Maybe not. After all, a recent satellite analysis found that deforestation rates in Peru have surged over the past few years, as the logging industry expands... On the other hand, as Terborgh mentions in a follow-up exchange, support for conservation within Peru is remarkably strong, which can make all the difference in the world.

P.P.S. Also, note that this new report suggests that it would only take a very modest price on carbon to convince Brazilians not to hack down the rainforest. That's very good news.
-- Brad Plumer 7:36 PM || ||
The Consensus After the Consensus

Now that it's fashionable to bad-mouth the "Washington Consensus" that prevailed throughout the '90s, there's the question of what's going to replace it. Walden Bello, who's pretty far left on these matters, argues that there's no longer any consensus in development circles on how to promote growth and reduce poverty in the Third World—instead there are roughly four distinct schools of thought. Those are:
1. Washington Consensus Plus. Basically, these are the same old market reforms that have been promoted by the IMF and World Bank all these years, only with an extra side helping of institutional and legal reforms. So, for example, the IMF now argues that countries need to develop "financial infrastructure" before they start liberalizing their capital inflows.

2. Neoconservative Neoliberalism. This is the murkiest category, but Bello calls this "essentially the development policy of the Bush administration." This approach mainly seems to involve bilateral debt relief and short-term grants that are conditional on certain free-market reforms. The Millennium Challenge Account is the most obvious example.

3. Neostructuralism. This appears to be the direction countries like Brazil and Chile are heading, in which economic growth and progressive policies are supposed to go hand in hand. So you have market reforms and liberalization, but also income transfers and spending on health, education, and housing to ease the pain—without going too far left, ala Hugo Chavez. "Neostructuralism," says Bello, "does not fundamentally reverse but simply mitigates the poverty and inequality-creating core neoliberal policies."

4. Global Social Democracy. This is the approach that people like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz now seem to favor, which, Bello argues, often "places equity above growth." Advocates of this view are skeptical of trade liberalization and frequently "demand fundamental changes in the institutions and rules of global governance such as the IMF, WTO, and the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreements."
Now, I would've guessed that station #4 was the leftmost stop on this train, but, no, Bello argues, the problem with that view is that "global social democracy" is just plain incompatible with the "rapid integration of markets and production." Or at least it might be. He doesn't really offer any evidence on this score.

Then Bello really gets the neo-Marxist party started and suggests that "a functionally integrated global economy" is probably undesirable and, in any case, only came about as a "desperate and unsuccessful effort to overcome the crises of overaccumulation, overproduction, and stagnation that have overtaken the central capitalist economist since the mid-seventies." Well, no thanks, I'll stick with Door #4 (I think), although his broader taxonomy seemed useful enough.
-- Brad Plumer 7:25 PM || ||
Deep-Sea Diving

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm terrified of fish. Horrified, mortified, petrified—the works. If it came down to a choice between lying in a coffin crawling with spiders or sitting in a bathtub with one little goldfish paddling about—I'd take the spiders. So there's precisely zero chance I'll ever find myself in a bathysphere 2,000 feet underwater, which means I'll just have to read about what goes on down there:
To understand the full extent of the constraints that the abyss places on life, consider the black seadevil [right]. It's a somber, grapefruit-sized globe of a fish—seemingly all fangs and gape—with a "fishing rod" affixed between its eyes whose luminescent bait jerks above the trap-like mouth. Clearly, food is a priority for this creature, for it can swallow a victim nearly as large as itself. But that is only half the story, for this description pertains solely to the female: the male is a minnow-like being content to feed on specks in the sea—until, that is, he encounters his sexual partner.

The first time that a male black seadevil meets his much larger mate, he bites her and never lets go. Over time, his veins and arteries grow together with hers, until he becomes a fetus-like dependent who receives from his mate's blood all the food, oxygen, and hormones he requires to exist. The cost of this utter dependence is a loss of function in all of his organs except his testicles, but even these, it seems, are stimulated to action solely at the pleasure of the engulfing female. When she has had her way with him, the male seadevil simply vanishes, having been completely absorbed and dissipated into the flesh of his paramour, leaving her free to seek another mate. Not even Dante imagined such a fate.
That's from Tim Flannery's great review of two new books about deep-sea creatures. He also hazards a guess as to why most folks are more intrigued by the thought of going to Mars than exploring the depths of the ocean floor:
Is it the geography of Christian belief that has made us upright apes so dread the ocean deep, yet strive so mightily to explore the cold and (so far as we know) lifeless heavens? Not all human beings think as Beebe did. The Greenland Inuit, for example, believe that paradise lies at the bottom of the sea, for that is where their food comes from. It is the cloudy, frozen mountains and sky that they fear and shun. Whatever the cause, human beings know more about the surface of that dead rock we call the moon than the living depths of our own planet's seas.
Got a better theory? The last section of the essay is more depressing, about how all of the industrial waste and sewage humans have dumped into the ocean—scuttled ships, thousands of tons of chemical weapons, obsolete nuclear reactors—have wreaked no small amount of havoc on the sea floor. It's hard to care, until that gunk comes traveling back up the food chain. ("The liver-like glands of one species of shrimp... have levels of polonium-210 a million times that of seawater.") So there's reason to care beyond the (undeniable) fact that there's lots of awesomely wacky stuff down there...

P.S. This was traumatizing but cool.
-- Brad Plumer 6:03 PM || ||
Follow the Bouncing Trends

I never know what to make of these trend pieces, but the AP has a hopeful article on how states are now "rethinking" the practice of charging kids as adults, while the Kansas City Star finds states "re-examining" residency restrictions for former sex offenders. Those changes would make a lot of sense (read the articles for a sense of the debate), but, then again, it seems like there are always stories in the news about states reconsidering this or that ineffective crime-control strategy, and not much ever seems to come of it...

On the other hand, our neighbors to the north are "pressing ahead with plans to create mandatory minimum prison terms for drug crimes in spite of two studies [prepared for the Canadian government] that say such laws don't work." Well, that's never stopped anyone on this side of the border.
-- Brad Plumer 5:11 PM || ||

December 02, 2007

Is the Drug War Inevitable?

"All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs—with very little to show for it." That's the short version. The long version is Ben Wallace-Wells 15,000-word Rolling Stone cover story this month, where you can read all about how, thanks to the "War on Drugs," prison populations have ballooned, cocaine prices have plunged, and the U.S. military has inserted itself into a civil war in Colombia. Mostly, though, I was interested in examples of what alternative policies might look like:
In the summer of 2003, the police department in High Point, North Carolina, held its annual command-staff retreat. … One topic dominated the conversation: an increase in violent crime that was concentrated in three drug-dealing neighborhoods in the city. "The place we were at was that all the traditional enforcement was making no difference," says the department's deputy chief, Marty Sumner. "We agreed we weren't going to be able to eliminate drug use. We weren't even going to try to go after drug use. We wanted to change the marketing of the drug."

Sumner's department called in the Harvard criminologist David Kennedy. The High Point police had worked with Kennedy before, adopting the Boston Gun Project's policy of trying to break the link between drugs and crime. Now the criminologist told them that he had a new kind of project to propose, one that went beyond the Boston experiment. Kennedy's pitch was simple: The trick, he said, wasn't to focus on eliminating drugs but rather to shut down the most "overt" drug markets, the ones operating so openly that they attracted prostitution and violent crime. "Instead of looking at it as a drug problem, we decided to think of it as a drug-market problem," Sumner says. "What the public really couldn't stand was the violence associated with public drug markets." Dealers operating in the open are targets for stickup men and other would-be robbers, and the public swagger and turf consciousness of street slingers can cradle violent, simmering beefs.

High Point police began in the West End neighborhood, one of the city's three overt drug markets. A team of officers staked out the site, videotaping hundreds of hand-to-hand sales and mapping out a complete anthropology of the West End drug market. They found it was strikingly small: Sumner had expected as many as fifty dealers working there, but it turned out there were only sixteen. Before long, the officers had enough evidence to put away each of the sixteen dealers for good. But they didn't. Instead, Sumner and Kennedy called them in for a meeting. They showed each of them the portfolio of evidence against them and said that unless they stopped dealing drugs, the whole file would be handed over to the prosecutors and they'd be in jail for years. Family members were brought in to urge the dealers to stop, and social-service providers pledged assistance with food, housing and job training.

"We didn't think it would work," Sumner tells me, "but the drug markets have disappeared." …

In 2007, in the program's fourth year, [the number of drug-related murders] has plummeted to two. Violent crime in the West End has declined by thirty-five percent. "The use of drugs isn't something we could affect," says Kennedy. "But the violence was." His logic has an appealing clarity for overworked police departments: There are now more than sixty cities in the United States that use some version of Kennedy's program, edging away from thirty-five years of punitive measures that have turned the United States into the world's leading jailer to a social-work model that encourages communities and cops to engage the problem on a more human level.
The basic logic is to focus on drug-related murders and ignore those users and dealers who aren't causing violence. By all accounts, it works better than the usual old strategies. (But does it work better than, say, outright decriminalization or legalization would? No one's saying.) Local governments are paying attention. A few years ago, though, Mother Jones did a profile of David Kennedy and his approach to gang violence, noting that, despite Kennedy-inspired successes in Boston and elsewhere, the FBI and Congress have largely ignored his work.

Normally, this would be my cue to toss off a line about how Congress will never change, but the one encouraging aspect of Wallace-Wells's piece is that it gives some hope that the drug war isn't totally inevitable. Bill Clinton's first drug czar, Lee Brown, actually had non-crazy ideas about drug policy—even endorsing a RAND study showing that treatment was a better way to tackle drug use than throwing millions of black men in prison and gunning down traffickers overseas. But Brown was a poor spokesman, and soon Newt Gingrich came to power, at which point Clinton, worried about looking "soft," appointed Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who gave us pointless anti-marijuana ads and Plan Colombia. With a little luck, though, things might've turned out differently. Or is that naive?

P.S. Of course, the Lee Brown tale is also a reminder that, even though Barack Obama and John Edwards are hating on the "war on drugs" now, the pressures to stay the course once in office are considerable. But as for Hillary Clinton... well, as Marc Ambinder notes, she's come out against even applying the new guidelines on crack sentencing to current prisoners. It's a modest proposal—affecting maybe 20,000 crack offenders who were punished under the old, stricter guidelines—but totally sensible, and the fact that she's against even that is a good sign that she probably won't touch the drug-war status quo. (The same goes for all the Republicans, except for, maybe, Huckabee.)

P.P.S. Curiously enough, Wallace-Wells reports that Chris Dodd—who now has one of the more liberal drug-war stances around and supports marijuana decriminalization—might've been partly to blame for Plan Colombia. Rumor has it that Dodd originally pushed the plan so as to benefit a helicopter manufacturer in his home state. Rand Beers offers Rolling Stone only this cryptic comment: "Much has been made of the notion that this was Dodd looking to sell Blackhawks to Colombia. ... [pause] I am not in a position to tell you it didn't happen."
-- Brad Plumer 6:43 PM || ||