November 30, 2007

Mitigation Made Easy (Sort of)

What's the deal with McKinsey & Co.? How much impact do its reports have? Do they get passed around corporate boardrooms? Ignored? I ask because I enjoyed this latest report, which argues that the United States could cut its greenhouse-gas emissions nearly one-third by 2030 at little cost, using mainly "tested approaches" and a few "high-potential emerging technologies." All we'd really need, it seems, is a modest carbon tax, some federal spending for infrastructure, a bunch of regulations, and, um, we're off. Yes, the Stern Review and the IPCC have said much the same thing, but maybe McKinsey can woo a broader audience.

Interestingly, about 40 percent of the mitigation measures that McKinsey studied—especially the ones that involve boosting efficiency—would actually save the country money in the medium run. The trick is to implement them sooner rather than later, since every year of delay means another round of inefficient cars and homes getting built. Conveniently enough, there's another new report out finding that California's strict efficiency rules haven't hurt the state's economy much at all. Instead, they've lowered energy costs for businesses and residents. I know, I know, who could've ever predicted that...

The McKinsey report was funded, in part, by PG&E and Shell. What this means, I can't say, though I will say that some of its conclusions sound odd. For instance, check out the graph that Dave Roberts highlights here. Is building a new nuke plant really cheaper than onshore wind and distributed PV solar? Even once all costs—waste disposal, insurance—are factored in? I'm also not sure how much hope we should hold out for carbon sequestration (though, note, that hardy perennial plays only a small role in McKinsey's vision). Also, even if mitigating climate change won't damage the U.S. economy much—and could even boost it—certain stakeholders will still get screwed during the transition. But, hell, that's never stopped people from supporting "free" trade, so...
-- Brad Plumer 7:10 PM || ||

November 17, 2007

More Alarmism, Please

Another day, another UN climate change report, another trip to the thesaurus to look up synonyms for "dire." Grim? Daunting? I can't find a good one. The New York Times did a fine job, though, of summing up the ways in which the IPCC may well be underestimating the pace of global warming:
Even though the synthesis report is more alarming than its predecessors, some researchers believe that it still understates the trajectory of global warming and its impact. The I.P.C.C.’s scientific process, which takes five years of study and writing from start to finish, cannot take into account the very latest data on climate change or economic trends, which show larger than predicted development and energy use in China. ...

The panel presents several scenarios for the trajectory of emissions and climate change. In 2006, 8.4 gigatons of carbon were put into the atmosphere from fossil fuels, according to a study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which was co-written by Dr. Klepper. That is almost identical to the panel’s worst case prediction for that year.

Likewise, a recent International Energy Agency report looking at the unexpectedly rapid emissions growth in China and India estimated that if current policies were not changed the world would warm six degrees [Celsius] by 2030 [!?!?], a disastrous increase far higher than the panel’s estimates of one to four degrees by the end of the century.
As best I can tell, the IEA's "six degrees by 2030" prediction is a worst-case scenario—a look at what could happen if the world maintains its present energy course, and China and India keep on growing and burning coal at their current rates. Still, as worst-case scenarios go, it's a pretty fucking, um, dire one.

P.S. Ah. Thanks to commenter mitchell porter, it seems that should be "six degrees beyond 2030"—likely six degrees by the end of the century. Still (very) freak-out-worthy, but not the same as what the Times had.
-- Brad Plumer 8:59 PM || ||

November 14, 2007

Monkeys Everywhere

It's not easy picking out the most surreal sentence from this Times piece about New Delhi being overrun by packs of wild monkeys. Is it the part where a gang of monkeys kills the deputy mayor? Maybe it's this:
Politicians with residences in the area have resorted to hiring private monkey catchers, men who use a larger, dark-faced monkey, the langur, to scare away the smaller wild ones.
And what happens when the bigger monkeys start ruling the city? An arms race, that's what.
-- Brad Plumer 11:24 AM || ||

November 13, 2007

Official Paranoia

It's a random bit of quoting, I know, but I rather liked this passage from Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, on why the John Birch Society had such an ardent following in the 1950s and '60s:
Since McCarthy's day, liberals had been wondering why apparently intelligent people could believe that the wrong kind of politics in the United States would inexorably hasten its takeover by the USSR. It was concluded that these were people who feared for their status in a rapidly changing, complex urban society, who pined for a simpler past (they were for the "repeal of industrialism," said Commentary, which was odd, since most Birch leaders were industrialists).

The cognoscenti neglected the simplest answer: people were afraid of internal Communist takeover because the government had been telling them to be afraid—at least since 1947, when George F. Kennan argued in "The Sources of Soviet Conducts," the founding document of U.S. Cold War doctrine, excerpted in Reader's Digest, that "exhibitions of indecision, disunity, and internal disintegration within this country have an exhilarating effect on the whole Communist movement."

Through the 1960s, AFL-CIO president George Meany loved to flatter rank-and-file members that they were the first line of resistance against the Communists: in Czechoslovakia, he said, "they controlled the trade union movement, and within seven days they controlled the country." Attorney General Robert Kennedy told a 1961 press conference, "Communist espionage here in this country is more active than it has ever been." (There had been none to speak of since World War II.) Army recruits saw films like Red Nightmare, narrated by Jack Webb, which depicted an ersatz American town deep within the Soviet interior where spies were supposedly training in indigenous American arts like sipping sodas at drugstore fountains in order to infiltrate the United States.

You could no less avoid breathing in a bit of paranoia in Cold War America, in fact, than you could soot in Charles Dickens's Manchester. Did Birchers and their ideological cognates claim that dangerous "fallout" from nuclear testing was a hoax? So did the Atomic Energy Commission, all through the 1950s. And it was the "discoveries" of the CIA chief of counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, not Robert Welch, that a KGB "Master Plan" allowed no Soviet to defect to the United States except as a KGB double agent (thus bona fide Soviet defectors were often kept naked in isolation in a brightly lit room and had to submit to cruel three-year interrogations to force them to give up their KGB secrets).

It shouldn't have been surprising that the John Birch Society was able to win a membership in the tens of thousands in an officially encouraged atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
Sure, sure, that's not the only reason the group had tens of thousands of members (nor does it excuse their behavior, etc.), but... it's a fair point.
-- Brad Plumer 11:33 PM || ||
Corporations or People?

Damned if I know what to think of Robert Reich's new book, Supercapitalism. You can read Robert Frank's Times review here; I'm too lazy to summarize it. The real fun comes in a few pages toward the end, when Reich (briefly) lists some ideas for dealing with modern-day corporations.

His bottom line: Corporations aren't people and shouldn't be treated like people. So they shouldn't be taxed (because the corporate income tax is inefficient and inequitable) or held criminally liable for wrongdoing (because it's unfair to make everyone in the company suffer for the crimes of a few—note that many low-level Arthur Andersen employees are still out of work). But, Reich says, companies should still be fined for wrongdoing—um, like people?—since shareholders shouldn't profit off illegal deeds. As I understand it, many experts also think civil liability is actually a more effective tool for dealing with—and deterring—corporate crime, although I can't really say.

The more radical part of Reich's analysis is that, because they're not people, corporations shouldn't be allowed to challenge laws and regulations in court—that should be left solely to investors, consumers, or employees. Now that's interesting, and would avoid bizarre situations like that in California, where global automakers sued to block the state's tailpipe-emissions law in 2005, even though a large number of the interested shareholders were foreigners. For that matter, Reich also argues that shareholders of a corporation shouldn't be forced subsidize political activities they oppose.

I don't know what the net effect of all these changes would be (large? small?), but it seems like they'd require constitutional amendments, at minimum. Reich is more persuasive when he talks about the limits of "corporate responsibility." After all, if companies aren't people, it's hard to expect them to do the "right" thing. That basic argument can be found in this essay, but Reich adds plenty of instances in which corporations say they'll do good (Nike and sweatshops) but the problem still persists (New Balance swaggers in with sweatshops of its own). Congress has a habit of holding hearings to berate corporations that misbehave, but then rarely follows up with laws or regulations that actually fix the problem.

P.S. More broadly, Reich offers a non-conspiratorial version of the "decline and fall" narrative that's central to all liberal books on domestic economic policy—namely, how the United States went from the mostly good ol' days of the 1960s (low inequality, strong unions, economic security for the middle class) to where we are today. He doesn't blame right-wing economic policies per se, but argues that they were an inevitable outgrowth of an economy being transformed by competitive pressures that benefited consumers and investors. Unlike Krugman's book, he barely discusses race at all.

There's some straw being torched here. Few liberals believe the economy would still look like it did in the 1960s—when cozy corporate oligopolies faced few competitive or investor pressures, and could afford to pay high wages and (mostly) play nice with unions—if not for Goldwater and Reagan. Yet Reich seems to spend a lot of pages rebutting that notion. But look, there's still the question of why the United States doesn't have a European-style welfare state and/or stronger unions to soften the edges of an increasingly investor- and consumer-centric global economy. Right-wing policies—and race—do play a role in that story. Still, the book's a very worthwhile read.
-- Brad Plumer 8:17 PM || ||
Drought and Out

It's kind of talking-pointy, but Daniel Weiss and Zoe Brown have a nice analysis of the ongoing droughts in both the Southeast and Southwest. Beyond flogging the usual (sensible!) conservation measures, they also make the good point that energy use is a major culprit here:
Power plants are voracious water users. Nuclear plants use 830 gallons of water per megawatt hour, and coal plants are right behind at 750 gallons per megawatt hour. If current power generation and energy demand trends continue, power plants will use 7.3 billion gallons a day by 2030. The Department of Energy reports that this equals all U.S. water consumption a decade ago.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught on to this a few weeks ago, arguing that, seeing as how Atlanta's Lake Lanier is drying up, maybe it wasn't such a keen idea for the state to grant permits for a new coal plant that will consume "nearly 20 million gallons of water a day" from the Chattahoochee River, "putting an additional strain on metro Atlanta's major source of drinking water." (There's also that whole global warming thing, which is only going to dry out the region further.)

Conversely, wind and solar power use very little water. But many states in the Southeast have strongly opposed renewable energy mandates—claiming that they can't live without coal. Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue commissioned an energy task force last year that, in the end, recommended an aggressive push toward renewable power, but that proposal's gathering dust in a filing cabinet somewhere. I wonder, though—if the AJC's any indication—if the water crisis could finally prompt folks to rethink their energy stance. (Okay, more likely, they'll conjure up a way to cool power plants without using so much water, but one can always hope...)
-- Brad Plumer 1:46 PM || ||
The NRLB Gets Busy

A math problem: The National Labor Relations Board has a one-vote GOP majority. The terms of two (2) Republicans and one (1) Democrat are set to expire at the end of the year. So just how many anti-labor rulings can the NRLB crank out before the deadline?

Let's see... carry the one... add the two... Ah. Answer: 61 and counting. Greg Tarpinian runs down some of the biggest decisions. There's a ruling that makes card-check elections more difficult, a ruling that makes it easier for workers to get rid of their union (employers will never abuse that one, scout's honor), and two rulings making it harder for illegally fired workers to get back pay. There's also a new rule that lets employers lay off union supporters during an organizing drive and then force them to sign release forms, preventing further legal challenges.

On the sunny side, the Senate can, in theory, refuse to confirm any new Bush appointees to the NRLB, which would give the board a one-vote Democratic majority until after the next election. Unless, of course, the president decides to make recess appointments...
-- Brad Plumer 12:16 PM || ||

November 11, 2007

Mmm... Jellyfish...

Raffi Khatchadourian has an engrossing New Yorker profile of Paul Watson, a green activist who roams the ocean in a rusty North Sea ocean trawler, looking for whaling ships to harass and, if necessary, ram. There's a smart aside about how it wasn't until the mid-1990s that fisheries scientists fully grasped the scale of the damage over-fishing has done to the ocean. Plus this dystopian vision:
When Pauly and others took a longer view, they noticed another worrying trend. Humanity had been eating its way down the ocean’s food web; as large marine predators became scarce, people developed a taste for smaller and smaller fish. Animals that were once used for bait or that were considered worthless (hagfish, sea cucumber) were later taken in large quantities for human consumption.

"Bait thirty years ago was calamari," Pauly told me. "Now it is served in a restaurant. It is very nice. But it was bait before." Future generations, Pauly predicts, only half in jest, will grow up on jellyfish sandwiches.
Yum. Meanwhile, Japan, which scarfs down a quarter of the world's tuna catch, has agreed to reduce its fishing quotas for southern bluefin tuna and Atlantic bluefin—the fish used in sushi—because stocks are being depleted. It's not clear how strictly the fishing limits will be obeyed, though: Apparently, fisherman caught twice their legal quota of bluefin tuna in European waters this year. It's probably only a matter of time before bluefin goes extinct altogether, and we really do have to eat jellyfish sushi. The Times did a "light" piece a while back about the rise of deer-meat sushi, although the ravaging of the oceans is fairly unnerving.

P.S. I seem to recall reading somewhere that, waaaay back in the olden days, Japanese cooks didn't really use tuna in sushi—they preferred mackerel and snapper—and that tuna-mania was a twentieth-century invention, spurred during the U.S. occupation by soldiers who preferred fatty "red meat." But nowadays you read passages like this: "Without a sizeable slab of rich red flesh on prominent display, a sushi restaurant in [Japan] loses face—and customers."

P.P.S. In comments, Randy Paul points out that it's too late, our jelly fish future has already arrived.
-- Brad Plumer 11:31 PM || ||
Poor Defense

Richard Posner, the U.S. circuit court judge, once pointed out that public defenders are overworked and under-funded—but then went on to say that he didn't necessarily consider this a bad thing:
I can confirm from my own experience as a judge that indigent defendants are generally rather poorly represented. ... If we are to be hardheaded we must recognize that this may not be entirely a bad thing.

The lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants seem to be good enough to reduce the probability of convicting an innocent person to a very low level. If they were much better, either many guilty people would be acquitted or society would have to devote much greater resources to the prosecution of criminal cases. A barebones system for the defense of indigent criminal defendants may be optimal.
Now, I don't think the odds of convicting innocent people are "very low" in the U.S. justice system, though that might be a subjective judgment. But I'd always assumed that support for a "barebones system for the defense of indigent criminal defendants" was the prevailing view on the right. So it's nice to see that Radley Balko has a terrific, though not-online, Reason essay—discussing a new book on public defenders in Illinois—in which he argues against Posner and in favor of boosting state resources for poor defendants. (And how often do you expect libertarians to support greater spending for the poor?)

The disparities are striking. Prosecutors' budgets dwarf public defense budgets by about 2.5 to 1, and public defenders and court-appointed attorneys don't always have access to forensic experts or private investigators (nor do courts have to provide them). The fact that prosecutors usually have superior firepower, and can threaten mandatory minimum sentences if the case goes to trial, has given over-matched defense lawyers very high incentives to push for guilty pleas and "slough off burdensome caseloads." As Balko notes, a scant 1 percent of felony cases in Texas even make it to court, a level that's almost certainly too low.

I do wish, though, that there's been more discussion of the fact that public representation for the poor at the state level varies so widely from county to county. Some counties establish a state-run public defenders' office, some contract out the work to private law firms, and some pay individual lawyers by the hour to take court-appointed cases—as is the case in most of Massachusetts. My understanding is that the latter two set-ups create the starkest inequities, although I'd be curious to know more. (Public defenders' offices, after all, are hardly free of problems—see this investigation of Santa Clara county's justice system for a glaring example.)

David Feige wrote a great Slate piece in 2004 about how Massachusetts's hourly billing system created perverse incentives for court-appointed private lawyers to "load up on cases, plead out as many as possible as quickly as possible, submit a bill, and call it a day." Feige argued that dedicated public defender offices are a better alternative, and I think I agree. The obvious argument is that public defenders have more experience with criminal work, and are better able to lobby for more funding and lower caseloads (though not always successfully). Balko doesn't weigh in on this question, although his broader point about the need for more resources, regardless of the set-up, is well-taken.

P.S. Since I couldn't find Balko's review online, I'll compensate by linking to this great piece he did on the news that Schwarzenegger just vetoed a modest criminal-justice reform bill in California. That bill would've forced prosecutors to corroborate testimony from jailhouse "snitches," mandated the videotaping of police interrogations in certain cases, and established guidelines for eyewitness testimony. Suffice to say, none of these reforms should've been nixed.
-- Brad Plumer 4:53 PM || ||
Here Come the Weather-Makers

Eli Kintisch has an eyebrow-raising scoop over at Science's website. This past week, a group of 50 top climate scientists met, behind closed doors, to discuss the possibility of geo-engineering as a way to stave off global warming. Mysteriously, only three publications were allowed to attend (Science, Nature, and The New York Times). And the results... weren't what anyone expected.

Most scientists have long dismissed geo-engineering schemes as crazy and dangerous—ideas like putting aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet, or modifying the ocean's albedo. The climate, after all, is very complex, trying to meddle with it further could really muck things up, and even talking about this stuff might divert attention away from the task of curbing CO2 emissions. But now, according to Kintisch, a growing number of climate scientists are so spooked by global warming, and the fact that most nations aren't doing enough to prevent it, that they've decided it would be crazy and dangerous not to look into geo-engineering.

The best overviews I've seen on this issue are this Boston Globe article and this Wilson Quarterly piece. But just to pile on: It's worth noting that no one has yet come up with an even halfway plausible geo-engineering plan. The most promising idea to date—injecting sulfuric dust into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight—suffered a blow after two University of Colorado scientists pointed out that it could wreak havoc on global rainfall patterns. More research would be fantastic, but it'd be insane for the world to sit around and wait for geo-engineering to save us, only to discover that, 20 years hence, none of these wacky plans have made it past the bong-cloud stage, and we're still on our present, carbon-belching energy path.

There's also the question of who would control the weather. Cloud-seeding in the United States has led to all sorts of lawsuits from farmers complaining about stolen rain. Chinese cities experimenting with this stuff have been warring over "cloud theft." The U.S. Air Force has drafted a report, "Weather as a Force Multiplier," discussing ways to use weather-modification as a weapon. If someone does come up with a way to cool the earth—say, giant space mirrors—there would be all sorts of tricky debates about who decides how it's used. It's hard to imagine that the international talks over that would be any less difficult than reaching an agreement on reducing carbon emissions.
-- Brad Plumer 6:55 AM || ||

November 07, 2007

Buckets of Cash

Both the Center for Public Integrity and Spencer Ackerman point out that Musharraf's government in Pakistan has received some $10 billion in U.S. aid since 2001, and no one really knows where it's going. Most of that money—around $6 billion to date—flows through a Defense Department program, the Coalition Support Funds (CSF), which was set up after September 11 to "reimburse" countries for various counterterrorism activities. Unlike most aid programs, this one gets little congressional oversight. According to CPI, Pakistan gets the vast, vast bulk of CSF funds. (Jordan gets a fair bit, too.)

"With the possible exception of Iraq reconstruction funds, I've never seen a larger blank check for any country than for the Pakistan CSF program," one veteran Senate staffer told CPI. All the Pakistani government has to do in exchange is tell the administration, behind closed doors, how it plans to spend the money. Wink, wink. At one point in 2003, the Pentagon forked over $195 million and simply told Congress, "This estimate is based on anticipated support that will be provided by Pakistan." That's all. Not much auditing. And the military, not "the people," seem to be getting most of the money. As Spencer notes, given that the Pakistani military is known for rampant corruption, that's a bit of a problem.

It's worth poking around CPI's broader investigation of post-9/11 U.S. military aid. Poor oversight seems to be fairly common, and not just with Pakistan. U.S. foreign-military training programs, for instance, are supposed to be monitored to make sure that we're not training and equipping folks who have committed "gross violations" of human rights. But a 2005 GAO report found that the vetting is often lax, discovering some 7,000 trainees who hadn't been vetted, including 32 from one notorious Indonesian special forces unit that had been specifically barred from receiving State Department funding because of it's human rights record. Pakistan, though, seems to be the biggest story here.

P.S. Can't say I know much about what's going on in Pakistan, but Stephen Cohen's short essay here was fairly informative, as was the polling data Hilzoy presented here, in addition to the stuff everyone else already linked to.
-- Brad Plumer 8:00 PM || ||
Once a Boondoggle...

Seeing as how I'm too young to remember any of this, I'll just have to trust Jack Hitt's account of why Newt Gingrich decided to revive missile defense in the mid-1990s, after the program had been mocked to near-death in the 1980s:
[T]here was a time, not so long ago, when it was hard to come up with a good, intimidating national-security issue. Gingrich believed that the Democrats' skepticism of missile defense would serve as the key issue to flip the White House in 1996. Missile defense failed that test—but it didn't matter. The shield had been reborn as a hot-blooded, Republican-versus-Democrat wedge issue.
A wedge issue, mind you, whose annual bill comes to $11 billion—"a sum almost four times larger than the U.S. government's total spending on energy research." And, as Hitt documents in his piece, it's still very much a boondoggle. George W. Bush's chief contribution to said boondoggle, it turns out, was to order the Defense Department, back in 2002, to stop doing so many tests and just deploy the thing already. Suffice to say, that hasn't turned out well. In any case, plenty of scientists think the system will never work (and, even if it does, won't be worth the cost), but I thought this passage got at the darker heart of the matter:
Missile defense exists in a world of its own. It has a special budget process that exempts it from most congressional oversight, and it is pioneering a new acquisitions process that redefines the very nature of what constitutes a "threat." The system has a separate definition to denote what it means for a weapon to "work" and even what it means to "know" something to be true. The shield operates beyond the world of empirical testing, and outside the four service branches of the U.S. military. ...

It is America's Pyramid of Giza, our Colossus of Rhodes, our Great Wall—an infinitely advancing "system of systems" that, by the Pentagon's own description, can never be completed. It both works (in part or in theory) and does not work (as a whole or in practice). There is not, and never will be, a finished product. In time, the shield will shroud America and her allies, and a perpetual commitment to its everlasting need for further refinements and add-ons will be required to keep it functioning.
The italicized sentence seems spot-on. Back in 1995, the intelligence community declared that there wasn't any immediate need for missile defense, because no countries would be able to threaten the United States with ballistic missiles for at least 15 years. Wrong answer. So Republicans in Congress set up a commission, led by Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, to draw up a new threat assessment, based not just on "likely" threats, but on "possible" threats. Maybe a country with Scud technology could convert that into ICBM capability. Maybe Venezuela will threaten us with missiles. And so on.

Obviously, once you start thinking this way, missile defense can expand forever. Hitt meets with missile-defense contractors who give presentations on how to adapt the program to defend against possible space aliens. Sure, why not? Aliens, Venezuela, it's a dangerous world out there. And if there aren't enough enemies, we can make new ones. Not to mention the fact that missile defense can spur other countries to expand and modernize their arsenals, since that's the easiest way to beat the system. Indeed, apart from enriching contractors, undermining arms-control treaties seems to be the only thing missile defense has actually accomplished.

Just think, for a quarter of the cost we could have doubled what the government spends on energy research. Ah, but that would be wasteful, Republicans might say. After all, the consequences of global warming are pretty uncertain.
-- Brad Plumer 7:47 PM || ||
Now That's Dirty

In case anyone was wondering just how ugly the climate policy debate could get in the coming months and years, here's one hint. Last month, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment denied air-quality permits to two proposed coal-burning plants because of concerns about CO2 emissions. It was the first time permits had ever been denied for those reasons.

Well, the coal industry didn't like that one bit, and, this week, a group called Kansans for Affordable Energy—which is partly funded by Peabody Coal Company and by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. (i.e., the company whose permits were denied)—ran this ad in newspapers across Kansas:

Nasty and misleading. Nice. By the way, Peabody Coal—the world's biggest coal company—is playing an interesting role here. Unlike Exxon, which had an about-face on global warming last year and pledged to stop funding a few (though not all) denier groups, Peabody hasn't softened its stance on climate change one bit. Its CEO, Gregory Boyce, still dismisses all talk of global warming, and told BusinessWeek that the coal industry doesn't need to change or adapt to the inevitable crackdown on carbon emissions. Indeed, at this point, Peabody's main strategy appears to be a) persuading the Air Force (and Congress!) to massively subsidize liquid coal fuel technology—a disaster from a climate change perspective—and b) declaring that critics of coal are objectively pro-terror.

P.S. I've written about this before, but achieving "energy security" isn't necessarily the same thing, obviously, as dealing with climate change (since the former can, in theory, be met by using lots of coal, liquefied coal fuels, drilling in the Alberta tar sands, etc.) The Kansas ads are a rather nasty example of the former being used as a cudgel against the latter, which is something to watch closely.
-- Brad Plumer 1:56 PM || ||
Slow Trot for the Cure

Will anyone ever develop an AIDS vaccine? On some level, it looks doubtful (not least because the virus mutates so quickly), and yet a sizeable chunk of the world's $10 billion in AIDS spending each year goes to finding a cure. Increasingly, though, scientists and doctors are saying we should put less hope in a technological fix and spend more of that money on proven, low-tech strategies like circumcision, sexual monogamy, and birth control. Also, the vaccine trials are becoming horrifying:
Among a group of nearly 700 subjects worldwide who received two doses of the vaccine, 19 became infected with HIV, compared with 11 for a similarly sized group that received placebos. The finding alarmed some scientists and underscored the tricky ethics of using human subjects to test potential remedies for incurable diseases.

South African researchers last week began warning hundreds of volunteer test subjects that the vaccine might actually have increased their risk of contracting HIV.

Two trials for microbicides—gels that women insert into their vaginas to prevent infections—also ended when more women using the experimental substance became infected with HIV than those using placebos. Scientists theorize that vaginal irritation caused by these products may have made it easier, not harder, for the virus to infect women. A study of whether diaphragms might inhibit HIV found that they were also ineffective.

"It's been an appalling year for the biologists," said Francois Venter, president of the Southern African HIV Clinicians Society.
Then again, as William Easterly explained in his review of Helen Epstein's new book, The Invisible Cure, Western aid organizations haven't exactly done a bang-up job of promoting "proven, low-tech strategies," either. Uganda had great success with its ABC strategy—"Abstain, Be Faithful, and Use Condoms"—but religious groups loathed the condom part of that campaign, and NGOs were lukewarm about the "Be Faithful" aspect. (After all, family-planning groups are happy to flood African countries with condoms—an activity that attracts donors and aid money—but there's no large bureaucracy supporting a "Zero Grazing" campaign.)

Easterly jokes, bleakly, that most NGOs have their own ABC strategy—antiretroviral drugs, bureaucracy, and consultants. Most AIDS money gets spent on treatment rather than prevention (although the Bush administration has lavished tidy sums on useless abstinence campaigns). One U.S. ambassador to South Africa recently told groups receiving AIDS funding that they should cut back on prevention rather than treatment during budget crunches, noting: "Our priority must be delivery of treatment services." Only problem: ARVs are expensive, not nearly as cost-effective as prevention, and will never be able to reach everyone.

Now, I'm generally not as sour as Easterly about foreign aid, but he makes a solid case here. He's especially scathing toward Western consultants who swoop in to implement their own AIDS programs, but ignore homegrown efforts (as when a Christian group, Hope Worldwide, came into South Africa to do work with AIDS orphans but utterly neglected an already existing, and mildly successful, orphanage). That's Epstein's message, too: "[O]ur greatest mistake may have been to overlook the fact that, in spite of everything, African people often know best how to solve their own problems." It's a point worth heeding, especially since AIDS funding is exploding, and the potential to compound past mistakes seems very, very large.

P.S. By the way, Epstein's advice sounds sturdy, but it's also different from saying that all countries can take care of themselves. For instance, this recent paper by Evan Lieberman found that countries that are ethnically divided and fragmented (as many African countries are) are far, far less likely to pursue aggressive AIDS policies, for a variety of reasons—various ethnic groups are more likely to fear stigmatization; elites are more likely to blame only certain groups, or downplay the threat, and so on.
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 AM || ||

November 05, 2007

Clinton, Climate, Again

Dave Roberts has more nits to pick with Hillary Clinton's energy policy here, but still gives her plan an "A" overall. That seems about right. There are lots of things I'd quibble with, too—the fact that Clinton's only proposing to spend $1 billion a year to bolster public transportation and pays scant attention to land-use issues—but Congress is going to fiddle with these secondary details anyway. It seems to me that the broader goals are what's important for a presidential campaign platform, and Clinton's laid down all the right markers.

The main thing that might distinguish Clinton from Obama and Edwards on this front is that she's a lot cozier with corporate lobbyists, which, I suppose, could make it more likely that she'll be less vigilant about pointless industry handouts and giveaways when it comes time to put together legislation. Maybe there's not a huge gulf between the candidates in that regard. Either way, that seems more important in the grand scheme of things than a side-by-side comparison of the little bells and whistles in each of the candidates' campaign planks.
-- Brad Plumer 5:16 PM || ||
Climate Plans Galore

So... Hillary Clinton released her climate and energy plan, which can be read in full here. The broad outlines are just as audacious as what Edwards and Obama have proposed: She'd aim to curb U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050—a goal urged by a growing number of scientists and green groups—through a cap-and-trade regime, with the pollution permits auctioned off rather than given away for free. That last bit is a key design point (see here for a handy explanation), and would help avoid some of the problems plaguing Europe's emissions-trading system. A good step all around.

You know, looking this thing over, it's hard to agree with folks like Ted Nordhaus and William Shellenberger that environmentalists have lost their way in recent years. After all, a few years back, an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and 100 percent auction of pollution permits was considered a fringe position on energy policy. Now all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates are advocating just that. It's a seismic shift by any measure.

P.S.: Okay, one criticism: It'd be nice if this plan included stronger measures to ease the burden on low-income households (along the lines of what Obama has proposed). As Robert Greenstein recently told Congress, even a modest reduction in emissions could, potentially, raise energy bills for the bottom 20 percent of households by $750-$950 a year. The sort of home-efficiency and weatherization programs Clinton is proposing would help mitigate that, but those take time to implement. Alternatively, argues Greenstein, with just 15 percent of the revenue generated by auctioning off pollution permits, policymakers could offset the higher energy costs for low- and middle-income Americans through tax credits or rebates—and still have plenty of money left over to fund public transportation, R&D, and whatnot.
-- Brad Plumer 4:58 PM || ||
Japan's Aging Prisoners

Social scientists frequently argue that people become less likely to commit crimes as they get older (though I wonder if white-collar crime is an exception). So it's strange to read, in The New York Times, that "Japan is confronting a sharp increase in the number of older criminals and prisoners." The U.S. prison population is aging, too, but mostly because of our long mandatory sentences. In Japan, the increase is being driven by an uptick in (mostly nonviolent) crime among the 65-and-up crowd:
A recent Justice Ministry report said that older people were increasingly turning to crime out of poverty and isolation, suggesting a breakdown in traditional family and community ties. With nowhere else to go, more of the older inmates serve out their full sentences, instead of being released on parole like younger prisoners. What is more, recidivism is higher among the older inmates.
There was an earlier Times piece documenting the stinginess of the Japanese welfare state, especially for the elderly, which explains a lot. As for recidivism, there's the fact that Japan tends to have an "unforgiving attitude" toward ex-convicts: "Relatives usually sever ties, so many inmates never receive visitors. In addition, welfare benefits are difficult to obtain; nursing homes are scarce and not a viable option for ex-convicts." They can't find work, can't afford rent, and frequently end up back in prison sooner or later. Come to think of it, the story isn't so different here in the United States.
-- Brad Plumer 4:55 PM || ||

November 03, 2007

The Gunbelt

In the middle of an interview with Truthdig, former assistant secretary of defense Philip Coyle had a few words to say about how the military-industrial complex feeds and sustains itself:
Harris: What are you doing to either defeat this spending mentality or work within the system to change some of these things?

Coyle: Well, it’s very difficult, of course. Some defense programs, some defense procurements, spend money in every single state of the union. One of the displays that the U.S. Congress can get from the Pentagon is where exactly all the money is being spent on each particular program. And so sometimes this means jobs all across the country that makes it very difficult to attack.

Scheer: And the companies do that on purpose. I’ve talked to a lot of people on this whole subject and companies will make, as they say, the F-22 or the B-2 or one of those planes, wingtips, will be made in a state to guarantee jobs and to guarantee votes, right?

Coyle: Yes, they will, and of course once a factory or a plant is established in some city or town or state, the people there don’t want to lose it.
That isn't terribly jaw-dropping, but it's remarkable that a former top Pentagon official laid it all out like that. I guess I never realized that contractors themselves—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the like—consciously tried to spread out projects in as many districts as possible to insure congressional support, but it makes all the sense in the world.

On an only slightly unrelated note, I've been skimming through The Rise of the Gunbelt, a 1991 book by Ann Markusen et. al., and it's pretty fascinating. The basic storyline here is that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, military production was, of course, concentrated in the old industrial heartland—the airline industry, for instance, grew up near the Great Lakes, around Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Dayton.

But after World War II, a brand new "gunbelt" arose along the continental rim of the United States. The big winners, sprouting up at different periods, were Seattle, the Los Angeles basin, Colorado springs, the greater D.C. area, and New England, along with the Sunbelt, Texas, Silicon Valley, and so forth. This change came gradually, as the cold war boosted Pentagon budgets and put a greater emphasis on air power, missiles, electronic warfare, SDI, and so on. There was also the fact that the Air Force adopted a contractor-based production system, as opposed to the Army's old in-house arsenal system.

The question is why certain areas became part of the "gunbelt" and not others. Aerospace entrepreneurs like William Boeing in Seattle, or the military boosterism of The Los Angeles Times were important, but so was the fact that some regions had lots of military retirees (Colorado Springs) or engineers (New England). The military tried to steer dollars away from areas where there was a competing civilian economy—which, it seems, is why the Midwest lost out—and to areas politically favorable to military activities. Surprisingly, the authors conclude that Congress had relatively little to do with where Pentagon money was steered. Watching John Murtha create a defense-contracting metropolis in his hometown of Johnstown, I doubt that's still true today.

Sadly, when it comes time to ask what secondary effects all this central planning had on the country—besides totally remapping industrial America—the book gets disappointingly brief. Income inequality, wasteful duplication of infrastructure, a boost in pro-military politics and militarism are the main negative consequences mentioned. I'd add that there's evidence that government spending could create more jobs if it went toward non-military purposes. Obviously there's some R&D spillover, but relatively little, given the sums involved. James Galbraith recently showed that the rise in inequality in the Bush years has been mainly concentrated in areas getting rich from military contracts. No doubt there's more.
-- Brad Plumer 10:28 PM || ||
Echo Chambers

It's not exactly a rigorous statistical analysis or anything, but Cass Sunstein finds an intriguing pattern in the federal courts of appeals:
A few years ago, I asked a research assistant of mine who had nothing to do that week to look at some environmental cases to see how Republican appointees vote, depending on whether they are sitting with two Republican appointees or at least one Democratic appointee. If we construct something like Colorado Springs, Bush country, on the federal judiciary, just by looking at RRR panels, how do RRR panels look in environmental cases compared to how they look when it's mixed?

She collected about 40 or 50 votes. We didn't have enough to do statistical tests, but we did have enough to be startled, to find that Rs, Republican appointees, show very conservative voting patterns on the federal courts when they are sitting with two other Rs. In a case in which the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council is suing the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to get it to do more, Rs on our panels vote for them about 20 percent of the time. Rs are much more likely to vote for them—environmental groups—when there is at least one D present. The divergence is very dramatic.
This makes plenty of intuitive sense—putting just one Democratic appointee on a panel would likely make the other judges just a wee bit more liberal (or at least prevent a panel of all Republicans from becoming even more conservative in their views through the echo chamber effect), and vice versa. Except then this train goes off the rails: Sunstein later says this pattern doesn't hold for the Sixth Circuit court of appeals. His explanation: "[O]n the Sixth Circuit, the Democratic appointees and Republican appointees hate each other. They don't listen." But why on earth would that be the case?
-- Brad Plumer 3:23 PM || ||

November 02, 2007

Compare and Contrast

From the department of curious graphs: Zubin Jelvah reports that economists have devised a new method for comparing economic inequality across different historical eras. The United States today turns out to be more unequal than the early Roman Empire, though the gulf isn't quite as wide as nineteenth-century England (yet):

There's plenty more in the post itself, including the point that modern nations aren't nearly as unequal as they could be, whereas pre-industrial nations tended to reach their maximum "potential" for inequality. Not sure how useful this all is, though: Surely 19th century China only looks relatively "equal" because it had hundreds of millions of peasants and an extremely tiny (in comparison) ruling class, right?
-- Brad Plumer 4:22 PM || ||
Victory, Reconciliation, All That...

I don't follow this super-closely, but it seems like a growing number of conservatives have basically declared victory in Iraq. See, for instance, Andrew Bolt today: "Iraq not only remains a democracy, but shows no sign of collapse. I repeat: the battle for a free Iraq has been won." That would, obviously, be good news if true, but is it even true?

Well, let's see. The Los Angeles Times took a long look at the decline in casualties over the past few months. Some military commanders say it's proof General Petraeus's strategy is working. Other evidence suggests that violence is dropping because the sectarian cleansing of various Baghdad neighborhoods is largely complete. (Yesterday, GAO officials told Congress that this might indeed be the case.) An ABC News report partly attributes the decline in violence to a lockdown that can't last forever: "Across the city Sunnis and Shiites live in sectarian enclaves, many walled off." And there are still four million Iraqi refugees, who constitute a crisis in their own right.

So where does that leave us? Everyone and their mother knows by now that the whole point of the surge was to facilitate some sort of political reconciliation so that when the U.S. military is finally forced to draw down—for logistical reasons, the surge can't go on forever—violence doesn't flare up again. The latest GAO report on Iraq suggests that the United States lacks a clear strategy for making that happen—or any clear strategy at all for Iraq. Is the GAO wrong here? I suppose we'll see what happens when the military pulls back from Diyala Province next month.

A few more links: Ilan Goldenberg rounds up evidence that reconciliation isn't happening (and that it's still possible that the recent U.S. alliances with the Sunnis, Mahdi Army, etc. amount to arming various sides of a coming civil war). Spencer Ackerman highlighted some of the more hopeful signs of political progress (setting aside what's going on with Turkey and the Kurds). Marc Lynch wrote a post arguing that Iraq appears to be degenerating into a warlord state, and the United States doesn't have a long-term plan for altering this state of affairs—only short-term tactics for reducing violence here and there (which, of course, makes it very unclear why we should stay). If anyone has a better sense for where things are heading, by all means, chime in.

Update: See also this. Colonel Martin Stanton, the U.S. military official overseeing reconciliation efforts in Iraq, told reporters that a) there hasn't been a whole lot of progress on the reconciliation front, and b) b) if progress doesn't happen real soon, a great many Sunnis could decide to join the insurgency again...
-- Brad Plumer 3:23 PM || ||
The War on Fraud

In a long American Lawyer investigation, Daphne Eviatar uncovers some curious facts about the Justice Department's Corporate Fraud Task Force, which was formed back in 2002, amid the Enron and WorldCom debacles. Get this: Between 2002 and 2005, federal prosecutors brought some 357 indictments in major corporate fraud cases. But, after Bush's re-election, that trickled to a scant 14 "significant" indictments in 2006 and then only 12 in 2007.

What gives? Justice Department officials say, well, we've licked corporate fraud once and for all: "We do believe that the success of the Corporate Fraud Task Force, in conjunction with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is making it more likely that fraud is being detected by corporations themselves." The alternative take is that the DOJ simply isn't trying as hard any more. In recent years, the Justice Department has established a bunch of other task forces—to go after, say, Hurricane Katrina-related fraud, or pornography—that may have sucked up resources. (See also a similar shift in focus at the FBI.)

No surprise, I'd probably bet on the second theory, but the American Lawyer piece never really settles the question. There are some other interesting tidbits, though: Apparently, the task force's main role, especially in the early days, was simply to badger local U.S. Attorney's Offices into prosecuting corporate fraud cases at a faster rate. "Go, go, go!" But the Justice Department didn't necessarily provide those attorneys any additional resources or manpower to investigate complex cases—the DOJ mostly just showed up at press conferences to mug for the cameras.

What's more, the rush to prosecute led to some shoddy cases and questionable tactics, leading to several reversals—as when a judge dismissed indictments against 13 KPMG executives last year, citing "intolerable" prosecutorial abuses. But the DOJ won't release acquittal or conviction rates, so it's hard to tell how widespread this sort of thing is. At this point, though, I lose the plot and can't figure out how effective the earlier crackdown was, or whether liberals should support hyper-aggressive prosecutorial tactics against corporations, or why convictions have slowed, or what. Obviously my instincts are to agree with this quick take at Daily Kos, but I honestly don't know for sure.
-- Brad Plumer 12:19 PM || ||
Street Crime or Terrorism?

Random story of the day: Edgar Morales, the first gang member charged under New York state's counterterrorism law, was found guilty of manslaughter and a whole bunch of other crimes. The terrorism statute bumps up the penalties for each charge considerably. The Times has quotes from civil-liberties types who think it's awfully reckless to use terrorism statutes for ordinary street crime. Also reckless is the way the law was initially passed:
Adopted by the legislature six days after 9/11 with almost no debate, the law was initially viewed as a symbolic gesture because tougher federal terrorism laws already existed. In fact, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver commented at the time that he didn't think there would ever be a prosecution under the state law, saying he voted for it more as a show of legislative solidarity in a time of crisis.
That's nice of them. By the way, the Village Voice's earlier coverage made the whole case seem awfully fishy. Immediately after the original shooting of two bystanders, Morales was charged only with trespassing and tampering with evidence. Later on, one of the other gang members who was present at the shooting but had then fled the country, Enrique Sanchez, was arrested, pleaded guilty, and then agreed to cooperate with prosecutors by testifying against Morales. (Sanchez may have been ordered to come back and "take the fall" by the actual shooter, who threatened Sanchez's family in Mexico, although that's unclear.)

So, a year and a half later, the two guys who were originally suspected of doing the shooting still couldn't be found, and the prosecution then decided to use Sanchez's statements and go after Morales. That, I guess, is the backdrop for this weird passage at the end of today's Times piece: "Though jurors said they did not believe portions of Mr. Sanchez’s testimony, they blamed Mr. Morales for not leaving once he felt that a shooting would take place." Um, okay... And yeah, yeah, without knowing more, it's probably pointless to second-guess the jury, and yes, the stories about the gang itself are horrific, but, still, that's odd. What do I know, though.
-- Brad Plumer 12:59 AM || ||