February 03, 2008

Going Undercover

The New York Times offers some pointers for anyone thinking about becoming an undercover police officer:
Being a good undercover officer takes a certain type of person. You must be an impeccable actor, a chameleon who can blend seamlessly into easily combustible situations, coolly stare your target in the eye and lie. You have to know the street lingo for drugs, like red top or blue top for different vials of cocaine.

You have to look the part, wear the right clothes, and have a good back story. If you say you are a mechanic, you’d better know cars, because chances are that the dealer will too. Many undercover narcotics officers use props. They might push shopping carts filled with soda cans in plastic bags, aping a homeless person, and twitch like an addict.

They might bring along a basketball, saying they are coming back from the courts and itching to score on the way home. If they are buying crack, they have to produce a crack pipe, or “stem,” and it has to look used.

If the dealer insists that they test the goods before they buy, that they take a hit off a crack pipe or a snort of cocaine, undercover officers are supposed to resist unless the situation is dire, unless they have a gun to their heads. And if they are they are forced to take the drugs, they must report it to their unit, and undergo a medical evaluation. And if they are forced to ingest more than once, they will almost certainly be taken off of the streets.
There's also—and this is the point of the piece—the temptation for corruption. Looking around for more info, I came across this website (which may look amateurish, but hey, it does cite scholarly sources...), which offers even more advice on getting started: "A typical pattern is to bring the undercover officer in as an acquaintance, business associate, or girlfriend/boyfriend of an informant, and then to distance themselves from that informant." All good advice, no doubt.

To nudge this all in a more serious direction, this follow-up Times story on the issues that arise when police rely too heavily on informants is great: "Petty crime is often tolerated in exchange for information. Detectives can be duped by an informant's agenda. While cases of corruption are rare, it is fairly common to have more 'give' in this delicate give-and-take." Ethan Brown runs down more problems here, noting that the rise of mandatory minimums and the power of judges to reduce sentences for "snitches" gives defendants overwhelming incentives to lie, especially in drug cases. It's hard to quantify how often such lying occurs, but one study found that 46 percent of wrongful death-penalty convictions involved informants saying untrue things.

Update: Actually, Alexandra Napatoff's Slate essay from 2005 is an even better overview of this topic: "The backlash against snitches embodies a growing national recognition that snitching is dangerous public policy—producing bad information, endangering innocent people, letting dangerous criminals off the hook, compromising the integrity of police work, and inciting violence and distrust in socially vulnerable neighborhoods." (Although I do think these issues should be separated from the "Stop Snitchin'" movement, which mostly seems to be about simple witness intimidation.) Of course, cops are never just going to do away with informants, but Napatoff argues that there's, at the least, ample room for more transparency.
-- Brad Plumer 5:53 PM || ||
Could Solar Power Do It All?

You know, solar power sometimes gets a bad rap. By that, I mean: Few people believe it will ever play more than a bit part in the grand U.S. energy drama going forward. All the scientists are saying we've got to slash emissions in the United States 50 to 80 percent by mid-century, and most onlookers say, well, that means either we'll have to dream up some way to capture and sequester carbon from coal-burning plants, or do what John McCain says and go full speed ahead with nuclear power. But nuclear and "clean" coal are the only things that can provide most of the energy we need. Wind and solar? Pfft, too small. Too unreliable. And so on.

So, on that note, this Scientific American cover story on "A Solar Grand Plan" was fascinating. The authors (we'll call 'em Zweibel et. al.) argue, fairly convincingly, that the technology exists either right now or will in the near future to build a massive solar-power infrastructure that could supply 69 percent of America's electricity—and 35 percent of its energy—by 2050, which would cut CO2 emissions by 62 percent. (This assumes we electrify our transport with, say, plug-in hybrids.) Bear in mind, this is probably a conservative estimate—they're ruling out massive technological leaps, for one. But it's a grand vision all the same.

Yes, there are caveats and technological hurdles. The authors estimate that the efficiency of photovoltaic cells would have to rise to 14 percent—although current modules are at about 10 percent, so this isn't an insurmountable leap. Also, it would take about 30,000 square miles to install all those photovoltaic plants—and we're probably talking about the Southwest. That's a lot of wilderness to plop down on top of, but it's less space than the coal industry uses, when you include mining. Also, fewer mountains pillaged. And photovoltaic plants don't need much water, which is a bonus for the parched West. (Nuclear plants, by contrast, are water-guzzlers.)

The biggest question, though, is storage. The sun doesn't shine all the time. And batteries are still too expensive and inefficient (though who knows what advances are on the way). Zweibel et. al. suggest that compressed-air energy storage is the answer—in which the electricity from the solar plants compresses air into underground caverns, which then, during off-hours, is released to power turbines. One surprise: The authors estimate that there are enough such caverns around the country—many near metro areas—to do this. We'd also have to install a new system of high-voltage direct current lines to bring the power from the Southwest to the rest of the country.

All that won't be cheap. Between now and 2020, the government would have to spend at least $420 billion on subsidies, infrastructure, and so on. After that, if all goes well (and, hell, it probably won't), the solar industry would be on its way. On the other hand, the annual expense involved would be less than current farm subsidies, and the total spending would be about what was needed to build the country's high-speed telecommunications infrastructure over the past four decades. So it's not like this is totally outlandish or unprecedented—if Congress auctioned off all the pollution permits from the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, it could easily raise the money needed. Plus, after a while we'd be saving money—no more fuel costs.

Anyway, I'm not saying the United States should go out and do this tomorrow. But it's at least a way of thinking about how the U.S. could go carbon-free without giving massive subsidies to the coal industry or nuclear industry (both of which could well cost even more—especially when you count the waste disposal, security, etc. needed for McCain's proposed nuke-o-rama.) Personally I'd prefer a more distributed energy system, whereas Zweibel et. al. only see 10 percent of electricity coming from PV cells on rooftops, etc., by 2050, although, obviously, as the technology advances that would change. But like I said, a lot of this is about giving a sense of what's possible beyond the "clean" coal/nuclear drumbeat.
-- Brad Plumer 4:28 PM || ||
Plug-Ins On the Way?

Over at Salon, Joseph Romm argues that affordable plug-in hybrid cars are only a few years away—even if we don't see a breakthrough in battery technology. That's a bold prediction, but it'd be a huge deal if it panned out. Right now, in terms of weaning the United States off oil—two-thirds of which goes toward transportation—plug-in hybrids are far more promising than liquefied coal (suicidal), corn ethanol (still too destructive), cellulosic ethanol (too far off), or hydrogen fuel-cell cars (way too far off).

The tantalizing bit here is that, according to one recent Energy Department analysis, we could, in theory, replace 84 percent of existing cars and light trucks—180 million vehicles—with plug-in hybrids without building a single new power plant. (That assumes the plug-ins would charge during off-peak hours and feed back into the grid during the day.) Even if that didn't happen, greenhouse emissions would still drop considerably in a plug-in world, even if the cars were being powered by dirty coal plants, although obviously the green ideal is to have the cars powered by carbon-free sources—nuclear or renewables. As a bonus, by providing distributed energy storage, plug-ins would actually make some intermittent energy sources like wind (which mostly blows at night) more viable.

Anyway, it's one of those grandiose visions that seems to be getting less far-fetched by the day. The city of Austin is already taking a hard look at the idea, as is Israel. The catch, of course, is that plug-ins would require a higher price on carbon and a fair bit of government support to become viable, though probably less support than biofuels need, and presumably less effort than it takes to police the oil supply in the Middle East.

(Note: I posted this a few weeks ago on The Plank, but I'm reposting here because, well, hell, why not? Plus it dovetails nicely with the post above.)
-- Brad Plumer 4:25 PM || ||
Some Optimism For a Change...

A few weeks ago, I was wondering whether the scattered news reports I was reading about states rethinking their insane prison policies actually added up to a trend. Well, here's a report from the Sentencing Project that says it does. Last year, nine states set up oversight committees to look at sentencing, prison overcrowding, indigent defense, or reentry services. Seven states liberalized their parole policies. Four "eased policies that treated juveniles as adults." Three "relaxed sexual offense laws related to consensual acts conducted by teenagers."

That's a start, isn't it? As a bonus, "between 2004 and 2006, 22 states enacted sentencing reforms targeted at reforming prison populations. That said, last year Pew estimated that a countervailing wave of "get-tough" policies would lead to an increase of nearly 200,000 inmates in the next five years—bringing us up to 1.7 million people in state and federal prisons by 2011. That means prisons will grow faster than the population at large. So, for now, a few oversight committees are nice gestures, but they're not going to cut it.

(Oh hell, I guess I'll link to Glenn Loury's great Boston Review article—discussed here—in case anyone's wondering why on earth they should care about an overbloated prison system.)
-- Brad Plumer 3:29 PM || ||
Greening the World Bank

David Wheeler argues that the World Bank should stop financing coal-fired plants in the developing world, start taking global warming seriously, and impose an internal carbon tax on all its development projects, with donors in the developed world making up the difference. That makes sense to me—just because Kyoto doesn't cover many developing countries doesn't mean nothing can be done to curb their emissions. Of course, you need donors to pony up, but didn't Bush say something about a clean-energy fund in the State of the Union?

In a related vein, Walden Bello argues here that the Global South isn't monolithically against curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, although the evidence is sparse. Mostly, it's a nice history of some of the grassroots environmental movements that have bubbled up in the developing world over the years. This part is interesting:
The environmental movements in Southeast Asia played a vital role not only in scuttling projects like the Bataan nuclear plant but in ousting the dictatorships that reigned there in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, because authoritarian regimes did not perceive the environment as “political,” organizing around environmental and public health issues was not initially proscribed. Thus, environmental struggles became an issue around which the anti-dictatorship movement could organize and reach new people. Environmental destruction became one more graphic example of a regime’s irresponsibility.

In Indonesia, for example, the environmental organization WALHI went so far as to file a lawsuit for pollution and environmental destruction against six government bodies, including the ministry of the environment and population. By the time the dictatorships wised up to what was happening, it was often too late: environmentalism and anti-fascism fed on one another.
I had no idea. Christina Larson wrote a great Washington Monthly piece about an analogous situation in China: Beijing's worried about pollution (and even climate change), but it doesn't have the power to regulate the spewage from the provinces, so the government has given the green NGOs a little slack in hopes they can work their magic. But once you let the civil-society groups go it can be hard to pull the lasso tight again. Or something.
-- Brad Plumer 3:19 PM || ||
Who Needs V-2s?

Why, in the waning days of World War II, did the Germans spend so much time and energy building V-2 rockets to rain down on London? The rockets were mildly deadly, true, but ineffective, and building one V-2 meant building fewer fighters jets—fighters that, while perhaps lacking in sexiness, were critical for bogging down Allied bombing raids. Why build one at the expense of the other? Freeman Dyson finds one possible answer in a new Wehrner von Braun biography:
How did it happen that Hitler gave his blessing to a crash program to produce the V-2 in quantity? Hitler was not a fool. As a foot soldier in World War I he had survived some heavy artillery bombardments. Von Braun demonstrated his plans for the V-2 to Hitler in person in August 1941, and Hitler reacted with sensible objections. He asked whether von Braun had worried about the timing of the explosion, since a normal artillery shell arriving at supersonic speed would bury itself in the ground before exploding and do little damage. This was a serious problem, and von Braun had to admit that he had not thought about it. Hitler then remarked that the V-2 was only an artillery shell with longer range than usual, and the army would need hundreds of thousands rather than thousands of such shells in order to use them effectively. Von Braun agreed that this was true.

After the session with von Braun, Hitler ordered the army to plan production of hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year, but not to begin production until the bird had successfully flown. This decision seemed harmless at the time, but it played into the hands of the army rocketeers. The army leaders knew that the notion of producing hundreds of thousands of V-2s per year was absurd, but they accepted the order. It gave them authority to spend as much as they wanted on the program, without any fixed timetable. In August 1941 the war was going well for Germany. The army had won huge victories in the first two months of the Russian campaign, France was knocked out of the war, and America was not yet in. Hitler did not imagine that within three years he would be fighting a defensive war for the survival of the Reich. He did not ask whether the V-2 might be a toy that the Reich could not afford.

In Germany as in other countries, the main factor driving acquisition of weapons was interservice rivalry. The army wanted the V-2 because of rivalry with the Luftwaffe. The German air force was leading the world in high-technology weapons, developing jet aircraft and rocket aircraft and a variety of guided rocket missiles. The army had to have a high-technology project too. The V-2 was a high-technology version of artillery. It gave the army the chance to say to the air force, our rockets are bigger than your rockets.

Although Hitler was nominally a dictator, he was no more successful than political leaders of democratic countries in keeping rivalries between different branches of the military under control. He could fire military leaders, and did so from time to time, but he could not make them do what he wanted. The army leaders, with the help of von Braun, launched a crash program to produce the V-2. They produced a few thousand V-2s altogether, enough to outshine the air force but not enough to be militarily useful. Hitler could not force them to produce as many as he thought necessary, and he could not force them to stop the program and transfer its resources to the air force. The army and the air force continued to operate as independent principalities until the day Hitler died.
It's still not exactly clear to me whether interservice rivalry is ever in any way efficient. Here's a 1957 Time story about the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force all jostling—much like in Dyson's story—to build their own missile programs. Much overlap ensues: "With the services competing hotly, the U.S. had upwards of 40 assorted missiles under development by 1950, when Defense Secretary George Catlett Marshall called in Chrysler Corp.'s gruff President K. T. Keller to bring order out of the chaos." Having all the services making basically the same damn thing jacked up costs enormously, outweighing whatever benefits competition might bring.

So, another (maybe dumb) question: Would the U.S. defense budget be much smaller and more streamlined if all three services were collapsed into one? That way, if, say, the military decided it needed to focus on counterinsurgency, you wouldn't have rival services demanding, and getting, nuclear subs and strike fighters at the expense of more soldiers. (As Fred Kaplan notes, the fractions of the Pentagon pie that go to each service hasn't budged since the 1980s.) Or are there actual benefits to having rival services? There was some discussion of this in this TAP roundtable on Rob Farley's proposal to abolish the Air Force, although the consensus was that "rational" budgeting will probably never happen.
-- Brad Plumer 2:56 PM || ||