Friday, April 27, 2012

India and Its Psephocracy

India and China are giants, both in terms of their economies and their populations. Both are pursuing paths intended to grow their economies and provide their citizens with prosperity comparable to that enjoyed by the developed nations such as the US and EU countries. By all manner of reckoning, China seems to be moving faster and along a surer path than India. Yet, economists persist in assuming that India will be the stronger economy in the end. This faith is based on two things: the belief that a democracy will always outperform a state-guided economy, and the fact that India will benefit from having many more working-age people in the future. 

Basharat Peer provides an article in Foreign Affairs that provides us with an update on how India is doing. His title provides a clue: India’s Broken Promise: How a Would-Be Great Power Hobbles Itself.

While many vaunt India as the world’s largest democracy, Peer introduces the term psephocracy and suggests it is more descriptive and accurate. This is presumably a new term that has yet to make it into mainline dictionaries. One has to wonder if perhaps it wasn’t created to encompass the uniqueness of the political situation in India. In Wiktionary one can find a definition that clearly intends to differentiate between what a psephocracy is and what most would assume to be a democracy. Both involve ballots to select from candidates to determine a representative for the voting public. The implication is that in a psephocracy the elected representatives then ignore the needs of those they are supposed to represent and pursue their personal interests—at least until the next election.

According to Peer’s narrative, the hallmarks of India’s psephocracy are corruption, ineffectiveness, and a lack of focus on national problems. The result is a growing economy where wealth is accumulating in the hands of a few and most are seeing little benefit.

"According to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report, inequality in earnings has doubled in India over the last two decades."

"Chief among the factors that contribute to inequality in India are prejudice and corruption, both of which undermine meritocratic advancement and stymie upward mobility. Although economic liberalization has provided socially disadvantaged citizens with more opportunities than they had in earlier eras, intense discrimination persists against Indian Muslims and lower-caste Hindus, such as Dalits, or ‘untouchables’."

"Although those groups on the social margins continue to face the most difficult odds, frustrations have also begun to mount across a wider spectrum of Indian society, as a restless, young, educated population finds its expectations thwarted by the corruption that permeates all levels of government in India. In August and September of last year, India was convulsed by massive anticorruption protests triggered by a series of scandals, including the sale of millions of dollars' worth of cell-phone spectrum at below-market rates to well-connected telecommunications companies and outrageous graft and fraud in construction contracts for the Commonwealth Games held in New Delhi in 2010. The scandals involved lawmakers; high-profile politicians from the ruling party, the Indian National Congress; and business tycoons."

Corruption seems to be an intrinsic component of India’s economy and of its society. Although the least wealthy endure the most severe effects from the practice, they also recognize that it provides a well-trodden path out of the slums and into a better life.

And how do the youth who are to fuel India’s explosive growth in the future fare under India’s political system?

"In 2010, India spent $28.6 billion on antipoverty programs. But last year, a World Bank report revealed that 59 percent of the grain allotted for public distribution to the poor in India does not reach its intended recipients; instead, it is siphoned off by middlemen and crooked government officials and then sold on the black market. This is one reason behind the grim precariousness of life in India. Four hundred and sixty million Indians are between the ages of 13 and 35, and by 2020, the average age in India will be 29....But a vast number of the boys and girls who should become part of India's work force in the coming decades are instead dying of undernourishment. According to UNICEF, malnutrition is more common in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. One in every three malnourished children in the world lives in India. More than 2.1 million Indian children die every year before reaching their fifth birthdays; half of those die within a month of birth."

India seems to be developing into a bimodal society and a bimodal economy. The wealthy get wealthier and experience declining fertility levels (as in most developed countries), while the poor stay poor and maintain their traditionally high levels of fertility. Good luck with making that work! And good luck with finding jobs for hundreds of millions of poorly-nourished and poorly-educated youths.

And as for the fruits of psephocracy:

"Today, no Indian politician or political party inspires public confidence, as the task of governance recedes amid the ceaseless campaigning and electoral machinations that consume the country's political classes."

"The resulting paralysis is one reason India's rulers have been unable to make progress on the violent domestic conflicts that have cost thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars: the occupation of disputed Kashmir, the insurgencies in the northeast, and the Maoist-led rebellion across the forests of central India. Nor have they been able to overhaul the country's crumbling infrastructure, increase its agricultural productivity, expand health care to its most vulnerable citizens, or reform its brutal police departments and inefficient criminal-justice system."

If India and China are in a competition, a wise betting person would place their money on China.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The ‘60s, the Libertarian Left, and the Demise of the Social Consensus

One is probably safe in concluding that in the arenas of economics and politics success will reward itself with excess, and thereby will assure its ultimate failure. The excesses of free market capitalism were finally wrestled under control following a Great Depression and World War II by the emergence of a consensus that the government could and must step in to regulate affairs and repair the damage that had been done. That approach led Europe and the US to several decades of unmatched prosperity and stability. Eventually a new generation emerged that had not shared the experiences of their parents and chaffed under what was viewed as the heavy hand of society. There followed a reemergence of free-market ideology and libertarian views toward the role of government in society. Was it a principled attack from the right that disassembled the social consensus that carried us through the postwar years? Or was there another dynamic in play?

Tony Judt writes of these issues in Ill Fares the Land, a short but illuminating book that he produced just before he died.

For Judt the postwar years were a near magical time in which the western societies acted as if motivated by the shared belief that they had a duty to ensure the security and welfare of all their citizens. National governments were the only agencies capable of taking the necessary actions—and they performed well.

"What did trust, cooperation, progressive taxation and the interventionist state bequeath to western societies in the decades following 1945? The shorter answer is, in varying degrees, security, prosperity, social services and greater equality."

"Not only did social democrats and welfare states sustain full employment for nearly three decades, they also maintained growth rates more than competitive with those of the untrammeled market economies of the past. And on the back of these economic successes they introduced radically disjunctive social changes that came to seem, within a short span of years, quite normal."

Judt describes this as more a moral approach than a view of economics or polity.

"....people should cooperate, they should work together for the common good and no one should be left out."

The success of the "interventionist" state inevitably encouraged greater intervention.

"The idea that those in authority know best—that they are engaged in social engineering on the behalf of people who do not understand what is good for them—was not born in 1945, but it flourished in the decades that followed."

There developed a feeling that the state was becoming too "responsible," but not sufficiently responsive. This sense was augmented by the arrival of a generation of young people who had no memories of the miserable conditions that called this state into existence, and who consequently owed it no allegiance. They were more concerned by the "heavy hand" wielded by this system that seemed to be limiting their personal freedoms.

"What united the ‘60s generation was not the interest of all, but the needs and rights of each. ‘Individualism’—the assertion of every person’s claim to maximized private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalized by society at large—became the left-wing watchword of the hour. Doing ‘your own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’, ‘making love not war’: these are not inherently unappealing goals, but they are of their essence private objectives, not public goods."

This emphasis on an individual’s private goals is reminiscent of right-wing libertarianism. The latter was undergoing its own renaissance, driven by similar dissatisfactions.

"The politics of the’60s thus devolved into an aggregation of individual claims upon society and the state. ‘Identity’ began to colonize public discourse: private identity, sexual identity, cultural identity. From here it was but a short step to the fragmentation of radical politics, its metamorphosis into multiculturalism."

The liberal coalition in the United States had the blue collar workers as its base. At a time when this core element was beginning to shrink and lose its coherence, the libertarian left chose to wage a succession of battles for which there was little sympathy. Sexual freedom, anti-war protests, and even racial equality were not issues that resonated with that base. In fact, they contributed to the success of the right in wooing them away with ‘values’ arguments.

Judt provides a quote from Camille Paglia that serves as an apt summary.

"My generation of the sixties, with all our great ideas, destroyed liberalism, because of our excesses."

Over the last three decades the liberal momentum in the US has ground to a halt. Liberal politicians have been fighting a delaying action hoping to maintain what took so long to put in place. As the right tries to disassemble the social fabric of our nation with its policies of total free-market capitalism and individual self reliance, it is sowing the seeds of its own demise. We have been here before, and it was not pleasant. The plutocracy and inequality of wealth that are inevitable will have to be countered with a new vision for the interventionist state. The times and people have changed. Old solutions will not do. The notion that we are all in this together and cooperation is required if we are to succeed must take root. Hopefully, another succession of catastrophes will not be required.

The needed new vision has yet to emerge, and the saddest thing is that Tony Judt is no longer here to help give birth to it.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Privatization: Converting Progressive Taxes to Regressive Taxes

Representative governments generally assume responsibilities for the functions of a society based on a real or perceived need. Needs and perceptions change over time so it occasionally makes sense to move functions into and out of the private sector, as appropriate. That is the ideal, but that is not what is occurring. Instead, we are being subjected to the greatest plutocratic scam of all time: private ownership is always more efficient than public ownership. James Meek makes clear what is really involved in privatization in a short piece in the London Review of Books: Human Revenue. Meek’s context and examples are British, but the issues he discusses apply to all of us.

Meek explains how the bill of goods is sold to the public.

"First, the denigration of the existing service, as if a universally accepted truth is being voiced: the schools/hospitals/roads are crumbling/failing/ second-class. Then, the rejection of government responsibility: we’ve no money/bureaucrats are incompetent. Finally, the solution: private investment."

The interest from private investors derives from the fact that they will acquire a captive customer base that has no choice but to use the provided service. And this permanent base comes with the guarantee from the government that they will be able to make a profit—no matter what. Just as the citizens must use the service, the state must assure that it is available—providing an excess of leverage to the private company in any negotiation with the state. Just the fact that a profit must be produced assures one that there will be higher usage fees.

"The commodity that makes water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the tollkeepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here. If it’s not obvious that we’re being sold to investors, it’s partly because the idea of privatisation is sold so hard to us, in a way that is hypnotically familiar."

Meek’s most important contribution is to remind us what is really happening under privatization.

"Surely if the private sector weren’t replacing our old sewers, and won’t replace our old motorways and power stations, we’d need to pay higher taxes instead? The truth is that we already do pay higher taxes. They just aren’t called taxes. Our water supply system is being upgraded because of a huge water tax increase. But it isn’t called that. It’s called ‘the water bill’. As Chris Giles explained yesterday in the FT [Financial Times], water bills have gone up by nearly twice as much as inflation since privatisation. We pay a rail tax: it’s called ‘fare increases’. We pay an energy tax in the form of higher electricity bills, and so on."

What the advocates of privatization are actually advocating is the transition from a system where a service is provided by a progressive tax on all citizens and in which the wealthy pay a higher share, to one in which usage fees are increased and shared equally—a highly regressive tax falling heavier on the less wealthy.

"By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services, like a road network, that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum."

Every scam requires an accommodating mark willing to be taken. Is there any hope that we can escape the barrage of right-wing propaganda from the industrial/media complex? Meek provides us with an example of a people who refused to be taken advantage of.

"Will there be a revolt? There was one in the 1990s, on the Isle of Skye. Ostensibly, the private sector was going to build something the people of the island would not have had otherwise: a road bridge to the mainland, replacing the old ferry. The islanders understood what was actually happening. They were being sold as revenue stream. Instead of the bridge being built from a tiny fraction of the government budget, it was built by a private firm, which had been promised that it would be able to gouge the islanders with hefty tolls. Less general tax for British taxpayers: a huge private tax for Skye islanders. A long campaign of civil disobedience ended in victory for the islanders when in 2004, against the tide of history, the bridge was nationalised."

Meek ends with a note suggesting that there is at least the potential for optimism for the British—and for us.

"Skye is a small island. Britain is a big one. The plan’s the same. Let’s see what happens."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Chile, the United States, and Income Inequality

Politicians in the US often point to Chile as an example of a country whose governance should be emulated. For example, they have a privatized pension system which might be described as a national 401k program. They also provide no state-run schools. Private entities run the schools and universities and the government provides students with vouchers. Privatized social security and voucher programs are two dreams of the right wingers in the US.

Chile has been viewed as a successful experiment because it has had a growing economy and political stability. An article in The Economist describes a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo.

"In the two decades since General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship gave way to democracy, Chile has stood out in Latin America for its rapid growth, social progress, political stability and relatively robust institutions. Now Chile’s political leaders are wondering if they are seeing a popular rebellion against "the model", as some call the free-market policies bequeathed by Pinochet and left largely intact by his successors."

Not surprisingly, its "free-market" policies have made Chile the country with the highest income inequality in the OECD.

This chart provides a fascinating way to examine inequality. It provides the Gini coefficient, a measure of the distribution between the top and bottom incomes, based on raw income, and compares it with a Gini coefficient calculated after taxes and government transfers have taken place. Two significant features emerge. The first is the fact that the raw Gini is rather similar in all developed countries with the exception of South Korea. The second notable observation is that the various countries respond quite differently to this inequality. Taxes and transfers erase much of the effective inequality in European countries such as Spain, France, and Finland. Chile manages to be the most unequal country in raw incomes and is the country that does the least to correct for it. The US is somewhere in the middle.

Given these numbers it is not too surprising that there are a growing number of unhappy people in Chile. Who are the unhappiest? Students! The voucher system with its privately run schools has produced the results that many in the US could have predicted.

"The education system has locked in social inequality rather than breaking it down."

The voucher system has formed a spending cap on the poor and subsidized personal expenditures by the wealthy.

"Pinochet left a voucher system in which the government runs no schools itself, but instead pays a fixed fee per pupil. But while private schools ask parents for top-up fees, most municipal schools do not."

" the time they are ten years old, pupils’ performance already varies sharply with household income. That is partly because less than half of Chilean children receive any pre-school education. But it is also because the poor go to worse schools."

The students making the most noise are those who are college age. University students find themselves in positions that would be familiar to students in the US. Upper-level education is increasingly expensive and the return on investment is diminishing for many. Chile’s economy is not producing enough high-paying jobs to satisfy the number of students enrolling in school in search of them.

"Many poorer families find that they can achieve their dream of educating their children only by taking on large debts."

"....a CEP paper by Sergio Urzúa, an economist at the University of Maryland. Mr Urzúa estimates that 39% of those who do graduate will find that their salaries do not compensate for the cost of their courses. As Andrés Velasco, a former finance minister, puts it, ‘the combination of lower-than-expected income and higher-than-expected debt is explosive’."

"’In Chile there are good universities for the rich and bad universities for the poor,’ complains Camilo Ballesteros, president of the students’ union at the University of Santiago last year...."

Over the past year these students have been organizing and demonstrating, and they have been gathering public support.

"....having devoted last year to occupying classrooms and taking to the streets in their tens and hundreds of thousands, in sometimes violent demonstrations to demand free and better higher education. This mass popular protest, and the huge public sympathy it aroused, took the centre-right government of Sebastián Piñera by surprise, leaving it floundering."

"What makes this collapse of public confidence in the system odder is that in many ways Chile continues to thrive. The economy is growing by 6% a year, and with virtually full employment, wages are rising equally fast."

Is it possible that an outwardly healthy economy with growth and low unemployment can reach a point where income inequality renders it unstable? The article suggests that this may be the case.

"In opinion polls the students’ demands enjoy the support of 70% of respondents, even if their sometimes disorderly methods attract the disapproval of a narrow majority. The student movement has struck a chord in a society that is increasingly middle-class but remains highly unequal."

Does the situation in Chile provide any lessons that the United States should benefit from? Indeed!

While Chile saw a past year of focused demonstrations generated by the feeling that the government was not doing enough to guarantee a fairer society, the US endured its "Occupy" movements. The Chilean demonstrators had valid complaints and clearly identified goals. Occupy had a muddled message, if any at all, and seemed to be avoiding defined goals. Could it be that the US response to inequality, weak though it is, is just sufficient to keep unrest in check? Or could it be that we no longer remember how to organize political movements?

It is interesting to compare the status of university students in the two countries. Both groups are going farther into debt to acquire an education that only pays off for a fraction of those who have made the investment. Underemployment is a growing concern in both populations. In each country the wealthy have the greatest access to the best schools.

Could a similar movement in the US be sparked by student unrest? Unfortunately, it is not likely. Let us turn to Tony Judt for some observations on the state of politics and political will in this country. From his book Ill Fares the Land:

"And in the classroom, the enthusiasm of an earlier generation for radical politics has given way to blank mystification. In 1971 almost everyone was, or wanted to be thought, some sort of a ‘Marxist". By the year 2000, few undergraduates had any idea what that even meant, much less why that was once so appealing.’

"We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or a march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political, as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this."

That can serve as a rather concise explanation of the "Occupy" movement.

Margaret Thatcher once famously said:

"There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families."

It was not true in the US when she said it, but perhaps a few decades of living as if it were, has allowed it to come to pass.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Law, Punishment, and Retribution: "The Cruel Hand"

The term "The Cruel Hand" is a phrase used by Frederick Douglass in 1853 in describing the treatment of blacks in the United States. It serves as a chapter title in Michelle Alexander’s excellent book: The New Jim Crow. Alexander devotes that section to informing us exactly what it means to be processed through our legal system and labeled guilty. She describes a system in which millions of people are pulled off the streets, tagged as criminals, and are forever condemned to second-class citizenship—analogous to the Jim Crow system in the South that insured second-class status for blacks.

"Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow."

"The ‘whites only’ signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up—notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that ‘felons’ are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote."

Alexander is focused on the "War on Drugs" and the large number convicted of drug-related crimes. She provides us with data to for context.

"....more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began."

"The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offenses. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity."

"....arrests for marijuana possession—a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s."

"By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans—or one in every 31 adults—were behind bars, on probation, or on parole."

It is not necessary to serve time in prison in order to be labeled forever a "felon," it is the conviction that counts. Many who plead guilty to a felony charge of marijuana possession are unaware of what that admission will cost them. This quote from the American Bar Association describes the fate awaiting these individuals.

"[The] offender may be sentenced to a term of probation, community service, and court costs. Unbeknownst to this offender, and perhaps any other actor in the sentencing process, as a result of his conviction he may be ineligible for many federally funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, and federal education assistance. His driver’s license may be automatically suspended, and he may no longer qualify for certain employment and professional licenses....He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, or possess a firearm, or obtain a federal security clearance. If a citizen, he may lose the right to vote...."

If you are hungry, you are ineligible for food stamps; if you have no place to live, you are ineligible for public housing; if you have no money, you are ineligible for welfare; if you wish to improve your education, you are ineligible for financial assistance; if you apply for a job, your record renders you unemployable.

The most surprising—and disturbing—of Alexander’s revelations is the growing practice of charging those caught up in the system with fees to cover administrative costs.

"Examples of preconviction service fees imposed throughout the United States today include jail book-in fees levied at the time of arrest, jail per diems assessed to cover the cost of pretrial detention, public defender application fees charged when someone applies for court-appointed counsel, and the bail investigation fee imposed when the court determines the likelihood of the accused appearing at trial."

"Postconviction fees include presentence report fees, public defender recoupment fees, and fees levied on convicted persons placed in a residential or work-release program."

"Upon release, even more fees may attach, including parole or probation service fees. Such fees are typically charged on a monthly basis during the period of supervision."

"Florida....has added more than twenty new categories of financial obligations for criminal defendants since 1996, while eliminating most exemptions for those who cannot pay."

These fees would be a nuisance for a wealthy person, but for someone trying to live on a poverty level income they can consume the majority of their funds. Failure to pay can have consequences up to and including going back to prison.

"Although ‘debtor’s prison’ is illegal in all states, many states use the threat of probation or parole revocation as a debt-collection tool."

Whatever happened to the concept of rehabilitation, of "having paid one’s debt to society?" And when did this "debt" become a financial one?

Retribution is an understandable part of the treatment of criminals. That is one of the explanations for prisons. But the treatment of ex-criminals goes beyond mere retribution and begins to enter the realm of "cruel and unusual punishments."

Studies indicate that the fraction of illegal drug users is roughly equal in the white and black populations, yet blacks are nine times more likely to end up going to prison for a drug-related crime. With about 9% of the population using drugs, that provides the police with about 27 million people they are supposed to arrest. Clearly, that is not possible. Therefore they have the opportunity to focus on those they believe to be the easiest targets—blacks. And they have the obligation to arrest as many as they can.

This is a form of racial discrimination. Those caught up in it are subjected to a lifetime of diminished rights as citizens. Whether or not this system has developed as a conscious attempt to deprive black people of their rights—as was the case with the old Jim Crow—is arguable. But if you are black and view a large fraction of your community being swept up and returned as second-class citizens, such disputation is probably irrelevant. The end effect is, as Alexander claims, the creation of a new Jim Crow.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Benefits of Open Travel: They Will Come and They Will Spend

The US has a significant balance of payments problem. We import much more than we export. We can solve this problem the hard way by restructuring our economy to either produce more goods for export or to depend less on imports. Neither is an easy path to follow and neither can be accomplished quickly. But do not lose faith—there is a relatively easy solution to the problem. All we have to do is invite more people with money to spend to come and spend it in the US.
If one goes to this government document one will find more than anyone wants to know about who spends how much money on what when they visit the US. The main point—there is a lot of money at stake—is summarized in the following chart (including travel dollars on domestic carriers).

Ylan Q. Mui published an article in the Washington Post that illustrated the desire and the need to go after more tourist dollars.

"For the first time, lawmakers, businesses and even White House officials are courting consumers from cash-rich countries such as China, India and Brazil to fill the nation’s shopping malls and pick up the slack for penny-pinching Americans. They are wooing travelers with enticements such as coupons, beauty pageants and promises of visa reform. The payoff, they say, could be significant: 1.3 million new jobs and an $859 billion shot in the arm for the economy over the next decade."

These developing countries are generating a large number of wealthy persons looking for interesting places to go to and spend. While they are not the dominant sources of tourist dollars, they are the fastest growing.

"The bulk of international tourism dollars comes from Canada, Japan and Britain. But Chinese spending is growing the fastest, up 39 percent in 2010, to $5 billion. Brazil’s growth was not far behind, with a 30 percent increase to $6 billion. India’s spending rose 12 percent to $4 billion."

With the indicated growth rates in income from their tourists we are talking big bucks. All we have to do is keep inviting more to come—right? It turns out that it is not that easy. Our paranoia about illegal immigrants has made life much more difficult for visitors from these countries. Edward Alden has an article in Foreign Affairs where he explains the issues involved: The Rewards of Open Travel.

"If you want to travel from Spain to the United States, the process is simple. You register online through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), pay a fee of $14, and either get an instant answer or wait a day or two while the U.S. government checks to make sure that you are not a terrorist or a wanted criminal. Your stay can last up to three months, no questions asked."

"If you want to travel from Brazil to the United States, however, you will first need to apply for a visitor visa, pay a fee of $140, and then wait two to six weeks for a consular interview. If that goes well, you then wait a little longer as your visa is processed. And this is good news; a year ago, before the Obama administration made speedier visa processing a priority, the wait time was much longer -- usually three months or more."

The purpose of the consular interview is to attempt to weed out those who might be planning on overstaying their visa and remaining in the country indefinitely. The two approaches to visitors derive from the 1986 Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Tourists from the wealthier countries are deemed more likely to return home as intended and are granted visa-free visits.

"Today, all but a handful of the 36 countries in the VWP are European. The rest are developed Asia-Pacific countries -- such as Australia, Japan, and, recently, South Korea. Not a single Latin American or African country is part of the VWP."

There is justification for concern.

"By the best available estimates (although they are crude ones), some 40 percent of the 10 million to 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States originally arrived on legal visas, and then simply did not return home."

To gain entry to the VWP, a country must pass a rather arbitrary test.

"It is with those very concerns in mind that, in 2007, Congress adopted the current standard for adding new countries, stipulating that those with a visa refusal rate greater than three percent (meaning, roughly, that the United States granted visas to no less than 97 percent of applicants from that country) could only be admitted to the program if and when the United States is able to verify accurately the departure of travelers through its airports."

Taiwan meets this criterion with a rejection rate from consular interviews of only 1.9%, but Brazil languishes back at 3.8%. Is the system really that accurate? Highly unlikely.

Pressure is building to continue to facilitate the entry of visitors either by relaxing the VWP or vastly speeding up the visa process itself.

"The tourist industry is pressing hard to reverse what it calls a "lost decade," during which overseas travel to the United States stayed flat, even as the world travel market grew enormously; between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. global share of overseas travel fell from 17 percent to 12 percent. Meanwhile, tourist-dependent (and politically important) states such as Florida are looking for an economic boost and lobbying the administration to ease travel restrictions."

"The U.S. Travel Association recently estimated that, if Brazil and the other ten countries that are the most serious candidates for VWP status were admitted, the growth rate for visitors from these countries would double. And that would add $41 billion to the U.S. economy each year and create more than 250,000 jobs."

Alden’s article provides more details about the various issues for the interested reader.

One would hope that a satisfactory way forward can be found. Is there a more straightforward way to stimulate our economy than just by asking visitors to come and deposit their money with us?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Criminal Courts and Legal Representation for the Poor

In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) the Supreme Court ruled that state courts are required under the Sixth Amendment to provide legal counsel to defendants who are too poor to provide their own counsel. Unfortunately, the manner of provisioning counsel was left up to the states. There was then no standard which must be met in terms of quality of legal counsel provided. The Supreme Court has been gradually tightening the terms under which adequate legal representation is said to have been provided, but a poor person in the clutches of our legal system has no guarantee that he will be provided the assistance to which he has a right.

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, provides us with a description of the legal environments the poor are likely to encounter. She tells us that about 80% of criminal defendants are considered indigent and unable to afford a lawyer. That should alert one immediately to the need for a tremendous number of public defenders—more than the system is ever likely to provide. It is perhaps asking too much of human nature to expect those whose goal is to demonstrate a toughness on crime by convicting and incarcerating as many as possible, to also fund an effective countervailing force of public defenders.

"Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer, and those who do meet with a lawyer....often spend only a few minutes discussing their case and options before making a decision that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives"

Inadequate funding discourages many from considering public defense as a career path, and produces enormous case loads for those who choose to do so.

"Sometime defenders have well over one hundred clients at a time; many of these defendants are facing decades behind bars or life imprisonment."

"In Virginia, for example, fees paid to court-appointed attorneys for representing someone charged with a felony that carries a sentence of less than twenty years are capped at $428. And in Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people go to court without representation every year because anyone who earns more than $3,000 per year is considered able to afford a lawyer. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, the public defender office has only two investigators for the 2,500 new felony cases and 4,000 new misdemeanor cases assigned to the office each year."

Alexander provides this quote from a 2004 report by the American Bar Association:

"All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring. Sometimes the proceedings reflect little or no recognition that the accused is mentally ill or does not adequately understand English. The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume applies to everyone accused of criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States."

Given this background, it is encouraging that recent Supreme Court decisions have provided judges with a greater mandate to demand that defendants not only have legal counsel at critical stages of the legal process, but that it also be competent and effective counsel. An editorial in the New York Times summarizes the cases in which defendants received bad advice from their lawyers concerning plea bargains. It draws this conclusion.

"There is no constitutional right to a plea bargain, and these cases do not change that fact. But if prosecutors make a plea offer, the court now requires that defendants have effective counsel in considering the offer. With this new standard, judges are more likely to require prosecutors to make plea offers in writing or in open court so that there is no dispute about the offer and no doubt that the defendants understood what they rejected."

It is quite possible that these rulings will have a major effect by injecting a greater degree of justice into our legal system. It will depend on how clever prosecutors are at avoiding legal complications, and on how diligent judges are in defending the rights of the accused. Let us be encouraged for the moment.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Second Economy—the Jobless One

There has been much discussion about changes in technology and what that might mean for the future of the economy and the future of society. As more and more tasks can be accomplished by machine, where will the jobs come from? W. Brian Arthur brings some focus to this issue in an article in McKinsey Quarterly: The Second Economy.

With the term "second economy" Arthur refers to all the tasks that can be carried out by machines using digital information.

"Business processes that once took place among human beings are now being executed electronically. They are taking place in an unseen domain that is strictly digital. On the surface, this shift doesn’t seem particularly consequential—it’s almost something we take for granted. But I believe it is causing a revolution no less important and dramatic than that of the railroads. It is quietly creating a second economy, a digital one."

We all can think of examples of transactions that once required human intervention, but now take place via computers exchanging information. Arthur uses as an illustration all the processes that are triggered and carried out automatically every time we swipe an ID card at an airport check-in machine.

Arthur contrasts this second, or digital, economy with the physical economy where people and physical objects are manipulated.

"....all across economies in the developed world, processes in the physical economy are being entered into the digital economy, where they are "speaking to" other processes in the digital economy, in a constant conversation among multiple servers and multiple semi-intelligent nodes that are updating things, querying things, checking things off, readjusting things, and eventually connecting back with processes and humans in the physical economy."

A comparison is made, matching this revolution to the industrial revolution in scale and in importance. If the industrial revolution formed the skeleton and muscular structure of the economy, then the digital economy is forming the neural network connecting and driving the body parts.

What is of concern is the size of this second economy and its continued evolution and growth.

" about two decades the digital economy will reach the same size as the physical economy."

"It is a deep qualitative change that is bringing intelligent, automatic response to the economy. There’s no upper limit to this, no place where it has to end."

The lack of employment opportunities for humans in this second economy is striking. An article by Bill Davidow in the Atlantic puts this issue in perspective. He compares rates of employment per unit economic output for companies that are predominantly in the physical economy with those that dwell mainly in the digital, second economy.

"The Gross Domestic Product for the United States in 2011 was around $15 trillion. There are a little over 130 million non-farm employees. So each worker adds a little over $100,000 to the domestic output. The numbers are quite different for a Google employee. Google has a little more than 32,000 employees and its $38 billion in revenues means it generates about $1.2 million per employee. The numbers are similar for Facebook."

"Walmart has some two million employees, and annual sales of around $200 billion. Given that many work part-time, I figure that the company has sales of around $100,000 per employee. With 56,000 employees in 2011, Amazon generated a little over $800,000 per employee."

There is a rather stark conclusion emerging from these numbers.

"In the past, every million-dollar increase in economic output generated on the order of ten jobs. In the future, in the productive Second Economy, it may generate only one or two."

Arthur places this eventuality in historical context.

"For centuries, wealth has traditionally been apportioned in the West through jobs, and jobs have always been forthcoming. When farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. With this digital transformation, this last repository of jobs is shrinking—fewer of us in the future may have white-collar business process jobs—and we face a problem."

Arthur has defined the fundamental issue for society as it moves forward: we have produced an economy that continues to create wealth, but the mechanism by which wealth is shared is breaking down.

Increasing income inequality eventually becomes unsustainable, both economically and socially. People must have money in order to spend money.

This is not the type of problem amenable to a market solution. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the voters to demand of their government actions that will produce the type of society they desire. They had better start worrying about this issue. It is not likely to go away on its own.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Natural Gas: To Frack or Not to Frack

It was only a few years ago that terms like "peak oil" were bandied about amid discussions of the crushing effect of rapidly escalating oil prices. Today there is as much concern about energy, but the discussion has become focused on how to respond to the expected glut in oil and natural gas supplies. An article in the New York Times by Jad Mouawad provides an excellent summary of the state of affairs: Fuel to Burn: Now What?

One of the consequences of continued high prices for oil is that it encourages the extraction of oil from expensive and difficult to reach sources. Some of these endeavors have been much more successful than expected.

"The North American energy revival is primarily the result of so-called unconventional sources of energy — like shale oil and shale gas across the United States, oil sands in Canada and deepwater production in the Gulf of Mexico. In the last five years, the United States and Canada combined have become the fastest-growing sources of new oil supplies around the world, overtaking producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia."

These developments have left analysts almost giddy as they issue optimistic projections. Combining increased efficiency in transportation fuel consumption with increased supplies, one might arrive at this conclusion.

"Assessing falling American dependence on foreign oil, analysts with the financial firm Raymond James said imports fell from 65 percent of demand, or 13.5 million barrels a day, their peak in 2005, to 9.8 million barrels a day in 2011, or 52 percent of demand. They predicted that imports would keep falling, reaching 4.5 million barrels a day — or just a quarter of domestic oil demand — by 2015. By 2020, they forecast, the United States would not need to import foreign oil anymore."

The surge in natural gas supplies—and the lowering of prices—has derived mainly from a process called "fracking" that has allowed the recovery of gas embedded in shale rock. The term is a variant on the description of the process: hydraulic fracturing. A chart from Businessweek provides us with a prediction of how this process will contribute to future supplies.

By 2035 it is expected that about 45% of our natural gas (methane) will come from shale.

All these rosy projections have an environmental burden associated with them—a cost that is not fully understood yet, and has certainly not been factored into the cost of extracting these new supplies.

Bill McKibben discusses the issues associated with the fracking process in an article in the New York Review of Books: Why Not Frack? The purpose of the article was to review these three sources:

The End of Country
by Seamus McGraw
Random House, 245 pp., $26.00

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale
by Tom Wilber
Cornell University Press, 272 pp., $27.95 (to be published in May 2012)

a documentary film by Josh Fox
Docurama, DVD, $29.95

McKibben provides this introduction to fracking.

" the words of Seamus McGraw, it works like this: having drilled a hole perhaps a mile deep, and then a horizontal branch perhaps half a mile in length, you send down

a kind of subterranean pipe bomb, a small package of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives. The package is detonated, and the shrapnel pierces the bore hole, opening up small perforations in the pipe. They then pump up to 7 million gallons of a substance known as slick water to fracture the shale and release the gas. It blasts through those perforations in the pipe into the shale at such force—more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch—that it shatters the shale for a few yards on either side of the pipe, allowing the gas embedded in it to rise under its own pressure and escape.’

"This new technique allowed the industry to exploit terrain that it had previously considered impenetrable. It was used first in the late 1990s in what’s called the Barnett Shale in Texas, and is also being widely used to liberate oil from beneath the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. But the industry’s biggest excitement has come in the East, where a boom has been underway for several years in the so-called Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia into upstate New York. This gas-trapping shale formation has been estimated to hold as much gas as the whole United States consumes in a century. (The estimates are highly contested; some analysts are insisting that new data show them to be considerably smaller, though still vast, and indeed at the end of January the federal government slashed its earlier predictions in half.)"

McKibben discusses three reasons for being concerned about fracking on a large scale. The first involves the potential for fluids and gases injected and created in the process to migrate into underground water supplies. The injected water includes unknown chemicals because of the dark lord himself, Dick Cheney,

"....drilling companies have been exempt from federal safe drinking water statutes and hence not required to list the chemicals they push down wells."

Reports of polluted water supplies and faucets that stream both water and methane are emerging.

" December, the EPA released its first thorough study, conducted in the Wyoming town of Pavilion, where residents had reported brown, undrinkable water after nearby fracking operations. The EPA concluded that the presence in the water of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers and the assortment of "other organic components" were "the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracking fluids with ground water," and told local residents to stop drinking from their wells."

"....Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, best known for decrying global warming as a ‘hoax,’ added that the EPA report was part of ‘President Obama’s war on fossil fuels.’ But the evidence from Pavilion was a powerful indictment of the industry, and it led several leading doctors to call for a moratorium on fracking pending more health research. ‘We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals,’ said Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the National Center for Environmental Health, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control."

Trading water for natural gas is a losing proposition no matter how you look at it. The industry does not yet have the knowledge to be able to say where, or how, fracking might affect water sources—but in some cases it clearly does.

McKibben then reminds us that wells have been assigned fault for earthquakes observed in the seismically quiet states of Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

A second and even more troublesome issue with fracking involves the above ground damage to the environment.

"Most of the chemical-laced slick water injected down the well will stay belowground, but for every million gallons, 200,000 to 400,000 gallons will be regurgitated back to the surface, bringing with it, McGraw writes,"

‘not only the chemicals it included in the first place, but traces of the oil-laced drilling mud, and all the other noxious stuff that was already trapped down there in the rock: iron and chromium, radium and salt—lots of salt.’

This waste water is too noxious to allow it to mix with fresh water sources, and often too noxious to be dealt with by treatment plants. And there is this additional concern.

"As Ian Urbina reported in the Times last February, the water returning from deep underground can carry naturally occurring "radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for…treatment plants to handle." Despite a 2009 EPA study never made public, the federal agency has continued to allow "most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity." And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from the sewage treatment plants, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008."

"Industry, as usual, is unconcerned, at least in public. ‘These low levels of radioactivity pose no threat to the public,’ said the CEO of Triana Energy. They are ‘more a public perception issue than a real health threat.’ But as Urbina pointed out, a confidential industry study from 1990, which looked at radium in drilling water dumped into the ocean off the Louisiana coast, found that it posed ‘potentially significant risks’ of cancer for people eating fish from those waters."

Not all the gases that are emitted from the wells are captured.

"The natural gas wells can cause air pollution problems too: Wyoming, for instance, no longer meets federal air quality standards because of fumes seeping from the state’s 27,000 wells, vapors that contain benzene and toluene, according to Urbina."

‘In sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles.’

"In a county without a single stoplight, regulators this time last year were urging the elderly and children to stay indoors."

This process uses vast amounts of water, often in areas where it is in scarce supply. It seems foolish to think that these wells can be endlessly duplicated without coming to terms with the issue of how to return safe water to the environment.

When the promise of large supplies of methane for power production became apparent, many environmentalists were thrilled at the prospect because gas powered electricity generation is much more efficient in producing energy for a given amount of carbon. Cheap natural gas and increasingly strict environmental regulations would then render coal powered plants obsolete. The situation has not turned out to be that simple. While methane burns efficiently, it is also a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The problem arises because the fracking wells also leak some of the methane into the air. Preliminary data seems to be consistent with the conclusion that fracked gas could be as bad, or even worse than coal burning, as a producer of power.

This leakage seems to be an area where technology should be able to diminish this concern, but until it is addressed, it again seems premature to plan for a golden age to come.

The greatest concern of all is that the enthusiasm over essentially limitless supplies of natural gas will diminish the prospects for renewable energy options. Natural gas cannot be a solution to the global warming problem in itself, and if it encourages cheap and increasingly consumed energy, it will only make our problems worse.

Judicious use of natural gas power sources to complement massive investments in renewable sources and coupled with intense conservation efforts provide the only viable path forward. One fears that we are beginning to head in a different direction.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On the Future of Capitalism: Two Tiers for the Economy and Society?

Tyler Cowen describes an economic future in which he predicts the US will once again become a dominant exporter of goods to the world. The consequences he foresees from such a development are not necessarily beneficial to society. Our interest here is not so much in the future of the export sector as in Cowen’s description of the consequences, because in the process he gives us a picture of our current system being taken to its logical conclusion.

Cowen’s article appears in The American Interest and is titled What Export-Oriented America Means. He begins by reminding us that US exports have been growing at a rate of about 16% per year, and at that rate might even reach the doubling in five years that President Obama promised.

Cowen believes that there are a number of factors that will contribute to an ever more powerful export sector in the US. First is the ever greater sophistication in manufacturing that will benefit the US because of its skill and experience in artificial intelligence and computing power. Secondly, we will become a net energy exporter.

"The second force behind export growth will be the recent discoveries of very large shale oil and natural gas deposits in the United States. Come 2030, the United States may well be the new Saudi Arabia of energy markets. We have new fossil fuel discoveries to draw upon, enough to fuel this country for decades, and there is plenty of foreign demand for those resources."

"This is a technology pioneered and mastered by the United States, and it is the United States that has the greatest capacity to transport the product, market it and deliver to the final customers, including those overseas."

He trivializes the environmental issues posed by the fracking process, and assumes those will be overcome. He cannot help but take a swipe at those who would practice caution.

"These particular constraints reflect some more general reasons why European economies are usually less flexible than America’s—namely, that European cultures and politics are less geared toward rapid economic change."

Perhaps European cultures benefit from the wisdom that comes with age.

The third way in which exports will benefit comes from the increasing wealth of the developing countries.

"To put it simply, the closer other nations come to our economic level, the more they will want to buy our stuff. Indeed most of those nations are growing rapidly, so we can expect their attentions to shift toward American exporters. The leading categories of American exports today—civilian aircraft, semiconductors, cars, pharmaceuticals, machinery and equipment, automobile accessories, and entertainment—are going to be in the sweet spot of growing demand in what we now call the developing world."

There is plenty to discuss in each of Cowen’s three assertions, but we will pass on to his predictions about what this rejuvenation of our economy will produce in terms of jobs.

"Skilled laborers who work with smart machines or even hold advanced managerial jobs will continue to make big gains, as the numbers have been showing for some time. Capital will do well too, especially if it is geared toward export success. The class of elite labor will grow, and protest against the "one percent" will seem anachronistic. Expect something more like, ‘We are the ninety percent.’ That will still fall well short of the median, so significant segments of the American workforce are likely to continue suffering falling real wages, even in a time of rising export prowess."

Cowen’s vision of progress is moving from an upper class of 1% of the population to an upper class of 10%. He sees this development of a lower class as inevitable. The export economy will produce a few good jobs for the highly skilled, make the owners of capital fantastically wealthy, and drive down the wages of any other jobs that cannot be eliminated. Cowen sees this further concentration of wealth in the hands of a few as a good thing.

"The wealthiest American earners will be very wealthy indeed, even by current standards. Due to their export activities, they will take an increasingly global perspective, and they will give away lots of their money, just as Bill Gates has expanded his philanthropy abroad. Recently the Gates Foundation claimed that Gates’s giving has saved six million lives, in large part by making medicines and vaccines available to the developing world. He probably could not have achieved comparable moral value by redistributing that money just within the United States."

So—the world would be a better place if more wealth could be placed in fewer hands. Apparently the fabulously wealthy hide their moral tendencies while accumulating wealth, but once a given level is attained moral sentiments emerge and the wealthy then try to give all their money away on socially useful projects. Apparently a new stage in the evolution of humanity has been reached and only Cowen was sufficiently alert to take note.

Cowen sees a coming battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, making it quite clear which side he is on.

"On one side of the divide will be the push to redistribute more of these resources to the American worker or to the unemployed using public policy and the tax system; some of the Democratic Party agenda already reads along such lines. On the other side of the divide will be a combination of elites and cosmopolitans defending the very wealthy and their global charitable giving and making sure that America remains sufficiently free economically to maintain its export success."

The emphasis is mine.

Cowen sees the economy—and society—splitting into two sectors. The first is the highly efficient export sector, and the second is the highly inefficient service sector. He sees the service sector providing most of the jobs, but at low wages. It is, of course, the fault of the government and its liberal policies.

"Services, in contrast, are often produced inefficiently, but the jobs are more extensively cocooned within a protected domestic market, often based on government privileges and market-distorting third-party payment schemes."

He implies that if only we would allow the service sector more freedom to follow market principles we could create great disparities in wealth there also. Wouldn’t that be great!

Finally we come to the ultimate conclusion—the endpoint of free market capitalism.

"These days, this old portrait of the two-tiered economy, originally applicable to a developing economy, may be re-emerging for the United States. We had not thought through seriously enough the possibility that the world’s most technologically advanced economy would, over time, develop persistent and indeed growing productivity differentials across sectors. It clearly has, and the social and political frictions this has caused now dominate our politics—or soon will."

We are truly in a bind. We are going to create great wealth, but if we tried to redistribute it we would hamper the charitable initiatives of the fabulously wealthy. Whatever will we do?

We have encountered Cowen previously in On the Future of Capitalism: The Great Stagnation? There he used an unconvincing analysis of the present to provide an unrealistic picture of the past. Here he returns to use an unconvincing view of the present to provide an unrealistic picture of the future. Keep up the good work!

If one wanted credible future predictions one always had two directions in which to turn: to economists and to science fiction writers. It seems we are now down to a single option.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why Innocent People Confess and Plead Guilty

Two recent articles focus on an astonishing statistic. There is a legal charity called Innocence Project that has used DNA evidence to secure the freedom of 289 people who were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Even though these people had not committed the crimes for which they were charged, about 24% of them had falsely confessed to the crimes. How could this be? And if true, how many innocent people are in prison today because they confessed to crimes they did not commit?

An article provided by The Economist sheds some light on this phenomenon by referring to several laboratory studies that indicate the astonishing ease with which people can be induced to admit to actions that never occurred. Consider this illuminating finding:

"One of the most recent papers on the subject, published in Law and Human Behavior by Saul Kassin and Jennifer Perillo of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, used a group of 71 university students who were told they were taking part in a test of their reaction times. Participants were asked to press keys on a keyboard as they were read aloud by another person, who was secretly in cahoots with the experimenter. The volunteers were informed that the ALT key was faulty, and that if it was pressed the computer would crash and all the experimental data would be lost. The experimenter watched the proceedings from across the table."

"In fact, the computer was set up to crash regardless, about a minute into the test. When this happened the experimenter asked each participant if he had pressed the illicit key, acted as if he was upset when it was "discovered" that the data had disappeared, and requested that the participant sign a confession. Only one person actually did hit the ALT key by mistake, but a quarter of the innocent participants were so disarmed by the shock of the accusation that they confessed to something they had not done."

The experimenters took this process a step further. One of the procedures allowed police in the US, but banned in the UK, is the claim of false evidence. This is a remarkably effective way to confuse and intimidate an innocent person.

"A second computer-crash test conducted by Dr Kassin and Dr Perillo used this technique. Another person in the room beside the experimenter said he saw the participant hitting the ALT key. In this case the confession rate jumped to 80% of innocent participants."

The facility with which the experimenters could manipulate people into making these admissions is startling. This is a low-stakes environment. How does this behavior translate into the tense, threatening, high-stakes environment provided by a police interrogation? An article by David K. Shipler in the New York Times addresses this issue: Why Do Innocent People Confess?

"If you have never been tortured, or locked up and verbally threatened, you may find it hard to believe that anyone would confess to something he had not done. Intuition holds that the innocent do not make false confessions. What on earth could be the motive? To stop the abuse? To curry favor with the interrogator? To follow some fragile thread of imaginary hope that cooperation will bring freedom?"

"Yes, all of the above."

A rather different population appears in police interrogation rooms than the one encountered in university studies such as those discussed above.

"Psychological studies of confessions that have proved false show an overrepresentation of children, the mentally ill and mentally retarded, and suspects who are drunk or high. They are susceptible to suggestion, eager to please authority figures, disconnected from reality or unable to defer gratification. Children often think, as Felix did, that they will be jailed if they keep up their denials and will get to go home if they go along with interrogators. Mature adults of normal intelligence have also confessed falsely after being manipulated."

Shipler describes some of the tricks police are taught in order to facilitate this manipulation.

"Officers are taught to use all the tricks and lies that courts permit within the scope of the Fifth Amendment’s shield against self-incrimination. John E. Reid & Associates, which has trained thousands of interrogators, suggests that a suspect be induced to waive his constitutional rights to silence and counsel by giving him the famous Miranda warning "casually" and not immediately after arrest, when he is "defensive and guarded" and "more likely to invoke his rights." When a skilled questioner splices it nonchalantly into conversation, the warning’s empowering message of choice can be lost on a suspect. Many false confessors have been routinely Mirandized in this perfunctory manner."

Remember the technique of threatening with false evidence that led to the 80% false confession rate among college students? That is standard procedure for US police.

"Interrogators are advised to pretend to have evidence but not to fabricate it."

Shipler uses an example to demonstrate how powerful this approach can be.

"A cunning lie generated a false confession from Martin Tankleff, 17, who found his parents one morning in their Long Island home slashed and stabbed, his mother dead, his father barely alive. The boy called 911 and was taken for questioning. Getting nowhere, Detective K. James McCready decided on a trick. He walked to an adjacent room within hearing distance, dialed an extension on the next desk, picked up the phone and faked a conversation with an imaginary officer at the hospital. He went back to the son and told him that his father had come out of his coma and said, "Marty, you did it." In fact, Seymour Tankleff never regained consciousness and died a month later."

"In experiments and in interrogation rooms, adults who are told convincing fictions have become susceptible to memories of things that never happened. Rejecting their own recollections through what psychologists call "memory distrust syndrome," they are tricked by phony evidence into accepting their own fabrications of guilt — an ‘internalized false confession’."

"That is what happened to a shaken Martin Tankleff, and although he quickly recanted, as if coming out of a spell, he was convicted and drew 50 years to life. He spent 17 years in prison before winning an appeal based on new evidence that pointed to three ex-convicts."

There is another aspect of legal procedure that can be used to induce confessions. It seems to work fine on both the guilty and the innocent. It involves the brute force approach of threatening excessive punishments. The harsh and mandatory sentences that have been written into law are quite efficient at convincing people to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to avoid a longer prison term. Michelle Alexander provides us with another perspective in her book The New Jim Crow.

"The U.S. Sentencing Commission itself has noted that ‘the value of a mandatory minimum sentence lies not in its imposition, but in its value as a bargaining chip to be given away in return for the resource-saving plea from the defendant to a more leniently sanctioned charge.’ Describing severe mandatory sentences as a bargaining chip is a major understatement, given its potential for extracting guilty pleas from people who are innocent of any crime."

"Never before in our history....have such an extraordinary number of people felt compelled to plead guilty, even if they are innocent, simply because the punishment for the minor, nonviolent offense with which they have been charged is so unbelievably severe. When officers offer ‘only’ three years in prison when the penalties defendants could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, or twenty years—or life imprisonment—only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendants turn the offer down."

Alexander’s comments were made in the context of the War on Drugs and its efficient mechanisms for whisking people off the streets and shipping them to prison.

We have fallen into a system whereby about nineteen out of every twenty felony convictions are obtained by plea bargain. The fact that so many people are sent to prison without ever having to formally prove their guilt should be disturbing enough, but the findings discussed here indicate that a large number of these people are likely to be innocent of the crimes for which they were incarcerated.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Books and the Internet: Readers Are Not Going Away

About a year ago several articles appeared discussing the effect the internet was having on people.  It was claimed that the ready access of information, particularly in terse bursts, was damaging our capability to reason, if not damaging the structure of our brain itself.  We discussed some of these articles in The Future of Booksin the Internet Age. 

The arguments suggested that the glitzy attractions of the internet were replacing the quiet, deep contemplation assumed to be associated with reading a book.  As a consequence we were losing our ability to read or write well.  This line of thought would imply that people were spending less time reading books in recent years.

That conclusion was countered with this press release by the Association of American Publishers.

“New York, NY, February 16, 2011— US publishers’ book sales across all platforms increased +2.4 percent in December 2010 vs December 2009 and +3.6 percent for the full year vs 2009, it was reported today by the Association of American Publishers (AAP).”

“Virtually every book publishing category showed growth in one or both comparisons, with the phenomenal popularity of E-books continuing.”

If the sale of books is increasing, it should be safe to assume that the amount of reading is also increasing.  Alexis Madrigal provides a short article in the Atlantic that presents evidence that the increase in reading could be part of long term trend that began decades ago and continues into the age of the internet.  This chart of data accumulated by Gallup was provided.

It would seem that the nadir of our interaction with the printed word came in the dull, drab 50s, not in the frenetic twenty-first century.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Animals, Antibiotics, and Superbugs: Will the FDA Do the Right Thing?

It seems inevitable that the use of antibiotics to control bacteria will lead to the evolution of species that have developed a resistance to antibiotics. These forms of bacteria have come to be known as "superbugs." Humans develop immunity to harmful species by allowing themselves to be exposed to doses small enough to generate antibodies, but not large enough to cause harm. Much the same dynamic occurs with bacteria that encounter low levels of an antibiotic; forms eventually evolve that develop immunity. The appropriate use of antibiotics is then: only when necessary, and in strong enough doses to ensure the death of the offending species. Unfortunately, that is not always the manner in which they are used.

There is a tendency to over prescribe antibiotics, even for conditions for which they have no relevance. Patients often discontinue usage early when they feel their symptoms have disappeared. Unused pills are often dumped into our water systems. Even when taken according to directions, if our bodies don’t fully metabolize the antibiotic, it will eventually be excreted into our water systems. Consequently, there are many ways in which bacteria can encounter low levels of antibiotics.

The rise of these superbugs is a growing problem. We recently discussed the situation that has developed in India in India: Politics, Greed, and the Attack of the Superbugs. Poor control of antibiotic use there has resulted in the development of a particularly dangerous form of a gene that can be transferred to a variety of bacteria making them resistant to even the most potent of our antibiotics. Such developments could have catastrophic consequences.

The situation is already dire in the US where it is said that

"In the United States alone, fighting drug-resistant infections costs up to 8 million additional patient hospital days and up to $34 billion every year."

Given this background on an issue that has been of concern for decades, one would think that an appropriate strategy would be in place. An article in the Atlantic by Robert S. Lawrence reminds us that issues of life and death may be of little consequence when matched against matters of profit and loss.

"The vast majority of antibiotics in this country -- about 80 percent -- are sold for use in food animal production, not to treat humans. The vast majority of animals that receive these drugs are not sick, and the doses they receive would be too low to successfully treat bacterial infections if they were. Rather, low doses of antibiotics are fed to healthy animals throughout their lives to speed their growth and to reduce infections in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions commonly found at the industrial operations that produce these animals."

In Foie Gras Illegal? Why Not Industrial Beef? we discussed the absurd pressure to ban foie gras because ducks and geese spent a few weeks getting overfed, while our beef was produced using procedures that caused more suffering and insured the death of the animals. Why do cattle require antibiotics? There are two reasons. First, they are fed in lots where they are left to wallow in their excrement rather than roam a nice clean field. Second, cattle evolved eating grass and developed organs to digest that food source, but in the feed lots they are fed corn, which they cannot digest without human intervention.

Cows have rumens where eaten grass is allowed to break down under bacterial action before being sent to the stomach for digestion. The acidity in the rumen of a grass-fed cow is neutral. The corn diet given cows makes the rumen acidic. This can cause a condition called "bloat" where gases build up in the rumen and can cause suffocation if not treated. The acidity of the material in the rumen also causes acidosis. Besides causing permanent discomfort to the animals, the constant acidity eventually breaks down the wall of the rumen and allows bacteria into the blood stream. The result is an infected liver.

The logic of industrial beef production is to fatten the animal as fast as possible and feed it whatever is necessary to keep it alive as long as possible. It is a race because the diet will surely kill the cattle, eventually destroying their livers.

The danger involved in using antibiotics in this practice was recognized long ago by the FDA.

"In 1977, the FDA determined that using penicillins and tetracyclines to make animals grow faster was no longer "shown to be safe," as research had linked such uses to the development of antibiotic resistance."

The FDA has a process by which drug use can be restricted. It involves hearings in which the issue can be argued before a ban is imposed. The FDA initiated that process in 1977, but the hearings were never held.

"Under pressure from Congress, the agency backed down, leaving the approvals in place. Although the FDA did not rescind the notices, in theory leaving the matter open for future consideration, the agency took no further action to restrict either drug class for the next 34 years."

One of the problems with the FDA is that it is easily coerced by political forces. When Democrats are in charge the FDA is told that its mission is to protect citizens from dangerous products. When Republicans are in charge, the message tends to be interpreted as "help companies get their product to market as cheaply and as quickly as possible." Legislators from both parties are susceptible to the financial inducements of lobbyists from the most adept of industrial organizations. Greed always seems to trump safety.

Finally, in 2010, the FDA issued some "regulatory strategies" whose provisions are entirely voluntary—meaning corporations should feel free to ignore them.

"Notably, the FDA wrote that using antibiotics for growth promotion "is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health." The agency nevertheless described using antibiotics to prevent infections as "necessary and judicious." That is, the FDA endorsed feeding low doses of antibiotics to food animals throughout their lives to prevent infections, if not to promote growth. This practice has time and again been shown to select for antibiotic resistance."

Those who protest against agricultural overuse of antibiotics and the delaying tactics by the FDA finally had their day in court—literally.

"The voluntary approach did not fly with the court. Under the law, it said, the FDA cannot find that an approved use of a drug is no longer safe and then refuse to withdraw its approval. Because the agency made such a determination in 1977, the court said, it must withdraw its approval now, unless drug companies can prove at an administrative hearing that the drugs are actually safe."

While this might appear to be a victory, Lawrence points out that the deep pockets of the drug companies can provide the means for delaying the ultimate resolution indefinitely.

It seems that for this issue to be resolved some difficult choices must be made. The drug companies and the agricultural interests are making a profit under the current system, and they are providing a service that is appreciated by the general public. Few would deny that meat is more abundant, cheaper, and, at least for beef, tastier than ever. It would be unreasonable to ask them to decide on their own to limit their profits to minimize a potential health hazard. The citizenry appreciates the abundant meat and cannot be expected to do the necessary research to decide if it is worth the risk to their health. One cannot expect them to arrive at an appropriate decision.

This seems a classic example of the need for a diligent and competent government agency to sort through the issues and make the argument why a given course of action is necessary. Our problem is that, rightly or wrongly, we have lost faith in the diligence and competence of our government, and in so doing, have guaranteed that its agencies will be neither diligent nor competent.

Those who continually argue for smaller government choose to underfund agencies with a critical mission and denigrate those who would choose a career in public service, thus creating the ineptness. This lack of effective performance they have created is then used to argue for even greater cuts in support. Meanwhile necessary tasks are going unattended.

Those who believe in an effective role for government in the lives of the citizens must be careful about overreach in authority and apply the heavy hand of the government wisely. They must continue to support their agencies while demanding excellence from them without resorting to politically motivated meddling.

There is much to criticize about how the FDA goes about its business, but one must recognize that until our political parties come to some sort of truce over how the government should conduct its business, it is being left dangling in the wind waiting for the next political breeze to tell it in which direction it should move. If excellence is not demanded, it will not be received.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Tragedy of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Supreme Court and the Death of Equality

William J. Stuntz provides us with an illuminating tour of the history of the US legal system in his book: The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. He provides us insight into one of the less well-known of the historical chapters by describing the manner in which the Supreme Court gutted the goals of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868. Its goal was to protect blacks from violence and discrimination in the Southern states. The first section consists of these words:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The emphasis is mine. Stuntz details several well-known massacres of blacks by whites during this period that undoubtedly generated the need for this formal amendment. Sometimes the violence was committed by policing agencies themselves; sometimes it was at the hands of unofficial groups such as the Ku Klux Klan who were allowed to operate with immunity.

Congress supported this intent to provide equal protection with other actions.

"....Congress passed the fifteenth Amendment providing that the right to vote ‘shall not be denied....on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ Shortly after that amendment was ratified in early 1870, Congress passed the Enforcement Act, which criminalized intimidation of would-be voters, conspiracies to deny the right to vote, and conspiracies ‘to hinder [the] free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or the constitution or laws of the United States’."

It would take only a few years for the Supreme Court to render these good intentions essentially null and void.

The most famous massacre of the Reconstruction era took place in Grant Parish in Louisiana in 1873. The capital city of this district was named Colfax. The parish had been constructed as a black-majority entity by extracting it from several surrounding parishes. The whites were determined to regain control of it, while the blacks were equally determined to maintain control. About 150 blacks occupied the parish courthouse and were deputized to protect parish property. The whites attacked, setting fire to the building and killing most of those who attempted to escape. The killing became a sport as the whites tried to ascertain how many blacks could be killed with a single bullet. Louisiana was so proud of what it accomplished that day that it placed a plaque at the scene with this inscription:

"On this site occurred the Colfax riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South."

Federal authorities were able to obtain only a few convictions from this action. That of Bill Cruikshank would provide a critical turning point in US legal history.

The case went to the Supreme Court. The US government argued that the state, by declining to protect blacks from those who would harm them, was denying them equal protection under the law. The federal government could then prosecute those who were guilty. The justices disagreed. The Court ruled that the wording of the Fourteenth amendment only applied to actions explicitly performed by the state. Private citizens were exempt.

In other words, the Cruikshank ruling found that an amendment ratified with the explicit purpose of protecting blacks from marauding bands like the Ku Klux Klan could not be used to protect blacks from marauding bands like the Ku Klux Klan. In Stuntz’s words:

"The ideal of equal protection—the notion that all Americans are entitled not only to freedom from government oppression, but to a measure of freedom from private violence as well, and the same measure their well-to-do neighbors received—was, for all practical purposes, dead. So were thousands of southern blacks who needed that protection, and needed it badly."

On the very same day, the Court issued another ruling that would have far reaching consequences to this day: United States vs. Reese. In this case Kentucky election officials refused to allow a black to vote even when he offered to pay the poll tax. This was a case where state authorities were denying a lawful right to vote—clearly a violation of federal law—right? It was not to be. The Court ruling declared that prosecution could only proceed if it could be proven that the guilty parties had the intent to discriminate on the basis of race. Intent can never be proven unless intent is confessed—a highly unlikely occurrence.

The net result of Reese was that state or local officials could discriminate on the basis of race as long as they did not admit it.

"After Reese, even Klan-influenced government officials were nearly unconvictable, thanks to the requirement that the omnipresent but unprovable discriminatory motive be established in every case. As the slaughter at Colfax showed, Klan violence could be stopped only by the exercise of federal power. Cruikshank and Reese left the federal government powerless to do the stopping."

If one supposes that these were decisions from a distant, unenlightened past, one would be mistaken. Quite recent Court decisions have upheld and extended the right to discriminate.

"Armstrong [1996] allows police forces and prosecutors to enforce drug laws in black neighborhoods but not in white ones. McClesky [1987] allows prosecutors and judges to punish crimes that victimize whites more severely than crimes that victimize blacks. Castle Rock [2005] allows law enforcers to ignore violent felonies for any reason or no reason at all, without fear of legal liability. All three fact patterns are paradigmatic failures to provide ‘the equal protection of the laws,’ given the meaning those words had to the men who wrote and ratified them."

To make this situation even more relevant to our current situation, Stuntz provides this statement:

"As long as their decisions are not racially motivated—as McClesky and Armstrong show, discriminatory motives are unprovable in this context—police officers and prosecutors have unreviewable discretion to decline to arrest or prosecute offenders."

This also means that police and prosecutors have unreviewable discretion to focus their law enforcement activities on a particular segment of the population.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander uses the facts of discrimination against blacks in the War on Drugs, along with these court rulings, to justify the assumption that the nation is intent on reestablishing a permanent underclass based on color of skin—a new Jim Crow. Alexander’s claim of intent is arguable, but it is easy to see how a person enmeshed by his or her skin color in this system could conclude that Alexander’s claim is obviously true.
Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged