Monday, July 28, 2008

Working your way through high school

Reason Magazine's August/September issue has a feature article on a private school in Chicago that caters to disadvantaged minorities where students work a few days a month to cover the greater part of their tuition. Here's how it works, basically:

At the 19 schools in the network (three new ones are opening this fall in Brooklyn, Detroit, and the west side of Chicago), four-student teams share entry-level clerical jobs at area employers. In exchange, these companies pay the schools $20,000 to $30,000 for each team. The subsidy of $5,000 to $7,500 per student keeps tuition low enough (usually around $2,500) that a prep school education becomes feasible for poor families.

And the results are encouraging:

These start-ups are all committed to enrolling only low-income kids; network-wide, 72 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program. The schools are also committed to sending the vast majority of their graduates to college; of the 318 students who graduated from Cristo Rey Network schools in 2007, 316 were accepted to a two- or four-year college. That’s better than 99 percent. (Nationwide, just 67 percent of students who graduate from high school start college shortly thereafter, and in big cities that figure can be much lower. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley held a press conference last spring to boast that the Chicago public schools had sent almost half of the class of 2007 to two- or four-year colleges.)

The article recognizes that "[s]ociologists have long pointed to systems of free, compulsory public schools as the international gold standard," but that in light of piss-poor graduation rates and educational quality at many American public schools, the Cristo Rey method seems pretty appealing. And surely the idea would have gained traction a lot earlier (well, it actually did) if it weren't for the competition from free, subsidized public schools.

Was Larry Summers right?

You may have seen write-ups reverberating around the Internet about a recent study, in which the writers conclude that girls and boys have the same average math test scores, and therefore the long-standing assumption that boys are better at math than girls is false. However, Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution digs a little deeper and finds that the story hasn't been very accurately portrayed. While average scores are similar, the variance among scores for boys and girls is very different: namely, boys are much more likely to be either very good at math or very bad at math than girls. So, at the upper end of the achievement scale, you're likely to see many more boys than girls. Which is exactly what you see in university-level math and science programs. Looks like Larry Summers might have been onto something, after all.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Is heroin really that bad after all?

The NYT Magazine this weekend has an article about Afghanistan's poppy problem written by an American drug warrior entitled "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?". The article chronicles the failure of the anti-poppy efforts, and the author concludes – in the words of Jacob Sullum – that the problem "is everyone else's fault." But what I find most interesting about the article is that its premise – that "the evils of heroin" are truly evil – is uncritically accepted from the get-go, and the author doesn't even feel the need to explain why heroin is so evil. So, I'll try to take a stab.

First of all, heroin is expensive. Drug addicts end up having to steal and do other unscrupulous things (prostitution, perhaps?) to acquire the drug. But why is it expensive? Because it's illegal.

Second of all, intravenous drug use can lead to diseases like HIV and Hepatitis C. Why? Because users share needles. Why do users share needles? Because it's illegal to get them without a prescription, and in America, having a heroin addiction won't get you a prescription.

Thirdly, heroin is notoriously impure. Dealers cut it with all sorts of things, including things much more deadly than heroin itself. Pure heroin is virtually impossible to overdose on, especially for the addicted user. The vast majority of deaths due to "overdoses" are actually deaths due to either impure product or a lethal combination of alcohol or benzodiazepines and heroin. And why do heroin dealers cut their product, while pharmacies dispensing morphine don't? Because heroin is illegal.

A fourth reason that heroin is detrimental is that heroin addicts often have damaged kidneys. However, researchers aren't sure that this is a result of heroin use, or if it's a result of the adulterants that dealers use to increase their product's salable weight. Again, you can chalk this up to heroin's illegality.

And the fifth reason – and only reason that's not directly attributable to heroin's illegality – is that heroin causes chronic constipation. Yep, you heard it here first (probably) – heroin's only proven long-term health consequence, other than physical dependence, is constipation.

So, out of the four major consequences of heroin use, all of the really bad consequences are due not to the drug itself, but the environment that governments create when they ban the drug. The only real health consequence – constipation – is a minor irritation at best compared to the harm caused by the larger war on drugs.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Goodbye and good riddance to software patents

The last couple have months have been exciting ones for opponents of intellectual property rights (myself included), as American courts have been considering cases that probe the essence of some of the most hated patents: software and business method patents. Whereas normal patents give the patent holder monopoly rights over a certain physical alignment of matter, software and method patents cover theoretical or digital arrangements. Over at the blog Patently-O, John Duffy examines the implications of a few landmark cases (including Bilski, which I covered a while ago), and concludes that software patents are more or less finished:

The Patent and Trademark Office has now made clear that its newly developed position on patentable subject matter will invalidate many and perhaps most software patents, including pioneering patent claims to such innovators as Google, Inc.

In a series of cases including In re Nuijten, In re Comiskey and In re Bilski, the Patent and Trademark Office has argued in favor of imposing new restrictions on the scope of patentable subject matter set forth by Congress in § 101 of the Patent Act. In the most recent of these three—the currently pending en banc Bilski appeal—the Office takes the position that process inventions generally are unpatentable unless they “result in a physical transformation of an article” or are “tied to a particular machine.”[1] Perhaps, the agency has conceded, some “new, unforeseen technology” might warrant an “exception” to this formalistic test, but in the agency’s view, no such technology has yet emerged so there is no reason currently to use a more inclusive standard.[2]

Duffy goes on to discuss the implications for a pretty famous software patent, that on Google's PageRank technology (a relatively simple algorithm for determining a page's importance based on links and the PageRank reputation of those links), which is arguable at the root of Google's internet search dominance. He believes that this patent is finished given the precedents being set by the courts. If it is indeed invalidated, it'll be interesting to see to what extent Google's success was predicated on the monopoly rights it was given by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

...and here is the archive of all my posts related to intellectual property.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mao: The Unknown Story

I just finished a fascinating biography of Mao called Mao: The Unknown Story. I hadn't known much about Mao or Chinese history, so it was pretty enlightening. The book was apparently pretty controversial when it came out, with some people calling it brilliant, and some calling it an example of lazy research. I haven't looked too far into the critical claims about the book, but I find it difficult to believe that it's poorly cited, given the hundreds of pages of notes at the end, and the incredibly comprehensive list of very famous world leaders that the authors interviewed. In any case, I highly recommend the book. Here are some things that I learned from it that I hadn't even heard of before:

  • For most of the Long March, Mao was carried on a litter and was comfortable enough to read.
  • The Communists' success during the Civil War had everything to do with the Russians having planted sleepers among the Nationalists during the heady days of the Wampoa Military Academy, and nothing to do with the Communists' military skills.
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War was started by Stalin when he activated a sleeper who was the commander of the Nationalists' garrison around Shanghai and Nanjing and had him incite the Marco Polo Bridge incident which began the conflict. The Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek had no intention of fighting that war at that time, but Stalin wanted to draw the Japanese into China proper to avoid them invading the Soviet Union from the east.
  • The two Taiwan Straits crises in the '50s were engineered by Mao to provoke the US into threatening nuclear war, which would then compel the Soviet leadership to hand over to Mao blueprints for atomic weapons (the reason for the first incident), and missiles capable of carrying them (the reason for the second).
  • Much (if not all) of the deaths by starvation in the late '50s and early '60s were due to Mao's generous support of would-be allies abroad. China became the biggest donor of foreign aid history has ever known, and was exporting food to Eastern Europe (places which barely knew food rationing, much less death by starvation) at a time when millions of Chinese laborers were receiving fewer calories than those at Auschwitz. Mao even exported food to the USSR while his own citizens were starving despite the pleas of the Russians not to.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pirates at the Economist

It looks like the mainstream media might finally be catching on to the benefits of piracy – the Economist has an article this week called "Piracy: Look for the silver lining" in which they document the ways that owners of intellectual "property" are embracing piracy rather than attempting to litigate it out of existence. Though they skimp on some of the more interesting forms of piracy – namely music and video piracy – they quote Bill Gates as saying that piracy helps Microsoft compete against open source software in the developing world. I remember when I was in Romania Gates came to speak to Microsoft's Romanian employees (apparently the biggest nationality in Redmond aside from Americans), and Romania's president said that "[we] built our country on pirated Windows." Gates apparently looked a little uncomfortable after the comment, so I doubt his comfort with piracy is quite as strong as the Economist would make it seem, but nevertheless, still interesting. It's just a shame that pirates have to rely on the good will of content creators to see the benefit in relinquishing their intellectual property rights.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Athenians have second thoughts about Olympics

According to a story in the Christian Science Monitor, some in the city of Athens are reconsidering whether hosting the 2004 Olympic Games was really worth the $15 billion cost. The stadiums lie either empty or underutilized. Athens got some infrastructure out of the deal – the metro was revamped, the ancient city center was beautified, and the airport was enlarged – but all of those investments could have been made without hosting the Olympics. Beijing is spending an estimated $40 billion on their coming out party, but authoritarian regimes are insulated from the oversight and criticism that other Olympic hosts face from their citizens. The article also implies that Tokyoites are a lot less receptive to the idea of hosting the Olympics in 2016 than they were in 1964. The trend seems to be that citizens in booming, upcoming cities (Tokyo 1964, Beijing 2008) are more likely to welcome the Olympics than citizens of dynamic market-oriented cities who don't need to prove themselves to the world.

All my writings on Olympics-related topics here, with more examples of Olympics-gone-wrong in Sochi and Baku.

Possible false flag operations in Somalia

The NYT today has a story about Somalia and the recent spate of violence against aid workers, both foreign and domestic. At least twenty have been killed this year alone, something that is apparently unprecedented in the two decades since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime. But the funny thing about the killings is that no one can quite figure out who's behind them. Though the attacks are apparently committed by radical Islamists, the groups claiming responsibility are little known. The government maintains that the Islamists are behind it, though they have a good reason to present that picture: the current federal government was put into place on the back of an American-backed, Ethiopian-led invasion of the country that drove the Islamic Courts Union out of power in 2006. But not everyone buys it:

Some Western security analysts theorize that in the violent murkiness that has overtaken the country, unsavory elements within the Somali government may be killing aid workers to discredit Islamist opposition groups and draw in United Nations peacekeepers, who may be the government’s last hope for survival.

The government admits that it desperately needs peacekeepers. But it denies that it is attacking aid workers to get them.

“It’s obvious who’s doing this,” said Abdi Awaleh Jama, a Somali ambassador at large. “It’s hard-liner Islamists who hate the West. They are forces of darkness, not forces of light.”

Considering that foreign intervention in Somalia is always a not-too-distant possibility, and that the current regime was installed by fiat, this theory isn't as crazy as it seems. The scepter of al-Qaeda led the Americans and Ethiopians to invade and expel the ICU two years ago, so hey, maybe it will work again.

Here's the archive of my posts about Somalia, everyone's favorite failed state, which includes a pretty long post I wrote taking the media to task for their uncritical look at how Somalia's fared since it descended into statelessness twenty years ago.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Professional pigs

The NYT has been doing a pretty long series called American Exception about unique aspects of the American law system. This month's article was about the exclusionary rule, a legal principle that since 1961 has automatically acquitted defendants whose prosecution rests on evidence obtained illegally, regardless of the magnitude of either the police violation or the defendant's crime. However, recent court cases have weakened the principle, and an upcoming Supreme Court case will reevaluate and clarify* the rule.

Scalia (along with Roberts) has already indicated that he thinks the rule is outdated, citing recourse through civil suits and "increasing professionalism" among police and "new emphasis on internal police discipline." Ironically enough, the comment was made in regards to a complaint that because the police did observe the knock-and-announce rule, the damning evidence found should excluded. Scalia brushes away concerns that with the exclusionary rule police won't wait before barging in, saying that "incentive is minimal" that this would happen, and that "ignoring knock-and-announce can realistically be expected to achieve nothing." Only, that's exactly what happens all the time, and it's what's happened even before 2006 when the Supreme Court struck down the exclusionary rule with regards to knock-and-announce violations in Hudson v. Michigan. And as for "increased professionalism," Radley Balko debunks that with his long-running "another isolated incident" watch.

Edit: Crime & Federalism brings up a point that I hadn't realized: the exclusionary rule, in practice, isn't as strong as the NYT article makes it out to be. According to a federal judge, a successful motion-to-suppress is "almost as rare as hen's teeth." All a police officer usually has to do is lie, and the motion will be denied.

* By which I mean arbitrarily legislate and regulate. I don't actually believe that these days the judicial branch makes objective decisions, and I think it's almost all political, even with regards to decisions I agree with. And though I'm not a big legal history buff, I have a feeling it's always been that way.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Putting the lid on Pandora's box

When the iPhone 2.0 software came out about a week ago, I downloaded one of the most popular applications for it: Pandora. Basically, you enter a genre/artist/song, and from there it uses data from the Music Genome Project to find similar songs, which it plays to you. You indicate to the software what you like by giving the songs it plays a thumbs up or thumbs down. The songs are pretty random, so it's a lot like radio – you can listen to lots of music, but you don't have precise control over what plays. It's great for discovering new bands and songs and it's free, and since the songs are unpredictable and streaming, you can't use it as a way to listen to whatever music you want without paying for it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it could be a boon for the music industry, as people buy music that they discover using Pandora.

So, naturally, the record companies are trying to shut it down. Just another example of government favors (in this case, copyrights) interfering with market signals and putting power in the hands of people who haven't legitimately earned it, who in turn are oblivious to true market forces and therefore litigate and legislate themselves out of business. It would be nice if artists stood up for themselves and their future profits and demanded that their labels stop this nonsense, but that doesn't seem likely.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

US embargoes dissent in Cuba

According to a document leaked to the very interesting website Wikileaks, Cuba's government has negotiated with Venezuela's government to establish a cable connection to the internet. Apparently Cuba has been walled off from the internet via anything but a slow and expensive satellite connection thanks to Amerca's embargo on Castro's prison paradise. I'm not a big fan of the Cuban embargo, but this strikes me as a particularly boneheaded aspect of it – it's very difficult to fully censor the internet, and in a semi-repressive communist country, the internet could be a great way of safe communication among dissidents. There are already a few famous dissident bloggers in Cuba, and it's hard to imagine that there wouldn't be more if Cubans could access the internet more cheaply and easily.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Liberté, égalité, fraternité et uniformité

I'm back, but I'm pretty fried, so all you're getting is a link to a Language Log post about Bastille Day and the languages of France and a quote from it:

From a linguistic point of view, however, the French Revolution was a disaster. The monarchy had been largely unconcerned with what languages its subjects spoke. At the time, the languages spoken by natives of France included six Romance languages: French, Occitan, Franco-Provencal, Walloon, Catalan, and Corsican (a dialect of Italian), the Germanic languages Flemish and German, the Celtic language Breton, and Basque. Some of these, especially French and Occitan, each had numerous divergent forms. Additional languages, such as Berber and Tahitian, now qualify as "French". A full list may be found in the Cerquiglini report Les Langues de la France.

One of the effects of the Revolution was to bring about a greatly increased centralization of the French government and a policy of establishing a standard form of French as the only language of the Republic. I emphasize that the policy adopted was not merely to ensure that all French citizens shared a common language, but to eliminate all competitors. This is readily seen in the title of the report by the Abbé Grégoire establishing the policy: Rapport sur la nécessité et les moyens d'anéantir les patois et d'universaliser la langue française "Report on the necessity and means of annihlating the dialects and of making the French Language universal". Since the Revolution, all French governments have been hostile to minority languages.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

To be continued...

So, I'm leaving tomorrow for All Good and won't be back till Sunday night. My brain will probably be pretty fried, so I'll likely resume blogging on about Tuesday and a half. I trust that you'll all be good while I'm gone. In the meantime, enjoy a random Wikipedia article.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Cogeneration overregulation

As a follow up to a post I made about energy incentives in America, I found this article from Forbes about the regulatory impediments to electrical cogeneration – that is, producing power and trapping the excess heat and using it to heat nearby buildings. These sorts of projects are most economical for large institutions, who have enough demand for electricity that they have on-site generators, which are close enough to the buildings to allow the heat to be piped in. In some cases, the efficiency boost can be dramatic: the article says that some power plants run at 30% efficiency, which can be raised to 80% if a cogeneration plant is used.

The types of regulations that hamper the construction of cogeneration plants are pretty typical, but drive home the detrimental effect of these sorts of regulations on small firms and preclude well-functioning markets by putting up barriers to entry:

"It's one thing to absorb regulatory or legal review or another round of process on a five- or six-megawatt project," says Thornton. "But to have that same process applied to a one-megawatt project? The benefits don't outweigh. … Not when the utilities can do this rope-a-dope." [...]

Utilities that want to can often hit projects with repeated delays. Elliott describes the sort of scenarios he's seen. "Require an interconnection study, takes 60 days, present the study, 60 days to do that, the utility takes 90 days to review that, then if they have any questions, you have another 30 days. … When it adds up, it may take a year or two or three. And time is money."

Some time and money are, of course, needed to ensure that the system integrates properly, Elliott says, but gratuitous delays have "killed more CHP projects than anything else," he says.

So it's a bit weird that even after acknowledging the regulatory impediments to the free market increasing efficiency and decreasing pollution, the article leaves you with the impression that deregulation in this specific field and new regulations on emissions are somehow linked:

"There are enlightened utilities and regulators who see carbon trading … and energy efficiency as part of the new mix going forward," Thornton says. "But I'm not ready to say we're one big happy family and everyone is kumbaya."

Maybe it's just me, but given that we've identified places where the free market would do better than a regulated market, it seems like we should first deregulate, and see if that results in the desired effect rather than imposing new regulations (i.e., carbon trading and carbon taxes).

(HT: Knowledge Problem)

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The cost of a dropped copula*

You can file this one under the "obvious" category too, but it's interesting to see it verified academically. According to a paper by U. Chicago professor Jeffrey Grogger, a study controlled for socioeconomic factors found that "sounding black" will cost you about a tenth of the wage earned by someone who "sounds white," regardless of your actual race. Similarly, a southern accent will have about the same effect, though the penalty is a bit lower. (A note to non-native English speakers: though black English is similar to and has roots in southern English, it's very easy for Americans to differentiate between them.) I only read summaries of the paper, but a quick Cmd+F and the comments of a NYT blog post about the paper tell me that the study only looked at those two English accents/dialects, and didn't test the effects of having other sorts of regional accents (say, Midwestern or New York). Given that sounding black and sounding like you're from the South are about equally detrimental, I'd guess that the difference comes in people trying to use accent as a proxy for class, and associating black and southern English with being low class. The measure of racism is probably the differential between the hit you take from being from the South and the hit you take from being black.

* A linguistics joke – speakers of black English tend to drop the copula, which is any form of the verb "to be." See the AAVE Wikipedia article's section on grammar for more on the nitty-gritty linguistic details of black English.

BBC: Russia 'backed Litvinenko murder'

As if it needed to be said:

The murder of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was carried out with the backing of the Russian state, Whitehall sources have told the BBC.

A senior security official told Newsnight there were "very strong indications it was a state action". [...]

The BBC has been told that Russia's internal security organisation, the FSB, operated under Mr Putin with far more autonomy than the organisations usually entrusted with foreign espionage operations.

Our source said: "We very strongly believe the Litvinenko case to have had some state involvement."

Newsnight has also learned that officers at MI5 believe they thwarted an attempt last summer to kill another Russian dissident, Boris Berezovsky.

The BBC's source said the Berezovsky incident showed "continued FSB willingness to consider operations against people in the West". [...]

In November, head of MI5 Jonathan Evans expressed concern that there had been "no decrease" in the number of Russian covert intelligence officers operating in the UK since the end of the Cold War.

The service believes there are around 30 operating from Russian diplomatic missions here.

My personal opinion on why they killed Litvinenko was that it had something to do with what he knew about 9/11 and related Russian sponsorship of Islamic terrorism. Because it sure doesn't seem worth it to kill him over something like this, when no one outside of Russia seemed to care much. You can find a full archive of Russia-related posts here.

They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot

In the field of urbanism and land use policy, there are two major anti-market forces at work in America: zoning laws that mandate low density, and parking laws that mandate lots of parking. Both are often ignored when it comes to discussions of transportation and the environment, but the Washington Post has a rare story about parking. The story is specifically focused on Tysons Corner, a suburban edge city outside of DC which has become a major job center in recent years. The town's Wikipedia article calls it "the opposite of a bedroom community, with a daytime population greater than 70,000 and a nighttime population of about 18,000."

Anyway, like most edge cities in America, the place is literally paved over, with 40 million square feet of parking compared to 28 million square feet of office space. And at 167,000 spots in total, there are more than three times the number of spots (50,000) as in "downtown Washington" (what exactly that means – everything in DC? – is unclear). Though the article laments all this parking, it's never exactly clear why there is so much parking. Is it built by the government, or built by private developers? Do the developers build it because that's what the market demands, or do they build it because minimum parking regulations force them to? The article gives a few hints that it's the government, not the developers, who want all the parking:

Yet private developers, including the big retailers, are ready to do with less parking. They welcome the chance to spend less money building parking structures, which can cost as much as $40,000 per parking space. [...]

"The market quickly figured out that you didn't need as much parking," said Arlington board member Chris Zimmerman (D). [...]

"County planners may also be an impediment, Schwartz said, noting that the county increased its parking requirements recently for some developments."

Overall, I'm not terribly impressed with the article. It could have gone a lot deeper explaining why exactly there is so much parking, discussing the economics of minimum parking regulations and the Catch-22 that says that mass transit won't be built without density, but density won't be allowed without transit. Or they could have picked a developer and had him discuss the costs of the project and layout of a particular project if he built the whole thing according to how he wants it, versus the plan that he'll eventually be forced to accept due to minimum parking regulations. For a deeper treatment of the subject, see Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking. I haven't read the book, but it sure looks interesting – you can find reviews and discussion of the book and the idea here, here, and here, with an ungated article from 1999 by the author on the same subject here.

(HT: Planetizen, an invaluable daily stream of articles related to land use, urbanism, and transportation.)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Naomi Klein's misguided understanding of capitalism

Normally I wouldn't waste time trying to debunk Naomi Klein, but her use of the term "capitalism" to describe decidedly statist policies has really been getting to me lately. In an article for The Nation called "Disaster Capitalism, State of Extortion" she again pulls what I like to call "pulling a Naomi Klein" – she berates the Bush administration for its obeisance to markets, admits that it's interfering with markets, and concludes capitalism is therefore the problem. The article is a bit schizophrenic (but then again, when are here thoughts not?), but focuses on three main issues: oil in Iraq, oil in Anwar, and the food crisis.

On Iraqi oil, apparently she thinks that no-bid contracts are the paragon of capitalism, and even that these uncompetitive contracts "will raise more money" – but how handing over concessions to a company without looking for higher bidders will raise more money, she never explains. Furthermore, she never explains why a capitalist – that is, someone with a single-minded drive for profit – wouldn't put a contract out for competitive bidding. On Anwar she makes a little more sense, saying that the resources up there are miniscule compared to the global market for oil.

But on food prices, she again loses it. Despite a leaked report by the World Bank that says the rises in food prices are largely due to pro-ethanol, anti-capitalist state intervention in agriculture, she conveniently ignores the fact that capitalism is obviously the solution to the food crisis, not the problem (Raționalitate on food here). She goes on a little rant about genetically modified crops, saying "there is no evidence that GMOs increase crop yields, and they often decrease them." This might be true (though I kind of doubt it), but if it were, then what's the problem? Has the Bush administration been forcing farmers to use GM crops? If they're so ineffective, then wouldn't those greedy profit seekers not use them? And in the same breath that she deprecates GM crops, she berates corporations for patenting those oh-so-ineffective crops and depriving others of their use. Although attacking intellectual property as it relates to food genetics is certainly justified, she implicitly associates intellectual property with a free market agenda, despite the divide among libertarians on whether IP is justified (and, hence, whether or not it qualifies as "capitalist"). Those who come out (to some degree or another) against IP range from the traditionally libertarian to the hard-core anarcho-capitalists (not to mention myself), though you'd have no way of knowing that from her article.

Naomi Klein almost always has legitimate points, but she's often profoundly confused about the difference between capitalism and statism. What she calls "disaster capitalism" (a favorite topic of hers – she even wrote a book about it) is more accurately termed state capitalism, but don't count on Naomi to be able to discern distinctions so subtle.

Edit: Cato actually has a takedown of Klein's aforementioned book here if you're interested – I haven't read her book, and I've only skimmed this article, but from what I've read of Klein's, debunking her is a job that anyone with half a brain could do pretty well.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Learning from the best

File this under too good to be true. And by good, I mean horribly, horribly wrong:

WASHINGTON — The military trainers who came to Guantánamo Bay in December 2002 based an entire interrogation class on a chart showing the effects of “coercive management techniques” for possible use on prisoners, including “sleep deprivation,” “prolonged constraint,” and “exposure.”

What the trainers did not say, and may not have known, was that their chart had been copied verbatim from a 1957 Air Force study of Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean War to obtain confessions, many of them false, from American prisoners.

The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency. [...]

The only change made in the chart presented at Guantánamo was to drop its original title: “Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance.”

This caught my attention because I've been reading recently a very unflattering biography of Mao called Mao: The Unknown Story. I haven't gotten to the part about the Korean War yet, though it's already been one of the most educational books I've ever read. I didn't know much about Soviet support of the Nationalists and Communists in China, the Asian half of World War II, or the Chinese Civil War, but now I feel like I understand them much better than any history book ever told it. I suppose that's the peril of trying to sound unbiased – sometimes, the radicals happen to be right.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Pot referendum in California

Update, Dec. 16, 2009: The referendum will be on the 2010 ballot. It's not the same exact ballot initiative that I discussed in the post below, but it does indeed put the question of full legalization to voters.

Apparently, if Christopher Springer gets his way, and he can collect about 700,000 signatures, a referendum will be put to Californians in November of whether to legalize (sort of) marijuana for everyone over the age of 18, and let it be sold anywhere alcohol is. The title of the article – "California to legalize weed for everyone" – is a bit misleading, but the initiative is very much real, and you can read the full text on the California Attorney General's site, here. As it is now, California has legalized medicinal marijuana, but the rules are so lax and the incentives to plentiful that with $100, you can see a doctor and, pretty much without hassle, get a prescription for anxiety, insomnia, or any other unverifiable, widespread ailment. The referendum, if passed, would impose a tax of $5 on each eighth of an ounce sold (that's the most common unit of sale, which retails for between $20 and $70 depending on quality, and is enough for anywhere from ten to thirty joints), plus a $50 tax on growing plants (which can yield many ounces). There would be some anonymizing provision to keep the feds away, who insist that regulating the use and sale of marijuana is within their purview as per the Commerce Clause. Despite marijuana's illegality, its use is fairly widespread: over 40% of Americans admit having tried it (the highest in the world), a number that is sure to grow as older generations who weren't exposed to it die out and younger ones replace them.


Just to hammer home the incredibly similarity of America's only two parties*, the Tax Policy Center lays out the costs of of both presidential candidates plans for America:

TPC estimates that in 2013, Obama would collect revenues of 18.2 percent of GDP. McCain would bring in about 17.8 percent. Spending that year would be about 19.5 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office, assuming the Iraq war will be winding down.

That's a difference of 0.4 percentage points in GDP. And it's important to measure spending and not revenues, because any deficit spending will result in inflation, which acts as a only vaguely-recognized tax on American citizens, but also anyone else who owns dollar bills.

*Sorry, third parties, but America's voting system is stacked impossibly against you. If another party enters the scene, it won't be as a third party, but as a future member of the two-party system, like it always has been.