Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.

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Fight the RIAA

March 9, 2007

Gordo has an important post about how the mafia the RIAA is using the Copyright Royalty Board to put independent music stations out of business so that the only music available will be this produced by an RIAA record label. The CRB has adopted the RIAA’s suggested royalty levels, 0.08 cents per listener per song effective retroactively from 2006, which often works out to a higher number than a webcasting station’s total income. Worse, this figure is slated to rise sharply, reaching 0.19 by 2010.

Radio Paradise‘s Bill Goldsmith notes, “This royalty structure would wipe out an entire class of business: Small independent webcasters such as myself & my wife, who operate Radio Paradise. Our obligation under this rate structure would be equal to over 125% of our total income. There is no practical way for us to increase our  income so dramatically as to render that affordable.”

And Radio Paradise is perhaps the most-successful webcaster in its class!  For most operators, this rate looks as if it would be >150-200% of total revenues.

Save Net Radio is circulating an online petition to Congress to repeal this stifling nonsense. Make sure you sign it.


Why the US Needs Prison Reform

March 8, 2007

Bean’s post about one of the fringe benefits of the prison-industrial complex – namely, that inmates are counted in the census for reapportionment purposes even though they can’t vote – leads me to the subject of prison reform in the US, which I haven’t addressed yet even though I should have.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world – about 700 per 100,000 people, give or take. Now, you’d think that it’s what’s deterred crime, causing the US to have a survey crime rate half of 23%, while the USA’s incarceration rate has increased by more than 50% since 1991 and gotten about the same reduction in crime.

Looking at the actual breakdown of inmates suggests that the USA could easily slash its prison population. A significant percentage of admissions is for drug offenses; indeed, about 9% of new admissions are for mere drug possession without proven intent to sell. Including people who are counted as drug dealers even though they are not – two college students sharing a joint are considered to engage in dealing – yields an even higher figure.

It gets worse. Black people comprised 17% of drug users and 37% of drug arrests in 1998. In general blacks use cocaine more than whites, but the margin is far lower for powder cocaine than for crack cocaine. And, as you can imagine, sentences for crack cocaine are harsher: a 1986 law set the minimum amount needed for a mandatory sentence at 500 grams for powder cocaine versus 5 for crack.

Almost all people sent to prison would be in the workforce and likely unemployed if released. The US has a labor force of 153 million, so adding 2 million inmates to the number of unemployed increases the unemployment rate from 4.6% to 5.9%. Among blacks, the labor force’s size is 17.5 million, so adding 900,000 black inmates increases their unemployment rate from 8%, lower than the white rate in France and Germany, to 13%. Although the USA still has a better black-to-white unemployment ratio than the comparable minority-to-white ratio of every European country I’ve checked, much of it derives from throwing black people to jail, where they don’t enter unemployment or labor participation statistics.

Not surprisingly, black civil rights groups consider prison reform an important priority. And not surprisingly, everyone else doesn’t. For white conservatives, disenfranchising large numbers of black people whose sole crime is private use of a substance Congress believes it has the right to tell people not to use is a good way of holding power. Once that dynamic is in place, they can rationalize giving ex-felons the right to vote as just a Democratic ploy to get more votes.

White Democrats, in turn, have mostly given up on doing anything for black people. The Clintons have spearheaded the technique of talking the talk and then supporting harsher drug laws that benefit nobody; sadly, Obama is so bad at black politics that Clinton is once again the black people’s candidate despite having done nothing to earn their support.

One of the fringe benefits of having a large prison-industrial complex in the US is that once incarceration rates come down to sane levels, a lot of the overcrowding problems, which contribute to insanely high rates of prison rape (by one estimate, 21% of male inmates experience sexual assault, of which 7% experience rape). Of course, another contributor to prison rape is the cultural attitude that doing anything for inmates is weak on crime.

When you think about it true, cruelty toward criminals isn’t required for being tough on crime. It’s after all how things work in foreign policy: typically, the best results come from policies based on diplomacy rather than naked aggression. It’s the same with crime. Giuliani credits New York’s crime drop to his broken windows policy, but in fact that drop started several years earlier, correlating with Dinkins’ assuming office and implementing less glamorous programs, such as community policing. No harsh sentences are needed; increasing arrest rates is what deters criminals.

This already produces several components of the high incarceration rate of the US, all of which can be manipulated to reduce it to normal levels without increasing the crime rate.

First, the drug war doesn’t do anything good. Drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime. That’s how people who snort superglue or drink excessively are treated; why are cocaine and marijuana treated so differently? Dealing is something else, but unless you can catch the people who actually run the show, there’s no point; unfortunately, the US seems intent on not doing that.

Second, 10-year sentences should be reserved to very serious criminals. If you’re not a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a serial violent offender, or an important crime boss, you shouldn’t get more than a single-figure sentence. Even if you take an economic view of crime wherein criminals respond to harsher sentences, it’s not linear. There’s a huge jump between 0 and 1 year, which is far greater than the difference between 7 and 8. The difference between not getting arrested and getting arrested and not prosecuted is likely to be greater than the difference between getting 7 years and getting 8 years.

Third, the two most serious crimes, murder and rape, are in most cases committed by someone known to the victim. As such, they respond better to policies aimed at defusing volatile situations, such as gun control, encouraging women to report rapes, and programs aimed at reducing domestic violence, which comprises 14% of all serious violent crimes and 35% of serious violent crimes committed by non-strangers.

Fourth, the justice system should be reformed to allow accused people the resources needed to mount competent defense. Public defenders who fail to clear a person later shown to be innocent should at the minimum face a hearing in which they’re likely to be disbarred if they fail to pass a reasonable person standard; this is true regardless of any plea bargain. Similar standards should apply to DAs who keep prosecuting people they know to be innocent. Furthermore, public defenders’ salaries should be increased in order to encourage promising lawyers to not always take the prosecution’s side in criminal trials.

Some of the problems inherent in the justice system are problems of the common law system. The overreliance on plea bargains, which encourage innocent people to plead guilty if they have incompetent counsel, creates an assembly line justice system. But that’s mostly a question of counsel competence, when it comes right down to it. What’s more, if it’s considered good enough to throw a criminal who pleads guilty to jail for 5 years, it should be good enough to throw him for 5 years if he pleads not guilty and is convicted. Punishing people for exercising their right to a fair trial isn’t very consistent with civil liberties.

However, other problems in the US have nothing to do with the common law system. Mandatory minimums are a recent innovation of politicians who are more interested in looking tough on crime than in being tough on crime; as such, they can be safely scrapped. Elected DAs are under immense pressure to convict; Britain and Canada do just as well with appointed prosecutors.

And fifth and finally, giving black people harsher sentences should be considered racial discrimination. The military lets minorities complain of discrimination or harassment, and, if the complaints check out, punishes the offending officer or at least blocks his promotions. The same rules should govern the justice system. Judges who discriminate in sentencing and lawyers who discriminate in jury selection don’t belong in court. Racial disparities go beyond laws; the same law is applied more harshly against black people, both in sentencing and in the decision to incarcerate.

Incarcerating more people is not the solution to anything. Abortion is something that should be made more rare if only because it’s a less pleasant experience than using birth control. But incarceration is not merely unpleasant, but a serious loss of liberty. It should be reserved for when it’s necessary rather than for when a politician wants to tell racist constituents that he’s cruel to black people.


Once Fascist, Always Fascist

March 4, 2007

Lindsay has an important story about how Iraq’s trade unions, a secular democratic interest group that was against Saddam Hussein back in the day, are under attack from both insurgents and the US. The immediate cause of this is a straightforward power struggle involving privatization; Lindsay says,

It is not surprising that Iraqi trade unions leaders have been targeted by both insurgents and occupying forces. Iraqi unions have undergone a resurgence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. However, union power is a potential threat to both fundamentalist clerics and the international corporations seeking to privatize Iraq’s oil industry.

The US-backed Iraqi government approved a sweeping new privatization package for Iraq’s oil industry last Monday. Labor leaders were shut out of the negotiations leading up to the new hydrocarbon law.

One of the characteristics of totalitarianism is its destruction of every civil society structure that could make an alternative to the state and the one party. Authoritarianism tends to leave a few allied structures in place, such as a properly conservative church or mosque, but unions are always targeted for liquidation.

This holds even in authoritarian socialist states. There were no independent trade unions in the Soviet Union. Even Hugo Chavez, a budding authoritarian socialist leader, has had power struggles with the unions, which he’s trying to coopt despite their constituting allies in his fight for a more socialist Venezuela. It goes without saying then that non-socialist forms of authoritarianism, including the religious one that’s building up in Iraq, will be anti-union.

On May 1st, 1933*, Nazi Germany celebrated Labor Day and Hitler promised the workers he’d be their ally. The next day he raided their offices, destroyed them, and established in their stead a single employer-side trade union.

This goes beyond things like whether unions should be established by a secret ballot or by a card check. The freedom of association is a civil liberty that is really on a par with free speech and privacy in being one of the few that enable all the others. It’s what underpins civil society and much of free enterprise. It’s also a very unglamorous civil liberty, since the union raider appears to affect far fewer and less public people than the censor or the eavesdropper.

The US can’t even keep up the act that Iraq is a democracy. Forget insurgents, who are upfront about wanting to establish a Shi’a theocracy (let’s face it, the Sunnis aren’t winning the civil war). The US itself is actively trying to dedemocratize Iraq, just like it has so many other third-world countries over the years.


Eternal Night

March 3, 2007

My book, Eternal Night, is finally edited in such a way that it’s readable. Before I send it to publishers, though, I’d like to run it by anyone here who’s willing to read it and comment on it. Please don’t post it publicly; I want to try publishing it on dead trees. If you think it’s bad, say so. Frankly, I think “You shouldn’t ever write fiction again” is more useful advice than “oh, it’s good” with no specifics.

As a reminder, the plot is about religious nationalism, defined loosely by Dominionism in the US, Islamism in the Islamic world, Hindutva in India, and so on. As Dominionists threaten to win the 2020 Presidential election in the US, in which case they’ll be able to pack the Court and roll bills through an obsequious Congress, the protagonist is drawn into large-scale conspiracies to keep them out of the White House.

This eventually becomes a political pissmatch between a secular liberal and multiple religious fundamentalists attacking him on various grounds… and at the same time, an Islamic superstate and a Catholic one are coalescing in the Middle East and Latin America respectively, and China and India are turning to naked aggression to fulfill their national ambitions.

Any takers?


Immigration Political Scorecard

March 1, 2007

Hat-tip to Lindsay: Amy Taylor of DMI Blog reports the position of each American Presidential candidate on immigration so that you don’t have to. I’ve only read the positions of the six serious candidates – honestly, Tom Tancredo’s position doesn’t matter since even if he wins the primary, he’ll lose the general by a Goldwaterian margin – but they don’t sound that different from one another.

All candidates, except possibly Romney, say they support giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, after they pay a fine. They differ on the details somewhat, but the differences are small. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the most restrictive that’s acceptable in American politics (e.g. Tancredo) and 10 is the most permissive (e.g. Kennedy), I’d say the gamut ranges from 5 to 9. And, mind you, the scale could easily expand; a Le Pen-style racist would be about a -5, while I’m about a 20.

Clinton follows her husband in being a hardliner on enforcement issues; she supports a mandatory ID card as a means of cracking down on illegal immigration. At the same time, on welfare-related issues she’s consistently taken a pro-immigrant stance, cosponsoring an act that would consider long-term residents who are in the US illegally as legal permanent residents and supporting a bill that would grant them in-state tuition (7).

Obama supports tough enforcement and in fact broke a promise not to vote for any enforcement-oriented bill that did not include a legalization component. In addition, he supports a guest worker program, but at the same time acknowledges its shortcomings and proposed an amendment that would require employers to pay everyone the prevailing wage regardless of immigration status (7).

Edwards talks about immigration as a labor issue, as he does on all other issues. He publicly rejected the notion that illegal immigrants suppress American workers’ wages. He also supports unionization as a means of helping illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he’s far vaguer than even Obama, and tends to underplay the issue (7).

Giuliani has repeatedly praised immigrants’ economic contributions. As Mayor of New York, he opposed an anti-immigration bill in 1996; more recently, he supported the more conciliatory Senate immigration bill over the punitive House version. On welfare his record is mostly positive; he had the City sue the federal government to restore welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he has an anti-immigrant record on language issues, including bilingual education, and talks about the issue in terms of security just like Edwards does in terms of labor (8).

McCain clearly distinguishes between people who overstay their visas and terrorists. Together with Ted Kennedy, he introduced the conciliatory Senate bill mentioned above. He’s against the security fence, but prefers alternative high-cost gadgets to seal the US-Mexico border. Speaking to the AFL-CIO, he said that illegal immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want (9).

Romney supports the fence, and as Governor of Massachusetts supported requiring local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. He has said nothing about issues like a guest worker program or a path to citizenship. Conversely, he supports increasing the rate of legal immigration, which the US throttles (5).


Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.