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A Giant Moves On.

Senator Kennedy is dead at 77.


If You Haven’t Seen This Movie, You Probably Should.

Eric Randolph tells us why at Complex Terrain Lab in a post entitled “A New Kind of War Movie” :

“The Hurt Locker has already garnered the epithet of ‘first great Iraq war movie’ since its US release back in June, but that might actually be an underestimation. For a start, it has an intensity that will leave your bowels twisted and your nails bleeding; and it’s made a star of a nobody in James Renner. But, more importantly, by side-stepping the question of the war’s founding morality and justification, director Kathryn Bigelow has achieved something quite new for the war genre. Her resolute focus on the daily activities of a small cog in the military machine – namely, a bomb disposal unit in 2004 Baghdad – results in a film that is neither anti-war polemic nor gung-ho propaganda piece. Rather, she simply seeks to represent the unadorned and bleak reality of daily routine, with the caveat that the daily routine in question happens to be a horrifically dangerous nightmare.

As an exercise in compulsive tension, it is obviously a great subject for a filmmaker, and one that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have expertly realised. But more than that, it is also a rare look at the process of war-fighting. Cinema has often treated soldiers as metaphors for the grand existential struggles of mankind, or as the tortured pawns of some inherent evil in the world. By contrast, the soldiers of The Hurt Locker are simply employees doing a particular bizarre job. The action is episodic, occurring in a series of fairly independent set pieces that bring home the monotony of work far more than any quest for glory. Although Bigelow tries to inject some concluding “what does it all mean?”-style remarks towards the end, these moments sit uncomfortably in a film that avoids melodrama, sweeping rationalisations or any over-arching narrative.”

I withhold judgment until after I have a chance to rent and watch, which on Randolph’s tantalizing recommendation I shall do this weekend. But based on his description I think this genre (nuts and bolts of work in and around wars, sans grand narrative) was actually pioneered earlier in the decade – with films about the First Gulf War. Jarhead and Three Kings (possibly, though maybe it was in a genre all its own) come to mind. It’s true that you haven’t seen a film of this type about the Iraq war, so that’s new. I wonder if there is some generalizable lag in films about particular wars that renders this type of movie politically acceptable a certain amount of time after the onset of hostilities.

Election Results from Afghanistan

Preliminary results show it is too close to call; the Guardian interprets this as Karzai having a narrow lead.

UPDATE: Oh, crap.

Web Architecture and Children’s and the Media in Cross-National Perspective

UPDATE: The original version of this post was “Children and the Media.” It was basically a little tirade about the absence of genuine news media for children.

What was ironic about this post is that my rant was triggered by a visit to BBC’s website (upon following a link from BBC’s homepage to their “Children’s” page, I found primarily a bunch of games rather than substantive news for children):

“What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).”

However, as was pointed out in comments, BBC is actually one of the few “global” news organizations that do in fact produce news tailored to children, and has since 1972. However, you can’t find “Newsround” easily unless you grew up with it and know where to look – the BBC homepage doesn’t link to it (not even among its “32 languages; I don’t know, kid-ese seems like another language to me half the time), or from the “Children’s” page (mostly games); you have to go to the “Children’s BBC” page from the “Children’s Page on BBC” and even that includes only the Newsround icon (see – it’s that funny N down there in the corner), but if you aren’t already familiar with the icon that won’t help much. You won’t get far, for example, by surfing around in search of something that looks like the word “News” on the children’s page; or “Children’s News” on the homepage.

What did I learn from this experience?

1) I was wrong (and delighted to be so). If I want to get my kids interested in reading current events, BBC is actually setting a great example for the US news media. (Although, see here and here.) If there’s an equivalent of Newsround here in the States, I’ve never heard of it and neither have any of the parents I know (most had also never heard of Newsround). By contrast, to hear my commenters talk, Newsround is so ingrained in British culture that kids “presumably all recognize the logo.”

2) I was right. BBC is providing children’s news, but it’s also steering them (and parents like me) away from it in exactly the way I criticized in my earlier post. While we’re waiting for global news organizations to follow this example, BBC will fill that niche a lot more easily if it rethinks its new website design to emphasize news instead of entertainment for kids. It would be a simple matter, would it not, to treat the Newsround website as the children’s homepage, with games and activities embedded in Newsround itself? Instead, currently, games dominate the Children’s page, and Newsround is relegated to a tricky-to-find external section. (I don’t know about your kids, but mine would never make it past all the tantalizing drivel even if they knew what to look for; and I doubt many kids outside of the UK will “recognize the logo.”)

Architecture is governance. The packaging of information is as important as its presence or absence. It shapes our perception of what is available as well as our access; it shapes assumptions about what it is normal to want; and thus, it communicates and reproduces social values. Though I picked on the wrong news organization, my essential argument remains: too little thought is given in our culture to the idea that kids might be interested in the world around them, whereas enormous amounts of energy are spent turning them into consumers of entertainment and goods. This should be changed.

P.S. My original and now defunct post remains below the fold to remind me never to use this blog as a space for venting everyday frustrations without doing my research. Sorry, BBC.


On BBC’s recently revamped website, I noticed this morning a link to “Children” which I assumed would be a webpage devoted to getting children interested in the news and current events through coverage of topics related to them. Instead I found this:

What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).

Here are other examples of news stories involving children that might have appeared on BBC’s “Children” page, were it structured to take children’s intelligence seriously rather than to provide cheap and low-quality entertainment:

1) Picking Tobacco is Bad For Children: “THOUSANDS OF child labourers working as pickers on Malawi’s tobacco plantations are exposed to nicotine poisoning equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day, an international children’s rights group said yesterday. Plan has called upon Malawi’s tobacco industry to vastly improve working conditions, and the government to ensure existing child labour laws are enforced in full.”

2) Study Confirms Universal Health Care for Children is Good For Society. “In June, Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy released “The Economic Impact of Uninsured Children on America,” a new report whose bottom line is that extending health insurance coverage to all children in the United States would be relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of letting children remain uninsured and would yield economic benefits that are greater than the costs.”

3) New York Should Treat Children in Prison Less Harshly, Says Justice Department. “A recently completed federal investigation has documented unsafe and, in some cases, heartbreaking conditions in several New York state detention facilities.The department describes a hellish environment where excessive force is commonplace and children risk serious injury — concussions, knocked-out teeth and fractured bones — for minor offenses like laughing too loudly, getting into fistfights or “sneaking an extra cookie” at snack time.”

4) Stressed Out Families? Too Much Work, Not Too Many Children, Is the Problem.“Families in which both partners work long hours are more stressed than others, but the addition of children doesn’t seem to have much impact on stress levels, according to a new report from Statistics Canada.”

5) African Children’s Choir on Tour in the Pacific Northwest. “The critically acclaimed choir, whose members are drawn from impoverished African communities, has performed for dignitaries such as President George W. Bush and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and strives to raise awareness of the plight of children on the African continent.”

And children are not just interested in news about children. BBC and other news outlets could take a hint from efforts by children’s websites like Pitara, which include a round-up of world news written in language kids can understand. Still, how much more accessible such news would be if it came to kids through the media machines their parents rely upon for daily reports. And how much more engaged children would be in our society if this were the case. And, perhaps, how much more responsive adults would be to children’s needs if it were taken for granted that their informed voices were a legitimate part of our national debates.

On the other hand, never mind. All this keeping up would just distract our budding electorate from more important things like Suite Life on Deck and the Honesty Box.

Extraordinary Rendition and Detainee Abuse are Two Separate Policy Problems. Let’s Treat Them As Such.

Bob Drogin at the LA Times is the latest to regurgitate the misinformed claim that Raymond Azar, whose human rights appear to have been violated as he was extradited from Afghanistan to Washington on bribery charges, is “the first target of rendition under Obama.”

The incident described yesterday by Drogin, in which Azar was arrested in his home and then allegedly hooded, photographed, subjected to a cavity search and told he would “never see his family again unless he confessed,” actually occurred on April 7th; Azar is now in detention in or around Washington DC and has also claimed that his treatment at the hands of those who arrested him amounted to torture. Claims began surfacing a few days later on blogs such as Huffintgon Post and Daily Kos that Azar was the “Obama Adminisration’s First Rendition Victim”; this claim is now being repeated on various political blogs.

If Azar’s claims are accurate, his human rights to humane treatment were violated as he was arrested. The Justice Department’s proposed investigation into CIA abuse would seem therefore to be a timely and wise choice, as detainee abuse seems to have become embedded in the culture of many US agencies (in this case, the FBI). This is something that can only be reversed with significant political and legal attention to the matter, and which should not be assumed to have ended with the presidential transition.

However ill-treatment per se doesn’t mean Azar was a victim of extraordinary rendition, and this narrative is muddying the public’s understanding of the concept itself.

“Rendition,” for one thing, is not a human rights abuse: it is simply the practice of transferring prisoners between jurisdictions, and is provided for at the domestic level in Article 4 Section 2 of the US Constitution. Internationally, rendition generally takes the form of extradition, which is a legally arranged transfer of a suspected or convicted criminal, and is governed by a range of bilateral and multilateral treaties. All this is perfectly legal.

But treaty law also constrains the practice of extradition. Among other things, signatories to the Convention on Torture are prohibited under Article 3 from extraditing suspects to states where they are likely to be tortured. “Extraordinary rendition” is a term that came to describe the practice of informally doing just that: transferring a suspect without a formal extradition agreement into the custody of a government at whose hands s/he is likely to face ar harsher interrogation for the purpose of information extraction. In other words, whereas extradition is a legal process aimed at criminal prosecutions subject to due process standards, extraordinary rendition in an extra-legal arrangement for finding loopholes for interrogations.

The practice of transferring suspects to such governments or to CIA-run “black sites” as a means of skirting international rules regarding interrogation was widely condemned during the Bush Administration – but the practice dated back at least to 1995, during the Clinton Administration. Nor has it ended with the election of a Democratic President. After Bush left office, the Obama Administration claimed it would seek diplomatic assurances from countries before transferring suspects (but this was already part of the earlier policy). He has not put an end to the extraordinary rendition policy per se, a choice I’ve criticized before; the Administration’s position was reiterated today. I have not been tracking whether or not individuals have actually suffered from it since Obama took office, but it seems clear to me that Azar did not: this is not a case of the US sending a detainee overseas for abuse.

Azar appears to have been extradited by the government of Afghanistan to the US under the normal legal procedures to face charges of corruption in a US court, as the LA Times article itself admits:

“Their case is different from the widely criticized “extraordinary renditions” carried out after the Sept. 11 attacks. In those cases, CIA teams snatched suspected Al Qaeda members and other alleged terrorists overseas and flew them, shackled and hooded, to prisons outside the United States without any arrest warrants or other judicial proceedings.

The FBI arrested Azar and Cobos with warrants signed by a federal magistrate. And the State Department, Talamona said, asked the government of Afghanistan “for its consent in advance to take these two individuals into custody and return them to the United States to stand trial. They consented to our request.”

If there is a violation of extradition law happening here, it was Afghanistan, not the US, that engaged in it (and indeed, give the recent US record of detainee abuse, perhaps governments worldwide would be in violation of Article 3 of the Torture Convention by sending any detainees to the US). But the extradition happened through normal legal channels, not secretly in an effort to circumvent those channels, and not for the purposes of extracting intelligence.

This strikes me as a case of a prisoner who was lawfully extradited receiving ill-treatment as he was relocated. Detainee abuse by US personnel in violation of legal protections is an important issue, but it is distinct from a policy of turning over suspects to governments who lack such protections altogether. Let’s treat it as such.

The Political Geography of “Risk”

I spent ten hours today playing Risk with my son. What would normally have been simply a time-killer on a rainy Sunday became, after my earlier perusal of P. Michael Phillipps’ treatise on the non-decline of the non-Westphalian-system, a day-long exercise in thinking about political geography.

By lunchtime we had grown tired of the Classic version and took a break to run down to World Apart Games and pick up the 2008 version for an “updated version of the map” (advertised online). But when we had a chance to look at the gameboard we were disappointed at the changes, which didn’t make the new map look anything like the world we live in or any empirically grounded version of it. (True the Risk rules would probably mitigate against a world of 190+ sovereign “territories”; but if you must simplify a complex globe, what about lumping countries together according to factors in particular regions that actually do cross national boundaries while distinguishing them from others: like commodities belts or cultural affinities. And instead of using the continents as a frame of reference for scoring, why not use transnational classifications and simply color code the map? The Islamic bloc, for example could be represented in green; OECD countries, dictatorships, or some equivalent of Barnett’s non-integrating gap could be other “regions.” Parts of these blocs are contiguous but parts would not be, introducing an interesting twist on the rules of claiming and holding territories for bonus points. Also, some of these overlap: many but not all OPEC countries might fall into the Islamic bloc and vice-versa, offering a diverse range of options for accumulating different scores for “blocs.”

Any such alternatives would have been more interesting and timely than what Risk 2008 actually offers, which is territorial units in which Russia, for example, looks more like an enclave in Eastern Europe than a continent-spanning empire. As a parent and educator, I was uninspired.) We were told that the most significant changes in this version were actually not the map or the concepts but rather the rules: Risk 2008 offers several different ways to play.

However we were lucky enough to acquire a demonstration copy of an earlier version of Risk, albeit one set later in history: 2210 AD. This version is much more interesting because in some respects the labels on the map make (a kind of) sense when extrapolating ahead into history. What was Brazil on the earlier version is now the Amazon Desert; New York is now the site of one of several underwater cities; central Africa has become the Zaire Military Zone; South Asia is now United Indiastan, China is Hong Kong and Alaska is the Northwest Oil Emirate.

(Also the moon bases are extremely cool.)

Why can’t we use the same kind of imagination to create a meaningful post-Westphalian alternative to map our contemporary world – one in which factions compete not simply for territorial space but to access over resources, transit routes and communications grids; in which the political economy of battle is measured not just in land army units but also on the seas, in the air and in people’s minds; and in which the political cleavages and alliance structures are often non-territorially-based?

I wonder if the predominance of a Westphalian political geography in the boardgame Risk tells us something about our still entrenched notions of the world we live in.

Westphalian Illusions

Mark Safranski has a useful post up at Zenpundit critiquing LTC P. Michael Phillips’ Parameters article Deconstructing our Dark Age Future.”(I cannot remember the last time I saw an article written by a military officer, rather than a civilian post-modernist, whose title began with the word “Deconstructing.”)

Phillips argues (like many before him, not least Yahya Sadowski) that:

The Westphalian state system is not in fact in decline; this arrange-
ment, as we have imagined it, never really existed beyond a proposed
behavioral model exemplifying the American experience. Instead, territori-
ality, sovereignty, and equality, the guiding principles of that ideal system,
have always been transactional, if not entirely illusory, because effective
global enforcement mechanisms simply do not exist.

Safranski replies (in part):

While definitely fuzzy and spottily adhered to in practice international law is not entirely “illusory”, nor is it a byproduct of 20th century Wilsonian American exceptionalism as Phillips argued. Perhaps Hugo Grotius rings a bell? Or Alberico Gentili? Or the long history of admirality courts? Like common law or an unwritten tribal code, international law has evolved over a very long period of time and does exert some constraint upon the behavior of sovereigns. Statesmen and diplomats think about policy in terms of the impression it will make on other sovereigns, and international law is one of the yardsticks they contemplate. Admittedly, at times the constraint of international law is quite feeble but in other contexts it is strong. An American military officer, who can see firsthand the effect of creeping JAG lawyerism on command decisions on the battlefield ( in my view, greatly excessive and harmful ) and in the drafting of byzantine ROE, should know better than to make such a silly statement.

My skim of Phillips’ article makes me wonder at the point of his “deconstruction,” since how ever valid it may be the latter part of his article would seem to be arguing for a retrenching of those illusory practices of sovereign statecraft (like monopolizing the use of force rather than bleeding it out to PMCs). But if the monopoly on force was always a Westphalian illusion, what is at stake, exactly, with behaving as if the illusion doesn’t matter?

The fact is, illusions are powerful, for good or ill. Anyway, read and draw your own conclusions; the rest of my rainy Sunday will be spent playing Risk with my seven-year-old son. Is the geography of the board we’re using an illusion? Yes. Could I publish an article in a peer-reviewed journal proving this? Probably. How much does that fact matter in the conduct of either the game itself or the meta-experience between us that is constituted by the playing of the game? I’m not sure.

Piracy as a Signal of Value?

[Cross posted at bill | petti)

Christopher Penn crafts an interesting piece arguing that piracy (i.e. copyright infringement) is, among other things, a market signal:

Piracy indicates that something is sufficiently valuable enough that it’s worth stealing. It’s worth making an illegal copy and spreading without compensating the creator.

Do you want the most accurate, unbiased, unmanipulated measure of how popular and valuable something is? Go hit up a site like The Pirate Bay or Demonoid or any of the other file sharing services and see if someone is stealing it.

Now, I think this is an interesting observation, as well as a logical one. It seems intuitive that someone must value a product in order to go to the trouble of illegally copying and distributing it. This act takes time as well as incurs particular risks if one is caught. Similarly, for someone to illegally download a product they too incur some level of risk and therefore must believe the product to be worth the risk they are taking on. However, I would have to disagree with Christopher that using file sharing services as an index for how valuable something is constitutes the optimal way to measure value.

In most cases (and I stress most, leaving room for a few exceptions), the market price of a product can indicate three things: level of demand, level of supply, and/or price of inputs for that product. When price rises either demand has increased, supply has decreased, or the cost of inputs has increased. If consumers keep consuming the product at the higher price it indicates that they place a higher marginal utility on that product (fancy way of saying they value or like it more). If consumers are not willing to pay the higher cost the market will correct itself–as demand drops, supply increases, etc.–leading to a lower price for the product.

With piracy, we lose the power of the price signal. ‘Producers’ in this scenario essentially have no production costs, as it is incredibly easy to produce and distribute pirated products electronically. They also have no concerns for inventory, since ‘digital shelf space’ is infinite. Additionally, consumers bear no immediate costs for consuming the product. That is the whole point of illegal file sharing–one does not have to pay for what one consumes. Without any kind of feedback besides pure demand, it is hard to gauge how valuable something is since consumers are not being asked to sacrifice anything of value for the product.

However, there is one possible bit of cost that we could incorporate–risk. Copyright infringement is illegal (well, most places) and, if caught, one could face stiff fines and penalties for either ‘producing’ or ‘consuming’ illegal content. We woul need to incorporate a measure of risk that takes into account the severity of the possible penalties and multiply that times the likelihood that one would be caught and that the harshest penalty would be applied. Say, for example, R=P x L where R equals the total risk assumed, P equals penalties, and L equals the likelihood of being penalized. This measure could denote the actual ‘price’ that people are willing to pay to either distribute and consume specific illegal products.

I think if we look at it this way we would find that the value of these goods (in most cases) is far less than Christopher thinks they are, as the probability of being caught is quite low for most participants in this type of economy. If that is the case, the rate of piracy would not necessarily indicate that consumers value the product more, but actually that they value it less since R would likely be less than the market price ($). I think there is a philosophical dimension to piracy that Christopher does not incorporate into his theory (more on this below).

Christopher makes another point with regards to marketing:

Unlike commercial markets where marketers spend time, energy, and money to get you to buy things, no commercial marketer actively goes out and tells people to steal their products and not pay them. That’s completely irrational.

Give away for non-monetary currency, sure, through inbound links or reputation, through legitimate venues like your web site or iTunes, but no one wants to confer any level of legitimacy on pirate markets. Thus, when you see something in a pirate market that is actively being traded (meaning someone right now is seeding or leeching, uploading or downloading), it’s a good indicator to me that there’s value being exchanged, even if the creator isn’t getting compensated.

This is true in most cases, except that whether you pay for a product or not you have still been exposed to the barrage of marketing activities that promote the product.

Finally, piracy as a signal runs into problems due to the philosophical/psychological dimensions to the practice. Peter emailed me to discuss the post and lays out some of the basic logic that I was alluding to above regarding philosophical/psychological factors to piracy:

On piracy–there is also a social/normative component, in that people want to identify as Pirates because Pirates are cool.

Sometimes you’ll have folks who want something but don’t want to pay, and there’s an economic signal there. But, you will also have an identification element at work–I’m a Pirate, i don’t pay for anything (even if the cost is negligible), mainly for the self image of romantic hero bucking the system, rebeling against the Man. Pirates are, after all, cool. They even have a major political party in Europe that won seats in the EU parliament.

I agree with Peter, and this fact further complicates using piracy as a signal of value. Furthermore, we know from experimental work that simply making something free can alter how the item is perceived and, consequently, consumed.

[BTW, Peter and Patrick are supervising some really sharp undergrads who are doing some independent Piracy research this summer, and this identification element becomes a strong running theme for them, as the modern notion of piracy contains a romantic and heroic element to it. They have a great blog on the project:]

Overall I think the idea is very interesting and we likely can extract some additional measure of value from file sharing sites. But piracy is just one input among many that we could use to devise a more complete index for value.

(via chrisbrogan)

The Practice of Diplomacy

David Rothkopf has a nice piece in today’s Washington Post giving a positive review to Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. He makes the prescient point that she has revitalized US Diplomacy by revitalizing both the department and its approach, taking on important yet not headline grabbing issues that will have a profound impact on the relationships that define the US role in the world in the coming decades. While the White House and DoD focus on Iran and Afghanistan, Rothkopf notes how Clinton is able to address:

Which nations will be our key partners? What do you do when many vital partners — China, for example, and Russia — are rivals as well? How must America’s alliances change as NATO is stretched to the limit? How do we engage with rogue states and old enemies in ways that do not strengthen them and preserve our prerogative to challenge threats? How do we move beyond the diplomacy of men in striped pants speaking only for governments and embrace potent nonstate players and once-disenfranchised peoples?

Clinton laid out her approach in a major speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last month (I actually listened to it as a podcast, you can get the audio here). She is doing the diplomacy, engaging in the practices that build relationships that constitute US standing in international affairs.

And, as Rothkopf concludes, she’s doing this from a position of power. Beyond resources or personalities, she has the single most important form of power in Washington: the confidence of the President. (I want to say that’s Neustadt but its still early on Sunday!)

Breakdown of Troop-Contractor Distribution in Iraq and Afghanistan

Today’s Wall Street Journal notes that the number of private military contractors (PMCs) current outnumbers the number of military personnel serving in Afghanistan, and the numbers are extremely close in Iraq:

A few points to make:

  1. The data illustrate that with the troop surge in Afghanistan has come a slight uptick in the number of PMCs, but overall contractors have far outnumbered troops in that theater. What the article does not discuss is the distribution of duties and roles for PMCs and how that may have shifted over the past few years. I’d be interested to see how fallout from various incidents (i.e. Blackwater [Xe]), while not decreasing the number of PMCs, has altered the kinds of tasks contractors are performing
  2. Given the reduced size of the military since the Cold War and current US commitments, there is likely to be (and continue to be) a tight correlation between the number of US personnel and number of PMCs, as many PMCs serve service and logistic roles necessary to support combat personnel. This creates a problem for the Obama administration as it’s stated goal was to reduce reliance on contractors. Unless they alter current structural conditions (i.e. increase size of military and/or reduce commitments abroad) they won’t really have a choice but to continue to rely on PMCs.

via iammilitary

Do I Need (Yet Another) Conference Tote Bag? Um… No.

And now I can say that and support a good cause.

This email came to me, through a colleague, from the American Political Science Association today. Members among the Duck readership, please send a brief email to the organization at

Dear APSA member,

Do you need the annual conference bag? The APSA Labor Project is concerned about the labor conditions of those who make the bags. We are also aware there are environmental and sustainability considerations.

APSA does not contract or pay for the bags, one of the annual conference sponsors does; decisions about bag manufacturing are not under our control. We have worked closely with APSA leadership in D.C. to urge the bag sponsor to contract bags made in factories with verifiable labor conditions.

Last year the conference bags were made at a unionized, U.S. factory. This year the bags will be made at several undisclosed locations overseas, which means that labor conditions at production facilities cannot be independently verified. It would be extremely difficult to set up an agreement about where the bags are made, particularly since the bag sponsor may change from year to year.

On another front, while APSA’s sponsors have been moving toward environmentally-friendly products and we know that the bags are reusable for years, we wonder if indeed you need another bag? Doing away with the bags altogether, we argue, would be more sustainable in the end.

We would appreciate hearing from you about this issue to help us represent APSA members.

Please send your comments to

The APSA Labor Project

Summer Vacation Discriminates Against Poor Kids

I have just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s latest book Outliers. For those who haven’t picked it up, yet, the key thesis is that extraordinary individuals are actually not extraordinary as individuals, but simply happen to be the lucky beneficiaries of chance, opportunity and social structures that unwittingly favor some over others by accident of birth – in ways we seldom recognize and even more seldom legislate to balance out.

Bill Gates? Not a genius, just one of the lucky kids who by random chance happened to have access to an early computer terminal in the 1960s, giving him a leg up on the computer revolution. Gifted athletes? Most of them just happen to be born between January and March, helping them benefit from the arbitrary cut-off dates associated with sports league eligibility – kids with those birthdays will always be a little stronger and faster than those slightly younger than them lumped on the same team, and this will translate into a slight advantage at first, compounded over time by the validation and extra sports opportunities that their perceived “giftedness” relative to their “peers” earns them.

Gladwell’s book is full of interesting anecdotes about how random circumstance (rather than either individual merit or overt discrimination) accounts for people’s success at math, computers, social relations, finance, even at landing airlines safely. But the study that most caught my eye is toward the end of the book, when he explains why long summer vacations (a peculiarly American invention) may be at the root of our education crisis – and in fact do more than anything else to explain the learning gap between wealthy and economically disadvantaged kids.

Gladwell cites research by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, who studied test scores among Baltimore elementary-schoolers by income level, and how they changed throughout the school year, and again between spring and fall. Although the oft-cited “achievement gap” appears to suggest that high-income kids do better in school overall, Alexander shows by disaggregating scores between September and May and scores between May and September that low-income kids actually do as well or better than their peers during the school year.

“Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they’re not in school.”

Like, summer camp, museums, road trips, having reading material and educational computer games lying around the house.

According to Gladwell:

What Alexander’s work suggests is the way in which education has been discussed in the United States is backwards. An enormous amoutn of time is spent talking about reducing class size, rewriting curriculua, buying every student a shiny new laptop and increasing school funding – all of which assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the job schools are doing. But the problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Well, I don’t like Gladwell’s comparison to the Asian model of up to 243 school days a year, or other recent calls to get rid of summer vacation altogether.Summer vacation is a good thing, if only because kids need some downtime, and it gives parents who can afford it an opportunity to be more involved in structuring and selecting their children’s learning opportunities along lines that suit the kids’ and parents interests. (I know summer is really the only time my kids get to explore a variety of extracurricular pursuits there is simply no time for in a heavily regimented school year or to travel.)

The issue is about how to make sure that these opportunities are not solely dependent on the free market. How could we as a society ensure that every parent, regardless of his or her wealth, had access to a menu of non-formal schooling and travel options for their children during summer vacation?

America’s Spy-Roads

I was proud to get home from a five-week, 18-state trip without a single speeding ticket. Then I opened my mail to find a stern letter from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, with this photo and a citation for going 6 miles over the speed limit on the interstate:

My first response was to feel a little freaked. Clearly the robot menace has moved from the battlefield to our highways a modest revolution in roadside camera technology has occurred since the last time I was on a cross-country road trip, with potential implications for privacy and civil liberties.

My second was to really admire the AZ system and wonder why it’s not more widely used, as it began to sink in to me how extremely effective a deterrent this experience would be next time I traveled through Arizona. We exceeded the posted speed limit numerous times on the trip (only on empty, straight roads in good driving conditions of course) but were never caught by any law enforcement officer. But this spybot caught me and asked me to pay up in a professional, timely manner, and I’ll do so and be more cautious when DIA.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of overly regulated roads, largely because the weight of social science says that the more rules and and roadsigns to follow, the less drivers rely on their own judgment and the more fatalities. According to The US, for example, has 36% more traffic fatalities per capita than Britain, where the rules are simpler and more flexible.

[John Staddon, a professor of brain science and psychology at Duke University, published the long article “Distracting Miss Daisy” cited above in the Atlantic last summer. He criticizes the US traffic enforcement system for training drivers to slavishly follow signs rather than pay attention to traffic conditions:

“A particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe. As a colleague once pointed out, “An empty highway on a sunny day? You’re dead meat!” A more systematic effort to train drivers to ignore road conditions can hardly be imagined. By training drivers to drive according to the signs rather than their judgment in great conditions, the American system also subtly encourages them to rely on the signs rather than judgment in poor conditions, when merely following the signs would be dangerous.”]

Nonetheless, having speed limits unenforced is probably worse than not having them at all. And an automated system is far more effective (and cost-effective) than the occasional run-in with an officer. Roads are regulated spaces, so I’m not sure the civil liberties argument applies. I can live with a ticket from Big Brother when I go 6 miles over the limit (and the heads-up of seeing myself with my eyes on my passenger instead of the road) in exchange for knowing that the other speeders – including those who actually post a risk to motorists like me – are also being given an incentive, both economic and normative, to slow down.

Not all agree; Arizona’s cameras have been the subject of criticism and even civil disobedience; a bill was even introduced earlier this year to ban the cameras. Only Maryland has initiatied a similar system; while 25 states have cameras at traffic lights, few have followed Arizona’s lead and placed spy cameras on freeways. Thoughts?


During any Presidential Administration, there are heated debates, accusations of horrible mismanagement, and political intrigue, but they are actively papered over and downplayed by a powerful White House communications operation dedicated to protecting the image of the President. Once everyone leaves office, however…..

It seems the floodgates of insider accounts that “make news” and tell heretofore unknown details about the good old days of the Bush Administration are opening, and the stream of details might be more interesting than most.

Tom Ridge, the first secretary of Homeland Security, has a memoir coming out September 1, and the tease of salacious material is the revelation that the Administration did in fact manipulate the color-coded threat level with political considerations in mind.

Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is also working on his memoir, and there are sure to be others (I’m not going to do the exhaustive list, you get the idea…)

The most interesting of course are those from the principles themselves. Former President Bush is working on a memoir where he revisits the 10 most important decisions from his presidency, focusing on terrorism and how it dominated his presidency.

And of course there’s the revelation that former VP Cheney is also at work, penning a memoir (the old fashion way, on legal pads that someone else can type up for him…) where he breaks with Bush on some key issues. Cheney, of course, was famous for deriding those who wrote tell-all books, right up until he started writing one.

With all these memoirs, there will be the obligatory book tour and media appearances on all the major cable TV outlets. These guys need to sell books, so they will lay out some hints of juicy gossip and brilliant insight.

As interesting, I think, is methodological question of how to use these documents as sources for the upcoming article on decision-making in the Bush White House (what–you don’t have that started yet?). On the one hand, these are valuable, primary source documents, the recollections of decision-makers and participants (or at least recollections as told to their ghost-writers/assistants). For scholars writing about the massive shifts in US foreign policy of the first Bush term, it might be useful to include both Bush’s and Cheney’s views on a key decision–information that can easily be gleaned from memoirs.

However, its important to be careful how one uses memoirs. I’m reminded of the exchange between Brooks and Wholforth and English about the end of the Cold War. In arguing over competing arguments over the same events using much of the same evidence, they pick a fight over how to interpret the memoirs of Gorbachev and other high party officials. Each claims that the memoirs support the argument.

Today, memoirs are about selling books and continuing the image-making process. That said, they still reveal interesting details about a situation that won’t appear in any contemporaneous journalism or even archived memos.

What I’d really like to see–once all the “good” memoirs come out–is a discourse analysis of Bush Administration memoirs. Viewing these books as part of the construction of history rather than attempts at more accurate reconstructions of historic events would be quite the interesting project. Something to file away under the to-do list….

A Nuremberg for Guantanamo?

GUÉNAËL METTRAUX, a international criminal defense attorney in the Hague, published a modest proposal regarding the Guantanamo detainees in today’s New York Times: instead of trying the detainees in military commissions or US courts, set up an international tribunal under UN auspices:

Trying these men stateside would necessarily require the compromise of long-cherished principles of American law. Yet continuing to hold them without the prospect of a fair trial or delivering them to undemocratic governments are alternatives not worthy of the Obama administration or of the United States.

America’s own endeavors at Nuremberg offer a way out of this impasse: an international tribunal for detainees. Such a tribunal would allow the Obama administration to finally try these individuals and close down Guantánamo — and it would bring the nation back within the tradition of law and justice that it so forcefully defended six decades ago.

We need not look as far back as Nuremberg. Recent international tribunals for Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Yugoslavia have provided fair trials in challenging political environments to men and women accused of the gravest of crimes. In The Hague right now, an international criminal tribunal is looking into the terrorist attacks that shook Lebanon in 2004 and 2005. This tribunal — created by the United Nations Security Council at the initiative of the United States, among others — provides a ready model of a court capable of dealing with the detainees.

But it does actually matter whether he is talking about a Nuremberg or a hybrid international court similar to those previously set up under the UN. For example, only by confusing the two would he seem so confident an international tribunal would be less, rather than more constrained than US courts on grounds of due process. Historically speaking, late 20th century tribunals have had higher legal standards than domestic courts, and often more complex ones, sometimes drawing on multiple legal traditions from different countries. (Nuremberg indeed adopted more flexible standards such as, ex-post-facto justice, but this has been widely criticized and corrected in more recent institutions which tend to err on the side of the rule of law.)

Contemporary international tribunals, unlike the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals, are also notorious for trying criminals on both sides of a conflict. There are those who would argue that certain US officials should stand trial in the same court for their sins during the same “global war” – just as the ICTY tried and convicted combatants from all sides of the war in ex-Yugoslavia.

If the court Mettraux foresees is indeed another Nuremberg, this would be a significant digression from, rather than an extension of, the normative and legal precedent set by the existing UN and hybrid tribunals set up in the 1990s. I think an international tribunal is a fine idea but I doubt, as he seems to think, that the US can have its cake and eat it too.

What of the practical workings of such a court? Mettraux imagines that:

Those now held in Guantánamo would be placed under international control and their trials held on neutral ground. American and foreign judges and prosecutors with experience in international criminal cases would then be enlisted to provide the expertise required to hear these types of criminal cases. As with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, it would be paid for by a combination of American contributions and voluntary donations from other nations.

Law professor Michael Kelly, blogging at the Jurist, is skeptical that this would be as easy as it sounds:

“Placing it in Afghanistan (where most of the detainees were captured) would be problematic for obvious reasons. So to would be staffing it with a blend of local and international specialists. Afghanistan is barren of an effective bench and bar.”

But Kelly doesn’t oppose the idea in principle. And he raises another interesting point: the importance of incorporating Islamic jurisprudence into the Statute:

“Participation from the Islamic legal world in the development and functioning of international criminal law institutions is meager. Buy-in from that sector would be critical to the tribunal’s legitimacy. Geographic placement in Cairo instead of The Hague would also be a symbolic and meaningful gesture. The well-developed lawyer class in Egypt could be tapped to assist, as well as the penal system – keeping Islamic convicts in jail in an Islamic country.”

But Kelly cautions against idealism about the process, and I concur. It’s a good idea, but let’s not treat it at any kind of an easy solution – legally, logistically, financially or politically.

Still, to paraphrase both Winston Churchill and Gary Bass, international tribunals are a bit like democracy: the worst form of post-war justice in the world… except every other kind.

How is the Afghanistan Election Model Different?

Today much of the world will be focused on Afghanistan, as that country embarks on its second attempt at a democratic election. With a constant threat of violence from the Taliban, the level of participation has been limited. Also, early reports state that police have been cracking down on journalists so information coming out of Afghanistan has been limited. There are, however, several good sources still operations, and I have put together a short list of useful links for following the election below:

Charli had a very interesting post this morning on possible outcomes of this election. She points to another FP post that asserts a worst case scenario for Afghanistan would be a result similar to that in Iran—a disputed election with accusations of fraud. After the Iranian election we had several lively debates at ZIA on ideas for modeling and predicting the outcome of the Iranian election. Also, NYU faculty member Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s work on using game theory to analyze elections was thoroughly covered over the weekend the New York Times Magazine. Given the apparent power of game theoretic models to predict these processes the question is then: what is Afghanistan’s model?

The immediate and obvious difference between the two countries is the presence of the ISAF, most notable the U.S. military. Given how highly vested the United States is in the outcome of the Afghani election, any model would have to include this force as a key player. More interesting, perhaps, is the internal game being played among the political rivals. No matter the outcome, the declared winner will most certainly have to concede some level of authority to his rivals in order to maintain some semblance of unity among the heavily fractured groups within the country.

Finally, one aspect of this process that is often overlooked, which is a constant point of contention I have heard time and again from friends and former colleagues that have served in Afghanistan, is the underlying tribal dynamics embedded in Afghani political culture. As modelers, particularly those of us who are students of the selectorate model, we often think of elections as competition among an elite set of actors that are attempting to satisfy either a small or large selectorate groups in order to maintain power. The Afghani model, however, may be very different. In this country maintaining power requires balancing the needs of several intertwined tribal groups, with long histories, and subtle relations that span geographies, where their individual utilities for electing a given candidate may be inseparable. That is, one tribal group may wish gain or lose utility as a result of how their vote affects another tribe. As such, is there a way to reconcile the traditional models of power politics with the highly decentralized framework of Afghanistan political landscape?

I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Photo: China Daily

Troubling Questions About the Afghan Election

Afghans head to the polls today.

Christian Brose at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog outlines
a few worst case scenarios.

One worst case outcome is the Iran scenario — a disputed election result, allegations of fraud, and a drawn-out political fight laced with street protests and sporadic violence. This could be set off by either a narrow Karzai win or a suspicious Karzai blow-out (Ahmadinejad style). One could imagine days, even weeks, of protests by the losing candidates’ supporters demanding a recount, or a revote if none is declared, ultimately leading to an unpopular Karzai dispatching the U.S.-backed Afghan security forces to do battle with his political opponents under the banner law and order.

This scenario is bad enough, but it could get even worse. What if the Iran scenario turns into what might be called the Samarra scenario? That is, a single, shocking blow to the political body that exacerbates already fraught ethnic and sectarian tensions, sparks a paroxysm of violence and revenge killings, pushes the state to the brink of failure or beyond it, and pitches Afghan society into full-scale civil war — similar to what Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra did to Iraq in early 2006, when the resulting Sunni-Shia violence nearly sent the country over the cliff?

Today’s coverage of the election-day security situation in the Global Post begs a different question: what if hardly anyone votes?

Election day in Afghanistan began with a bang. Several of them, actually. Multiple IED explosions in Kabul caused little damage, but made the point that this time, the opposition was not making idle threats when they vowed to disrupt the elections for president and provincial council.

All over the capital, polling centers stood nearly empty.

“Maybe everyone is drinking tea, or sleeping,” said Abdul Mubir, manager of a polling centre in the Kart-e-Parwan neighbourhood of Kabul. “They may come later.”

Blaming low numbers entirely on security though strikes me as a straw man. A BBC World Service survey yesterday classified 63.5% of the country as “totally secure”; only 2.5% of areas are “totally insecure.”Assuming those numbers aren’t completely specious, and that turnout rates remain low, what else could explain this, and what does it mean for the legitimacy of the democratic process? And is this itself, indeed, not in some ways also a worst case scenario?

Two More Ideas About Prison Reform

After posting on prison reform last night, I opened the NYTimes this morning to find Nicholas Kristof agrees with me.:

“At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?”

Wilkerson is the man to whom I referred serving a life sentence for stealing socks.

I outlined a variety of problems with our prison system including inhumane conditions; Kristof focuses on something I missed which is cost-effectiveness:

“Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.

Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration. The evidence on this isn’t conclusive, but it’s noteworthy that graduates of the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, an intensive effort for disadvantaged children in the 1960s, were some 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.”

And as such, he calls attention to an “ingredient” for prison reform that I missed in my post: decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use:

“If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail.

“Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach.

A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.”

Kristof also points out another positive development I missed during my travels: the introduction by Senator Jim Webb of legislation to create a National Criminal Justice Commission. The Act, which is now moving through Congress, will if passed create a Commission tasked to study and make recommendations that would address many (though not all) of the points addressed by myself and Kristof, and deserves our support.

Full text of the act is here. (Notably missing from its problem statement is the issue of voting rights for ex-offenders.) To support this legislation, contact Jim Webb’s office.

Three Ideas for Fixing Our Prison System

The US needs prison reform as badly as it needs affordable health care.

I haven’t written about this before. Because America does such an excellent job of compartmentalizing its incarcerated population from its elite, those of us living in eastern urban areas rarely need to think about our prisons. Traveling across the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska and Utah, however, where one is as likely to see a chain gang as an elk, and where the signs remind you not to pick up hitch-hikers instead of not to litter, one begins to give this some this thought. In 1998, the US surpassed the former Soviet Union as the world’s foremost jailer, with approximately 1 in 100 Americans behind bars as of last year. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries, the US imprisons 5 times more of its citizens per capita; half of these are African American.

The political economy of this “prison industrial complex” coupled with the political incentives to appear hard on crime have contributed to a dysfunctional and inhumane system. Our prisons are brutally overcrowded: in Chino, where a riot occurred early this month, 5,900 inmates were in a facility designed to hold 3,000. Treatment of prisoners often falls far below human rights standards. In June this year, Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old behind bars for prostitution, died of heat exhaustion after being left in an outdoor holding cell in 108-degree Arizona heat, prompting both an investigation by the Arizona’s Department of Corrections and questions by feminist activists as to why prositutes are being imprisoned in the first place, whereas those who make use of them rarely fall afoul of the law? Indeed, 82% inmates are imprisoned for non-violent “crimes”: thanks to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, one man is serving a life sentence in California for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks.

We should also bear in mind the impact on communities, families and society at large of such a highly-incarcerated population. As Vesla Weaver argued in a presentation I saw last Spring, incarceration shapes the lives not only of inmates but of their partners (who must now coordinate employment, social schedules and even their attire according to the rules attending prison visits), their children (many of whom lose parents for misdemeanors) and communities (who lose social capital when significant numbers of their young men are behind bars). The adverse effect of prison policies on families is too rarely a consideration in the political process.

I know much too little about this topic to offer anything like a comprehensive recipe for change, but here are three specific ways to improve things behind which readers of this blog can throw their support:

1) Federally enforce a zero tolerance policy on prison rape. In addition to sometimes-lethal physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse of inmates is not only commonplace but so acceptable in US society as to be fodder for political satire. (Interesting that what we are quick to condemn when inflicted on political prisoners is so easy to consider commonplace when targeted at those we consider “criminal.”) A a 2001 Human Rights Watch report showcased the epidemic of prison rape in the US. Congress responded by creating the Prison Elimination Act of 2003, largely designed to generate facts and recommendations. The Congressional National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, released its five-year study this past June, showing based on tens of thousands of interviews that nearly 60,000 inmates have suffered sexual abuse in prison. It also shows that more prisoners are abused by staff than by other inmates, and that gender minorities are at the greatest risk. The NPREC’s recommendations are that 5% of federal funding for prisons be contingent on states’ reduction in incidence rates in accordance with standards now being drafted by the Attorney General. But 5% may be much too low a penalty to check such well-entrenched abuse; and at any rate the federal government will also need to consider providing resources for states to implement the standards, which would involve a significant overhauling of prison culture.

2) Reform America’s sex-offender registry. Incarceration even for minor abuses has lasting effects even once a person leaves prison, due to stigma, lack of resources for reintegration, and political disenfranchisement. This is a broad problem but in no realm is it more dysfunctional the the national sex-offender registry, as outlined in a detailed and damning expose in The Economist. This system is a net which sweeps up so many people convicted under Puritanical US laws for things as minor as sleeping with a partner while both are underage, that it is rendered almost useless at the task of helping parents protect their children from genuine predators, yet it ruins the lives of not only “convicts” but their familes as well, preventing them from holding down jobs or taking their children to the playground. I concur with the proposals laid out in that article, which include:

“Instead of lumping all ‘sex offenders’ together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.”

3) Finally, restore voting rights to ex-cons.The patchwork of state laws disenfranchising over four million former felons from voting in federal elections nearly ensures that this population will be overlooked by the government. Last month, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate that would restore voting rights in federal elections to those currently denied this civil right. I can see nothing to lose from such a proposal and much to gain: citizens more likely to have a stake in the rule of law, a government more responsive to its incarcerated population, and a nation better served overall by a more humane criminal justice system. You can support this action by clicking here or linking to this post.

I could go on – and so can you, in comments. Point is, health care reform has dominated the headlines this summer, and it is of course widely overdue. But let’s not lose sight of glaring problems in the criminal justice system, and incremental changes underway that need our attention, support and oversight as well.

Back in the Saddle

OK, I’m officially back from hiatus after a long summer on the road plus the requisite settling-in period.

Getting off the grid for a month and grounding one’s experience in the practical aspects of life in a clunker with two kids gives one some perspective.

I spent the summer aloof from some of the major news stories of the season: Michael Jackson’s death and the charges against his doctor, the media spectacle’s supposed knock-on effects on events in Iran, the mud-slinging over health care reform.

And I came back to find a world I barely recognized:

1) Foreign Policy declaring the “death of machismo” (really? a glance at this summer’s blockbusters you’d be hard put to tell);

2) the US favorite in the Afghan election tainted by an alliance with war criminals (well, maybe this will help attract Britney Spears’ vote; she seems to like dark, dangerous men); and

3) (wait for it!) the recession is “over” (must have been the Clunkers for Cash program; too bad my clunker (above) is way too fuel-efficient to qualify at a whopping 22 mpg).

It’s taken a little while to shift gears. The thing about road-trips is that you spend most of your time in the vast empty spaces of the continent, and the rest of it in small-town America, where the agenda cycle is markedly different from that of the political blogosphere. So before getting back to regular posts on human security, military affairs and transnational activism, I’ll start by sharing a few political insights from the road in the next couple of posts.

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