Mojo - May 2005

What's Wilderness Worth?

Thu May. 19, 2005 2:03 PM PDT

In the March edition of Outside magazine, Bruce Barcott writes that wilderness is finally getting the price tag it deserves. While conventional wisdom has held that a forest isn't worth any more the resources you can extract from it, the argument advanced by Barcott, one which has been working its way through the environmental ranks for years, is that forests are usually worth far more standing up than on the backs of trucks.

As Barcott writes, Clinton's 1999 roadless rule proposal—affecting 42 million acres of National Forest—provided one of the first large-scale opportunities to showcase the new thinking. Economists used a four-part framework to estimate the value of creating the rule: direct income from recreational use; quality of life benefits (luring in businesses and residents), passive use value (preserving worth for future generations), and "ecosystem services" such as air- and water-purification. Using this framework, the "intact" value of the land was estimated at between $1.88-2.38 billion, while logging came in at a paltry $184 million.

While the financial power of this line of thinking has been gaining broad acceptance among economists, forest managers, and others who are realize the potential benefits of preserving the natural state of the land, there is genuine concern that an environmental reliance on economics—which seems attractive when pitted against timber—may not always lead to desirable consequences. Says Mark Rey, who oversees the National Forests for the Bush administration:

The dialogue we need to have is whether all those uses of our national forests are compatible with one another, not whether recreation is two or three times the value of timber receipts or whether oil and gas are two to three times recreation receipts. If we get into that debate, then we're probably going to end up making a compelling case for a lot more drilling in the national forests. And that's not the case we want to make.

The point? Economic justification alone is a poor metric for gauging the health and value of public land. If we're going to play a numbers game with this argument, its got to be one with foresight—whatever we can justify taking in economic terms has to be able to sustain the natural resource value of the land in perpetuity. Without such an ethic, the dividing lines between public and private land cease to exist.

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Still Protecting Carriles

Thu May. 19, 2005 12:16 PM PDT

Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born Venezuelan who is wanted in both countries for allegedly blowing up a civilian airplane and bombing hotels in Havana, was finally arrested in the United States on Tuesday. Up until this point, the United States seemed to be uninterested in capturing Carriles. But on Tuesday, Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the New York Times, "Today is the first time there was verifiable information about his presence in the country. We had received leads prior to today, which we pursued, but they ultimately did not go very far." Well, they finally got their lead—when Carriles held a press conference.

If ICE really wanted to find him, maybe officials should have asked Carriles' lawyer, who has been telling the press that Carriles has been in the United States for weeks, awaiting the outcome of his application for political asylum. This suspected terrorist, formerly on the CIA payroll, wasn't even taken down by the CIA or FBI. No, he was arrested by immigration agents following his press conference. The ICE agents had the presence of mind to wait until Carriles finished telling the Miami Herald, "If my request for political asylum should become a problem for the United States government, I am willing to reconsider my request." The agents probably should have arrested him immediately following this rather than letting him explain to the press that "he was hiding less these days because it seemed that the United States was not looking for him…he took a bus from Houston to Miami after crossing into Texas with a smuggler, and…while here, he had read Confucius and painted Cuban landscapes."

Carriles has been charged with an immigration violation. It's a piddling offense considering that Venezuela is seeking his extradition to charge him with the murder of at least 73 people. The immigration charges look like an attempt to assuage the media and public which have pointed out the irony that, while the U.S. is fighting a war on terrorism, suspected terrorist Carriles was applying for asylum. According to the BBC, "U.S. officials said they do not turn over those suspected of crimes to any regime that would hand them over to Cuba." Unfortunately for them, that excuse probably won't last long. Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel today stated, "There is no possibility that Venezuela would turn over to another country if Posada Carriles' extradition to Venezuela is approved." The administration is running out of excuses.

Can Wind Power the World?

Thu May. 19, 2005 11:50 AM PDT

Two Stanford researchers have put out a new scientific study suggesting that the potential for wind-driven energy is actually many times greater than was previously believed, and may, in fact, be more than enough to meet the whole world's energy demands. Analyzing thousands of sites around the globe, the researchers estimated that wind power could produce 72 terawatts of energy per year—many times greater than the 1.6-1.8 terawatts the world used in 2000. North America, meanwhile, was found to have the greatest wind power potential, though its unclear whether the United States could satisfy its own needs through domestic wind power alone.

There are still a number of barriers to wind power. For one, it enjoys only tenuous backing from the federal government. True, the House energy bill authorized $55-65 million per year over next five years to promote wind power development, but the most effective tool has always been the production tax credit, which finances roughly 30 percent of the cost of wind energy production. The problem is that, over the past six years, Congress has alternately let the credit expire and then be renewed three times, thus failing to provide the kind of long-term predictability that manufacturers of wind turbines and wind technology need. The current energy bill would only extend the credit through the end of 2006, even though many wind-power producers feel they could, with more support, push much further than the record growth expected this year.

There are other obstacles too. Transmitting wind energy to urban areas poses new challenges for grid operators who are used to predictable power sources and unaccustomed to dealing with the whims of Mother Nature. And while wind energy has some environmentalists excited, it also has many concerned: Critics point out that the regulatory guidelines for wind generation are weak, and that many conflicts over site placement may eventually emerge, particularly over the impact of wind farms on local bird populations. Other concerns have been raised about the disruption of scenic views, declining property values, and noise.

Of course there's a bigger picture to this debate as well: climate change has the potential to alter our landscape and poses ecological risks far beyond anything wind power could do. While blanket wind farms may be not be the answer, one can no longer ignore the potential for sensibly-sited farms to produce large amounts of clean energy.

Budget Jitters

| Thu May. 19, 2005 10:53 AM PDT

While the fight over filibusters proceeds apace—and some wonder whether Bill Frist really has what it takes to pull them off—Dana Milbank peeks into the backrooms of Congress and finds a few grown-ups still worried about the Bush budget disaster:

While Washington plunged into a procedural fight over a pair of judicial nominees, Stuart Butler, head of domestic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and Isabel Sawhill, director of the left-leaning Brookings Institution's economic studies program, sat down with Comptroller General David M. Walker to bemoan what they jointly called the budget "nightmare."…

With startling unanimity, they agreed that without some combination of big tax increases and major cuts in Medicare, Social Security and most other spending, the country will fall victim to the huge debt and soaring interest rates that collapsed Argentina's economy and caused riots in its streets a few years ago.

The thing is, I don't really see an answer coming. If we want to avoid financial Armageddon, yes, taxes are going to need to go up. But who's going to do that? Back in the 1980s, when we were facing a similar situation, Ronald Reagan had his hand forced by a Democratic Congress and raised taxes several times to stave off disaster, but even that couldn't close the budget deficit. Then the first President Bush finally decided to do the grown-up thing and push through a tax hike in 1990 to help lessen the federal debt—but he ended up paying for it with his presidency, when the Grover Norquist crowd on the right revolted. Bill Clinton, of course, finally managed to steer the budget on a path towards sanity, but his 1993 budget measure had to pass through a Democratic-controlled Senate without a single Republican vote. The point here is that George W. Bush isn't in Reagan's situation, or his father's, and certainly not Bill Clinton's. He's apparently under no pressure from Congress to close the deficit, and he's certainly not receiving any grown-up advice about the issue—as Reagan eventually did.

The other thing to note here is that we don't need to hike taxes and slash spending so drastically that we get the budget back into balance. As Max Sawicky has shown (pdf), all that matters is that we do enough to keep our debt-to-GDP ratio stable. If we want to keep our domestic programs growing at a healthy rate—as liberals would prefer and Republicans seem to end up doing anyway—that means bringing tax revenues back up to about 20 percent of GDP; they're currently expected to sit at about 17 percent in 2005. That would be an unprecedented hike, although revenues of 20 percent, by themselves, aren't some crippling figure (the post-1960 average is slightly above 18 percent; revenues for the previous business cycle were nearly 19 percent). Or, someone could figure out a way to bring our health care spending down to European levels. But something has to be done—there are few experts in Washington, liberal or conservative, who think we can just "stay the course".

All Deliberate Speed

| Wed May. 18, 2005 2:32 PM PDT

And... just so we're all clear, the West is still not at all serious about stopping the ongoing massacres in Sudan. Not at all. On April 26th of this year, the African Union asked NATO about the possibility of logistical assistance for its stepped-up peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Three whole weeks later, NATO has finally emerged with "advice on possible assistance." Sure, take your time, not like there's genocide going on or anything.

What Upward Mobility?

| Wed May. 18, 2005 2:04 PM PDT

Heather Boushey of the Center on Economic and Policy Research has a new report (pdf) out on minimum wage workers that has a few important findings. First, contrary to the claims of many conservatives, minimum wage jobs simply aren't the confine of young workers looking to get a start on their careers. Less than one-in-five minimum wage workers was under the age of 20 in the early 2000s, and many of these workers are supporting families with their earnings. And the earnings are bleak: working full-time for a full year at the minimum wage earns you just $10,300, which is $3,000 under the poverty line for a one-parent, one-child family. Clearly, boosting the minimum wage will help these families out, and as economists like David Card and Alan Krueger have pointed out, this can be done in ways that don't severely impact the employment rate. (See here for more on why minimum-wage boosts won't lead to employment Armageddon.)

But that's not the whole story. What Boushey also found was that many "prime-age" minimum-wage workers actually get stuck in those jobs. Many young workers move up, but over a third of minimum-wage workers are still working those jobs three years later. The lack of upward mobility here is a big problem.

On one level, of course, policies to promote full employment can help generate the sort of pressure that helps workers move up the pay scale. (In the late '90s, low unemployment helped workers move out of low-wage jobs.) On the other hand, as the New York Times recently pointed out in its excellent series on class in America, the United States is still less upwardly mobile than many European countries that have relatively high unemployment rates. Policymakers looking to boost mobility in this country may need to look for structural solutions. Promoting a strong labor movement can help; one of Boushey's key findings is that unionized workers "have a significantly lower probability of staying in a low-wage job." Harry Holzer of Brookings has outlined another proposal. Nevertheless, the idea that Americans simply need to find work and then can automatically rise the ranks through hard work alone is a bit wrong-headed—clearly the "job ladders" aren't extending as high as they could be.

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Easy Democracy

| Wed May. 18, 2005 1:04 PM PDT

Over the past few days, the riots and subsequent government crackdown in eastern Uzbekistan have been garnering a lot of attention. It's hard to know what to make of all this just yet, though it seems likely that the protests were borne of popular frustration over President Islam Karimov's regime—which has badly managed the economy and violently suppressed all political opposition—rather than a riot whipped up by Islamic fundamentalists (although there may be some of that).

Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner wonders if this is part of the "fourth-wave of democratization" among former Soviet republics, one that began with Georgia and the Ukraine and spread to Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps. Unfortunately, reading this Financial Times story on Uzbekistan, it seems that Karimov has no intention of going the way of his peers:

By permitting his troops to open fire on demonstrators in the eastern city of Andizhan, Mr Karimov has become the first leader of a former Soviet republic in recent years to suppress public protests with such ruthless use of lethal force. Human rights activists estimate that 500 or more people may have been killed in the violence that erupted on Friday when anti-government rebels stormed the town jail and freed prisoners.

Those deaths show the authoritarian leader has no intention of becoming the latest victim of the political protests that have swept the former Soviet Union in the last 18 months. Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine and Aslan Akayev of Kyrgyzstan all lost power after deciding not to deploy troops against demonstrators.

In other words, dictators can learn too. Indeed, for those thinking about how and when the democratic revolution can spread around the world, this paper by Mark Katz offers a useful thesis: "When the military is willing to use force to protect the ancien regime, democratic revolutionaries cannot prevail." The exceptions are when there are key defections in the military to the opposition. But so long as some part of the security services are willing to fire on crowds, no revolution takes place. In the Tiananmen Square protests in China back in 1989, the 38th Army refused to follow government orders and crack down on the protestors, but it also refused to defend the protestors. So Beijing just brought in the provincial 27th Army to open fire on the square. Had the 38th Army been more aggressive in its defense, some sort of revolution might have been sparked. But they weren't.

More likely, some sort of U.S. pressure is going to be needed to get Karimov to slowly open up the country, but it's not clear what can be done. Last year, Fiona Hill wrote a prescient analysis of Uzbekistan that predicted the current riots. She notes that there are no easy answers for reform. Getting Karimov to end his torture and arbitrary detention practices would be a good start, and we could help by not sending our own detainees to Uzbekistan, but broader reforms will be very difficult. The State Department is starting to put pressure on Karimov, but as analyst Ahmed Rashim writes, even Karimov's replacement would likely only be another dictator, and "the chances of a democratic movement emerging in Uzbekistan are highly unlikely." That's what happens when the U.S. and Europe stand by for so long—save for a few meaningless words about democracy—while our dictatorial "allies" consolidate power. It's not easy for us to change our mind all of the sudden and ask for democracy.

What Do Suicide Bombers Want?

Wed May. 18, 2005 12:32 PM PDT

In the Times today, Robert Pape explores the motivation behind suicide bombings. Drawing on a database of global suicide bombings and attacks, Pape finds that, in fact, "the leading instigator of suicide attacks is the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion." The implication here is that fundamentalist Islam is not the prime motivator here. That's part of the equation: the notion of martyrdom makes suicide attacks a more appealing outlet for desperation and frustration. But in order to more effectively approach the situation in Iraq (and Israel/Palestine for that matter) there needs to be a better understanding of the motivations behind the violence. Pape notes:

What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks actually have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland…Before Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there was no Hezbollah suicide terrorist campaign against Israel; indeed, Hezbollah came into existence only after this event. Before the Sri Lankan military began moving into the Tamil homelands of the island in 1987, the Tamil Tigers did not use suicide attacks. Before the higher increase in Jewish settlers on the West Bank in the 1980s, Palestinian groups did not use suicide terrorism.

The idea here is that the strategy of "winning the hearts and minds" in the Muslim and Arab world isn't going to work in the context of an open-ended foreign occupation. By Pape's calculations, the longer the U.S. military is present in Iraq, the more likely Iraqis will be inclined to feel that their sovereignty is being challenged, and the more likely insurgents will be using suicide attacks as a tactic. It's a basic pillar of warfare to know your enemy and your enemy's tactics. As the Economist points out, there may be a broader understanding of suicide terrorism: "Suicide terrorism, like the slippery concept of terrorism in general, is harder to define than it may appear. For instance, are the suicide bombings in Israel really so different from previous incidents in which Palestinian gunmen and knifemen (and the occasional Israeli) launched assaults that they had little hope of surviving?"

Understanding this broader concept is key to developing a more effective political and military strategy. Indeed, what makes the Iraqi insurgency so strong is that it seems to be composed of people who are willing, and in some cases, eager to fight to the death for their cause. Unless we are as well, it may be time to reassess what success can come from the current combat situation in Iraq.

Just the Facts, George

| Wed May. 18, 2005 12:17 PM PDT

Jeanne of Body and Soul nicely sums up yesterday's Senate spectacle, in which, British MP George Galloway dressed-down Norm Coleman:

I think Galloway's testimony was inspiring -- and, although it's not the whole thing, you really have to watch the video to get the full effect -- precisely because he didn't bitch-slap, knock down, bowl over, slay, or roll anyone. That kind of triumphalism -- the "victory orgies," as Barbara O'Brien, who is so good at tracking these things, calls them -- is essential if the facts aren't with you, and you can only win by scoring cheap points here and there. Pulling off a sharp insult. Twisting a fact to good effect. Bullying the messengers into parroting your message. Ha! We win!

But what Galloway did was the exact opposite. The rhetoric was good; the anaphora compelling. It helped that he had an empty suit like Norm Coleman for a foil. But it all worked because of the shock of hearing a political figure sit there and tell truth after truth after truth. Not a small truth buried in a ton of lies. Truth upon truth.

And that goes regardless of what you think of Galloway personally (I'm not high on him myself). Anyway, I'm bringing this up partly because Nat Hentoff makes a good point about the current judiciary battle in the Village Voice today. The "zingers" against Bush nominee Janice Rogers Browns have often made for good soundbites and sharp insults—Harry Reid said, "She is a woman who wants to take us back to the Civil War days"—but ultimately they're not all true. There are other, perfectly legitimate reasons to oppose Brown's nomination, which Ramesh Ponnuru in the National Review has been outlining—namely, that she doesn't believe in precedent and thinks the Constitution can be scrapped if some "higher law" beckons—that also has the virtue of being true. I know there's a camp of liberals who say you just can't reason with the opposition, that we need our own set of hacks to match theirs, but I think Galloway showed yesterday the bare facts can be just as forceful.

Filibuster Falsehoods

| Wed May. 18, 2005 11:45 AM PDT

If you haven't already, take a gander at Media Matters for America's list of filibuster falsehoods -- falsehoods bandied about by filibuster opponents and blithely repeated by reporters who should know better. Here's the no-frills list. More detail at the always useful MMA site.

1. Democrats' filibuster of Bush nominees is "unprecedented"
2. Bush's filibustered nominees have all been rated well-qualified by the ABA; blocking such highly rated nominees is unprecedented
3. Democratic obstructionism has led to far more judicial vacancies during Republican administrations than Democratic administrations
4. "Nuclear Option" is a Democratic term
5. Democrats oppose Bush nominees because of their faith, race, ethnicity, gender, stance on abortion, stance on parental notification ...
6. Public opinion polling shows clear opposition to judicial filibusters, support for "nuclear option"
7. Filibustering judicial nominees is unconstitutional
8. Clinton's appellate confirmation rate was far better than Bush's rate
9. Sen. Byrd's alterations to filibuster rules set precedent for "nuclear option"
10. Democrats have opposed "all" or "most" of Bush's judicial nominees