Archive for March, 2013

Perverse Incentives IV: Economies of Forced Labour

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

No other society in human history has ever imprisoned so many of its own citizens for the purpose of crime control.
                Marc Mauer, The Race to Incarcerate

cannabis-handcuffsThe US state of California imprisons more people than the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That state alone incarcerates more citizens than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined. The United States as a whole imprisons nearly two million people. The US locks up, proportionately and absolutely, more of its citizens than Soviet Russia under Stalin. Estimates vary, but a likely figure is that half of those prisoners are non-violent marijuana users, and that’s why California locks up so many people. The primary enforcement regime for pot possession busts is administrated via state and local policing.

Eric Schlosser was writing about this at the Atlantic in 1998:

The prison boom in the United States is a recent phenomenon. Throughout the first three quarters of this century the nation’s incarceration rate remained relatively stable, at about 110 prison inmates for every 100,000 people. In the mid-1970s the rate began to climb, doubling in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The rate is now 445 per 100,000; among adult men it is about 1,100 per 100,000. During the past two decades roughly a thousand new prisons and jails have been built in the United States.

In other words, that explosion in incarceration tracks precisely with the increasingly punitive history of US drug prohibition. He goes on:

In 1980 about half the people entering state prison were violent offenders; in 1995 less than a third had been convicted of a violent crime. The enormous increase in America’s inmate population can be explained in large part by the sentences given to people who have committed nonviolent offenses. Crimes that in other countries would usually lead to community service, fines, or drug treatment—or would not be considered crimes at all—in the United States now lead to a prison term.

That’s journalese for penny-ante possession convictions.

Three decades after the war on crime began, the United States has developed a prison-industrial complex—a set of bureaucratic, political, and economic interests that encourage increased spending on imprisonment, regardless of the actual need. […] private companies regard the roughly $35 billion spent each year on corrections not as a burden on American taxpayers but as a lucrative market. Since 1991 the rate of violent crime in the United States has fallen by about 20 percent, while the number of people in prison or jail has risen by 50 percent.

So the question is, who’s benefiting from this? When you see a public policy where the numbers make this little sense, somebody somewhere is making a whole ton of money. And the sums involved are very large indeed: this is from HuffPo in 2012.

At the federal level, the political action committees and executives of private prison companies have given at least $3.3 million to political parties, candidates, and their political action committees since 2001. The private prison industry has given more than $7.3 million to state candidates and political parties since 2001, including $1.9 million in 2010, the highest amount in the past decade.

No-one spends that much buying politicians if they’re not making considerably more than that as a result. So how do people extract Robber Baron profits from running prisons? Forced labour.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this obstinate moral predicament presents itself in the private contracting of prisoners and their role in assembling vast quantities of military and commercial equipment. While the United States plunges itself into each new manufactured conflict under a wide range of fraudulent pretenses, it is interesting to note that all military helmets, ammunition belts, bulletproof vests, ID tags, uniforms, tents, bags and other equipment used by military occupation forces are produced by inmates in federal prisons across the US.

prisonersThe United States has institutionalised a culture of bonded labour which generates very large incentives to lock up more people, whatever the excuse. Now, if you’ve been paying close attention to the motivations behind the War on Drugs, you may be expecting the next reveal by now. Why might America think it was a good idea to permit and promote financial incentives for locking up a whole bunch of people?

More than 70 percent of the imprisoned population are people of color. It is rarely acknowledged that the fastest growing group of prisoners are black women and that Native American prisoners are the largest group per capita. Approximately five million people — including those on probation and parole — are directly under the surveillance of the criminal justice system. […] “For private business,” write Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans, “prison labor is like a pot of gold. No strikes. No union organizing. No health benefits, unemployment insurance, or workers’ compensation to pay. No language barriers, as in foreign countries.”

No-one ever went bust buying IBM and Microsoft. If you’re looking for the skeleton in an American political closet, it’s safe to bet on money and racism. And it gets worse: through proxy organisations such as ALEC, the prison-industrial complex gets to actually write laws which expand the incarcerated population when they need more labour:

The membership consists of state legislators, private corporation executives and criminal justice officials. More than one-third of state lawmakers in the country (2,400) belong and they are mostly Republicans and conservative Democrats. Several major corporations and corporate foundations contribute money to ALEC. Within ALEC there was until recently a “Criminal Justice Task Force.” Among the duties of this group was to write “model bills” on crime and punishment. Among such “model bills” they helped draft include “mandatory minimum sentences,” “Three Strikes” laws, “truth in sentencing” and the like.
                – Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice

My emphasis. Those first two ‘model’ bills are directly responsible for most of the incarceration epidemic. Mandatory Minimum sentencing legislation is the most effective and most explicit engine of institutional racism in the enforcement regime. And the most hideous part of this picture is that the entire scheme is paid for by the taxpayer. The private prison contracts per prisoner with the government, at a price which yields a profit. They get to keep that profit, and then make considerably more money selling forced labour they have been paid thousands of taxpayer dollars to exploit. This is corporate welfare wrung from the ragged lives of America’s poor.

US law enforcement arrest someone for marijuana possession every 42 seconds. In 2011, 1,531,251 arrests (approximately half of all criminal arrests) were for drug abuse violations: the vast majority will have been for cannabis possession. In the same year, those arrested (across all crimes) were 69.2% white, 28.4% black: but marijuana possession incarcerations tell a very different story. Incarceration rates for white pot smokers run at 195 per 100,00 population: for black stoners it’s 598 per 100,000. The prison-industrial complex is a machinery for instituting the forced labour of black Americans, mediated through the political cover offered by the War on Drugs.

[ Perverse Incentives IPerverse Incentives IIPerverse Incentives III – Perverse Incentives IV ]

Perverse Incentives III: Alcohol, Tobacco and FUD

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

This is not, in fact, an essay about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; they fit neatly into the Beltway enforcement establishment I described two posts back. This is a post about the two of those things which do not provide evening news headlines for ATF bosses to make political hay out of. Representing industrial drug-merchants like Phillip Morris and AB Inbev, Big Booze and Big Tobacco lobbies are significant contributors to the propaganda campaign that underpins the War on Drugs, and just like Big Pharma, they’ve got skin in the game.

Profit Motive

Big Tobacco's 7 Dwarfs, 1994

Big Tobacco, 1994

I mentioned before that as early as 1972, the US Government’s own experts were reporting that were cannabis legal, alcohol use rates would fall by up to 25%. As far as the Big Booze lobby is concerned, I could end the article here: a 25% drop in market value would make even Inbev wince. Big Tobacco has a more complicated problem with marijuana; more or less every lie they told about tobacco back in the day is true of cannabis. The tobacco lobby used to claim tobacco was good for you, which it isn’t: but cannabis has well-understood health benefits. The tobacco lobby used to claim tobacco didn’t give you cancer; cannabis is believed to inhibit cancer formation. Basically, Big Tobacco have been pushing the wrong drug all this time, and the world has rolled on far enough that they’re getting called on it. But simultaneously, Big Tobacco care less, and spend less, than the beer brewers: if cannabis were widely legalised, no industrial superpowers are better placed to move into that market than tobacco companies. They already operate a vast industry based around a semi-tropical crop; and marijuana is much easier and cheaper to grow, harvest and package than tobacco, which is notoriously prone to horticultural misadventure and is tricky to store. To the beer giants, the competitive threat posed by the specter of cannabis legalisation is more direct, and it has kept the big booze concerns reaching for their cheque-books, year after year for decades.

Them and Us

bootleggersRemember the Iron Law of Prohibitions? It should have occurred to the astute reader by now that there are three glaring exceptions to the Puritan prohibitions on personal intoxicants. Caffeine, from its early prohibition by the Vatican to its ubiquitous nature in modern urban living, enjoys a huge industrial market which is in no way threatened by legal cannabis. Tobacco and alcohol are only still legal because, by the time the neo-Puritans got their hands on the levers of power in Washington, there was no longer a Them or an Us. Everyone of all classes and colours drank, and mostly they drank beer. A very high percentage of people of all classes enjoyed tobacco. The epic, and failed, experiment of Alcohol Prohibition provided an object lesson: the two main effects of the 18th Amendment were to create large-scale American organised crime, and to drive a nation of weak beer drinkers to become a nation of hard spirits drinkers.

Bootlegging beer involves moving very large volumes of very heavy liquid around quickly and quietly. Back then, you needed to move it in extremely recognisable vessels which were very difficult to hide. It was hard and expensive, so bootleggers stopped doing it. Whiskey provided a good deal more drunk for your dollar, and a much higher profit from each ton smuggled. Hard liquor was thus a better economic proposition for smugglers. An identical effect exists with cannabis; street prices are obscenely high compared to the prices for much more potent drugs, because cannabis is bulky and smelly. It’s the easy target for a glory-hunting customs officer.

Broadly speaking, Big Booze and Big Tobacco got to be legitimate, while producers of cannabis got to go to jail, because both alcohol and tobacco were in systemic use among European Protestants in the Early Modern era. Marijuana use didn’t become common among white European Protestants in the US until after its prohibition. With alcohol and cigarettes, Them were already Us before American culture turned to the revival tent. With cannabis they were not, which fact has been used by the white, European establishment in Washington to arrest eight hundred and fifty thousand non-violent, mostly coloured, citizens each year.

Lobbies of Misrule

beer-weedIn a post-Enlightenment society which takes pride in valuing reason, this established social order is patently absurd. It is simply irrational; it fails the basic test of internal consistency. Confronted by two naturally occurring plants, western Europe and her exported religious zealots in the New World institutionalised the consumption of the one that has minimal health benefits if any, tars your teeth black and gives you cancer. Those same people chose, over and again, to pursue with penalties harsher than those for murder or rape, innocent users of the other plant, which has considerable health benefits and is a lot more fun.

Bill Hicks had a famous spot comparing alcohol and cannabis: “If you’re at a ball-game and there’s a guy shouting and acting all aggressive, is that guy stoned? Or drunk?” Alcohol causes literally hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. It can be used responsibly, but it is very likely to significantly impair judgment in even quite small quantities. It heavily impairs physical capacity, and it is intensely chemically addictive. It gives you a nasty hangover. It is also very closely bound to a variety of social problems, starting from domestic violence. Alcohol is legendary for its ability to start fights, and is directly implicated in a very high percentage of common and aggravated assaults that go to trial. Set against which you have cannabis, which stops rather than starts fights, does not cause deaths (or criminality, or insanity, thank you Mr. Anslinger) and is at most habit-forming, rather than addictive. It does not give you a nasty hangover, does not impair rational faculties in the way alcohol does, and is implicated in precisely no systemic social failures. Marijuana is not a noted trigger for domestic abuse. I say this as a government-licensed alcohol vendor: that’s nuts!

Professor Nutt thought so too. He took real, empirical data and presented a viable, logically constructed regulation system for recreational drugs and presented it to the UK government. They sacked him.

[ Perverse Incentives IPerverse Incentives II – Perverse Incentives III – Perverse Incentives IV ]

Perverse Incentives II: Prozac™ Nation

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

cannabis-caduceusThe modern pharmaceutical industry has evolved entirely during the era of marijuana prohibition. When Anslinger declared war on weed, pharmaceutical chemistry and, most particularly, psychiatric chemistry were barely in gear. Prior to 1937, a significant percentage of remedies in the AMA register made medicinal use of cannabis, and yet by the 1970s the medical establishment had declared marijuana to have no medical uses, in order to classify it as a Schedule I narcotic. How did the majority of the US medical establishment reverse their view on a drug in just two generations? Here, again, we see the power of Hearst propaganda, but we also see another perverse incentive at work; there’s money to be made in banning cannabis.

The pharmaceutical lobby, which I shall follow Ben Goldacre and refer to as Big Pharma, came into existence during the era of designer drugs which emerged after the Second World War. Chemists were, with remarkable speed, finding new and interesting ways to mess about with biochemistry, and many of these inventions were quite genuine medical miracles. But along the way, a bizarre incentive arose; important US institutions make more money if people have to go to a doctor and buy a pill than if people don’t. Health being too good is a problem for Big Pharma.

A parallel problem is people having access to effective remedies no-one owns a patent on. And that’s the problem Big Pharma have with cannabis. We’re all accustomed to scientists debunking natural remedies; this is because a great many such ‘remedies’ are pure hokum, like homeopathy. Others, however, work; willow bark does treat headaches, and quinine did cure malaria. But for the accident of Anslinger, the things we now know and can prove about cannabis as a valuable self-medication for pain, depression, insomnia, and muscular spasmodic conditions would have become common knowledge in the 1950s. Cannabis is a natural remedy for a number of basic ailments which you can make at home, and if it were accepted as such a great many less people would be taking depression medication or popping paracetomol. And that means big money wants cannabis to remain prohibited.

Follow the Money

Expensive medicineThe Partnership for a Drug-Free America is a typical pressure group. They were the vehicle for much of Nancy Reagan’s moralizing: it was the PDFA which produced the infamous, risible fried-egg videos. They have a long and fact-free history of saying anything they can think of which will shut down dissent from the manufactured consensus that drugs are bad, mmkay? And right from the start, they’ve been funded by Big Pharma, receiving generous grants from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation: that is, from the personal philanthropic organ of chemical giant Johnson and Johnson.

This connection between the drug warriors and the industrial lobbies threads together each installment in this series. Every special interest which benefits from marijuana prohibition donates to the PDFA. Alongside any Big Pharma conglomerate which sells pain medication or anti-depression pills are a laundry list of the major alcohol producers, the Big Tobacco roster of habitual villains, and most recently the private prison operators. Prohibition remains federal law in the US because large and well-funded interest groups make very considerable amounts of money from it staying that way.

…the Partnership is not a genuine anti-drug effort, but a corporate/media back-patting consortium designed to scapegoat unpopular groups for illegal drug use while protecting the interests of legal-drug industries (who also purchase billions of dollars in media promotions)

For a group fighting drug abuse, the Partnership has taken cash from some odd parties—including American Brands (Jim Beam whiskey), Philip Morris (Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes, Miller beer), Anheuser Busch (Budweiser, Michelob, Busch beer), R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Salem, Winston cigarettes), as well as pharmaceutical firms Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck & Company and Proctor & Gamble (Marin Institute Backgrounder, 2/97).

The Partnership recently announced it will quit its alcohol and tobacco habit but will continue to mainline pharmaceutical checks (Village Voice, 3/12/97). And its silence continues on America’s deadliest drug problems: tobacco (400,000 annual deaths), alcohol (100,000, including 20,000 from drunken driving), and pharmaceuticals (6,000 to 9,000).
                – FAIR.org

I’m going to talk about the medical uses of cannabis more extensively later in the series, at which point the financial interests of Big Pharma will rear their heads again. But some of the basics of this discussion are now very obvious. The evidence on cannabis as a cancer inhibitor, and as a treatment for MS sufferers and any other chronic pain condition, is not disputed. These are conditions in which patients must buy and take multiple, patented pills every day. If a significant percentage of those customers could grow their own or pick it up at cigarette prices from the local dispensary, Big Pharma loses an enormous amount of money. Even at the most basic level, cannabis is legendary for relieving stress and thus preventing the symptoms of stress; a heavily medicated, and thus very lucrative, public health problem which has arisen over the last thirty years. Cannabis stays banned in part because the pharmaceutical lobby don’t want the competition.

Legal cannabis is a threat to entrenched financial interests. It is a threat because it cannot be effectively controlled: seventy years and trillions of dollars have been wasted proving that. If Big Pharma can’t patent it, then they don’t want it around. But they like chemical abstractions such as Sativex, and by creating and promoting such patented products, Big Pharma drives a stake through the heart of the primary argument for maintaining cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance: that it has no recognised medicinal value.

The taboo on discussing cannabis prohibition has begun to crack because too much data is in the hands of too many people, and because for a long time now cannabis has violated the Iron Law of Prohibitions. The law lags behind society, and in so doing condemns thousands to unpleasant lives of violence and crime, because powerful men get rich from keeping it that way.

[ Perverse Incentives I – Perverse Incentives II – Perverse Incentives IIIPerverse Incentives IV ]

Perverse Incentives I: The Beltway Bandits

[ US & Them IUs & Them IIUs & Them IIIUs & Them IV ]

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
                – Upton Sinclair (probably)

Empire-Builders

"... laughed my ass off, and had a really good time!" - Bill HicksThe INCB is one of several institutions which labours effectively on behalf of Orwell’s War. They are a UN institution, but they are American in nature, mission, and largely in personnel. I include them with the Beltway Bandits (the DEA, ATF, and company) because they are products of the same US domestic politics, and were originally staffed by US domestic operatives. Their governing mission is inherently bureaucratic: self-perpetuation. As long as the Drug War remains official international policy, they get to sound important and say nice things about a sickening list of human rights abuses around the world: “Time and again, the INCB has simply turned a blind eye to international standards, human rights, science and even basic decency.”

Bureaucracies are organisms which eat budgets and seek to survive. No such organism can admit it is wrong easily, let alone admit that the entire rationale for its existence is misguided. The INCB are the international arm of a Beltway empire-building exercise which would have stunned even Nixon had he seen what it would become. I covered the origins of this Napoleonic enterprise when I spoke of Harry Anslinger, but it only starts with him. What mattered is the institutional legacy his personal ambition left behind him, and the way US governmental incentives created a self-feeding war machine. To cover the DEA and its associated support troops I’ll need to go back into Anglinger’s methods.

The Guy with the Dogs…

syringe_plungerImagine yourself in New Deal Washington in 1937. The members of the committee considering Anslinger’s law are Democrats, and have been fighting against reactionaries like the AMA for years. The nation is in the midst of a tectonic realignment of the relationship between government and citizen, and here in the middle of it is a bill no-one cares about proposed by a major federal figure over the opposition of almost no-one. The bird-seed guys have other options: done. The rope guys have other options: done. The AMA, who’ve opposed lots of New Deal legislation for bad reasons, have a substantive problem; but no-one on the committee gives two hoots what the AMA think any more. And Federal Bureau chief Harry Anslinger has testimony that ‘marijuana causes insanity, criminality and death’. Why does he think these things?

Well, he has this guy with the dogs. The guy (a pharmacologist at Temple University) testified to Congress and, I quote:

… claimed that he had injected the active ingredient in marihuana into the brains of 300 dogs, and two of those dogs had died. When asked by the Congressmen, and I quote, “Doctor, did you choose dogs for the similarity of their reactions to that of humans?” The answer of the pharmacologist was, “I wouldn’t know, I am not a dog psychologist.”

The guy with the dogs constituted the whole of the evidence that marijuana should be prohibited. If he’d injected nicotine into the brains of three hundred dogs, a whole lot more than two would have died; why he or anyone else thought that his work was a useful clinical investigation of marijuana use in humans is simply too surreal to contemplate. Since cannabinols would not be isolated in the laboratory until the 1950s, he was also lying, and knew it. Such was the power of Hearst-backed propaganda, and a Beltway bandit with a big budget. And the guy with the dogs didn’t stop there.

… who turned into a bat.

"We can't stop here..."At Anslinger’s national conference on marijuana in 1938, thirty-nine out of forty-seven delegates recused themselves on the grounds that they had no idea why they’d been invited in the first place. That left Harry Anslinger, the American Medical Association counsel, and the guy with the dogs. Of those two options it is no surprise that Anslinger appointed the guy with the dogs as the FBN’s official expert on marijuana. That led to him being called as an expert witness by defense lawyers in a murder trial who wanted to plead an insanity defense by virtue of marijuana causing insanity, criminality, and death. At that trial, the guy with the dogs passed from obliging falsehoods to outright fantasy in defense of Anslinger’s nascent Beltway empire:

he said, and I quote, “I’ve experimented with the dogs, I have written something about it and” — are you ready — “I have used the drug myself.” What do you ask him next? “Doctor, when you used the drug, what happened?”

With all the press present at this flamboyant murder trial in Newark New Jersey, in 1938, the pharmacologist said, and I quote, in response to the question “When you used the drug, what happened?”, his exact response was: “After two puffs on a marijuana cigarette, I was turned into a bat.” He wasn’t done yet. He testified that he flew around the room for fifteen minutes and then found himself at the bottom of a two-hundred-foot high ink well.

Well, friends, that sells a lot of papers.

On such shifting sands is the US war on weed founded.

Naked Emperors

The New Deal was a prime era for building federal fiefs. The grand example of the era is J. Edgar Hoover, but there were many others, and Harry Anslinger was one of them. The politics of bureaucracy is that budget is king. Elected officers have to worry about public opinion, voters, and interest groups which provide diverse incentives and accountabilities. The career bureaucrat is not so distracted; his job depends on the government not changing it’s mind.

Anslinger knew the game and he played it very well. Like the FBI and Al Capone, Anslinger needed a newsworthy enemy, so he allied with a newsman and invented one. As Hoover adroitly moved the FBI’s eternal war from the Mob in Chicago to Reds under the bed during the McCarthy era, so Anslinger shifted his ground from the guy with the dogs in the 1930s to the gateway drug argument in the 1950s. What mattered wasn’t the battles but the war: so long as the war kept going, the appropriations kept flowing.

The institutional culture thus established grew with the expansion of the enforcement industry and its consolidation into the DEA. Anslinger’s culture of ignorance regarding evidence, and dismissal of any need for rational justifications, metastasized with the agency into a grand scale federal enterprise with enormous budgets to protect and serve. That every aspect of their work is counter-productive and that the government’s own experts have been saying this since the 1970s cannot change the first law of bureaucracy: if you’re hired to wage a paper war, the last thing you can do is win. If you do that, everyone loses their job.

[ Perverse Incentives I – Perverse Incentives IIPerverse Incentives IIIPerverse Incentives IV ]

Daily Trawl

Bunch of things going past, of which I’m only including a few.

1. Run, run, run
The ECB have apparently decided that Cyprus needs a bank run. I don’t understand this, and neither, as far as I can tell, does anyone else. WonkBlog has a nice round-up.

2. Wars and Rumours of Wars
As we went past the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq a few people have been talking about it. Peter Beinart has a good piece putting a context to that war, but one which needs some examination. He recognises that Clinton first established regime change as a doctrine of US foreign policy without mentioning that it was the Project for a New American Century who wrote the language and applied the pressure when Clinton (this is ’98) had limited political capital to fight it. Signatories to the PNAC document include Wolfowitz and Rumsfeldt. Beinart correctly identifies US military hubris in the post-Soviet era, but does not cover the reason so many interventions worked well for the US in the ’90s; broad international support and UN legal cover, which the Iraq War did not have. And while he references 9/11, he doesn’t talk about what it really meant.

No-one had landed a punch on America since the war of 1812. For the first time in over a hundred and fifty years foreign warriors had killed a bunch of people in the lower forty-eight. Compare the reaction of the UK after the July bombings in London. There was a bit of authoritarian hysteria from Labour and some duff laws got through, but nothing like the Patriot Act. That difference is about experience. Living people in the UK remember the Blitz. Even people my age remember the IRA bombing mainland Britain. The US had for far too long suffered its only losses in far-away places, affecting mostly the children of the poor. America reacted to its real and unaccustomed pain by going berserk.

3. Meanwhile, back in the Sahara…
Bridges from Bamako has an excellent post on what the country needs, beyond the suppression of AQIM and a return to the generally strong political climate Mali has taken justified pride in for a long time.

4. Droning on.
Two interesting pieces about the shadow war. CiF has Glen Greenwald calling out Charles Krauthammer for talking total rubbish about the Constitution. And Princess Smartypants has a good piece about the actuality versus the rhetoric of the drone wars. I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that President Obama is being that subtle, but the underlying account seems to be solid and makes interesting reading.

5. Truth to Power.
Prospect have a very good (very long!) Sam Tanenhaus review of the works of Garry Wills. He’s a very interesting character in the US political drama, and stands out as a principled conservative writer in an era of culture warriors and snake-oil salesmen. He’s a Catholic who has taken on the Vatican and a US conservative who was very rude to George W. Bush. He’s one of those advocating that the GOP needs to recover its intellectual honesty and its sense of proportion: well worth a read.

Seth Masket is also talking about party re-alignments. I’m not as confident as he is that out-party effects will moderate the modern GOP. Three problems I see: firstly, they’re not out enough (they still control one house of Congress and can effectively hobble the other, as they proved while the 112th was in session). Secondly, they have an insulating narrative, false for a long time, which says that they hold the majority view in the country even if most of the actual people vote against them. This myth of silent conservative majorities, which has measurable legislative consequences, is pernicious and hard to shift when you operate in the Fox News echo-chamber.

Thirdly, the modern GOP has stopped operating as a normal political party. Jonathan Bernstein has written on it several times, but the short form is that informal party actors (e.g. talk radio) have incentives that conflict with GOP electoral success. Basically, talk radio and Fox affiliates make more money when the religious right and TEA-Party types have something to get really mad about. Nothing agitates that base like watching Democrats govern. Equally, John Stewart and his ilk have a financial incentive to see the GOP in power, serving up easy softballs to the satirists as the Bush regime did so reliably. But John Stewart’s incentives have zero effect on Democratic party operations, whereas Fox and friends could drive the GOP into oblivion if they’re not careful.

Predict a Riot

kimani-protestersTo anyone who lived in North London a year or so ago, this story looks eerily familiar. A gateway city, with a long history as a multi-cultural melting-pot. Check. Institutionalised poverty in ghettos deliberately created during the 70s and 80s. Check. A decade or so of zero-tolerance for crimes such as walking while black, using the mechanisms of anti-terror and anti-drug hysteria for political cover. Check. A largely white police force with a very long history of violence and abuse against the poor and the coloured. Check. And a dumbass white cop kills an unarmed black teenager, leading to days of mass rioting. Check.

Now, I could swear that when something like this happened in London, the global reaction was vindictive to say the least. The world had some fun at the expense of a British government who had mis-managed the economy and race relations in their capital so badly that actual riots were happening in the streets of a major metropolis. Scandalous! Now, the Americans, in particular, had a lot of fun talking about what they would do. Which is, apparently, invade:

The mysterious reference to a numbered military plan generated a flurry of interest on Twitter as NPR host Michele Norris shot back:”I want to know more about the military’s plan to suppress any potential ‘insurrection.’– CONPLAN 3501 and 3502????”

Interestingly, the CONPLAN (which stands for an “operation plan in concept format” at the Pentagon) Ambinder referenced is a popular subject among conspiracy theorists and critics of martial law. According to the public policy organization GlobalSecurity.org, CONPLAN 3502 is the U.S. military’s plan for assisting state and local authorities in the event of a riot or major civil disturbance: “Tasks performed by military forces may include joint patrolling with law enforcement officers; securing key buildings, memorials, intersections and bridges; and acting as a quick reaction force.”

Remember that Ambinder, who referenced the plan as a real government response, is employed as a spokesperson for a Democrat administration, the closest thing to liberals the US has on offer. Put this in context with the astonishing street violence unleashed on the unarmed heads of Occupy, and the wanton destruction of legal medical marijuana in California with backhoes and bailiffs.

Much was made out of how swiftly organised criminals moved under the cover of mass unrest caused by the death of an innocent boy in London. Cameron did over-react, partly because the Met has been itching for another good chance to break black heads en masse since Brixton in the 70s. But sending in the full might of the military with live rounds?

New York is now re-engaging with the unrest of the poor for the first time in really quite a while, and I’m not seeing the kind of sanctimonious bullshit in the US press that they spewed over London’s problems. Instead, we’re seeing fairly serious and realistic reporting, in quotes like this:

Dozens chanted “NYPD, KKK, how many kids did you kill today” and “No justice, no peace”as they marched west on Church Ave. toward the 67th Precinct stationhouse, on Snyder Ave. near Nostrand Ave.

But things quickly got out of hand as some protesters tried to climb on police motorcycles and tossed bottles. Men and women were pepper-sprayed and thrown to the ground and handcuffed One officer smashed a teenage girl across her shins with a baton, toppling her to the ground.

How things change when it’s your guys doing it.

Friday Giant 3: … and Babbage.

Back in the mists of Internet pre-history, there was such a thing as a Sharp PC-500. Ever heard of bubble memory? If you’re any younger than me, you almost certainly haven’t. Be glad. That screen? 80 char x 8 ln can be a little weird to work on. A printer built into the back of a laptop? Actually, a great idea in principle but the resultant luggable was rather heavy and vulnerable to failures. But my first steps as an 8-year old proto-geek were taken using this computer, on which my father taught me how to first create a font for Tolkein’s Angerthas, and then do the necessary hackery to teach the computer how to use that font in WYSIWYG and print display. While doing so, he also told me about this Friday’s giant.

Child of one of the greatest celebrities of the day, a mathematical prodigy and a person of remarkable moral fibre and agile intellect, they have a programming language named for them, and are remembered as the genius who realised in mathematical language the potential a collaborator had recognised in Jacquard’s Loom. Their paradigm for symbolic general computing was, eventually, proved in practice to work as designed. But eventually was over a hundred and fifty years later, and the engine in question is remembered under the name of the man who thought he could build one (he couldn’t) rather than the woman who thought she could program one (who could).

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace would have been a truly extraordinary person in any era, and she happened to be born at a nexus point in European intellectual history. As Mary Wollestonecroft and George Eliot stand within the literary world, so Lovelace stands within the history of mathematics. The co-incidence of birth certainly affected her career, though. Had she not been the daughter of Lord Byron, she might have had more fun in life and would probably not have been driven by her mother into the sciences and mathematics as an armour against poetry. That accident of history led her to develop one of the most creative intellects England has ever seen.

Quoting from here:

In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.

Ada called herself “an Analyst (& Metaphysician),” and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for “developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.” Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music.

lovelacepg5I am just a year younger than Lovelace was when she died. In her short life she ignored or overcame so many restraints and obstacles to her pursuit of beautiful logic: but she is to this day a giant of the Enlightenment who is far too often overlooked. There are a great many interesting things that are entirely true about Ada Lovelace, but I would strongly suggest that the reader discovers them via the end-notes attached to each installment of this work of historical and comedic genius. 2D Goggles: Babbage and Lovelace (Fight Crime!), created by Sydney Padua and apparently far advanced from when I last checked it, is brilliant, funny, warped, beautifully drawn, historically accurate except when it isn’t, and annotated with all sorts of wonderfully interesting things and tempestuous people from the high age of Victorian engineering. The comic features, among other attractions: The Difference Engine! Queen Victoria! Steam Trains! A runaway Economic Model! Wellington’s horse! And Isambard Kingdom Brunel with an unfeasibly large cigar! Read it. You’ll laugh, frequently. You’ll know a great deal more about the real Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, and her pet buffoon Charles Babbage. And you’ll never again listen to any self-entitled basement bandit who tries to tell you girls don’t do math.

I have to say as a personal note that while Babbage needed a business manager more desperately than anyone else in history, and few people besides Lovelace would have had enough obsession with the Engines to see the project through the inevitable calamities, Lovelace had problems of her own which would have hampered the achievement of the steam-powered information age. To the ‘Byron Devil’ I believe we can give the name of ‘manic-depression’, and immediately after the Notes thing she turned her attention with personal urgency to the field of brain chemistry. I have to say, respect to Ada for recognizing it as a neurological problem; one, however, that she really needed to be born 150 years later to study.
                — Sydney Padua

Grease-stained girls; an obsession since long before Firefly.


March 2013
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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith