Thursday, January 12, 2012


California was ahead-of-the-curve in passing groundbreaking climate change legislation that actually considers the importance of land use patterns. But the supposedly sustainable communities that the law incentivizes won't be sustainable unless they take equity and public health into account:
But according to a recent analysis by Oakland’s Pacific Institute and a group of public health and air-quality advocates known as the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative, California’s efforts to build sustainable communities as mandated by the state law could unintentionally threaten the health of Bay Area residents.

“Unless health-protective measures are incorporated into infill and transit-oriented development policies, these forms of development may actually exacerbate the adverse impacts of freight transport on community health and quality of life,” the report said.

According to the Pacific Institute analysis, about a quarter of Bay Area land prioritized for smart-growth development under the 2008 law intersects with the air district’s high health risk communities.

“Infill development could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by locating more housing near job centers and public transportation, making it easier for people to avoid driving long distances to meet their everyday needs,” the report stated. “However, infill development could also expose more people to toxic air pollution if more housing is sited near freeways and other freight-related land uses without accounting for the risks that this poses to human health.”

Track and map US GHG emissions. (Though, as Think Green notes, it could be better: “the exclusion of industrial agriculture pollution is a loophole inserted by Congress to protect the dangerous business model of Big Ag.”)

NYT architecture critic Michael Kimmelman makes the case for taking parking lots seriously as public spaces:
As the critic Lewis Mumford wrote half a century ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city.” Yet we continue to produce parking lots, in cities as well as in suburbs, in the same way we consume all those billions of plastic bottles of water and disposable diapers.

What to do? For starters we ought to take these lots more seriously, architecturally. Many architects and urban planners don’t. Beyond greener designs and the occasional celebrity-architect garage, we need to think more about these lots as public spaces, as part of the infrastructure of our streets and sidewalks, places for various activities that may change and evolve, because not all good architecture is permanent. Hundreds of lots already are taken over by farmers’ markets, street-hockey games, teenage partiers and church services. We need to recognize and encourage diversity.

Mike Konczal is thinking about parking, too — using recent experiments regarding parking spaces in Chicago and, soon, Los Angeles as a starting point to consider the ideology of privatizing public goods:
[P]eople react strongly against privatization without market competition, and there’s three good reasons why they should. There’s the matter of who ultimately controls the residual, so if there are rents captured they go to private agents as opposed to the public. If monopolists provide too little of a good at too high a price, that surplus goes to private agents, instead of recycling to taxpayers. This has huge implications for whether the initial price tag is set right, for whether the government will get too little because of crony practices or because they are liquidity-constrained, and what mechanisms are in place for reevaluating the deal at points in the future. Chances are these will all be problems, as they were in Chicago.

Often, since the logic of the market isn’t appropriate for certain situation, there are significant regulations of these allocations. This seemingly defeats the purposes of introducing the privatization reforms itself. For instance, private prisons have extensive regulations associated with them, because the baseline of what should be done to prisoners shouldn’t be left to market forces. This can lead to an increase in the importance of regulations, because monitoring of private agents can become quite costly. Lobbying by private firms to change the policy and regulations of these goods can often increase the Public Choice style corruption that privatization was meant to combat.

Finally, it makes it harder for the democratic process to play a part in the allocation, and puts elements of democracy and the public in conflict with private ownership. For many goods associated with infrastructure and government services, these will be at odds. In the Chicago parking meter example, when there are block parties or art fairs that block meters the public has to compensate the private owners. Private investors need to approve or get paid for there to be public gatherings on Chicago streets. People find this inherently offensive, as well they should.
(Konczal's inspiration to think about these issues is a piece on parking guru Donald Shoup published in Los Angeles Magazine. Read it.)

Speaking of driving and parking,  a new study published in EHP shows (surprise, surprise) that there are positive health benefits associated with reduced automobile travel:
[S]ignificant health and economic benefits are possible if bicycling replaces short car trips. Less dependence on automobiles in urban areas would also improve health in downwind rural settings.
Shocking, I know. Apparently biking is good for health and produces fewer particulate emissions than driving. Meanwhile, Kaid Benfield tells us that livable, walkable neighborhoods promote walking and reduce driving:

New research from Southern California has found that residents of neighborhoods with a central core of shops and services – a pattern typically found in older, traditional communities – walk nearly three times more often than do residents of neighborhoods whose nearest shops and services lie along a major arterial roadway – a pattern typically found in newer suburban development. Residents of traditionally styled and centered neighborhoods also drive less than their counterparts residing in the newer pattern.

This is true even when the data are controlled for individual and household economic and demographic characteristics.


Notably, the residents of the centered neighborhoods were found to take shorter trips, suggesting that walkable proximity – both closeness and a safe, direct walking route – to shops and services is also important. It may not do much to encourage walking, for example, if the dry cleaner’s is a quarter mile away as the crow flies but you have to travel two or three times that far navigating busy roads around the subdivision to get there.
Benfield also has a recent post about “pocket neighborhoods” worth reading.

If you thought Mitt Romney might return to his moderate style of governance, you should probably give up hope on that. Notorious immigrant-hating, nativist, and voter suppression expert Kris Kobach, author of the draconian anti-immigrant “show me your papers” legislation in both Arizona and Alabama, just endorsed Mittens. The NYTimes editorial page chimes in:
Mr. Kobach, the secretary of state of Kansas, drafted that state’s photo-ID law supposedly to stem fraudulent voting but with the real purpose of suppressing Democratic votes. He is nationally known for drafting statutes, many passed by states and local governments, that usurp federal control of immigration enforcement and aim to make life intolerable for immigrants. He is with the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to reduce legal immigration.

In this campaign, Mr. Romney has shed all good sense. He recently said he would even veto the Dream Act, which could give legal status to blameless young immigrants who go to college or serve in the military.

More on Guantánamo +10. The Guardian reminds us of just how how of a travesty the past ten years have been:
The ACLU's Hina Shamsi said: "Guan­tánamo has been a catastrophic failure on every front: legally, ethically, and in terms of our security. There are 171 captives left in the camp, and of those, 89 have been cleared for release but are still stuck there in a Kafkaesque limbo. That comes at an annual cost to the US taxpayer of $800,000 per captive." With 17 soldiers guarding each inmate, Guantánamo isn't cheap.

A further 46 unidentified men were designated under last year's inter-agency review as being "too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution" – there isn't sufficient evidence to put them on trial, but nor will they be released.

"We must restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that made this country great." That statement could have been made by any one of the many Guantánamo critics still campaigning for its closure. In fact, the words were spoken by Obama on 22 January 2009, the day after his inauguration, as he signed an order to close the camp within one year. So what went wrong?

Pardiss Kebriaei of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, who has acted as defence lawyer for four detainees, believes the rot set in at the very moment of the signing. At that point, she said, Obama could have told the American people the truth about Guantánamo detainees: that most of them are low-level operatives who are a far cry from the "worst of the worst", as they were described when the first 20 arrived exactly a decade ago.
The Guardian also describes the Kafkaesque fate of the lone British detainee:
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve, who visited him two months ago, said he could not disclose what Aamer said because complaints he might have about his mistreatment, or his chronic health problems, are deemed classified until the US "sees fit to allow me to discuss them".

Stafford Smith wrote to Hague at the time saying: "I do not think it is stretching matters to say that he is gradually dying in Guantánamo Bay."

Why Aamer, born 45 years ago in Medina, Saudi Arabia, has not been released is a mystery. Under US law the defence secretary, Leon Panetta, must certify that Britain is a safe place for him to return to, and that he will commit no future crimes there.

Despite the British government's protestations, this is something that Panetta seems unwilling to do.
Scott Horton takes a look at what lessons we've learned from America's experiment with war crimes and the violation of our nation's core principles:
What lessons can be drawn from the American experiment at Guantánamo? Two have consistently garnered less media attention than they merit. The first is that, ten years out, the United States still has not tried any Gitmo detainees as high-profile leaders of the 9/11 plot. Five of the prisoners have been charged, and the evidence assembled against some of them seems impressive. But the failure of the United States to act quickly against the instigators of 9/11 by charging them with crimes, presenting clear and persuasive evidence of their involvement, and convicting them is an inexcusable one, shared by the Bush and Obama administrations. Plenty of excuses have been offered, including the need to extract intelligence from prisoners, the need to conduct thorough investigations, the complications created by the use of torture or “enhanced interrogation techniques” on key witnesses, and legal issues surrounding military commissions. Most of these problems are of the government’s own making, and none of them adequately explains the shameful loss of time in bringing justice to the victims and the country as a whole. Gitmo will forever be associated with the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.

The second underreported lesson of Gitmo relates to the poisonous effect of partisan politics. No one expected matters as deeply felt as 9/11 to remain entirely outside of partisan politics, but the idea of Gitmo was cast soon after the attack, amid a political campaign. Republicans made it an issue in the midterm elections of 2002, marketing it as a “robust” or “proactive” approach to defending the nation against terrorists. The message worked marvelously, scoring enormous gains for the G.O.P.

Unknown to most Americans, though, just before the fall vote, representatives of the CIA and FBI went to the White House to break the bad news: Gitmo had been filled not with dangerous Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but with a bunch of nobodies. Political considerations plainly dictated the response. The government would not review the prisoners’ cases or grant releases, we were told; instead, “the president has determined that they are all enemy combatants.” Not only did this approach deny facts later borne out in case reviews and habeas petitions, it aggressively demonized the Gitmo population in order to create a sort of political insurance policy.

The Bush Administration’s shameful response continues to distort the domestic political dialogue about Guantánamo, which amounts to an extended effort to avoid accountability for a series of stupid political mistakes. In the end, it has been effective domestic politics. But it has cost America enormously on the global stage, diminishing the country’s influence and degrading its moral image to an unprecedented degree. This, more than any other reason, is why Obama’s pledge to close Gitmo was fundamentally wise, and why Obama should be reminded of that pledge and pressed to bring it to fruition.

David Cole makes similar points, reminding us that the blame falls not only on the previous administration, but Congress and Obama, as well:
President Bush undoubtedly committed the original sin. Had he followed the rules governing wartime detention from the outset, Guantánamo would not be an international embarrassment. It has long been established that in an ongoing war a country may detain the enemy for the conflict’s duration. But the laws of war require that we afford hearings to those whose status is in doubt, that we release them when the conflict ends and that we treat them humanely throughout. Bush refused to provide hearings, asserted the prerogative to hold people during a never-ending “war on terror” and authorized systematic cruel and inhuman treatment. For years, Guantánamo was synonymous with Bush’s defiantly lawless approach to the “war on terror.”

But we can no longer point the finger only at Bush. He’s been out of office for three years, and Guantánamo is still very much with us. Congress, with the support of many Democrats, has adopted a shortsighted “not in my backyard” attitude, making it impossible for President Obama to deliver on his promise to close Guantánamo. In provisions recently renewed in the NDAA, Congress has barred any transfer of Guantánamo detainees to a US prison, even for criminal trial, and radically restricted the president’s authority to transfer detainees to foreign countries, essentially requiring impossible guarantees that they won’t ever pose a threat to the United States. As a result, even though more than half of the remaining detainees—eighty-nine of 171—have been fully cleared for release by a joint review conducted by the military, CIA, FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, they remain stuck there. Locking up people we concede need not be held is the very definition of arbitrary detention, but that has become the norm at Guantánamo.
Mark Engler reports from a Guantánamo protest march in Washington:
One protest sign distributed by Amnesty at the march—a sign with black type on a bright yellow background—read, “End Indefinite Detention: Charge or Release!” 

I was left to wonder at how this ever became a demand at a demonstration. The types of things I am used to seeing on protest signs—Repeal NAFTA; Make the CEOs Pay; Medicare for All—all contain at least a hint of utopianism. While they are not impractical suggestions in themselves, one would be surprised to see them enacted in full anytime in the near future. But “Charge or Release”? A demand that those being held as criminals should have the charges against them presented? How have we come to a point where this is something that needs placard space? 

“The sad fact is that demanding very basic principles of American justice is actually a radical demand, given the systematic violation of these principles by our government,” said Jeremy Varon, associate professor of history at the New School for Social Research. Varon is a friend and colleague who is active in Witness Against Torture and with whom I spoke with at the march. “Simple statements like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ or ‘charge or release’—things that should be core parts of any due process framework—have become things that have to be fought for tooth and nail. And, yes, it can feel weird as someone who is actually quite radical to be asking for things that are such basic components of liberalism—in the philosophical sense of the word. But that’s the political situation we’re in.” 

Varon added: “The utopian element is that we want a world beyond torture, beyond coercion, beyond tyranny, and beyond the denial of basic human rights and civil liberties. These shouldn’t be radical propositions, but they need to be defended.”
And lastly, the always-wonderful Dahlia Lithwick indicts the American people, for their unwillingness to even acknowledge the shameful decade that has been carried out in our names:
The 10-year anniversary was marked today by protests, articles, editorials, letters, personal remembrances, and reminders that Guantanamo itself is only part of the problem with Guantanamo.

In the foreign press they are saying that the camp “weighs heavily on America’s conscience” and that “the shame of Guantanamo remains.” But most Americans are experiencing the anniversary without much conscience or shame; just with the same sense of inevitability and invisibility that has pervaded the entire 10-year existence of the camp itself: inevitability in that we somehow believe the camp was truly necessary and nobody ever really expects the conflict to be resolved; and invisibility in that nobody really knows what’s happening there, or why.

So while the rest of the world experiences this day in terms of how the United States ever got itself into this situation and what it’s all done to America’s reputation abroad, here in the United States the discourse is confined to how we will continue to live with it and why. The paradox of Guantanamo has always been that it’s been invisible to so many Americans, and yet the only thing the rest of the world sees. The whole point of the prison camp there was to create a legal black hole. We’ve fished our wish: The world sees only blackness; we see only a hole.

That’s always been the challenge of Guantanamo: making it seem real to Americans who have tended to think of the Cuban camp as the potted palm in the war on terror. And it’s very difficult to get exercised over a potted palm.
The New York Times' readers' advocate is unsure whether or not journalists should do their jobs and fulfill their responsibility to their readers. Perhaps they should just serve as stenographers for the ruling classes, report their blatant distortions, lies, and falsehoods without challenge, and just print lies?:
I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.

No, he was not writing a satirical piece meant to be published in The Onion. In light of this ridiculousness, the only appropriate response is mockery. Former Wonketteer, Juli Wiener, is here for us (h/t Katelyn):
[W]e here at V.F. [are] looking for reader input on whether and when Vanity Fair should spell “words” correctly in the stories we publish.

One example: the word “maintenance” seems like it should only have one “a” in it. It should be “maintenence,” right? But it’s not. So is it our job as reporters and editors to spell it correctly?

Another example: who decides “Michele Bachmann” should be spelled with one “l” in “Michele” and two “n”s in “Bachmann”? I’ve never seen it spelled like that in any other circumstance, so should we print it just because that’s how she spells it? I don’t know.

With much attention being paid to a recent NBER study on the importance of teachers (.pdf), the Albert Shanker Institute chimes in with a plea for a more nuanced, sane response:
What this paper shows – using an extremely detailed dataset and sophisticated, thoroughly-documented methods – is that teachers matter, perhaps in ways that some didn’t realize. What it does not show is how to measure and improve teacher quality, which are still open questions. This is a crucial distinction, one which has been discussed on this blog numerous times (also here and here), as it is frequently obscured or outright ignored in discussions of how research findings should inform concrete education policy.

In addition to the standard finding that teacher effects on test scores vary widely, Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff report two general sets of results. The first pertains to the well-known possibility that value-added and other growth model estimates are biased by non-random classroom assignment. That is, whether some teachers are assigned students with unobserved characteristics (e.g., behavioral issues) that are both associated with testing gains and not picked up by the models. If so, this may mean that some teachers are unfairly penalized (or rewarded) based on the mix of students they get.


As always, one should interpret these results cautiously – they only apply to a small subset of teachers/students in one district, and they only test these relationships for one particular type of measure (value-added, with all the limitations it entails) – but they do suggest that teacher effects may be longer-lasting – and affect a broader range of outcomes – than has been demonstrated previously.

For instance, prior research has shown that teacher effects on test scores “decay” rapidly (put simply, students don’t retain much of what they learn). This analysis also finds evidence of significant “fade out,” but, using the unusually long time span in the data, Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff conclude that the decline stabilizes after three years, at which time about one-third of the original impact remains. In other words, the achievement gains seem to persist into later life.

The policy implications of this second set of findings, however, are far from clear. The fact that teachers matter is not in dispute. The issues have always been how to measure teacher effectiveness at the individual-level and, more importantly, whether and how it can be improved overall.

On the one hand, the connection between value-added and important future outcomes does suggest that there may be more to test-based teacher productivity measures – at least in a low-stakes context – than may have been previously known. In other words, to whatever degree the findings of this paper can be generalized, these test-based measures may in fact be associated with long-term desired outcomes, such as earnings and college attendance. There is some strong, useful signal there.

On the other hand, this report’s findings do not really address important questions about the proper role for these estimates in measuring teacher “quality” at the individual level (as previously discussed here), particularly the critical details (e.g., the type of model used, addressing random error) that many states and districts using these estimates seem to be ignoring. Nor do they assess the appropriate relative role of alternative measures, such as principal observations, which provide important information about teacher effectiveness not captured by growth model estimates.

Most importantly, the results do not really speak directly to how teacher quality is best improved, except insofar as it adds to the body of compelling evidence that teachers are important and that successful methods for improving teacher quality – if and when they are identified and implemented – could yield benefits for a broad range of outcomes over the long-term.
Despite these issues, many people — including the authors themselves — are quick to make policy recommendations that go well beyond what the data suggests. Maria Bustillos at The Awl takes the authors to task for their cold-hearted approach to educational reform:
The authors might argue that they are aiming to influence policy by focusing on the accrued financial benefits to millions of students over time, rather than suggesting that each individual student might make a little more money in "x" or "y" circumstances. But analyzing past data doesn't necessarily mean you can isolate and amplify whatever bit of the results you like. And the big question, is this even a legitimate method of guiding education policy? Monetizing not eyeballs, but minds?

Here's what they told Annie Lowrey at The Times:
The authors argue that school districts should use value-added measures in evaluations, and to remove the lowest performers, despite the disruption and uncertainty involved.

"The message is to fire people sooner rather than later," Professor Friedman said.

Professor Chetty acknowledged, "Of course there are going to be mistakes — teachers who get fired who do not deserve to get fired." But he said that using value-added scores would lead to fewer mistakes, not more.
That is easy for Professor Chetty to say. He's 32 years old, and some kind of a wunderkind who is apparently very comfortable dictating the fates of lesser souls. I can't help but think that someone with just a little more imagination would have recommended instead, if these claims are true, that it might be a good idea to find out exactly how the "better" teachers achieve their results, and then teach those techniques to everybody else. But no! They want to "fire people sooner, rather than later."

I would just love to know how Chetty, Friedman and Rockoff would like it if economists, too, had to be standardized-tested, and stood to lose their jobs every year if their recommendations didn't result in a measurable increase in GDP, or if their predictions were off by half a percent. Would we have even one economist left? Keynes maybe, oh whoops, he's dead.

What is glaringly obvious to those of us who've actually spent some time in schools is that teachers in this country are already hamstrung by excessive testing requirements and all the rest of the crazy demands of a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that does our students far more harm than good. To these already ludicrous teaching conditions we are meant now to add a new burden, the fear that you're going to get canned because you aren't raising test scores year after year.

Clarence Thomas is as unsympathetic, cruel man who has little-to-no interest in seeing that justice is served. As we learned last year, prosecutorial misconduct doesn't bother him in the least. And now we are reminded yet again that he doesn't really care that the  accused are treated fairly.

ProPublica takes a look at the controversy swirling around the Elsevier-funded Research Works Act, which would seek to once again privatize taxpayer-funded research.

The reality-deniers at the Chamber of Commerce want to burn all the world's carbon-based energy sources. Hmm, you'd think the extinction of the human race would be bad for corporate profits, no?

A new world's smallest vertebrate.

The best headline written this year.

Catch limits are coming to all US managed fisheries.

A new, delightfully hilarious tune from Stephin Merritt, from the new Magnetic Fields record (The Bottom Of The Sea, due out on March 6) :

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