COP21 tracking

Random jottings follow. I’m not going to try to follow the jamboree systematically, just a few things I spot related to my checklist here.
I left out the 5-year timetable for the review, on the assumption that it’s a done deal (Hollande got the Chinese to sign up beforehand).

November 30
François Hollande:

The first is that we need to sketch out a credible path allowing us to limit global warming to below 2C, or 1.5C if possible.

So Fabius will do his considerable best to keep 1.5C in. A good sign.

Robert Dear was obviously dangerous–once we saw what he did.

Robert Dear apparently shot several people in a politically motivated attack on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic. After the fact, it’s painfully obvious that he was seriously troubled and not someone we should trust with a gun, let alone with a semi-automatic rifle. He was, as the Washington Post‘s Kevin Sullivan, Mary Jordan, and William Wan put it, alienated and adrift. He had assaulted his wife. He had bothered or creeped-out several neighbors. He was an angry and strange loner. He may have been a peeping tom. At some commonsense level, the man had serious issues.

Yet as far as I know, he satisfied no obvious criterion that would have made him a prohibited possessor of firearms virtually anywhere in the U.S. His wife didn’t press charges on the DV issues that might have blocked his access to a gun. To my knowledge, he was never convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor. He was never involuntarily committed or legally determined to pose a threat to himself or others.

An estimated 8.9 percent of American adults have serious anger issues and have access to guns. I wish I could propose some simple ingenious tweak. I’m not sure one can be found. As long as our gun safety policies permit anyone who avoids the narrow category of prohibited possessor to obtain powerful weaponry, it will be very difficult to prevent this sort of random atrocity.

French can-do-can

In February I described the strategy of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN framework climate convention,  as betting the world. Never mind the hyperbole, her strategy has triumphantly paid off. The COP 21 conference in Paris next week will be attended by a staggering 150 heads of state or government, starting with Xi Jinping and Barack Obama. This is unheard-of for a diplomatic conference, especially coming so soon after the Paris terrorist massacre by an undefeated Daesh.

Politicians can smell success the way sharks smell blood in the water. They flock to associate themselves with it, just as they distance themselves from failure. It is now an overwhelming probability that COP 21 will lead to the adoption of a solid climate agreement. Delegates must have been given their marching orders: make the best deal you can for our interests, but make the deal. The overwhelming show of top-level backing will also strengthen the hand of the conference chair, the tough vieux routard Laurent Fabius of France, and of Figueres and her team in the secretariat. Isolated holdouts will just find themselves steamrollered.

The architecture of the agreement will be just as I reported here in July.

It will:

  1. lay down an objective of massive decarbonisation, pursued by
  2. national mitigation and adaptation plans embodied in
  3. transparent public commitments filed with the UN, to be
  4. reviewed, revised and improved over time, for which purpose
  5. developed countries will promise lots of finance for developing countries.

This did not take any brilliant insight on my part, just paying a little attention.

So the one thing that will not emerge from Paris is emissions targets any better than the ones already included in the INDCs, let alone a global carbon tax. Everybody agrees that these INDCs are a first step, since at best they will only limit the temperature increase to 2.7 degrees C by 2100. They must therefore, goes the consensus, be tightened up in future reviews. So will it all just be a big PR event and self-congratulatory World Leader photo-op? Not quite. There are some issues still to be solved, and the tone of the forward-looking statements and aspirational texts will be important.

My personal checklist of things to watch for is below the jump, starting with the more technical ones.
Continue Reading…

Debating Marijuana Legalization Frameworks

Alejandro Hope, whom I rely on for consistently intelligent and nuanced drug and crime policy analysis, has conducted a series of interviews about marijuana legalization at El Daily (An English language site focused on Mexico). So this is a great chance to wonk out with four perspectives on legalization:

Keith Humphreys, on not making it a cash cow

Beau Kilmer, on the many options for regulation

Mark Kleiman, on temperate marijuana legalization

and Bryce Pardo on the balancing act involved

Weekend Film Recommendation: A Most Wanted Man

Film adaptations of John Le Carré’s books have already enjoyed some praise here at the RBC (e.g., see Keith’s reviews of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). In this weekend’s movie recommendation, we turn to another European spy caper in a more recent film from 2014, A Most Wanted Man.

In one of his final performances before his death last year, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, a grizzled operative working for German secret intelligence. His unit applies unconventional—and only rarely ethical—methods to secure information about terrorist groups. Bachmann is haunted by the specter of a monumentally failed past operation, and the pain lingers in his every step. Unlike the cliché this evokes (see my review of In the Line of Fire), Hoffman plays the role with a studious lack of any hint of self-forgiveness. He smokes and drinks relentlessly, and he assumes that the blame for errors beyond his control is entirely his own.

Screen Shot 2015-11-27 at 01.12.32

Continue Reading…

Au nom de quoi?

in-the-name-of-what_cropA fair question. But it’s not hard to answer. ISIS or ISIL or Daesh – Obama has settled on the last, and we might as well follow him – is quite clear about its goal: to establish by force of arms, starting now, a universal Sunni Islamic caliphate. This will be ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph according to an extreme Salafist version of shariah which even Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia think is over the top. What is more, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the imperialist agenda is connected to apocalyptic prophecy. According to Graeme Wood, whose Atlantic article is basic reading on the movement:

Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
…Now that it has taken Dabiq [in northern Syria], the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

An Australian convert expanded on the scenario to Wood:

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

The fact that this is nuts – and mainstream Sunni and Shia leaders all concur in the assessment – does not make it unclear, any more than Mein Kampf was. Nor is it without precedent, in several religions. Continue Reading…

Sad that this needs to be said. Even sadder that so few Republicans are saying it.

President George W. Bush is rightly remembered as a failed president because of Iraq, Katrina, and more.

I’ve always thought he was a pretty decent man who deserved credit for several things. Foremost was his personal triumph of PEPFAR, which saved millions of lives around the world. There was also his support for mental health parity and his support for religious tolerance after 9/11.

We’ll never know what would have happened had 9/11 not erupted on his watch. I suspect that he would have had a different, more worthy presidency. (h/t Fusion–more here.)

The Students Professors Must Reach

Even though I have been a professor for decades, my favorite teaching story comes from my wife, who was in the business for only a few years. She taught writing at a community college, mostly to working class people, recent immigrants and second language students looking to develop their career and/or life. For homework one week, she asked her students to write a hortatory essay. She graded the essays and handed them out at the end of a class.

A 19-year old male student stormed up to her desk. In his hand was clutched his essay, which had received a failing grade.

“This OFFENDS me! This is not fair!” He boomed.

My wife looked at his paper and said “Remember how in class I said you had to tell readers what your essay was about at the beginning? You never did that so it wasn’t clear what you were trying to say”.

“That’s not the point!” He insisted.

“Remember how we talked about not introducing new points at the end of an essay?” my wife said. “Your last sentence starts a new argument that doesn’t follow from anything else you wrote and you didn’t have the space to develop.”

“THAT’S NOT THE POINT!!” He repeated.

My wife looked at him and said gently “Maybe the point is that you tried really hard and you got a bad grade anyway and that’s really disappointing.”

“Yes”, he said quietly, and burst into tears.

Met with unexpected compassion, the self-righteous bully dissolved, revealing the vulnerable, self-doubting young person beneath. After he stopped crying and pulled himself together, he was able to listen to what my wife was trying to teach him. Knowing that his professor cared about him, he persisted in the course and ended it a better writer than he had started.

One of the blind spots of professors is that almost all of them were excellent students. School was typically a series of triumphs from kindergarten on. This can make professors unaware of how scary and frustrating college can be for young people, especially those who came from under-resourced schools that didn’t prepare them well for the experience. It’s pretty easy to teach the young people who are well-prepared for college, are confident that they have every right to be there and have faith that they will succeed in their educational goals. The real challenge for faculty — the one that separates the best teachers from the average ones — is connecting with and supporting the students who are none of those things.

What’s the matter with Kentucky?

My liberal friends are anxiously reading Alec MacGillis’s, “Who Turned My Blue State Red,” in the Sunday New York Times about growing Republican strength in poor communities. Alec brilliantly explores why eastern Kentucky and similar locales support Republican politicians pledged to cut Medicaid, Food Stamps, and disability programs that specifically benefit these very communities.

MacGillis notes two key points. The first is depressingly familiar: low voter turnout among the specific people most harmed by Republican policies.

The people who most rely on the safety-net programs secured by Democrats are, by and large, not voting against their own interests by electing Republicans. Rather, they are not voting, period.

MacGillis presents reams of figures that document the simple fact that nonvoters are much more likely than voters to be uninsured, to be unbanked, to have serious unmet economic needs.

The second point is more interesting and more comprehensible at a human level:

The people in these communities who are voting Republican in larger proportions are those who are a notch or two up the economic ladder… And their growing allegiance to the Republicans is, in part, a reaction against what they perceive, among those below them on the economic ladder.

These Republican voters are not particularly lashing out at supposed others, be they immigrants or black residents of the inner city. Rather, these voters are reacting to their own neighbors and perhaps friends and relatives, who rely on food stamps, Medicaid, or disability payments and who don’t seem fully deserving.

I’m not sure what lesson this provides, from the standpoint of either politics or policy. Supporters of expanded social provision must find better ways to engage poor people, to get out their votes. We can also find more opportunities for fruitful alliances across economic and ideological lines. Over the next several years, I am confident that Medicaid will be expanded across the South, despite widespread opposition. There’s too much money at stake for too many people for the battle to continue much longer after President Obama leaves office. Some tightening of particular programs may help, too. On balance, it’s probably a good thing that federal disability programs have tightened some of their procedures in evaluating mental health and musculoskeletal conditions that have shown the greatest increase in recent years.

Whatever the political or policy lessons, Alec’s essay captures a basic human reality, aptly summarized in the title of Paul Thorn’s great country song: “I don’t like half the folks I love.” 


Viewed from afar, one might think that categories such as “deserving poor” or “disabled” are reasonably clear-cut. Viewed up-close, things seem much more fuzzy. Many people who rely on public aid straddle the boundaries between deserving and undeserving, disabled and able-bodied. Many of us know people who receive various public benefits, and who might not need to rely on these programs if they made better choices, if they learned how to not talk back at work, if they had a better handle on various self-destructive behaviors, if they were more willing to take that crappy job and forego disability benefits, etc.

It’s easy, even viewing our own friends and relatives, to confuse cause and effect regarding more intimate barriers. A sad reality of psychiatric disorders is that the very symptoms which inflict mental pain on the sufferer can make themselves felt to others in ways that undermine empathy and personal relationships.

Across the Thanksgiving dinner table, you see these human frailties and failures more intensely and with greater granularity than the labor economist could possibly see running cold data at the Census Bureau. But operating at high altitude, the labor economist sees structural issues you can’t see from eye level.

There have always been vulnerable people, whose troubles arise from an impossible-to-untangle mixture of bad luck, destructive behaviors, and difficult personal circumstance. That economist can’t see why your imperfect cousin can’t seem to get it together to hold a basic job. She can see that your cousin is being squeezed out by an unforgiving musical-chairs economy. Every year, in the backwaters of America, that economy seems to put out fewer and fewer chairs.

An integrated registry of real hazards

Donald Trump has the attention span of a gnat, so it’s not surprising he forgot what he meant about the registry of Moslems.  The other Republicans are flailing about trying to find a coherent system for protecting Americans, but most of them have been irretrievably stupefied by years on a public payroll and lack any management skills.
That’s not all: a government database?? We can’t depend on incompetent, lazy, government civil servant nincompoops and their jack-booted thugs to manage and  use such a thing. (Honestly, when these RINOs go to bed and wake up, I think they just forget everything and have to figure it out again from scratch!) Here’s where we absolutely need privatization and outsourcing, and Visa plus any of the specialist outfits we hired to do Iraq for us are totally ready to step up. The database needs to be a private sector enterprise with appropriate profit incentives and guarantees, plus exemption from civil liability (honest businessmen occasionally make well-meaning mistakes, but only a heartless Commie like Elizabeth Warren would think they should be punished for them).
Finally, we need to be smart about what perils we focus on, and Moslems are not even in the top four risks.  Here are the most dangerous creatures loose among us, along with some operational definitions therefor, so we can get them correctly labeled once and for all.  One integrated national database of the following threats, searchable by anyone who can be trusted to look in it, biometrically checkable, will save a lot of wasteful duplication. Continue Reading…