Iraqi Kurds protest Iranian bombardment

The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) issued a press release on Friday protesting Iran’s bombardment of the border regions in their fight against Iranian Kurdish rebels in PJAK. According to the October 2nd press release, two sub-districts in the Kurdish Region of Iraq were subjected to heavy bombardment from Iran, most likely by shelling and Katyusha rockets, based on past strikes.

The KRG maintains some distance from groups like the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party, in Turkey) and PJAK because they are concerned about these such military actions, which they consider a violation of sovereignty. But the regional government also hasn’t taken particularly strong action against the rebels using their territory as a base of operations.

However, the statement doesn’t quite read as an accurate representation of the situation:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has severely bombarded the border areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq without any justification in clear violation of the sovereignty of Iraq and of the territory of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

 
If an armed terrorist organizations is attempting to bring down your government, you probably do feel like you have justification, whether or not it’s a violation of sovereignty.

The KRG still does have a legitimate complaint, and they’re in an awkward position of not wanting to antagonize either the neighboring countries or the other ethnic Kurdish groups, with whom they feel some solidarity, by rooting them out. But it’s probably unlikely that their request will be met:

Continued bombardment of such border areas is not in the interest of good neighbourly relations. Therefore, we urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately cease the unjustified bombardment of the border area and respect the sovereignty of Iraq, international law, and the peaceful will of the people of the Kurdistan Region.

 
This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.

Giving death penalty the chop

This is now a week old, but the New York Times ran an editorial last Sunday arguing for the elimination of the death penalty on budget grounds (in addition to reasons of morality), which is something I discussed last May in an update to a post on California’s budget crisis. It’s one of the many contradictions in modern American conservatism: a professed fiscal conservatism and a tough-on-crime stance that requires the perpetuation of expensive money sucks, such as the war on drugs and the death penalty. Most people don’t realize just how expensive the death penalty really is, compared with life without parole.

Here’s what I wrote in the post in May:

The ACLU of Northern California just emailed me to recommend I link you all to their proposal to save the state $1 billion in 5 years. Their proposal rests on the premise that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life imprisonment, as several studies have shown. The governor has proposed selling state lands to cover the fiscal crisis, including the San Quintin State Prison (death row), and thus the ACLU’s proposal makes sense. If you go to the preceding link from The Economist on the costs of the death penalty, they actually suggest that states are more likely to consider ending or suspending the death penalty as a cost-saving measure during the recession.

Honestly, I think the ACLU is completely right. I’d rather keep social safety nets for abused women (on the governor’s list of cuts in the main link in the post), than continue executing people, if we’re choosing between the two.

 
However, I didn’t enumerate the costs, except in the comments briefly… but the New York Times did, based on “evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center,” which opposes the death penalty:

States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.

There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.

 
To really put it in perspective, they looked at a few states that continue to use the death penalty and they determined the average cost per executed person.

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

 
That’s a lot of money that could be used more productively or cut to ease state deficits during the present fiscal crisis. I don’t know if the $1 billion saved in 5 years claim by the ACLU of Northern California, is too optimistic, but just eliminating the $114 mil/year saves $570 million in five years, and that’s still a significant figure, and their sources calculate it’s $125 million not a $114 million. Furthermore, there are future cost increases projected for states such as California that will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars soon on new facilities to expand for the lengthening death row.

And of course, there are always the moral reasons, including the execution of innocent people. Let’s join the civilized world and save a bunch of money at the same time. Give death penalty the chop.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Giving up on job-hunting

This is one of those issues that I’ve been hammering away on since March: that the US government doesn’t count folks as officially unemployed if they’ve given up looking for work. The New York Times had a story on this yesterday, featuring the stories of several such people. One quotation from a master carpenter living in Florida stuck out at me as a good analogy for the situation…

“When you were in high school and kept asking the head cheerleader out for a date and she kept saying no, at some point you stopped asking her. It becomes a ‘why bother?’ scenario.”

 
The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, as I’ve now said several times on this blog, publishes the U3 unemployment number as the official national unemployment statistic, which is what the media quotes every month. But the U3 ignores the folks in that article above who’ve given up looking because there just aren’t any jobs to be found. The U6 figure from the BLS is a broader measure that does take that into account, as well as including people who are underemployed (i.e. they can’t find as much work as they need because of jobs/hours scarcity). To quote myself from the end of July:

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

 
I once again commend the Times for looking into this, but the government is fundamentally misrepresenting the national economic situation to make things look better than they are, and that’s hamstringing the ability to implement good policy to fix things. The American media, as a whole, remains complicit in this fudge. I recognize that it would confuse everyone to have the national unemployment figure suddenly spike by changing it back to the pre-1994 way of measuring things (essentially what the U6 now measures), but millions of Americans are affected by this directly and indirectly; so it helps none of us to keep pretending things are much rosier than they are.

In August, the official U3 unemployment rate was 9.7%, while the U6 rate was 16.8%.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

One of the main arguments in support of the death penalty is that with all of the litigation and the many years of waiting on death row, it would be impossible to execute an innocent person. Given that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, there may indeed have been some innocent people killed (since DNA evidence is not present in every crime, despite what we see on CSI). Until now, however, there has never been one case that we can say with a good amount of certainty that the man was probably innocent. From the New Yorker’s David Grann comes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for starting a fire that killed his three children. Though the evidence seemed airtight at the time of the trial, there are some serious holes. The arson experts who studied the house had no real scientific training. There was never any motive for the murders. The prosecution had convinced the jury that a Led Zepplin poster and a skull tattoo were evidence of cult-like actions. Nevertheless, Willingham was executed. In recent years, Texas has been reviewing the evidence and may state next year that they believe he was innocent. If that happens, it will be a major landmark in our national debate over the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

New York Times finally gets it

While studying an unemployment graphic by The New York Times back in March, I observed that they (like the rest of the traditional media) were ignoring the fact that the quoted national unemployment statistic (U3) is too limited in its definition. For example, it excludes all the people who’ve simply given up looking for work because there just aren’t any jobs in the area. This makes employment look far better than it really is, and it helps boost the stupid claims that western Europe’s national unemployment rates are far higher than ours. I showed that using the lesser-known U6 Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement of unemployment, which I explain fully in that post, US and Western Europe have very comparable unemployment most of the time.

This month, finally, the NY Times posted a state-by-state interactive graphic that confirms what many bloggers (including me) have been saying for quite some time: unemployment is much worse than many people realize. The new graphic shows the U6 rate in each state, rather than the usual and more limited U3, and for several states the unemployment is actually over 20%. Here’s a non-interactive picture of the map (click for full version):

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

While I laud the Times for their graphic earlier this month, they and others need to begin incorporating the broader definition into their reporting both nationwide and state-by-state. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug had a technicality. The government won’t change the definition back, I’m sure, because it’s like rose-colored glasses for the state of the economy. But the U6 figure is out there every month, and it takes about 5 seconds more to locate on the BLS website. The media just doesn’t want to waste time explaining the distinction to people.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Yet another reason the US Senate sucks

Yeah, I get the need for compromise in 1789 to get the Constitution passed, and I can see how back in the day it made sense to worry that some states would be trampled by others. But that matters less and less these days as the country is far more unified than before, with regional concerns often trumping state-by-state concerns. And thus the Senate serves as an undemocratic obstruction to passing sound policy backed by the country.

Specifically, on health care reform, 40 Republicans elected by 44.2 million voting Americans are able to stall and block 55 Democrats and independents elected by 79.8 million voters, with help from 5 obstructionist Democrats who were elected by a mere 2.5 million voters.

We know the polling data shows overwhelming public support for serious health care reform. We know that 79.8 million Americans voted for 55 US Senators (or their predecessors for the appointees) who support this reform. And yet 40 lousy Republicans concentrated in a decreasing number of states – mostly in the southern United States – backed by half as many voters are able to stall things to the point where health care reform is in danger again.

The US Senate sucks. It’s great when you’re in it, but it’s not so good for the rest of America. And, in my view, it’s getting pretty obsolete.

Originally published at Starboard Broadside

Little Somalia?

The political mess in Guinea-Bissau, a small former Portuguese colony on the coast of West Africa, has gotten to the point where the United Nations found that drug traffickers are leaving due to perpetual instability. When the traffickers leave, it’s pretty much a failed state. Is Guinea-Bissau the next Somalia? There’s an election today, but nobody expects anything useful to happen.

Recent events include (NYT, link above):

First the general was blown up. Then the president was shot dead, the former prime minister was arrested and tortured, a presidential candidate was killed in his villa, and the former defense minister was ambushed and shot on the bridge outside town.

 
So people have pretty much given up there. At least there still is a government.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.