CRF Blog

Unnatural Selection

by Bill Hayes

In Unnatural Selection for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reports on the threats to the world’s coral reefs.

Coral reefs are often compared to cities, an analogy that captures both the variety and the density of life they support. The number of species that can be found on a small patch of healthy reef is probably greater than can be encountered in a similar amount of space anywhere else on Earth, including the Amazon rain forest. Researchers who once picked apart a single coral colony counted more than eight thousand burrowing creatures belonging to more than two hundred species. Using more sophisticated genetic-sequencing techniques, scientists recently looked to see how many species of crustaceans alone they could find. In one square metre at the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef, they came up with more than two hundred species — mostly crabs and shrimp — and in a similar-size stretch, at the southern end, they identified almost two hundred and thirty species. Extrapolating beyond crustaceans to fish and snails and sponges and octopuses and squid and sea squirts and on through the phyla, scientists estimate that reefs are home to at least a million and possibly as many as nine million species.

This diversity is even more remarkable in light of what might, to extend the urban metaphor, be called reefs’ environs. Tropical seas tend to be low in nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. Since most forms of life require nitrogen and phosphorus, tropical seas also tend to be barren; this explains why they’re often so marvellously clear. Ever since Darwin, scientists have been puzzled by how reefs support such richness under nutrient-poor conditions. The best explanation anyone has come up with is that on reefs — and here the metropolitan analogy starts to break down — all the residents enthusiastically recycle.

“In the coral city there is no waste,” Richard C. Murphy, a marine biologist who worked with Jacques Cousteau, has written. “The byproduct of every organism is a resource for another.” Corals are not only the architects of the system, they’re also the repairmen; without their ceaseless maintenance, there’s just “rapidly eroding rubble.” According to Roger Bradbury, an ecologist at Australia National University, if reefs were to disappear, the seas would look much as they did in Precambrian times, before fish had evolved. “It will be slimy,” he has observed. Worldwide, some five hundred million people rely on reefs for food, protection, income, or a combination of all three. Attaching a monetary value to these goods and services is difficult — some entire nations are composed of reefs — but estimates run as high as three hundred and seventy-five billion dollars a year. [more]

Juarez Returns to Life

by Bill Hayes

In Juarez Returns to Life, National Geographic reports that the Mexican border city, once one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is getting much safer.

From 2008 to 2012, the city of 1.3 million people was widely deemed the most dangerous place on Earth. Murders shot above 3,700 in the worst year. Criminals kidnapped and extorted with impunity. A quarter of all cars stolen in Mexico were stolen in Juárez. Businesses closed by the thousands. Anarchy descended.

The San Antonio neighborhood was among the worst. The boys now cavorting in the wrestling ring each had relatives killed or jailed….

Out in the colonias, or neighborhoods, at least 11 lucha libre rings now draw hundreds of kids donning personae such as Aztec Falcon and Ex-Convict. Juárez’s once empty streets are crowded again. Around the cathedral, clothing stores and Popsicle shops do a brisk business; cover bands play Spanish versions of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Jailhouse Rock” for shoppers who stop, listen, and dance. A children’s museum opened, aimed in part at the 14,000 who the museum’s director estimates were orphaned in the violence. Neighborhoods have organized sports leagues. Parks — including some new ones — are again places to socialize. “People are losing their fear,” Montenegro says.

What happened in Juárez to allow Montenegro and others to stop cowering and resume living? This is no wrestling melodrama in which a masked hero triumphs. Mexico found the political will, in Juárez at least, to strengthen the criminal justice system and invest in the local government. Doing so encouraged bravery from some unexpected protagonists: law enforcement officials who forged a more professional police force in a country where cops are often corrupt, businesspeople who stayed to fight rather than flee, and government officials who challenged the sclerotic bureaucracy and spearheaded dramatic reforms. [more]

Special Report: The Young

by David De La Torre

The Economist’s special report on the young features the following articles:

Generation Uphill provides an overview of the challenges facing young people.

The walled world of work looks at youth unemployment.

Train those brains examines the need for better education.

High hopes meet high fences argues that governments place too many barriers on young people moving from country to country.

Smaller, smarter families looks at the changing family structure of the 21st century.

Of men and mayhem explores how violence by young males can be reduced.

The Forgotten Streets

by Bill Hayes

In The Forgotten Streets for Foreign Policy magazine, Scott C. Johnson reports on Buenaventura, the city created by Columbia’s guerrilla war.

Buenaventura is often described as Colombia’s most violent city. Its homicide rate is 56 percent higher than the national average, and nine times that of New York City. An expansive port system has turned the city into the gateway for roughly 60 percent of Colombia’s imports and exports, but very little of the profits have trickled down to residents. In 2013, some 15 million tons of legal goods, along with untold quantities of illicit drugs and weapons, passed through Buenaventura. The mix of high-end development prospects, a strategic international port with easy access to Asia, Europe, and North America, and the city’s poverty — roughly 80 percent of the population is considered poor—has helped make Buenaventura a battleground for all sorts of competing interests, legitimate and criminal alike. Often called bacrim, for bandas criminales (criminal bands), … [groups] fight each other over drug-trafficking routes, but also for control of valuable waterfront property, which large companies are, in turn, eyeing for high-end development.

For decades, the Colombian government paid scant attention to the stretch of Pacific coastline where Buenaventura sits. With the exception of the port, the state largely abandoned these areas, leaving Buenaventura and its residents — mostly Afro-Colombian descendants of slaves — isolated and impoverished. Geographically separated from the rest of Colombia by the Andes Mountains, the city is a signature of government indifference and continues to lack the necessary infrastructure that could connect Buenaventura with the rest of the country.

In 2012, Colombia joined the Pacific Alliance, a trading bloc that includes Mexico, Peru, and Chile, whose principle aim is to aggressively pursue economic ties with Asia, in particular China. But when government officials presented Buenaventura as a location for a Pacific Alliance summit the following year — a Pacific gateway to South America, the city had the region’s largest port and could establish Colombia as a key player in the Pacific Alliance, the thinking went — the idea was shot down because the city was far too dangerous. The summit was ultimately held hundreds of miles away on the Caribbean, serving as a wake-up call for those intent on moving the country into the next century. Since then, President Juan Manuel Santos has worked with city officials to improve Buenaventura’s image by developing an aggressive plan to promote tourism and downtown development that includes a multimillion-dollar waterfront esplanade and luxury hotels. But the state of affairs in this city have made such an about-face nearly impossible.

Colombia faces serious obstacles as it struggles to put 50 years of conflict behind it, and economic renewal is just part of Santos’s plan to emerge intact from the guerrilla war that has pitted successive administrations against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym of FARC). Peace talks, which began in October 2012 and now continue in Havana, Cuba, could potentially put an end to Latin America’s longest-running conflict. But the problem is that, while the government is making progress on negotiations with the FARC, there are consequences of the war — seen most extremely in Buenaventura — that aren’t likely to be healed by the peace process. Years of fighting, combined with a largely absentee government, have turned Buenaventura into a kind of feral place in which … members of the bacrim — descendants of paramilitary groups that once fought the FARC — operate with impunity.

Unless Santos’s government can deliver, quickly, on promises to tend to the consequences wrought by years of neglect, Buenaventura is only likely to become more violent, with or without a national peace agreement. And that could be disastrous for Colombia’s long-term vision for its future. [more]

The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ and Other Cyberlaw Cases

by Bill Hayes

In The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ and Other Cyberlaw Cases, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at four digital-age cases that courts are grappling with.

For now, with Congress paralyzed, changes are most likely to come through patchworks of court precedents. Here are four other questions courts have been grappling with that could reshape the digital world:

1. Do gig-economy companies have to hire workers as employees? Tan v. GrubHub         The only thing growing faster than gig-economy companies may be the number of potential labor class actions being filed against them. More than a dozen such cases involve startups, and most allege “employee misclassification” — that the companies treat workers as contractors when they should be employees entitled to a minimum wage and overtime.

In April, Uber settled a class-action case in California for $84 million. The settlement allows the company to keep paying drivers as contractors and didn’t resolve the underlying issue. “The Valley wants clarity,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lawyer at Lichten & Liss-Riordan who represented the drivers. She’s also filed lawsuits that might make for stronger cases. One involves food delivery service GrubHub, which treats workers who sign up for delivery shifts as contractors. [more]


by Bill Hayes

In L’Etrangere, 1843 profiles Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s right-wing National Front party.

The politician who once compared Muslims praying in the streets in France to the Nazi occupation is fast emerging as the scariest, most redoubtable party leader in Europe. On a continent shaken by the double convulsions of Islamist terrorism and the greatest refugee influx in modern history, identity politics is marching back, and Le Pen is in the vanguard. Long before other leaders began to shut the doors and roll out barbed-wire fences, she denounced a borderless Europe and warned darkly of a “giant migratory wave” that would engulf the continent. Today, such troubles play straight into her hands, strengthening her appeal at home and her standing among right-wing nationalists abroad. She believes herself to be on a patriotic mission. She wants to defend a nostalgic version of France from an army of perceived threats — the euro, globalisation, competition, immigration and Islamism. “She is fighting for a sovereign, patriotic, free country,” says Florian Philippot, her closest lieutenant, who came to the party from the nationalist left. In the mind of bien-pensant French, however, Le Pen seeks nothing less than to overturn the liberal order in France and dismantle the post-war project of an integrated Europe.

Each time liberal politicians claim that her popularity has hit a ceiling, she shatters it. Back in 2002, her father, a classically educated former paratrooper who fought in Algeria and Indochina, shook France by making it into the final run-off of the presidential election, where he secured 18% of the vote against the Gaullist Jacques Chirac. She succeeded her father as leader of the party in 2011 and its popularity has risen steadily since. In elections last December in Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie, a region more populous than Denmark, 41% voted for her. Her sights are now set on France’s presidential elections in 2017. Over the coming year, her mix of homespun nationalism, identity politics and star appeal will allow her to frame the public debate in France and beyond. It is a measure of the difficulty that politicians on the traditional right and left have in countering her message that the only near-certainty about next year’s presidential election is that she will be one of the two candidates on the ballot paper in the final run-off. She is exceedingly unlikely to win, but remains untroubled by that fact: she believes that her struggle is a long one, and that history is on her side. [more]

The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids

by Bill Hayes

The Atlantic argues that The New Preschool Is Crushing Kids.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to — while at the same time obscuring — the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more. [more]

List of the Day: Best College Rankings and Lists

by Bill Hayes

U.S. News & World Report has published its annual Best College Rankings and Lists. Below are its picks for the top 10 public universities.

#1 University of California — Berkeley

#2 University of California — Los Angeles

#3 University of Virginia — Charlottesville

#4 University of Michigan — Ann Arbor

#5 University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill

#6 College of William and Mary

#7 Georgia Institute of Technology

#8 University of California — Santa Barbara

#9 University of California — Irvine

#9 University of California — San Diego

Interview of the Day: Jon Krosnick

by Bill Hayes

Patt Morrison, a Los Angeles Times columnist, interviews Jon Krosnick, director of Stanford’s Political Psychology Research Group.

In what way is climate change different?

It’s weird in this regard: About 90% of the passionate are on what you might call the green side. They believe it’s happening, it’s caused by humans, it’s a serious problem, and government should do something about it. That’s unusual in that it allows candidates to win votes by talking about it. Democrats and Republicans will gain votes among independent voters if they take a green position. On most issues, anything a candidate says will annoy about as many people as it pleases, so there’s no net profit.

Many Americans, including people in Washington, do not realize how one-sided the public is on this. If they did, they would change their approach. I’ve been to Capitol Hill to talk to legislators and they’ve said: “You’re doing national surveys. I don’t think the people in my state feel that way.” So we’ve started looking at states and haven’t found a single state where a majority of residents are skeptical, but legislators think they are. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas — even in those states, large majorities are expressing green points of view. [more]

Where We Ought to Be

by Bill Hayes

In Where We Ought to Be for the New York Times Book Review, Kirk Davis Swinehart reviews Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings.

America in the opening decades of the 19th century appealed as never before to those with utopian aspirations, noble and ignoble alike. The War of Independence had made the New World — long a vessel for people’s dreams and delusions — new once more. By Jennings’s count, some hundred-odd experimental communities formed on American soil in the Revolution’s wake. Though “Paradise Now” treats only five of them, it spans the entire disorienting period, with its maelstrom of awakenings and revivals, booms and busts. Jennings’s sure grasp never falters. The result is a triumph of scholarship and narration: five stand-alone community studies and a coherent, often spellbinding history of the United States during its tumultuous first half-century. [more]

Liquid Assets

by Bill Hayes

In Liquid Assets for ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten profiles Disque Deane Jr., a hedge fund manager who “thinks Wall Street is the answer to the water crisis in the West.”

To determine who gets water and who doesn’t, states rely on a system that originated more than 150 years ago — when water was plentiful and people were scarce. During the Gold Rush, prospectors staked claims along western streams, only to find themselves robbed of the water they needed in order to mine as competitors upriver laid new claims and diverted the stream’s flow. The courts, hearing the miners’ grievances, settled on a system called “prior appropriation,” which promised rights to use a share of water based on who got there first.

Prior appropriation became the foundation of western water law, and it established order in the West. Today, though, state water laws are largely to blame for the crippling shortages. Because water rights were divvied up at a time when few cities existed west of the Mississippi, some 80 percent of the region’s water goes to farmers, leaving insufficient supplies for growing cities and industries. And farmers must put all their water to “beneficial use” or risk losing their allotment — a rule that was originally intended to prevent hoarding but that today can encourage waste. Many farmers have not adopted modern technology that can cut water use by up to 50 percent, in part because they need to protect their water rights.

Farmers might prefer to sell their extra water rather than letting it soak into the ground, but there, too, the laws get in the way. Not only is it difficult to prove that water sales satisfy standards for beneficial use, but they are generally forbidden across state lines. Where intrastate trades are allowed, they are conditioned on not causing harm to other rights holders in the surrounding area. That’s a laudable intention, but it forces farmers who want to sell their water to spend thousands of dollars on engineers and lawyers.

The West’s cities, meanwhile, are forecast to add at least another 10 million residents over the next three decades. Where the water to serve those people will come from is anyone’s guess. City and state leaders have seriously discussed building a pipeline from the Missouri River, seeding clouds with silver iodide to create rain, and towing icebergs from the Arctic. Their most pragmatic hopes lie in desalinating ocean water, an expensive and energy-intensive process.

Something has got to give.

In theory, states could step in and reallocate water according to modern economic priorities. After all, the West’s millions of acres of farmland account for less than 2 percent of the region’s economic output, and moving just 10 percent of the water off farms would likely resolve current shortfalls. Few things are more controversial in the West, though, than even minor meddling with water laws. Canceling or redistributing rights that are more than a century old would be political suicide in a part of the country where personal property is sacrosanct and farmers wield a lot of influence. As water shortages have slowly worsened over the past two decades, politicians have done little to avert the crisis.

Where government has failed, Deane believes capitalism offers an elegant solution. Allowing people to buy and sell water rights is a more expedient way to redistribute the West’s water, he argues. Waste would be discouraged, water would shift to where it’s needed most, and farmers would be compensated. He’s convinced that this is our best hope for ending the West’s water shortage — and that it could make him and his investors very, very rich. [more]

Charlie Rose Interviews Bill Bratton

by Bill Hayes

Watch Charlie Rose’s interview with Bill Bratton, the New York City police commissioner.

IBM’s CEO writes a new chapter on how to turn failure into wealth

by Bill Hayes

In IBM’s CEO writes a new chapter on how to turn failure into wealth, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik looks at the issue of CEO compensation.

Government officials and regulators have wrestled for years with how to bring CEO compensation under control. They’ve imposed limits on the tax’-deductibility of CEO pay, and given shareholders the option to vote on compensation policies (though only in an advisory role). Nothing seems to work.

The latest initiative came from the Securities and Exchange Commission, which voted last year to require public companies to disclose the ratio between their CEOs’ pay and the median pay of their workers. The regulation, mandated by the Dodd’-Frank Act of 2010, provoked one of the largest outpourings of public comments the SEC had seen, some 287,000. [more]

Neither rigged nor fair

by David De La Torre

The Economist argues that executive pay is Neither rigged nor fair.

Critics claim that executive compensation is essentially a rigged game, in which boards packed with insiders parcel out rewards to their friends. Defenders argue that the market is setting pay, as firms strive to keep hold of talented executives in a competitive world. The truth lies somewhere in between. Compensation is not the work of a cartel, but it is light years from being an ideal market.

The notion that the market is efficient at setting executive pay rests on three arguments. The first is that competitive pressures are at work. Inside the firm, the “tournament theory” of pay holds that big awards high up a company are worthwhile because they motivate ambitious middle managers to take risks and put in the hours in order to climb the greasy pole to the top. And outside the firm, there are observable prices for the labour of senior executives, thanks largely to disclosures by listed firms. For example, the median pay level of an S&P 500 chief executive in 2015 was $10.4m, according to Equilar, a research firm, a rise of 1% over the 2014 figure. (In practice, executives do not benchmark themselves against pan-industry figures but against their peers.)

These sorts of pay packages seem outrageous to many, especially when compared with wages elsewhere in the economy. Peter Drucker, the doyen of management theorists, reckoned that exceeding a 20–1 multiple of pay within a firm between executives and the average worker was bad for morale. Mr Drucker was worrying about the gap back in the 1980s, when the economy-wide difference between CEOs of big American firms and average workers was in the 40–1 range. How quaint that seems: depending on how you count things, the multiple now is somewhere between 140–1 and 335–1.

Even those who defend the market view of pay often say that these multiples may be too high from a social or ethical perspective. But their argument is that, from an economic perspective, they make sense. Pay is not set in isolation. Just like other parts of the labour market, what others pay sets an external market price. “You can argue that CEOs of public firms are in some senses underpaid,” says Mr Kaplan, who points out that a senior partner at a blue-chip law firm or consultancy could earn several million dollars a year with none of the scrutiny, more job security and far fewer people to manage. Overpaid or underpaid, executives certainly know what the going rate is. [more]

Democracy Is So 2005

by Bill Hayes

In Democracy Is So 2005 for Bloomberg Businessweek, Joshua Kurlantzick reports on the decline of democracy throughout the world.

In many countries democracy is failing because the current generation of leaders has proven to be elected autocrats. Unlike in the 1920s or 1930s, when fascist governments such as Franco’s Spanish and Mussolini’s Italian regimes came to power by essentially overthrowing establishments through force or bullying to dominate a single election, today’s elected autocrats understand that holding regular votes is critical to one’s domestic and international legitimacy, even if those votes aren’t totally free. After the elections, leaders like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Erdogan, Thaksin, or Malaysian Prime Minister Najib tun Razak show little respect for any institutions — an impartial judiciary, a free media, constitutional limits on power, a vibrant private sector — other than the ballot.

Under Erdogan, Turkey’s government has silenced most critical media, while in Malaysia the Najib government has destroyed the independence of the attorney general and tossed the opposition leader in jail on highly dubious sodomy charges. [more]

For a related free classroom lesson, see “Putin’s Illiberal Democracy.” It is available from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive. It is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.