CRF Blog

Tracking Ivory

by Bill Hayes

In Tracking Ivory for National Geographic, Bryan Christy looks at the illegal trade in ivory and how it helps finance terrorism.

[T]he African elephant is under siege. A booming Chinese middle class with an insatiable taste for ivory, crippling poverty in Africa, weak and corrupt law enforcement, and more ways than ever to kill an elephant have created a perfect storm. The result: Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, more than 100,000 between 2010 and 2012, and the pace of killing is not slowing. Most illegal ivory goes to China, where a pair of ivory chopsticks can bring more than a thousand dollars and carved tusks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

East Africa is now ground zero for much of the poaching. In June the Tanzanian government announced that the country has lost 60 percent of its elephants in the past five years, down from 110,000 to fewer than 44,000. During the same period, neighboring Mozambique is reported to have lost 48 percent of its elephants. Locals, including poor villagers and unpaid park rangers, are killing elephants for cash — a risk they’re willing to take because even if they’re caught, the penalties are often negligible. But in central Africa, as I learned firsthand, something more sinister is driving the killing: Militias and terrorist groups funded in part by ivory are poaching elephants, often outside their home countries, and even hiding inside national parks. They’re looting communities, enslaving people, and killing park rangers who get in their way.

South Sudan. The Central African Republic (CAR). The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Sudan. Chad. Five of the world’s least stable nations, as ranked by the Washington, D.C.-based organization the Fund for Peace, are home to people who travel to other countries to kill elephants. Year after year, the path to many of the biggest, most horrific elephant killings traces back to Sudan, which has no elephants left but gives comfort to foreign-born poacher-terrorists and is home to the janjaweed and other Sudanese cross-continental marauders.

Park rangers are often the only forces going up against the killers. Outnumbered and ill equipped, they’re manning the front line in a violent battle that affects us all.

Garamba National Park, in the northeast corner of the DRC and on the border with South Sudan, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, internationally famous for its elephants and its boundless ocean of green. But when I ask a gathering of children and elders in the village of Kpaika, about 30 miles from the park’s western border, how many of them have visited Garamba, no one raises a hand. When I ask, “How many of you have been kidnapped by the LRA?” — I understand why.

Father Ernest Sugule, who ministers to the village, tells me that many children in his diocese have seen family members killed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, the Ugandan rebel group led by Joseph Kony, one of Africa’s most wanted terrorists. Sugule is the founder of a group that provides assistance to victims of Kony’s army. “I’ve met more than a thousand children who have been abducted,” he says as we talk inside his church in the nearby town of Dungu. “When they’re abducted, they’re very young, and they’re forced to do horrible things. Most of these children are very, very traumatized when they come back home.” They have nightmares, Sugule continues. They have flashbacks. Their own families are afraid that they’re devils, or forever soldiers, who might kill them in the night. It is assumed that the girls were raped, so it’s difficult for them to find husbands. Villagers sometimes taunt returned children with the same expression used for Kony’s men: “LRA Tongo Tongo.” “LRA Cut Cut” — a reference, Sugule explains, to the militants’ vicious use of machetes. [more]

The way ahead

by Bill Hayes

In The way ahead for The Economist, President Barack Obama outlines four critical areas that he believes the next president will have to address.

Further progress requires recognising that America’s economy is an enormously complicated mechanism. As appealing as some more radical reforms can sound in the abstract — breaking up all the biggest banks or erecting prohibitively steep tariffs on imports — the economy is not an abstraction. It cannot simply be redesigned wholesale and put back together again without real consequences for real people.

Instead, fully restoring faith in an economy where hardworking Americans can get ahead requires addressing four major structural challenges: boosting productivity growth, combating rising inequality, ensuring that everyone who wants a job can get one and building a resilient economy that’s primed for future growth.

First, in recent years, we have seen incredible technological advances through the internet, mobile broadband and devices, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials, improvements in energy efficiency and personalised medicine. But while these innovations have changed lives, they have not yet substantially boosted measured productivity growth. Over the past decade, America has enjoyed the fastest productivity growth in the G7, but it has slowed across nearly all advanced economies …. Without a faster-growing economy, we will not be able to generate the wage gains people want, regardless of how we divide up the pie.

A major source of the recent productivity slowdown has been a shortfall of public and private investment caused, in part, by a hangover from the financial crisis. But it has also been caused by self-imposed constraints: an anti-tax ideology that rejects virtually all sources of new public funding; a fixation on deficits at the expense of the deferred maintenance bills we are passing to our children, particularly for infrastructure; and a political system so partisan that previously bipartisan ideas like bridge and airport upgrades are nonstarters. [more]

Most Favored Narrations

by Bill Hayes

In Most Favored Narrations for Foreign Policy magazine, Isaac Stonefish and Helen Gao examine the list of 10 books most popular among the Chinese leadership.

The top 10 list is a proclamation from the Central Committee, which is by definition an exercise in ideological correctness. The interesting question is, at a moment when China is wrestling with the challenges posed by growth and global power status, what exactly do China’s ruling elite consider ideologically correct? For those concerned about the degree of intellectual openness and liberalism within the Chinese leadership, the answer that the list gives is worrying. [more]

Voting From the Privacy of Your Couch

by Bill Hayes

In Voting From the Privacy of Your Couch, Bloomberg Businessweek looks at software that helps run elections.

Electoral fraud has been pervasive in Nigeria since it returned to civilian rule in 1999. This year, to prevent tampering with ballots on the way to the capital, poll workers nationwide used technology from a Spanish software maker called Scytl to scan the tallies and transmit them electronically. Despite predictions of violence, voters elected an opposition candidate — removing an incumbent from office for the first time — in a process Human Rights Watch described as “mostly peaceful.”

Governments in 42 countries are using software from Scytl (rhymes with “title”) to bring elements of their elections online, from registering voters to consolidating results. [more]

This Week’s New Yorker Cartoons

by Bill Hayes

To see a slide show of this week’s New Yorker cartoons, go here, scroll down to “From the Issue,” click on the date, and click on the dots at the bottom of each cartoon to go through the slide show.

How America Is Putting Itself Back Together

by Bill Hayes

In How America Is Putting Itself Back Together for the Atlantic, James Fallows reports on his travels around the country and how communities are solving problems.

When news broke late last year of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, most people in the rest of the country, and even the state, probably had to search a map to figure out where the city was. I knew exactly, having grown up in the next-door town of Redlands (where the two killers lived) and having, by chance, spent a long period earlier in the year meeting and interviewing people in the unglamorous “Inland Empire” of Southern California as part of an ongoing project of reporting across America.

Some of what my wife, Deb, and I heard in San Bernardino before the shootings closely matched the picture that the nonstop news coverage presented afterward: San Bernardino as a poor, troubled town that sadly managed to combine nearly every destructive economic, political, and social trend of the country as a whole. San Bernardino went into bankruptcy in 2012 and was only beginning to emerge at the time of the shootings. Crime is high, household income is low, the downtown is nearly abandoned in the daytime and dangerous at night, and unemployment and welfare rates are persistently the worst in the state.

So if you wanted a symbol of what conservative politicians like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz mean when they talk about American decay, what liberal writers like George Packer or Robert Putnam mean when describing America’s unraveling, San Bernardino would serve — and it did, in most of the reports after the shooting.

But that was not the only thing, or even the most interesting thing, that we saw during our time there. If “news” is what you didn’t know before you went to look, the news of San Bernardino, from our perspective, was not the unraveling but the reverse. The familiar background was the long decline. The surprise was how wide a range of people, of different generations and races and political outlooks, believed that the city was on the upswing, and that their own efforts could help speed that trend.

For instance: Last spring we met a group of San Bernardinians in their 20s and early 30s who called themselves Generation Now — San Bernardino. They were white, black, and Latino. (The city is about 60 percent Latino, 20 percent white, the rest black or Asian.) Some had finished college, some were still studying, some had not gone to college. They worked as artists or accountants or in part-time jobs. But all were involved in what you could call a raveling-up of the town’s tattered social fabric.

“I was just pissed off,” an artist in his 20s named Michael Segura told us. “By the time I was old enough to vote, everything was in such terrible shape in San Bernardino. We just heard all the time that it’s a city of losers. We’d had enough.” In early 2013, just after the city declared bankruptcy and appeared to be at the depth of its hopelessness, he and a handful of friends began efforts to engage the city’s generally disaffected residents in improving their collective future.

Voter-turnout rates were among the lowest in the state, especially in poor and heavily Latino precincts; Generation Now members encouraged their neighbors to show up for civic sessions and register to vote. The numerous foreclosed homes and shuttered storefronts gave great stretches of San Bernardino a war-zone look; artists in the group covered some of the buildings with murals. Other members organized park-cleanup days, removing needles and trash, and replanting bushes and grass. Soon, neighborhood kids were following them around, cleaning up alongside them. [more]

What Exactly Did We Learn During the Age of Reason?

by Bill Hayes

In What Exactly Did We Learn During the Age of Reason? for the New York Times Book Review, Michael Wood reviews The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb.

“The Dream of Reason,” the first volume in a history of Western philosophy by Anthony Gottlieb, a former executive editor of The Economist, appeared in 2000, and took us from the ancient Greeks to the Renaissance. The new work starts with Descartes and ends on “the eve of the French Revolution.” Another book is promised, picking up the tale with Kant. Gottlieb’s aim, admirably fulfilled, is to help us see what older and newer philosophers have to say to us but not to turn them into mouthpieces for what we already think we know. “It is tempting to think that they speak our language and live in our world. But to understand them properly, we must step back into their shoes.” This will be true no doubt of the post-Kantian volume as well. Even the shoes next door can look pretty strange if they belong to a philosopher. [more]

Backgrounder on the TTP and U.S. Trade Policy

by Bill Hayes

Backgrounders from the Council on Foreign Relations are primers on pressing world issues. They usually include histories, summaries, images, graphs, video, and links to additional resources.

A recent Backgrounder was on The Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.S. Trade Policy.

The post–World War II era has seen the dramatic growth of international trade and the creation of a global trading framework based on the principle of open economies. The United States has been at the forefront of these changes even as it is less reliant on trade than nearly any other developed country.

With global trade talks stalling, the United States has turned to regional and bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). Having won the passage of FTAs with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea, President Barack Obama is now struggling to finalize the Asia-centered Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which he heralds as a “next generation” trade agreement. Opposition to the TPP and a similar deal with Europe has come from many in the U.S. labor movement, as well as some economists, who argue that trade agreements in their current form hurt workers, degrade the U.S. manufacturing base, and exacerbate income inequality. Advocates counter that FTAs create jobs by opening new markets to U.S. exports and making it easier for U.S. companies to compete in foreign markets. [more]

For a related and free online lesson, see “Free Trade, Globalization, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” 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.

Your Relative’s DNA Could Turn You Into a Suspect

by Bill Hayes

In Your Relative’s DNA Could Turn You Into a Suspect, Wired magazine reports on the value of familial DNA searching for police investigations.

But the well-publicized success stories obscure the fact that familial DNA searches can generate more noise than signal. “Anyone who knows the science understands that there’s a high rate of false positives,” says Erin Murphy, a New York University law professor and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. The searches, after all, look for DNA profiles that are similar to the perpetrator’s but by no means identical, a scattershot approach that yields many fruitless leads, and for limited benefit. In the United Kingdom, a 2014 study found that just 17 percent of familial DNA searches “resulted in the identification of a relative of the true offender.”

The technology’s limitations have the potential to cause real harm …. [more]

American Presidency Project

by Bill Hayes

UCSB’s American Presidency Project contains more than 100,000 presidential documents, fully searchable and downloadable. Documents include:

Messages and Papers of the Presidents: Washington–Taft (1789–1913)

Public Papers of the Presidents: Hoover to Obama (1929–2011)

Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents: Carter–G.W. Bush (1977–2009)

Daily Compilation of Presidential Documents: Obama (2009–2016)

The archive also contains thousands of other documents such as party platforms, candidates’ remarks, Statements of Administration Policy, documents released by the Office of the Press Secretary, and election debates.

Charlie Rose Interviews Dexter Filkins

by Bill Hayes

 Charlie Rose interviews the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins about Syria.

Ten questions, and answers, about the electoral college

by Bill Hayes

In Ten questions, and answers, about the electoral college for the Los Angeles Times, law professor Akhil Reed Amar takes a critical look at how we elect our presidents.

Was the electoral college designed to balance big and small states? Not really. The Congress was indeed so designed, with the House favoring populous states and the Senate giving each state two votes regardless of population. But in the electoral college, big states have more sway, and they have since the beginning.

What about the idea that the framers distrusted direct democracy? It’s overstated.  The framers put the Constitution itself to a popular vote of sorts, provided for direct election of House members (thus breaking with the Articles of Confederation) and favored direct election of governors. [more]

For a free classroom lesson titled “The Electoral College,” go to our Bill of Rights in Action Archive. The lesson is currently only in PDF and you will have to register (if you haven’t already), which is free.

Drawbridges up

by Bill Hayes

In Drawbridges up, The Economist reports that the people in many nations are divided between those who want to open up their countries to the outside world and those want to shut out the outside world.

“The old left-right divide in this country has gone,” laments Rafal Trzaskowski, a liberal politician. Law and Justice plucks popular policies from all over the political spectrum and stirs them into a nationalist stew. Unlike any previous post-communist regime, it eyes most outsiders with suspicion (though it enthusiastically supports the right of Poles to work in Britain).

From Warsaw to Washington, the political divide that matters is less and less between left and right, and more and more between open and closed. Debates between tax-cutting conservatives and free-spending social democrats have not gone away. But issues that cross traditional party lines have grown more potent. Welcome immigrants or keep them out? Open up to foreign trade or protect domestic industries? Embrace cultural change, or resist it?

In 2005 Stephan Shakespeare, the British head of YouGov, a pollster, observed: “We are either ‘drawbridge up’ or ‘drawbridge down’. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum-seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it’s a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other?”

He was proven spectacularly right in June, when Britain held a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The leaders of the main political parties wanted to stay in, as did the elite of banking, business and academia. Yet the Brexiteers won, revealing just how many voters were drawbridge-uppers. They wanted to “take back control” of borders and institutions from Brussels, and to stem the flow of immigrants and refugees. Right-wing Brexiteers who saw the EU as a socialist superstate joined forces with left-wingers who saw it as a tool of global capitalism.

A similar fault line has opened elsewhere. In Poland and Hungary the drawbridge-uppers are firmly in charge; in France Marine Le Pen, who thinks that the opposite of “globalist” is “patriot”, will probably make it to the run-off in next year’s presidential election. In cuddly, caring Sweden the nationalist Sweden Democrats topped polls earlier this year, spurring mainstream parties to get tougher on asylum-seekers. Even in Germany some fear immigration may break the generous safety net. [more]

How to Hack an Election

by Bill Hayes

In How to Hack an Election, a Bloomberg Businessweek feature story tells about Andres Sepulveda, who claims to have fixed many elections in Latin America.

It was just before midnight when Enrique Peña Nieto declared victory as the newly elected president of Mexico. Peña Nieto was a lawyer and a millionaire, from a family of mayors and governors. His wife was a telenovela star. He beamed as he was showered with red, green, and white confetti at the Mexico City headquarters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled for more than 70 years before being forced out in 2000. Returning the party to power on that night in July 2012, Peña Nieto vowed to tame drug violence, fight corruption, and open a more transparent era in Mexican politics.

Two thousand miles away, in an apartment in Bogotá’s upscale Chicó Navarra neighborhood, Andrés Sepúlveda sat before six computer screens. Sepúlveda is Colombian, bricklike, with a shaved head, goatee, and a tattoo of a QR code containing an encryption key on the back of his head. On his nape are the words “</head>” and “<body>” stacked atop each other, dark riffs on coding. He was watching a live feed of Peña Nieto’s victory party, waiting for an official declaration of the results.

When Peña Nieto won, Sepúlveda began destroying evidence. He drilled holes in flash drives, hard drives, and cell phones, fried their circuits in a microwave, then broke them to shards with a hammer. He shredded documents and flushed them down the toilet and erased servers in Russia and Ukraine rented anonymously with Bitcoins. He was dismantling what he says was a secret history of one of the dirtiest Latin American campaigns in recent memory.

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. On that July night, he cracked bottle after bottle of Colón Negra beer in celebration. As usual on election night, he was alone.

Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small — mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few.

His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. [more]

 

Politics and the New Machine

by Bill Hayes

In Politics and the New Machine for the New Yorker, Jill Lepore reports on the problems of polling in this election.

Even if more people could be persuaded to answer the phone, polling would still be teetering on the edge of disaster. More than forty per cent of America’s adults no longer have landlines, and the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act bans autodialling to cell phones. (The law applies both to public-opinion polling, a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and to market research, a twenty-billion-dollar-a-year industry.) This summer, Gallup Inc agreed to pay twelve million dollars to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of everyone in the United States who, between 2009 and 2013, received an unbidden cell-phone call from the company seeking an opinion about politics. (Gallup denies any wrongdoing.) In June, the F.C.C. issued a ruling reaffirming and strengthening the prohibition on random autodialling to cell phones. During congressional hearings, Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon, who is the chair of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, asked F.C.C. chairman Tom Wheeler if the ruling meant that pollsters would go “the way of blacksmiths.” “Well,” he said, “they have been, right?”

Internet pollsters have not replaced them. Using methods designed for knocking on doors to measure public opinion on the Internet is like trying to shoe a horse with your operating system. Internet pollsters can’t call you; they have to wait for you to come to them. Not everyone uses the Internet, and, at the moment, the people who do, and who complete online surveys, are younger and leftier than people who don’t, while people who have landlines, and who answer the phone, are older and more conservative than people who don’t. Some pollsters, both here and around the world, rely on a combination of telephone and Internet polling; the trick is to figure out just the right mix. So far, it isn’t working. In Israel this March, polls failed to predict Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory. In May in the U.K., every major national poll failed to forecast the Conservative Party’s win.

“It’s a little crazy to me that people are still using the same tools that were used in the nineteen-thirties,” Dan Wagner told me when I asked him about the future of polling. Wagner was the chief analytics officer on the 2012 Obama campaign and is the C.E.O. of Civis Analytics, a data-science technology and advisory firm. Companies like Civis have been collecting information about you and people like you in order to measure public opinion and, among other things, forecast elections by building predictive models and running simulations to determine what issues you and people like you care about, what kind of candidate you’d give money to, and, if you’re likely to turn out on Election Day, how you’ll vote. They might call you, but they don’t need to.

Still, data science can’t solve the biggest problem with polling, because that problem is neither methodological nor technological. It’s political. Pollsters rose to prominence by claiming that measuring public opinion is good for democracy. But what if it’s bad?

A “poll” used to mean the top of your head. Ophelia says of Polonius, “His beard as white as snow: All flaxen was his poll.” When voting involved assembling (all in favor of Smith stand here, all in favor of Jones over there), counting votes required counting heads; that is, counting polls. Eventually, a “poll” came to mean the count itself. By the nineteenth century, to vote was to go “to the polls,” where, more and more, voting was done on paper. Ballots were often printed in newspapers: you’d cut one out and bring it with you. With the turn to the secret ballot, beginning in the eighteen-eighties, the government began supplying the ballots, but newspapers kept printing them; they’d use them to conduct their own polls, called “straw polls.” Before the election, you’d cut out your ballot and mail it to the newspaper, which would make a prediction. Political parties conducted straw polls, too. That’s one of the ways the political machine worked. [more]