Tuesday, March 24, 2009

CNN-sheviks Out to Destroy Capitalism?

NEW YORK, New York -- We all knew that Ted Turner was married to Hanoi Jane some years ago, but only now is it becoming clear how much of her former ideology he seems to have adopted.

The nation is in a massive recession, jobs are vanishing like hotcakes, we're crippled by unprecedented household debt, a deflationary environment is setting in, individual net worth is plummeting faster than any time since the Depression, structural deficits are looking at long-term unsustainability, the financial sector is broken. And those are only the most obvious things that immediately leap to mind.

So with all that on your plate -- plus an ominously rising China demanding an end to the dollar as the global reserve currency of choice and long-term economic competitiveness issues that continue to go unaddressed -- what does CNN want to focus the American people's attention on? Why, the fact that a few bankers took home a bonus, of course! That's right, CNN has a weird, 7th-grade-crush-style obsession with the fact that a number of AIG employees were given bonuses after the firm was bailed out (numerous times) by the US government.

A good time to manufacture populist rage against the wealthy, no?

We can all agree that AIG's decision to pay out bonuses at a most inopportune moment is pretty boneheaded, but let's take a look for a moment at how pointless this issue is. It is neither the cause of the recession and financial mess, nor is fixating on it the solution to getting us past our woes. Moreover, the $162 million dollars paid out in bonuses at a company of tens of thousands of people was less than 0.1% of the total aid that AIG received. And since money is fungible, it's impossible to say that those bonuses "came from" government aid any more than they "came from" AIG revenues collected from families with policies in Iowa -- or Japan, for that matter. What it is, however, is a populist rage-inducing story that gives the public an easy villain and a comprehensible plot. Never mind that it's irrelevant, distracting and counter-productive.

I've been increasingly repulsed in recent months by CNN's dumb-it-down tabloid journalism, the most recent exacerbation of which is undoubtedly the thoughtless Campbell Brown. But the channel's most recent decision to take a turn as the crusading populist mouthpiece of choice is truly disturbing. I luckily wasn't near a TV most of last week when the "AIG bonus story" broke, thank God. But the two hours of CNN coverage I saw tonight, a week and a half after the fact, was appalling.

For anyone who has the sense not to watch CNN, I should add that at tonight's presidential press conference that channel's correspondent asked an inane question about why Obama hasn't macheted all AIG employees because some workers there were given bonuses. You can see the question asked here. No less than CNN's own Bill Bennett, one of the most destructive and shameless political figures in late-20th-century America, harped on the non-issue in the chatter that followed the press conference, leaving idiots-in-chief Campbell Brown and Ed Henry to blather on (and on and on) about those nefarious bonuses. Fast-forward 6:20 in for a glimpse of the idiocy:

The evening's edition of "Anderson Cooper 360" continued to beat its breast over this non-issue, marveling at what a doozy that Ed Henry laid for the finance-loving (and therefore untrustworthy) President Obama. And CNN's web site -- itself as well-designed as an AOL forum circa 1997 -- made sure to give top billing to the fact that Obama gave its correspondent a "tough answer" in a typically half-witted, solipsistic article. (Like almost all CNN web articles, it generally serves to do little beyond publicize some "event" that occurred on a CNN television program.)

But here's what really bothers me. No successful capitalist society can exist without a robust financial system able to give businesses the capital they need to grow. What we need to do is revive the financial sector, not make its individual members say "Uncle" and flee to Abu Dhubaibi, or whatever half-witted Emirate is offering free housing and lap dances to any Westerners willing to defect these days. The Obama administration is fortunately toning down its rhetoric, paving a path to hopefully returning to normalcy, despite earlier missteps.

But restoring the health of the financial sector becomes a lot harder when the country's largest cable news network is engaged in a full-fledged witch hunt against bankers. Indeed, CNN's stab at nascent Bolshevism is reminiscent of 1930s Europe and is beginning to make me frightened. The incessant tirades against "greedy bankers" and "pigs" -- how much farther do we have to go before we begin to hear talk of "Zionist conspiracies"? Europe has dabbled in hatred of financiers throughout its history. There's no need for the US, prodded by CNN, to go down that path traveled, appropriately enough, by fascist and Bolshevik alike.

Luckily, most actual humans don't seem to be very interested in the media's latest false god. As Joe Klein notes in Time, "Most of the anger we see and hear comes from people who are paid to be angry, on cue, on cable television--as opposed to people with actual grievacnes. ... It is said that the bonuses are an aspect of the bust that the "public" can understand; in truth, the bonuses are an aspect of the bust that reporters can understand."

A glance at the "blog" that accompanies "Anderson Cooper 360" shows a preponderance of viewers who are sick and tired of CNN's crucible of bonus-boners.

"I think Ed Henry thought he was going to get the President on a “gotcha question” but the President really got him," as one viewer said. "The media is seeming more out of touch all the time. We’re over AIG–we’ve all got bigger things to worry about. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem!" added another.

I tried to add a comment four times but was filtered out each time. The comment said, "Can we please stop fixating on the bonuses? We need a healthy financial system to get the economy back on track, yet CNN seems bent on turning Americans against bankers. This is a frightening development, and we'd all be better off if the media turns its attention toward the more serious questions of where we'll find economic growth in the future given that the country's most successful sector has imploded and taken millions of high-paying jobs with it."

That comment was apparently too critical. CNN's comments guidelines state that topics not use foul language or be off topic ... yet the vast majority of comments that did make it onto the "blog" were along the lines of: "@ John King is a pity … you are a great “blogger”! I love when you are blogging with us" or "I really don’t want to know who on Earth would want Michael Jackson’s socks. That’s icky to infinity." Good thing CNN is ready to ask the hard questions, huh?

So CNN has developed the sensibilities of Soviet Russia in pushing its anti-bonus agenda and frittering out criticism by viewers. This is a rather sad development for the country. The problems are vast. But the opportunities are even bigger. The time is ripe to be asking the questions whose consideration will hopefully set the path toward longer-term growth. What industries will fuel growth in the future? How do we train people to work in them? How do we get those businesses financed? When will the economy turn around? Why are deficits (structural and current-account) so big? How do we reverse them? Do we need to have a manufacturing sector again? If so, how do we compete against China?

Those questions are clearly very dull, though. Obviously people would rather focus on hating their slightly wealthier neighbors than determining where their own future prosperity will come from, right? Well, possibly not. For those of us who have half a brain and need something a bit less demagogic than CNN, I can wholeheartedly recommend the program that ran against AC360 on PBS tonight: "Ten Trillion and Counting." It's a fascinating account of the structural debt that George W. Bush left us. Watch the program online and ask yourself how we can get out of that debt. After all, somebody has to start asking these questions while Anderson Cooper warbles on about the Zionist bankers' plot to destroy "Main Street."

From the Department of "Don't Start a Biotech in Texas"

NEW YORK, New York -- Texans, be ashamed.

Large swaths of American students may soon be deprived of a 19th-century science education because of Texas. Normally, in the 21st century it's a good thing to say, "I'm not getting a 19th-century science education."

But that's not so much the case when the education you're getting is an 18th-century one.

The state of Texas may soon adopt a new official science curriculum that forces teachers to cast doubt on evolution, as the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. [We're a bit behind on this one (as we are on everything, due to a vacation last week), but this warrants a "better late than never" response.]

Why's that bad? Don't Texans already disdain science? They might, but the issue here is that textbook publishers can't afford to ignore as large a market as Texas'. So they'll have to include creationist babble to please the Texas school board head who thinks the Earth was created 10,000 years ago (yeah, like I said, this is 18th-century stuff) in their textbooks. And those textbooks will be standardized and sold nationally to keep costs in check.

Texas, you are going to fill the entire nation's children's heads with science-hating nonsense. Let's all join hands and get ready to jump back to an agricultural-subsistence economy. Thanks, er, "y'all."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wednesday Links: A Trip to the Islands

BOULDER, Colorado -- We are a little New York City-heavy this week with links, but I am preparing for a trip there next week, and I have just spent the past several days pouring over historical maps and reading about the various unvisited islands of the lower Hudson archipelago - places like Shooters Island, which was at one time a major shipyard, or Hoffman Island, a bit of landfill plopped into the lower harbor to protect the city from invasion. I can't wait to slip my canoe into the teeming waters of the East River and get a view of the city that few do.

Bring me your poor, your prisoners, your dead babies, your missiles. The Hart Island Project is an organization that is trying to document the history and ongoing story of one of New York's most fascinating yet invisible landmarks. The island is the city's Potters Field, a mass grave for the indigent, the unclaimed, and the stillborn, and over 850,000 New Yorkers are interred there. It is completely closed to the public and is owned by the city's bureau of prisons. People are still buried there, their graves dug by inmates from Riker's Island to the southwest. The founder of this project, Malinda Hunt, has made a documentary about the island which you can watch on the site, and she has been compiling a list of names of the forgotten thousands buried there.

Wired New York: An apartment in the Hudson River. This article was originally written in 2004 by Jim Rasenberger and posted on Wired New York, but Itchy just recently pointed it out to me. It's about some of the fantastical proposed projects for New York City that were never built, like Gustav Lindenthal's futurist masterpiece - a suspension bridge over the Hudson who's towers were massive apartment blocks - or Harvey Wiley Corbett's plan to turn Midtown into a three-dimensional grid of raised sidewalks. As Itchy just posted, it is still important to think big.

WSJ: Your tax dollars at work. Three of the most expensive sports stadiums ever built are set to open this year, and they all received huge subsidies from taxpayers who are rapidly slipping into poverty. Too bad they will never be able to afford a ticket to see a game in the new Texas Stadium, the new Yankee Stadium, or the Mets' Citi Park, soon to be renamed Zombie Bank Park, or perhaps after the Chinese conglomerate that swoops in to feats on the remains of the toppled behemoth. Perhaps as an homage to the bandbox stadiums of old, the new park in the Bronx will have obstructed-view seats; the view from the $5 bleachers will be blocked by a giant glass-encased luxury bar. Fuck you, working people! Watch the game on the jumbotron if you can't see.

Take a look around. Take the Handle Daily columnist Chris Walters is apparently trying to walk down every single street and alley in New York City; he's got his work cut out for him, but the effort is commendable, and the results are worth reading. His weekly column, Corner by Corner, is his effort to learn as much as he can about the fascinating city that surrounds him. I think we should all take a lesson from that no matter where we live.

Our language isn't dead, it's just sleeping. The Living Tounges Institute for Endangered Languages works all over the world to try and at least bear witness to the disappearance of indigenous languages and knowledge. Their website is packed with information they have collected on endangered languages from southern Siberia to West Africa to the Pacific Northwest, including audio recordings, online dictionaries, and academic papers.

[Photo credit: Claire Yaffa, Hart Island Project]

Awesome Site: Popular Mechanics' Infastructure EXTRAVAGANZA

NEW YORK, New York -- Do you lie awake at night thinking about a "new New Deal"? Does the idea of a massive Obama Bridge for high-speed trains across the Mississippi get you all hot and bothered? Ever excused yourself from polite company after hearing one too many seductive words about the "smart grid"?

If so, get ready for Popular Mechanics to blow your freaking mind with their web orgy of infrastructure reporting:

Click here for the dream-quest.

The site has been up (and aggregating relevant articles written since its inception) for almost a year, but I just caught sight of it. It's pretty cool.

Generation Next: Federally Subsidized Pepsi

NEW YORK, New York -- You can't beat the real thing, New Yorkers. Unless, of course, the real thing is using federal stimulus money to subsidize soda purchases.

NY Governor David Paterson announced today that rather than raise taxes on soda and junk food to help close a gaping budget gap, stimulus money would be used to patch up the state's fiscal irresponsibilities, the New York Times reported.

With an estimated $14 billion in deficits, the state had planned to raise taxes on sugar water and junk food to raise over $1 billion. This plan, put forward by the state's health commission and Paterson, would have the additional effect of discouraging unhealthy eating -- one of the main causes of the obesity epidemic currently swelling waistbands across the state and country ... and increasingly making itself felt in obesity-related hospital bills and Medicare/Medicaid costs.

Despite cries that the tax was unfair to overweight individuals (who apparently need soda more than everybody else), I thought it was a pretty sensible idea. While the Legionnaire very fairly compared the NY State Legislature to King George III in its creation of absurdo levies, I think the idea is pretty palatable. Given the huge government deficits, taxes will inevitably be raised (even on Obama's middle class). The fairest, most efficient way to do this would be sales and consumption taxes, rather than piling ever more income taxes on people who grow more and more likely to seek out Swissmen named Bernard with deep vaults the more you tax them. And if you can achieve fairly reasonable policy objectives, like public health, in doing so, all the better.

Enter Sheldon Silver -- New York State Assembly Speaker, Dr. No, the High Priest of the Backroom Deal, and a likely Carnival of Corruption -- a man whose uniquely turbid power in Albany has quashed thousands of rational, good ideas in the past.

Paterson announced the kiboshing of the soda tax at a joint press conference with Silver, and my feline instincts tell me old Shelly was behind it.

The result is that $1.3 billion of tax increases composed of the soda tax as well as a tax on clothes over $100 will be eliminated. The Times reports that the remaining "flexible stimulus funds" will be $4 billion. So 25% of the discretionary stimulus funding (of $25 billion total in state stimulus aid) will go toward effectively subsidizing soda and Gucci blouses.

So much for completing the 2nd Avenue Subway, the various cash-strapped transit hubs, a rail link to LaGuardia, or building Moynihan Station. It's all about doing the Dew. Unless, of course, you're doing the Kate Spade.

It somehow smacks of 9/11 -- instead of being asked to join in shared sacrifice and buckle down to rein in deficits blowing open like saloon doors, we get to ... suck back a Mr. Pip. Sheldon Silver, let me just say: I like the Sprite in you.

The War on Drugs Is a Failure, Quoth the Economist

NEW YORK, New York -- The "war on drugs" is a failure, the Economist writes this week in a series of well-composed (as always -- it is the Economist) articles that go from the Mexican drug wars to Spanish ports to US schools.

We at the Walter Duranty Report couldn't agree more and welcome these just criticisms of the colossal money pit that is the war on drugs. We're happy to recommend the reports on America's dirty little habit:

On the Trail of the Traffickers in Mexico

Sniffy Customers Popping Up in Europe

A Toker's Guide
to Countries Liberalizing Drug Laws

In America, Lessons Learned
on Combating Teen Drug Use

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

NYT Gets It From Horse's Mouth in Soviet Battleground

NEW YORK, New York -- The New York Times reported last weekend that Georgia's separatist enclave of South Ossetia was struggling to rebuild after the Russo-Georgian war that ostensibly centered around it this summer.

To listen to Times reporter Ellen Barry tell it, such are the wacky and crazy growing pains of an incipient nation.

Barry speaks of the "embarrassment" of residents of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, who are without basic plumbing -- for a newly sovereign state, running water should be a prerequisite, Barry and her interviewees seem to conclude. The report suggests that it's unclear what, exactly, has led to the shortages of water, construction supplies, and other basics, but, as Barry notes, "Whatever the reasons, progress has been slow."

Just like any other fledgling nation-state

Citing the head of a Russian organization, she writes: “They are asking, ‘What has actually changed as a result of our independence?’ There was, in fact, a real euphoria after the war, a strong one. But now it’s passing.”

Reading Barry's report, one would hardly realize that South Ossetia is a region in the nation of Georgia, and that only two countries in the world have recognized its claims to independence -- its primary enabler, Russia, and the bizarre leftist dictatorship of Nicaragua. Nor would one be cognizant that the country was the centerpiece of a war not of independence but mutual provocation by a then petrodollar-fattened Russia and a nascent Georgian state that Russia has long had designs of subduing and which Russia alleged was trying to bring about a genocide before that argument fell down like a prom dress.

Indeed, as Barry tells us: "When Georgia began an assault on the separatist capital on Aug. 7, Russia sent columns of armor to protect its allies."

Never mind the fact that, while it is extremely unclear under what circumstances the war between two consistently duplicitous and murky countries began, the current evidence seems to suggest Russian troops entered South Ossetia simultaneously with the Georgians. Never mind in addition that South Ossetia is less an "ally" of Russia than a part of a Georgian state in whose affairs Russia has repeatedly meddled since the Soviet breakup.

In this case, Barry seems to be the latest in a long line of English-language reporters who can from time to time be deaf, dumb and blind in Russia. At almost all big US and UK papers, foreign reporting is often sloppy. And (post) Soviet reporting can be a disaster.

This is nothing new -- Walter Duranty himself was the proudest purveyor of this particular trend -- but nor is it a good thing. While it's never pleasant or nice to dig into correspondents, who are often trying like anyone else to do their best at a difficult job, personality is uniquely important for foreign newspaper correspondents. Given that a Moscow reporter's editors are a world away and almost totally ignorant about what's going on in the (former) Soviet Union, the foreign corespondent's own impressions and ability to grasp his surroundings take on unique import in conveying to millions of Americans what is happening in a place utterly alien to them.

Judging by The Google, Barry's own background seems to be as a reporter in Boston and the US South before moving in 2007 to the New York Times. After a time reporting on the New York metro area, she vanished for 9 months (presumably for Russian language instruction) before re-appearing in Moscow in August 2008.

I have often been fairly impressed with her work, in part because of the inherent systemic difficulties of finding qualified foreign correspondents. First of all, it's probably very difficult for the Times' editors to determine who should be reporting for them in Russia or any foreign country. Do you hire natives who might have little or no training in high-quality journalism, or even share the Times' general weltanschauung and interests? Expats who have been in a place for a while -- but may be burnt-out lifers? Or do you send your own reporters?

The Times seems to combine the latter two approaches, which makes sense. But sending to Moscow a reporter who knows Brooklyn well doesn't guarantee that any less-than-totally-straightforward political stories (e.g., articles that aren't cut-and-dry stories on missile reduction or NATO expansion) will be handled well. Other Moscow reporters have been sent from New York (after winning a Pulitzer, in some cases). But their stories have sometimes been a mix of murmurings of the most basic facts of Moscow life ("Wow! They turn hot water off here in the summer!") and out-of-date features.

Barry seemed immediately capable, and I don't doubt that she is a good reporter, but this particular story is really pretty galling. When Western reporters go to Russia's "hot spots" -- places like Chechnya, Dagestan, distant oilfields on Sakhalin, or the breakaway republics Russia is trying to wrest from its neighbors -- their trips are often planned to a T by Russian authorities, sometimes with little time to wander off or interview people freely. For her part, Barry's sojourn to South Ossetia seems to have been part of a trip organized by the South Ossetian separatist government or its Russian sponsors: She mentions that she, as part of a "group of foreign journalists," met with the rebel leader, Eduard Kokoity, a sign that a Russian or Ossetian ministry may have been calling the shots on the trip.

Interviews with locals follow a typical tack for these sorts of trips: Residents of Tskhinvali mentioned in the piece are generally patriotic (though I doubt that many of the <70,000 people remaining in South Ossetia aren't patriotic at this point, given that ethnic Georgians and those opposed to the breakaway regime have been chased out). And when asked about the clusterfuck that is South Ossetia, they blame unnamed "underlings" of the rebel leader, rather than point any fingers at the top dog himself.

Sounding like any Chinese peasant standing around with a few teeth knocked out after a round of rioting, one South Ossetian tells Barry: "She 'didn’t get a thing' [in terms of monetary support], though it had not affected her opinion of Mr. Kokoity. 'We love him, we respect him,' she said. 'But he has many bad subordinates.'"

Kokoity is the head of a breakaway state alleged (in the Times' pages) to be involved in counterfeiting; arms, human and drugs trafficking; and that has helped smuggle nuclear material, but Barry's piece gives no indication of this. Instead, we're assured by Kokoity that "dishonest subcontractors" are to blame for any problems. Later, in case anyone didn't get the point, Kokoity is again quoted as fingering the nefarious "unscrupulous subcontractors" as being to blame for the fact that South Ossetia isn't exactly Candyland.

The fact that it's a war-ravaged breakaway state run, as Russian journalist Yulia Latynina has reported, by embezzlers and propped up and used as a political token in Russia's strategery games is apparently not central to these problems.

Indeed, the Russo-Georgian war is depicted not as a struggle between a rash, corrupt Georgian state and an ill-tempered, power-hungry Russian giant trying to regain control of its strategically located Caucasus neighbors and former subjects, but as a drive for independence among a people yearning to breathe free: "There are reminders of the euphoria that swept this valley last summer, when Russia acknowledged South Ossetia’s 18-year separatist struggle by recognizing it as a sovereign nation. Graffiti proclaims 'Ossetia thanks its defenders' and 'Great Russia,' and citizens say they are extraordinarily grateful to be free of Georgian rule."

Probably not so grateful

Yet, to anyone outside the Kremlin (or to those in the Kremlin and possessing common sense), South Ossetia remains firmly within Georgia's territory.

The thousands of ethnic Georgians whose ancestral villages are interspersed across South Ossetia, and who were chased from their homes, are not mentioned here. Neither are the Georgians living outside South Ossetia who were displaced when Russian tanks threatened to take Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, after invading South Ossetia.

The NYT is one hell of an organization. There is no parallel in US media. Unfortunately, as well-meaning as its Russian correspondents probably are, they and the Moscow correspondents for all English-language (especially UK) media sometimes don't speak strong Russian or command a great amount of knowledge about the region -- relying instead on a small army of translators, "fixers" who arrange interviews, researchers and drivers. In this case, the briar patch that is South Ossetia was smoothed over to the point that it was treated as a sovereign nation. In fact, a deeply flawed South Ossetia is still part of a deeply flawed Georgia at bitter odds with a deeply flawed Russia. But the result of this reporting-by-committee is unfortunately a too-often ill-informed American public, and, in this case, traces of unjustified deference to an opaque separatist state.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Judicial Elections, Misconduct, and the Death Penalty: The Case of Sharon Keller

BOULDER, Colorado -- Judges have been under increased scrutiny lately, but none more so than Sharon Keller (pictured left), the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Her alleged misconduct highlights several problems of our judicial system - or more precisely, that in Texas - namely the election of judges, the immense discretion they are afforded, and the rush to execute prisoners.

On February 19, the State Commissioner on Judicial Conduct charged Judge Keller with five counts of misconduct related to her decision to deny the filing of a motion in the case of Michael Richard. Mr. Richard was to be executed on September 25, 2007, and that day his attorneys attempted to file a last minute appeal with the court in Austin to stay the execution. Unfortunately, they ran into computer problems, and their filing was delayed past the court's usual 5 p.m. closing time; when they requested that the court office remain open just a few more minutes, Judge Keller denied the request, stating simply, "We close at five." Mr. Richard was executed a few hours later.

It should be noted that Michael Richard (pictured right) was by no means an innocent man. He brutally raped and murdered Marguerite Dixon in 1986, a crime to which he confessed. Mr. Richard's mental capacity was severely limited, but this was not the basis for the last-minute defense filing. Rather, the day the execution was to take place, the US Supreme Court had announced that they would hear a case regarding the constitutionality of lethal injection, the method to be used on Mr. Richard. Ultimately, the Court rejected the argument that lethal injection violated the eighth amendment by a 7-2 decision in the Baze v. Rees case.

Perhaps under Texas law, Mr. Richard should have been executed, but now we will never know, because he was never afforded the full scope of due process. As the New York Times reported on Sunday, Judge Keller is well known for her strong bias towards the prosecution. In fact, she has run for office on a "pro-prosecution" platform and has routinely demonstrated a desire to reaffirm these credentials rather than dispense actual justice.

Like in the case of Roy Wayne Criner, convicted of rape and murder in 1990. Except Mr. Criner didn't do it. DNA evidence clearly proved his innocence, yet Judge Keller rejected his request for a new trial in 1998. Her theory of the crime - one never presented by the prosecution or defense, but one she picked out of the ether - was that the victim, Deanna Ogg, had consensual sex with the person who's semen was found at the crime scene, then Mr. Criner raped her, but he used a condom or failed to ejaculate. In the end, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles ruled unanimously to free Mr. Criner, and that tireless defender of defendants' rights, Gov. George W. Bush, signed his pardon in 2000. To this day, Judge Keller does not have an ounce of regret about her decision to deny an innocent man a new trial.

As Itchy highlighted in an earlier post, the election of judges is a pernicious and corrupting process. Judicial elections have now become multi-million dollar affairs, replete with television attack ads, push polls, and negative mailers. In 2008, more than $3.8 million was spent on a single race for a state supreme court seat in Alabama. Republican Greg Shaw won the seat, but only after voters were subjected to nonsense like this and this over the airwaves. Some states, like Minnesota, are trying to do something about this problem (for a run-down on the spending on judges races in 2008, see here).

Judges hold immense discretion in any criminal proceeding, but in death penalty cases, the failure to exercise it impartially and judiciously can mean the difference between life and death for a defendant. If justice is to be fair and impartial, then there should not be wild swings in decision making in criminal cases based on who is on the bench; sadly, that is not the case. Anthony Amsterdam, a criminal defense attorney and law professor at NYU most famous for winning the landmark case Furman v. Georgia before the Supreme Court, which struck down all death penalty statutes in the country, last year said this about the California Supreme Court:
State judges are elected in all but a half dozen of the thirty-seven [now thirty-six since New Jersey banned capital punishment] states that have the death penalty. When California voters recalled their state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird and two of her colleagues because of their supposed softness on capital appeals, the California Supreme Court flipped over instantaneously from a 95% reversal rate to a 97% affirmance rate in death cases.
There is something wrong with this picture. I am not arguing about the morality or the legality of the death penalty, but there is little compelling need to rush to execute anyone. Access to due process should never be denied on purely procedural grounds, as was done in the Texas case, and states should proceed slowly and deliberately when they seek the death of a defendant. There are no avenues for appeal once a capital sentence has been carried out. In addition to being subjected to judicial indiscretion, Texas defendants are also afforded access to the worst public defenders in the country, and they are thrown into a system designed to execute them as quickly as possible. Texas carried out 18 of the 37 executions conducted nationwide in 2008, and 423 of 1,153 since 1977. While the average inmate on Texas' death row will spend 123 months before being executed, the national average is 153 months, or 25% longer. 373 people currently sit on its death row, trailing only California and Florida.

Judge Keller should be thrown off the bench, and all Texans should be ashamed of their justice system that is neither fair nor equitable and is stacked against defendants, especially those who happen to be poor and non-white. I can go on about the system's inequities, but I will leave it at that. But Rick Casey of the Houston Chronicle disagrees, calling the whole investigation of the judge a "Rube Goldberg system." "We do, after all, account for about half the nation’s executions. If Court of Criminal Appeals Chief Judge Sharon Keller ran a campaign ad bragging on her action, it would win her more than a few votes," he opined back on February 21.

I guess that's Texas justice for you - killing for votes.

[If you would like to help impeach Judge Keller, go here. For more information on the death penalty in Texas and elsewhere, check out the Death Penalty Information Center. Strangely, the photo of her is taken from the Texas State Cemetery website - I guess she already has her eternal resting place reserved in Austin. Executed inmates in Texas are buried at Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville.]

Friday, March 6, 2009

Penal Geography: America's Internal Exile System

BOULDER, Colorado -- It is well known that the United States has the proud distinction of having the world's largest prison population, which currently stands at 2.29 million (as of 2007, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics). The US also leads the world in the proportion of the population in prison - 738 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated, outstripping the nearest competitors Rwanda (691) and Russia (611). If all people under the supervision of the corrections authorities are included (people on parole or probation), the total population swells 7.3 million, or one in every 31 adults.

America's penchant for incarcerating its citizens (and non-citizens) is well documented, but what is less well understood is the exile component of the prison system. "Transportation" has long been a part of criminal justice, when inmates were sent to serve their term in a distant land, like British prisoners sent to Australia. In Russia, criminals were exiled to the remote reaches of the country long before the Soviets turned internal exile into a grotesque science. Whereas Great Britain eventually abandoned exile, the Soviets continued to use it as a means of making criminals and political opponents disappear, sending them off to vast areas of exclusion like the Kolyma Valley and the northern Ural Mountains. The group Memorial, which was founded to document the crimes of the Soviet state, has a great interactive map of the whole gulag system.

At least American prisoners aren't like Russian political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is imprisoned 3,774 miles from Mosocw; his co-defendant, Platon Lebedev, is a bit luckier, sent 1,193 miles to a prison above the Arctic Circle.

We like to think that we are above this barbaric practice, but America's geography of incarceration bears some small, though troubling, similarities to the "Gulag Archipelago." This analogy is not limited to usual spaces of exclusion, like Guantanamo Bay and CIA secret prisons, but can be found throughout the state and federal penal systems.

Imprisonment serves three basic purposes for society: incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation. The first of these is the simplest - the offender is removed from society for a period of time because they are perceived to be a threat to commit future crimes. The latter two are less straightforward. Society obviously demands that people pay for their crimes, but calculating the "just deserts" for every offender and offense is an inexact science. Rehabilitation was the primary motivation behind the establishment of the penitentiary system (before prisons appeared in the early 19th century, the state's options for punishment were limited to fines, torture, and execution), but it has since become a much lesser priority, though the terms "corrections" and "penitentiary" (as in, to be penitent for your crimes) persist. Rehabilitation was also found to be arbitary and unfair, as prisoners were subject to indeterminate sentences, and unaccountable parole boards determined whether or not a prisoner was "reformed" and therefore eligible for release.

Okay, being sent to Attica is probably still better than this.

We accept that inmates should be removed from society, but we also know that the vast majority of them will need to be reintegrated back into that same society. Therefore, they need to maintain bonds with the outside world, but there are many structural features of the prison system that prevent them from doing so, the most obvious being the location of corrections facilities. When sent hundreds of miles from home, prisoners lose all links with their former lives, and family and friends are unable to visit them. According to a study by the BJS, 60% of state inmates with children reported being incarcerated more than 100 miles from their last place of residence. In the federal system, prisoners are transported all over the country, far from their last residence or the place in which they committed their crime. But even in state systems, prisoners are sent to remote corners, far from the bonds of home. Beyond the unpleasantness of it all, there are consequences to society for isolating prisoners - several studies have linked long distances from inmates' homes to higher rates of recidivism.

New York offers one of the most glaring examples of this exile system. According to the state's department of corrections, 52% of inmates come from New York City, yet only 25% of the prison population is housed within 100 miles of the city. The vast majority of the state's prisons are located in the northern and western parts of the state, and of the total prison population of 62,599 in 2008, 44.6% of were housed in prisons in rural counties, outside of any metropolitan area, be that New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, or Albany. Prisoners are sent off to areas that are not only remote and rural, but also overwhelmingly white. The result is a system in which a predominantly white guard staff supervises a prison population that is 76% black or Hispanic, marooned hundreds of miles away from their homes and families with no reasonable expectation of regular visits.

There is a reason why it's called the Empire State.

California has a similar gulag archipelago, though the statistics are not as stark as in New York. The state is second in the nation (
behind Texas, obviously) with 172,000 inmates; 16% of them are held in prisons in rural counties (though the counties in California are much, much larger, as is the state, meaning some additional prisons may be just as remote as in New York). If ever there was a symbol of exile, it would be the state's super maximum security prison, Pelican Bay (pictured below), located in the northwestern-most corner of the state in Crescent City, 350 miles from San Francisco. Granted, the prison houses some of the state's worst criminals, but only about 5% of them are serving terms of life without parole, meaning the remaining 95% will return to society at some point in their lives.

It would appear as if being incarcerated in a small state would be an advantage, as you could not be transported too far away from your home and family, but that is not the case. There is an increasing trend of states contracting with privately-owned facilities in other states to house their inmates. California currently has 6,538 prisoners housed out of state (about 4% of the total) to deal with its massive overcrowding, even though this practice was ruled illegal by a state court. Vermont, which has only 2,130 inmates in total, sent 529 of them to a facility in Kentucky run by the Corrections Corporation of America. Hawaii sends about a third of its inmates to private prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky. This usually does result in cost savings for the sending state, but there can be problems for the receiving state. Virginia last year reversed its policy of accepting out-of-state transfers; its state prison beds were being filled with them, while Virginia inmates were serving terms in overcrowded city and county jails not designed to house long-term prisoners. The New York Times documented the phenomenon of out-of-state transfers in 2007, and they published this map of the prison network.

Maybe America's not better - it is 4,450 miles from Honolulu to Wheelright, KY.

There are many, many other issues at work here that I did not mention, such as the politics of prison location, the growth of private prisons, and the inequities of the federal prison system. As I continue my research on this subject, I hope to post more about this in the future. But we have to keep in mind that prisoners, despite their crimes, remain members of our society who are entitled to basic rights. Very few of them have committed acts that anyone could argue caused them to ever forfeit those rights. They must pay their dues, but they will return to our society, so we must incarcerate them in a way that is humane and just so they can be reintegrated as productive members. Sending them to the far ends of the earth, cut off from the ties of home and family is not a good way to accomplish this goal.

Robert Guskind, Dogged Brooklyn Blooger, Dies

BOULDER, Colorado -- Robert Guskind, founder of the Brooklyn-based blog Gowanus Lounge and writer for the site Curbed.com, was found dead Wednesday evening. Our condolences go out to his family and friends; Brooklyn has lost one of its most tireless champions.

We at the Walter Duranty Report will remember him most fondly for his relentless coverage of the sad state of affairs along the Coney Island boardwalk, which is being turned into a row of blighted vacant lots by its tyrannical landlords, Thor Equities. The company has dreams of turning the boardwalk into a stip of hotels and luxury condos (I guess they don't realize how far Coney Island is from Manhattan), but in the meantime, they are satisfied to jack up rents to drive off tenants and sell off the iconic attractions of Astroland to the highest bidder in Dubai or Pakistan. These same jokers have real estate interests in Russia; what a surprise.

But, it is probably best to leave the tributes and remembrances of Mr. Guskind to those who really knew him.

[Curbed: Robert Guskind, R.I.P.]

[New York Shitty: Dedicated To a Good Friend]

[Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn: Robert Guskind 1958 - 2009: Founder of Gowanus Lounge Dies]

[Brownstoner: Robert Guskind, Founder of Gowanus Lounge, Dies]

Unfortunately, Gowanus Lounge still remains down, but you can still peruse the archives of the blog's predecessor on blogger.com.

UPDATE: Gowanus Lounge is back up!

[Photo courtesy Pablo Jonesy via Curbed]

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Wednesday Links: Colorado Now Has Fewer Newspapers, Meth Labs

BOULDER, Colorado -- This week, we brought you stories further showing that Boston's Tom Menino is still America's Worst Mayor, that the dumb white people in Congress would like to see more gun violence in both their part-time home of the District of Columbia and the Mexican border cities, and that Russia likes to use passports as weapons against its neighbors.

Each week, we uncover a few stories that piqued our interest, but not quite enough to warrant a post. Here we will take you from the newsrooms and meth labs of Colorado to the fake newsrooms and financial alchemy labs of New York City.

Who Killed the Rocky? The Rocky Mountain News earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first major American daily to shutter its doors during the recent industry troubles, and it certainly won't be the last. Now you can contribute your own theories about the reasons behind the paper's demise, though I would be more interested to know how a cowtown like Denver sustained two papers for this long.

Denver Post: Crystal Meth, you are vanquished! Over the past ten years, methamphetamine has made strong, terrifying inroads into Colorado, and it appeared as if the same fate awaited the state as places like Oregon and Iowa. But meth lab busts have been declining, and fewer people are seeking treatment for meth addiction, leading the Post to declare the war on the heinous drug over. I would not speak so soon.

The Daily Show: Everyone sucks at their job. That includes Wall Street assholes and the financial journalists who are supposed to be looking out for the public interest; instead, the shouting heads over at CNBC have decided to use their pulpit to engage in hand-jobbery.

Chronicle of Higher Education: I need to find a new "career."
William Pennapacker argues that if you are thinking about going to graduate school in the humanities, don't. As a geographer, I am trained to think that place matters, yet when I am released onto the academic job market, I am supposed to take whatever job I am lucky enough to get, regardless of where it is. Frankly, the prospect of going from adjuct position to adjunct position in San Marcos, Texas, Columbia, Missouri, or Riverside, California is just too much for me to bear.

The weapon of choice: Wikipedia. Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy had some fightin' words about his former center, Shaquille O'Neal, who he accused of "flopping" to draw a charge in a recent game. Some Shaq fans decided to exact their revenge on Van Gundy by vandalizing his Wikipedia page (below), though the photo of him on his unmolested page should be revenge enough (above).

Interfax: When I grow up, I want a career in extrajudicial killings. According to a survey of unknown provenance, the vast majority of kids living in central Moscow want to become police officers when they grow up. I guess with Russia's rapidly-collapsing economy, the opportunity to carry a gun and a badge might present more economic opportunities than the miniscule salary and awful working conditions would suggest.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

America Takes Aim, Shoots Self in Foot

NEW YORK, New York -- The New York Times published another painful, "what the f&$# is wrong with us" story tonight about the US's bone-headed immigration policies driving away foreign students.

I've seen this happen to many friends, co-workers and fellow students. They want to remain in the US to study or work and contribute to making this country a better place, but our immigration laws push them out or make it pointlessly difficult to stay. Europe is more than happy to have them. As the Economist has brilliantly written, guess who shoots themselves in the foot? Yep: We do!

Particularly galling is this assertion by an immigration official:

The official said that time limits for visas were ordinarily a matter of reciprocal agreements between nations. [Belarussian scientist] Dr. Shkumatava’s case, he said, may have been further complicated because Belarus severely limits the number of foreign service officers the United States can have there at any given time.

That's a line of bullskit. Russians have to present US consular officials with their life stories in order to visit the US for a week. As a Russian, you need to include copies of birth certificates, property deeds, pay stubs, letters from your employer saying you have a stable job, and any records of family, spouses, etc. to prove you have someone "anchoring" you in Russia. Then you need to pay hundreds of dollars for a US contractor called Pony Express to deliver your materials to the US embassy (you can't deliver them yourself, of course!).

Then you wait for a phone call to arrange an interview. It could come at any time over the course of weeks after you pony up for Pony Express, or it might not come at all. Your interviewer generally treats you like dirt -- especially if you're a woman. Then you wait weeks again for a phone call saying you can get your visa, that you have another interview ... or you may not get a phone call at all.

Americans, on the other hand, pay the Russian Embassy $100 and get their visa that day. There is NO reciprocity; there is fear, mindgames and arbitrariness for highly educated, highly skilled Russians trying to come here. Why? Because we're afraid those educated, skilled people may try to stay in the US. What a disaster that would be.

Dr. Shkumatava, of MIT (credit: NYT)

Even English and Canadian friends have nearly insurmountable difficulties renewing work visas. One friend -- a Canadian who graduated from Cambridge -- was sent to an ICE detention facility after flying into Houston with a work visa that had only a month before it expired (she'd been denied a renewal because her major, English, didn't "qualify" her to be a charity worker teaching kids in the Bronx to read). She spent a night in a cold cell in Texas with no phone call allowed, and no clothes or blanket aside from the shorts and tank-top she was wearing. All because she majored in English.

Americans, do we want to run ourselves into the ground? For the love of God, call your elected representatives today and demand that they stop bowing to the bogeyman of "terror" and bring about rational immigration policies. If we don't want foreign students studying here, they'll find other places to go. And, sadly, our high schools today are in such a state that US students alone aren't going to allow our universities their reputation for being tops in the world.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino: Counter-Revolutionary

NEW YORK, New York -- Boston is a spirited city, but it has a few problems. Here's an interesting story about Beantown that spins three of the city's biggest problems together:

1) Firstly, the city has never really recovered from its brush with "urban renewal" in the 1960s, which saw about 1/3 of the downtown core of the city demolished to make way for ... (you'll love this!) ... an elevated highway in the middle of the city; a "development" of two apartment buildings with big, pointless lawns (left), parking lots, Brutalist government buildings on a vast empty plaza and a hospital building, which now take up a large chunk of downtown and look like a slice of Moscow on the Charles; and a second highway cutting through the city center. So much of Boston, despite its fame as an historic, colonial city, looks like shit.

2) A second problem is that Boston thinks of itself as a small city. New York is the closest big city, but Boston obviously can't compete on size. So it gets Napoleon where it can, and picks fights over insignificant thinks like baseball. Where it counts, Boston thinks very small, very unambitiously. The Big Dig (which did nothing more than sink a half-mile of roadway) aside, the biggest the city wants to think is when it builds a branch library in the Mattapan neighborhood.

This may be due to the self-esteem issues of the city. Just 15 years ago, Boston was the headquarters of at least 6 substantial regional, national and international banks: BayBank, Bank of Boston, Fleet Bank, Shawmut, First Boston, and State Street.

BayBank and BoB merged, as did Fleet and Shawmut. Then the two combined banks merged. Then Bank of America, of North Carolina, swallowed them all. Nazi gold looters Credit Suisse ate up First Boston. State Street remains, but is rumored to be a target for bigger banks, perhaps the one that helped Boris Yeltsin steal international development money.

Moreover, local industrial giant Gillette was bought by Ohio's Proctor & Gamble a few years back. Mergers generally aren't very kind to the hometown of the company that gets eaten, and lots of Boston companies have been eaten in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, the hot new life sciences and tech companies in the area are generally based in the suburbs, where large floorplans (the better for labwork) are easier to come by, and cheaper.

For whatever reason, Boston seems to be dead-set on being a small city. Even though much of its area riiiight outside the city center is decidedly suburban -- and not exactly thriving economically -- the city stubbornly refuses to build these areas out more densely, with areas a mile from the city center as densely built as the outskirts of Helena, MT. That results in the area's 6 million people sprawling out to Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Boston is the big city that wants to be a county seat.

3) Mayor Tom Menino is the third big problem the city has. Boston is known for its role in fomenting the American Revolutionary War. John Hancock, Sam Adams and Paul Revere sparked the independence movement in this onetime hotbed of democracy. And yet its politics are orders of magnitude less democratic than that of other US cities (e.g., New York). The mayor has almost unchecked, arbitrary say on whatever he wants, neutered City Council be damned. (Here and here are the latest stories about the man.) And Hizzonah Tom "Turkmenbashi" Menino has almost never seen a real challenger in his nearly 20 years in power.

In a city known for its high level of education, Menino appears to be functionally moronic, to boot.

Why such political malaise? Take some machine politics, add voter apathy, and subtract any reform-minded outsiders or businessmen who might give the mayor a run for his money. (Note to Mitt Romney: If you care about doing good for the state you live in more than you do about being an attractive version of Rush Limbaugh, run for mayor of Boston.)

Guess who's in charge!

With those three elements in place, the story, as promised, goes like this:

Given its small-town mindset and autocratic mayor, it may come as no surprise that real estate development in Boston is controlled by a cabal of developers close to the mayor.

One of them, Ronald Druker, builds lots of garbage "landscrapers." That means buildings that are very long while at the same time not very tall. Sort of like fat-kid buildings, or choad buildings. This is okay, though, because Mayor Menino wants to make love to Mr. Druker (or perhaps he actually does make love to him), and nobody's opinion about what happens in Boston matters but the mayor's.

Enter developer is Donald Chiofaro. He's a bit of an ugly duckling because the mayor is said to hate him.

Both of these developers now have projects they're proposing. Mr. Druker wants to raze a 100+-year-old building across from one of Boston's most famous, historic and photographed spots, the Public Garden. It was the first public park in the country. The Arlington Building he wants to raze is considered by architectural historians around the world to be a unique example of Beaux-Arts neoclassicism mixing with a nascent Art Deco -- the first beginnings of one of America's most original and successful styles. A group of neighborhood supporters and architecture fans (full disclosure: I am among them) have tried to prevent the destruction of the building.



Mr. Druker, in the best tradition of Boston razing its beautiful old buildings to build shit, wants to put up a "landscraper" that he promises will be the "most expensive office space in Boston." It will also serve as a parking garage for hundreds of cars. He argues that he is compelled to build this new building because the Art Deco building is in a state of disrepair and can't be used. It is probably no coincidence that he has owned this building for years and coincidentally didn't invest in its upkeep; nor is it a coincidence that he raised rents on his tenants to kick them out in a recession, later saying that he "couldn't find" any tenants after the rents were raised to exorbitant levels.

Mr. Chiofaro, on the other hand, recently bought a parking garage near the harbor. This parking garage was built in the 1980s, when the area was right next to the elevated highway and no one wanted to invest in an office or residential structure in the middle of an exhaust cloud.

Today, Mr. Chiofaro wants to build a set of skyscraper residences on the site of the parking garage. The towers would be near the park that has replaced the elevated highway. What's this about a park, you ask? Rather than sew up the old neighborhood that was razed in the '60s by allowing stores or homes on the area, a park was built, and the city also bought up lots of adjacent land to have as more parks. Mayor Menino is currently determining what height limits there will be for buildings around the park, since wee, small little Boston can't have shadows over any grassy areas. But since there are few buildings around the park that aren't parking garages, there's little reason to go to the park. And since the only scenery around the park is more parkland, it's a pretty boring, standard park. So it's almost always empty (see below).

Mr. Chiofaro's idea seems pretty good. Boston has almost no residential skyscrapers, and building a few would meet strong existing demand (at least not during economic collapse). It would also help bolster Boston's wimpy skyline to supply a more cosmopolitan, big-city feel that might help attract businesses and more residents from out of state looking to live the city life. And luckily, Mr. Chiofaro's development doesn't involve destroying any of Boston's history or aesthetic ensemble.

Mr. Druker's idea, on the other hand, is atrocious. He wants to raze a beautiful, landmark structure (in a historic zone designated by the National Historic Register), and put up a squat landscraper in its place. I'd say that Mr. Druker's proposal belongs in a suburban industrial park, but that's what Mayor Menino seems to want Boston to be.

Of course, this being Turkmeniston, the mayor has been pulling for his pal Druker's little piece of "urban renewal" while impartially and diplomatically telling the Boston Herald that Chiofaro's project has the chances of "an 80-degree day in January" of getting built. What do you think will happen, dear reader? Well, we're dealing with an autocracy run by an incompetent fool. Since 1776, Boston has gone from one of the largest cities of the New World to a sorry little suburb. It has few scruples about wiping out its historic and architectural integrity. And it's ruled by a man with Turkmenbashi's iron (or gold-plated?) fist, though arguably without the intelligence it takes to run a Central Asian satrapy into the sand.

I hate to sound pessimistic, but here's my likely outcome (at least there aren't any shadows on the lawns):

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mrs. Warren's Profession, or Judge Wopner's?

NEW YORK, New York -- Voting. For. A. Judge. I can't write that crap as a sentence because those words shouldn't go together.

Growing up, I was aware of "outlier" counties (and I do mean to say "county"; this, along with sheriff elections, seems to be one of the two or three actions done on a county level) that voted for judges. These places were generally miles from the supercool inner ring of suburbs I lived in, and I never thought any significant number of places voted for judges.

It turns out I was wrong.

The Supreme Court is about to hear the case of Caperton v Massey (Economist write-up here). It involves a judge from West Virginia -- the definition of "outlier county" -- named Brent Benjamin (above), who received $3M from an energy company's CEO directly and indirectly. Judge Benjamin received that money for his re-election campaign, naturally. When the energy company (Massey) appealed a $50M judgment against it, you can guess who cast the deciding vote in its favor.

The highest court in the land will be deciding on the legality of what happened, and there may be a ruling regarding campaign financing for judges (that sounds absurd just to say) or, for all anyone knows, even the constitutionality of electing judges -- though that's doubtful.

The thing is, as Slate's Amanda Frost notes, in many states judges can actually write law where it doesn't exist -- so there's reason to let people elect them. Of course, as the NYT reported last spring, the United States remains, stubbornly, about the only place in the world that elects any judges, so there are certainly ways of setting up a system that precludes their election.

What's crucial, though, if judicial elections can't simply be expunged and legislative powers taken from the judges of Miscaloosa County or Beaver Briar County or whatever, is that there be some way to make sure judges don't abuse their power. That's especially pertinent in the last month, which has shown that judges see their bench as a freaking candy shop.

As reported last week by the excellent-but-compromised Dalia Lithwick, judiciary reporter for Slate and Newsweek and alleged to have been a college debater (hence the compromised bit), recent weeks have seen sex allegations, obstruction of justice charges, violation of duty and bribery among the supposedly stoic members of the Third Branch. (If you haven't eaten any enchiladas or other stomach-rumbling foods recently, you can try reading this, the most sickening case of judicial criminality this year.)

One of the biggest problems -- and one that even Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has sketchily made hash of -- is judicial impartiality and the fact that it falls on judges to recuse themselves from cases that prevent a conflict of interest. Which they often don't do -- and given the sex charges, bribery, etc., that may no longer surprise anyone.

So what's to be done if judicial elections are here to stay, other than to "flay" them as was apparently done to bribe-taking judges in ancient Persia? In places where there are elections, Frost suggests mandating public campaign financing. That may cost voters a buck or two, and inflame the likes of Grover Norquist, but it's a good investment for impartial courts, whether or not West Virginiatuckians like it. And for the Supreme Court and other unelected judges, there should be boards of judges to rule on recusals in conflict-of-interest cases. Even if that would make the likes of Caperton wait longer to have their day in court, at least they'll know that the defendant hasn't squirreled $3M into the judge's campaign fund.

Russia, Bowed But Not Oranged by the "Krizis"

NEW YORK, New York -- Conventional wisdom may hold that Russia will be hit hard by the global economic shitstorm. After all, the place is generally a mess, and it's a mess dependent on oil and gas prices.

I don't argue with the gist of that conclusion. But while some observers are convinced that Russia's geopolitical heft and domestic stability will be circumcised by the economic problems it's facing and has yet to face, it appears every cloud has a polonium lining.

Yulka and "Da Boyz": Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and the Kremlin Tandem ("The Kremdem")

Bloomberg reports today on just what that lining is, and it's almost embarrassing nobody else had figured this one out yet: Russia's neighbors are even (way) more screwed than it is! And since 90% of what Russia cares about is just having the right to screw with its neighbors in the most arbitrary and medieval ways, it may likely be as pleased as the Kremlin ever is with its geopolitical position for a while yet (for perspective, here's what some motards were saying back in '01).

Nike vs. Goodyear: The Battle for Broadway

NEW YORK, New York -- After New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided to close portions of Broadway to car traffic as part of an experiment in pedestrian-friendliness, Newsweek is picking up on traffic-network theories that say fewer roads mean less congestion, not more (we spoke about it previously).

It's an interesting thought, and I'd like to think it's true. The people over at Streetsblog sure believe it. But a few cautionary tales have been reported recently that may give NYC-wannabes pause. Significantly, Boston's faltering Downtown Crossing area is considering inviting the cars back after 30+ years as a pedestrian-only zone. Turns out that when a city aims for that "St. Mark's Square" feel, it sometimes gets "Downtown Detroit After Dark" instead, as consumers find new shopping areas that are car-accessible and, over time, retailers move out.

That Downtown Crossing was right next to a neighborhood called the "Combat Zone" probably didn't help, though neither do the fact that Downtown Crossing's big draws for decades, homegrown New England department stores Jordan Marsh and Filene's, no longer exist (the "today" shot above shows the reconstruction of Filene's into a financially troubled skyscraper development). That, at least, is more indicative of the much broader economic trends dating back 30 years than it is of pedestrian vs. car traffic.

More generally, though, a potential factor in the success of ped-only zones is how well serviced a city's pedestrian-only area is by public transport and, crucially, how many people in a city take public transport. Downtown Crossing, for instance, does have a major subway stop right underneath it, but Boston's urban population is small and poverty-stricken. Many of the shoppers coming into town drive in from the suburbs. New York, on the other hand, has a critical mass, and then some, of affluent residents who predominantly use the subway, plus Jersey, Westchester, CT and Long Island suburbanites often come in by train. Not to mention the many thousands of tourists staying in Midtown.

Regardless, we'll be ready with firsthand reports once Broadway gets pedestized (sounds pretty creepy, huh?). For urbanists everywhere, we'll be hoping it goes over well. I guess for the sake of our beleaguered friends in Detroit we'll have to hope it doesn't spell the (19th) beginning of the end.