Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for July 20th, 2015

The US criminal justice system is either broken or operating on behalf of the better off

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Radley Balko reports in the Washington Post:

Here’s a roundup of stories and studies on a theme we’ve been covering here at The Watch, the criminalization of poverty.

  • Houston police arrested a single mother last week for “abandoning” her six-year-old and two-year-old in a food court while she went to a job interview. She says she couldn’t afford to hire childcare, and that the children were only 30 feet away, and never out of her sight.
  • A new study by Loyola law professor Alexandra Natapoff finds that public defenders are increasing fulfilling the role of social workers for their clients. This is in part because an increasingly large potion of our social institutions — from schools to doctors to public welfare agencies — are being asked to act as law enforcement. It’s a particularly troubling trend given recent revelations about just how overworked and understaffed most public defender offices are.
  • Welcome to the “Texas Triangle,” a trio of disproportionately poor towns that extract a disproportionately high amount of revenue from traffic fines. One of the towns, Hearne, has 4,400 people, but according to WFAA, “has more than 12,000 municipal court cases pending.” Hearne, you may remember, was the site of a massive drug bust in 2000 that rounded up about 10 percent of its black population. Most were later exonerated when it was revealed that nearly all the arrests were based on the word of a single informant who was paid per conviction.
  • San Francisco has more laws aimed at criminalize sitting, sleeping, and panhandling in public spaces than any city in California. A new study looks at how these laws essentially criminalize poverty and homelessness.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 3:31 pm

At Breakfast to Talk El Chapo, Drug War Veterans Serve Up Cynicism

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Very interesting report by Ginger Thompson in ProPublica:

The slight man at the breakfast table seemed more like an evangelical minister than someone who once brokered deals between Mexican drug lords and state governors. He wore a meticulously pressed button-down, a gold watch, gold-rimmed glasses, and a gold cross around his neck. His dark brown hair was styled in a comb-over. And when his breakfast companions started to tuck into their bowls of oatmeal and plates of salmon benedict, he cleared his throat and asked for a moment of silence.

“Would you mind if I say grace?” he asked.

The gathering last week at Le Peep café in San Antonio would seem unusual almost anywhere except south Texas, where Mexico kind of blends into the United States — and so does the drug trade. Seated next to the cartel operative was a senior Mexican intelligence official. And next to him was a veteran American counternarcotics agent. They bowed their heads for prayer and then proceeded to talk a peculiar kind of shop.

A few days earlier, Mexico’s most powerful drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had escaped again from one of that country’s maximum-security prisons. No one in this deeply sourced group was surprised. Nor were they particularly interested in the logistical details of the escape, although they clearly didn’t believe the version they’d heard from the Mexican government.

They were convinced it was all a deal cut at some link in the system’s chain. Our breakfast minister even thought that Chapo had likely walked out the front door of the jail, and that the whole tunnel-and-motorcycle story had been staged to make the feat sound so ingenious that the government couldn’t have foreseen it, much less stopped it.

Such an outlandish notion may not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Mexico. But as someone who lived there for 10 years, and reported on the country almost twice that long, what surprised me were the men’s theories on why anyone in the Mexican government would have been interested in such a deal. Perhaps, I wondered aloud, Chapo had possessed information that could have incriminated senior Mexican officials in the drug trade and, rather than try him, they had agreed to turn a blind eye to his escape?

The heads around the table shook back and forth. Chapo, they believed, had been thrown back into the drug world to — wait for it — restore order. Things have gotten that crazy.

“When I first heard the news, I thought this is either a good thing or a bad thing,” said the cartel operative. “Either this is a sign of how far things in Mexico are out of control. Or this shows that the government is willing to risk a certain amount of international embarrassment in order to restore peace for Mexican people.”

Surely I’d been out of Mexico too long, I told the table. How could anyone believe that Chapo’s escape would be good for public security? . . .

Continue reading.

They make a good case.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 1:11 pm

Special Broadcast from Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington as U.S.-Cuban Diplomatic Ties Restored

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A video report from Democracy Now!, which describes it thusly:

History is being made in Washington today when Cuba raises its flag and officially reopens its U.S. Embassy after 54 years. Hundreds are gathering for this historic moment, including U.S. and Cuban lawmakers and diplomats, activists and artists, scholars and historians. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez is leading a delegation of over two dozen officials from Havana, including Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal. Also among the attendees is Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and former Parliament President Ricardo Alarcón. This afternoon, Bruno Rodríguez will hold a joint news conference with Secretary of State John Kerry at the State Department, where Cuba’s flag was raised earlier this morning, joining the flags of more than 150 other countries that have diplomatic relations with the U.S. In Havana, the U.S. Embassy will also reopen its doors today. Kerry is set to travel there later this summer for the formal inauguration ceremony where a U.S. flag will be hoisted. Cubans have welcomed the diplomatic rapprochement with jubilation. For more, we’re joined by Cuban-American attorney José Pertierra and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 11:10 am

Good analysis by Aaron Carroll in discussing just how medical is cannbis?

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It’s a valid question, I think. His column in the NY Times begins:

It is becoming easier to get marijuana, legally. In the last 20 years or so, 23 states, as well as the District of Columbia, have passed laws that make it legal to use marijuana for medical treatments. So have some countries, like Austria, Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel and Spain.

Advocates believe that this has allowed many with intractable medical problems to receive a safe and effective therapy. Opponents argue that these benefits are overblown, and that advocates ignore the harms of marijuana. Mostly, opponents say that the real objective of medical marijuana is to make it easier for people to obtain it for recreational purposes.

Both sides have a point. Research exists, however, that can help clarify what we do and don’t know about medical marijuana.

A recent systematic review published in The Journal of the American Medical Association looked at all randomized controlled trials of cannabis or cannabinoids to treat medical conditions. They found 79 trials involving more than 6,400 participants. A lot of the trials did show some improvements in symptoms, but most of those did not achieve statistical significance. Some did, however.

Medical marijuana was associated with some pretty impressive improvements in complete resolution of nausea and vomiting due tochemotherapy (47 percent of those using it versus 20 percent of controls). It also increased the number of people who had resolution of pain (37 percent up from 31 percent). It was shown to reduce pain ratings by about half a point on a 10-point scale, and to reduce spasticity in multiple sclerosis or paraplegia in a similar manner.

Those aren’t insignificant results and they are supported by other studies that have confirmed that marijuana and cannabinoids can help withrefractory pain. But most researchers stress that they should be consideredonly when other therapies have failed.

There’s a little bit of evidence that marijuana might help with anxiety disorders and with sleep. . .

Continue reading.

And so on. And he rightly points out the malign effects of a common prescription drug replaced by marijuana: opioid painkillers, which as he notes have plenty of problems (overdoses, addictions) of their own. Using marijuana in lieu of the painkillers could avoid harm—and, according to evidence, it does indeed reduce harm in that are. In other words, we must consider all the effects of alternative treatments (such as opioid painkillers), rather than considering only the good effects: opioid painkillers come with a high overall cost—including the literal cost:  a patient using opioid painkillers cannot simply grow his own rather than buying prescriptions.

Moreover, alcohol is a very dangerous drug (overdoses, addiction, injuries up to and including death to self and others due to being actively inebriated: all well documented), and quite often the use of marijuana displaces the use of alcohol, another instance of harm avoidance and, given the medical dangers of alcohol (cirrhosis of the liver, for one), certainly should be considered in the context of marijuana’s overall contribution to medicine and healthcare. And Carroll also addresses that issue in another column.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 11:08 am

You know that insurance companies will do anything possible to avoid paying, and here’s another example

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Roni Cari Rabin reports in the NY Times:

There’s no video of the altercation between Monroe Bird III, a 21-year-old sitting in a car with a friend, and Ricky Leroy Stone, 56, a security guard who found them one night in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Tulsa, Okla.

But the tragic culmination of their encounter is not disputed: Mr. Stone drew his gun and shot Mr. Bird, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.

Three months later, as he lay in the hospital hooked to a ventilator, Mr. Bird’s insurance company declined to cover his medical bills. The reason? His injuries resulted from “illegal activity.”

Yet Mr. Bird was not convicted of any crime in connection with the incident. He was not even charged.

Without insurance, Mr. Bird’s family could not move him to a rehabilitation center specializing in spinal cord injuries. He was discharged from the hospital and died at home last month from a preventable complication often seen in paralyzed patients.

The incident joins a disturbing litany of cases in which black men have been shot by white men in law-enforcement capacities. But Mr. Bird’s story comes with a particularly bitter coda: The plan’s refusal to pay has left his family owing as much as $1 million in medical bills and, experts say, shines a light on a little-known loophole buried in the fine print of many health plans.

It is not clear how often insurers deny medical coverage based on allegations of illegal activity, but cases like Mr. Bird’s “are more common than people think,” said Crystal Patterson, an attorney in Minneapolis who specializes in fiduciary law.

Insurers have long relied on allegations of illegal activity to deny coverage to patients injured in a variety of contexts, from traffic infractions to gun accidents. The judicial rationale is that “we don’t want to reward illegal activity,” she said.

In one court case, . . .

Continue reading.

Businesses will do anything in order to increase profits, and evidence show that they are unrestrained in that effort by laws, morality, ethics, or anything else: if they think that they can get away it, at least to the tune of a net profit, they’ll do it.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 10:58 am

Posted in Business, Daily life

James Fallows comments on the Iran deal

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James Fallows has an excellent comment on the deal we (meaning the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany) managed to work out with Iran regarding their nuclear program:

On Friday, The Atlantic ran an exchange of views among Jeffrey Goldberg, Peter Beinart, and David Frum about the plusses and minuses of the new Iran deal.

To oversimplify: Peter Beinart thought the deal was more good than bad, David Frum thought it was nearly all bad, and Jeffrey Goldberg could see merits on both sides but thought on balance that the deal might be the best of flawed alternatives.

In case you’ve been wondering what the debate would have been like with four participants, wonder no more. And if you’re wondering why I care, given that the Mideast is not my normal beat, here’s why:

— There’s a backward-looking reason: I’ve been interested in Iran since I first visited in the 1970s. Also, I worked for a president whose final two years were wrapped up with, and ultimately destroyed by, the effects of the Iranian Revolution; who believed deeply in nuclear non-proliferation; and who probably would have been reelected if not for his failed “Desert One” mission to rescue American hostages in Iran—some of whom I knew.

— There’s a forward-looking reason too: In the years since the foreseeably disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, the next-most frequently discussed potential arena for U.S. combat has been Iran. For reasons I laid out in an Atlantic cover story back in 2004, I contend that anyone who has looked at the realities understands that the fantasy of a successful “preemptive” strike against Iran has always been pure, reckless fantasy, an extension of the “cakewalk” delusions that led us into the Iraq War. Moreover, from the American perspective I argue that there is far more to gain than lose in strategies to bring Iran in from its pariah status. (For more on the argument, see the Iran postings collected here, and this.)

To oversimplify my hypothetical fourth-man argument: If I were in the debate I would have agreed with Peter Beinart, completely disagreed with David Frum, and agreed most heartily with the parts of Jeffrey Goldberg’s writing in which he was agreeing with Beinart.

I’d go further. On reflection, I think this is a far better deal than most rational observers thought obtainable—especially considering that “our side’s” negotiators included not simply the U.S. and its normal Western allies but Russia and China as well. I also think that the agreement does more to avert a nuclear-armed Iran than any real-world (not tough-talk fantasy-world) alternative would do.

I know this won’t be the case, but in the upcoming congressional debate I think the burden of proof should be on the opponents to explain what arrangements, in the real world, would have done more to advance American interests and delay or deter the prospect of Iran getting the bomb.

Let’s consider, briefly, facts and judgments.

Facts: There is one simple-seeming factual point that President Obama emphasized in his thoroughgoing defense of the Iran deal at his news conferencea few days ago, and that (my one-time professor) Graham Allison has examined in even more thoroughgoing fashion here, here, here, and here. That point is: If you don’t like this deal, what’s your better idea?

More specifically: What is your better real-world idea, one that could actually come about, not your applause line for a speech or your snappy summary on a cable-TV hit?

Most of the “Oh, we should have been tougher—that would have done the trick!” rhetoric, including David Frum’s in this Atlantic exchange, abstracts away from several realities. Of these, the most important is that the U.S. can’t get its way just because Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Bill Kristol, or Ted Cruz thinks it should (as Peter Beinart argued here). Iran is smaller, weaker, and poorer than the United States. But that doesn’t mean it will just accede—a lesson the United States might have learned from its dealings with Vietnam, Cuba, and various Middle Eastern states over the years. Negotiations are what both sides agree to, not what tough guys on one side think that side should demand.

Moreover, Russia and China, while somewhat poor in per-capita terms, are very far from small and weak. The most amazing part of U.S. debate on this deal is how rarely anyone notices that Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, the opposite of strategic allies of the United States right now, have been shoulder to shoulder with the Western negotiating team so far. Is the thought that because an American hardliner, or for that matter one from Israel, tells them they’re too lily-livered, they’ll suddenly snap to? That’s an argument you might make on a talk show or in an op-ed, but not if you’ve dealt with either country. . .

Continue reading.

Steve Coll in the New Yorker has another good analysis:

In the late nineteen-eighties, in Switzerland, Iranian officials met with collaborators of A. Q. Khan, the scientist who fathered Pakistan’s nuclear-bomb program. The parties may also have met in Dubai, where Khan maintained a secret office above a children’s store called Mummy & Me. In 1987, the Iranians received a one-page document that included the offer of a disassembled centrifuge, along with diagrams of the machine. They reportedly ended up paying as much as ten million dollars for information and materials that helped Iran advance its nuclear program during the nineteen-nineties. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a scientist sometimes described as the closest thing to an Iranian Robert Oppenheimer, oversaw the Orchid Office, working secretly on detonators and on the challenge of fitting something like a nuke on a missile. In 2003, the agency confronted Iran with evidence that it maintained a clandestine nuclear program. Tehran denied any wrongdoing and parried inspectors, then built a centrifuge facility under a mountain near Qom, whose existence was revealed by the United States, Britain, and France in 2009.

This record of deception is one reason that the nuclear accord that Secretary of State John Kerry brought back to President Obama last week runs to a hundred and fifty-nine pages of text and annexes. Paragraph after paragraph seeks to close loophole after loophole. “Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off, and the inspection and transparency regime necessary to verify that objective will be put in place,” the President said last week. If Iran tries to build a bomb before 2025, he insisted, inspections and surveillance will provide the world with at least a year’s advance warning.

The deal’s fine print does include remarkable Iranian concessions, such as the sale or the downblending of almost all Iran’s enriched uranium, and the disabling of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could be used to make plutonium. Yet the deal has weaknesses, too. Its protocols for surprise inspections of military facilities could allow Iran to delay the arrival of investigators for more than three weeks, ample time to hide contraband equipment. And although Iran must now provide the I.A.E.A. with answers about its secret atomic history, the accord does not spell out how forthcoming it must be. Inevitably, some uncertainty about Iran’s past weapons experiments—and, therefore, its present bomb-making capacity—will remain.

Congress has until mid-September to act on the deal. It seems unlikely that legislators will scuttle it; Republicans appear implacably opposed to Obama’s diplomacy, yet they may not have the votes to override the veto that he has promised. But, to see the deal through, the President will have to persuade wary Democrats to back him. They face lobbying by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. Netanyahu continues to intervene in American politics on the Iran matter, despite his slim odds of success and the damage he continues to cause to the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Yet he is a canny campaigner. Speaking on National Public Radio, he homed in on the accord’s surprise-inspection regime as “woefully inadequate” and “completely porous.”

In fact, the accord is tighter and more prescriptive than many I.A.E.A.-enforced agreements, including the one with North Korea that broke down a decade ago. Obama’s best argument, however, is not the fine print but the fact that the deal is better than any other realistic course of action. Certainly it is better than preëmptive war. A more nuanced question that Congress will now debate is whether Obama could have done better by maintaining economic sanctions longer and negotiating for tougher terms. That is an illusory choice, the President argued last week, because, “without a deal, the international sanctions regime will unravel.” If he is right about that, the accord is more attractive still. The coalition that negotiated the deal now on the table—the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union—represents an extraordinary front of unity against nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Holding that rare alliance together will make it easier to challenge Iran later if the ayatollahs do cheat or go for a bomb after the termination of the agreement. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 10:15 am

Risking Your Health for Your Politics

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It’s interesting that the GOP leaders’ bad-mouthing of the Affordable Care Act has indeed worked to prevent many Republicans from signing up. Seth Masket looks at the phenomenon in Pacific Standard:

One of the big public health stories over the past few years has been the sharp decline in the number of uninsured Americans since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. This decline has not been even across the United States population, though. We know that poorer people, African Americans, Latinos, and other demographic subgroups have benefited more rapidly from this act than others. But it also turns out that there’s a partisan component: Democrats are benefiting more than Republicans.

As Michael Tesler reported at the Monkey Cage last week, the percent of uninsured who are Democrats has essentially been cut in half over the past two years, while the percent of uninsured who are Republicans has barely budged. One might just dismiss this as a feature of demographics: Democrats tend to be poorer than Republicans and to live in states that have more aggressively adopted health exchanges. Yes, that’s true, but Tesler actually controls for all sorts of demographic factors, including race, income, and state of residence, and still finds a large partisan effect. What’s going on here?

One possible explanation is that Republicans are constitutionally less inclined to seek out a public service until they desperately need it. That would be consistent with some of the anecdotes we’ve seen about people who were opposed to Obamacare on ideological grounds but enrolled in it when a medical crisis hit their family. And conversely, Democrats may be constitutionally more comfortable with signing up for a government service. These differences, that is, may simply reflect the general attitudes of liberals and conservatives toward actions by the government and toward collective action in general.

Even if the government is not involved, after all, insurance is all about pooled money and calculated risk. When you buy health insurance as a healthy person (and if you expect to be healthy much of your life), you accept that a good deal of the money you put in will go to benefit other people. Republicans might simply be more likely to see this as a scam, while Democrats view it as a social responsibility.

Healthgraph
(Source: Michael Tesler/The Washington Post)

But another related explanation for the partisan differences in health insurance enrollments just has to be . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 July 2015 at 10:02 am

Posted in GOP, Government, Healthcare

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