Heartwarming Moments and Stories from the Rio Olympics

The 2016 Olympics in Rio came and went with the usual bevy of political and social troubles — though in fairness, the games have been tainted with controversy and poor sportsmanship since their inception in ancient times. Brazil, like most Olympic hosts, will no doubt continue to endure the economic and political repercussions, and such problems should not be discounted.

But for all those issues, I think it is worth looking at the bad with the good, and thankfully this year’s Olympics had plenty of touching milestones worth appreciating. Consider the following: Continue reading

Liberty v. Security?

It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.

It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading

Where Your Produce Comes From

In this wonderfully globalized world of ours, we take for granted just how varied and plentiful our food supply is (at least in the more developed and interconnected parts of the world). But so much of what we see on store shelves and restaurants would have literally been unheard of not long ago, let alone a significant and growing part of our staple diet.

NPR’s The Salt column reports on a study that has mapped out and traced where nearly all the world’s cultivated crops originated from. It found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the crops that form a key part of national diets — from Thai chilies to Italian tomatoes — in fact came from somewhere else. Continue reading

A Dutch City Will Soon Experiment With Guaranteed Basic Income

This coming January, the guaranteed basic income will go on trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht, where 250 citizens will receive a flat sum of €960 per month (about $1,100) for two years. The experiment is a collaborative effort between the local government and the Utrecht University School of Economics, and is partly motivated by a desire to find an alternative to the Netherlands’ present welfare system, which many believe it both wasteful and of little benefit to its recipients.

As The Atlantic reports:

The Utrecht proposal—called “Weten Wat Werkt,” or “Know What Works”—includes six test groups, the members of which will receive slightly different stipends under slightly different conditions. In addition to the group that will receive €960 per month without any work obligations, there is a group that will be given that, plus an additional €150 at the end of the month if they provide volunteer services, such as doing maintenance work on schoolyards. And there is another that will have the same option to volunteer, but will get the money at the beginning of the month and have to return it if they don’t volunteer. “Human behavior is always unpredictable,” Groot says. “We want to know what motivates people, what people respond to.”

There are three other test groups. One is made up of welfare recipients who will keep receiving their benefits, but without their usual work obligations. Another is made up of welfare recipients who expressed interest in receiving the €960 stipend but will continue to receive only standard benefits. And then, lastly, there is a control group of welfare recipients who wanted to keep receiving their usual benefits.

Many believe, myself included, that this is an idea whose time has come. Philosophers and economists across the political spectrum have been exploring variations of this concept for centuries, from Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Paine, to libertarians such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — even Nixon proposed a similar idea. Continue reading

The Least Miserable Countries in the World

Nuclear Weapons in the World Today

There are five countries that are legally recognized as nuclear weapons states, according to the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been signed by 191 nations: the U.S., Russia, France, U.K., and China.

Additionally, three other countries that are not signatories of the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — while one country, Israel, has not signed the NPT and is not positively known to have nuclear weapons, although it is believed by most analysts to possess them. (For its part, the Israeli government pursues an official policy of “deliberate ambiguity“, in which it refuses to either confirm or deny rumors that it posses nuclear weapons.) Continue reading

How Can You Police Without Weapons?

Most Americans probably take it for granted that police officers carry guns; after all, how else could they protect and serve the public? But given the high incidence of police killings, many are wondering if armed law enforcement does more harm than good — or at the very least, if it is even necessary.

As a recent article in Quartz points out, several countries, such as Finland, Germany, and Spain, heavily restrict an officer’s ability to fire his or her weapon, while other go even further and prohibit their police from carrying guns — namely Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

In the case of New Zealand and the U.K., law enforcement were stripped of firearms as far back as the late 19th century, under the justification that armed police are “antithetical to the values of civil society” and undermine their “authority to protect, not to oppress, the public.” For its part, Iceland, where one third of the population owns guns, reasoned that disarming officers helps to keep the peace “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force”.

All that is fairly fascinating reasoning, but how does it work in practice?

Well for starters, most of these countries have low crime rates, and what comparatively little crime does occur is usually nonviolent. So addressing the root socioeconomic and cultural causes of crime and violence would probably go a long way towards eventually making armed law enforcement unjustifiable.

Nevertheless, violence still can and does occur in these countries, and police are trained to anticipate and respond to such incidents, up to and including using a firearm during certain situations (such as a report of an armed suspect). Therein lies the core distinction between the U.S. and nations with unarmed law enforcement:

Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, points out that U.S. police officers are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.

“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt”, says Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”

Police in other countries are generally trained to de-escalate hostile situations and use minimal violence in response to a threat.

In other words, the lack of weaponry basically forces officers to find nonviolent solutions to emergency situations, using violence only as an absolute last resort (and again, usually with a select unit of armed specialists deployed strictly for such a purpose). This is in line with several other studies finding that unarmed police help to deescalate situations and build mutual trust between law enforcement and the community.

Another article published in Quartz earlier this year explored this idea:

Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued in a recent article at metro politics that arming police tends to feed violent interactions in marginalized communities. “Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence,” Smithsimon writes. Pointing to the example of St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Smithsimon notes that the addition of weaponry can accelerate confrontation. “Wilson could have continued on his way,” he says. “But the gun on his hip gave him the possibility to escalate with Michael Brown.”

uns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves. They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.

“Even if disarming the police only reduced police shootings and not other police homicides, it would be a historic improvement,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “But I suspect that taking guns out of the equation in police officers’ everyday interactions would improve police-civilian relations, like the kind that Eric Garner experienced repeatedly.” Garner sold loose cigarettes on the street in New York and was frequently hassled by police. In July 2014, he was killed when officers put him in a choke hold.

[…]

“U.S. police wearing their gun all the time has an important ideological effect,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “It makes police feel like they are never civilians, never normal people, that they’re always cops, and that they’re never safe without a gun. I don’t think that’s the most productive frame of mind for civilians who are charged with keeping our cities safe and calm.”

So even in societies that are not as small, homogenous, and peaceful as Iceland or Norway, disarming police can ostensibly work.

However, selling this idea to both governments and the public is a whole other story. With so many millions of guns out there (both legal and illegal), and a high (though declining) rate of violent crime, the thought of policing with firearms sounds absurd — which is why no local government, let alone a state or federal institution, has ever seriously considered this approach; even the smallest and seemingly most peaceable towns employ at least a handful of armed officers.

Indeed, an article in The Conversation that also explores the disparity in the U.S. and European policing found that the “brutalization” process runs both ways: just as armed police may elicit fear, distrust, and hostility among the community, an armed and violent citizenry only reinforces police officers’ willingness to turn to violence.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European country.

The article also cites endemic racism, hyper-individualism, and deeply rooted resentment towards government as reasons why both government officials and the public at large seem so tolerant of and aggressive police tactics. Racism is perhaps the most commonly identified culprit, although it does not account for the fact that even white Americans are far more likely to die from police shootings than their counterparts across the Atlantic, or why deadly encounters with law enforcement are high in mostly white areas like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Therein lies another surprising and novel culprit: the localized nature of most policing in the U.S.

Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

At this point, the Conversation article overlaps with Quartz in observing the higher standards by which most European officers operate under — Spain’s national guidelines require cops to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force” (whereas only eight U.S. states have such a requirement), while Finland and Norway “require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone”. Centralized standards mean that every community, regardless of its size, wealth, or social and demographic makeup, ostensibly gets the same sort of treatment.

Now, none of this is to say that these other countries have spotless records of police conduct, or that the wide range of differences in culture, demographics, and socioeconomic variables don’t account for at least some of the disparities in policing methods. But that is not reason enough to disregard these case studies, or to fail to apply at least some of these policies to the many cities, counties, and states with comparable social and demographic profiles.

Moreover, the psychological and sociological data that support less violent policing is largely translatable to American society — most people, regardless of nationality, feel uncomfortable in the presence of an armed agent of the state, and any law enforcement agency subject to rigorous standards of training should subsequently be more professional and competent; it is not as if Americans are somehow immune to higher standards of performance if properly trained and educated.

What are your thoughts?

Unfettered Internet Access Declared a Human Right

This past June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution in June that defines free and open access to the web is a human right and in strong terms “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”.

The four page document, which you can read here (PDF), takes a broad view of the Internet’s importance, from its empowerment of “all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology” to “[facilitating] vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally”. It even affirms how the expansion of telecommunications technology has the “great potential to accelerate human progress”, an observation most denizens of the Internet Age can attest to. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.

 

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

Continue reading