Primary Sources

A liberal's case for the death penalty; can Iraq stop worrying about Iran?; bottomless appetites; congressional cheats


Our Nuclear Back Yard

Even as we worry about loose nukes in Russia, we might do well to keep a closer eye on nuclear materials at home. A new study from the National Academy of Sciences argues that pools of spent fuel from nuclear-power plants pose a security risk—less because terrorists might use the fuel to create a dirty bomb (obtaining enough would be extremely difficult) than because an attack could cause the fuel to ignite, creating a Chernobyl-like disaster in which large amounts of radiation are released into the environment. And plants are doing a dishearteningly "uneven" job of keeping track of their radioactive material, according to the Government Accountability Office, which found that during the past five years three plants have reported missing fuel and fuel rods.

"Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report," National Academy of Sciences; "NRC Needs to Do More to Ensure That Power Plants Are Effectively Controlling Spent Nuclear Fuel," GAO


Meddling Mullahs?
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Iran on the Brink" (August 1, 2002)
Articles by V.S. Naipaul, Robert Kaplan, and Reuel Marc Gerecht consider where Iran's political turmoil will lead.

Iraq certainly has its problems, but contrary to fears voiced by U.S. and Iraqi officials, Iranian meddling probably isn't one of them—at least not at the moment. That's the conclusion, at any rate, of a new report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, which finds that evidence of attempts by Iran to destabilize or influence its neighbor is "far less extensive and clear than is alleged." Whether such attempts would succeed is even less certain. Because of lingering animosity over the Iran-Iraq War and Iran's failure to support the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq immediately after the Gulf War, many Iraqis do not trust Iran and deeply resent it, the authors argue. They add that Iran's aims in Iraq are relatively modest, at least for now. Although Iran has a strong intelligence presence in Iraq and backs one of Iraq's largest political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, these activities are designed not to "mold Iraq in its own image" but simply to prevent Iraq from re-emerging as a threat to Iran. However, the report warns, Iran could quickly ramp up its ambitions if it perceived an increase in Washington's "appetite for regime change" in Tehran.

"Iran in Iraq: How Much Influence?" International Crisis Group


primary sources chart
Carolina, Here I Come

Beefed-up security measures since 9/11 have had little impact on the ability of illegal immigrants to enter the country, according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center. Of the 10.3 million undocumented migrants in the United States as of last year, 3.1 million arrived in the past four years; not many more (3.6 million) arrived in the previous four-year period. The past fifteen years, however, have seen a significant shift in where they end up. In 1990 all but about 10 percent of illegal immigrants were concentrated in just six states (California alone was home to 45 percent); today only 60 percent of them live in those states, and once unlikely destinations such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee are becoming increasingly popular.

"Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population," Pew Hispanic Center


Re-Rethinking the Death Penalty
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Who Deserves to Die?" (November 12, 1999)
Articles by George Bernard Shaw, Giles Playfair, and Judge Irving R. Kaufman consider the legitimacy of the death penalty.

Support for capital punishment is, of course, usually associated with the political right. But the lead author of a new paper making what might be termed the "big government" case for the death penalty is the noted liberal scholar Cass Sunstein. The paper draws in part on a study conducted at Emory University, which found a direct association between the reauthorization of the death penalty, in 1977, and reduced homicide rates. The Emory researchers' "conservative estimate" was that on average, every execution deters eighteen murders. Sunstein and his co-author argue that this calculus makes the death penalty not just morally licit but morally required. A government that fails to make use of it, they write, is effectively condemning large numbers of its citizens to death—a sin of omission like failing to protect the environment or to provide adequate health care. "If each execution is saving many lives," they conclude, "the harms of capital punishment would have to be very great to justify its abolition, far greater than most critics have heretofore alleged."

"Is Capital Punishment Morally Required?: The Relevance of Life-Life Tradeoffs," Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, AEI-Brookings

Out Again, In Again
From the archives:

"When They Get Out" (June 1999)
How prisons, established to fight crime, produce crime. By Sasha Abramsky

The number of Americans on parole has risen along with the U.S. prison population, swelling from 197,000 in 1980 to 774,000 in 2003. But is conditional release, with the supervision it entails, worth the trouble and expense? This question was addressed in a recent Urban Institute report, which compared rates of recidivism among ex-convicts who were paroled with those among ex-convicts who were released with no strings attached. The study found that the recidivism rate among prisoners released unconditionally was virtually the same as that among "mandatory parolees," or prisoners for whom parole is part of a fixed sentence: 62 percent of the former and 61 percent of the latter were re-arrested at least once within two years. "Discretionary parolees," or prisoners released early after being vetted by a parole board, might be expected to do considerably better than others, having met various criteria before release. But they fared just slightly better: 54 percent were re-arrested within two years. Overall, parole is most effective in reducing recidivism rates among female prisoners, prisoners with few prior arrests, and those arrested for technical offenses or for violating public order. Among the largest category of released prisoners—males who have committed property, drug, or violent crimes—"the public safety impact of supervision is … nonexistent," the authors write, adding that the current parole system "serves little purpose apart from providing false comfort."

"Does Parole Work?: Analyzing the Impact of Postprison Supervision on Rearrest Outcomes," Urban Institute


The Graying Globe

It's common knowledge that the United States and Europe face a dramatic increase in their elderly populations over the next half century, but the UN's annual "State of World Population" report points out a less widely known problem: the rest of the world will be coping with a similar challenge. By 2050 nearly 20 percent of the population of Asia and Latin America will be over sixty-five, and even Africa will see the percentage of potential pensioners double between now and then.

primary sources chart

No Smart Bully Left Behind

Since 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act tied federal school funding to performance on annual tests for students in grades three through eight, critics have charged that the law encourages schools to boost their test scores artificially. A new study of one potential score-padding maneuver—suspending probable low scorers to prevent them from taking the test—provides grist for this argument. Researchers examined more than 40,000 disciplinary cases in Florida schools from the 1996-1997 school year (when Florida instituted its own mandatory testing) to the 1999-2000 school year. They found that when two students were suspended for involvement in the same incident, the student with the higher test score tended to have a shorter suspension. This isn't in itself surprising: high achievers are often cut some slack. But the gap was significantly wider during the period when the tests were administered, and it was wider only between students in grades being tested that year. Because "suspended students [make up] a very large share of the students who do not take the test," the study concludes that testing may give schools an incentive to keep their best students in school even when they misbehave, and to keep low-performing students out.

"Testing, Crime and Punishment," David N. Figlio, National Bureau of Economic Research

If You Serve It, They Will Eat
From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "The War on Fat" (September 4, 2002)
A trip through the Atlantic's archives offers revealing insights into American body politics.

The fattening of Americans in recent decades has occurred alongside a marked increase in the size of food packages and restaurant portions—and now a study suggests that these larger portions affect not just how much we eat but also our appetites, our perceptions of how much we have eaten, and when we feel "full." Researchers gave fifty-four test subjects bowls of tomato soup—half of which were "self-refilling" bowls equipped with a hidden tube that slowly pumped soup in through the bottom as the subject ate. Those whose bowls had been refilled ate 73 percent more than the others, but reported themselves no more sated. And when asked to estimate how many calories they'd consumed, the subjects with normal bowls were more or less on target, underestimating their intake by only 32.3 calories—whereas those whose soup had been replenished slurped up 140.5 more calories than they thought.

"Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake," B. Wansink et al., Obesity Research


Pay as They Go

According to federal statute, if a lawmaker misses a day of work while Congress is in session, he or she must forfeit that day's pay. But the law is rarely followed, according to the National Taxpayers Union, which compiled a list of the senators and representatives who missed more than 15 percent of the votes in 2003 and 2004 and noted how many days each one missed and how much pay that represented. The worst offenders were Democratic candidates for president, who among them accumulated more than $300,000 in salary while on the campaign trail.

"Numerous Congress Members May Have Received Illegal Congressional Pay in 2003-2004," National Taxpayers Union

primary sources chart