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By Taylor Marvin

From Shadi Hamid:

While this is unconfirmed, there is good reason to suspect that the government will attempt to break the unofficial truce between the military and the protesters that’s mostly held for the last six days. As of yesterday wealthy Egyptian businessmen were reported leaving the country, indicating that at least some of the country’s elite feel that the situation is approaching a breaking point. Given that Mubarak seems to believe that the majority of Egyptian’s grievances are with his government and not him personally and his governance can still survive the unrest there’s a good chance that a crackdown is coming. The US is likely the only player with the leverage over Mubarak to prevent this. Hillary Clinton’s comments from this morning don’t send this message clearly enough:

“We do not want to send any message about backing forward or backing back. What we’re trying to do is to help clear the air so that those who remain in power, starting with President Mubarak, with his new vice president, with the new prime minister, will begin a process of reaching out, of creating a dialogue that will bring in peaceful activists and representatives of civil society to, you know, plan a way forward that will meet the legitimate grievances of the Egyptian people.”

This isn’t strong enough. President Obama’s desire to avoid taking a side in Egypt is understandable- Mubarak is an important US and Israeli ally, an Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood terrifies many American policymakers, and Obama wants to hedge his bets. But this isn’t Tunisia, or Eastern Europe in 1989. We have good reason to suspect that many people are going to die in the next week, and the US needs to make it clear to the Egyptian military that whatever the outcome a violent crackdown means the end of US military aid forever.


Danger Room has a perceptive tweet:

This seems as far as security forces can escalate harassment of protesters before getting into the really lethal stuff. Next up could be the tanks, which entered central Cairo yesterday.

Abu Muqawama has a good list of people to read on Egypt. Al Jazeera’s live blog of the protests in invaluable, as is Mother Jones’.

Friday’s Reading List

Scottish Loch. Image credit Abubakr Hussain, Mohammed-Hayat Ashrafi, Maaz Farooq, Farmaan Akhtar, Mohammed Shah, via Wikimedia.

Scottish Loch. Image credit Abubakr Hussain, Mohammed-Hayat Ashrafi, Maaz Farooq, Farmaan Akhtar, Mohammed Shah, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

What a week:

Eliot Spitzer on the Republican budget plan (Slate).

Tactics in Afghanistan (Abu Muqawama).

The President as Micromanager (Megan McArdle).

Tim Pawlenty and the Rhetoric of Freedom (Matt Yglesias).

The Arabist’s coverage of Egpyt’s protests has been pretty excellent.

“Made in USA”

 Source: The Atlantic/tumbler

Source: The Atlantic/ Tumbler

By Taylor Marvin

As a reminder, Egypt receives nearly $2 billion in US aid a year, making it one of the highest recipients of American funds in the world. It’s also worth remembering that the United States has preferred that Middle Eastern countries remain under the administration of dictators rather than risk democratic revolutions that could end in Islamist governments for decades. While the Obama administration has good reason to stay out of Egypt’s internal political discourse, the day may be coming when the President can’t refuse to pick sides.

American Broadband Access

By Taylor Marvin

Out of a list of investment and development related international comparisons from the White House’s Enhanced State of the Union slide package, here’s an interesting statistic:

“Access to High-Speed Internet: 95.9% of South Koreans have access, 63.5% of Americans have access”

This isn’t a fair comparison. The average population density of South Korea is 487 people per square kilometer, making it the second densest large country in the world after Bangladesh. In the US the average population density is 32 people per square kilometer. The United States is also nearly a hundred times larger than South Korea, and much more rural. It will always be much more expensive to lay broadband cable across America’s large rural areas than in more urban countries, and it’s likely that the US will never achieve the high-speed internet penetration of South Korea. High-speed internet access is an important economic indicator, but portraying America as somehow coming up short to denser countries ignores how difficult achieving 63% access in the US has been. US telecom providers are taxed to subside expensive and unprofitable connections to rural consumers, and without this government intervention America’s access percentage would be lower. This really isn’t a revealing choice for making the case for increased national infrastructure investment.

How Grade Inflation Hurts Public School Graduates

By Taylor Marvin

Here’s a fascinating graphic that charts the drastic rise in average American college GPAs over the last century:


At first glance, two interesting trends stand out:

  1. While grades have been constantly rising from the 1930’s onward, they shot up between roughly 1965-1975. The average GPA for all schools increased from about 2.5 to 2.9 during this period, and after a brief mild drop have continued to increase since the mid 1980s.
  2. Average GPAs from public and private schools were roughly identical until the 1960s, after which they diverged rapidly. Currently the average GPA for a private university is .3 higher than for a public school, a significant difference.

As a university student at a public school this is troubling. Undergraduate grades are an important component of graduate school admissions and a high GPA can be vital to finding a good job in many fields, especially in this economic climate that makes desirable positions so much rarer and more competitive. Because public school students can expect to have a .3 lower GPA than their private school counterparts, they’re placed at a disadvantage. If employers and graduate school admissions officers aren’t perceptive enough to adjust their grade expectations based on the average GPA of an applicant’s school students from private schools with high GPAs can be expected to do much better than those from public universities. This isn’t a great system- it isn’t fair to those students without the resources to go to private schools where they can expect to receive higher grades, and uncertainty over what a graduate’s GPA actually means defeats the whole purpose of grades as a signaling mechanism and makes it harder for graduate schools and employers to determine which of their applicants are actually the best. There’s also an element of inequality in this. High achieving from poor families are much more likely to attend public schools, which puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs against wealthier students who could afford private schools.

But what’s responsible for these trends? The large increase in the rate of grade inflation during the 1960 and 1970s is especially striking. However, there are some interesting events that coincided with it. The 1960s was a time of high college enrollment, and the start of full female entry into higher education:

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

As an interesting note, the abnormally high male enrollment during the 1960s is primarily due to the draft during the Vietnam war, which young men trying to avoid the draft and incentive to stay in school as long as possible.

The increase in the percent of young people going to college meant that most schools became selective for the first time. In the first half of the 20th century most public and private universities weren’t selective at all- there wasn’t enough people even going to college to justify turning people away with the resources to attend a university. With more people going to college grades became much more important, because graduates had a much higher chance of having to compete with other graduates in the job market. This environment would create pressure on schools to give out more As and Bs and fail less students, and an increased pressure on administrators to let less students not graduate. Schools responded to these incentives, privates more than publics likely because of their increased reliance on tuition and alumni donations for funding.

This isn’t a healthy trend. GPAs in and of themselves don’t mean anything- their simply a comparison measure, and if this metric isn’t standard across schools it isn’t working as it should. Sure, an employer can probably realize that a graduate with a 3.0 from MIT is a stronger candidate than a 3.9 student from a second-tier state school, but with more evenly matched public/privates this distinction is a lot less obvious. There isn’t a good solution for this problem. As long as GPAs are used as a ranking metric outside of academia schools competing for students will always face an incentive to give out more good grades, and alternative methods like class rankings aren’t popular. Rising GPAs seem to be here to stay.

By the way the average GPA at UCSD has only slightly increased over the last decade, from 3.00 in 2000 to 3.02 in 2008, placing it slightly below the national average. UCSD’s average is also significantly lower than UCLA and Cal’s.

Decriminalization, American Style

By Taylor Marvin

Nine years ago Portugal, facing mounting drug use rates and addiction-fueled urban decay, decriminalized all drugs. Trafficking drugs remained illegal but possession of all drugs, including highly addictive and dangerous heroine, could be legally used. The move was intended to encourage addicts to seek medical help without fear of arrest and allow police to ignore personal drug use while focusing on apprehending traffickers and major dealers. The anniversary of this policy is attracting a good deal of media attention– nearly a decade on Portugal’s experiment seems to have worked. Previously decaying inner city neighborhoods are much safer now, drug seizure rates are up 500 percent, and addiction rates have fallen. As could be expected with the removal of the risk of legal punishment for drug use the number of young people experimenting with drugs has slightly risen, but the portion of these experimenters who actually become chronic users seems to have fallen dramatically. After a decade long experiment the policy seems to be a good one- as libertarians have insisted, the small social costs of decriminalizing the consumption of all drugs is far outweighed by the never-ending social and financial price of expensive and ineffectual prohibition.

As positive as Portugal’s experience with wholesale decriminalization seems to have been, its hard to imagine the more conservative and religious US taking similar steps in the foreseeable future. Despite America’s self-identification as a bastion of personal freedom truly libertarian policies like narcotic decriminalization are rare here, and barring a major shift in American political ideology likely to remain so. However, public enthusiasm for marijuana legalization is the highest it’s ever been and, because of wide support for legal pot among younger voters, likely to become more so in the future. Individual states voting passing initiatives to legalize marijuana is possible in the next decades, and national legalization isn’t unimaginable. But if Americans do vote to legalize pot and not harder drugs, legislatures will have to decide where to draw the line on the legalization spectrum. If drugs like heroine and meth are, justifiably, too dangerous to decriminalize while pot isn’t where should the line be drawn? Given America’s messy encounters with drug politics this will be a contintious issue.

Source:  Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet

Source: "Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse." The Lancet.

Here’s a possible solution. From The Lancet, this figure charts individual drugs’ potential for dependence and physical danger. Why not legislate that drugs below 2 on either the dependence or harm scale are safe enough to decriminalize, and the more dangerous drugs above these lines remain illegal? That would allow individuals the freedom to experiment with the drugs that rarely cause permanent harm, saving billion in prohibition costs, while truly horrible substances would remain prohibited. Of course the nearly century-long prohibition of heroine and cocaine hasn’t done anything to keep these drugs off the streets, but this policy would allow the federal government to maintain that these drugs are too dangerous to receive tacit state approval, even if prohibition is billions of dollars more expensive and arguably more socially harmful than decriminalization and well funded recovery programs. There’s one other problem with this decriminalization scheme: if American politicians insist, with good reason, that methadone and barbiturates are so addicting that citizens can’t be permitted to legally buy them then tobacco must be as well, because it’s nearly as addicting as cocaine. So if we want an evenhanded drug policy either tobacco is too dangerous to legally sell, or you should be able to buy hard depressants and synthetic opioids in any gas station. Something tells me we’re in for a long debate before we find an answer.

Friday’s Reading List

Vineyard, Napa Valley. Photo by Mila Zinkova, through Wikimedia.

Vineyard, Napa Valley. Photo by Mila Zinkova, through Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

Don’t get too excited about Tunisia and the wider Arab world (The New Republic).

How public military spending gets out of control (Gregg Easterbrook).

Union power and the jobless recovery (Democracy in America).

Germany and the Euro Zone (Crooked Timber).

The Economics of Alien Invasion

By Taylor Marvin

Here’s the trailer for the upcoming film Battle: Los Angles:

This may or may not be a good movie. But it did get me thinking: if intelligent, advanced alien civilizations exist, what incentives would they have to invade Earth?

Though it’s impossible to reasonably speculate about extraterrestrials’ motivations, there are some universally constant factors that would influence the behavior of any technological civilization, no matter how alien:

  1. Space is extremely big, and the distance between even a relatively nearby alien civilization and us means that travel between the two would take at least decades. Barring a major hole in our understanding of physics faster than light travel is impossible, meaning that for even a very advanced civilization interstellar travel would be extremely costly and time consuming. Given the enormous energy requirements of interstellar flight, even for a energy-rich civilization that had intensively industrialized its solar system these costs would be very significant, and it’s been speculated that interstellar travel could turn out to be so expensive that no economy could reasonably support it. This logic would still apply to alien civilizations with vastly different available resources and economic systems than we’re used to. Even an enormous multi-world alien economy would face the problem of scarcity and costly interstellar travel would have to compete for resources with other projects. If aliens do choose to aggressively develop interstellar travel they must have an extremely powerful incentive to do so, especially give the huge opportunity costs of building an interstellar fleet.
  2. An alien civilization would have to be very close by to know about humanity at all. The Earth’s presence is obvious across great distances, and any alien civilization interested in our planet would probably be able to infer the presence of some form of life on Earth by the high concentration of free oxygen in our atmosphere. However, it would be much harder to detect our technological civilization. The main evidence of our civilization detectable across interstellar distances is our radio emissions, and it seems likely that even a vastly different alien civilization would be able to interpret radio emissions from Earth as a sign of intelligence. However, because humans have only been emitting lots of noise in the electromagnetic spectrum for about the last hundred years radio waves from Earth have only had time to travel roughly 100 light years, expanding in a sphere around the Earth at the speed of light. That implies that only an alien civilization 100 light years from Earth would be able to detect human technology. It’s unlikely that, given the vast size of the galaxy and presumed rarity of habitable planets, an advanced civilization would lie so close to ours. However, it isn’t impossible- within only a 21 light year radius of Earth lie 100 stars, some with planets. Despite this it seems unlikely that an advanced civilization would lie so close to us, because we would probably be able to detect it. It seems unlikely that an alien species experiencing technological development would not have emitted significant electromagnetic radiation during its history, emission that would be detectable by us. This, combined with an assumed 200+ year lag period between the advent of alien radio and interstellar space-flight technologies, strongly implies that there are no technological civilization within at least two hundred light years of Earth and no alien intelligence aware of our presence.
  3. There are few plausible incentives aliens would have to invade the Earth. Science fiction authors and filmmakers typically offer the Earth’s resources as motivation for aliens to mount an invasion of our planet. This doesn’t seem likely. Most of the resources Earth offers are common in the universe; water is ubiquitous, rare metals are a normal component of asteroids, and solar systems with terrestrial planets suitable for mining seem to be common. Given the very high cost of interstellar travel, it’s hard to imagine any physical resource found on the Earth that couldn’t be more cheaply exploited closer to an expanding alien civilization. However, one unique feature of Earth is its climate and atmosphere. If an alien species had a similar physiology to Earth life and planets with oxygen atmospheres and liquid water turn out to be rare in this section of the galaxy it’s possible that our biosphere could motivate an alien invasion. However, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The only reason an alien civilization would send a military force, rather than a colonizing mission, to Earth is if they knew an intelligent species lived here and judged our technological abilities to be a threat. If an alien aggressor was aware that Earth harbored a technological civilization, it would be reasonable to assume the aliens also recognized human’s nuclear weapons capability, a fairly basic technology a sufficiently advanced civilization would likely  be aware of. The threat of a human nuclear defense of the planet would remove the incentive to invade Earth for its atmosphere or biosphere- resources that would be destroyed by nuclear warfare. An irradiated Earth would be of much less utility to even a radiation-tolerant species, making the notion of an invasion driven by a desire for alien living space or biological resources unlikely.

The sheer vastness of space is what ultimately makes the prospect of an alien invasion unlikely. Even if an advanced civilization was located relatively close to our solar system, the limited speeds of even extremely advanced space travel would mean that the flight time of an invasion fleet would be measured in centuries, if not millennia. For a civilization motivated to mount an extremely costly invasion whose prospective gains would be realized thousands of years into the future would require a species with the ability to think over the extremely long term without significant discounting future returns to present costs. The necessary long flight times of interstellar travel also have interesting tactical implications- a fleet that arrived at Earth would be armed with at least centuries-old technology from the aliens’ own perspective, with the possibility that human weaponry had advanced significantly during their long journey. The lack of clear gains from successfully occupying Earth, combined with the extremely high costs of developing sufficient interstellar travel capabilities, suggest that mounting an invasion of Earth would not be in the interest of most imaginable alien economies.

However, not all wars are motivated by economic concerns. The medieval Crusades are thought to have been at least partially motivated by the need for an outlet for Europe’s large number of otherwise unoccupied professional soldiers and overpopulation pressures, and it is possible to imagine similar conditions motivating an alien civilization. And of course we have really no real basis to speculate about what incentives an imaginary alien civilization might face. We can state that interstellar travel would probably be very costly for any civilization, but it’s possible that we’re wrong. Similarly, an alien species could put enormous value on Earth for reasons we can’t even comprehend, enough value to justify the extreme costs and long time horizons of an invasion. However, given the inherent expense of interstellar flight, likely large separation between intelligent civilizations, and universal prevalence of resources there seem to be few incentives for an alien invasion, even for an extraterrestrial species. We’re lucky.

Friday’s Reading List

Valparaíso, Chile

Valparaíso, Chile

By Taylor Marvin

The best links of the week:

Tone vs. substance in violent political rhetoric (The American Scene).

How a massive financial sector rips off the rest of America (Ezra Klein).

Myths and realities in the debate over the defense budget (The Will and the Wallet).

Online dating, beauty, and game theory (OKTrends, aka the most interesting site ever).

“But What About China?”

By Taylor Marvin

“We are fighting two wars, you have China, you have Iran: Is this the time to be making these types of cuts?”

-House Armed Services Comittee Chairman Buck McKeon

This might be a useful time to revisit this graphic:

Iran is the world’s 24th highest military spender, putting it low in the dark blue segment. Offering the threat of China and Iran as reasons to keep America’s military budget untouchable isn’t an honest argument and isn’t compatible with fiscal conservatism.