Thursday, March 29, 2012

The End of Human Trafficking

Peter S. K. Lynch

While the Kony 2012 movement, driven by Invisible Children and members of Anonymous, is about bringing a criminal to justice and bringing attention to the world of human trafficking—two noble endeavors—the project’s aim is off the mark, and to focus on Kony in particular is to miss the forest for the trees. To be sure, the man’s among the most wanted in the world and must be brought to justice, but he’s in hiding now and in no position to continue abducting children and use them as sex slaves and child soldiers. He’s pure evil, but there’s a better way to attack human trafficking.

One of many problems with our current approach to trafficking is in the form of legislation. We have and must continue to provide help for the victims of human trafficking. But, essential as this is, it’s a treatment of a disease, not the cure. Helping victims can only do so much when their lives have already been destroyed in the first place. The goal we must share is to make it so that there won’t be any victims in the first place.

Before formulating a plan of attack, it’s essential that we first uncover the incentives underlying trafficking. With sex slaves, the perpetrator’s primary aim is to gain financially by supplying what this dirty market demands. A second motivator is, it seems, the pathological seeking of power. There are those out there (Kony among them) who get their sick thrills by forcing their wills upon others. This secondary motivator is about power and control. Both of these incentives—financial and power-derived—have to be addressed if we are to fight the disease of human trafficking. So, I’ll address them below:

To the extent that financial incentives drive human trafficking, an opposing force must be applied to stop it. It may, and probably does, seem a little perverse to try to assign a dollar amount to the victim’s subjugation and the denial of their rights, the perpetrator’s punishment must come in a language they understand. As an example of how this might work suppose that, when caught, a human trafficker will have to compensate each victim $750,000 for each year he or she was used as a sex slave or child soldier. In this case, if a captor kept five victims for five years apiece, when caught, he’d owe the victims a total of $18,750,000. Further, to convince victims to come forward, they also could be incentivized. Because a major reason why they often don’t report the perpetrator is because of the fear of retribution, any victim who comes forward should and must have the option of being placed in a witness protection program. This will increase the rate at which the perps will be reported but, if that’s not enough, we could always provide victims with financial incentives—say, a certain percentage of the perp’s assets. This would tip the tables away from trafficking for two reasons: first, the perps would stand more to lose and, second, the probability of being caught in the first place would go up (since they’d be reported more frequently).

Because power dynamics (and, in particular, the desire to achieve power) play a role in the trafficker’s mentality, and because this power is often gained at the cost of victims’ human rights, the consequences for trafficking must decrease the perps’ autonomy: prison is in order. A problem with our current system is that not only do we have pathetically lax laws against the atrocities of human trafficking (even a minimum of 20 years doesn’t seem like enough) but, also, our system of punishment lacks any semblance of coherence, giving the perps hope that, even if they do get caught, they’ll get just the 20. Like the financial disincentives program outlined above, we need to come up with punishments proportionate to the magnitude of the crimes committed. An example of how this could be done is this: a perpetrator’s prison time could be the initial 20 years, plus two times the number of years each victim has been held. So, if a trafficker has 4 victims for 5 years apiece, the prison sentence would be for 60 years total. This, along with the commiserate loss of $15,000,000 and whatever a victim would gain by coming forward, would decimate the sex trade and child soldier markets. The amount a perp would stand to gain by through trafficking would be eclipsed by the risk of losing that kind of money and being thrown behind bars for the rest of their lives.

You could point out that there are people so wealthy that $15,000,000 wouldn’t put much of a dent in their finances. To this I would say: if $15,000,000 won’t put a dent in your finances, then the amount gained from trafficking 4 victims for 5 years won’t come close to providing enough financial compensation to make it worth the risk of spending 60 years (years that could be spent making money) behind bars.

Yes, this outline is simplistic; and yes, there are other ways to put in place the necessary disincentives. But these are ideas I arrived at in under 10 minutes. If we put our collective minds together, we may have the ability to come up with a solution that would reduce human trafficking by an order of magnitude—or more.

Briefly, back to Kony: in no way do I mean to say that bringing light to his atrocities is misguided. It’s essential to have real-life examples rather than just words and ideas. But getting Kony shouldn’t be the goal—it’s a data point for us to see and a motivator for those who hear about them to aim for the real goal: the elimination of human trafficking.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Electoral College is Borked

Peter S. K. Lynch

The United States’ Electoral College, approved in 1787, isn’t just antiquated—it’s also a barrier to true democracy.

Many arguments have been made in support of the Electoral College. For those who support it, unfortunately, most of the arguments are irrelevant or just plain flawed. For instance, proponents claim that the Electoral College benefits minorities. They believe that making the votes of each state an all-or-nothing proposition increases the likelihood that these voters will turn out and have the opportunity to make a critical difference in election results, thus necessitating that candidates court a wider variety of voters. This seems reasonable until you look at the issue from alternative angles. Consider this example: 49% (a minority) of voters in a given state might support a particular candidate but, if 51% of the population favors another, the group of 49% receives exactly 0% of the Electoral votes. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Two of the most essential problems are that: the 49% of voters in a given state make no difference on the national level—essentially, in this case, the minorities’ votes count for nothing whatsoever; additionally, when a minority group knows that its vote will amount to nothing whatsoever, that group actually has less incentive to turn out to vote. With a straight popular vote, this is not the case because the minority group will know that they actually can make a difference on the national level.


The most relevant arguments in favor of the Electoral College are that it does the following:
• Prevents urban-centric victories

• Maintains the federal nature of our government

• Makes it easier to detect and ameliorate election fraud.

Unfortunately, for these proponents, the first argument is flawed because the all-or-nothing system actually forces the candidates to focus on large swing states, neglecting the needs of the more rural states. Maintaining the federal nature of the government is a compelling argument, but even this can be destructive. Consider the South. There was a time when black citizens were assigned only 3/5 of a vote apiece.(They weren't actually allowed to vote, but this figure was used to juice up southern states' representation in the Electoral College. This reduction in the weight of their votes makes it possible for state legislators to push through the candidates of their choice (basically, it’s addition by subtraction). This, in turn, reuces the power of its constituents and places an inordinate value on the desires of a few, elite governmental officials. Instead, with universal regulations, the value of the minority vote can be preserved. And the third argument, while certainly valid, isn’t sufficiently relevant to match up with the arguments against the Electoral College.


Relevant arguments against the Electoral College include but are not limited to these facts:

• It devalues the national popular vote
• It gives more weight to voters in less populous states
• It discourages voter turnout
• It is a disadvantage to third parties
• In some states, there is a disincentive to vote at all

When the national popular vote isn’t the deciding factor, candidates are able to appeal to voters on a narrower range of issues. For instance, Vermont’s two votes are unlikely to affect who wins since it has only two Electoral Votes. Swing states—Ohio, Iowa, etc.—get the attention because of this all-or-nothing system, decreasing the representation of the states with fewer votes and those wherein the results can be intuited ahead of time. In this case, the smaller states aren’t the only ones to lose out: if a candidate can count of 51% of California’s vote, it can also count on 55 Electoral votes 10.2% of the national total. The 49%, on the other hand, will receive 0% of the electoral votes. For 2% of California voters to determine 10.2% of the Electoral College’s votes is a travesty. Since 2% of Californians constitute 0.12% of the nation’s population, this gives a single voter in California 415 times as much sway as he/she would have if each voter had the same influence as all the others.

This, in itself, is more than compensates for the arguments in favor of the Electoral College. And that’s just one issue.

While devaluing the national popular vote (which is wrong), the Electoral College also gives an inordinate amount of influence to voters in less populous states. Wyoming, for instance, accounts for 0.2% of our nation’s population, but gets 0.6 percent of its representation (also wrong). And by now, we should know that two wrongs do not make a right.

A logical extension of these two points lead to a third: the discouragement of voter turnout. A democrat living in Texas, for instance, won’t affect the results of the election in any way whatsoever, while, were California a swing state, each citizen therein could have up to 415 times that which he or she would if the election was determined by the national popular vote.

Finally, the Electoral College is a disadvantage to third parties because, in essence, they just plain won’t gather any Electoral votes. This entrenches us in a situation where the two-party system will always be in place. Even if that’s the best system, we the people should at least have the opportunity to make a change if we so desire.


I’ve acknowledged, in just over two pages, the merits of the Electoral College and the overwhelming arguments against it. When a convincing argument against an institution can be made in only a couple of pages, and when the issue at hand has such an influence on the election of our President, it becomes clear that the issue must be addressed and the system reformed. And the continuity of this system is undemocratic, disenfranchising, illogical, and ultimately destructive. This issue deserves far, far more attention than we give it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Economic Incentives to Combat Disease

Peter S. K. Lynch

While research and development aimed understanding, treating, and preventing disease is making progress at an ever-increasing rate, growth can be increased through grants from the government.

There are two major factors contributing to our attempts to eradicate disease: economic profit and altruism (pure or otherwise). As such, progress can be made by either increasing the relevant institutions’ potential for economic profit or by increasing the altruism of those participating (in terms of the goals of the institutions themselves and the individuals associated with them). Altruism can be increased through changing the worldviews held by those involved but, while there is potential for improvement in this area, progress is limited in large part because individual people almost universally haven’t reached their maximum capacity for contribution until we are adults, at which point our worldviews have been formulated and developed to such a degree that changing them would rely almost entirely on educational efforts. While changes in educational systems can still contribute to changing worldviews in favor of altruism and should certainly be used, it seems that creating economic incentives for the institutions and individuals involved would be a valuable means by which to contribute to disease-fighting efforts.

I propose that government grants can be used as a powerful tool to these ends, and that providing these incentives would constitute a trivial cost for the government when compared to its total budget. And, in any event, providing such incentives would require only minor changes with respect to the distribution of its budget and could even involve simply re-allocating some current healthcare expenditures. Additionally, the creation of powerful incentives would require very little legislative effort. I will now briefly outline one such incentive:

Institutions and the individuals comprising them will put more effort into fighting disease when each contributor sees the prospect of economic gain and, if the government increases competition, progress will occur at an increasing rate. Allocating $10 billion dollars for these grants—while to individuals this may seem like a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to America’s overall budget—to, say, the ten most valuable contributors (deciding how this will be measured will require further attention) each year, would provide a powerful incentive. As an example, our government could give out grants of $1 billion to each of the 10 companies it deems to have made the most progress in the last year. Each company would jump at the opportunity to secure these grants and, it must be noted, the winners of these grants would have more capacity for further contributions to disease-fighting efforts, creating the potential for a positive feedback loop.

I mentioned that providing this kind of funding wouldn’t require much legislative effort. This is because both Democrats and Republicans would want to create these grants as, the public would obviously benefit from increased disease fighting efforts and, as such, would ameliorate, to a certain degree, the public’s political unrest (in case you’re cynical about the intentions of our legislators, bear in mind that they would realize that such an effort would increase their chances of re-election).

The biggest remaining problem would be deciding not on whether grants should be created but, rather, how much money these grants should be worth and how many institutions will earn them. The public would also create pressure to have these changes go into effect as soon as possible, so the two parties would come to an agreement quickly, making the increase in progress begin almost immediately. And, consequentially, the quality of our healthcare would increase while, at the same time, reducing its cost.It amazes me that this kind of incentive for progress isn’t used by our government to a greater degree than it currently is.

As an extension of all this, I believe that applying this kind of incentive should be used in a broad range of other causes, in order to affect change. I’m amazed that we do this as infrequently as we do, and I know that we must use this tactic more frequently, across a wide variety of fields and pursuits.