When it comes to illicit media, the agents for good and evil, even outside New York, are always symbiotic: pornography, in the experience of many moral crusaders, is like an infuriating weed that loves nothing more than a good pesticide, its strength only enhanced by efforts to tamp it down. But Long also chronicles the way that initiatives to eradicate vice only helped pave the way for its further evolution in the city. Try to eliminate drinking on Sunday by limiting it to hotels, as did the Raines Law of 1896, and suddenly every bar and saloon in Manhattan is putting up cheap dividers to create makeshift accommodations, ideal breeding grounds for prostitution, which thrived in the era of the so-called Raines Law hotels. Try to provide a place where working-class men can find a bathroom that isn’t in a bar, and from that solution — public restrooms — will come another challenge: gay (semipublic) sex.
For years, Swiss scientists have blithely created genetically modified rice, corn and apples. But did they ever stop to consider just how humiliating such experiments may be to plants?
That’s a question they must now ask. Last spring, this small Alpine nation began mandating that geneticists conduct their research without trampling on a plant’s dignity.
“Unfortunately, we have to take it seriously,” Beat Keller, a molecular biologist at the University of Zurich. “It’s one more constraint on doing genetic research.”
Dr. Keller recently sought government permission to do a field trial of genetically modified wheat that has been bred to resist a fungus. He first had to debate the finer points of plant dignity with university ethicists. Then, in a written application to the government, he tried to explain why the planned trial wouldn’t “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the plants. He eventually got the green light.
The rule, based on a constitutional amendment, came into being after the Swiss Parliament asked a panel of philosophers, lawyers, geneticists and theologians to establish the meaning of flora’s dignity.
“We couldn’t start laughing and tell the government we’re not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, a member of the ethics panel and a professor of law at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”
In April, the team published a 22-page treatise on “the moral consideration of plants for their own sake.” It stated that vegetation has an inherent value and that it is immoral to arbitrarily harm plants by, say, “decapitation of wildflowers at the roadside without rational reason.”
On the question of genetic modification, most of the panel argued that the dignity of plants could be safeguarded “as long as their independence, i.e., reproductive ability and adaptive ability, are ensured.” In other words: It’s wrong to genetically alter a plant and render it sterile.
In this age, and this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions. He makes possible the inforcement of these, else impossible.
—Abraham Lincoln, 1858, via Richard John Neuhaus
We hear a lot about the “tragedy of the commons”: if a valuable asset (a grazing field, say) is held in common, each individual will try to exploit as much of it as possible. Villagers will send all their cows out to graze at the same time, and soon the field will be useless. When there’s no ownership, the pursuit of individual self-interest can make everyone worse off. But Heller shows that having too much ownership creates its own problems. If too many people own individual parts of a valuable asset, it’s easy to end up with gridlock, since any one person can simply veto the use of the asset.
The commons leads to overuse and destruction; the anticommons leads to underuse and waste. In the cultural sphere, ever tighter restrictions on copyright and fair use limit artists’ abilities to sample and build on older works of art. In biotechnology, the explosion of patenting over the past twenty-five years—particularly efforts to patent things like gene fragments—may be retarding drug development, by making it hard to create a new drug without licensing myriad previous patents. Even divided land ownership can have unforeseen consequences. Wind power, for instance, could reliably supply up to twenty per cent of America’s energy needs—but only if new transmission lines were built, allowing the efficient movement of power from the places where it’s generated to the places where it’s consumed. Don’t count on that happening anytime soon. Most of the land that the grid would pass through is owned by individuals, and nobody wants power lines running through his back yard.
In a recent California Supreme Court case (Bernard vs. Foley), the court decided that friends who care for their elderly or infirm counterparts cannot take gifts or bequests without some special proof that they didn’t unduly influence their friends into making the donation. Perversely, if you take care of your friends when they most need you, you may be disqualifying yourself from accepting their largess.
For a while, lower courts found a way around this awkward burden in the case of “pre-existing” friendships, creating a special exemption from the “custodial care provisions” that the Supreme Court recently interpreted. But the Supreme Court simply thought the pre-existing friendship exemption carved by the lower courts could not be justified by the statutory language.
In my work on friendship and the law, I took the modest position that the lower courts had the right instinct — and that it would be a good thing if friends didn’t have to worry about disqualifying themselves from accepting gifts and bequests merely by trying to care for their infirm counterpart. It is good to see that the Commission, after having read my case, is supportive of the Legislature changing the rules.
There’s a lot to say about why we don’t want the law getting too involved in our friendships. But this is a simple way to help protect friends and encourage the care they can provide for one another — and more cheaply than Medicare, to boot.
Falling crime rates have been one of the great American success stories of the past 15 years. New York and Los Angeles, once the twin capitals of violent crime, have calmed down significantly, as have most other big cities. Criminologists still debate why: the crack war petered out, new policing tactics worked, the economy improved for a long spell. Whatever the alchemy, crime in New York, for instance, is now so low that local prison guards are worried about unemployment.
Lately, though, a new and unexpected pattern has emerged, taking criminologists by surprise. While crime rates in large cities stayed flat, homicide rates in many midsize cities (with populations of between 500,000 and 1 million) began increasing, sometimes by as much as 20percent a year. In 2006, the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group surveying cities from coast to coast, concluded in a report called “A Gathering Storm” that this might represent “the front end … of an epidemic of violence not seen for years.” The leaders of the group, which is made up of police chiefs and sheriffs, theorized about what might be spurring the latest crime wave: the spread of gangs, the masses of offenders coming out of prison, methamphetamines. But mostly they puzzled over the bleak new landscape. According to FBI data, America’s most dangerous spots are now places where Martin Scorsese would never think of staging a shoot-out—Florence, South Carolina; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Kansas City, Missouri; Reading, Pennsylvania; Orlando, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee.
Memphis has always been associated with some amount of violence. But why has Elvis’s hometown turned into America’s new South Bronx? Barnes thinks he knows one big part of the answer, as does the city’s chief of police. A handful of local criminologists and social scientists think they can explain it, too. But it’s a dismal answer, one that city leaders have made clear they don’t want to hear. It’s an answer that offers up racial stereotypes to fearful whites in a city trying to move beyond racial tensions. Ultimately, it reaches beyond crime and implicates one of the most ambitious antipoverty programs of recent decades.
Steve Gifford has found a bright side to living next to an eyesore—in his case, Congo’s former embassy. In exchange for Gifford and his partner spending $200 a month cutting the grass and cleaning up, Congo granted that most elusive of city perks: parking in the embassy’s driveway. “Everybody wins,” Gifford said.