New York's Lack of Storm Protection, the Social Mobility Myth and Lollipops in Loughton

By Wilby, Peter | New Statesman (1996), November 2, 2012 | Go to article overview
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New York's Lack of Storm Protection, the Social Mobility Myth and Lollipops in Loughton


Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Poor countries are hard hit by extreme weather because they can't afford to protect themselves. Rich countries are hit because their rulers are too stupid to take precautions. Why doesn't New York have storm barriers, as London does in the Thames? The ocean that has just deluged the city has been rising by an inch a decade for a century and could rise another two feet by 2050. Effective protection, it is calculated, would cost about [pounds sterling]7bn. Early estimates of the cost of Hurricane Sandy are nearly twice that. Yet though Mayor Bloomberg is more environmentally aware than most US politicians, storm gates aren't even on the drawing board in New York. Admittedly, they aren't necessarily a win-win--they can affect aquatic ecosystems, for example--but it seems extraordinary that a nation with such faith in technology isn't looking at how to overcome such downsides.

The other strange thing is that Wall Street, where work consists largely of tapping keyboards, peering at screens and bellowing into telephones, needs to close down. Can't traders be redirected temporarily to some centre where the weather is calmer, or just work from home? Why haven't the masters of the universe made contingency plans? The fallback position of global warming sceptics is that, even if they are wrong and bad weather comes after all, human ingenuity will make it possible to adapt. The human performance in New York doesn't inspire confidence.

Trapping Tappin

I have no idea whether Christopher Tappin, the retired British businessman on trial in Texas for conspiring to ship missile parts to Iran, is innocent or guilty. But his decision to enter a guilty plea highlights something that is not widely understood in Britain, perhaps not even by the New Labour politicians who disgracefully agreed that anybody wanted by the Americans should be extradited more or less automatically. Despite the impression created by TV courtroom dramas, US criminal cases are not normally settled by jury trial, or by any sort of trial at all. More than 90 per cent of criminal prosecutions are settled by plea bargaining, whereby defendants admit guilt (and sometimes agree to shop other defendants) in return for shorter prison sentences or for more serious charges being dropped. Some studies suggest that half those who plead guilty in US courts are actually innocent.

Anybody who knows that classic of game theory, the prisoner's dilemma, will understand the potential injustices of plea bargaining, which are all the greater when permitted prison sentences, with no remission, are so heavy. It is one of many respects in which Americans' claims to be paragons of liberty, justice and democracy--supported by cheerleaders here--rest on very shaky foundations.

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