Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.


Dog Bites Man; Conservative Pundit Abuses Statistics

March 10, 2007

Tyler DiPietro fisks conservative pundit John Hawkins who’s clueless about science, but leaves fisking his statistical claims to me. I’m always happy to oblige; the claim in question is that liberals are more racist than conservatives. I hate to disappoint Tyler, but Hawkins isn’t making an error in mathematics, but in basic reasoning. He quotes a study saying,

White Republicans nationally are 25 percentage points more likely on average to vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate when the GOP hopeful is black…In House races, white Democrats are 38 percentage points less likely to vote Democratic if their candidate is black.

The most shoddy part of the quote is the ellipsis, which covers several paragraphs in the relevant article. The 25% and 38% figures are not meant to be compared; after all, the 25% figure applies to Senate races while the 38% applies to House races, in which different dynamics might be in play.

In addition, just comparing white Democrats to white Republicans is somewhat misleading, since Democrats also have a significant black and Latino vote. In the 2006 election, a sixth of the Democratic House vote was black and 10% was Latino compared with only 2% and 5% of the Republican House vote respectively.

The remainder of Hawkins’ point about racism is a short screed about how Republicans are the party of Lincoln whereas Democrats had a Dixiecrat contingent. Not surprisingly, Hawkins stops short of looking at Democratic versus Republican behavior sometime in the 1960s, when the Dixiecrats defected to the Republicans after LBJ did something to help black people.

Incidentally, the other point of Hawkins refuting which Tyler left to me – namely, that conservatives contribute to charity more – is something I talked about a while ago. In a nutshell, charity is meaningless. If you have 200 dollars to burn, the best way of spending them is contributing to politicians who help the poor; for a billion dollars every four years you can elect a President and a Congress that will push through programs that will increase federal payments to both the real (i.e. third-world) poor and the US poor by 30 billion dollars a year each.


Why the US Needs Prison Reform

March 8, 2007

Bean’s post about one of the fringe benefits of the prison-industrial complex – namely, that inmates are counted in the census for reapportionment purposes even though they can’t vote – leads me to the subject of prison reform in the US, which I haven’t addressed yet even though I should have.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world – about 700 per 100,000 people, give or take. Now, you’d think that it’s what’s deterred crime, causing the US to have a survey crime rate half of 23%, while the USA’s incarceration rate has increased by more than 50% since 1991 and gotten about the same reduction in crime.

Looking at the actual breakdown of inmates suggests that the USA could easily slash its prison population. A significant percentage of admissions is for drug offenses; indeed, about 9% of new admissions are for mere drug possession without proven intent to sell. Including people who are counted as drug dealers even though they are not – two college students sharing a joint are considered to engage in dealing – yields an even higher figure.

It gets worse. Black people comprised 17% of drug users and 37% of drug arrests in 1998. In general blacks use cocaine more than whites, but the margin is far lower for powder cocaine than for crack cocaine. And, as you can imagine, sentences for crack cocaine are harsher: a 1986 law set the minimum amount needed for a mandatory sentence at 500 grams for powder cocaine versus 5 for crack.

Almost all people sent to prison would be in the workforce and likely unemployed if released. The US has a labor force of 153 million, so adding 2 million inmates to the number of unemployed increases the unemployment rate from 4.6% to 5.9%. Among blacks, the labor force’s size is 17.5 million, so adding 900,000 black inmates increases their unemployment rate from 8%, lower than the white rate in France and Germany, to 13%. Although the USA still has a better black-to-white unemployment ratio than the comparable minority-to-white ratio of every European country I’ve checked, much of it derives from throwing black people to jail, where they don’t enter unemployment or labor participation statistics.

Not surprisingly, black civil rights groups consider prison reform an important priority. And not surprisingly, everyone else doesn’t. For white conservatives, disenfranchising large numbers of black people whose sole crime is private use of a substance Congress believes it has the right to tell people not to use is a good way of holding power. Once that dynamic is in place, they can rationalize giving ex-felons the right to vote as just a Democratic ploy to get more votes.

White Democrats, in turn, have mostly given up on doing anything for black people. The Clintons have spearheaded the technique of talking the talk and then supporting harsher drug laws that benefit nobody; sadly, Obama is so bad at black politics that Clinton is once again the black people’s candidate despite having done nothing to earn their support.

One of the fringe benefits of having a large prison-industrial complex in the US is that once incarceration rates come down to sane levels, a lot of the overcrowding problems, which contribute to insanely high rates of prison rape (by one estimate, 21% of male inmates experience sexual assault, of which 7% experience rape). Of course, another contributor to prison rape is the cultural attitude that doing anything for inmates is weak on crime.

When you think about it true, cruelty toward criminals isn’t required for being tough on crime. It’s after all how things work in foreign policy: typically, the best results come from policies based on diplomacy rather than naked aggression. It’s the same with crime. Giuliani credits New York’s crime drop to his broken windows policy, but in fact that drop started several years earlier, correlating with Dinkins’ assuming office and implementing less glamorous programs, such as community policing. No harsh sentences are needed; increasing arrest rates is what deters criminals.

This already produces several components of the high incarceration rate of the US, all of which can be manipulated to reduce it to normal levels without increasing the crime rate.

First, the drug war doesn’t do anything good. Drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime. That’s how people who snort superglue or drink excessively are treated; why are cocaine and marijuana treated so differently? Dealing is something else, but unless you can catch the people who actually run the show, there’s no point; unfortunately, the US seems intent on not doing that.

Second, 10-year sentences should be reserved to very serious criminals. If you’re not a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a serial violent offender, or an important crime boss, you shouldn’t get more than a single-figure sentence. Even if you take an economic view of crime wherein criminals respond to harsher sentences, it’s not linear. There’s a huge jump between 0 and 1 year, which is far greater than the difference between 7 and 8. The difference between not getting arrested and getting arrested and not prosecuted is likely to be greater than the difference between getting 7 years and getting 8 years.

Third, the two most serious crimes, murder and rape, are in most cases committed by someone known to the victim. As such, they respond better to policies aimed at defusing volatile situations, such as gun control, encouraging women to report rapes, and programs aimed at reducing domestic violence, which comprises 14% of all serious violent crimes and 35% of serious violent crimes committed by non-strangers.

Fourth, the justice system should be reformed to allow accused people the resources needed to mount competent defense. Public defenders who fail to clear a person later shown to be innocent should at the minimum face a hearing in which they’re likely to be disbarred if they fail to pass a reasonable person standard; this is true regardless of any plea bargain. Similar standards should apply to DAs who keep prosecuting people they know to be innocent. Furthermore, public defenders’ salaries should be increased in order to encourage promising lawyers to not always take the prosecution’s side in criminal trials.

Some of the problems inherent in the justice system are problems of the common law system. The overreliance on plea bargains, which encourage innocent people to plead guilty if they have incompetent counsel, creates an assembly line justice system. But that’s mostly a question of counsel competence, when it comes right down to it. What’s more, if it’s considered good enough to throw a criminal who pleads guilty to jail for 5 years, it should be good enough to throw him for 5 years if he pleads not guilty and is convicted. Punishing people for exercising their right to a fair trial isn’t very consistent with civil liberties.

However, other problems in the US have nothing to do with the common law system. Mandatory minimums are a recent innovation of politicians who are more interested in looking tough on crime than in being tough on crime; as such, they can be safely scrapped. Elected DAs are under immense pressure to convict; Britain and Canada do just as well with appointed prosecutors.

And fifth and finally, giving black people harsher sentences should be considered racial discrimination. The military lets minorities complain of discrimination or harassment, and, if the complaints check out, punishes the offending officer or at least blocks his promotions. The same rules should govern the justice system. Judges who discriminate in sentencing and lawyers who discriminate in jury selection don’t belong in court. Racial disparities go beyond laws; the same law is applied more harshly against black people, both in sentencing and in the decision to incarcerate.

Incarcerating more people is not the solution to anything. Abortion is something that should be made more rare if only because it’s a less pleasant experience than using birth control. But incarceration is not merely unpleasant, but a serious loss of liberty. It should be reserved for when it’s necessary rather than for when a politician wants to tell racist constituents that he’s cruel to black people.


Obama Winks to Dominionists

March 5, 2007

What appears to be an innocuous battle between Clinton and Obama for black voters has in fact turned into a Dominionist reference on Obama’s part: “Generation Joshua.”

Obama, an Illinois Democrat, declared himself part of a new cohort of black political leaders that he called “the Joshua Generation.” It was Joshua, the Biblical successor to Moses, who led the Jewish people to the Promised Land after Moses delivered them from slavery in Egypt.

To the average voter, the term means nothing; it could just as well be yet another of Obama’s hope-inspiring phrases, one of many Biblical references to civil rights. It’s not exactly out of the ordinary to use religious language to refer to the struggle for black-white equality in the US.

But in fact, it has a very specific meaning to Dominionists: Generation Moses was the generation of parents who sequestered their children from the outside world by homeschooling them, while Generation Joshua is the generation of those now grown-up children who will conquer American politics for the movement. Like Bush’s phrase “Compassionate conservative,” this is a calculated wink to Dominionists that Obama is in fact one of them.

Unlike cases in which an organization coopts an opposing movement’s language, as in Feminists For Life’s title, here there is nothing to gain by talking about Joshua. The terms “feminist” and “pro-woman” have significant levels of support and are familiar throughout mainstream politics; the reference to Joshua is something nobody except Dominionists and people who have read Kingdom Coming will catch.

The actual racial references Obama makes are clever, but still not very remarkable. Obama notes that just like slave-descended blacks have a family history of slavery and segregation, so does his father have a history of being on the receiving end of colonialism. It’s clever insofar as it will define him as black to black Americans, who tend to care more about that than other Americans, and as practically white to white Americans, who only know about slavery; but it says nothing about his politics or even his campaign.

However, the religious references peg him once again as a Dominionist. His attempt to split the difference in his Call to Renewal and endorse the Dominionist charity agenda could be plausibly described as excessive moderation. However, excessive moderates don’t generally use extremists’ language. On the contrary, they’re typically more concerned with language than they should be, taking great care to e.g. not sound too socialist when they advocate more government in health care or education.

Even the appeal Obama made to black voters seemed to be too much about religion and too little about racial equality. Clinton at least paid lip service to poverty and inequality, though months earlier, when push came to shove, she was silent when NYPD murdered an innocent black civilian. Obama doesn’t even pretend to talk about those issues; instead, he tries talking to black people the same way the religious right is, and hopes that because he’s a black Democrat, he’ll succeed.


Immigration Political Scorecard

March 1, 2007

Hat-tip to Lindsay: Amy Taylor of DMI Blog reports the position of each American Presidential candidate on immigration so that you don’t have to. I’ve only read the positions of the six serious candidates – honestly, Tom Tancredo’s position doesn’t matter since even if he wins the primary, he’ll lose the general by a Goldwaterian margin – but they don’t sound that different from one another.

All candidates, except possibly Romney, say they support giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, after they pay a fine. They differ on the details somewhat, but the differences are small. On a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the most restrictive that’s acceptable in American politics (e.g. Tancredo) and 10 is the most permissive (e.g. Kennedy), I’d say the gamut ranges from 5 to 9. And, mind you, the scale could easily expand; a Le Pen-style racist would be about a -5, while I’m about a 20.

Clinton follows her husband in being a hardliner on enforcement issues; she supports a mandatory ID card as a means of cracking down on illegal immigration. At the same time, on welfare-related issues she’s consistently taken a pro-immigrant stance, cosponsoring an act that would consider long-term residents who are in the US illegally as legal permanent residents and supporting a bill that would grant them in-state tuition (7).

Obama supports tough enforcement and in fact broke a promise not to vote for any enforcement-oriented bill that did not include a legalization component. In addition, he supports a guest worker program, but at the same time acknowledges its shortcomings and proposed an amendment that would require employers to pay everyone the prevailing wage regardless of immigration status (7).

Edwards talks about immigration as a labor issue, as he does on all other issues. He publicly rejected the notion that illegal immigrants suppress American workers’ wages. He also supports unionization as a means of helping illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he’s far vaguer than even Obama, and tends to underplay the issue (7).

Giuliani has repeatedly praised immigrants’ economic contributions. As Mayor of New York, he opposed an anti-immigration bill in 1996; more recently, he supported the more conciliatory Senate immigration bill over the punitive House version. On welfare his record is mostly positive; he had the City sue the federal government to restore welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. On the other hand, he has an anti-immigrant record on language issues, including bilingual education, and talks about the issue in terms of security just like Edwards does in terms of labor (8).

McCain clearly distinguishes between people who overstay their visas and terrorists. Together with Ted Kennedy, he introduced the conciliatory Senate bill mentioned above. He’s against the security fence, but prefers alternative high-cost gadgets to seal the US-Mexico border. Speaking to the AFL-CIO, he said that illegal immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want (9).

Romney supports the fence, and as Governor of Massachusetts supported requiring local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. He has said nothing about issues like a guest worker program or a path to citizenship. Conversely, he supports increasing the rate of legal immigration, which the US throttles (5).


Racism Clarification

February 25, 2007

Stentor clarifies what he meant when he said racism is objective. In light of the clarification, his argument becomes far more robust. He explains that what he meant is that “One important source of information about those effects is the testimony of purported victims.” That’s of course true: it matters what members of the possibly oppressed group say; for example, continuing with my example of Jews, when a conservative Jew says that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it deserves a serious response at least initially.

Stentor says, and I completely concur, that instances when the effect on the minority group is subjective, subjective impressions are all there is.

Levy’s interpretation of my argument comes close to being accurate with respect to the particular example I used in my post — Native American mascots — due to the nature of the alleged benefits weighing in favor of keeping the mascot. Defenders of Chief Illiniwek claim that the Chief honors Native Americans. Honoring, though, is an act whose success can only be judged by its subjective impact on the intended honoree — that is, does the honoree feel honored or not. So the honest testimony of Native Americans is the only evidence we have to go on for this particular issue.

The main available defense against racism charges is not applicable here, so asking native Americans if they’re offended is the only recourse.

In many circumstances, one can show non-discrimination, or insufficient evidence of discrimination. An employer who’s called a racist or a sexist can ask for proof of differential treatment, or alternatively produce positive proof of equal treatment. “In the last three years, 12% of my hires have been black against a 12% black talent pool, and a black employee makes on average the same as an equally experienced white employee” tends to be a trump card.

In the case of native mascots, it’s impossible to make a good argument like that. Some people analogize native mascots to Viking mascots, but a) the Vikings are an extinct civilization, and b) the descendants of the Vikings are widely known to be normal human beings with modern rather than Viking moral codes. The employment discrimination analogy to the Viking analogy isn’t the example I gave above, but “I don’t give men or women any pregnancy leave, so I’m not a sexist.”

Alternatively, returning to the example of Jews, one can try impeaching the testimony of the members of the minority group. It usually involves a double prong: first, noting that e.g. criticism of Israel is acceptable in light of Israeli actions, and second, showing that Jews tend to analyze anti-Semitism irrationally (for example, most American Jews live in areas without local anti-Semitism, so they underplay domestic anti-Semitism and instead totalize Israel). The first is often sufficient on its own, but sometimes the second is necessary to reinforce it.

And again, in the case of mascots, or for that matter other examples of public mockery, this doesn’t really apply. Showing that native mascots are legitimate free speech isn’t enough; the response to that should be, “You’re also free to vote Republican, just as I’m free to try convincing you not to.” One has to show that the mascots represent the chosen tribe, or even all native Americans – the two tend to get conflated – accurately. And, again, they don’t, at least not according to what people who know something about native Americans seem to be saying.


Israel and Apartheid

February 24, 2007

I don’t think I’ve ever referred to the Israeli occupation as apartheid. But now that a UN envoy who’s a South African professor of international law is saying that the Palestinians’ situation is the same as this of black South Africans in the 1970s, I’m starting to warm up to the comparison. What’s more, the envoy suggests that “Israel is imposing a policy of ‘controlled strangulation’ that is helping to give rise to a failed state on its doorstep” – in other words, that Israel is deliberately screwing Palestine’s economy to make it ungovernable.

Israel’s response is predictable: “You’re one-sided.” Israel can’t justify the occupation itself in terms that won’t make people so angry that they’ll demand sanctions. It can much less justify the specific details of the occupation – the roadblocks, the protection of settlers’ lynches of Palestinian civilians, the fence, and so on.

So, instead, when people criticize it, its best shot is to make shrill accusations of anti-Semitism, and to try delegitimizing the notion that Palestinians should have rights. The Israeli government isn’t the only organization that believes certain people’s rights depend on sufficient obsequity, but it’s the one that defends this notion the most blatantly.

Look, what Bismarck said about laws and sausages applies to liberation movements, too. Everyone likes a liberation movement, after (or right before) it achieves its goals. When it’s still not painfully obvious it’s won, it gets demonized, regardless of what tactics it uses. Even Martin Luther King was billed as a dangerous radical into the early 1960s. It then goes without saying that any political movement that isn’t blessed with fighting a relatively non-violent establishment, which can be fought non-violently, faces even greater delegitimization, regardless of whether its causes or methods are justified.

So comparisons between modern Israel and apartheid South Africa are complicated by the fact that Nelson Mandela’s success made it impolitic to defend apartheid South Africa. But in fact, once one gets over that differential, the comparison still holds. Olmert isn’t Assad or King Hussein, who slaughtered Palestinians by the thousands and myriads. South Africa wasn’t Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, either; it had no arbitrary pogroms.

Almost every regime can point to a worse regime. It’s somewhat analogous to pathological extremism, where the subsitute for radicalism is nationalism. Killing people is certainly a way of showing one’s authentic patriotism. That way, Palestinian terrorists can say they’re better than the IDF, and the IDF can say it’s better than Syria, and Syria can say it’s better than Pinochet, and Latin American fascists can say Pinochet’s better than Mussolini, and Italian fascists can say Mussolini’s better than Hitler. Nazis are sufficiently vilified that no political force needs to ever invoke them positively.

Israel isn’t Britain. The British Empire was the sort that stopped its trains when Indian independence activists lay on the railroad tracks. As Orwell noted, Gandhi could only use non-violent tactics because Britain had a conscience. Israel has no conscience; its military whitewashes its bulldozer drivers’ running over activists who stand in front of buildings that are scheduled for demolition. As such, denying human rights to all Palestinians because a small group of them commit terrorism against Israeli civilians isn’t an especially rational thing to do. And, while we’re at it, India had its terrorists, too – Subhash Chandra Bose went as far as allying himself with the Axis against Britain in World War Two.

It’s possible to typify most countries as stereotypes of people. The US used to be Vito Corleone, until Bush turned it into Sonny Corleone. In that paradigm, Israel is the annoying kid who murders someone, gets caught, and then complains to the judge, “But the terrorists are killing more people and you haven’t caught them yet!”. Yes, kid, brag about your incompetence at hiding your atrocities. When you do that, you deserve to do hard time just for stupidity.


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